Smart, Young & Queer

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shaista latif & aisha sommer zaman

I was very impressed with the two Queer Youth Creation Projects at the 2013 Queer Acts Festival, which runs until Sunday July 21st at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax. The Queer Youth Creations is a new program this year with the goal of fostering the production of new work and the development of LGTBQ artists. The first, Seventeen, written by Aisha Sommer Zaman is local, while Graceful Rebellions, written by Shaista Latiff, comes from Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s Young Creators Unit in Toronto. They play as part of a double-bill Saturday and Sunday at 6:00pm.

Seventeen is an insightful examination of the effect that societal and media pressures have on three very different young girls. Their internal critic, born out of taglines from magazines like Cosmo, is dramatized as a controlling and abusive tall, attractive woman, played by Becca Guilderson. She manipulates each one to believe that, while they are full of potential to become perfect girls like those in the magazines, they are inherently inferior and must work painstakingly hard to destroy their flaws or else they will never be successful, happy or loved. One girl is throwing herself into a wild sex life simply because she is afraid that if she doesn’t meet her boyfriend’s expectations of “a perfect lover” (at seventeen, no less), he will “obviously” break up with her. Another is battling an eating disorder, while another is repressing the truth about her sexual orientation and her authentic self because she doesn’t see either reflected between the pages of Cosmopolitan. I love that in each of the three cases it is not the media and the magazines alone that these girls are battling against, it is the fact that they themselves have internalized these concepts of femininity, maturity, beauty, sexuality and success, and have come to ardently believe these distortions. Throughout the play, each girl must find a way to empower HERSELF to find the strength toward self-acceptance. I also loved that since Guilderson plays the internal critic for each girl, it connects the experiences of three teenagers who likely at school would not think that they have a lot in common. Girls are so often pitted against one another and so often see each other as competitors and enemies, yet Zaman wisely shows us that actually, we are all fighting a similar battle. The ending, which I won’t ruin, is also very powerful. There are earnest performances from the ensemble and clean direction from Jennifer Overton.

Graceful Rebellions, written and performed by Shaista Latif and directed by Evalyn Parry, is a gorgeous exploration of gender and identity in Afghanistan. Latif begins by presenting us with two disparate images of young women living in Afghanistan. The first is almost thirteen and she is dreaming about her future wedding. She is still innocent, although still manoeuvring between the strictness of her upbringing and the fanciful daydreams of her future. Like many young girls, she is preoccupied with the excitement of all that comes with being a bride, but has little consideration for what will be expected of her as a WIFE. Latif then transforms herself into a second young girl, one whose family has been torn apart by war and who has assumed the identity of a boy in order to help them all survive. Here we see that in Afghanistan power, riches and control are intrinsically and irrevocably linked to gender and in more ways than are immediately apparent. Latif then emerges as herself, a Queer Canadian woman whose parents still consider Afghanistan “home.” How can she reconcile being gay with being Afghani, when the two seem utterly at odds with one another? Does she belong any less to her culture and to her family when the way she chooses to live her life, and the very act of CHOOSING, can be seen as a rebellion against both? There are no answers, but as Latif so eloquently says, sometimes simply telling the story and asking the questions, can be revolutionary.

Seventeen and Graceful Rebellions play at the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street) Saturday and Sunday at 6:00pm as part of the Queer Acts Festival and Halifax Pride. All shows $12 Regular, $10 Student, Seniors, Underwaged. Festival Pass – $35 
BUY TICKETS ONLINE HERE or visit the box office at The Bus Stop Theatre, 2203 Gottingen St.

