Trevor Abes: Writer

Category: Theatre Reviews

Review: Swim Team (Nowadays Theatre with Alma Matters Pruductions)

Swim Team Poster

Swim Team introduces us to an Iranian all-women swim team as they train in a town with no pool. The play—produced by Nowadays Theatre in collaboration with Alma Matters Productions—is an act of worship to the imagination and the barriers it can remove. It’s also a stirring metaphor about gender inequality for presenting a world where women’s rights can fall into the fantastical territory of make-believe.

The cast are on a whole other level of play here. Think about the imaginative demands placed on their characters. They swim by acting out the motions on a dusty patch of land, using towels and wringing out wet hair to keep up the suspension of disbelief. It’s enough to make you feel young again, when limitations on what might exist weren’t really an obstacle. 

But at the same time, having to occupy a space of make-believe just to participate in a sport is a powerful metaphor, one that seeks justice for oppressed women by imbuing their struggle with absurdity. As in, it’s absurd for the team to have to disavow their humanity and fictionalize their own existence to jump into some water. As in, it’s absurd that women need to strive to make something from nothing in a country where they’re already second-class citizens. The team doesn’t mention state-enforced ideology much at all, which made it harder for me to ignore its shadow in the background.

Roya (Banafsheh Taherian), the swim coach, carries the memory of students drowning on her watch with palpable anxiety. It makes for good fuel to drive her to whip her current team into shape but feels too high-octane for the task. The excess energy she could be using to forgive herself for losing the students is piled onto her new ones, generating an imbalance where something has to give, and I was on board to find out what did.

Roya and her three-person team occupy a hierarchy of strength, such that she seems tougher than Nary (Tina Bararian), who seems tougher than Katy (Mahsa Ershadifar), who seems tougher than Lili (Aylin Oyan Salahshoor). This is interesting for a number of reasons. For one, it lends a sense of order to the story, one that speaks to the regimented country they live in, the geometry of the imaginary pool they swim in, and just makes things that much tighter symbolically. It’s also a strategy that offers many chances for disruption, such that characters often change rankings. Sharing how would just spoil the story.

The details surrounding the team’s imaginary swims had me laughing the hardest. Stuff like drying off a diving board, taking deep breaths after each stroke, or making sound effects with a tub of water to mimic a toe in the pool. It’s such a roundabout way to participate in the sport, it’s as if I was watching a living Rube Goldberg Machine. I was also laughing because I couldn’t recall the last time I tried anything without filtering it through some sense of what could and could not be.

Playwright Jaber Ramezani plants little nuggets throughout to further comment on fantasy’s relationship with reality, and on his characters’ ability to imagine the lives they want into existence. For one, I became familiar with characters’ motivations as they interacted during practices, but they actually share very little about their personal histories. This combo adds up to intimacy that is somehow both authentic and fabricated. I was left thinking that we are the stories we tell ourselves, as well as solely responsible for how good we get at believing in them.

There is also Lili’s unacknowledged arm pain, which might seem disjointed but fits into the same line of thinking. Her pain is not worthy of belief as far as her coach and teammates are concerned; therefore it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Lili goes along with this erasure, replacing her pain with the truth that best serves her, that there is water in the pool. This malleability of self has a revolutionary kick to it. Lili and her team assert their autonomy and go about their business by playing God, picking and choosing the sensations and situations that deserve a life of their own. 

What ties it all together for me is how even the difficulties of friendship contribute to the team’s air of refuge. In spite of how annoyed Lili gets by Nary’s teasing, she misses her when she’s not around. And even though Lili calls her names, Nary returns to her side. Regardless of the dispute, they stick together, tight as confidants, extending each other the benefit of not having to self-censor to explore who they are. By the end, this bond borders on the sacred.

Swim Team is a bountiful offering of child-like wonder that speaks to the realities of Iranian women without overt politicization. I was combing through the layers of its deceptively simple story long after the curtain fell.

  • Swim Team runs at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St. West) from November 8-17.
  • Tickets are available online, in person, or through the box office at 416-538-0988.

Poster provided by the company.

