Giveaway | The Sinner on Showcase

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Based on the international bestselling novel of the same name, The Sinner follows a young mother (Jessica Biel) who, when overcome by an inexplicable fit of rage, commits a startling act of violence and to her horror has no idea why. The event launches an inverted and utterly surprising crime thriller whose driving force is not the “who” or the “what” – but the “why.” An investigator (Bill Pullman) finds himself obsessed with uncovering the woman’s buried motive. Together, they travel a harrowing journey into the depths of her psyche and the violent secrets hidden in her past.

The eight-episode crime thriller premieres Monday, August 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showcase in Canada. To watch the trailer, please click here.

I love the trailer — I think Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman are fantastic in it and I can just imagine how masterfully they’ll bring this grip lit psychological thriller to life. As a fan of mysteries, I’m also intrigued by the whydunnit element of the story and the comparison of the author on Goodreads to ‘Germany’s Patricia Highsmith.’

Giveaway (Canada only)

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Read the book that inspired the show! Thanks to Showcase, I’m giving away a prize pack to my Canadian readers that includes:

  • A copy of The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr
  • Showcase tote bag and swag

Three ways to win:

One (1) winner will be chosen from all three platforms.

Contest ends at midnight on August 21.

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Thank you to Showcase for the opportunity to host this giveaway!

Three Must-See Plays in Toronto This Week

Prince Hamlet

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On stage till April 29 at the Theatre Centre. General admission seating, pay what you can afford ($5, $25, $50, $75). Buy tickets online.

The most visceral, emotionally powerful take on Shakespeare I’ve ever experienced, Ravi Jain’s ASL/English production Prince Hamlet is a must see. The stark set design compels us to keep our gaze fixed on the actors, and the dynamism of their movement through the space. The piles of dirt around the stage provide opportunities for fraught, highly symbolic engagement by the actors, and the mirrors on the far wall create moments of self-reflection done very well, as characters like Claudius and Hamlet deliver monologues not to the audience but to themselves.

The key to this play’s success in my view lies in the masterful performance by Dawn Jani Birley who plays Horatio. Tasked with telling Hamlet’s story after his death, Horatio narrates the events of the play in ASL. Birley also interprets much of the spoken dialogue into ASL, yet remains present in the scene, her gestures conveying emotions writ large. Birley’s performance is most powerful when she’s alone on stage, either signing a speech before another character delivers a monologue, or delivering her own monologue as Horatio. The scene where she narrates Ophelia’s death is heartbreaking, and the final scene of the play, where Horatio dissembles with grief at Hamlet’s death is beyond words. I try to write in more detail about the experience on this blog, but really, that final scene just about broke me. I’m usually too self-conscious to give a standing ovation when I’m as close to the stage as I was at Prince Hamlet (second row), but this performance brought me to my feet. It was incredible.

Banana Boys

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On stage till May 14 at Factory Theatre. General admission seating, Tickets $25, $20 for seniors, students and arts workers. Buy tickets online.

Raw, irreverent and surprisingly poignant at times, Banana Boys is a brash take on Asian-Canadian masculinity. The title is from a derogatory term to describe someone “yellow on the outside and white on the inside,” and the play tells the story of five Asian-Canadian men who are exploring their identities and navigating adulthood.

The story begins at the funeral of one of the men, Rick (Jeff Yung), a wealthy consultant who lived with drug addiction and the ability to time travel, and who was found with a mirror in his chest. The time traveling conceit sets the stage for a frenzied series of vignettes from the characters’ lives, as Rick pops in and out of various time periods in an attempt to find some potential for posterity.

For a show about death and drugs, it’s remarkably hilarious. I particularly loved a game show scene that mimicked the cheesy variety show formats on Asian TV, and Matthew Gin as Mike had to choose from four “acceptable” career options as his mother cheered in the background. Another favourite scene was a guerrilla warfare sequence where the characters were confronted with the landscape of being a “banana boy”, such as that white guys get girls from various backgrounds and banana boys are left with video games and bubble tea.

At other times, the play is in-your-face about its darker themes. For example, Oliver Koomsatira as Dave narrates an incident of racial violence from the stage, and his cast mates walk into the audience, look audience members in the eye and show images from the story on their phone screens. It was uncomfortable, and consciously so; we as audience members are forced to confront the reality that Dave had lived through. Dave struggled with anger management issues throughout the play, beating up white characters for real and perceived racial slights, and his anger becomes a constant reminder of the microaggressions Asian-Canadians face daily, and how all of that adds up inside you.

Banana Boys is raw and powerful and the staging is absolutely masterful. See it.

Little Pretty and the Exceptional

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On stage till April 30 at Factory Theatre. General admission seating, Tickets $45, $30 for seniors, students and arts workers. Buy tickets online.

A Punjabi-Canadian man and his two daughters prepare to open up a sari shop in Toronto as the elder daughter Simran (Farah Merani) deals with mental health issues. I came into this play expecting a family comedy along the lines of Kim’s Convenience, and wasn’t prepared for how harrowing an experience this play would become. The play plunges us directly into Simran’s psyche, beginning with her stressing out over LSATs, and Merani is a tightly coiled spring, jittery and awaiting the slightest touch to explode. Later, she channels her long-deceased mother and walks around the store as lights flicker and sounds come from speakers and it’s just an overwhelming, utterly terrifying scene. I almost clutched the arm of the friend who watched the play with me, and had to remind myself this was fiction, so real did this scene feel. All kudos to Merani for her performance, as I can only imagine how tiring, how emotionally draining it must be to play this part day in and day out; I was exhausted just watching what she went through.

The performance standout for me however was Shruti Kothari as younger sister Jasmeet. Some online reviews have called her “effervescent”, and it’s true — she lights up the stage with her quest to become prom queen and her rom com scenes with new boyfriend Iyar (Shelly Antony). But as the story goes on, we realize there’s a strained cheerfulness to Jasmeet’s demeanour, a determination to remain positive and keep her family living as normal a life as possible. For all her love for her sister, she is the last to allow herself to admit that Simran needs help, and for all her desire to keep her family happy, she also harbours major unresolved issues about her mother. The play’s program calls her “the typical hip Toronto teenager”, which I think is a disservice, as to my mind, she gave the most nuanced performance and her character showed the most growth within the story.

Shelly Antony as Iyar is hilarious and charming, but more importantly, as the only character outside the family, he provides perspective and sees things before the family members allow themselves to acknowledge. He’s most fun as comic relief, but when he gets serious, you realize how wonderful he is as a boyfriend, and how much more he is than just the perfect prom king beside Jasmeet’s queen.

Sugith Varughese is fantastic as Dilpreet, the father whose dreams of a new life in Canada are inextricably intertwined with his dreams of creating a family legacy for his children. Dilpreet provides a much needed reality check; while Simran struggles with stress and Jasmeet turns a blind eye to the possibility that things are less than perfect, Dilpreet must keep the family going. He continues with the sari store because he needs to pay the bills. He has to confront his guilt over his wife’s death because he needs to help his daughters. Varughese imbues the character with humour and charisma, and serves as a wonderful foil for both daughters.

This isn’t an easy play to watch, but if you do, prepare to be moved.

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Fun fact: I actually learned of these plays from each other. A friend invited me to see Little Prettyand in the programme I saw a promo for Banana Boys, and when I watched Banana Boys, there was a flyer in the lobby for Prince Hamlet. So many thanks to my friend Tina who started me on this whole series in the first place!

Theatre Review | Prince Hamlet

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Ravi Jain’s ASL/English production Prince Hamlet is the most visceral, emotional experiences I’ve ever had watching Shakespeare. Dawn Jani Birley plays Horatio, the friend tasked to tell Hamlet’s story after his death. A deaf actress, she does so in American Sign Language, with no interpretation. She gives a brilliant performance, and I love how seamlessly the director integrated both ASL and English (or consciously chose one over the other) in the staging of all the scenes.