Thom Allison is Sailing Away

thom allison
I vividly remember the first time I met Thom Allison. It was September, 2007 and Acting Up Stage was having their annual Toronto Musical Theatre Stars Sing Songs from Legendary Pop Culture Phenomenons Evening of Song and so Thom Allison was singing songs of the Beatles. I was “just off the boat,” as they say; my life in Toronto had barely started, as a matter of fact, I consider this evening to be the very moment that my life, my career, my love of Toronto, first began to bloom. With uncharacteristic panache (clearly swept up in my excitement for the new life I was obviously seizing by the horns) I went up to Thom Allison after the performance and said to him, “Wow! You should have “Superstar” tattooed across your forehead!” (right!?) And thus, my love affair with Thom Allison began.
It was bittersweet, then, to be in the audience for his most recent show, last night at Tallulah’s Cabaret at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, as it was a fond farewell for Thom to the city where he has lived and built a illustrious, rich and brightly inspirational life and career since moving here from Winnipeg to attend Ryerson in 1987 (when he was six). It is disheartening, of course, to see Thom go, he is such a radiant talent to behold, a warm, sweet, generous and vibrant member of our community, but it is all these things that have led to him embarking on this exciting new adventure, performing on Broadway with Priscilla Queen of the Desert. I know that he will make us all proud in this next chapter of his career.
His cabaret began with a Gershwin tune “A Foggy Day (in Toronto Town),” a jazzy and smooth ode to our fair city. A bit of Judy Garland followed with “Lose that Long Face” a brassy number written to be tap danced to, which lifted the whole energy of the room, although my favourite moment was his allusion to the forced rhyme of “vac-cu-um,” which really does beg for an eyebrow raise. He then sang the gorgeous powerhouse ballad “A Lovely Day to Be Out of Jail” from Cy Coleman’s The Life, which is one of my favourite songs that he sings. It always makes me think of what Tom Joad would sing if Grapes of Wrath were a musical and Thom captures that same rugged simplicity of walking freely into the world so perfectly.
Special Guest Sara Farb sang an uncharacteristic Rodgers and Hart tune, “My Funny Valentine” an old faithful standard in a sultry legit voice that harkened back to a more soulful and genuine time. Thom returned with “She Touched Me” from Drat! The Cat!, a joyful, rejoicing type number typical of musicals of its time and then hit us with a blissful rendition of Steven Schwartz’s “Lost in the Wilderness” which I’m pretty sure made the hearts of the entire sum of the theatre simultaneously turn to strawberry jelly. Thom is particularly talented at his ending notes, which always soar with an intensity that threatens to sweep up the breaths of everyone in its path. He then sang “I’d Rather Be Sailing” from A New Brain, and in my opinion, Thom’s is the definitive rendition of this song. Whenever he begins, it seems so effortless, as though William Finn wrote it expressly for him. It is the song that you want to curl up inside of and stay there for the whole winter.
Thom was accompanied in his Cabaret by the very talented young Chris Tsujiuchi, who performed his piano rendition of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” which keeps reminding me that any song can be made to sound heart rending, it is all in the way that it is performed. Thom returned with “Gorgeous” from The Apple Tree, which he sings with delicious exuberance, while showing off his dreaminess, laughing maniacally and hitting a sky scraping note at the end. “Being Alive” ended the first act, inspiring the thought that I would love to see Thom play Bobby in Company someday. The second act began with a haunting rendition of “The Meadowlark” and the beautiful ballad “Who Can I Turn To?” which showed off his lower register deliciously. Gavin Crawford then joined us and treated us to his impeccable and uproarious Rufus Wainwright impression and introduced us to Wainwright’s new album, “Christmas Carols for Atheists” which is comprised of parodies of Christmas songs with lyrics that reflect the Age of Not Believing. I was floored by the detail of Crawford’s performance and delighted by the pastiche of it all. I was delighted that Thom sang “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis, which is one of the first songs I heard him sing in Cabaret. George Masswohl came to the stage and sang a heartbreaking rendition of “Send in the Clowns” in memory of Goldie Semple, who starred with him and Thom in A Little Night Music at the Shaw Festival in 2008. Many have asked Sondheim what this song “means” but I will tell you, that is all immediately clear in the dexterous hands of George Masswohl.
Rounding out the cabaret was an exquisite rendition by Thom of the Shirley Bassey tune “The Living Tree,” Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee,” which I think is a lovely twin performance to Audra Mcdonald’s version on her album, very similar, yet strikingly different. Sharron Matthews came up for the eleven o’clock number which was undoubtedly her epic one woman “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which is a self-contained show all unto itself. She sings parts of it with all the intensity of Fantine from Les Miserables, erupts into opera rock superstardom and pulls out all the diva stops, it’s no wonder it’s Thom Allison’s favourite thing. The ending of the cabaret was heartfelt and sweet, but in no way saccharine, just a lovely rich voice floating overhead and wafting, drifting slowly beyond all of us into the night.
I will miss Thom Allison. I will miss his infectious smile, his exuberant “seize the moment and revel in it” laughter, which only intensifies when the theatre gods play their tricks, and most of all the warmth that emanates from him that has blanketed this community in acceptance, inspiration and love since good fortune brought him our way in the first place. I know New York will fall in love with him just as hard as we all have and I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.

