Trevor Abes: Writer

Review: Internet Girlfriend (A Bit Much Productions)

One of the blessings of digital theatre is opening yourself up to a blending of art forms. While some companies choose to leave the camera still and let the performances do the talking, others embrace the sense of play and structural possibilities and run with it.

With Internet Girlfriend, from A Bit Much Productions, we get just that, a theatre/film hybrid that is as much moving pictures as it is moving bodies that will likely expand your vision of what it means to watch a play.

The story centers on the relationship between Daisy (Megan Adam), a Youtouber working her way through life sharing ideas and growing pains on camera, and Connor Beck (Leo Mates), a singer-songwriter of considerable renown who’s regularly on Youtube’s front page.

The thin line between admiration and hero-worship quickly comes to the fore when, after we’ve followed Daisy into adulthood, she receives a video call from Beck, who she’s vlogged about as a long-time fan, and she is instantly at the mercy of his approval. He doesn’t ring in at random, either; rather, it’s suggested that he builds up to that moment to grant it a sense of authenticity, a hint of nefariousness to it all, but barely enough to notice.

Over subsequent calls, and a very short amount of time, the two build a virtual rapport and end up living together. But again, as viewers, we are given tiny reasons to pause if we care to notice, reasons that seem to be escalating into a fight-or-flight situation. This time, they concern Beck’s language toward Daisy, which I’d describe as establishing superiority veiled in cutesy tones (note his use of the word ‘weird’), and saying all the right romantic things (which he clearly doesn’t mean) to someone so taken with him she’ll default to believing him no matter what he says. Once they’re living out of Connor’s flat, the power dynamics at play come into fuller view.

To get through to people, I think a work of art about abuse should say so in a multitude of ways without spelling it out and devolving into a P.S.A. Internet Girlfriend abides by this view, such that you may not know what’s going on until you take the time to add up every hint of trouble.

Adam excels at the delicate job of guiding us to this realization, because Daisy’s struggle to differentiate between the world on screen and the world outside is also our struggle. As critical consumers of media, we all know to lead with skepticism before we’re presented with tangible proof, but that’s of course not always the case. We all get carried away. The adoration Adam fills Daisy’s eyes with transforms the red flags she’s surrounded by into scenery, right up until we can’t ignore them any longer. In this way, the audience has a chance for their moral compasses to kick in before they’re kicked in for us.

Mates, as the other half of this two-hander, provides us with a performance that does what it’s supposed to, which is to be vile, slimy and see-through, to summon up in us everything we know to be holy and good, because all we can do is watch his character embody the exact opposite.

Once the pair are in Beck’s flat, his transgressions begin to tap us on the head a little harder, always nudging Daisy in the direction of his preferences, convincing her that her suffering is self-inflicted, while constantly reminding her that their relationship is special and worth cherishing. And it devolves into much worse from there. While Daisy’s idealization might jumpstart our critical faculties by dulling them, Beck’s objectification of her, first as an undertow, then conceited and unconscionable, should bring to mind a long list of powerful men who chose to inflict trauma over remembering the feeling of the ground beneath their feet.

Going back to my point on hybridity, this all unfolds through a mix of live-action shots and confessional-style YouTube videos that lend themselves to the feeling of getting to know someone. The proximity of Daisy and Connor’s facial expressions, they in front of their laptops, us in front of ours, tricks us into thinking words like ‘relationship’ and ‘intimacy’ are appropriate descriptors, when what we’re seeing are just representations made convincing by patchy narratives our brains went ahead and filled in. I applaud this choice, this immersion into the digital, not only on account of its timeliness, but also the fact that the play wouldn’t be as effective if carried out on a stage in its entirety. This is theatre of the Internet that managed to entrench itself in my ethical engine and reinforce how precious and flawed it is when people let you into their lives.

Hats off to Director Melly Magrath for tying everything together with a sense of awe at human connection, in spite of the monsters one must contend with along the way.

Hat off also to Adam and her writing, as there are numerous lines throughout the show that encapsulate their respective moments with a flair/precision you cannot teach. You’ll know them when you hear them.

I’ll stop short of spoiling the crescendo and denouement, but they strike me as tidily and realistically executed, imbuing Daisy with the awareness and newfound consciousness one would hope to gain after such an ordeal. 

Internet Girlfriend runs until November 28, 2021.

20% of the proceeds will be donated to The Redwood Shelter.

Review: Liminal Spaces, A Digital Play Trilogy (Alma Matters Productions/Nowadays Theatre/MXL Live Loft)

If most of this review’s readers are anywhere, it’s a safe bet to say that they are between who they were around March 2020 and who they will become as they find their way back into the post-pandemic world. There is transition in the air, a sense of unresolved inbetweenness, with all the internal rejiggering and hard decision-making that entails.

