More Fine Girls!

martha ross, leah cherniak, ann-marie macdonald
In November 2009 I had the great fortune to attend a reading of Theatre Columbus’ newest play, More Fine Girls, which is currently in previews at the Tarragon Theatre, opening on March 1st, 2011 in the Mainspace. I will review the current production, which has obviously undergone all the rewrites of rehearsal that any collective creation does, in greater depth once it opens, but I also stand behind my initial assessment, which I have copied below so that you can read it for the first time or refresh your memories. Go see this play. These women are brilliant.
“A packed audience crammed into the Near Studio at Tarragon Theatre last night to listen to the “rough first draft” of what co-creators Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alisa Palmer and Martha Ross have temporarily called “The Attic Sequel.” The play follows the three sisters, JoJo, Jayne and Jelly, whom audiences were introduced to in Theatre Columbus’ 1995 production of The Attic, the Pearls and 3 Fine Girls as they find the combined strength and insight into one another’s experience that allows them to descend from the Attic into the eerie abandoned basement.
Jennifer Brewin introduced the evening saying that she, Cherniak, MacDonald, Palmer and Ross came together initially because they wanted to “work in a certain way,” although she added with an amused smile that, even over a decade later, they are still not sure what that means. Within the first five minutes of the reading, it became clear to me that regardless of the logistics of this “certain way”, it is magical in its ability to create extraordinarily entertaining theatre. Also, these five women are divine.
This is going to be one of those plays that will reverberate throughout the city with a buzz rival to a beehive. It reminded me of a classic Woody Allen film, something like Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), only rooted firmly in the perspectives of its three uproariously hilarious, endearingly quirky protagonists. The sisters are rooted firmly in circumstances that are so familiar, while still elevating this particular story toward the exceptional and the unexpected. I recognized JoJo, Jayne and Jelly immediately as Carol, Joan and Shirley Campbell, my mother and her two older sisters. I overheard a woman near to me telling those that she was with that, as the youngest of three sisters, she could vouch that this play was, “exactly what it was like.” Alas, if only reality were this much fun!
Martha Ross plays JoJo, an English Professor in love with Brecht, the eldest sister with a habit of snooping, a fear of intimacy, and a tendency toward crying. Although the three performers were reading from their scripts, I was so swept away by the characters that they had created, I rarely noticed. Ross inhabits JoJo so fully, so simply and with such nuance, you can tell that she is easing back into a role that is comfortable and well-fitting. Leah Cherniak plays Jelly, the youngest, an eccentric artist and mother to twelve year old Jessie who feels utterly dominated and enveloped by her sisters’ assertive personalities. Cherniak captures a nice balance between characterizing Jelly as both occupied in the mundane affairs of a working mother and seeming strangely off-kilter, so that the audience, like JoJo and Jayne, are unsure whether or not her behavior is any cause for concern. Ann-Marie MacDonald is utterly hysterical as Jayne, the middle child, whose dialogue is incredibly well crafted and beautifully inventive. From her corporate due diligence rants, to her New Age quest for inner balance and Keen-Wah, MacDonald’s performance was an absolute pleasure to watch.
There is such fun in this play, including hilarious cell phone antics and a particularly clever phone call to IKEA, and at the same time, the sisters’ relationships are so rich and complex. I was especially riveted by the difference between Jelly’s relationship with JoJo versus how she related to Jayne, and then how differently Jayne and JoJo related to one another in contrast to the way each one responded to her youngest sister. It is clear that Brewin, Cherniak, MacDonald, Palmer and Ross know enough about these characters to write, likely, four or five plays and that they are still in the process of honing in on the specifics of this one particular play in an entire saga of JoJo, Jayne and Jelly stories. They read the first portion of their play last night at the Tarragon, then Palmer summarized some of the middle segments, the performers read a few select scenes and then we heard the ending. For this reason, I found that sometimes throughout the middle and the end of the evening, it was like listening to someone tell a story who is so submerged in what they are saying that they forget that you need a bit more context in order to understand the whole picture. Yet, in this instance, the characters and the storytellers were so fascinating that I was pulled right along with them regardless.
I know that this play is going to be an incredible piece of theatre onstage someday soon because even in its “rough first draft,” before rehearsals and rewrites have even begun, it already is.”
More Fine Girls plays at the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue) until April 3rd, 2011 for more information or to book your tickets please visit www.tarragontheatre.ca or call 416.531.1827.

