Totally “Appropriate” (for our time) and Phenomenally Brilliant, Housed and Unpacked by Coal Mine Theatre Toronto
Every season, to my amazement, there is always that one moment when you feel like you are witnessing something incredible. A theatrical alignment of the stars, when a great play reveals itself, coming to life and to your light before your very eyes. Even when, in this case, we are greeted with such dark vibrating intensity right from the beginning. And that moment is always courtesy of a mass of talented folks doing what they do best, creaking and screeching in an arena that just works. Just like the time I first saw The Lehman Trilogy, The Inheritance, or the epic Angels in America (all of which are going to grace a Toronto stage this coming season). They are moments to remember for a lifetime.
This season, Coal Mine Theatre just might be the one to take that highest of honors with the captivatingly revealing production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ brilliant play, Appropriate. A play that is both hilariously morbid and disturbing, while being gravely fascinating and meaningful. Using gothic horror as its framework, Appropriate delivers a spectacularly distinct unraveling; intense and threatening in the darkness that initially takes over the space, destined to ensnare anyone who enters, with or without a flashlight. The play feels like a ghost story wrapped in the haunted memories of its vast connection to enslavement, and it plays with that notion that soon gets lodged in our heads, forcing us to squirm in the overpowering static darkness, waiting for what feels like forever before we can start making out the bones of the beginning. In a way the play is actually about ghosts, but not one where the undead will rise up out of the floorboards or appear at the window looking in – even though it always feels like the haunted past is there, floating around or peering in, having its way with us by mystically keeping us perched on the edge of our seats.
But the haunting demons come from within, scattered about the space, seen and unseen, known and ignored, just waiting to be discovered. Not floating down the stairs or up from the basement, but they are as determined as ever to unsettle most, but not all, who open up that one particular chapter of Southern history, and really see what is there. It’s all right there in black and white; jarred and jarring, cataloged and presenting a disturbing time and formulation, even if we are determined to swim in the murky waters of denial. Appropriate is that moment. And what a moment it is, engaging every fiber of my being, and fueling an overwhelming excitement and interest to a higher degree in anticipation of seeing this spectacular play make its Broadway/Second Stage debut starring Sarah Paulson on December 18th at the Hayes Theater in New York City.
Written with direction and purpose, most intensely, by Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon; Everybody), Appropriate soars on that tiny theatrical stage at Coal Mine, designed with a tight purpose by Rebecca Morris (Lighthouse Festival’s Prairie Nurse) and Steve Lucas (CS’s Heisenberg), who also did the determined lighting design. The play overtakes the limitations with an expert eye for what is at the core of this compelling piece of theatre, shifting its brittle focus as easily as a wandering flashlight. The play won the 2014 Obie Award for Best New American Play, and as directed with clarity by Ted Dykstra (Coal Mine’s The Antipodes), the piece finds its delicious and angry dysfunction in the very bones and hidden remnants of this Lafayette family clan returning. They have all come together, much to the surprise and mistrust of most, to a decaying Arkansas plantation that is “more Gone With the Wind, and less hoarder” to deal with the familial history and their combustive alliances, but, on the more observerable surface, to untangle their recently deceased father’s complicated inheritance and somehow find closure.
That inheritance Is not all there in property and banknotes, laid out in their father’s will, but seared with more force in a bound relic that shines a sharp beam of light on their family’s possible problematic past. Casually found and revealed in distraction, it burns a bright hot light on their parental heritage, pushing to the surface decades of resentment and distrust, that has been ready and waiting for years to be unleashed on one another in a camera’s flash. Historical sin is what lies waiting on the shelf, biting in and drawing forth decades of unsaid venom into the family’s tight dysfunction. Bitterness and a punitive punishment have slowly burned itself steadfastly into their souls. Especially the oldest daughter, Toni, intensely and magnificently played by Raquel Duffy (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage). This desperate mother of one carries so much complicated embittered rage that one can’t help but lean in as you simultaneously want to back away out of fear and the instinctual need to protect. Duffy’s performance is a captivatingly stellar and tense unleashing, one that will register and be carried out of the theatre like a bruise on an arm, still stinging from all that hurt and pain that was thrown hard with such vengeance at almost every person in that room.