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Musical Theatre Stars Look to the Rainbow

ari weinberg
Sometimes I attend certain theatrical events that overwhelm me with feelings of pride in the incredibly talented and generous theatre community that we have here in Toronto. This was most definitely the case on Sunday evening at Ari Weinberg’s Shameless (for a Cause) at Buddies and Bad Times, an evening to celebrate diversity and to raise money in support of Buddies’ LGBT youth initiatives.
Hosted by the ever vivacious and quixotic Ari Weinberg, this evening brought together some of Toronto’s most iconic and illustrious musical theatre stars with the brightest young performers our city has to offer to sing songs and tell stories centering on embracing uniqueness in the midst of adversity. Weinberg decided to launch this evening in response to the horrific string of suicides by gay youths which have recently come to light and have been linked to both relentless bullying, ignorance and intolerance by peers at school, and also policies of hatred and discrimination that seem appallingly intrinsic to various organizations from service industries to school boards and within the government, not just in the United States, but also here in Canada and around the world. Dan Savage, American author and journalist best known for his frank and inclusive sex column, Savage Love, which runs in many regional papers, launched the It Gets Better Campaign in conjunction with The Trevor Project, which has grown into a slew of videos being made and shared via YouTube mostly by gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals, along with many from celebrities and public figures, reaching out to youths who may be struggling with bullying and feelings of alienation and despair due to their sexual orientation and also providing a strong sense of solidarity in sending the message that bullying will not be tolerated in our schools, and that hatred and discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals is wrong and is not welcome in our communities or our society as a whole. “The Trevor Project is an international organization that provides life-saving and life-affirming resources including an American 24/7 crisis intervention lifeline, digital community and advocacy/educational programs that create a safe, supportive and positive environment for everyone.” Weinberg wanted Shameless for a Cause to focus on the local LGBT community here in Toronto, which can provided more specific and centralized help to youths in Ontario, including the youth initiatives at Buddies in Bad Times theatre, and Youth Line, which is an Ontarian organization with a similar mission and toll free crisis intervention, and support network hot line (1 800 268 YOUTH (9688) or, if you’re in Toronto, 416 962 YOUTH (9688)).
The evening began with the ever-charming Kyle Golemba, the Belle of the Ball, recently back in Toronto rehearsing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum after spending the Spring and Summer at the Stratford Festival. Golemba is particularly adept at the storytelling aspect of Cabaret, as he not only knows how to tell stories effectively, but also how to structure each one so that it has a specific comedic arc. He sang Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” a fun twist, in an earnest lovely deep voice mixed with dreamy belting. He then sang one of my favourite Canadian musical theatre songs, “A Day With Julia” from Leslie Arden’s The Last Resort, in a brilliantly jazzy rendition, but still with a palpable sinister darkness. David Lopez, who is currently appearing in Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Princess of Wales Theatre, told us about how when he was ten years old the thought of kissing a girl actually made him violently ill. He has a gorgeous deep, rich voice. First he showed off his shrewd storytelling skills singing “Mr. Right Now” and then he kicked the house down with an electric, soaring, goose bump inducing rendition of “Unexpected Song” from Song and Dance, in an arrangement that suited the lower registers of his voice perfectly. Superstar Bruce Dow, also in Toronto from where he usually stars in Stratford, to do A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, sang an extraordinary rendition of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”, fraught with charm and jazz and smooth notes like butter to melt in your mouth. He then sang an utterly enticing, soft and captivating song called “Lazy Afternoon,” which was languid in a way that drew the audience in and held them aching for every unfurling note. It was pure magic. It has been said that inside every gay man, there is a big, soulful, divalicious black woman vying to get out, and Jordan Bell had the opportunity to share his inner Effie with all of us with a rousing performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” the iconic torch song from Dreamgirls. Bell infused the song with an exorbitant amount of energy and was riffing in a way that left me gleeful. Jeigh Madjus sang “Here’s Where I Stand” from Camp and once again, I have to tell you how effortless Madjus makes singing like an angel, or belting huge, warm, rich notes that spread out like hot fudge and are equally as delicious. His performances are flawless and joyful and it seems as though there is nothing easier or more natural for him to do in the world than perform. He is a delight to watch and his star potential is exhilarating for the whole community.
That being said, the most surprising moment of the evening for me was when the spotlight fell on superstar pianist Chris Tsujiuchi singing a heartfelt, lovely arrangement of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” which gave that song class as I never thought possible. He also wrote this piano solo into the middle of the song which was absolutely breathtaking. His intensity allowed us all to consider the lyrics of the song, as most of us probably never had, within the context he had set up in an eloquent and touching speech before he began about how Sharron Matthews had once shared with him the idea that we are all born exactly as we are supposed to be, with a full pot of gold and that we don’t need anything else from anyone. Our job then, through our lives, is to protect our pots of gold and to never stealing any gold from anyone else. Suddenly, “Hit Me Baby One More Time” became about someone who is continually allowing their gold to be stolen by someone they love, which I think is an experience that everyone can relate to.