It’s this struggle of holding on to who you are in a moment of uncertainty, when past principles seem to lack any clear direction, that the Liminal Spaces trilogy taps into. Brought to us by Alma Matters, Nowadays and MXL Live Loft, these one-act plays, filmed National-Theatre-archives-style, approach the grey area between the black and the white with a refreshing lack of definite answers. Rather than being prescriptive, promising to help to figure life out, come what may, the plays seek to thrive in spaces where the path forward isn’t paved but created by the first step you decide to take.

DISCORd

A piano prodigy, played by Sarah Marchand, dines alongside a famous musical director, played by Anand Rajaram, who wields his power to prey on those whose ambitions he could make a reality.

Rajaram imbues his role with subtlety and finesse, giving off tons of slimy tension, as one might expect from such a figure, but cut with a sense of weakness and insecurity that explains but never justifies his behavior. It’s the kind of performance that stays true to the trilogy’s title, in the sense that we aren’t given the option to dismiss the character outright. Rather, we are asked to consider the human beneath the monster, reminding me of the open-mindedness people like Daryl Davis have made a career out of.

Marchand, for her part, brings an awareness to her character, Jane, such that victimhood could only ever come second to her life’s goals as composer and performer. Jane’s reactions to the maestro crossing line after line are both arresting and dignified – including a private scream that releases her and the audience’s tension at just the right time – but she is not above taking advantage of how she’s being taken advantage of, calling the maestro out in the hopes of landing a career-defining role. She navigates broadly accepted social rights and wrongs to her own ends and thus remains herself throughout.

Hats off to director Jonathan Shaboo and writers Jax Smith and Helene Taylor for weaving and realizing such a complex and timely world delivered through the (at least on the surface) quietest of conversations.

MOTHER

A woman doesn’t feel well, thinks she might be dead, or at least dying, and wishes to speak to her son to feel better. Next to her, her deceased mother tries to comfort her and remind her that she must do all she can to convince herself she’s alive.

The ailing woman, played by Aida Keykhaii, teeters between existence and non-existence, wrecked by the fear of not being able to conclusively pin down which is which. Is it the imagination that keeps us here, engaged with the days? Otherwise, without the right story unfolding along with those days, how can we really know for sure?

Keykhaii’s unease toward these questions, a product of reality as she battles cancer, are enough to make anyone understand that latching onto what you value is what keeps you steady through the cyclicality of life. And when I say latching, I mean being unapologetically selfish with what you have been lucky enough to love. I mean acting in such a way that you can look back on your time and be proud of what you overcame in the name of that love.

Keykhaii’s tearful flailing for solid boundaries, for certainties to rest within, is a roadmap to not only survival, but to self-emergence, once you realize that those boundaries will change for reasons beyond your control, but there will always be more to discover and erect, in this life and the next.

Writer and director Mohammad Yaghoubi, who is also Keykhaii’s husband, chose to leave it all on the stage with this one, allowing me to find peace with how the world I know now, my personal universe, will not be the one I inhabit in the future, in spite of the vivacity of the impressions I hold dear.

MPDG

Nathan, a playwright, played by Nathan Taylor, struggles to make headway on his next piece after a scathing review, by Kelly Nestruck, no less, a detail dropped in so unexpectedly it had me howling with laughter. He is as blocked as they come, unsure how to work around the assumptions – literary, sexual, emotional – holding him back.

It’s a love story he’s keen on crafting as the dilemma grows clearer: Does he revisit the traditional boy-meets-girl trope his audience craves, or does he allow equality and the frustration and anxiety of how a love is made up as you go to muddle his ultimate offering?

I found the structure by which this conflict is laid out to be both ingenious and thoroughly entertaining. On the one end, we have Nathan (the character), and on the other we have Manic Pixie Dream Girl, played by Annick Sheedy McLellan, an envoy from the Narrative Gods sent to curb Nathan’s vision toward the happily ever after, whether he likes it or not.

The pair switch back and forth, between characters and characters embodying Nathan’s characters, with an immediacy and command of their craft that is only amplified by Raf Finn’s musical adrenaline and directors Taras Lavren and Justin Otto’s contrasts of space and colour.

Taylor and McLellan play off each other like fall and the smell of rain. It’s a gift to behold their dynamism, confidence and absolute comfort with their respective artistic choices. This is why, of the three works, it stands out as the most singular. It is suffused with a sense of play, takes the most chances and has the most to lose and to gain.

MPDG presents the question of how to exercise authority over one’s story as a negotiation between who you are and how you are seen, between what you feel to be true and what hearsay dictates you to expect. It asks of us to take a stance somewhere along the plane of this give-and-take, remembering that any claims of immutable fact are in fact mobile by necessity, change being the only constant.

