Heathers: The Musical: the first production of Hart House’s 2018–2019 season

The cult classic tackles themes of rape culture, eating disorders, teen suicide, and gun violence

Heathers: The Musical: the first production of Hart House’s 2018–2019 season

From September 21 to October 6, the dark teen comedy Heathers: The Musical will be performed in Hart House. Heathers celebrates its 30th anniversary this year; when it was first released in 1988, it was groundbreaking with its discourse surrounding contemporary topics.

The Varsity sat down with Justan Myers and Emma Sangalli to discuss character development, gun violence, and performing in the historic Hart House.

The Varsity: For both of you, this is your first time working at Hart House Theatre ­­— what is that like? It’s a historic space; how has the process been?

Justan Myers: Working in this space is incredible. I’ve been mostly in Toronto working in smaller blackbox­-esque theatres, so it’s great to have this wide open space. There’s so many different ways to use it, and with our incredible set, just finding so many cool ways to bring the audience into the world has been really fun.

Emma Sangalli: It feels like a real established theatre. It’s old, you can feel the history, and that’s beautiful ­­ just knowing there have been so many passionate artists in this building doing what we’re doing. And our director has been using it very creatively.

Justan Myers: It’s really cool to have that juxtaposition of how old and how experienced the space is versus how many emerging artists are in this production —­­ kind of that combination of youth and freshness, but then also this foundation.

TV: Can you tell us a little bit about the characters you’re playing?

JM: So, I play Jason “JD” Dean. He’s the typical social outcast —­­ he’s moved schools a lot and he doesn’t have any friends, so Veronica sort of captures his attention. Little does she know that he has a lot of unresolved problems from both his childhood and the way he’s grown up that leads him to influence her into some bad decisions later on in the show.

ES: Yeah, Veronica is not popular at the start of the show —­­ she’s kind of dorky, very smart, a little bit of an old soul. She ends up becoming popular and her whole story is kind of discovering the cost of popularity, I would say, and realizing it’s not worth it.

Emma Sangalli. PHOTO COURTESY OF HART HOUSE THEATRE

TV: This play is based on a film, the 1988 cult classic, Heathers, which many people say played a role in defining its generation. Are you looking to the movie, or past productions, to inform your rehearsal process?

JM: Yes and no. The characters are so much more fleshed out in the musical that it’s really its own work in a sense. I know my character changed a lot, because in the movie he’s a little 2D. ­They don’t give him a lot of super relatable moments. In the musical, they gave him more backstory, something for the audience to grab onto. So, in a sense, yes, because there’s so many of those iconic lines they took from the movie that you want to nail because the audience just knows them, but the character work itself had to come more from our own basis.

ES: At the end of the day, the part of you that’s an actor and the part of the character that you find through research just sort of come together, and you’re able to find the thread. It’s a little difficult, because the movie was quite a bit different from the musical in terms of, I would say, undertone. In the movie, there’s a little bit of ambiguity on whether [Veronica] is a good guy or a bad guy until closer to the end. Whereas in the musical, she’s kind of the belle of the show, as our director likes to say. ­­It’s pretty clear that she’s got a strong moral compass from the beginning. So definitely we had to look at as much source material as we could find, but you also have to dive into the text that the writers of the musical give you and flesh out the characters on the page, because it really is quite a bit different from the movie.

TV: Was there any moment during rehearsals when you had to really step out of your comfort zone or do something you’d never done?

ES: One of the most famous songs in the show is “Dead Girl Walking.” For me in terms of comfort it was definitely a step, because I have never played a romantic role and it’s basically a full, simulated sex scene onstage. So, it’s very much like, we had to come into rehearsal with all our guards down ­­— throw those fears out the window, be a professional actor, and just do it. But it’s so nice working with Justan, because I’m so comfortable with him.

Justan Myers. PHOTO COURTESY OF HART HOUSE THEATRE

TV: This show deals with a lot of really pressing contemporary issues like bullying and suicide —­­ who do you hope sees this show? What would you want them to take away from it?

JM: I think it is very important for teens to see this show, especially with increasing gun violence and hate crimes and things like that. It’s so easy to become desensitized to that because of media and everything, so to just get a real —­­ I mean, ‘real,’ it’s a musical —­­ but [it’s] a more grounded perspective of what these issues are.