Review: But That’s Another Story (Briane Nasimok and Christel Bartelse)

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After only three performances, a new storytelling series is packing them in at the Free Times Cafe. It’s called But That’s Another Story and it gives space to a wide cross-section of genres, including fables, comic essays, and more contemporary works. Its producer-hosts, Briane Nasimok and Christel Bartelse, are two well-established voices in the Canadian performing arts. Nasimok is a Canadian Comedy Award winner who appeared in classic 1980s films like Gas and The Funny Farm. Bartelse is a Canadian Comedy Award nominee known for her internationally-acclaimed one-woman shows.

Read my full review on Mooney on Theatre.

Review: Mînowin (DanceWorks)

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Dancers of Damelahamid’s new work, Mînowin, is a mesmerizing session of song and dance about reconnecting with ancestral Indigenous knowledge, easing the struggles of Indigenous people, and exploring how progress is a continuous process of imbalance and renewal. Staged in the cozy Harbourfront Centre Theatre, this DanceWorks production flirts with epic themes in the most intimate of spaces.

Mînowin translates to ‘the act of clarifying direction’, which is right in line with the company’s reason for being. According to Margaret Grenier, Executive and Artistic Director for the Dancers of Damelahamid, “I treasure dance as the most significant inheritance I have from my ancestors. For myself, dance, song, and story have provided a protective environment to address the limitations placed on our Indigenous peoples and to create a healing space”. In other words, the company’s articulated direction, the best way to go about its life, is to continue their peoples’ long lineage of reflecting experience and tradition through art.

Dancers of Damelahamid have been restoring traditional Indigenous songs and dances for over 50 years. That history continues here with a series of dances based on teachings from the Gitxsan people, a matrilineal society from the Northwest coast of British Columbia, from which the company also hails. Gitxsan translates to ‘people of the river of mist’.

Mînowin’s most resonant example of connecting to the past, in my estimation, is the dance that centres on orcas, a Gitxsan symbol going back thousands of years. Five of the seven dancers swim through air onto a dark stage. Four of them wear fins, while the fifth holds an orca puppet, each rigged with bright lights the blue of pristine coastal water. Their calming glow, coupled with the repetitive nature of the choreography—which builds on a single rhythm and a small number of steps—left room for nothing else in my attention. The wonder of it was a bedtime story brought to life.

Margaret Grenier’s choreography achieves this entrancing effect pretty well throughout. It’s what speaks most of healing to me, how each dancer seemed so effortlessly lost in music and movement to the point of forgetting hardship, if only for a while. The more I watched, the more I felt some of that medicine was transferred to me.

The themes of imbalance and renewal come about in dances built around related images, each distinctive in their own way. In one, a dancer drops dead and somehow returns to life, the tension of it thick enough to slice. In another more symbolic example, dancers lie on the floor and balance on their stomachs like compasses in need of calibration.

Praise must go to set and visual designer, Andrew Grenier, projection and lighting designer, Andy Moro, head of interactive new media, Sammy Chien, and dancer and head of regalia, Rebecca Baker-Grenier. They have created a living, breathing world for Mînowin to exist in. I was thoroughly swept away by all the multimedia magic, including a giant multi-coloured lightning bolt, and huge white wolves and a stampede of horses running across the background. The same goes for the costumes and their lively patterns and lush primary colours. The ever-present rustling of tassels on the garments was soothing like waves reaching shore.

My guest, Erika, pointed out the challenge of maintaining the authenticity of the songs and dances against the risk of their repetitive nature growing tedious for modern audiences. We agreed that Dancers of Damelahamid faced the challenge head on. They employ technology and solid production to lend a digitally dazzling perspective to their traditional artistry.

At its root, Mînowin is an act of survival, a bid to preserve Indigenous culture by reinterpreting it for the present moment. I, for one, won’t be forgetting it any time soon.

Details:

Photo of Mînowin provided by the company.

Sourced from Mooney on Theatre.

Review: The Apologist (Cleen Theatre)

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Colleen Osborn’s The Apologist , a Cleen Theatre production, is a two-hander comedy/thriller that follows a unique premise: what if it was socially acceptable to pay someone to apologize for you? What would the consequences of existing in such a world be? Set in the Imperial Pub’s back room, we are treated to a considered meditation on these ideas that manages to be both hilarious and legitimately tense. 

