To Distraction is a Bit of Car Wreck

There is a play somewhere in Michael Ripley’s To Distraction, which plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival, but some intense dramaturgical development is needed for it to transcend out of the melodramatic collision of stories, genres and ideas that is currently on stage in this show.
Michael Ripley has a wide array of ideas; so many that his 85 minute play is entirely saturated with them to the point of near absurdity. It is not only difficult to digest so much dysfunction being crammed into one single birthday party, but the audience becomes incredulous when it is asked to not only believe, but to have an emotional reaction, to the conceit of three separate critical car accidents plaguing one family over a six month period, with two occurring within moments of one another. Some of Ripley’s ideas are extremely interesting. He has created a situation surrounding a pregnant woman and her husband which has the potential to be not only compelling, but, if done effectively, absolutely devastating. I would suggest that Ripley choose two or three especially interesting plotlines and to focus on mining them for all their rich and unique possibilities, rather than trying to tackle every issue in a single story.
Ripley’s talent for writing dialogue shines through in specific moments throughout this piece. He is particularly skilled at bringing his male characters to life, as in the scene between two puppeteers (and closeted math geeks), Charlie and Henry. Ripley has far more difficulty in creating faithful female characters. I found this play awkward at times to watch because the tired clichés plaguing all the cardboard women are bordering on chauvinistic. More generally, none of the characters in this play are particularly likeable, with the exception perhaps of Aunt Bibby, who Cayle Chernin pumps with as much heart as she can despite some vapid lines and cluttered motivation. This means that it is difficult for the audience to feel empathy for anyone, despite the continual tragic circumstances that the playwright superimposes over each character. It also makes it difficult for the actors to play within any sense of subtlety or complexity. Susie Yankou struggles especially with Violet, the sixteen year old who narrates the events that all swirl around her birthday party, as she is written completely void of any depth or individuality.
For a play that takes place almost entirely with actors sitting stationary in a series of different cars, it is baffling to me that director Miriam Laurence didn’t at least enforce the simplest rules of realism, such as making sure that characters never stand up while in the car, and to make sure to mime the opening and closing of the car door. These oversights break the continuity of the play in the most distracting of ways.
To Distraction is a first incarnation of a story that has every potential to become a compelling and entertaining one, but for now, it bursts both with exciting bouts of inspiration and its own challenges and limitations.
To Distraction plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst Street) at the following times:
Mon, July 5 10:15 PM


Tue, July 6 6:30 PM
Wed, July 7 5:15 PM
Fri, July 9 Noon
Sun, July 11- 7:00 PM

all tickets $10 at the door or book in advance by calling the fringe hotline at 416.966.1062 or go online at http://www.fringetoronto.com/.

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Here’s a Push: Go See This is About The Push!

jennifer villaverde, kimwun perehinec, naomi wright
This is About the Push is a fascinating new play written by Rachel Blair which plays at the Factory Theatre Studio as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival. An exploration of women at war, this play examines the political and personal power struggles between a group of women at their husbands’ company pool party and takes the audience to the brink of battle where the distinctions between friend and foe begin to blur.
Blair centres her story on the newest couple invited to the pool party. After Bob’s promotion, he and his wife are initiated into an exclusive social club at the “boss boss’s” house. The wife immediately encounters the odd dynamic of wives whose hierarchy mirrors their husband’s positions at the firm. Amid scathing gossip and blame games, Bob’s wife is continually caught in a tangled web of deception and insincerity where she is constantly being pulled between engaging in the behaviour that she thinks will benefit her husband’s corporate goals and remaining true to her own values. The story is told from Bob’s wife’s perspective, but her memories and her choice of whether or not to be entirely forthwith is continually being challenged by the two other characters on stage, which prompts the narrative to be sometimes adjusted and exposes the malleability of memory and the subjectivity of perspective.
Kimwun Perehinec plays Bob’s wife with an overwhelmed eagerness to please which spirals quickly as she becomes increasingly desperate and delirious in her struggle to play the role her husband’s colleagues and their wives have scripted and concocted for her, while still maintaining the integrity of a loving wife and respectable mother. Jennifer Villaverde and Naomi Wright enliven the unnamed wife’s recollection by leaping in to play the plethora of different characters at the Pool Party, whose social graces Perehinec’s character manoeuvres through like a minefield. Villaverde is particularly evocative as a character who has chattering, exaggerated, pretentiousness down to an absolute art. Naomi Wright gives a wonderful performance as Marcy, the Boss Boss’s wife, whose cold and terse haughtiness is obviously filling a wide gaping hole in her marriage, and Wright is absolutely extraordinary as the Boss Boss, sleazy as a snake with his wandering eyes and dangerous hands.
Kelly Straughan’s direction of this play is impeccable, as she knows precisely when stylized movements are most appropriate to capture the hazy nature of memories and the way Bob’s wife perceives this army of women not as individuals, but as a solid collective marching towards her with the intention of destroying her sense of self. At other times, Straughan lets the scenes play out more naturalistically, which allows the audience a bit of distance to draw their own conclusions about these characters and their intricate and rigid situation.
This is About the Push reminded me of what it was like to watch adults schmooze and partake in compulsory corporate small talk when I was still a child to whom this all seemed utterly absurd. Rachel Blair’s play is eloquent and theatrical, rich in both ideas and emotion, and it vividly recreates the reality of life for so many women across a multitude of generations. Yet, Blair offers us a fresh perspective from whence to ask, “who are these women fighting?”, “what are they fighting for and why?” and “can there be a winner?” Intricate paradoxes abound with limitless fascinating possibilities to explore as we push ahead in search of truth, enlightenment and understanding.