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More from Cloud 9

The Mirvish production of Cloud 9, playing at the Panasonic Theatre until February 21st, has a fantastic, interactive website, with all sorts of neat features and additional information about the play, the playwright and the artists involved in the creation of the show. There are also blogs written by the actors, which I find especially exciting and fascinating. You should all make sure to check it out.
As an incentive, here is an interesting Q&A from director Alisa Palmer, which appears on the website:
alisa palmer
“Now that CLOUD 9 is up and running, director extraordinaire Alisa Palmer is finally able to sit back and take a breath. So we took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about some of the more unconventional aspects of CLOUD 9 and her fondness for Caryl Churchill’s work.
Q: A hundred years pass between Act 1 and Act 2, but the characters age only 25 years. Why do you think (playwright) Caryl Churchill wrote it that way?
A: In an essay about the play Churchill says that while creating the play, she and the actors turned to their own lives for inspiration and discovered that many of them were raised with social and sexual values that were so out of date they might have come from another century. Churchill shows how antiquated the values are that shape us, and she makes an old-fashioned Victorian comedy from the family dynamics in the play.
Q: Why do the actors play different roles in each act? For example, in Act 1 Betty is played by Evan Buliung. In Act 2, Betty is played by Ann-Marie MacDonald – who played Edward in Act 1. It’s fun, but it’s confusing too.
A: All these choices are quite provocative and I think they’re meant to make you aware of your own assumptions. A man plays Betty in Act 1 as a way to put her ultra-patriarchal behaviour in relief. It also trades on the tradition of men playing women in British theatre. In Act 2 Betty is played by a woman, because now the character is more in touch with herself and her own gender. A woman plays a boy in Act 1 to highlight his effeminacy – and how behavior that is so appropriate in one body is not at all acceptable in another.
Q: Talk a bit about your cast and how you chose them. These are challenging roles and some of these actors are playing parts unlike anything they’ve done before.
A: I chose these actors quite simply because I love their work and their talents. I’ve worked with almost all of them before, and those I haven’t worked with I’ve admired and had on my list to cast as soon as I had a project to put them in.
When I cast them, I was very aware of putting them in roles that would really stretch them, in roles they may never have another opportunity to play.
Q: You’ve directed quite a few Caryl Churchill plays. What do you find so appealing about her work?
A: I like her insights into how people communicate. People in her plays always say what they mean, but they rarely know that what they mean isn’t always clear in their words. There’s always a deep hidden river of emotions running beneath what seems at first to be pedestrian language. And I love the way she jettisons the viewer into very intense moments of people’s lives with little warning.
She also cares about how power and abuse are passed from one person to another and she is perceptive about what the chain or power is in society. She is one of the only writers of theatre who sees how women and children are caught in a society that is working against them, but she never sees them as powerless.
And she seems to love theatre as passionately as I do. I could go on….
Q: Why, in your opinion, is the play is called CLOUD 9?
A: Cloud 9 refers to a state of utopia, a kind of nirvana or heavenly feeling. And everyone in the play is looking for that feeling. But clouds are quite elusive and illusory… just like happiness.
Q: Complete the sentence “I’m on Cloud 9 when…”
A: I’m on Cloud 9 when I’m watching the show with an audience. I’m on Cloud 9 when I’m eating supper with my children. And I also do like a nice full-bodied red. That can put me on Cloud 9 too.
Also- check out this video of Ben Carlson singing the Paul Sportelli song “Cloud 9”, it will probably encourage you to book your tickets today.