In the spirit of solidarity, there were also songs sung by those who are not necessarily “queer” in their orientation, but who, like me, consider the eradication of homophobia to be a vital mission worth crusading for. Alex Saslove and Justin Grant sang a simple and sweet rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend” with Grant providing accompaniment on the guitar, and then Weinberg and Saslove were joined by Sara Farb for a powerful performance of “Hold On” from The Secret Garden in chilling three part harmony. It was incredible to see Weinberg singing so genuine and intensely down in his lower register and Farb proved beyond any doubt that she should be playing Martha in the upcoming production of The Secret Garden that Mirvish has slated for the New Year. Kapow. Kapow. Kapow.
Two time Tony Award nominee Gavin Creel performed as a very special guest. A vibrant member of New York’s Broadway Community, Creel is will be performing a concert of his own music with his partner Robbie Roth, who is Canadian, at the Factory Theatre this Sunday November 28th at 8pm. Creel is also a very active member of the American Crusade for LGBT rights and he spoke passionately about how important he feels that it is for LGBT individuals to come out to their families and their friends, and for straight people to come out in support not only of their friends, but for equality and the eradication of hatred, discrimination and homophobia in all its forms. Creel’s speech reminded me how much I think some of us are able to take for granted in certain communities here in Canada and that there really is still much to be changed, much to fight and lobby for, and that we cannot forget that there is still a great big world beyond our own insular realm of positivity and acceptance, and that we should all be doing our part to help make all of it a place where people can respect love without judging it and encourage children to grow up expressing themselves and following their hearts, regardless of what path that leads them on. Creel sang a beautiful song called “For Nancy” about a child asking his mother not to be ashamed or alarmed, just to love him because he is still the same as he has always been. It’s such a simple song, but so intense in all the emotion that Creel brings to it, it becomes utterly heart wrenching. He then sang a joyful rendition of “I Got Life” from Hair, the most recent show that he performed on Broadway. Creel is a very poignant performer, and along with his dreamy voice, he is also wildly charming and zealous in his desire to share the conversation surrounding gay rights with as many people in an inclusive, positive way, as possible, which I think is so admirable and important.
What I love about Buddies in Bad Times is that every time I walk into that theatre I feel, usually wordlessly, this overwhelming sensation of “you belong here.” It is implicit in Shawn Daudlin and Patricia and everyone else who works there, it’s implied in the work that they choose to produce, and the homey space that they give to Cabaret artists like Ari Weinberg and Sharron Matthews (whose CD release is in Tallulah’s Cabaret this Friday November 26th and Saturday November 27th, you should go). Matthews broke my heart on Sunday evening when she told this story about some mean spirited girls that she befriended as a young, impressionable girl and that she ached and tried everything in her power to stay friends with them despite the fact that they were terrible to her. She then sang her now famous emotionally devastating powerhouse rendition of “Creep” and I doubt there was a dry eye in the whole house. She is so truthful in her performance, so beautiful, I always feel thankful when I watch her perform. I think that most people can relate to wanting to be accepted so ardently, to feeling inferior and having other people take advantage of your vulnerability in their quest to make you feel small. I know that I certainly can relate, as these are all things that I still grapple with. Thom Allison also shared his experiences of feeling inadequate, which made the joy of the bliss that his performance always conjures even more comforting and celebratory than usual.
Yet, despite our stories of feeling isolated or mistreated, here we all were at a theatre where we belong, and I feel like this evening, that inclusion, that force of camaraderie and music and positivity in the face of adversity, hatred and feeling ostracized, is exemplary of our musical theatre community here in Toronto, which is indicative of the greater theatre community that we have not just in this city, but in our entire country. Yes, sometimes competition rears its ugly head, I’m sure jealousy and vindictiveness havebeen known to snap at our heels from time to time, the business is flawed, I’ll be the first to admit it, but in general, overall, the people who live here and work here, who we really are, is what Buddies is, a community where everyone can feel that they belong, and that they are supported and accepted. Hopefully within our community we are being inspired every day to embrace the person that we truly are on the inside and to not be afraid to shine. At the end of Shameless for A Cause Weinberg sang a very touching and hopeful rendition of “Alone in the Universe” from Seussical the Musical. I think part of what makes us so fortunate and so strong and capable is that we are not alone. We all have wings, we can all fly and as long as we keep believing in one another and in ourselves, our theatres will thrive, our city will thrive and we, as human beings of the universe, will all thrive too.

