Birnam Wood Finds Tongues in Trees

lucy rupert and maev beaty
photo by lindsay anne black
In Allyson McMackon’s Director’s Notes for Theatre Rusticle’s production of Birnam Wood, which plays at Theatre Passe Muraille from March 18th to the 27th, 2010 she wrote: “I wondered if the woods could show us their dreams and their memories, what those dreams and memories would be.” Set designer Lindsay Anne Black transformed the Passe Muraille stage into an intricately magical woodland dream world out of which the cast of Birnam Wood emerged as dryads, the spirits of the trees that play such a decisive role in shaping the destiny of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s doomed Scottish King. The play explores the effects of humanity on the forest, as the dryads recreate and imitate the behaviour they see emanating from Dunsinane.
The result is a visually intricate and striking piece of physical theatre that focuses on movement and lyrical poetry to capture the haunting images and memories in Macbeth and how the naive wood spirits are corrupted and lose their innocence when they find themselves unexpectedly complicit to a bloodbath of horror. The imagery throughout this piece is fascinating in its ability to probe Shakespeare’s meaty text and creatively draw out so many of the playwright’s themes and to make surprising and interesting connections which emphasize how timeless Macbeth’s quest for power and his struggle to keep it really are.
The dryads begin with an impulse to connect with one another and the six performers express the spirits’ wonder, joy and surprise as they explore a myriad of unconventional ways for two bodies to find intimacy with one another. As their relationships become more complex, a hierarchy emerges which comes to centre on the acquisition of a crown and the allocation of power between the men and the women who love them. The idea of myth and storytelling is also explored as monologues about 14 foot tall heroes and needless and powerfully excessive butchery emphasize how tightly violence is woven into the human experience. At the same time, as their innocence unravels, the dryads also vividly express the consequences of paranoia, fear and guilt which cause Macbeth’s world to spiral out of control and leads to his eventual and ultimate downfall.
The six performers in Birnam Wood are truly magical in their ability to evoke so much of the essence of Shakespeare’s play without using his words and relying so heavily on their bodies to communicate often subtle and very dense ideas to the audience. Hume Baugh for me captured the regal spirit of King Duncan and his ability to command the space and speak with eloquence and authority. Lucy Rupert was often reminiscent of Lady Macbeth as she began throwing mice across the wood by their tails, propelling the male dryads to action as she assaults his masculinity asking if he is “a man or a mouse” and finally she throws herself on his back, as though she is a burden that he must either heave along as he slogs toward his goals or eradicate and destroy so he can reach success alone. The other three performers as dryads are more fluid in their ability to reflect the experiences and imagery associated with a myriad of different characters. Matthew Romantini and Wesley Connor are both grounded and expressive with a beautiful talent for eloquent movement. Maev Beaty’s dryad seems so fragile, it is as though she could snap as easily as a twig, and Beaty is sensitive and tragic as she calls out to the male dryad who sums up her worth in a To Do List of chores as she says repeatedly: “Item 1: Love me.” Viv Moore is, quite simply, a revelation. Her performance is both nuanced and physically exquisite.
Birnam Wood is not a piece of theatre that thrusts epiphanies about Shakespeare’s play into its audience’s lap, but one that requires a thoughtfulness and willingness for the viewer to contemplate the images and the rhetoric that the performers are offering. At times I felt confused, but never so much that I felt alienated or frustrated because visually the piece has its own strong aesthetic. Ultimately, I was drawn into these trees and enchanted by their sprightly dryads and I was disturbed to remember how easily and frequently humanity infringes on nature as we, as in Macbeth, hack apart the trees in our own quest for greatness.
Theatre Rusticle’s Birnam Wood plays at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue) from March 18th-27th. For tickets call the box office at 416.504.7529 or go online at

Change is Coming in The Woods: Welcome Home.

ryan hollyman as charles and michelle latimer
as marie in the mill (part three): the woods.
photo by: chris gallow