It’s a searingly difficult comedic drama, crawling in through the window from one of America’s most gifted young playwrights, to deliver the dynamic goods. The three adult children, rotting away from the insides, have come together, unwillingly and with a ton of baggage and resentment. They stand, un-unified, in a protective stance, wanting, in a way, to sort themselves out as they go through the hoarded mementos that their father had gathered around him before his death. But it’s more a collision course over debt and contention, with each carrying secrets from the other and themselves, ultimately determined to be the one who gets out less bruised than when they walked or climbed in. And if this non-typical haunted house has any say in the matter – and boy, does this house have a lot to say and unveil – this explosive reunion is a brawl just waiting to happen. Not the big familial hug that at least some of them are hoping for.
Beyond the recently divorced and rancorous Toni, and her troubled son, Rhys, assertively portrayed by Mackenzie Wojcik (RMTC’s A Christmas Story), her two younger brothers drag out more complications and skeletons than an old house could ever give, even one with both a familial graveyard and an unmarked slave graveyard out back. The older brother to Toni is Bo, the one who, at first, seems to have his business and life in some sort of order, even though he can’t seem to get off his cell phone and find a way to be present. But Toni doesn’t let that get in the way of flinging vile, foul-mouthed anger at Bo, played with detailed determination by Gray Powell (Crow’s Middletown), as his wife, the multi-layered Rachael, played strong by Amy Lee (RMTC’s Pride and Prejudice) orders and yells at their two children; the young fireball, Ainsley, played frantically by Ruari Hamman, and the older “almost an adult” daughter, Cassidy, sweetly and slyly portrayed by Hannah Levinson (TMSC’s Grey Gardens), in a frazzled frenzy of troubled form and function.
But it’s Toni’s younger brother, Franz, tightly portrayed by Andy Trithardt (Station Arts’ Prairie Nurse) whose unexplained arrival, with his newly formed flower-child fiancé, River, played to perfection by Alison Beckwith (Driftwood’s Trafalgar 24), that really brings the trauma and the history of this family, drenched in addiction and pedophilia to the surface. Unearthed and dirty, Toni’s unhinged anger rises up quickly, ready to be flung with such hate and fury that it takes work to stay in the room with them. No one trusts anyone in that room, as the secrets and the shame keep rising up from the floorboards ready to sharply splinter and spear the skin with a bloody vengeance. Apologies find no weight in the bitter waters of Toni’s existence as the jarred evidential mementos are ignored and secreted away, much like that flag that just leans in the backroom, begging to be noticed by anyone, but unseen by all, from start to almost finish.
Secrets are thrown about, quickly and with intention, mostly hitting the targets, even when the target is hiding in the darkness. But oddly the longing for love and care, and the undercurrent need for familial attachment sneaks in, even when misdirected. Somewhere, underneath all that anger, bitterness, jealousy, and betrayal, some form of needed connection hangs in the balance, finding relief in an absence or from asked-for hugs. They all just seem scared by all that history and the mistrust that comes with it; terrified and haunted by the idea that it will consume them all. Costumed with skill by Des’ree Gray (Buddies’ The First Stone), with a solid static-intense sound design by Deanna Choi (Stratford’s A Wrinkle in Time) and Michael Wanless (“The Rest is Electric“), Appropriate never lets up, haunting the walls and the rooms with hate and racial disturbances, gobbling up the lives of sweet girls and sugar, as we watch it all crumble to the ground.
