The week in Toronto theatre: reviews and news roundup

Haley McGee makes a triumphant return home, while The Year Of The Cello and My Sister's Rage both deal with grief and loss


the ex-boyfriend yard sale
Photo by Dahlia Katz

Recent openings

In my recent review of The Shark Is Broken, I implied that sometimes a successful Fringe-type show should stay at the Fringe. Haley McGee’s wonderful The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale (Rating: NNNNN) is an exception to that rule. Updated since its brilliant, sold-out 2019 showing here at the Progress Festival (it made my list of the year’s best productions), and performed in a much bigger house now, it’s lost none of its intimacy or sharpness. If anything, since the great reset and in these inflationary times, McGee’s look at the true value of past relationships feels even more urgent and relevant.

I won’t go into much detail about the story, since it’s the same as the 2019 version. Back in 2017, the Canadian-born artist had just moved to London, England and found herself $10,000 in debt. She wondered how she could pay it down, and considered selling items from past exes, like a bicycle, a mixtape CD (from her first high school boyfriend) and a faded old white T given her by an on-again, off-again long-distance lover.

That got her wondering: In the grand ledger of our lives, would the value of these items go up or down given how much we knew about the relationships?

The way McGee and director Mitchell Cushman explore this theme is engaging on so many levels. It’s an intriguing and profound idea, for one, and each thought is carried through to its logical, highly-caffeinated conclusion. Also, the way the show comes alive – with doors opening to reveal charts, “yard sale” items pinging, stored voice messages replaying and (best of all) info delivered via an old-fashioned pulley system – is simply entertaining to watch. (Anna Reid created the set, Lucy Adams designed the lighting and Kieran Lucas provided sound.)

But what comes through so clearly in this show, presented by Soulpepper in association with Outside the March and Red Light District, is McGee’s generous spirit, enquiring mind and fierce intelligence. Her newest show, Age Is A Feeling, premiered earlier this year at the Edinburgh Fringe to raves. With luck a local producer will mount it here, in the biggest house available.

The Ex-Boyfriend Yard sale continues at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until November 6. Get tickets here.

Courtesy of Theatre Passe Muraille

Mournful duet

If you’ve ever loved and lost someone, or been obsessed with their memory, you’ll resonate deeply with The Year Of The Cello (Rating: NNN), a poetic, moody co-production by Theatre Passe Muraille and Music Picnic.

Wen (Rong Fu) is mourning the loss of her friend Li-An. But it turns out this same Li-An was smitten with the Cellist (Brendan Rogers at the performance I saw; he alternates with Bryan Holt), whose brief appearance in her life created a lasting impression, making her obsessed with listening to cello music before she died from a mysterious plague.

Now Wen wants some answers from the Cellist, and though she keeps prodding him, he remains silent – except for his cello playing.

The script, by Marjorie Chan (who also directs), has a lyrical, hypnotic intensity, but at times it lacks focus, making it hard to get oriented. One of the strongest passages involves Wen’s reminiscences of navigating the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong with a young Li-An. Fu is such a focussed, watchable performer that she brings layers of mystery to the often inscrutable text.

Chan has staged the piece so the audience sits along the long wall of the narrow Passe Muraille Backspace. Some scenes, like the final tableau, performed on a second level, make it seem like Wen is looking out the window of a high rise. And in Chan’s hands, the plucking of items from a clothes line are rich with meaning.

The use of music, by J.S. Bach and composer/sound designer Njo Kong Kie, is essential to the piece. Njo and Rogers exploit the soulfulness of the instrument to evoke a sense of loss and longing. The effective final composition captures a mood of regret and nostalgia.

The Year Of The Cello continues at Theatre Passe Muraille until October 29. Get tickets here. (Full disclosure: Njo and I are friends.)

My Sisters Rage at Tarragon
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Redemptive Rage

The multi-talented Yolanda Bonnell caps off a terrific year (White Girls In Moccasins, a Dora acting nomination for Kamloopa) with My Sister’s Rage (Rating: NNN), an ambitious and touching play about two generations of women in an Indigenous family reuniting when their matriarch is dying.

The outlines of the script – a Tarragon production, in association with Studio 180 Theatre and TO Live – should be familiar. Three sisters – Olivia (Nicole Joy-Fraser), Renna (Ange Loft) and Sandra (Shandra Spears Bombay) – haven’t communicated much since controlling sibling Olivia moved in with their mother to oversee her health. Renna, a writer, has moved to Toronto, while Sandra, who also lives on the reserve, is coping with a tragedy that occurred years earlier; she’s turned to drinking and ignoring her children.

Those children – Valerie (Samantha Brown) and Tash (Ty J Sloane) – are happy to reunite with their aunties and cousins (Theresa Cutknife and Pesch Nepoose), even though there are lots of secrets still keeping everyone from properly communicating.

It takes a while for the play, which Bonnell also directs, to come together; there are many characters and histories to sort out on Rebecca Vandevelde‘s cozy set, which feels a touch cramped in the Tarragon ExtraSpace. But there’s a relaxed, loose feel to the production that is refreshing. The at-first unspoken tragedy in the family is one that haunts thousands of Indigenous people today. And Bonnell’s use of a character named Wanda (Monique Mojica), a sort of Trickster figure who watches over the action and had a connection to the dying woman, is inspired.

Mojica, seen too infrequently on local stages, sings, tells jokes and addresses the audience sometimes, changing the rhythm and energy of the play. And while the character resolutions – especially among the three sisters – feel a little pat, there’s a genuine sense of catharsis and connection in the play’s final moments.

My Sister’s Rage continues at Tarragon ExtraSpace until November 6. See information here.

Three Sisters, photographed by Dahlia Katz

Opening this week

Speaking of Three Sisters, The Howland Company – one of the most exciting indie theatres in the city – is co-presenting a version of Chekhov’s masterpiece with Hart House Theatre this week.

Best known for their intelligent, sharp takes on recent plays like The Wolves and Punk Rock, the company boasts a new contemporary adaptation by Paolo Santalucia, who also directs.

Caroline Toal, Hallie Seline and Shauna Thompson play the eponymous sisters, who long to go to Moscow, with Ben Yoganathan as their brother and Robert Persichini, Ruth Goodwin, Kyra Harper, Christine Horne, Colin A. Doyle, Cameron Laurie and others rounding out the large cast. See information here.

Doubt photo by David Leyes

***

Featuring sisters of another kind is Doubt: A Parable, John Patrick Shanley‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a possible scandal involving a priest and a Black student in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964.

The lauded play, which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film in 2008 (Canadian Stage also mounted it in 2009), should touch nerves today, especially with the recent racial reckoning and accountability and discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential schools.

The production, which stars Deborah Drakeford, Emma Nelles, Kim Nelson and Brian Bisson, is directed by Dora-winner Stewart Arnott and marks the debut of Breaking & Entering Theatre. What’s more, the production is immersive, taking place in the Church of the Holy Trinity at the Eaton Centre. I have no, er, doubt that this setting will add lots of layers to Shanley’s clever play. Info at bneproductions.ca

Just announced

If you missed the sold-out Fringe run of Curtis te Brinke and Daniel Krolik‘s razor sharp satire Gay For Pay With Blake & Clay, you’re in luck. The two-hander, which stars Krolik and Jonathan Wilson as two out and under-employed gay actors teaching straight actors how to play gay and win awards, is heading to Streetcar Crowsnest November 16-27. See info here.

@glennsumi

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