In her Playwright’s Notes for Theatrefront’s The Mill Part Three: The Woods, playing at the Tank House Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until April 3rd, 2010 Tara Beagan writes, “… the proposal put forth by Matthew (MacFadzean)… meant that it would take a village to raise this series- this child. From our earliest days, we spoke of Canada as an acne-prone teenager, beautiful and flawed and though not yet fully realized, far from newborn. Old enough to know better and young enough to make good of its past wrongs.” In The Woods we can see vivid reflections of the Canadian experience in Lyca, the wild demon-child from Now We Are Brody and The Huron Bride. She is the child that the village will raise with all her untamed naiveté, her deeply misunderstood beliefs and perspectives and the difficulty she has in reconciling the roots and the land of the mother who raised her with the tribe of intruders, with their own strange customs, that the father she has never known belongs to.

The Woods takes us back to 1640, before the mill that is so central to the two previous plays in the series was built and it centers on Lyca and her relationship with her mother, Marie, revealing how and why she comes to haunt the land that was once her home. Marie and Lyca belong to the Wendat Nation and the play follows their journey as they unexpectedly find themselves caring for a European man named Charles, a French historian, after Lyca, who perceives him as a threat and an unwanted and inferior stranger, strikes him in the leg with an axe. Marie demonstrates a cautious openness toward Charles and a willingness to embrace his humanity despite the fact that they speak different languages and they have strikingly different traditions and lifestyles. Marie is even prepared to judge Charles as an individual and on his own actions even though certain bands of European settlers have been ravaging Native communities, raping and killing their people and stealing their land and resources. Lyca is far more guarded, unforgiving and deeply prejudice against all Europeans, dismissing them as stupid, lying savages and even identifying them as “Wendigo,” a malevolent cannibalistic spirit that was believed could possess human beings. As the play progresses Tara Beagan shows us that it is the fear of the unknown and the desire to protect the sanctity of familiarity that makes forging a relationship between the Wendat people and the European settles intensely complex and dangerous.
Beagan uses modern speech to capture the spirit of the lovely relationship and friendship between twelve year old Lyca and her beloved mother. There is always a poetic element to Lyca, one which is mirrored nicely in the other plays. Words and language are incredibly important in this play, as Marie tells Lyca, “words have power” and indeed, we vividly see how vulnerable Charles is because he doesn’t “speak whatever it is [they] are speaking.” At the same time, language evolves from experience, and Lyca realizes that she does not know the proper grammatical structure even in her own language when referring to a man because she has spent her entire life in the company of only her mother. For this reason Beagan has her constructing sentences such as “I don’t want his here,” which poignantly highlights that Lyca, although stubborn and precocious, still has much to learn of the world.
Sarah Garton Stanley directs The Woods, which is not at all as frightening as Now We Are Brody and The Huron Bride, but it still provides powerful imagery that evokes an intricate web of contradictions and historical conundrums that can be just as haunting. Stanley uses the actors playing smaller roles to also play trees, which creates a nice sense of snugness for Lyca and Marie amid the image of Canada’s sprawling forests, while also suggesting that although they are continually surrounded by the comforts of nature; even in the trees exists the rustling seeds of change. Ryan Hollyman gives a lovely performance as Charles, filled with a genuine, diffident charm but also quick to panic and flail about with uncertain helplessness. Michelle Latimer is wonderfully likeable as Marie, a mother filled with wisdom and heart, and represents perfectly our collective idealization of the past. Frank Cox-O’Connell, Eric Goulem and Richard Greenblatt create a wonderful sense of trepidation as the Europeans whose good intentions we know will prove to be utterly disastrous in the future and Michelle Monteith captures perfectly how completely oblivious the Europeans are to the validity of any way of life beyond their own. Holly Lewis is undoubtedly the star of this piece as Lyca. She transforms into this twelve year old child with such brilliant dexterity it is hard to believe that Lewis is really a grown woman with a child of her own. Lyca springs forth from this story because she is so richly complex, so fascinating and filled with contradiction and subtext and Lewis has such command and understanding of her character that the audience is able to feel a strong affinity and real affection for Lyca, while also being repulsed by her.
The Woods, as Tara Beagan alludes to in her Playwright’s Notes, reminds us that we all have blood on our hands and it is out of this blood, and through the mixing of blood, that Lyca emerges and she is where the mill begins. From this wood, from this blood, from the child the village raises, our home evolves and it, Canada, in all its messy beauty and imperfections, is a home we share together.

