Theatre review: SMC Troubadours’ Pacamambo

Pacamambo is not for the faint of heart but it appeals to the human need to process trauma

Theatre review: SMC Troubadours’ <i>Pacamambo</i>

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

On the penultimate Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of November in the basement of Alumni Hall, led by director William Dao, the St. Michael College Troubadours staged a praiseworthy performance of Wajdi Mouawad’s Pacamambo.

Dao’s Pacamambo left the audience with much to contemplate on the nature of death, as well as the role of narratives in shaping subjective reality.

The constraints imposed by last-minute stage changes did not stop the crew — being confined to a small classroom — from creating an immersive universe for the audience to inhabit for the next hour and a half.

Under these impositions, their creative considerations only seemed to grow, resulting in a hypnotic setting that departed from the distance created by the traditional stage. By positioning the audience around the performance, the former were invited to act as jury for the interrogation to come.

The story focuses on a young girl named Julie (Eiléanór O’Halloran) as she attempts to make sense of the death of her grandmother (Rachel Bannerman). At the request of her therapist (Ahlam Hassan), the child guides us through her trauma and we come to understand why she was found three weeks later looking over the dead body of her grandmother.

“Tell me your story,” her therapist urges — and more importantly, what in the world is Pacamambo?

Julie intently informs the audience that Pacamambo is the question and it is the answer; it is the land where everyone is everyone, the land of universal empathy.

As the faint lights fade into silence, chilling vocalists vested in white gowns flood the quiet room. The irfinal notes echo through the room to set the tone for the sombre realities that follow. From her very first lines, O’Halloran’s delivery captivates the viewer and she aptly manipulates the stage through her portrayal of a young child processing trauma. She flawlessly captures the convictions of childhood and draws the audience into a nostalgic attentiveness. They wait on her every breath out of sheer curiosity — what could the young, vulnerable, and sad possibly have to say about grief?

Grief, trauma, and a child’s unwillingness to let go of the past: Pacamambo is not for the faint of heart. To alleviate the audience from the deeply emotive plot, Julie’s dog (Joanne Perez) appears from time to time to break the fourth wall, eliciting a few chuckles from audience members, and providing the rest with a chance to catch their breath and remember that with death, there is still life.

These brief moments are quickly set aside as the audience come to face Julie’s encounter with Death (Olivia Regimbal, Amanda Gosio, and River Pereira), whose authority can be sensed in its every sentence and through its every glance. As Death speaks, no one dares make a sound. At last, Death arrives, and perhaps will inform us too, of our own mortality, leaving us more confused than Julie, who at least holds an answer.

Dao’s portrayal of the incoming of Death, as well as an individual’s attempt to derive meaning from the incomprehensible is most remarkable as it brutally projects the latter upon the audience.

Pacamambo beautifully overwhelms. Our senses meet a cacophony of movement upon a layer of hollow lamentation; everyone speaks, yet not a thought can be heard. Chaos and panic find harmony within the small space.

Despite the team’s perceived necessity to intervene on the original text around the topics of anti-Black racism and mythologized trauma, Dao and his cast navigate the limitations of exploration and provide a platform for the discourse surrounding colonization in the land acknowledgement before the performance.

Dao and the Troubadours offered a memorable representation of Pacamambo to remind the audience that the land of universal empathy can be here and now, and that kindness and compassion can be found even amid these incessant winter days.

Theatre review: TCDS’ Art

Friendships are akin to art: they help fill the voids within us

Theatre review: TCDS’ <i>Art</i>

Rating: 3/5 stars

Last weekend, the Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) performed Yasmina Reza’s award-winning play, Art. The play, set in Paris and written in French, premiered in 1994 and was quickly adapted and translated, before making its way across the Atlantic and onto Broadway in 1998.

Performed at Trinity College’s George Ignatieff Theatre, curator Liana Ernszt made a conscious effort to integrate the performance with a gallery of boundary-pushing student artwork, providing an altogether more interactive experience.