This is why ending the play with a summation of what we’ve just witnessed makes perfect sense. It underlines the work’s conscious support of Nathan the character’s muddled but realistic romantic vision in a world that prefers the comforts of fantasy, though perhaps it could have been pulled off in a less moralizing, clinical, academic way. That said, the work remains the kind of fun worth paying to have.

Here’s to more collaborations like this one, where artists bet on their processes’ ability to translate the history of their time into a deep desire to be human.

Catch the show until October 15 through here. Twenty per cent of all ticket sales will be donated to the CDA Institute Afghan Refugee Program.

Midday Haze

Young Canadian Investor #33 – How I’m Invested

After 32 posts covering investing basics for the young Canadian investor, I figured I should show how I apply the principles I’ve written about thus far. Here’s what my personal investment portfolio looks like.

I currently have two TFSAs, one RRSP, and one taxable brokerage account.

One TFSA holds indexed mutual funds and ETFs and individual stocks. Its allocation breaks down into:

  • Canada: 30% (including 10 per cent to individual small cap and micro cap stocks)
  • USA: 25% (including 10 per cent to small cap stocks)
  • Developed International: 20%
  • Emerging Markets: 20%
  • Canadian bonds: 5%

The rationale here is to hold even slices of every public stock market in the world, which index funds offer, with tilts toward small cheap companies, which have historically offered higher average returns compared to their large counterparts.

The index mutual funds are no load, meaning I can stuff small amount of money in them without paying a commission, compared to ETFs, which, at this bank, cost me a commission of $10 every time I buy or sell them. The mutual funds have higher annual fees than indexed ETFs, but not that much for the size of my investments, making me comfortable about using them as accumulation vehicles I’ll eventually transfer over to ETFs when I’ve saved enough for the annual fees to matter.

I do pick individual stocks in this account, and I’m fully aware that the odds are against me. That said, I’m happy to take the extra risk, tempered by thorough research, for the promise of higher returns compared to just owning index funds.

The incredible cover of my book on getting started with index funds, which is linked at the end of the article.

The other TFSA is at an institution that allows me to buy ETFs commission free. Indexed ETFs charge much cheaper annual fees than mutual funds, and I was interested in not having all of my accounts at the same institution, so it made sense for me to open the second account. It holds only index ETFs as follows:

  • Canada: 20% (including 5% to real estate)
  • USA: 20% (including 10% to small companies)
  • Global value stocks: 10%
  • Developed International: 20%
  • Emerging Markets: 20%
  • Global bonds: 5%
  • Canadian bonds: 5%

Besides institutional diversification, the rationale here is to lower my overall investment costs by investing in ETFs, which are the cheapest way for everyday investors like you and me to benefit from stocks. Again, everything is more or less evenly split across the world with value and small company tilts.

I own bonds in both accounts so I have cash around in case markets drop, offering me a discount. I also own them as a second layer to my emergency fund, just in case I find myself in a royal jam. Additionally, the bonds and the real estate pay me monthly income, and I like a slug of my portfolio doing that, again for diversification’s sake.

The RRSP, and this will start to sound like a broken record, is invested in indexed ETFs, even slices, you get the deal. It looks like this:

  • Canada: 25%
  • USA: 25%
  • Developed International: 25%
  • Emerging Markets: 25%

Not bothering with the small caps here, just broad index funds that represent what their names say. I may change my mind about that later, but for now, the extra simplicity is welcomed, and the four funds are likely to do their fair share to get me to my financial goals anyway. I get granular in the TFSAs because there’s academic evidence supporting it, but also because investing is a passion. Mindlessly socking away money in a diversified portfolio of index funds will serve you well over the long term.

There isn’t much money in the RRSP or taxable brokerage account because a TFSA offers me tax-free investment growth and I can take the money out no penalty as I please. You can’t get your money from RRSPs without paying a 5-15% withholding tax per withdrawal, plus adding it to your income for the year. Alternatively, you could ask your bank to turn the account into a Registered Retirement Income Fund and start paying you out the money, which nixes the withholding tax, but you’re not retired, so that makes no sense.

I opened the taxable brokerage account just to do it, because eventually, when I run out of RRSP and TFSA room, that’ll be the only place left to sensibly invest for the long term. Unlike a TFSA, which offers tax-free investment growth, and RRSPs, which offer tax-deferred investment growth, investments in taxable brokerage accounts will ding you for every gain.

Here’s what it looks like:

  • Canada: 50%
  • Berkshire Hathaway: 50%

The Canadian allocation is to an ETF that doesn’t pay any dividends as part of its mandate. That means I can just hold the ETF and let it rise over time without having to worry about taxes until I sell, which I plan on doing in a few decades. The investment company offers international ETFs with the same no dividend mandate, but I find their fees too expensive, so I’m eschewing proper diversification for now.