ES: It’s funny because when you think about Heathers, you wouldn’t think of words like ‘solution’ and ‘hope,’ but that was something I really took from the writers’ notes of the musical ­­— that’s really what it’s about, solutions and hope, and it really tries to answer all of the problems that it brings up. I think it’s important for anyone to see this show. There are people that maybe shouldn’t see this show, because there’s a lot of heavy stuff in it, but it is cushioned by humour and by good-­heartedness. I think it’s an important story for this day and age, and for this city specifically. For Toronto in the last year, a lot of stuff has happened and because of social media we all know about it right away. It’s hard when you go on social media and all you see is another shooting, another truck driver. We all care, and want to do something, but sometimes we don’t know what to do ­.­

JM: It feels bigger than us.

ES: I think the beauty of this show is that it boils it down to a very simple solution:­­ be kind to the person next to you, offer them a hand, and include them. That’s a big one in this show. Be a friend, you know? That’s something very tangible, that we can all do every day, that will hopefully help change the amount of bad things we see happening. So, in that case, I do think it’s really important for anyone who can handle this type of subject matter to come see it, because it really does give you some inspiration, and also some tools to go out into the world and make it beautiful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Theatre review: Hart House’s Titus Andronicus

One of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays straddles comedy and tragedy

Theatre review: Hart House’s <em>Titus Andronicus</em>

Hart House made a bold choice for its annual Shakespeare production this year with Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most gratuitously violent plays. It’s neither as beloved as Hamlet or Macbeth, nor as technically sophisticated, but it deals with similar themes of revenge and power. Hart House’s production is able to balance the play’s comedic and dramatic elements without overemphasizing either.

Titus Andronicus also straddles the boundary between comedy and tragedy. Director James Wallis’ vision for the play was to create the sense of a carnival, of funhouse mirrors and the dual world of the grotesque and comedic, a promising vision that played well with the themes and tones of the play. While Wallis’ production occasionally edges close to giving in to the tragedy, on the whole it balances the two modes well, leading to a funny, horrifying, and thought-provoking performance.

The production also shines in its enthusiastic acceptance of the play’s natural horrific, comedic, and tragic dimensions. The grotesque fully plays out on stage, while the comedic horror of some moments, like when Titus’ daughter Lavinia holds a dismembered hand in her mouth, manages to elicit both laughs and squirms from the audience.

At the same time, the trauma of sexual assault, the fear and grief of losing a child, and the heartbreak of a lover’s death are all portrayed with full respect for their tragedy.

The casting of female performers in some of the originally male roles also adds a layer of depth and insight. The show’s first on-stage death becomes the death of a female child, making the later rape of a female character in revenge more powerful for its parallels. Lavinia’s lover is portrayed by a woman, also providing for deeper engagement with the theme of sexuality.

The production also features some electrifying performances. Shalyn McFaul and Tristan Claxton, who play Tamora and Saturninus, perform with particularly great gusto and liveliness and play off each other well, constantly contributing to the comedy of the performance. David Mackett, who plays Titus, comes alive in the second half of the performance, enthusiastically embracing Titus’ descent into silliness.

Titus Andronicus relishes and revels in the violence it portrays, but it also has touching and startling moments. It’s a horror story on the surface with a surprisingly meaningful deconstruction of revenge underneath.

Any production of the show must grapple with these competing strands. Done well, the play can be fascinating; if it succumbs wholly to either the comedic or the tragic, it can be profoundly disappointing.

Hart House’s production manages to handle these dual elements well — both over-the-top and darkly humorous — while also showing the devastating effects of sexual assault, murder, and the tragic consequences of revenge. The result is a fun, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable production — one well worth attending.

Titus Andronicus runs at Hart House Theatre until March 10.

Titus Andronicus set to open at Hart House in March

Director James Wallis discusses diversity in theatre and Shakespeare's continuing relevance

<i>Titus Andronicus</i> set to open at Hart House in March

From March 2–10, Shakespeare’s most gruesome tragedy will play out on the Hart House stage. Set in Rome, Titus Andronicus deals with themes of sexual violence, justice, and, ultimately, revenge.