This is About the Push plays at the Factory Theatre Studio Space (125 Bathurst Street) at the following times:
 

Sat, July 3 6:00 PM
Sun, July 4 Noon
Tue, July 6 1:00 PM
Thu, July 8 7:45 PM
Sat, July 10 5:15 PM

all tickets $10 at the door or book in advance by calling the fringe hotline at 416.966.1062 or go online at http://www.fringetoronto.com/.  

It’s Never Love, It’s Always Business in Featuring Loretta

kevin hanchard and lesley faulkner star in george f. walker’s comedic featuring loretta, may 1 – june 20, 2010, at factory theatre.
ed gass donnelly photograph.
Whenever I attend shows at Factory Theatre I always find myself examining the theatre posters that adorn the walls and pouring over thirty-eight years worth of Canadian theatre history that preceded my first walking through the door. I feel exorbitantly fortunate to have seen all the theatre I have seen in Toronto in the past two years and yet I remain continually aware of how much I have not seen. This becomes especially pertinent when productions are revived, such as George F. Walker’s play Featuring Loretta, which plays at Factory until June 20th, 2010, as theatre critics and audiences always clamour to compare the revival to the original production.
Featuring Loretta was first produced in February 1998 by Buffalo Nights Theatre in Los Angeles and Hampstead Theatre in London, England. Its Canadian Premiere was on May 14th, 1998 as part of Walker’s celebrated Suburban Motel series at the Factory Theatre. George F. Walker directs his own works with a crisp elegance that perfectly captures the gritty desperation and the absurdity of the human condition. Director Ken Gass has been criticized for turning this production from a charged rollercoaster ride into a languid picnic, but I did not find this to be the case.
This Walker play has all the elements of a dramatic piece that explores the power and allure of money and how it both enslaves and empowers those desperate to climb society’s ladder; and yet it is a comedy. Ken Gass uses this disparity in his direction as well, playing with his audience’s expectations, as the stories and the characters become increasingly quirky and hilariously strange which alludes to the absurdity of this particular human condition.
The play is centered around Loretta, a young waitress who is trying to escape her past, her responsibilities and what she sees as being a domineering and suffocating relationship with her family. She moves into a seedy motel room and quickly becomes entangled with David, a clingy and weak salesman desperate for promotion who has fallen obsessively in love with her and Michael, a sleazy “business agent” with dreams of featuring her in a series of “erotic videotapes.” Loretta wants to make as much money as quickly as possible, as she sees this as being her only opportunity to buy herself freedom from the shackles that await her at home, and yet it is clear, especially for the audience, that David and Michael do not offer independence, but merely the illusion of it.
Brandon McGibbon is notoriously brilliant at portraying characters that are quasi-endearing douchebags and thus he makes the perfect David. Kevin Hanchard is notoriously brilliant at portraying characters that are creepily charming assholes, and thus he makes the perfect Michael. The hilarity lies in the way that McGibbon and Hanchard spar and feed off one another in their quest for Lorrie, with egos (and erections) continuing to inflate and deflate at rapid pace as all pretence of maturity or professionalism is unravelled and discarded until both are reminiscent of stubborn seven year olds vying for the attention of the pretty girl.
Lesley Faulkner plays Loretta as though her play were a dramatic one, which I think adds to the hilarity of all the other characters. Lorrie is determined to make her own choices, she is committed to doing what she needs to do to make enough money to guarantee her survival, but her heart has given up. She has resigned herself to these circumstances and what makes this play more than a satire is that it is obvious that Lorrie has a family that loves her, cares about her and that is trying to help her, and yet, for some reason this is not enough to save her from a world that preys on the lost and the miserable.
Many of the revelations about Loretta come from her interactions with Sophie, the Russian physicist cleaning lady and daughter of the owner of the motel, who provides direct insight that threatens to cut to the core of Lorrie’s rage. Sophie is played expertly by the hilarious Monica Dottor who is so funny and strange as this character it is a wonder that even her cast mates have learned how to keep a straight face in her midst. Her inspired performance gives the play a palpable lift each time she walks through the door.
While Featuring Loretta did not smack me intensely in the face with either its shocking grittiness or its steamrolling comedy, I found that a strong cast, quirky writing and direction that played on theatrical conventions and expectations made for a fun night at the theatre while still engaging my mind and my heart.
Featuring Loretta plays at the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street) until June 20th, 2010. For tickets or more information please call the Box Office at 416.504.9971 or visit this website http://www.factorytheatre.ca/.