The Woods plays at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street) until April 3rd, 2010. For tickets and more information please visit this website:

Buddies Serves Up Breakfast

karin randoja
One of the most incredible features of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre is that so often the work that is produced there is so unique and innovative that you cannot find its equal anywhere else in Toronto. Breakfast, a play coproduced with Independent Aunties, which plays until April 4th, 2010 is one such example. There is nothing inherently unusual in creating a theatrical piece that examines a woman’s desire to transform herself into something new and to forge a better life for herself, but in Breakfast co-creators Anna Chatterton and Evalyn Parry, with Karin Randoja and director Brendan Healy thrust their audience into the strange world of the self-help tape where one woman’s identity is deconstructed, leaving only her rawest urges mixed in a blender of unfettered emotions and a complete and refreshing unpredictability.
We are introduced to Marnie, played by Karin Randoja, who sits in her very cramped, cheap and outmoded kitchen clad in a nightgown over pyjama pants under a housecoat readying herself for her morning routine of coffee and chocolate pudding as she tries to block out the sounds of her upstairs neighbours enjoying some very loud sex. She begins to listen to a cassette tape of pre-recorded self-help affirmations, which she repeats. Suddenly, the tape begins to come alive and seduces her into entering a fantasy world where she is persuaded to liberate herself from her shyness, her feelings of inadequacy and from the confines of what many would perceive as being “normative” behaviour.
Karin Randoja is absolutely adorable as Marnie. She is filled with diffident charm as she allows herself only to dip her toes in flirtatious waters, cautious and self-conscious, as she models her sexy shoes for the unsettlingly coercing voice of the tape, whose motives continually swerve from empowering to sinister. Randoja captivates the audience with sweet, damaged Marnie, who dreams of being Malibu Barbie yet, even in her deepest fantasy, remains without a Ken. She takes Marnie on a deep journey into her psyche, confronting disturbing memories from her past and probing deep into her most private thoughts. Randoja’s nuanced reactions to her changing surroundings speak volumes in providing insight into our desire to change ourselves, our longing to transform and to become someone different and to destroy the shame and the wounds of our past. At the same time, as Brendan Healy writes in his Director’s Note, the paradox is that “…despite all our efforts, we inevitably remain just ourselves.”
Evalyn Perry gives a meticulous and methodical performance as the ominous voice from Marnie’s cassette, capturing both the drone of recorded inspiration and suggesting the power such a voice has in informing the thought processes of the vulnerable and becoming the source of their motivation. Brendan Healy uses the element of surprise most effectively in this piece as it is impossible to predict Marnie’s actions, her reactions or how the world will chose to interact with her at any given moment. When she is given a knife, for example, it is unclear if she will attack herself, the cassette tape or someone else and expectancy and curiosity hangs heavy in the theatre in a way that is extremely rare in the Canadian Theatre.
I didn’t understand the significance of Breakfast’s ending- an orgy of fruit and the smothering of the voice and the Assistant with the ingredients of a strawberry smoothie, but visually it was quite evocative and created very powerful imagery of Marnie and her kitchen left in a gigantic mess of apples, strawberries, bananas and yogurt. We are left with a puddle onstage, smushed fruit and vibrant red juices like abstract art or a child’s finger painting out of which we can see images that we can make make sense of something that was purposefully intangible. I didn’t cry at the overwhelming beauty of the end without knowing why I was crying, nor could I reach some clear and brilliant epiphany regarding one woman’s liberation from domestication, and freedom from equating herself with the ingredients of a breakfast prepared for someone else and the simultaneous feelings of ecstasy and self loathing that women experience from the consumption of food. Yet, I found the ending to be riveting, nonetheless, and captivating in my inability to make perfect sense from it.
In all, Breakfast is a unique theatrical experience with a pulsing heart and that turns something as ordinary as a smoothie into something as extraordinary as life.
Breakfast plays at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street) until April 4th, 2010. Tuesday-Saturday 8pm. Sundays at 2:30pm. For more information or to book your tickets please visit or call 416.975.8555.