The Varsity sat down with James Wallis, the director of the production, to discuss diversity in theatre, the relevance of Shakespeare in 2018, and the crux of what makes an effective director.

The Varsity: Do you have a set structure or idea that you tend to implement when directing a Shakespeare play?

James Wallis: I’m interested in how the text tells the story, characters, and the situation. You get that through three things: clarity, intention, and pace. If you have clarity, you will know what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. To me, acting is action — so you have to have intention. What am I doing to the other person on the stage? What are they doing to me? How does that affect the situation?

And then, because Shakespeare’s plays are mostly written in verse or in stilted prose, there is a rhythm to them, and you have to keep the pace moving forward. Shakespeare’s plays always move forward; they never go back. So those three things — clarity, intention, and pace — are my number one priorities whenever I do any work of Shakespeare or his contemporaries.

TV: Why Titus Andronicus?

JW: I’m always investigating Shakespeare. As I always say comically, it’s gone beyond obsession at this point! To me, it’s the fact that these plays exist in a realm of questions, which is what I find so fascinating. That is what I am constantly after — being able to ask those questions through my work. So, with Titus Andronicus: what does violence do to us? Why does it horrify and entice us? What do we do when we want to revenge ourselves on a person? Should we? Do we have the right to?

TVTitus Andronicus is another tragedy about revenge, but it is slightly more removed from reality. How have you been able to link this back to our current political climate?

JW: I think at times, taking relevant topics and putting them right in front of an audience can almost destroy the ambiguity of the piece. So my goal is always to allow the play to ask questions and not to give answers. With that being said, Titus Andronicus is a play that is about revenge, about a society at its peril, and a society at the height of its former history that is at a breaking point.

It’s about the violation of a young woman and how that affects the people around her — the play is about the consummation of taking vengeance on a person. My interest was, ‘How do we view revenge now? Is vengeance something we believe in? Is it an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?’ I don’t know. I think it’s different for everybody. In a society that is as divided as ours, I think vengeance acts as a catalyst for how that divide is brought forward.

TV: Diversity in theatre is so important, especially in Shakespeare — were you conscious of this when casting?

JW: My goal is always to bring more diversity into Shakespeare from the ground up, especially with the actors. There are a lot of great actors out there. [Titus Andronicus] was relatively successful. This play has a racial dynamic — it is about an individual who is an outsider, not only because of his race, but also because he is an individualist, an atheist, and a person who believes he can take this opportunity and roll with it.

He is the smartest person in the play, and he knows how to manipulate information and power over people. It’s an interesting dynamic that sits in the play, this idea of the outsider because of their race and ideas. How do you cast within that? You cast them on what they look like, but you are also bringing in more diversity because that is what you should be doing.

I try to do that, I don’t know if I succeed. To be frank, colour consciousness is something we have to be very aware of — how the idea of casting is affected by who the person identifies as, not just racially, but also in terms of gender and sexuality. We have to be very conscious and considerate of what people are trying to bring humanly to themselves, because it is effective and it is telling when it’s on stage and people are watching.

TV: Shakespeare’s been done to death, but I noticed that there are carnival elements to the production — what else is different about your version of Titus Andronicus compared to others?

JW: The play lives in the grotesque, it lives in the horrible and the comic, and I really wanted to use this idea of a broken being — something that reflects back but is also distorted. One thing that came to my head was a hall of mirrors at a carnival. The carnival aspect is a thematic and design idea that brings the play closer to that comic and horrible place. Titus Andronicus is like a distorted satire of the revenge trope. The tragedy is taking the genre of horror and subverting it a little bit.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

The ensemble cast portrays their roles with humour and sincerity

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

“My parents keep on telling me just being here is winning, although I know it isn’t so!” sings Chip, a character in the charming musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which opened at Hart House Theatre on Friday, November 10.

The show is set in a high school gymnasium, where contestants compete in the Putnam County Spelling Bee and for a place in the national competition. The story is told across nearly two hours, with the contestants taking turns to spell words that range from easy, like ‘cow,’ to more difficult, like ‘Weltanschauung.’ As the show progresses, the spellers are eliminated one by one, until a single contestant is left. They reveal their backstories between rounds.

