I sat with high school students for a matinee performance of Josh MacDonald’s hour-long, digital thriller #IAmTheCheese, a co-production by Eastern Front Theatre (EFT) and Halifax Theatre for Young People (HTYP), playing at the Stages Theatre Festival in Alderney Landing today, 2 p.m. (Alderney Landing / Buy Tickets (ticketpro.ca)
This teen audience, which could have been rowdy and distracted, was completely silent –no whispering, no fidgeting, just a few gasps of worry for the main character.
#IAmTheCheese is a great play for teens (and adults) because of its fast pace, the way it is told and the subject matter. The drama delves into digital terrorism and trickery at both the individual, social media level and at the corporate, global level.
#IAmTheCheese is a reimagining of Robert Cormier’s 1977 young adult novel of the same name which MacDonald, an award-winning local screen and stage writer, first read as a teen himself. He’s contemporized it but kept a depth of character and suspense.
It opens in an unnamed, cold institutional space where the teen Adam Farmer is being questioned and treated by a psychiatrist and guide Brint. As she tries to pry open his memories leading up to a traumatic event, he reveals more and more before getting blocked and catatonic or crumpling into a ball and singing The Farmer in the Dell, a key song to the story and one his dad taught him.
Sam Vigneault is excellent as the upset, struggling teen, who in his previous life was a lonely kid without an iPhone. He was fond of his dad and falling in love, mainly in online exchanges on a public computer, with a high school girl Amy (Raessa Lalani). Vigneault is very good at subtleties in his acting; he is totally convincing as a character who is slightly suspicious but also trusting, not yet an adult and more hopeful than cynical.
The father/son scenes are tender with Sebastien Labelle playing the dad in a very warm performance. Susan Stackhouse builds a terrific tension as Brint as both a motherly and totally unknown entity.
#IAmTheCheese is directed by Ann-Marie Kerr to keep the suspense on a slow burn and with a marvellous design in projections by Christian Ludwig Hansen and scenic design by Brenda Duran. The projections create the digital world; scenes of conversation between father and son and Amy feature an ingenious combination of imagery, screens and movement. The music and sound by composer and designer Jackson Fairfax-Perry is also key in establishing the atmosphere, as is Olivia Rankin’s lighting design. All round this is an excellent creative team, including costume designer Everette Fournier.
#IAmTheCheese has been in development since 2017, won the Playwright Guild of Canada’s Sharon Enkin Theatre for Young Audiences Award in 2020 and has been popular in its digital format.
“When Josh first approached me about this project a good number of years ago I was fascinated, but I could not have imagined the kind of creative journey we would eventually go on! Constantly adapting to the realities of the pandemic thoroughly engaged the team’s creative juices and I love that the show explores digital issues while pushing the edges of how digital expression can add to live performance. This show, premiering live for the first time, is truly an expression of and for this particular time in history!, ” says HTYP artistic director Tessa Mendel, who hopes to tour it in the future.
SHAKESPEARE’S TIME MACHINE
Nova Scotia playwright Dan Bray goes to the heart of all things COVID for his playful, pandemic parody Shakespeare’s Time Machine, running at the Stages Theatre Festival at Alderney Landing Theatre today, 6:30 p.m. (for mature audiences).
If you paid attention to all the new words, cultural changes and social conflicts during COVID-19 this is the cathartic comedy for you.
Clever and uproarious, Shakespeare’s Time Machine is an amazing meld of Shakespearean and more modern times, though Marie Curie makes an appearance as well. The one-liners, word-play and references go by so fast it’s hard to keep up with Bray’s pen and tongue for he plays the mighty bard himself.
His Shakespeare is a prancing, word-spouting, arrogant, selfish writer who refuses to get “leeched” during the plague in late 1500s London. Furious that the queen has closed the theatres, he looks first to cats as the super-spreading villains but ends up befriending Teddy the talking cat, manipulated as a hissing super hero with the occasional fur ball by puppeteer Mayha Tench.
Together Teddy and Will time travel into the future looking for an antidote with the hot-headed villain Cromwell (Ira Henderson) in fast pursuit. Along the way Will learns a lot about compassion, social responsibility and sexism particularly from Marie Curie, in a strong, entertaining performance by Lara Lewis.
Rachel Lloyd makes a wonderful, terse Steve Jobs as Bray opens up the field to technology jokes. She also does a competent Donald Trump voice for the Queen puppet made by Laura Stintson.
Also in the cast are Michael Kamras as the beloved Christopher Marlowe, Trisha Dhar Malik as Shakespeare’s feisty daughter Judith (as Bray brings in the Hamnet and Judith plot-line) and Colleen MacIsaac in a variety of roles.
The stage is full of motion with a simple set of chairs and crates and comic book projections designed by MacIsaac and Anna Shepherd. Keith Morrison’s sound design is key.
The tremendous energy and stamina and comic awareness that Bray brings to the character of Shakespeare is impressive.
Bray also directs with co-director Rebecca Wolfe to produce his mad, manic vision with a fast pace and furious energy.
There may be one time travel too many and an unconnected dot or two but it hardly matters as the show races towards its ending mirroring Nova Scotia’s COVID reality. Alderney Landing / Buy Tickets (ticketpro.ca) Audiences need to wear masks during the show.
The Stages Theatre Festival, the annual festival of new work run by Eastern Front Theatre, includes circus, drag, stand up, music, installation art and mind-reading apart from challenging and comic theatre. (The complete program is at STAGES THEATRE FESTIVAL – Eastern Front Theatre ). There is a special presentations of Santiago Guzmán’s URN and Halifax Theatre for Young People’s Newcomers on June 23 at Alderney Landing Theatre. Audiences are asked to wear masks while in the theatre.
Three of the Villains, Bray, MacIsaac and Henderson, are also acting in The Lakeside Players’ all-ages show, Cyrano de Bergerac with a twist. According to the Stages release, Cyrano, the greatest swordsman and poet in all France, loves Roxanne, but can’t declare his love. When new recruit Christina arrives to join Cyrano’s regiment, Roxanne falls madly in love with her. It runs today at 11 and 1 p.m.; Sunday, 11 and 1 p.m.
The Villains Theatre, run by artistic director Bray, artistic producer MacIsaac and associate producer Wolfe, is super busy this summer with four upcoming shows, Dinostories!: 3 Prehistoric Fairy Tales, by Bray and Noella Murphy (costume designer for Shakespeare’s Time Machine), July 5-9, Festival Antigonish and Sept. 1-11, Halifax Fringe Festival; Coarse, a co-production with Sarah Deller, July 22-24, at the Chester Legion; The Knight of the Bat, by Dan Bray, billed as “:A Comic Book Epic of Shakespearean Proportions,” Sept. 1-12, Halifax Fringe, and Madsummer, by Bray, an 80s sci-fi karaoke musical inspired by Tears for Fears, Oct. 27, 29 and 30, Bus Stop Theatre. (Clearly Dan Bray did not have a creative block during the pandemic.)
Summer theatre is heating up this year; Festival Antigonish’s outdoor production of The Hobbit is selling fast and rehearsals have started for Two Planks and a Passion Theatre’s two outdoor productions at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts.