Handsome Alice Theatre Looks Out From The Tall Building

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Handsome Alice Theatre presents The Tall Building by Jill Connell, September 9 – 17. Pictured (Front to Back): Genevieve Pare, Geoffrey Simon Brown, and Telly James. Photo Credit: Tim Nguyen, Citrus Photography.

A city is threatened by fire and wild coyotes in Jill Connell’s play The Tall Building. For three strangers living high above in an apartment building, however, it’s not the fire or coyotes that concerns them – it’s each other.

Presented by Handsome Alice Theatre, Connell’s The Tall Building is a strange, yet intriguing play about modern life. Boy (Geoffrey Simon Brown) seems more interested in his neighbor Sulla (Geneviève Paré), who lives across the hall, than the fire growing uncontrollably outside. Unfortunately for him, Sulla has no interest in speaking with him or anyone else. The young boy is determined, however, to interview Sulla for his citizen newspaper. Watching them from afar is a boastful Assassin (Telly James) who eventually introduces himself to Sulla and Boy, perhaps only so he has an audience.

Two unnamed radio personalities periodically broadcast lives updates on the developing crisis, until one of them goes off-the-air without warning.

The Tall Building brings to mind Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros as the number of coyotes running wild in the streets seems to increase as time goes on. Where Ionesco was concerned about conformity, Connell’s concern is the isolation and indifference created by urban development – of cities growing taller than communities growing wider. Questions of identity emerge as the situation worsens for the last remaining humans of what seems like the new status quo. Hints of this new status quo can be seen in the way Boy praises the 7-Eleven for how well it provides him with everything he needs, much like a parent. He seems more connected with a corporate franchise than other people; the worst nightmare for anyone who likes independent bookstores and coffee shops.

Appropriately, Hanne Loosen’s set is gritty and bleak. The scenery of a tall, less than glamorous apartment building suggests floors upon floors of broken dreams and failed promises. Lighting Designer Nicole Olson Grant-Suttie casts the stage in glum, moody tones, with few bright colours. There’s a strong sense of urban and moral decay, it’s almost like a film noir movie.

The play benefits from Denise Clarke’s vibrant direction as sometimes it gets too caught up and tangled in its own concerns, sprawling outwards like a city overwhelmed by development. Clarke takes advantage of the space available to her inside the Big Secret Theatre by using movement to express the stress of urban life, loneliness, and melancholy. The use of movement strengthens the play’s introspective nature by providing deeper insight into the psyche of these off-beat characters.

Although much older than the character he plays, Brown takes on the qualities of an inquisitive young boy/citizen journalist very well. It’s fun to watch the energetic Brown play a character who is the complete opposite of Sulla, a young woman hardened by abandonment (although we later learn the two characters have more in common than they think). Sulla’s character arc is well-articulated by Pare who plays her with an aloofness that gradually melts away. James is charismatic as the assassin who everyone knows is an assassin. The actor’s snake-like slithering makes us unsure of what his character will do next. The cast draw us into Connell’s surreal world by embracing their characters’ idiosyncrasies.

Although sometimes it loses its way, Connell’s The Tall Building is an insightful play about city life in these modern times. Handsome Alice Theatre’s production of The Tall Building shines thanks to strong direction and design.


Handsome Alice Theatre’s production of The Tall Building by Jill Connell runs September 9 – 17 at the Big Secret Theatre (Arts Commons).

For information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.handsomealice.com/

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) Roars With Wit and Humour

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Left to Right: Allison Lynch (Desdemona) and Julie Orton (Iago) in Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet),  presented by The Shakespeare Company & Handsome Alice Theatre & Hit & Myth Productions. Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird Arts & Photography.

Co-presented with The Shakespeare Company and Hit & Myth Productions, Handsome Alice Theatre, formerly known as Urban Curvz Theatre, makes its debut with Anne-Marie MacDonald’s 1988 play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Drama, the Canadian play applies feminist theory to the works of William Shakespeare, namely Othello and Romeo & Juliet, critiquing academia and the patriarchy while doing so.

