Have you heard of British Columbia's Highway of Tears?
Many people haven't, yet the stretch of road between Prince George and Prince Rupert is the site of numerous disappearances of women, many of them aboriginal, over the past several decades.
Ironically, theatre artist Keith Barker, then an artistic associate with Native Earth Performing Arts, first learned about the highway's history when he was in northern Ontario's Sioux Lookout.
"I was devastated, in part because my sister had gone to school in the area. Even she hadn't heard about what had been happening there. The RCMP says 18 women have gone missing, but other research mentions numbers in the 40s. Why, I wondered, wasn't it front-page news?"
The discovery inspired Barker, best known as an actor, to write a play about the disappearances, not just on that stretch of road but elsewhere in the country. As he adds, "Upwards of 600 aboriginal women have disappeared across Canada, and my looking into the records just turned up one shock after another."
The result is The Hours That Remain, a co-pro between Toronto's New Harlem Productions and Saskatoon's Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company; the show opens here on Friday (October 19) after a run out west.
The three central characters are sisters Michelle and Denise and Denise's husband, Daniel. After Michelle disappears, her sister seeks desperately to find out what happened to her. A series of visions gives her some hints, but there's more trauma and plot twists as Denise comes closer to the truth.
"I built the story around the closeness of these three people who have cared for each other such a long time. They might fight, but they do it as close friends who also know how to laugh together.
"Denise is the younger sibling, with an openness and trust that can make her vulnerable; in contrast, Michelle is the harder of the two, the voice of reason, protective of the sister she finds naive.
"Daniel and Denise's marriage has a long-term, loving feel to it. They try to be good to each other and talk about problems that come up, and most of their arguments are about the everyday things - not doing the dishes, leaving things on the floor - we all face."
Knowing that some people turn off when dealing with the subject of lost women, Barker approaches the material in a way that moves beyond statistics.
"These are real people, not all of them aboriginal, nor are they all prostitutes; they're simply vulnerable women.
"I want to explore what it feels like when you lose someone. What happens when someone close disappears from your life and you have neither recourse to action nor an answer to why? What happens when you become obsessed with the loss, and how does it affect your life and other relationships?"
"When, just as importantly, do you move on and let go? That's the really difficult thing; some people never do, and the play addresses that concern."
The non-linear script moves back and forth in time, a style that Barker took a while to embrace fully.
"My dramaturges, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and Isaac Thomas, helped me with the structure, assisting me to decide when to reveal which piece of information.
"The result is, I hope, a show that doesn't beat audiences over the head with an issue. I want people to appreciate the story, get caught up in what's discussed and start questioning why we're not hearing more about these women who've disappeared."
If you saw fireworks around the Distillery District over the weekend, they came from the Young Centre's fifth annual Global Cabaret Festival, one of the year's most exciting combos of dance, theatre and music.
We caught several of the shows - wish we'd had time to see others, which featured a total of 150 artists - and most featured memorable performances.
The weekend began Friday (October 12) with a cabaret-style run through all the songs in Lionel Bart's classic musical Oliver! Under musical director John Millard, one of the Young Centre's resident artists, the performance featured other residents, including Patricia O'Callaghan, Gregory Oh, Aline Morales and Suba Sankaran. Also on tap was the Young Centre City Choir and conductor Alex Samaras; we spotted actors Jean Yoon and Elva Mai Hoover in the community-based troupe.
Highlights included Sankaran's buoyant Consider Yourself and I'd Do Anything, which began in slow, lullaby fashion and then switched to a more exuberant tempo; O'Callaghan's It's A Fine Life and Oom-Pah-Pah, both of which showed off her ability to engage viewers with music and words; and an audience singalong version of Where Is Love?
The biggest surprise was casting Brent Carver as Fagin, not a role in which you'd immediately picture him. But the same was true of Tevye in Stratford's 2000 production of Fiddler On The Roof, a part that Carver inhabited completely. He brought out not only the humour but also the pathos of the finagling Fagin, and, like all the others onstage, he clearly had fun playing the part.
Carver was back in a solo cabaret later that same evening, performing with a three-piece band led by pianist Laura Burton.
This megawatt talent is a singing actor who presents his material in an absolutely simple fashion yet suggests a world of emotion in that very simplicity. And what varied material it was: Tumbalalaika, Red Red Robin, Who Knows Where The Time Goes (a Judy Collins standard), Love Potion Number Nine, Leslie Arden's The World Is Changing, several Jacques Brel songs (Jackie and Sons Of), Scarlet Ribbons, Just A Gigolo and a heart-rending version of All Through The Night.
The range was enormous, but for each song he created a specific universe and drew us into it, wrapped within his voice and the feelings he projected. The audience was, rightly, pin-drop silent during each song.
Another highlight was Broadsway, which paired the jazzy vocals (and amusing patter) of Heather Bambrick and Julie Michels, accompanied by Diane Leah, who contributed some deadpan quips along with her incomparable piano playing.
The two singers' voices - Michels's rich alto and Bambrick's high-flying soprano - blended beautifully in duets, and each had a chance to shine individually, Michels with a poignant version of Send In The Clowns and Bambrick with a show-stopping Bohemian Rhapsody.
One show that has major development potential was Bohemians In Brooklyn, Tom Allen's look at a remarkable dwelling that in the 1940s housed W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee.