The contestants consist of an eclectic and quirky mix of characters. Former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Amy Swift) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Art Carlson) are introduced as the host and pronouncer of the competition, respectively, alongside a mix of overachieving student competitors.

Leaf Coneybear (Kevin Forster) is the only student who didn’t make first place in his district’s spelling bee and spells his words in a trance, and Marcy Park (Braelyn Guppy), who speaks six languages and skipped fourth and fifth grade, has high expectations for winning the competition.

William Barfée (Hugh Ritchie) exudes confidences, using his “magic foot” to spell out words before giving an answer, and the determined Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Erin Humphry) faces severe pressure from her two dads in the audience, frequently ranting about the state of politics in America.

Chip Tolentino (John Wamsley), last year’s champion, is back to defend his title amidst some raging hormones, and Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Campbell), a somewhat nervous newcomer, is best friends with her dictionary and the only contestant without parents or supporters in the audience.

Finally, Mitch Mahoney (Carson Betz) is present at the spelling bee in order to complete his community service by comforting the eliminated contestants with a hug and a juice box.

The ensemble portrays these roles with both humour and sincerity. The audience often erupted with laughter at the production’s endless jokes, but attendees were also moved by heartfelt moments like “The I Love You Song” sung by Olive and her parents. Another unique aspect of the show is its audience participation, with several theatergoers brought onstage to participate as contestants in the spelling bee. These unscripted scenes make for hilarious moments.

Throughout the story, the characters learn that winning isn’t everything. This is especially true in a scene near the end, when Marcy asks Jesus himself (Wamsley) if he’ll be disappointed if she loses, to which he replies, “Of course not… I also won’t be disappointed with you if you win… this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play at the Hart House Theatre until November 25.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is hilarious and heartbreaking

Spectacular performances from James King and Lauren Mayer add to the show's immersive experience

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is hilarious and heartbreaking

On September 22, Hart House Theatre kicked off its new season with a bang, opening with an amazing production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Its themes of gender and sexual identity are very relevant today.

The show’s premise is especially creative: rock star Hedwig Robinson, played by James King, and her band, The Angry Inch, played by Giustin MacLean, Iain Leslie, Erik Larson, and Robert Purcell, are on tour, and Hart House Theatre is one stop along the way. The audience is integrated into the show, encouraged to sing along and raise their hands.

The musical was also customized for the setting of both Hart House and Toronto. Jokes were made about the theatre’s subterranean setting and the lobby’s ‘funeral home’ quality. This blend of fiction and reality made the story much more engaging, funny, and personal for the audience.

Hedwig’s husband and back-up singer Yitzhak, played by Lauren Mayer, opened the show by reading the theatre rules, her skillful acting helping her draw laughter just by clearing her throat. With only six cast members, four of whom were non-speaking band members, the show’s success rested largely on Mayer and King’s shoulders — and both delivered spectacular performances.

From Mayer’s comical opening to belting out bars of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to soloing “The Long Grift,” her powerful voice — in contrast with her quiet character — made for an impactful presence onstage. King’s performance was phenomenal. Even dealing with minor technical malfunctions and stumbling over lines, he recovered flawlessly and did not break character for a second.

Despite the lack of intermission, the audience remained completely immersed — and, in the case of the man sitting in front of me who received a very enthusiastic lap-dance, maybe too much so.

Since the musical is supposed to be Hedwig’s concert, the band and their instruments dominated the set. There was nonetheless room for creativity in the production’s design, especially in Hedwig’s marvellous costumes and wigs and in the sets of certain songs, such as “Origin of Love.” The lighting details were also noteworthy, especially the shadows cast during the penultimate song, “Wicked Little Town (Reprise).”

I found myself blown away by the show’s attention to detail and its stellar performances, which managed to be both hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes simultaneously. Despite being familiar with the plot, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. My friend, who came in knowing nothing about the show, felt similarly. The curtain was met with an immediate and much-deserved standing ovation.

