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Markham Little Theatre breaks new ground with Seven Stories

article and photos by Grant Weaver,

Abbas Hussain (The Man) and Kerry Harman (Lillian)

(Sept. 3/09)  Markham Little Theatre is going out on a limb ... or rather, a ledge, with their season-opening Seven Stories by renowned Canadian playwright Morris Panych.  The production runs September 16-19 at Markham Theatre For Performing Arts.

            This is a brilliantly written work and Director Zachary McKendrick has assembled a marvelous cast that is definitely up to the task. 

            Up to the task in more ways than one.  Abbas Hussain, in the role The Man, spends the entire play on the ledge of a seventh floor building, intending to commit suicide but constantly interrupted, and puzzled, by a succession of strange characters so engrossed in themselves that they don’t even ask what he is doing out there!  In the end he encounters on her balcony the aged and demented Lillian who is the only one who really listens to him.  So, does he jump?  You didn’t really expect me to give that away, did you!

            It seems that every actor or director who has worked on a production of Seven Stories falls in love with the play.  In his high school days in Pickering, Zachary McKendrick played The Man and, while at the University of Windsor, attended that school’s production of the play.

            “So, when the opportunity came up to direct it, I jumped on it,” he told us on August 30 when dropped in to MLT’s BackStage rehearsal venue and enjoyed the opportunity to chat with Zachary and several members of the cast and crew.

            This is Zachary’s first production with Markham Little Theatre.  He encouraged a number of actors he has worked with to audition for this show and MLT is delighted with the new blood he has brought in.

            One of his recruits is Abbas Hussain.  Born and raised in Scarborough, Abbas graduated in theatre from the University of Toronto and is now a theatre teacher at J.S. Woodsworth Middle School in Scarborough.  Most recently, he appeared this Spring in the Scarborough Players’ production of Romeo and Juliet, acting alongside Zachary McKendrick and Deva Neely, another member of the current Seven Stories cast.

            The role of The Man is a challenge he enjoys. 

            “It’s being on stage the entire time,” he said.  “You don’t have entrances or exits.  I’m never not on.  And when you are only on a short span of ledge, and that’s the whole stage, it’s binding.”

            Although The Man seems the most normal of all the characters in the play, he is the one who is contemplating suicide. 

            “He is someone who has come to a crossroads,” Abbas continued.  “But seeing all these different characters interact with him, he realizes that perhaps he is not as crazy as he thinks he is.”

            Abbas is going to be pretty busy over the next while, with classes resuming after Labour Day and the show having its run less than two weeks later!

            Another actor who starred in the Scarborough Players’s Romeo and Juliet was Damien Gulde. 

            Damien appeared in a production of Seven Stories during his student days at Agincourt Collegiate in Scarborough, performing the role of Leonard, and has become passionate about it.  When he heard that Zachary would be directing an MLT production of the same play, he also jumped at the chance to be in it again.  He auditioned and got a role.  In fact, he got four. 

One could even say he plays five characters since one of his roles, Marshall, is a persona that the character Michael Merchant created for himself, having, in a sense, committed identity suicide.  His encounter with Marshall leads The Man to ask the telling question: You are making a mockery of your own existence.  Doesn’t your life mean anything to you?

   An interesting question coming from the man who is out on the ledge.

            Another of Damien’s characters is Rodney.

            “Rodney, by day, is the boring uptight stick-in-the-mud lawyer,” he explains.  “He lets loose with his mistress, Charlotte, by night.  They play games ... and get to this point where they seem to really hate each other, but they need that from each other.  It really excites them and gets them going.”

            And then there is Damien’s third character, Percy. 

             Percy has 940 friends.

            Although that may sound like somebody’s Facebook profile, this play was written before online social networking existed.

            “He doesn’t really know these people,” said Damien.  “He’s far too superficial.”

            Damien returns at the end of the play in his fourth guise, that of a random “normal” person.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

            Jaime Morgan is also new to Markham Little Theatre.  She grew up in Pickering and Whitby and now lives in Port Credit, having appeared in Mississauga Players’ production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

            Jaime learned of the auditions for Seven Stories on the website of the Association of Community Theatres-Central Ontario and came to MLT not knowing anyone in the company. All that quickly changed.