Cloud 9: A Comedy of Multiple Orgasms

blair williams and ann-marie macdonald
There’s a quote from Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye where he says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it” (18). That’s exactly how I feel about Caryl Churchill’s plays. Her play, Cloud 9, which plays at the Panasonic Theatre until February 21st, 2010, is a wild orchard of contemplation and a deep labyrinth for the deconstruction of provocative images and layers of complex and overlapping ideologies of gender and colonialism.
Alisa Palmer’s Canadian production, presented by David Mirvish, reminded me of what it was that first ignited my zest for Contemporary Theatre. Cloud 9 is a play that, even after studying it in University twice, still has the power to leave my head spinning with, perhaps unanswerable, questions. It seems that the more ardently one delves into its meaty core; the more layers materialize in a sort of intellectual orgy of conflicting ideas. Yet, what immediately struck me in the transition from the page to the stage, was how much of Cloud 9’s charm lies in its humour and how vigorous and vivacious this play is in its constantly hilarity.
The play opens in Victorian Africa and focuses intensely on the relationships, hierarchies, divisions of power and constructions of identities of the extended family of Clive, a British colonial administrator. His wife, Betty, is played by a male actor to exemplify how Clive has fashioned her in his own image in the quest for “the ideal woman.” Joshua, Clive’s African servant, is played by a white actor, as a reflection of the Western World’s policy of “civilizing the savages” in Africa. Clive’s young son, the effeminate Edward, is played by a woman, while his daughter, Victoria, is played by a doll (meant to be seen and not heard, and is utterly reliant on others). The play also confronts the discriminatory nature of infidelity, as it is viewed as unforgivable for a woman, yet inevitable for a man, and explores the taboos of homosexuality and emphasises how absurd it is for Victorian men to condemn homosexuality when their misogynistic principles favour the “sacred comradery of men.” The second act of the play opens in England one hundred years later, although only twenty-five years have passed for the characters, and here Churchill explores the dynamics of relationships and societal interactions when Victorian conventions are broken and individuals claim the freedom to construct their own rules and their own identities. Here, not having fixed roles or ideologies to subscribe to leads to more overt clashing of opinion, crippling confusion by the overwhelming endless options that each character faces, and the smashing down of the walls of taboos such as homosexuality, unrestrained sexual activity, and incest.
Alisa Palmer’s direction of this play is quite Brechtian, which works well in conjunction with the construction of the play itself, and creates a nice distance for the audience to reflect on Churchill’s perceptions rather than simply escaping into the emotions of the characters. Palmer makes especially great use of stylized, sharp movements, which the cast often do in tandem, which emphasises the rigidity and ritualization of even the most mundane things within the Victorian experience. In many ways the characters in Act I are automatons who often behave in prescribed ways without much consideration or forethought. Conversely, the characters in Act II are often confronted with the difficulty of having to think too much. Palmer does not shy away from the raw unpleasant underbellies of humanity that Churchill so frequently exposes, and boldness and crassness are flung with absolute vigour and no apologies. At the same time, Palmer also protects all the sweetness, and the gentle, pure moments that Churchill has woven craftily into the fray. This production is one that encourages analysis, but will not leave you cold-hearted or unaffected by your journey into in this world.
One of Alisa Palmer’s greatest accomplishments in this production is her remarkable cast. They work together as a flawless ensemble that commit so fiercely to their characters so they are able to instantly captivate the audience. Blair Williams is particularly effective in striking a balance between Harry, Clive’s friend the explorer, as the roguish, daring, “masculine” explorer and his repressed urges to express his sexual desire for men. Yanna McIntosh is incredibly starched, stern and reserved as Betty’s mother, Maud, and then just as malleable as the grown up Victoria. Ben Carlson’s Joshua is fascinating and brave, and he shows off a strikingly gorgeous singing voice as Gerry with Paul Sportelli’s brilliantly catchy “Cloud 9” song. David Jansen is perfection as the brutish, boorish Clive, and then oddly endearing, if slightly disturbing, as explosive, opinionated five year old Cathy. Evan Buliung gives an incredible performance as Betty, with such nuance as she flies from tedium to delight and back again throughout the act. His Edward in Act II brilliantly mirrors Betty’s gentle disconnect from the world around her, although Edward proves his own strength and resolve to create a place of his own where he will belong.
Megan Follows and Ann-Marie MacDonald truly surpass even perfection in their performances in this production. Follows plays two roles in the first act, which means that backstage she must be in constant state of costume change. Ellen and Mrs. Saunders could not be more dissimilar and Follows finds the humanity, the humour and the integrity in them both despite the fact that Ellen, as a shy, young domestic, tends to fade into the background while Mrs. Saunders, a rebellious, promiscuous woman of the world, dominates every scene she is in. It is in the second act, however, as Lin, a free-thinking lesbian single parent, that Follows shines brightest. She has such strength and conviction, while it is still obvious that Lin is damaged and struggling against her own issues and insecurities. Lin’s humanity bursts from every pore of Follows’ body in a fascinating performance. Ann-Marie MacDonald is heartbreaking as young Edward, a boy who craves attention from his crush, Harry, and longs for the permission to play with his sister’s abandoned doll. MacDonald’s Edward feels every possible emotion in Cloud 9 and shines with vulnerability and innocence and shows how quickly adults can snuff out a child’s exuberant light and how dangerous this is for their bourgeoning sense of self. She is equally brilliant in Act II as Betty, a woman who prattles incessantly without saying anything worthwhile and who must work to learn how to engage herself in a world she allowed a man to take from her, and to acquaint herself with the woman she allowed her husband to suppress. Watching Ann-Marie MacDonald throughout this play is to watch a true master of the craft of performance.
“Cloud 9,” as Alisa Palmer writes in her programme notes, “is a phrase that evokes utopia and the pursuit of happiness,” and it makes me incredibly happy that such a thought-provoking Canadian production of this play is being produced in Toronto by David Mirvish. They are “simply divine in their silver Cloud 9.”
Cloud 9 plays at the Panasonic Theatre (651 Yonge Street, Toronto) until February 21st, 2010. For more information please visit www.cloud9toronto.com or www.mirvish.com or phone TicketKing at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.  If you would like to take advantage of special discount tickets (and really, who wouldn’t!?), book online and use the promo code CHURCHILL.
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