Evan Walsh plays Cliff Manners, a.k.a. The Apologist, a professional apologizer who will express sympathy on behalf of anyone unwilling to do it themselves. The character Walsh has given form to is commendable for his warped sense of vulnerability. Since Manners is well-practiced and able to perform being sorry so well, the kick in the gut that comes from fessing up to a mistake no longer holds sway with him. Because he cannot have shame in his line of work, having to show regret for everything from white lies, to infidelity, to crimes against humanity, there’s no morality to reign in his behaviour. He comes off like a livewire, charming on the surface, but cocksure on the edge of causing irreparable harm under the impression of just doing his job. We meet him delivering an apology to a woman from the people who recently ran her dog over.

Carmen Kruk plays that woman’s roommate, Marsha, whose quirky, fragile exterior evolves very slowly into the fanaticism of Stephen King’s Misery. What Kruk does so well is emote, allowing facial expressions to do the heavy lifting, lending a sense of care and craft to her performance. What those expressions capture feels like a split personality, where psychosis intermittently overcomes Marsha’s kind and generous mind like a TV finding and losing reception. Kruk’s enunciation work is another point in favour of craft. There’s virtuoso flair to how she derives a laugh or a chill from stretching a word out or emphasizing the wrong syllable.

The Apologist is funnier than work this creepy tends to be, and it’s creepier than work this funny tends to be. Osborn’s writing chops offer her actors all the necessary tools to make this happen, including puns, made up words, snappy turns of phrase, and lots of emotional reversals that served to pull the rug from under my expectations at every turn. She also backs up the play’s name by getting philosophical about the nature of apologies. The characters spend a lot of time discussing what merits an apology, the importance of who delivers it, and what authenticity means in a world where mistaken tones in text messages can have life-changing consequences. Their back-and-forths are fruitful in that they leave arguments in the air to stew unresolved, pointing to the play’s unspoken but ever-present truth: an apology can only be validated by the person who receives it.

Director Chelsea Dab Hilke works wonders with such a small space. The set is built around two chairs and a chest in the center that delineate a round race track of sorts, one the actors take full advantage of to enhance a line. Sometimes it’s to create distance from and a barrier between each other to sharpen a show of emotion. At others, there’s a threat of violence and the desperate need to flee. Their dynamism is evidence of some first-class blocking work. The chairs’ proximity carries airs of a therapy session, of a level of intimacy we aren’t usually privy to beyond our own. I was unsettled by this, the possibility of some grand secret always seemingly about to drop. I also found the symbol of circularity a complementary choice, signalling that characters like these are destined to keep running into each other—Manners, who doesn’t differentiate between a real apology and an impeccably performed one, and Marsha, who is perhaps unstable enough to no longer be able to tell the difference.

Where the play gets a little careless is its run time. The second half drags on because the twists and revelations happen too early, such that the plot doesn’t have much juice left to propel the story to the end. Kruk and Walsh fill in the gap with plenty of passion though. I was too caught up in their characters’ concerns to notice. When it comes down to it, The Apologist is an entertaining, substantive endeavor that blends genres into art greater than the sum of its parts. 

  • Runs at the Imperial Pub (54 Dundas East) on Saturday, October 26, at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets here.

Poster of Evan Walsh provided by the company.

Review: Broken Tailbone (Nightswimming Theatre/Factory Theatre)

New review in Mooney on Theatre. Had a lot of fun dancing my way through this one. On til Oct 13. Read it here.

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Photo by Erin Brubacher.

Review: Non Gratas (Alma Matters Productions)

My latest review for Mooney on Theatre.

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Non Gratas, A Latinx Comedy Show With a Lot of Melodrama, is an improv comedy show that does its name proud. Produced by Alma Matters, and staged at Bad Dog Theatre Company, it’s loosely built around two young Latin American women who become friends after immigrating to Canada. As they struggle to connect with a new culture, they highlight the gap between two stereotypes—Canadian humility and Latinx passion—with jokes that kill but also let me into their devastating longing for home.

Marta (Mariela Pabón Navedo) is a newcomer from Puerto Rico, hungry for love and friendship, who’s been having a rough time connecting with everyone she meets. That is, until she runs into Maria (Patricia Tab), an Argentinian experienced with the culture shock of new arrival. Maria not only finds a friend and roommate in Marta, but also someone to save from the pains of finding your footing as a foreigner.

