Trevor Abes: Writer

Tag: toronto fringe

Review: Joan & Olivia: A Hollywood Ghost Story (Ebb & Flow Theatre)

Enemies can serve as a façade just as well as they can speak for your soul, for how you choose to carry yourself in the world. And there are few contexts where this dichotomy is in starker contrast than Hollywood, where rivalries are rarely as straightforward as they are portrayed to be.

From left to right: Georgia Findlay, Crystal Casera, Mackenzie Kelly and Nicole Moller.

Golden age, Oscar-winning actors (and sisters) Joan Fontaine and Olivia De Havilland sit high on the all-time list of these rifts with their lifelong quarrel. It began innocently enough with hail-pulling and wrestling matches; but devolved into Joan referring to Olivia’s new husband, novelist Marcus Goodrich, by saying, “All I know about him is that he’s had four wives and written one book. Too bad it’s not the other way around;” and Olivia sending a telegram to Joan about their mother’s impending death instead of calling; and also, many years later, referring to the recently deceased Joan as ‘Dragon Lady’ due to the “astigmatism in her perception of people and events which often caused her to react in an unfair and even injurious way.”

Intent on tapping into some of that raw familial animosity, Joan & Olivia: A Hollywood Ghost Story, the latest offering from Ebb & Flow Theatre, presents us with a generational family drama that uses the supernatural as a springboard into meditations on sibling rivalry.

Joan, played by playwright Georgia Findlay, and Olivia, played by Nicole Moller, are ghosts doomed to spend eternity in their childhood California home, where young sisters Celeste, played by Mackenzie Kelly, and Molly, played by Crystal Casera, have recently moved in. The quartet soon break off into master and protégé pairs as the actors play their rivalry out again through M&C’s eyes.

The chemistry between Joan’s playful irreverence and Olivia’s posh iciness is what initially roped me into the show. Enhanced by Findlay’s knack for repartees, as well as plenty of sophisticatedly integrated cinematic and biographical references for the knowing, the ladies quickly establish a rhythm fueled by shared history that keeps things moving along at a colorful and engaging pace.

The reason they offer worthwhile portrayals, beyond physical features and sharp Mid-Atlantic accents, is that they get at the consequences of cuts that were cleaner than they should have been. Extreme decisions, like sisters shutting themselves out of each others’ lives, taking their toll over time in the form of moral worldviews too narrow to keep many loved ones around. The amount of spite, jealousy and revenge they hurl about can be overwhelming, especially when the younger sisters lean into their own because of it, hammering home the point that habits compound whether healthy or not.

The hopeful turn Ebb & Flow bring to this classic story is embodied by Molly and Celeste, also constantly feuding, in that they still have time to strike a truce before life gets too far gone. They don’t get too much help from their spectral housemates, experts as Joan and Olivia are at holding a grudge, but they do manage to steer the overall conversation far closer to self-honesty and reconciliation than the real-life actors ever achieved. There is something deeply satisfying about revisionism that points out the most obvious but somehow also the hardest fact for some to accept, which is that no difference is insurmountable.

Molly and Celeste, living in the present day, mirror Joan and Olivia’s verbally violent dynamic with a richer palate to express their rage for one another, one more expansive than Olivia and Joan had as women in the early-to-mid 20th century. While J&O drape with dignity the rifts they can’t but recognize as irreconcilable, perhaps bottling in their excess energy, M&C have no such qualms, shoving one another and screaming in each others’ faces to alleviate their tension as instantly as possible. M&C’s physicality generally, free-flowing and often stretched into awkward positions, also stands in contrast to J&O’s tightly wound dispositions, adding to the tension between the different generations separating their sisterhoods.

Tying everything together, I found the costumes added a vibrancy to the story, their lush colors and contrasts lending grace and brightness to the darkest moments, and a sense of refinement to the funniest, all the while enhancing and blurring the age and era differences as relationships develop.

Though I may not have referred to it til now, Joan and Olivia, as well as Molly and Celeste, are somewhat complementary to each other, allowing their love to show, however faintly glimmering. Dramaturg Matt Eger makes delicate use of these flickers, spreading them out to keep our hearts rapt in the back-and-forth between affection and loathing until the curtain drops.

I also appreciated the literary flourishes in the script, most notably the moments of interlaced dialogue where speakers in different conversations speak one after the other, infusing the proceedings with poetry. Findlay also rounds off the generational differences between the protagonists with gorgeously intricate turns of phrase that have J&O sounding posh as can be, and more minimal exhortations, beautiful in their simplicity, that place M&C firmly in the age of mass media.