A Fabulous Disaster Lives Up To Its Name

denise clarke
“Tonight could be the first day of the rest of my life,” says the woman onstage clad in a strange white jumpsuit and military style boots, “Or last.” And thus begins One Yellow Rabbit’s (Calgary) production of A Fabulous Disaster, playing at Factory Theatre as part of its Performance Spring Festival until April 25th, 2010. The piece was created and is performed by Denise Clarke, an Associate Artist of One Yellow Rabbit since 1986 and A Fabulous Disaster has become her signature play. The programme touts this play as “Strange and beautiful, the show toils with love, jealousy, loneliness, acceptance and brilliant stupidity.”
Clarke’s unnamed protagonist is an exceptionally literary and articulate woman who appears to have a photographic memory. Her mind spins quickly, which propels her from thought to thought throughout her monologue in a way that sometimes appears haphazard to the audience, but it is firmly established that the connections are firm in this characters’ logic. It is immediately clear that she is somewhere in the wilderness of British Columbia and that she has placed herself in the midst of a ravaging forest fire in attempt to save the animals. She tells us that this was one of a sequence of stupid mistakes.
Amid a sea of stressed out people, our protagonist became distressed when she thought that she saw a small black cloud hanging in the tree in her backyard. As she says, when there is a small black cloud hanging in your tree it’s hard not to see it as portentous. It is soon revealed that this woman, like the animals she imagines running through the forest fires, is deeply wounded as she is mourning the collapse of her marriage. She tells us that her divorce was the second lesbian divorce in history, but it would have been better to be first; second is just a sad punch line.
With Clarke’s beautiful use of language and her wonderfully captivating performance, our protagonist shines with both strength and vulnerability as she weaves the tale for us of how she ended up in the forest among the fires. Her experience in speaking about the end of her marriage and how this launched a stupid telephone call to her ex boyfriend and a stupid plan for emotional revenge and the hope of reconciliation has a cleansing and cathartic element to it. At one point she sobs like a tired child, Clarke giving a perfect performance, and then she says, amid tears, “I accept that this experience is of the universe and a consequence of my own stupidity.” This monologue that we become privy to is an intensely personal and emotional moment in the life of a woman as she is forced to reconcile with her past in the face of the flames of the future.
A Fabulous Disaster is poignant and at times profound, but it is also a remarkably funny play. Clarke has brilliant comic timing and knows when to have her character undercut the solemnity of the situation with sheepish self-deprecating humour or a clever observation about the absurdity of the world. Beautiful imagery is also conjured up, such as how erotic it can be to see the books of two people who love each other intermingled with one another on a bookshelf.
Our protagonist is in deep physical pain, like the forest that surrounds her; her heart has been charred like a small animal. She muses on the dramatic deaths from opera and ballet and chooses to rectify one of her stupid mistakes, changing her absurd white paper suit for her birthday suit and then, elegantly, with crackling flames projected at the back of the stage, washed gracefully in dim gorgeous lighting, walks nude toward the fire, offering it her scorched heart, stunningly evocative of a phoenix on the cusp of rebirth.
A Fabulous Disaster plays until Sunday April 25th, 2010 at 2pm at the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street), for more information or to book your tickets please call 416.504.9971 or go online to http://www.factorytheatre.ca

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