Review Samples (From Critical Futures Program)

Szepty/ Whispers: A Review
By: Vivian Li

Within and after the pain of a generation, an individual’s sense of self is often fractured. While exploring these themes, Szepty/ Whispers also builds on ritual, interviews, and archives to unravel and recover the truth of family memory, migration, and intergenerational trauma. Written and performed by Veronique West and directed by Jivesh Parasram, the hour-and-a-half show’s initial set begins with projections and the sound of crashing waves, setting the mood and tone of the piece. Before the show starts, the steps of a ritual from West’s mother’s hometown are projected onto two screens, instructions that later mark the play’s movement in separate sections. Step 1. Gather scrap material. Step 2. Build an effigy. Steps 5 and 6: Scatter the ashes, then, leave the water’s edge. In each of its layered and intricately designed movements, the multimedia show combines design, archival research, and interview audio to explore healing and silences within cultures as well as between child and parent.

When West steps onto a set with a lace curtain, two chairs, and a table with scattered papers, a missed phone call from her mother begins a search for her ancestral past. With a single microphone and a confident demeanor, West narrates their thoughts and responds to the projected videos and interviews revealing their mother’s repressed emotions in Soviet Poland, as well as their research regarding intergenerational epigenetical change. The live and recorded dialogue moments between West and their mother are expressed in fragments, as the play moves back and forth between West’s struggles with mental health and the search for their mother’s voice as a youth.

As the show progresses, the ritual’s history and purpose is tied more deeply to materiality and the form of different objects. Captions are reflected on sheer lace and white canvas, and papers are scattered in traces of “what [they are] looking for.” The lace molds, changes, takes shape, like forms of water. It transforms from a tablecloth below which shelter can be found, into an abandoned shift, and later, a cloak and source of warmth. In each moment of revival, the lace becomes another way of connecting to their mother’s pain. “Remember, the truth does not caress.” West stares through the lace and sees the world (and the audience) through fractured moments in time.

Throughout the show, West searches for answers in fluid motions, exploring the stage to its full potential—who is their mother, and what did she go through in Soviet Poland? The search of what happened parallels the design of the piece, with layers upon layers of complexities and interchanges of interviews, responses that never occurred, silences. At the same time, words, too, become symbols of rituals and meaning—such as wspominać: to make a word or image true just by thinking about it. The audience is challenged to piece together moments of love and pain, and to recreate the past along with West.

As we cycle between past and present, it is later revealed that witches don’t cackle their spells, but whisper them into the wind. The audience now knows that the rustling papers, crashing waves, and static audio are all part of the ritual as it unlocks the season of winter. West, too, has to face a period of time that has been emotionally and temporally frozen for their mother. The show reminds me of a nautilus shell that has survived years in waves of all tempers—angry, sweet, despairing. Then, when the shell is brought out into the open, if you hold it close to your ear, the details of its past can be heard as faint echoes.

Szepty/ Whispers’ engages with a new way of approaching trauma and the healing process: “When we step through the pain, it’s refracted like a prism to reveal a spectrum.” We are the spectrum, and we can hold pain without being consumed by it. While working through the whispers of the past and the silences of the present—the play’s movements are always in flux, like the waves and transformations of the lace. When the lace is unhooked at the end, the light dazzles and spills across like stars, resting upon the performer’s figure. But before that, between the rustling pages and skipping audio, West asks: “What makes a good life? What if how I live isn’t easy but it’s honest and true?” The reverberations of these questions and powerful lines sing throughout the piece, calling forth another way of homecoming.

Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream: Review
By: Vivian Li

Where have all the vultures gone? Written by Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis, Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream features Rajan’s expert acting through a liminal state of death with a simple two-tier stone step.

Kutisar, played by Jacob Rajan, wakes in an echo-chamber, realizes he’s watching the reel of his good or bad deeds for three days before he dies. He remembers the time he met Meera, a kulfi owner, at a nightclub, and how they ventured into the Towers of Silence, where the Parsi dead are kept for the vultures—the latter of which is considered to help the Parsi avoid contamination of the soil as well as cleanse the dead. He later follows Meera to her kulfi shop and meets Meera’s Aunt, as well as at first an unwelcome guest—a living vulture in her Aunt’s home.

Jacob Rajan, a Malaysian-immigrant from New Zealand, played as multiple characters as a memory of him living in the past. His excellent portrayal of multiple characters, including Kutisar, Meera, Meera’s Aunt, a money-lender and a professor, as well as his sense of comedic timing engaged the audience for the 80-minute show. In response to his echo in the liminal world, Rajan yells: “That was 30 years ago! I live in Canada now! I work at Best Buy!” Further, when an alarm rung, or when someone sneezed, he acknowledged them in the show: “And now that the alarm has gone off…” His exaggerated slow movements as he ran away from the police during the nightclub scene also provided laughter in a fairly serious show including themes involving class divide, sexism and death. Jon Coddington’s expert maneuvering and intricate details of the vulture added to the realism and layers to the show’s themes.

