Sunday, 15 May 2016

5 @ 50 is edgy take on aging high school buds
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : When he was 52, Canadian playwright Brad Fraser decided to give his dramatic metier -- exploration of life in men's gay communities -- a sabbatical. Instead he turned his customary cut of wit and irony toward five women on the cusp of 50. Its premise is simple, he told in 2011 on the eve of its world premiere in Manchester, UK : "A group of five women, all friends since high school and on the verge of turning fifty, discover one of their number is an alcoholic. An intervention is staged, badly, and hilarity and heartbreak ensue for all involved."

How it's all put together : In 2010 Fraser Facebook'd his women friends : tell me all the dirty little secrets you've accumulated across your life in the past 30 years since the last high school bell. Promising anonymity to each vendor for their tales of woe, heartbreak and confession, Fraser got a media-dump of anecdotes from which to forge this dramatic and embroidered chronicle. The five, all shunned at the high school prom, have maintained their friendships with loyalty, frailty and edginess. These are not Carrie Bradshaw's 30-something Sex and the City sirens. At 50 they've each had a life -- or two or three -- and they look back now on the various urges, obsessions and addictions they've all been subject to.

What the show brings to the stage :  Fraser also told this : "I'm fairly testosterone driven and the earlier work shows it but I'm also gay and not at all afraid of my more feminine traits. This play allowed me to put myself into a female headspace and I was quite surprised to find how accessible it was." Indeed. The show is an extended reveal of the women's true inner feelings and fears. And quite a look-see it is, now that they've summited life's mountain and stare and stumble down its backside. These five angst-ridden galpals are thick and laden with testosterone-&-estrogen driven grievances going back years that they visit noisily and gruffly on one another even as they "celebrate" each of their birthdays. 

Olivia (Deborah Williams) is the classic roaring drunk who at her 50th pukes on Tricia (Veena Sood) whom she's still angry at for "stealing" the part of Ophelia in the senior year production of Hamlet. Bi-sexual Olivia's lesbian partner all these years Norma (Beatrice Zeilinger) is accused by Tricia of being drunken Olivia's "co-dependent enabler" because she doesn't confront Olivia's ethanol frenzies that occur more and more regularly. The elegant Lorene (Diane Brown) is a serial monogamist : the courts didn't hesitate to give Dad custody of her children she's not seen for years. Yoga rhapsodist Fern (Donna Yamamoto) appears to have the perfect marriage and perfect kids, but for a dozen years or more she's been pulsating twice-weekly with married neighbour Barry on his office floor.

Snappy feisty dialogue drives the piece : Early on at Olivia's party the play's leitmotif is revealed, sort of jokingly, by one of them : "We're all evil witches, that's what holds us together!" Then a bit of a stretch with this exchange : "You don't look a day over 35!" says one, to which another snipes back "Yeah...if you're looking through a dirty fishbowl." They discuss how movies used to be scary but simple. Not any more. Lots of bare bodies, including men's : "A penis is the new tits!" Norma observes. When not together partying and kvetching, the women are each provided soliloquy moments where they tot up their hurts and wounds.  "You mean you've never woken up in the middle of the night and asked what the fuck have I done with my life?" one asks. Says another : "This reminds me of a church for people who are more messed up than people who go to church...!"

Production values that highlight the action : PAL's intimate horseshoe seating design provides Director Cameron Mackenzie ample opportunity for dramatic entrances and exits by the cast. Marina Szijarto's set of scalloped lace drapes and white enamel barstools lends the show a starkness of look that makes journalist sex-groupie Trish's closing observation about drunk now-derelict Olivia just that much more poignant : "We've all said things we can't take back, like that real cunty thing who drives you crazy. But she's been there all that time, and now you kind of miss it -- the last thing I expected was a sense of loss."

Acting pin-spots :  As Olivia, Deborah Williams turns in a most compelling and forceful performance as the once and future drunk. Her scream-fits with Beatrice Zeilinger as Norma were ferocious, brutish bouts of acting excellence that anyone practiced with drunks knows intuitively was spot-on stuff. Strong delivery by everyone on stage, but Veena Sood's Tricia struck my eye and ear as particularly nuanced.

Who gonna like : One observer noted : "If life is this grim for these women at 50, god help them when they're 70!" Another questioned whether "friendships" forged 30 years back could possibly withstand so much put-down, sarcasm, and mordant sneering at one another's foibles. And yet. There is a veneer of loyalty over all of their egg-shell egos. And while Brad Fraser's script tends toward hyperbole and caricature and near-burlesque of "real people", there is nevertheless true power in these actors' performances that makes for sober serious reflection on life's cravings. Most of us have certain monkeys-on-the-back that haunt and torment us regardless of age. 5 @ 50 forces us to entertain the what and the why and the wherefore. 

Particulars :  5 @ 50 : North American premiere.  Presented by Ruby Slippers Theatre & Zee Zee Theatre. At the PAL Studio Theatre, 581 Cardero Street. Shows May 11-28th.  Company info @  ruby slippersTickets available through theatre wire.

Production team : Director Cameron Mackenzie [Artistic Director Zee Zee Theatre].  Set & Costume Designer Marina Szijarto.  Lighting Designer Kyla Gardiner.  Sound & Props Designer Sarah Mabberly.  Stage Manager Jillian Perry.  Assistant Stage Manager Alannah Korf. 

Performers : Diane Brown [Artistic Director Ruby Slippers Theatre]  (Lorene).  Veena Sood (Tricia).  Deborah Williams (Olivia).  Donna Yamamoto (Fern).  Beatrice Zeilinger (Norma).  

Addendum : From the program.  Note from the Producers :

Ruby Slippers Artistic Director Diane Brown :

It's always unique when two indy companies come together to produce something. Ruby Slippers Theatre and Zee Zee Theatre tell stories that are intimate yet expansive. Artist-driven and collaborative in spirit, our two companies are coming together to produce 5 @ 50 because this project resonates with personal and social significance. With this co-production, we are doing something revolutionary...something that rarely happens on Canada's mainstages : we are putting five women of diverse background over 40 years of age onstage. That's it. That, sadly, is revolutionary. The other two taboos we are soundly smashing are : allowing these women to actually have a midlife crisis, and to talk about it. Secondly, they get to be unattractive, bold, funny, flawed and, well, utterly human. What differentiates these women from many of their male counterparts in midlife crisis is their intimate friendship and growing awareness, which ultimately save their dignity and themselves.

Zee Zee Theatre Company Managing Artistic Director Cameron Mackenzie :

Ruby Slippers Theatre has been challenging the status quo for nearly 30 years. They were founded by a collective of women  that wanted to change the world. It saddens me that 26 years later putting five three-dimensional women over 40 on stage is still revolutionary, but that is exactly why this co-production is so critical. Zee Zee Theatre is mandated to explore the small stories in the lives of the marginalized. This is our eighth season and we are committed now more than ever to shining light into the fringes our our communities, revealing our shared humanity. Twenty-six years later the battle is not won, but companies old and new are coming together to keep the fight going.



  1. Small correction! The sound and props designer was Sarah Mabberley
    Cheers ;)

    1. Apologies! I noted the duplication of Gardiner's name today, but the program went out with Monday morning recycling here in Tsw and the Crew list was nowhere to be found on-line. Thank you! Corrected!