This story is sincere and touching, and the sheer emotional display by the actors — when delivered as well as it was in this production — is its strongest feature. Hedwig’s life is so unusual that almost no one can relate on a superficial level, but as King noted in an interview with The Varsity last week, everyone can relate to the feelings of heartbreak and the desire for acceptance that lie at the core of the show.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is playing at Hart House Theatre until October 7.

Hart House Theatre opens the season with Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Leading cast members James King and Lauren Mayer dish on the upcoming performance

Hart House Theatre opens the season with <em>Hedwig and the Angry Inch</em>

This Friday, Hart House Theatre will open its 2017–2018 season with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a rock musical that tells the story of Hedwig, a front woman in a band from East Germany, who, after undergoing an unsuccessful sex change operation, must live with a scar from the surgery — the titular ‘angry inch.’

The Varsity sat down with James King, who plays Hedwig, and Lauren Mayer, who plays her husband Yitzhak, to discuss the show’s hair, rock and roll, and the love story that unfolds between them.

The Varsity: The first question I have to ask is: have you gotten to try on your wig yet?

James King: Oh yes!

TV: How do you feel in it?

JK: I feel… amazing. It’s very transformative. The voice helps a lot too: the voice that I found for the character — there’s an accent of course, the East German accent — but she has her sort of own little voice too. It’s those things that really helped me to find the character. There are full songs about wigs that are very important to her as a person, and they are part of her make up, literally and figuratively — her kind of ‘mental make up.’ I think it’s something that she — at least when the show begins — needs to feel like herself. Or the idea that she thinks she needs to be of herself.

TV: What’s it like for you, Lauren, transforming into Yitzhak? Both costume-wise and character-wise.

Lauren Mayer: It’s weird! I got weirdly emotional when I put everything on — or elements on, I guess — for the first time. The costume is a really big part of it. I’m generally one of those people who tends to sink a little bit more into the character that they’re playing when the wardrobe is put on, especially for something as transformative as this. I’ve always been told that I have masculine tendencies, so I feel like with that, you’re able to actually visualize a part of yourself that you’ve never physically seen before. The wig and the costume are, for me at least, very integral for the role and for the performance. They complete it.

TV: Hedwig is a really intense show — I understand that you don’t have any breaks at all. You’re just on stage the whole time.

JK: More or less. I might step off for three seconds to do a little quick thing. But basically we’re on stage the entire show.

TV: How do you maintain energy and intensity through that?

LM: It’s a combination of eating, sleeping, warming up, and then also just allowing yourself to be in the story every time. I find that with us, with this show at least, I feel like every time we’re doing it, we’re hearing it for the first time. And so it’s not difficult to stay engaged with it. I guess that’s because we love it a lot as well.

JK: And the music, the rock music, instills you with energy. I feel like I hear it and it’s like ‘time to go.’ It calls you, once you hear it, if you go along with it, it takes you there if you are honest and just listen.

LM: You just have to listen. You just have to listen the whole time. I don’t get a lot of opportunities to sing with a live band.

JK: They give you an energy, you can feel it, and you can feel them playing and it instills it with a drive. It’s like you started a motor when you hear that full band. It’s a thing, rock and roll is all about feeling an emotion. And going back, it started as almost a juvenile sort of thing. Because it was like, this is the music of young kids breaking out of repression in the 1950s. This is rock and roll down the road, punk rock and glam rock and what it evolved into, it was all based in that root.

LM: It’s a guttural thing.

TV: I’m curious how you think the show will resonate with people today and with audiences that will come see your show.

JK: I think this show will always resonate with anyone, no matter what time it’s being played, or where, or when, because while there are many elements in it, about rebellion and about so many different things… I think at its core it’s really a love story. It doesn’t matter [your] race, religion, creed, orientation. I think everyone has felt love, or been in love, or been rejected by love.

TV: Do you have a number from the show that you’re most excited to share with your audiences?

JK: They all play such an important role. There’s no filler songs at all. I love — I know it’s probably such a cliché — “The Origin of Love.” Just because it’s… it’s magic. It’s just a gorgeous, gorgeous song. There’s the opening number and then boom, you’re in. Let’s go! It’s very special to perform it, and it’s an honour that we get an opportunity to sing it.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch opens September 22 at Hart House Theatre and is directed by Rebecca Ballarin.