By presenting opportunities for more direct engagement, Ernszt encouraged audiences to step outside of their comfort zones and provided a more visceral account of the play’s major themes: drifting friendships, weak bonds, senses of taste, and identity. This challenged audiences to consider the value and purpose of art and greatly enhanced the communication of Reza’s message in art.

Art follows three friends, Serge (Ezera Beyene), Marc (Kody McCann), and Yvan (Brendan Rush), who’ve unwittingly grown apart and suddenly find their friendship under considerable tension. Catalyzing the end of their friendship is Serge’s wildly exorbitant purchase of a painting that, rather humorously, is just a completely white canvas with white lines.

Marc disparages the painting, and it is this disagreement in taste between Marc and Serge that forces Yvan in the middle. Naturally, this devolves into a no-holds-barred contest of mockery, cynicism, and disillusionment, ultimately spiralling out of control and into referendums on taste, character assassinations, and a pervasive mood of indifference. Just when it’s most important for them to pull together, they instead push themselves even further apart.

The play, directed by Ryan Falconer, brought out a unified and true-to-form communication of Reza’s Art. The production was well-orchestrated with timely, effective lighting and use of the stage to entwine the audience in an intimate affair of theatre and drama. The band, with Shreya Jha on keyboard and Mira Riselli on bass, helped execute seamless transitions of scenes, building and releasing tension to complement the mood of the cast.

The cast succeeded in captivating the audience by effectively conveying the emotional rifts between their characters. Beyene’s performance of Serge as an eccentric art connoisseur left the impression of a focused approach to his role, by projecting his emotions not impulsively but sincerely. This was nicely juxtaposed by McCann’s performance of Marc, whose condescending demeanour and language really broadcast a sort of austerity that reached beyond the confines of the stage and into the minds of the audience. This contrast worked especially well in heightening the tension between the two characters. Rush’s performance of Yvan was ambitious and intense, though certainly not lost because his character was the most difficult to portray. Rush successfully supported the unfolding interactions between Serge and Marc, which would unravel even more to crash down like a game of Jenga.

The more salient point in Art and the blank canvas is not the trivial senses of taste, but the understanding that friendships are to be nurtured and not taken for granted. As with anything that is abandoned or neglected, if we lose sight, we also stand to lose clarity and, ultimately, the confidence of our friendships.

Friends are a sort of artwork in themselves; like art, friends help us overcome times of adversity and suffering by making light of dark situations. They fill the voids within us to cure our emptiness.

Ultimately, I wish to congratulate Falconer and the TCDS on a great show and laud their commitment and passionate dedication to storytelling, art, and the audience.

Theatre review: Hart House’s The Penelopiad

Atwood successfully captures the unheard voices of Homer’s The Odyssey

Theatre review: Hart House’s <i>The Penelopiad</i>

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Since 2002, Hart House Theatre has staged a Shakespearean production every winter, alternating between a comedy and a tragedy each season. This tradition was replaced, or simply suspended, this year, but it is a loss that is noticed minimally, if at all, if only for the reason that Shakespeare has been replaced by a more contemporary bard: Margaret Atwood.

Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a drama on the level of Shakespeare. It is a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey from a female-centric lens: that of Penelope, wife of Odysseus and the titular character. In typical Atwood fashion, audiences receive the story of The Odyssey through Penelope’s voice and experiences.

The Penelopiad is composed of an all female-identifying cast of 13, and a mostly female-identifying production team. They are a wonderfully large and diverse troupe, who tell the story of Penelope’s life, her marriage to Odysseus, his absence for 20 years, his eventual return, and its implications.

At the beginning of the play, Penelope, who often speaks to the audience in a painfully honest fashion, reveals that her 12 maids were murdered and that she is to blame. The remainder of the play seeks to expose the culmination of such an event, in turn questioning female agency and the importance of female narrative, and perhaps most importantly, the silencing of women. This play is saturated with typical Atwoodian motifs and themes; it is a wonderful replacement for the often male-centric drama found in Shakespeare.