Directed by Kate Newby, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) tells the story of Constance Ledbelly (Ayla Stephen), a doctoral student who believes Othello and Romeo & Juliet were originally intended as comedies. Her theory is based on the Gustav manuscript, a mysterious document that Constance has yet to decipher. Constance’s dissertation is ridiculed by Professor Claude Night (Mabelle Carvajal), whom she has a crush on. Professor Night’s news that he has accepted a position at Oxford University, the very same Constance was hoping to land, devastates the lowly academic. Heartbroken, Constance loses all hope for both her romantic and academic aspirations, deciding right there and then that she will die alone, forgotten by Professor Night.

From here, the play plunges straight down a rabbit hole, dropping Constance first into Othello then Romeo & Juliet. Our hapless heroine embarks on a quest through her subconscious to find her identity, meeting the characters of Shakespeare’s plays along the way. Constance’s presence, however, changes the plays from tragedies to comedies, fulfilling her theory, albeit with unintended results as she becomes too involved in the plots.

What stands out most in MacDonald’s subversive play is the influence of the male gaze on Shakespeare’s female characters. For one, Constance refers to characters by what male academics have written about them, which creates some dissonance when she actually meets them. And then, there’s Shakespeare himself who sees Desdemona (Allison Lynch) as a possession for Othello who has her life in his hands, not unlike Professor Night with Constance. Juliet (Geneviève Paré) is prepared to die for Romeo (Julie Orton), her self-worth tied to romantic love with a man, again not unlike Constance and her love for Professor Night.

And so, Constance’s journey of self-discovery is about reclaiming her identity from patriarchal subjugation.

MacDonald’s play is very funny, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s also very smart. The text is rich in commentary about sexuality, the glass ceiling for female academics, and male-centric interpretations of English literature, all of which the Canadian playwright delivers with a deft hand. Thankfully, the play’s quirky humour is able to breathe through all these layers. Sometimes, comedic plays with big ideas fall flat as they are neither very funny or very insightful, effectively crushed under the weight of their ambition. MacDonald’s play rises to the task of producing smart, entertaining theatre.

Under Newby’s direction, the production is wild and delightfully weird. The director has chosen to stage the play in the 1970s, the era of funk and free love. The production is certainly funky with its collection of disco tunes, like Do The Hustle (Anton de Groot, Light and Sound Designer). The era is appropriate given the gender-bending that occurs with not only the presence of an all-female cast, but also Romeo and Juliet’s cross-dressing to win Constance’s favour; liberation from the status quo.

Julie Arsenault’s set is simple, yet effective. A two-tiered structure sits in the middle with two trap doors on its top. There is a balcony at the back of the theatre. At first glance, the floor – and the balcony wall – has normal flooring tiles, but then upon closer examination the tiles are actually pages of text from Shakespeare’s plays! Arsenault’s detail really establishes the Shakespeare wonderland Constance finds herself in.

In this wacky wonderland, we have an all-star female cast firing on all cylinders. Orton is a genuine scene stealer, and that’s a tough statement given that the comedic talent here is simply astounding. Even Orton’s most miniscule physicalities as the scheming Iago are hilarious. Her knack for physical comedy is no doubt from her years of improv experience. And then there’s Stephen who plays the Constance as if she were a cat hoarder days away from appearing on some TLC reality show. It’s an understated performance that fits marvelously with the surrounding absurdity. Lynch channels her inner Xena, warrior princess, for Desdemona, and it’s fantastic. Paré plays the death-obsessed, if not suicidal, Juliet with zest – o happy dagger indeed! Carvajal plays brings plenty of meaty machismo to the male characters of Professor Night, Othello and Tybalt.

Handsome Alice Theatre’s debut production is ferociously funny. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is a near-perfect introduction to this company dedicated to unleashing the female voice.


 

The Shakespeare Company & Handsome Alice Theatre & Hit & Myth Productions present Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Anne-Marie MacDonald, May 12 – 21 at Vertigo Theatre’s The Studio.

For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.shakespearecompany.com/current-season/goodnight-desdemona-good-morning-juliet/