The transitions in scene moved smoothly between locations such as nightclub, kulfi shop, the Towers of Silence, and rooftop, with D. Andrew Potvin’s lighting design in photography flashes and lighting changes, as well as Adam Ogle’s sound designs in echoes and kulfi shop jingling. The cyclic plot and momentum of the writing were well-established with the back-and-forth forward-moving wells and the liminal stage. David Ward’s electropop music with Stardew Valley resonance added to the scene transitions and setting, especially at the conclusion.

While the humour and irreverent moments moved the show forward, details about the moneylender were left out, as well as what happened to Meera. Further, more effort could be used to explore Parsi persecution and the meaning behind the funeral rites, given the dialogue about suggested sexism, including how women and children are shunned if they have a foreign father, but a Parsi man could have relations with foreign women without fear of the same repercussions. Meera’s character is especially compelling in her desire to become a scientist and her thoughtful perceptions compared to what others around her aspire her to be, but some of the other characters, including Kutisar, who is presented as “the everyday man,” lacks this depth.

Inspired by Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, the themes of a causa sui project, or an immortality project, creates meaning beyond their life—one that is echoed in the show. Constantly, Meera hopes for a life beyond what her grandfather passed down to her—owning and running the kulfi shop, while Kutisar seems to desire a life beyond his debt and the three days he was allotted to. The vulture, as a symbol of loss and fear, returns to remind him of what he was afraid of or he was unable to accomplish.

As Meera’s grandfather said, “Life and ice cream is impermanent. The only thing that matters is consistency.” In Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream, the repeated return to the transient emotions and memories, even at the edge of death, will help us relive them until they become permanent in creation.

Carousel Theatre – Oz Review
By: Vivian Li

In an imaginative retelling of how L. Frank Baum wrote the children’s classic book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the play, Oz, written by Patrick Shanahan and directed by Jennica Grienke, pulls audiences through with its gorgeous production design and superb actors. The play continuously reminds us of how, as children, we used to tell stories with solely household objects and our imagination.

In 1899 Chicago, Dot (Megan Zong) sneaks into L. Frank Baum’s (Stephen Thakkar) office to hide from a constable, presumably due to a fire she might’ve set off. While initially at odds with each other, the two soon find themselves co-creating and writing Dorothy’s journey through the world of Oz, fighting wicked witches and traveling with Brainless Scarecrow, Heartless Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion to reach The Great and Terrible Oz to fulfill their wishes and to find her way home to Kansas. Later, Bridgey (Jennica Grineke), Baum’s maid, takes on roles such as the Wicked Witch of the West, to help Baum finish the story and discover the true ending of his characters.

Zong deftly plays the relatable energetic young Dot, with sweet quirks and a fascination for fire, who, like Dorothy, hopes to find a home where she belongs. Meanwhile, Thakkar’s versatile accents, mannerisms, and passion shows through his playing of multiple characters including L. Frank Baum, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, Munchkin, and the Great and Terrible Oz—with quick transitions and only one or two props. Further, in a well-performed last-minute replacement, Grienke’s Bridgey adds to the fun through witchy spells and magic.

Ryan Cormack’s set and Monica Emme’s props design adds to the children’s tale recreation—Judy Garland’s velvet voice transitions to a 20th century-inspired office, with a green banker’s lamp, an office desk, a brown loveseat, a fireplace, and a painting of L. Frank Baum. At the same time, lighting design by Rebekah Jonhson adds to the mood and journey of characters who technically stay within a single room—with green projections swirling when Dorothy and her friends reach Emerald City.

The children and adults in the audience laughed alongside the sweet and funny antics of the characters. From a mop becoming a lion’s mane, a statue becoming the face of Tin Man, a footstool being chatty Toto, or a phonograph’s horn being a witch’s hat, the play follows the creativity of children when imagining their stories or plays. The children in the audience were also not afraid to participate, one of them shouting that the wizard broke a painting. There were moments where a change in set location could have added more engagement, but in general the creativity of using props was well-received.

The play also delves into more meta-fictional inquiries, as the Great and Terrible Oz reveals how difficult it is to be the little man behind the typewriter—a feeling that resonates deeply with Shanahan’s L. Frank Baum. When the author never sees or can interact with their audiences, how do they know if they’re truly reaching the people they’re writing for?

With a light-hearted and joyful spritz, Oz engages with intriguing questions while keeping an audience generally engaged, exploring the brain, heart, and courage needed to create a wonderful world children will remember for years to come.

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