Each woman sees herself reflected in the other, the first time they recognize themselves in another person since arriving in Canada. Here, they feel like personae non gratae, both unwelcome and misunderstood. They explore this notion not so much through a plot, but by developing their relationship through different improv scenarios.

One recurring segment is a simple back and forth, where Marta and Maria trade off lines built on a central theme. It’s kind of like stand-up comedy with the added jolt of improv. The first of these segments explains how showing emotion is a daily part of Latinx life. The duo conveys this through sweet, poetic exaggerations that perfectly encapsulate the issue. Selected gems include how, in Puerto Rico, it’s normal to get your heart broken on a daily basis, and how, on any given morning, Argentinians may fall in love with someone they saw at a bus stop.

On another back and forth, contrast is exploited to maximum hilarity. Marta has a breakdown and deciphers a lover’s text out loud in front of co-workers during a business presentation. Juxtapose her hysterics with Maria, who quietly poses grand philosophical questions about feeling like parts of her are missing when friends and lovers move on. My favourite is the surreal, “Where do trees go when they want to leave?”

At one point, it turns out the duo have been dating the same Kyle. This leads to them riffing on being Canadian and our well-known typecasting as somewhat dull, polite, and self-effacing apologists. They find nuance in this overplayed subject by concentrating it in Kyle’s love for fishing, and their exasperation at how anyone could find something so boring so interesting. Maria sums up the Canadian-Latinx divide when she asks, rather memorably, “Why it is so hard for men to understand that, sometimes, I just need to argue with someone?”

Non Gratas also includes a number of karaoke performances. It’s another avenue for Tab and Pabón Navedo to depict Latinx effusiveness, this time as a way to exorcise your frustrations by letting them out on stage. The performances are moments of abandon and disinhibition. Open invitations to join in a glorious cacophony of bad singing and dance my troubles away.

Marta’s unrushed, deadpan delivery and Maria’s fretful, anxious musings play off one another from moment one. The dynamic adds a backbone of sharpness to material. It goes a long way to making up for the occasional weak line, or moment of dead silence, which comes with the improv territory if you ask me.

Monica Garrido, member of Sketch Comedy Extravaganza Eleganza, warmed us up with stand-up that showcased her confident, goofy style. She told stories of growing up religious in Mexico as a closeted lesbian and how that compares to a more diverse but no less skewed Canadian existence. One where, she notes, Mexican people are considered brown, whereas in Mexico, they’re just Mexican. Her writing is concise, her timing surgical, and her dance moves during the karaoke segments unrivaled in terms of funkiness.

My guest, Jonah, thought Non Gratas did justice to the strength it takes anyone to bridge two cultures. Though the show brims with laughs, they are often a coping response to how hard it is to make a life far from home. The characters open the tap to that feeling and never turn it off. “I couldn’t help but wish them well,” he said. His one note, given the show’s 45-minute run-time, was that some scenarios would benefit from greater length.

Tab and Pabón Navedo—who perform as a duo under the name Non Gratas—keep the electricity of uncertainty in the air. The show truly feels like it’s being created as they go, minus all the stops and starts you’d expect if that were actually the case. A lot of this has to do with their fearlessness in the face of “yes, and”. But it’s also tied to how the show’s big-picture subject, our need for community, boils down to winging it, introducing yourself to a stranger, and seeing what happens.

Details:

Photo of Mariela Pabón Navedo and Patricia Tab provided by Alma Matters Productions.

My Latest Review for Mooney on Theatre: The Winter’s Tale (Shakespeare in the Ruff)

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This outdoor adaptation of The Winter’s Tale – produced by Shakespeare in the Ruff – is playing at the bottom of a little hill in beautiful Withrow Park. It boasts a superlative cast, comedy with improv’s unpredictability, and monologues that will run your heart through the emotional gamut, then give it back refreshed for the real world.

The play tells of a king’s jealousy getting the best of him, how it leads him to lose his wife and children. And how finally, the universe conspires to grant him one final chance to atone for his paranoid, authoritarian ways.

Director, Dramaturg, and Choreographer, Sarah Kitz never let us slip into fairy tale comfort. This is because, though brimming with laughs, family trauma is at the heart of The Winter’s Tale. And it never quite dislodged enough from my short-term memory to let me believe everything was okay. She gets across how the play is Shakespeare’s tragedy masquerading as a comedy. She offers us a world where life can only have joy if there is sorrow to recognize itself against.