From a bird’s eye view, Joan & Olivia: A Hollywood Ghost Story is an example of how you can balance entertainment with quality storytelling that speaks to grander themes without sacrificing either. It earns its place in the lore of its starring sisters by rising to the task of adding drama to one of Hollywood’s foundational stories.

Joan & Olivia: A Hollywood Ghost Story is on tonight at 6:15pm for one more show as part of its run at the Toronto Fringe. Tickets here.

Review: Iphigenia in Splott (Skipping Stones Theatre)

The amount of room you keep free for people you don’t like says a lot about you. How far from your views on politics, sex and gender, religion, life and death can you wander, curious and receptive, before you won’t hear another word, regardless of who might be speaking, and what they may have been through?

Breanna Maloney as Effie.

If said space is expansive, your capacity for empathy is likely just as generous. If it’s a little tight, you may find it easy to dismiss other people’s life choices and life plans, except for a chosen few whose ideologies reflect the world you want to see.

Enter Skipping Stones Theatre, a Toronto collective dedicated to storytelling that aims to create/expand/entice your appetite for neurodiversity and understanding of mental health. Their latest, an adaptation of Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen, is a solo show best described as an exercise in social change by catharsis. 

Our lone protagonist, Effie, played by Breanna Maloney, is a poor, heavy-drinking, foul-mouthed and promiscuous woman for whom mainstream British society has little room to spare. She is a reference to U.K. austerity measures from the mid-2010s that spawned the politically fabricated and widely popularized notion that those most affected by the cuts – the poor and the mentally unwell – were to blame for their misfortunes.

Effie’s brashness, initially off putting in a punk middle finger kind of way, very quickly shifts into a shield between her and the outside world as we learn more about her obstacles and motivations. Her best medicine for what the highs of sex and drunkenness fail to numb – limited job prospects, unreliable social services – is a ‘fuck you’ to whoever’s within earshot. Passivity and acquiescence are no balm for a systemic lack of opportunity, one where those who can walk to a decent life have been swayed by those in power to expect her to grow wings and take flight there, and look down on her for not being able to.

Her abundance of self-preserving volume and aggression, set against her borderline-naive eagerness to feel and be understood, gradually saturated my headspace with her humanity, such that I could see the impact of it cleansing a narrow-minded patron of their belief that people like Effie are unworthy of their aspirations. At the very least, Maloney’s work does a lot of the heavy lifting in that direction, true to the company’s mandate. This is the social change the play is crafted to induce, by force of feeling, yes, waves upon waves of it, but also plenty of humor stemming from Effie’s blunt retorts, and a number of poetic conceits that elevate the whole work for me into the kind of theatre that endures because it not only represents the underrepresented, but does it with a sense of craft. One of these conceits, the superhero-ish ramifications of certain people being in Effie’s debt, is worth more in enchantment than the price of admission.

The play’s aforementioned exercise develops more organically than I’m making it sound. I slowly let go of self-awareness at the mercy of Effie’s tireless, expletive-laced tirades as space-time might be constricted by a favorite song. She says and does as she likes, while having mastered, by the precarities of her situation, the essential survival skill of not caring what most people think of her. She pursues what she wants, fearlessly and shamelessly, and when she is afraid or ashamed, she is able to stride through the flames of it accepting her flaws with open arms. All of this equals a mesmerizing character, and outside of the theatre, a human being with incredible potential. This is why Effie’s succession of tragedies, many of which she is basically fated to endure, stun as effectively as they do, and are liable to slide the ground from beneath your feet to make you revisit who’s deserving of your good graces.

Lighting Designer, Chin Palipane and Movement Consultant, Alice Cavanagh are adept at maximizing the intimacy of the moment, while also offering a sense of structure with their choices to this otherwise starkly presented play. The starkness, of course, is intentional, with Director Sean O’Brien astutely aware that Effie will more than capably fill up the almost bare stage on her own.  Combined with Maloney’s gift for bringing not only Effie but her whole community to life with but one body to work with, Iphigenia in Splott manages to break through its U.K. confines with a deeply felt portrayal of social inequality and the colossal strength required to climb out of it.

The show runs until July 17th as part of Toronto Fringe. Ticket info here.

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.

Review: Clique Claque at Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival

Here’s my review for Pea Green Theatre Group’s Clique Claque. On til January 15th as part of Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival.

Watch it here


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