Apart from Amanda Cordner, who plays Penelope, almost all members of the cast play multiple characters. Each is both one of Penelope’s maids as well as a male character, such as Odysseus himself, or a minor character, such as Helen of Troy. The multiplicity of roles for each actor not only challenges typical gender stereotypes, but reinforces the multiplicity of narratives that Atwood emphasizes in her feminist retelling of this myth.

Director Michelle Langille’s staging of The Penelopiad is unsurprisingly exciting and inventive. Soft and dreamy background music can be heard almost constantly throughout the play, an unusual detail that perhaps emphasizes the uniqueness of the female voice. The set itself is mystical and well-occupied by the large cast, who move about frequently, employing props, such as large ropes, which at one point are used to mimic Penelope’s famous weaving.

Hart House Theatre productions almost always make excellent use of the entire theatre, not just the stage, and this production is no different. Even the lighting is memorable and even physical at times, used to blind the audience in an unusual and powerful effect.

Ultimately, The Penelopiad is an excellent production and well worth seeing. Stand out performances include Cordner, whose strength and dedication to her character truly carry the show. Much of the rest of the cast are appearing in their Hart House debuts, and one can only hope that they will be on this campus stage again soon.

Of course, one can also hope that the U of T alum herself has seen this excellent production. As a U of T student myself, it is particularly exciting to see such an epic work written by an alum and staged in a campus theatre. If such pride is not enough for you to enjoy the show, its own merits should do the trick.

Theatre review: VCDS’ The Importance of Being Earnest

Student theatre cleverly tackles the theme of identity in its second play of the season

Theatre review: VCDS’ <em>The Importance of Being Earnest</em>

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) received resounding laughter and applause from pleased audiences with director Rachel Bannerman’s interpretation of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Arguably one of Oscar Wilde’s finest plays, it is his playful response to William Shakespeare’s serious question to audiences: “What’s in a name?” Wilde’s answer? Everything.

In Earnest, Jack Worthing, our main protagonist, is in love with Gwendolen Bracknell, but he has been passing off as Ernest Worthing instead — a lie which, it seems, comprises a large part of Gwendolen’s love for Jack.

Meanwhile, Jack’s friend Algernon Moncrieff has plans to secretly go visit Jack’s ward Cecily in the country so as to woo her — a plan that ends up with him also passing himself off as Ernest, a name that Cecily, like Gwendolen, places much importance upon. What happens when their real names are found out? That, of course, is much of the fun of Earnest, as are its other characters, namely Lady Bracknell, a typical Victorian mother character exposing both the monotony and falsity of Victorian morals. Add in a black handbag, a lot of muffins, and a couple of diaries, and you have the wonderful play that is The Importance of Being Earnest.

What makes Earnest so hilarious is that it is a world where everything is inverted: characters say the opposite of what you would expect them to say, but with all seriousness. For example, Lady Bracknell, who has been visiting a friend of hers who is recently widowed, notes that the woman looks “quite 20 years younger.” The play is chock-full of such clever bits, and this comprises its hilarious nature.

Bannerman’s production understands that Earnest is ultimately a play of identity, where the central question is “Who am I?” It is a play that laughs at the absurdity of nothingness, of a purposeless existence, and fills that void with beauty and wit.  In assembling a cast of mostly women and changing the character of Mr. Jack Worthing to a Ms. Jack Worthing, Bannerman brings the play into the twenty-first century in a manner that is quite fitting for the play’s central question of human identity.  

The cast is, overall, quite strong, with some standout performances. Gianni Sallese as Algernon Moncrieff is an excellent decision, and his skill with the character often outshines Sylvia Woolner’s Jack, with whom he is often on stage.

Kara Austria’s Lady Bracknell maintains the veneer of Victorian high society while treating the character with just enough irony to result in a truly wonderful performance. Carmen Bezner Kerr’s Gwendolen Bracknell and Kenley Ferris Ku’s Cecily Cardew also both display the actors’ full awareness of the wit of the dialogue, which they play into very well.