Trapped in the intense disturbing sound of screaming cicadas and burned by all those shitty historic memories that have been buried deep for more than just seven years, these “misfit disaster people” swing hard, trying to bring as much damage to the other as they feel inside. Duffy’s Toni delivers the damaged goods with a rage that is wildly and magnificently mesmerizing. Her inner destructive power, unleashed from her pain and longing, is frighteningly clear, and never more apparent, and Appropriate, than inside that final disappearing act delivered on the stairs. It’s a performance that will live on inside me for a long long time, stinging and hurting like the wounds that were inflicted upon her so many years ago, from abandonment and love’s disappointment. Duffy is breathtakingly brilliant in the role, as powerful as the whole decrepit destruction that soon follows. Something I’m still thinking about to this very day.
There was an article in the New York Times this morning as I sat down to work on my review of Coal Mine Theatre‘s Appropriate. And it couldn’t have been more, well, Appropriate. It was entitled, “What Kind of Person Has a Closet Full of Nazi Memorabilia?” And at the edge of all these mismatched crazy memories, laced with blindness, anger, and denial, is the thing that makes Appropriate so fascinatingly magnificent. I’m still trying to unpack the chaotic, complex, and disturbing ending that destructively decays the formula before our very eyes, and the wordless wonder that fills those observing eyes as he takes in and sees what everyone else didn’t want to. Willful blindness is a crazy unhinged power, and also a defense, used to not see the ugly truth that is displayed before us. It’s not an Appropriate response, but in this play, it couldn’t be more Appropriate, especially for the times we live in.
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VideoCabaret in assoc. with Crow’s Theatre presents the World Premiere of “(EVERYONE I LOVE HAS) A TERRIBLE FATE (BEFALL THEM)”
VideoCabaret in association with Crow’s Theatre presents
(EVERYONE I LOVE HAS) A TERRIBLE FATE (BEFALL THEM)
Written & performed by Cliff Cardinal. Dramaturged & directed by Karin Randoja
Produced by Aaron Rothermund & Layne Coleman
VideoCabaret in association with Crow’s Theatre presents the World Premiere of (EVERYONE I LOVE HAS) A TERRIBLE FATE (BEFALL THEM) by Cliff Cardinal from October 10-29, 2023 at the Deanne Taylor Theatre (10 Busy Street, Toronto).
Deep in the bowels of a church basement, Robert and his support group must come to terms with their mortality before the impending apocalypse. If only they had just one more day…. Like an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, (EVERYONE I LOVE HAS) A TERRIBLE FATE (BEFALL THEM) is a haunting and humorous portrayal of humankind on the brink of extinction written and performed by Cliff Cardinal, dramaturged and directed by Karin Randoja.
Cliff Cardinal is a polarizing writer and performer known for black humour and compassionate poeticism. His solo theatre productions Stitch, Huff, and Cliff Cardinal’s CBC Special have toured extensively and won numerous awards. Cliff is an associate artist at VideoCabaret, where he premiered his multi-character play Too Good to Be True, “a captivating tale that solidifies Cardinal as one of the most talented and intriguing writers in the country” (NOW Magazine). He was named a “Canadian Cultural Icon ” in 2022 (The Globe and Mail) for William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, A Radical Retelling produced by Crow’s Theatre. The show has since toured across Canada, and was recently presented by Mirvish Productions in Toronto as The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It.
Tarragon Theatre’s “The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time” Stitches a Journey for the Ages
“It’s [all in] the stitchin’, not the patches, that completes your handiwork.” And that, in essence, is what The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time, Tarragon Theatre’s season opener, is all about… in a general sort of way. He’s “sick and tired of being sick and tired“, he will tell you that, but pay attention to the patches themselves is the framework we are being served up by the very game Walter Borden (Theatre Aquarius’ A Few Good Men). The playwright and performer of this epic quilt-unfurling has a lot to say about life as a gay black person as his voice resonates with deep personal tones of heartache and love; mischief and meandering attachment. Crouching to the unfolded quilt that is laid out before us, eventually, bit by bit over the 90min one-person show, the artist of a certain age majestically finds fervor in the fabric unfolded. He is a witness and a messenger; nature’s love child, using that incredibly seductive voice of his to wrap us up in his multi-faceted tale, trying his best to keep us in his memory-infused projected lane. And for the most part, he does. Even when we wander off here and there, taking in the view, feeling the rhythm, but getting sometimes lost in the rhyme.