When Leontes, King of Sicily, gives in to paranoia and accuses his wife, Hermione, of being unfaithful with his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, he unwittingly sentences himself to a devastating fate. He doesn’t know that it will be 16 long years of shame and isolation before he gets to see his then-infant daughter, Perdita, again. She is betrothed to Polixenes’ son, Florizell, and they are giving the whole family thing one more go.

Kitz keeps her cast on point by emphasizing fundamentals. They project voices and exaggerate gestures, so the performance reaches the farthest row back. That way, passers-by crossing my line of sight were less likely to pull me out of the story.

Maddie Bautista’s music and lyrics combined with Kitz’s choreography are crowd-pleasers. This offsets the effort of parsing through the dialogue, which is delivered for the most part in its original Elizabethan English.

Richard Lee plays King Leontes and the son of the Old Shepherd who raises baby Perdita after she’s abandoned in the forest. Lee’s charisma and non-stop energy are a delight to behold. A gifted comic actor, he brings a “yes, and” mindset to the stage, completely open to anything unexpected that might happen in the open-air environment. At one point, as the Shepherd’s son, he accidentally nudges baby Perdita in her carrier. His split-second decision to apologize to her with a quick, “sorry, baby!”, sent a roar of laughter through the audience, filling us with excitement for what might come next.

On the dramatic side of things, Lee portrays Leontes’ jealousy with a hint of dictator’s delusion. It’s the kind you catch from living in an echo chamber of yes-men and from thinking your blood is godly. Leontes is captivating because he is unsteady. He believes any idea that pops into his head, supported by a heartbreaker of a monologue, unfettered and arresting in its intensity. As the play’s program proclaims, this is the 17th-century version of a telenovela.

Tiffany Martin plays Leontes’ wife, Hermione, as well as Autolycus, a Bohemian pickpocket who finds a heart when Florizell and Perdita need him most. Martin does so with the kind of gusto reserved for one’s most cherished activities. Every line is savoured, gifted to us as opposed to merely delivered. Highlights include Hermione’s final monologue and the scene where Autolycus imitates royalty. The first is an absolute showstopper. It is brash and eloquent and fearless in its vulnerability, all of it amplified by stage lights catching the tears streaming down her face. The second is an exaggeration, executed to perfection, that finds humour in but also questions how we carry ourselves according to how we want to be seen.

Eponine Lee plays Leontes’ son, Mamillius, with a sadness beyond her years. Her rendition of the bear that chases Leontes’ aid, Antigonus, off stage after he abandons baby Perdita in the forest is a mix of whimsy and terror that disarms with every growl. This is indeed the subject of Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

Jani Lauzon is exceptional as the Old Shepherd, Perdita’s adopted parent. She brings the slapstick every chance she gets, relishing the space to ham it up with a funny walk, or a triple take when something shocking happens. The warmth with which Lauzon shares the Shepherd’s hyperactivity made me feel like a kid at a birthday party with the best clown money could buy.

My guest, Ricky, found the actors’ commitment to the material incredibly engaging. It didn’t matter that people were walking their dogs or having picnics all around you. He also considered the pre-show land acknowledgement an effective way to both raise consciousness and get people in the mood to listen to poetic language.

The cast as a whole is the epitome of professionalism, staying loose with precision and intention as this classic story unfolds. There’s no recitation by rote to be had here, and little in the way of suspending disbelief. Toronto is no Sicily, but the performances fooled me. That each actor plays multiple characters only speaks higher of their skill.

A more than honourable final mention to the Young Ruffians, members of Shakespeare in the Ruff’s theatre creation apprenticeship program, for warming up the crowd before the show with ice cream and peanut butter themed Shakespeare improv. The evening would not have been nearly as enjoyable without them.

Details

  • The Winter’s Tale is playing at Withrow Park (725 Logan Avenue) until September 2, 2019.
  • Performances run Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30pm.
  • Tickets range from $20 to $30 online and are Pay-What-You-Can in the park.
  • In case of rain, performances will continue until no longer deemed safe, in which case, audience members will be given a voucher to come back on another night.

Photo of Richard Lee and Eponine Lee by Dahlia Katz.

Read on at Mooney on Theatre

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