REVIEW: Homegrown, Review by Aurora Stewart de Peña


Written by Catherine Frid
Directed by Beatriz Pizano

Presented by The Homegrown Project

Set & Lighting Design: Trevor Schwellnus
Sound Design: Thomas Ryder Payne

Assistant Director: Navneet Rai
Featuring: Keith Barker, Lwam Ghebrehariat, Omar Hady, Shannon Perreault, Nabeel Salameh, Razi Shawah

Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace

I could chastise Don Peat and the Toronto Sun for the great injustice they paid playwright Catherine Frid by condemning her play Homegrown before it even had a chance to open, but he’s a dingbat and the Sun is a dingbat paper that only dingbats read, and ultimately he was directly responsible for the show’s immense popularity and so far sold out run. He managed to endow Frid, an emerging writer who in her own words is “not well known” with a rebellious mystique that’s made her into a sort of Angela Davis / Bart Simpson type person.

And if it was Frid’s mission to make the story of Shareef Abdelhaleem, the convicted member of the Toronto 18 on whom the play is centred, heard, well then she did, and Don Peat really helped a lot.

Because you know that Shareef’s story is sympathetically rendered, and we as North Americans with a very exciting news media industry (sinkholes) had pretty much forgotten all about the Toronto 18, who did not actually manage to explode anything on their list.

It’s important to revisit the events that lead up to the arrests and subsequent imprisonment of these men. It’s important to ask questions. It’s important to discuss amongst ourselves the actions that our government takes in war and peace. It’s important to speak up against racism when we see it. Ideally, these are privileges afforded to us as Canadians. That’s probably why Frid felt safe writing this play.  

Today during leisure reading time, I absorbed the first chapter of Darren O’Donnell’s Social Acupuncture. He writes about theatre as a forum for discussion and social change; the feelings prompted by watching something with a community of people may lead to discussion within that community. I think that as artists we all hope for audiences engaged enough to carry on the discussion. We all hope that we’re creating something relevant. We want to change what’s wrong and we hope we can miraculously do this through art.

I’m certain that Frid was hoping to facilitate discussion within her community about the subject of her play. Her attention to detail is meticulous; she writes with the precision of a lawyer. It seems that her heart is gum-stuck on the idea of justice and accuracy.

What’s been largely ignored by those swept up in the controversy of the play’s subject matter is the play itself. Though it’s a good spot to start re-educating ourselves about the events that lead up to the conviction and sentencing of the Toronto 18, it’s more than an episode of CSI Toronto. There’s a love story that runs through the basement of this play. It gives the it and the playwright a self-awareness that deserves some credit. There is much tenderness for Abdelhaleem (played by Lwam Ghebrehariat) in Frid’s writing. He’s lonely, he’s brilliant, he loves his cats a lot. He tells Frid’s stage counterpart Cate (played by Shannon Perreault) that he’d like to marry a younger version of her. They touch hands through the bullet-proof plexi-glass that separates them. The play is as much about the relationship between playwright and prisoner as it is about the facts. In the end, Cate comes to the cold conclusion that Abdelhaleem might have known more about the terrorist plot than he’d led her to believe. The realization that she may have been duped is stinging, it’s a shock to the character, though not the audience.

If you sympathize with someone you understand them, or at least attempt to understand them. Frid’s play, now so infamously touted as a sympathetic portrayal, attempts to understand Shareef Abdelhaleem as a man rather than as a mug shot. She approached the enemy unafraid, and after all, if these men are truly our enemies, it’s best to know them.
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REVIEW: Foster Child Play, Review by Aurora Stewart de Peña

Foster Child Play

Written by Alex Napier
Directed by Philip McKee

Presented by Island School

Composer: Katie Stelmanis
Featuring: Nika Mistruzzi, Jackie Rowland, Vanessa Dunn

Presented at Hub 14


August 11th 8:00 PM
August 12th 8:00 PM
August 13th 8:00 PM
August 14th 8:00 PM
August 15th 2:00 PM

Of course this play features my beloved lady love Nika Mistruzzi. It was also assembled by treasured acquaintances Alex Napier (writer) and Philip McKee (director). The highly regarded Vanessa Dunn plays opposite the Neek-ster and Exciting New Young Person Jackie Rowland plays opposite everybody.

So I lean on an extreme bias. It’s okay; one of the reasons I’m friends with these people is because I think they’re smart and talented.

Alex Napier has written a play that my mother would say an actor could “lean up against”. It’s strong and layered, funny and sad. Two young room mates living in a stylishly beige world fall in friend-love over the irreparable damage caused to them by their mothers. In an attempt to create a new and functional unit, Alice (played by Mistruzzi in a pink dress) invites a 17 year old foster child named Tallulah (played by Rowland in hightop sneakers) to come and live in their downtown apartment. Sheila (played by Dunn in pleated shorts) is cautious about the whole situation.

Family damage is at the heart of Foster Child Play. It’s something that most of us have. We can generally look up and find cracks in the ceilings of our childhood homes. These days many of us opt to start over, leaving our families and making new ones out of friends, people we choose for ourselves.To overwrite the past and create a shining present is the challenge Napier gives her characters. Alice goes about rearing Tallulah (mostly already reared as a hair swishing 17 year old) in the most loving, graceful and unintentionally absurd way she knows how, idealizing her brokenness while showering her with immature affection.