“Speak your speak,” Borden, the Dora-nominated, Order of Canada-honoured legend of Canadian theatre, says, sauntering into the space as if arriving for a shift at a parking kiosk or maybe, and more likely, a toll booth. We pay our fare, “playing on frazzled wits” so we can drive alongside, following him on this ten-character highway that he so dutifully created, deep and heavy, out of an intense historical and cultural dreamscape. It’s a “circus of the damned” where we find ourselves, guided by an expert hand across decades of perspective and precise personalities. It transcends time and place with intersectional poetry and observations, and in the age-old tradition, like Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and even the latest one-person exploration by Daniel Jelani Ellis in Buddies’speaking of sneaking, Borden winds and drives his own vehicle, The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time, with the ease of an expert witness, showing us all he knows and has learned about himself and the world around him.
Aligned and derived from his famous, 1986 semi-autobiographical solo play, Tightrope Time Ain’t Nuthin’ More Than Some Itty Bitty Madness Between Your Twilight & Your Dawn, this newly engaged manifest is etched and merged together from his past. The characters flip forth, merging into newly paved lanes with a clarity of thought and form. At first, it is hard to see the oncoming traffic, those dredged-up iconic memories from a time both past and present. But those images and ideas consistently surprise us when they race into our rearview mirror with urgency, sometimes confusingly, and sometimes enlightening the air around us. A voice, dripping and projecting mystical light, thanks to set, costume, lighting, and projection design by Andy Moro (Citadel/Tarragon’s The Herd), speaks of a destiny and a purpose that is carved in simple grounded poetry and grand beautiful lyricisms, and we gladly join in for the journey. I can’t say I stayed totally tuned in to all the layers and dream-like landscapes we passed during our ride through, but the humor and the humanity always pulled me back in from the haziness I might have slipped into.
“Your life is like this patchwork quilt where them pieces don’t mean nuthin’ when they scattered all about, but if you take the time to lay them side by side, they got a tale to tell.”
The voice, courtesy of the fine work done by sound designer and composer Adrienne Danrich O’Neill (LCT’s Intimate Apparel), speaks of a destination that many might not comprehend or even want to, but as directed with clarity and a forward motion by Peter Hinton-Davis (Tarragon’s The Hooves Belonged to the Deer), Borden drives on from one complexity to another, nudging us to look deeper within ourself, and the other. The view out the window isn’t always exacting, nor is it always easy to understand coherently, but the landscape that he wants to show us, intentionally incomplete and complex, gives way to a greater connection and understanding of humanity and beyond. Memories and vantage points are presented, bumping and grinding up against one another, delivering the contours of content with an easy wave of an arm.
To the “children of the diaspora, that is–the family,” this play carries four nations on his back, bringing forth memories that live on in his well-formed Last Epistle that unearths this landmark piece of Canadian theatre. It was created and embodied with a sharp determination to not only explore male homosexuality from a Black perspective but simultaneously and fearlessly unpack a life lived in poverty. And in love. Esoteric and enlightening, The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time has grown through time and years into something profound. Blessed and blurry with age, it will live on in abundance, opening our eyes and hearts to a world that continues to be seen and heard most wantedly, so we may understand and embrace.
Barry Manilow’s and Bruce Sussman’s Harmony Meets The Press Part 3
We told you how the cast and creative’s met the press. Then we played you some of the songs from the show. Today we’ll introduce you to the cast.
First up The Harmonists; Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman and Steven Telsey
The vocally winning Sierra Boggess was next on our list.
Chip Zien and director/choreographer Warren Carlyle shared insights.
Finally Julie Benko, Allison Semmes and Andrew O’Shanick.
Harmony begins previews at the Barrymore Theatre on Wednesday, October 18, ahead of a Monday, November 13 official opening night.
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