The piece, a version of which has already appeared on CBC Radio, interweaves their creative struggles and escapades with lovers and the bottle with that of George Davis, a minor writer and editor.
Allen's slickly written story - often delivered in a rushed manner - was beautifully punctuated with a series of songs, some written by the home's inhabitants and others penned by Allen and pianist Bryce Kulak.
Allen, Kulak, Patricia O'Callaghan and harpist Lori Gemmell brought the songs to vivid life in a show that could easily run longer than an hour.
Not all the cabarets worked - ProArteDanza's Fellini Cabaret was a disaster on many levels - but there was always something else to see. And if a show didn't work, you'd be out in an hour.
One thing you can say about Helen Donnelly's character Foo - she knows how to play well with others.
That includes, importantly for a clown show, the audience.
In Saucisse: A Foo Musical, Donnelly becomes a number of characters, including a puppet, to tell the tale of Foo's friendship with a cuddly pig, the title character, who's determined to return home.
Using the frame of an old western prospector who recounts the story, Donnelly takes us on the pair's journey, a kind of horse opera minus the horses but with the singing.
At the show's start, the gibberish-speaking Foo finds herself at various concerts and horse races, illegally selling souvenirs until security guards throw her out. When caught, she's ingratiating, a bit naive and knows how to win over viewers if not the strict guards.
Then she meets Saucisse, who wants to return to his hometown of Hogersville; what follows is a wonderful bit where Foo explains to the audience why there's no real pig onstage.
We go on the road with the pair, a journey mixed with some not too heavy philosophical talk about a Divine Plan and five songs, sung to Matthew Reid's tunes, in Foo's unique language.
Working with director Susanna Hamnett, Donnelly knows how to charm us with physical and verbal humour. There's a touch of the feline in Foo - she has perky little ears she sometimes paws like a cat with an itch - and at times you can almost hear her purr, especially when she's enjoyed her favourite drink.
The hour-long show, designed by Lindsay Anne Black and Michelle Ramsay, includes a number of fine moments. You've probably never heard a knock-knock joke or a version of the standard "three people walk into a bar" told in gibberish, which you soon start to understand; Foo also dances, when the narrative takes a tragic turn, some Swan Lake moves, choreographed by Viv Moore.
Despite that sad note, Saucisse is a strong vehicle for Donnelly, no pig in a poke but, rather, an entertaining show that entices the audience into Foo's vivid world.
Physical theatre always seems to be a winner for family audiences, and the works of Montreal's DynamO Théâtre have regularly amazed viewers at Young People's Theatre.
YPT opens its season with DynamO's I On The Sky, written and directed by Yves Simard, in which a young girl with a suitcase arrives in a park, apparently blown in by a violent storm. For the rest of the hour-long show, she connects with some of the people she meets; at times, she drifts back into pleasant or frightening memories.
Wordless and acrobatic, the production allows each member of the audience to create a scenario about what's happened to the girl. She plays Bach on the piano and shares that enthusiasm with another girl, a hoodied youngster running away from her parents, who eventually becomes a friend.
We get a sense of the central character, her family in another country and the war that engulfs that nation and those she cares about. It's music that comforts her and provides a link to those in the new country in which she finds herself.
The story is filled with athletic moves involving a hidden trampoline and episodes alternately comic and moving. In one, the passing of cellphones, a sandwich and other props is vaudevillian in feel, while another scenario that depicts an execution might be upsetting for impressionable viewers.
The actors - Andréanne Joubert as the windblown girl, with Laurianne Brabant, Marie-Eve Lafontaine, Frédéric Nadeau and Hugues Sarra-Bournet playing all the other figures - are winningly energetic and expressive in their body language.
Projections by Michel-Antoine Castonguay run behind the action, showing blue skies, snowy landscapes and other vistas. The last image is the dawn of a bright day, symbolic of the new life the girl has found.
Since debuting their weekly Sunday Night Live show in 2004, the Sketchersons have produced - or helped hone the acts of - an astonishing number of first-rate comics, like Gilson Lubin, Nikki Payne, Fraser Young, Jason DeRosse, Norm Sousa and Carly Heffernan, not to mention founding members like Inessa Frantowski, Pat Thornton and Gary Rideout Jr.
We hadn't seen them in years, but decided to catch up on last Sunday's (October 14) show.
The format, of course, is modelled after TV's SNL, and in terms of writing, performing and production values, they simply can't compete. How could they? But we salute the troupe's ability to tirelessly crank out sketches and attract a strong list of guest hosts (this week was Steve Little and former SNL member Jerry Minor) and musicians.
Predictably, Sunday's show produced some hits and misses. We won't dwell on the misses, but most sketches that didn't work began as goofy premises and never developed or took surprising turns.
The funnier scenes included an absurd one in which the group the B52's are among the survivors of a zombie attack; one set in a dance club in which women criticized men for their body language (guests Minor and Little were excellent here); and an amusing behind-the-scenes bit about a Milli Vanilli-type music duo (Minor and Little again) discovered to be frauds on several levels.
And Brendan Halloran's send-up of the weekly news delivered lots of deadpan gems, including one about sponsorship, as well as clever impersonations of Joe Biden (Ian McIntyre) and Paul Ryan (Jon Blair).