Alice, as characterized by Mistruzzi, is a haphazard optimist. She is volatile and excitable, but her foil, Dunn’s Sheila, seems to me to be not so much a pessimist as a realist.* Sheila sees that Tallulah, who seethes with animosity for her but glows inwardly for Alice, is not the innocent country girl with invisible flowers in her hair, but is instead a sexually deviant attention seeking teenager in need of a lot more help than either one of them can give.

Under McKee’s direction, Napier’s carefully chosen words are endowed with the complexity and thoughtfulness with which they were written. Indeed, both writer and director are very good listeners. The very specific, halting, think-while-you-talk pattern of Toronto Girl dialect is perfectly captured and honoured, so much so that conversation over drinks afterwards was a bit self conscious. McKee has made a world that’s tense and vibrant, the lives of the characters unravel with a stately and mysterious progress; a crack, and then another crack, and then another, and then the roof caves in. The audience can see it coming, but that makes it all the more gripping.

Watching these women fall apart together, watching them break and then pick themselves up without successfully dusting off is both upsetting and hilarious. What makes Foster Child Play. so engaging to watch is seeing how hard everyone is trying. Though I’ll bet people will think this is absurdist, it’s very relatable. We’re all working through something, sorting through our pasts. Sometimes it’s extreme, funny and heartbreaking all at the same time.

*It’s been recently brought to my attention that I might be a nihilistic pessimist.
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Response to Don Peat's Article on Catherine Frid's Homegrown

I’ve never written for the Toronto Sun, but it must be fun coming up with all those flashy covers. Words like “Perv”, “Killer”, and “Terrorist”, (especially when spelled with exclamation points!!!) are great for grabbing people’s attention and keep the paper flying off the stands. Photos of scantily clad women also do the trick. My personal favourite is when they combine a photo of a partially nude woman with some word like “Murder!”, which actually references a completely different story. Way to sell papers! These folks really are geniuses.

In his story in the July 30th issue writer Don Peat took on the Summerworks Festival, and specifically the new play Homegrown by writer Catherine Frid. The piece is an autobiographical work which tells the story of Frid’s experience meeting and interviewing Shareef Abdelhaleem, one of the convicted members of the Toronto 18; the group which hatched an unsuccessful plot to blow up targets in Toronto. Peat tells his readers that the play is a “sympathetic portrayal” of a terrorist and insinuates that Frid is anti-Canadian. He points out (in the headline no less) that taxpayer dollars are supporting the play, and then lists in the body of the article the support that Summerworks gets from various levels of government.

I know that Peat and the rest of the Sun editorial team have a difficult task selling papers in today’s dwindling media market and that putting a photo and headline like this on the front page is a surefire way to get people to pick up the paper. But seriously, don’t you want to have a least a little bit of journalistic integrity?

Peat has written an opinion piece (disguised as a news story) about a play he has not seen or read. He also obviously didn’t do any research into the financial workings of the Summerworks festival if he thinks that the operating funding they get somehow gets passed on to the artists for the purposes of producing their work. A quick phone call to the festival would have told him that artists pay a fee to participate in the festival and then take home the box office. Maybe he should consider becoming a Canadian correspondent for Fox News. They love this kind of under-researched, poorly written, shock journalism.

Is this actually what our cultural discourse is coming to in Toronto? I understand and appreciate freedom of speech and I think Peat is perfectly entitled to his opinion. He is not, however, entitled to his own facts. Journalists have a responsibility to research the subjects they are writing about and regardless of whether or not they want to present an argument designed to swing the reader’s mind one way or another, they absolutely cannot just make things up because they want them to be true, even if it sells papers.

Oh course this article is likely to fuel ticket sales for Frid’s play, as well as the entire festival and we all have Peat to thank for that. But the larger question of whether or not tax dollars should be spent funding the arts has reared its head again and, judging by the comments on the Sun website, there is still a huge amount of work that the arts community needs to do in terms of educating the general public on this issue.

Funding culture in Canada (including all art forms, publishing, television, and radio) is not about lining the pockets of lazy artists who make work that is not successful enough to be financially viable. It is about protecting and promoting Canadian culture. Funding culture in Canada is an act of patriotism. It is about loving our country and wanting to see our stories, our ideas, and our viewpoints both represented and challenged.

Perhaps Mr. Peat thinks that Canadian culture should only be NHL hockey and American television? If so, then I would say that he is one who is anti-Canadian.
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Nina Arsenault goes from Dungeons and Dragons to playing Barbie

Though it’s unlikely you’ll ever find yourself in a game of Dungeons and Dragons with Nina Arsenault, if you do, make sure you don’t break character.

“I’ve always taken performance very seriously,” laughs Arsenault. “Even during my brief flirtation with DnD in high school, I always insisted people stay in character for the whole game.”

Arsenault always played high-priestess characters.

“The evil priestess was my favourite,” she says. “She was shockingly beautiful, dressed always in black robes and had very powerful spells. But she also had a healing quality and was worthy of redemption in the end.”

Our discussion of the ultimate nerd pastime has come up in talking about Arsenault’s SummerWorks show I W@s B*rbie, which is based on the transsexual writer/performer’s real-life experience of being asked to play Barbie at the Mattel Corporation’s 50th birthday party for the much loved (and hated) doll.

When she talks in the script about arriving at Fashion Week, Arsenault delivers the poignant line, “I am on a pilgrimage into the pink plastic temple of patriarchy, and like it or not, I am its highest priestess,” which has led us to a discussion of her previous roles as “Priestess,” as well as the subject of patriarchy.

Not surprisingly, Arsenault has even more to say about the latter subject.  

Read the rest at
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