Review: Brantwood 1920-2020

BRANTWOOD: 1920-2020 by Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman, music by Bram Gielen, Anika Johnson and Britta Johnson. Presented by Sheridan.


BRANTWOOD: 1920-2020 by Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman, music by Bram Gielen, Anika Johnson and Britta Johnson. Presented by Sheridan Colleges Canadian Music Theatre Project at Brantwood School meet at Sheridan entrance (1430 Trafalgar, Oakville). Runs to May 3, Tuesday-Sunday 7 pm. $35, parking at Sheridan $4 during the week, free on weekends. 905-815-4049, tickets.sheridancollege.ca.

Going back to high school will be one of my favourite theatrical memories of 2015.

Brantwood: 1920-2020 covers a decade-by-decade century in the life of a high school and those who attended it.

Its written and directed by Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman, both of who have created wonderful site-specific shows in the past, but here they pull out all the stops with the help of Sheridan Colleges Michael Rubinoff, the entire graduating class of the Sheridan music theatre performance program and a quartet of established actors (Suzanne Bennett, Claire Calnan, Ralph Small and Andy Trithardt).

Audiences meet at Sheridan and, treated as alumni of fictional Brantwood High, complete with graduation robes, are school-bused to an actual school, and thats when things get really wild. The school is soon to be turned into a condo called Chalkboard Lofts, and for reasons youll discover when you get off the bus, its history comes to life all around you.

Part of the excitement about Brantwood is that you get to create your own theatrical evening. You can follow whomever you want to just about anywhere in and around the building Cushman and Tepperman encourage viewers to be voyeurs, and with some 16 scenes happening simultaneously and sometimes crossing each other, theres lots to entice you. Youre encouraged to leave one storyline and pick up another whenever you like.

Some audience members sit in the hallways and let the action come to them and it sure does but I much prefer following my interest and instinct.

The evening has two halves, with an announcement from the school office at the midpoint functioning as a rewind of the action: the same scenes are played out a second time, so you can join another group of characters. Dont even think about seeing it all youd have to go back to the production multiple times.

I opt to follow Trithardt, an actor whose work Ive admired for years. Like most of the 40 or so actors, he takes on multiple roles. I begin in the 1960s, where he plays Mr. Stewart, an English teacher who encourages Kimmy, a bright but friendless young woman (Teale Poirier), to come out of her shell. Maybe, though, he encourages her too much in ways not just academic.

Then I followed him to another classroom and the 1920s, where Trithardt becomes Mr. Campbell, a science teacher covertly allowing two young women access to a class that, in the period, is only open to men. Thats not all thats hidden in his life: hes also having an affair with a student named Roger (Chris Mayo).

Neither story has a happy ending, nor is it by chance that Trithardt plays a pair of teachers who take advantage of their students. The playwrights have cleverly woven all sorts of narrative and emotional threads into the complex, interlocking plots. Characters at times move from one era to another, ghosts stepping into the future or living characters moving into the past for surprising revelations.

For the second half I chose to follow a student, or rather two of them: Loretta and La Rain, both played by Vanessa Sears. The shy Loretta is the schools sole black student in the 1940s, forced to sit at the back of the classroom and use the schools rear door. In 2015, La Rain is a confident, in-your-face rapper, someone who wont take shit from anyone. The actors transformation from one to the other, which happens right in front of the audience, is amazing.

Searss white companion in each decade is Quinn Dooley. In 1944 shes Josie, helping organize a kiss-in that will make the school co-ed 70 years later shes another rapper, La Thunda, who sings with La Rain (Thunda and Rain, get it?) and dates a black guy. In each storyline she talks about understanding what the black students going through, but it becomes clear that she doesnt.

Theres more, so much more: a lacrosse game used as a means of delivering dope, anti-Semitism, an unwanted pregnancy, a transgendered student, a drug trip involving Marilyn Monroe, a porn movie, an angry valedictorian who doesnt want the school turned into condos and a look into the future, in which a gay couple buys one of the new units. And thats only part of the narrative.

Even if Brantwood were a straight play, it would be magnificently ambitious. But its a musical, with fine songs by Bram Gielen, Anika Johnson and Britta Johnson. I only heard a few of the numbers, but the clever lyrics and catchy tunes track the plays various decades with real feeling and energy, as does Nicola Pantins choreography.

Brantwood is an exciting, magical production, a triumph for all involved the playwright/directors, actors, designers and technicians. Simply to have pulled it off is remarkable to have done so this well, presenting such an engaging production, is sensational.

Lets hope the show has a further life elsewhere. How about in a downtown Toronto school thats no longer in use, where a long run would allow audiences to see a variety of Brantwoods fascinating stories?

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