Blasted Will Blow You Away

michelle monteith
photo by omer yukseker
The story of the how the British theatre critics reviled, condemned and sought to decimate Sarah Kane’s first play Blasted in 1995, dismissing it as being “utterly without artistic merit,” and accusing her of creating a hollow piece solely for the immature purpose of shocking her audience, has become a sort of contemporary theatre myth. British playwriting legends Edward Bond and Harold Pinter both stood in support of Kane’s talent, but, tragically, the deep despair and melancholy she felt prompted her to take her own life in 1999. It is mindboggling that only now, fifteen years later, is Blasted making its English Canadian debut at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
Blasted takes place in an expensive hotel room in Leeds where Ian, a middle aged journalist, has taken his emotionally fragile and, arguably developmentally delayed, ex-girlfriend, twenty-one year old Cate, for what he hopes to be a rekindling of their physical relationship. When a soldier bursts into their hotel room and holds Ian at gunpoint, it becomes clear that this play is not rooted in the historical reality of Leeds in the mid 1990s, but instead, draws what would have been a clear parallel in 1995 to the Bosnian War. It seems so naive to me that, even in a world that had not yet known the terrors of September 11th, 2001, nor heard of the horror of the Rwandan genocide or faced the consequences of the War in Iraq, that the general public reacting to this play seemed to believe that Great Britain was somehow immune to ever experiencing such atrocities. Of course, for contemporary audiences, the soldier’s entrance may conjure up images from “The War on Terror” instead of Bosnia; the effect feels just as immediate and socially and politically relevant.
It seems even more absurd to me that a play where a soldier asks a journalist why he does not report the gruesome perversions of war, such as sadistic sexual torture of innocent civilians, and the journalist responds, “No one’s interested” that a journalist in 1995 could say that this play has no message. Blasted is a play that takes humanity at its most loathsome and deplorable, the truths that are hidden away in the darkest crevices of foreign soil, free from the social structures of North America and most of Europe, and thrusts them into the ordinary, mundane modern world, the world that knows such carnage is happening, but that is content to remain distanced and unaffected as it seeks to distract itself through a multibillion dollar media machine which has been constructed entirely for that purpose. Kane said of her work, “The violence in this play is completely de-glamorized. It’s just presented… and it becomes utterly repulsive.” It is so interesting to me that we, as a society, are so mesmerized by cruelty when it is packaged up and fed to us by Hollywood, but when the reality of it is revealed, we blame the art instead of examining how it is that we can allow the reality of it to exist in our world. Richard Ouzounian said in his review of this production, “I didn’t think [the violence] would be layered onto the script the way Whitesnake songs are in Rock of Ages.” Human beings are mutilated in this world every day, Mr. Ouzounian, children are raped and tortured and people are committing the most heinous, disgusting, perverted, sick, twisted crimes in the world of reality outside the theatre. For people in war ravaged areas, that is everyday life. As Harold Pinter said of Kane, she is “facing something actual and true and ugly and painful.” People do not, however, burst out singing Whitesnake songs, with a full rock and roll band and synchronized choreography accompanying them, in the real world; that is the sort of fiction that is sensationalized by our media to distract us from weightier, more critical and disturbing issues.