Much of the success of this structure lies in Birley, who is seamless in her transition from narrating the story to the audience to signing alongside spoken dialogue to participating as a character in the scene. Even when she interprets other characters’ lines, she remains very much present in the scene, somewhat like the speaking characters’ id come to life. At times, her facial expressions reveal emotions that the speaking character struggles to keep in check, and this is most apparent in Hamlet’s scenes with Claudius, as Christine Horne keeps Hamlet’s dislike to a bare simmer in her tone while Birley’s gestures bely the violence kept in check.

I also love where Jain has Birley signing other characters’ monologues in full, before the other actor steps forward and speaks the lines. The most vivid in my mind right now is that of Ophelia’s death, where Birley’s hands set the scene of flowing water, and her gestures convey Ophelia floating, then making some kind of garland, then sinking, struggling and finally giving in to death. Throughout, Jeff Ho’s Ophelia crosses the stage behind her, his steps measured and heavy, and it’s an unforgettable tableau overall. Gertrude’s speech afterward, informing Laertes of his sister’s death, is given added resonance by the memory of Horatio’s version. There’s another scene where this worked very well, with Hamlet and Horatio to one corner of the stage, and Horatio signs a monologue about Hamlet’s father before Hamlet delivers the speech. I don’t remember now what it was about exactly, but I very much remember the darkness and pain and fear that Birley’s performance evoked.

Christine Horne was very good as Hamlet as well. I was never quite sure if Hamlet really was going mad, or if he was scheming throughout. There are moments where she delivered her lines with a manic playfulness, and I wondered if perhaps Hamlet’s heart wasn’t completely set on revenge after all, if part of him just wanted to have a normal life and forget his promise to his father’s ghost. Then other times, Horne stalked around the stage with steely eyes fixed on Claudius, and I felt sure Hamlet was a hairbreadth’s away from committing murder. It’s a very nuanced performance, and often very much enhanced by Birley’s interpretation.

I can go on for ages about everything I loved about this play, but instead I strongly urge you to go see it for yourself. I love the gender bent casting — only Claudius and Ophelia are played by male actors — and the fact that there are many persons of colour in the cast. I also love that it’s a fully bilingual play with many scenes in both languages, but also some scenes solely in one or the other. Though all the other actors speak most of their lines, some of them sign parts of their dialogue as well, and I particularly love when Horne signed her lines (sometimes without speech) when in conversation with Horatio. I’ve seen ASL interpreted events before, but this was my first experience of a bilingual performance, and I was impressed.

The final scene was particularly powerful. All other characters having died on stage, Horne faces the audience delivers Hamlet’s final monologue, entreating Horatio to be his voice and tell his story. Birley doesn’t even attempt to interpret these lines. Overcome by grief, she stretches out a hand as if she could pull her friend back from death. And as Horne crumples to the floor, Birley is just about ripped apart by her grief in the middle of the stage. Her hand is shaped in what I think is the sign for the letter “P” and she whips it across her body in multiple directions, and I wonder if that’s the sign for pain or if her pain has gone beyond words. Her hands form the shape of a heart in front of her chest and then breaks apart. Her face crumples, and she signs what I recognize from earlier in the play as “good night,” and I remember the line from Shakespeare, “Good night, sweet prince.” And it’s just the most poignant moment ever. Part of me wishes I knew ASL so I could fully appreciate her performance, another part of me is moved with the experience of understanding her without quite knowing the words.

Prince Hamlet is onstage at The Theatre Centre until April 29. Tickets are available online. The best part is that Why Not Theatre tickets are ‘pay what you can afford’, with four ticket options from $5 – $75 and general admission seating.

For other perspectives: this Toronto Star article gives a great overview of the play, and this Globe and Mail review credits the signing narration as the highlight of the play and was what convinced me to see the play for myself.