A clever set design, which changes three times during the show, helps to keep the stage interesting and the audience engaged. Overall, Bannerman makes good use of the stage, and characters are constantly moving, sitting, running, and taking up space, which is very entertaining.

Some moments that could have been further emphasized include the classic encounter between Cecily and Gwendolen during tea, which is quite hilarious but could have been further drawn out. This is, of course, a minor detail, and is outweighed by the many other clever directions, including the very funny aside when Algy and his servant Lane plug their ears.

As is often the case, the VCDS offers audiences a well-rehearsed, clever production of a classic play that is well worth seeing. You’ll leave with many good laughs and an appreciation for the clever wit of Oscar Wilde that is not lost upon this production team.

Theatre review: Hart House’s Heathers: The Musical

Theatre review: Hart House’s <i>Heathers: The Musical</i>

Hart House opened its 20182019 season with a bang, or rather, a series of bangs, followed by an explosion. Adapted from the darkly comic teen film of the same name, Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s Heathers: The Musical premiered in Los Angeles in 2013. Released in 1988, Heathers became a cult classic for its violent characters, disturbing story, and morbidly cynical take on bullying and suicide. One can only assume that the demand for a musical adaptation was unanimous and vehement.

Director Jennifer Walls did perhaps the only reasonable thing to do with such an absurd, violent, and irreverent story: a lot. Heathers throws everything it can at the audience, seldom letting up. I entered the sold-out auditorium to the warm embrace of late-’80s pop hits, and the first thing that greeted me was the extravagant set. A brightly coloured and nightmarishly skewed vision of a high school hallway, it looked something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets Hairspray, like how a row of lockers might look if you were on a seesaw and acid. It was impressive, and immediately set the tone for this energetic and disorienting show. A barrage of bright, colourful, categorically ‘more-is-more’ sights and sounds were to come.

Our protagonist, Veronica, is a 17-year-old nobody at the fictional Westerburg High School, who is later indoctrinated into the school’s most popular group of girls, the Heathers. There are three of them, and they’re called the Heathers because each of them is named Heather. Get it?

Veronica is played by Emma Sangalli, whose enthusiasm makes the coming-of-age scenes a joy to watch. Sangalli especially shines in the smaller moments, like Veronica’s brief asides to the audience, where she takes what might have been forgettable lines or inconsequential bits of exposition and infuses them with a genuine sense of charm and spontaneity. She greets new experiences — donning her Heather outfit, getting drunk at a party for the first time — with a sort of giddy disbelief that makes her character eminently likeable.

Justan Myers has the perfect look for his character, Jason “JD” Dean, and he nails the suave punk ethos. He nails it — perhaps, a little too much though. Especially during the beginning of the show, Myers wears an almost permanent smirk, which stifles and flattens the underlying pain implied by his lines. However, he more than compensates for this in his final song “I Am Damaged,” as he explodes into a fit of seething, spitting rage that genuinely terrifies. It’s exciting to see an actor become so truly monstrous onstage and, aided by creepy chiaroscuro-like lighting, which provides a strong contrast between light and dark, Myers’ face in these moments may be the most memorable image from the show.

PHOTO BY SCOTT GORMAN, HART HOUSE THEATRE

Oddly, Heathers succeeds most in its darkest moments. Becka Jay makes a remarkable impression in her relatively small role as Heather McNamara — the third most senior Heather, for those keeping score at home. After a series of comical and absurd murders that are framed as suicides, this Heather is the first character to actually attempt taking her own life. Jay makes the character seem truly unstable. Heathers is extreme and impassioned, but watching these scenes, I realized that I’d been somewhat starved for moments of genuine intensity. Jay’s raw, visceral agony — and JD’s similarly fever-pitched meltdown — seem to be the only answer to the bubblegum-craziness of the rest of the story.