Brendan Healy’s production is a powerful and thought provoking one. Julie Fox has constructed a gorgeous hotel room set in a box with a wall that comes down quickly over the action from all different angles. The briskness with which the audience is cut off from the action that it has become so fully engrossed in, along with Healy’s use of loud downpours and sharp blackouts add an ominous tension to the evening to the point of heart palpitations. Kane’s script is filled with actions that require creative staging, including a blowjob, Ian’s rape by the soldier, and urination and defecation onstage, and Healy is very skilled at finding a balance between realism, and yet still maintaining a strong theatrical aesthetic. The way that these acts were presented worked for me and, given Ouzounian’s opinion that this production is “too much,” it seems likely that Healy took the play in the right direction for Torontonian audiences, but I have to say, I was open to the possibility of seeing an even more brutal level of realism, akin to the work of New York’s Wooster Group, given the nature of the piece. I think it certainly is one that offers that opportunity to artists willing to push the boundaries of art to the utmost extreme.
Of course, the bold, fierce, courage of the three actors in Blasted is what gives so much depth and resonance to this piece. Dylan Smith is terrifying as the soldier, but not always in the way that is expected of him. David Ferry shows a huge myriad of emotion in Ian, from the most loathsome bully, to the most pathetic vulnerability, raising the question of where the line can be drawn between the soldier raping Ian and Ian who rapes Cate; how do we define monstrosity? When does seduction become coercion and when does coercion turn to violence? Ferry also manages to show Ian’s sincere care for Cate without undermining the inherent creepiness and brutality of their relationship. Michelle Monteith is a marvel as Cate, who fluctuates between being very childlike and easily dominated, to ultimately proving her shrewd survival skills. Monteith immerses herself completely in Cate’s inquisitive wonder and also in the terrifying fits that she suffers under stress. It is a truly gripping and earnest performance.
Blasted is not an easy play to watch, it is not intended as horror entertainment, but seeks to remind us how quickly apathy can turn to holocaust and that no city, no matter how civilized it considers itself to be, is invulnerable to war. Sarah Kane knew that the world can be a devastating place and she also knew that pushing the shocking truths of the human condition under the carpet does nothing to confront the power of evil in our society. The theatre is a place where artists seek to challenge the way that we see our world, it is a place for bravery, a place for truth, and a place for discussion. I’m pleased to see Buddies in Bad Times is proudly upholding this tradition.

Blasted plays at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street) until October 17th, 2010. For tickets or more information please call 416.975.8555, visit http://www.to-tix.ca or http://www.buddiesinbadtimes.com.
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