            “It’s been such a pleasure,” she told us.  “Markham Little Theatre is very professional and the rehearsal space is just amazing, so I feel very spoiled.”

            Jaime has her work cut out for her in this play---she plays a woman, and a man!

            “Charlotte is a lot of fun to play,” she said.  “I like where the character goes.  I like the sauciness that’s in there, but she is also a bit of a sad character.”

            Charlotte and Rodney get a kick out of pretending to murder each other!  Charlotte, however, finds meaning  in these weird games, and that is an eye-opener for the suicidal The Man.  Charlotte has a great line: “We hate each other, but at least that’s something.  There is a certain zeal in it.”

            Jaime has to make several very quick changes behind the scenes, as she also plays the paranoid psychiatrist, Leonard!

            Joely McEwen is in her first production with MLT since she appeared in Les Belles Soeurs fourteen years ago.

            Markham-born and raised, Joely attended Unionville High School where she studied in the Arts York Drama program and then pursued a degree in English at the University of Western Ontario. 

She has worked in marketing and is now a stay-at-home Mom, with two boys, one year and three years of age.

“I think that is the most acting I do all day,” she laughed.

Joely plays the rather vacant Jennifer who is obsessed with communicating with people on her Blackberry, and the flamboyant Joan who is in a tense relationship with her husband Michael.

“They can’t get along,” she said, “yet they can’t get along without each other either.”

We missed the chance to meet the two other members of the cast. Deva Neely, who also appeared in Scarborough Players’ Romeo and Juliet, takes on the roles of Lillian’s nurse Wilson and also of Rachel.  Adrian Benson will appear as Al and as Joan’s husband Michael.

This parade of absurd characters culminates in the appearance of Lillian, played by MLT veteran Kerry Harman.  Kerry’s list of credits is long indeed, so let me just remind our readers, and fans of Markham Little Theatre, of Kerry’s splendid performance in The Odd Couple (Female Version) in 2007.

          Lillian, although suffering from dementia, is the only one who actually listens to The Man.  She is the only one who offers him advice, and wisdom. 

“The challenge of being Lillian,” Kerry laughs, “is to pretend you have full-blown dementia, and remember your lines!”

Lillian, Kerry explained, is a wonderful character with vivid memories of her past.

“All the others are trapped, and she is the only one who talks about freedom.”

What impact does she have on The Man?

Learning the answer to that question is alone worth a ticket to this great production.

Another treat for the audience is going to be the spectacular set. 

“The set in and of itself is a character in the play,” said Director Zachary McKendrick.  “I am a physical actor, which means I am also a physical director.  So, I wanted a lot of depth.  But how do I get depth with a flat wall?”

A lot of discussion, debate and compromise went into the final result.  Set designer Wil Pialagitis has produced a building facade that is the entire width of the Markham Theatre stage, seven windows and one balcony wide, with a ledge five feet above the stage level.  There will be facades painted above and below the level that the actors perform on, representing the floor below and above, thus creating a set that is almost twenty feet high.

During our visit, the actors were starting to rehearse in front of the first completed segment of the facade.  It’s going to be very exciting to see it when it is fully constructed at Markham Theatre.

At our visit we also said hello to some familiar faces who are contributing behind the scenes this time. Award-winning actress, director, and many-time MLT board member Michčle Browne is working on set painting and set dressing.  Judy Heffernan is props manager.  Ann Davison is co-Producer along with Peggy Wyatt.

            Seven Stories is one of Morris Panych’s most demanding, and most loved, plays.

           “The play is so funny and vibrant,” Joely McEwen said, “and I think it really holds something for everyone who would attend live theatre.  It has got it all, in terms of comedy, drama, a little twist of suspense, and lots of interesting characters.”

            I would add to that: great acting by a very talented cast that will feature some exciting new faces. 

                                                                                                                              Grant Weaver


For complete show details, click here.  

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