I haven’t yet mentioned the music, because it is not very memorable, but the choreography is beautiful. It’s dynamic without being excessively complex, and most numbers end with a tableau silhouetted against a single-colour wash of backlight, which is, honestly, just cool. The band, led by Jonathan Corkal, is also excellent, particularly in more rock and funk-driven songs like “You’re Welcome.”

Despite the enjoyable instrumentation, however, “You’re Welcome” struggles to strike a balance between the comedic tone of the show and the attempted rape in the accompanied scene. It replaces a song from an earlier version of the musical, “Blue” — as in balls — which drew some criticism for making light of sexual assault. Here, the real peril of Veronica’s situation is clear, but it’s a difficult emotional balancing act for the viewer to also laugh at the jokes.

I must also mention the song “My Dead Gay Son.” There is a twist in this song, which I won’t reveal, except to say that it truly exemplifies the balls-out absurdity that the show constantly strives for. Throughout Heathers, there is an attempt to mix senselessly tragic situations with excessively cheerful pageantry to create an irreverent sense of absurd humour. The musical pulls it off with mixed success, with “You’re Welcome” in particular struggling against this tension. But “My Dead Gay Son” is such a fantastically silly culmination of so many ridiculous plotlines that I wish that the characters it focuses on had a show of their own.

When Heathers was over, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. The play ends in a chaotic rush of so many events, increasingly outrageous, resolved and unresolved and resolved again, that you’re given no time to think anything except, “Why did they dedicate an entire song to Slurpees?” Suddenly, curtain call. I clapped for the lovely actors, staggered out of the auditorium, and tried to figure out why O’Keefe and Murphy wanted me to see what I just saw.

Something to do with inclusion? Something to do with the power of friendship?

For the discerning viewer, I’m sure there are scores of powerful messages to be drawn from this story, which touches on so many urgent and timely themes. I’d try to find just one to highlight for you, but if I think about the show much more, I’ll get brain freeze.

Heathers: The Musical ran from September 21 to October 6.

Theatre review: VCDS’ The Drowsy Chaperone

A look at a world more glamorous than our own

Theatre review: VCDS’ <i>The Drowsy Chaperone</i>

The Victoria College Drama Society’s (VCDS) recent production of The Drowsy Chaperone was absolutely incredible. The show was written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar in 1998 as a parody of musical productions from the 1920s, and it featured music by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.

Directed by Meredith Shedden, the production combined the magic of a bygone era with comedy, singing, dancing, romance, danger, satire, and blindfolded rollerblading antics.

The play’s events took place on the day of the wedding between star personality Janet and her fiancé, George. The central premise of the show was keeping the groom from seeing his bride, and this is where the cast of quirky characters play their part.

The set transformed from a 1990s living room to a glamorous 1920s wedding mid-show; it continued to switch back and forth throughout the play, pulling the audience in and out of the fantasy created by the narrator, Tom Fraser, who pulled the show together with his witty commentary.

The set’s French doors opened and immediately engulfed viewers in a magical time. The detailed costumes were particularly notable, full of lace frills, elaborate wedding dresses, luscious velvets and furs, coats and tails, and sequins.

Drowsy‘s incredible cast pulled off iconic numbers, like “Show Off,” wonderfully. Ryan Falconer was perfectly sleazy in the role of Aldolpho the ‘Latin lover,’ with his self-titled solo, “I am Aldolpho,” drawing rowdy laughter and applause. Arin Klein and Jamie Fiuza were excellent as a gangsters-turned-pastry chefs vaudeville duo, and Lucinda Qu was a show-stopper with a wonderful vocal performance as Trix.

Best of all, Olivia Thornton-Nickerson, who played Drowsy herself, was truly a star. She was funny and glamorous, showing off her incredible voice and stage presence in an enchanting red velvet ballgown. Her rendition of “As We Stumble Along” was hilarious and awe-inspiring.

Drowsy was a complete pleasure to watch, and it transported the audience into a world more glamorous and more musical than their own.