The Berkshire allocation is strategic in that no dividends is also part of its mandate, and it owns a broad selection of companies in different industries, but I’m also just fanboying out on owning Warren Buffet’s company, exercising my belief in what he and Charlie Munger have built and the structures they’ve left in place to steer the ship when they’re gone. I don’t even care that the institution where I have the account robs its investors by charging 1.5% per C/USD conversion. It’s such a small percentage of my overall portfolio, and I believe in management enough to feel good about them earning me a return I’m satisfied with over time.

I’d like to eventually make some investments in private companies when that gets easier here in Canada, but that’s just me nerding out again. As you can see, the core of my holdings is made up of index funds, which is basically equivalent to owning the entire global stock market, a strategy that has beaten active managers or stock pickers 90% of the time or so over periods longer than 10 years. Not really a popular stance in Canada, where pretty much everyone relies on active management, but the evidence is on my side.

Oh yeah, I own a little Bitcoin and Ethereum as well. They’re 1% each of my overall holdings, small as venture investments ought to be. I feel I’ve gone down the rabbit hole and learned enough to be happy to be there in that capacity.

Another oh yeah, the ETFs I own come from Ishares and Vanguard.

If you read this far, I bet you have questions. Feel free to drop them below.

I also have a book on index investing you can learn more about here.

Disclaimer: This article is meant for general education purposes only. It does not constitute financial advice as I am unaware of your personal financial situation. Consult with a professional who abides by a fiduciary standard before making any investment decisions.

Review: UnTuned (Golvareh)

It’s hard to prepare for life’s highs and lows when you think too highly of yourself to expect them. You will bet on yourself, but you won’t hedge the pursuit of that dream with a surer, albeit less satisfying, option. It is the dream or nothing. 

With Sarah Saberi’s UnTuned, we find ourselves on the nothing side of things for the story of a struggling musician and immigrant to Canada on his 40th birthday as he video calls with family and friends back in Iran.

Amir Hosein Taheri, as Massoud, the musician, brings a lighter air to the angst of unfulfillment, cracking jokes, often at others’ expense, to distract himself from confronting why his art did not work out as expected. His sulking posture and indifferent face, even at the happiest of moments, kept reminding me of Camus’ The Stranger, except somehow laced with hilarity, which is no small feat.

I think Massoud succeeds at keeping us interested in his lack of creative and romantic achievements because he can’t help brushing up against it, forcing himself to react. There are constant opportunities for self-reflection, most of which he swats away, but yet, he keeps answering birthday calls in search of more. I call that spirit and he has it in droves, even though he can’t always recognize how it shines through everything he does.

At its base, this play about failure in love and work is supported by love itself, made all the more intense by the distance between Massoud and his callers, though they are side by side on the screen. That mix of relief, longing and joy you get when you Zoom the right person is the fertile soil from which this story comes to light.

One pivotal scene concerns Banafsheh Taherian, as Atefeth, Massoud’s high-achieving friend, who stood out to me as an example of artifice adding to rather than subtracting from authenticity. Atefeth is a hyperbolic extension of everything Massoud might wish for, so much so she’s almost perfect, a statistical rational anomaly in a world of people all up in their feelings barely getting by. Her jovial effortless exceptionalism teaches us how very seriously Massoud takes her as a measuring stick for his own accomplishments, though he’d never admit it, setting him (and us) up for how unexplained expectations are always guaranteed disappointments. 

Another key scene involves Farzaneh Soheili, as Bahareh, who offers us a heavy dose of badassery as, one by one, she throws Massoud’s put downs right back in his face. She pulls this off with vigor, questioning the foundations of the meaning in his life, savouring the pulls from her cigarette with a stiff upper lip as an action star might. The pair makes for a crescendo I found to be a satisfying payoff to Massoud’s broody soul-searching.

Every caller in UnTuned succeeds at reflecting Massoud back at himself at an angle he’s too stuck to tease out on his own. From his mother (Fariba Jedikar) to his sister (Faranak Kalantar) to his job interviewer (Ashley Mauerhofer), there are intimations of the great promise he can’t seem to reignite. And Saberi, as Director, does well to end things with a nod to self-care suggesting he may never be able to, and that’s OK, so long as he can have his own back once the inevitability of change comes calling.

If you’re interested in a character study that cycles you through the full scope of human emotion, you made it. You’re here.

Watch UnTuned as part of Toronto Fringe’s Digital Fringe here until August 22 at 11:59 pm ET.

Saturday Poem #3

Out Past Daybreak

Poetry feature at FreeFlow Showcase

You can see me read four poems at last night’s FreeFlow Showcase here. The show featured some pretty spectacular performances from Eunice Keitan, Rose, and more.

city block

Prospecting

New apartment

Collect Them All

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