a communal aria for all who knew grannie

andrea scott, joseph pierre, ordena,
marcel stewart, miranda edwards

Despite what popular culture may have you believe, I did not find it to be such a huge cultural adjustment when I moved to Toronto from little Halifax, Nova Scotia with a dream and my cardigan. Yet, there is one dynamic that I keep encountering in the Torontonian theatre which is completely unfamiliar to me and that is the influence of Toronto’s vibrant Jamaican community. For this reason I approached Obsidian Theatre’s production of ahdri zhina mandiela’s play who knew grannie: a dub aria with a particular mix of ardent curiosity, eagerness and apprehension. What was a dub aria and, with my very limited knowledge of Jamaican culture, would I be able to understand mandiela’s play well enough to be able to write about it without sounding like a provincial ignoramus?

Thankfully, mandiela confronts the question of dub arias in her informative Notes from the Playwright/Director in the show’s programme where she writes, “i say [a dub aria] is ‘an emotional flight usually done in a single melodic voice’ yet who knew grannie has five characters in this story… and they very seldom sing… i needed to bring several characters in one voice thru a single journey. the single melodic voice in this aria is stuffed with orality from all kind of corners: children’s games, choral work, dub poetry, opera, and even prayers: hence a dub aria.” The result is a beautiful mixing of styles and voices that all seem to keep time in the same rhythm and to tell the same universal story, the honouring of one’s grandmother, her heritage and her home.
The play begins with the death of grannie, an event that prompts her four grown grandchildren (each one cousins of one another), who are scattered across the world, to return home to Jamaica to say farewell. What follows is a nostalgic homage to a strong matriarch, bathed in the warm hues and shadows of memory and enriched by the poignant pulse of Amina Alfred’s percussion. The cousins immerse themselves into the most vibrant recollections of their childhood and they frequently layer their voices on top of one another so that no one cousin becomes the authority on grannie or the past. Instead, they suck one another in to certain communal experiences that they can share such as, the way their grannie called for them, the way she teaches them, the games they played together like “What Time Is It, Mr. Wolf” and certain songs like “Brown Girl in the Ring” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” These moments burst out to unify the voice into this sort of dub aria. The moments where the performers converge into dance and song are especially electric and both the energy and the emotion, which is always mirrored in the drum, is effortlessly contagious for the audience.
Ordena plays grannie with a grounded sense of strength and unmistakable love and respect for her grandchildren. Ordena gives grannie such dignity and vivaciousness that the audience becomes very quickly swept up in joining the cousins in the celebration of her life. Andrea Scott shines particularly bright as vilma, the oldest of the cousins who has grown up to be a successful and diligent politician with zero tolerance for nonsense and a firm handle on the world. It is particularly interesting to watch how Scott characterizes vilma as a child as it provides subtle insights into how her adult persona was shaped and fostered. Joseph Pierre plays tyetye, a lost soul with a bitter hesitance toward reconciling himself with the life of his mother. Marcel Stewart is dynamite as kris, the chef. Stewart is particularly wonderful as young kris, a boy who beams with adoration for grannie and longs for her affection, attention and praise. He also has a brilliant monologue where his happy facade splits open to reveal the anger and bitterness behind his dedication and ambition. Miranda Edwards is charmingly diffident and awkward as blind likklebit, whose sweet earnestness is irresistible as is her desire to soak up every ounce of the world around her. ahdri zhina mandiela’s direction is artful, at times stunningly so, and it evokes the sensation of the whirling of dreams, of memories, of faraway voices, distant thoughts and fantasies surrounding one woman as she makes her journey out of this world.
who knew grannie doesn’t offer its audience a revelation of something previously unknown; instead it celebrates something wonderfully familiar, the bonds of family and the heartbeat of home. At the end of the play the four cousins find themselves reunited, laughing through their tears, and I was left with an overwhelming urge to call my grandmother and to tell her I love her.
Obsidian Theatre’s who knew grannie: a dub aria is presented in association with Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street) and plays there until April 4th, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call Factory Theatre at 416.504.9971 or go online to  
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