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Checkpoints, Broadway and prison at Fringe

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Lizette Mynhardt and Brittany Cope in Checkpoint 300 (Adrianna Prosser photo)

Since arriving in Toronto from Tel Aviv in 2001, Michelle Wise has not left her day job, bustling in roles such as electrical engineering and digital marketing. But during that time, she has accumulated a drawer full of her plays and screenplays .

It is from that cove of unproduced works that Wise unearthed Checkpoint 300, the winner of the New Play competition for this summer’s Toronto Fringe Festival.

An earlier draft, written a few years ago, only had two speaking parts. It focused on Shiri, a determined 19-year-old Israeli soldier who becomes the key witness to an act of violence at the titular Bethlehem checkpoint, and the journalist, Amelie, who craves answers about that incident.

What audiences will see at the Factory Theatre Mainstage on select dates between July 3 and 14 has a larger cast (of six), and is, in the playwright’s words, more emotionally robust

“It really focuses on the human aspect of that area of the world,” Wise tells The CJN. “When we think about the Middle East, we think [of] conflict and war. But what also exists is humans and families.”

In the 60-minute play, Shiri grapples with being the first woman to serve at an Israeli checkpoint. To develop this character, Wise says she drew on her own experience serving in the Israeli army while being a woman in a male-dominant environment. (The playwright did not work at a checkpoint, but in intelligence.)

“She wants the same opportunity that her male peers have,” Wise says of her hearty protagonist. “She wants to prove herself and pave the way for future females.”

Revised with the help of Anita La Selva, Checkpoint 300 straddles both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Actors Jorie Morrow and Geoff Mays will portray both Palestinian parents and Israeli parents who ache in the aftermath of the violence at the checkpoint. This casting decision attempts to show the common humanity between neighbours that Wise says is too often obscured.

While the festival has marketed the play as “inspired by true events,” Wise says her drama is largely fictional. However, aspects of the checkpoint setting do try to reflect the bureaucracy, chaos, and occasional violence that happens at those borders.

With the politically-charged subject matter, the playwright (who also directs the play) knows that a backlash is inevitable. Wise says that people will arrive at the show, armed with their own opinions about what the checkpoint signifies – but she is prepared for the criticism.

“I think we’re going to get a lot of feedback from Israelis, Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians, if they come to see it,” she tells The CJN. “I think everybody will have something to say about the way their people are represented.”

“I hope they’ll sit through the 60 minutes and give us the benefit of the doubt.”

READ: ARTIST OBSERVES THE JOY IN JUDAISM

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Jake Epstein (Luke Fontana photo)

As a child, during annual road trips to New York City with his family, actor Jake Epstein crystallized his life’s dream: to perform on Broadway’s biggest stages.

However, less than a decade after his debut on the Great White Way as Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, where he later originated the role of Gerry Goffin in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Epstein has a confession: “I’ve been burnt by musical theatre.”

Living again in his hometown of Toronto, Epstein is putting the finishing touches on Boy Falls From the Sky, a one-man show debuting at Supermarket during the Toronto Fringe Festival on July 4. (The show runs for eight performances, until July 13.)

In this production, written by Epstein and developed with director Robert McQueen (Fun Home), the Canadian actor reminisces about the highlights of realizing his dreams, as well as the challenges and pressures he faced. Among the stories in Epstein’s repertoire include dealing with stage fright and panic attacks, as well as sustaining a few injuries as Spider-Man in that musical’s fraught production.

“What do you do… when your dreams disappoint you?” he says, discussing one of the show’s major questions.

“I think getting back home [to Toronto], allowed me to reflect on all this, and definitely drove me to write these stories down.”

The actor recalls that it has been rewarding to take difficult memories and turn them into stories that also contain joy and hilarity.

“The goal of this was to create something that felt honest and personal and unique,” Epstein tells The CJN. “It’s totally vulnerable and a little scary… [but] it’s relieving to talk about this.”

Of course, there will be singing. Boy Falls From the Sky will feature show tunes from productions with which Epstein was involved – Beautiful, American Idiot, Spring Awakening – and other Broadway melodies that closely relate to his experiences.

Making the performance in Kensington Market extra special for the performer is an assist from Epstein’s high school band, which will reunite at Supermarket to play a set before the performer takes the stage.

Boy Falls From the Sky is adapted from a cabaret Epstein created, with the cheeky title I Hate Musicals: The Musical. Contrary to that message, the actor and performer says he still has a passion for musical theatre – although he is still coming to terms with some of those memories behind the curtain.

Fascinatingly, ruminating on good and bad memories has helped to revive Epstein’s love for the stage. “I feel like for the first time in a really long time, I’m curious about what’s out there [onstage].”

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Tracey Erin Smith (Dahlia Katz photo)

“My name is Tracey and the last time I was in prison, I was visiting my father when I was seven. So I will do whatever it takes to help you today.”

This is what Toronto playwright Tracey Erin Smith says she told inmates at a maximum-security men’s prison in California last spring.

The founder of SOULO Theatre had arrived at Kern Valley State Prison to meet with incarcerated men. Smith was volunteering with a program that taught entrepreneurial skills to those behind bars, to alleviate their process of finding work once released.

However, stepping into the prison made Smith think back to her relationship with her father, as well as how his experience behind bars influenced her life.

The playwright will explore themes of literal and figurative prisons with blistering honesty and humour in The Big House, playing at Toronto’s Fringe Festival on select dates between July 4 and 14. There will also be musical elements in the show, to be staged at the Factory Theatre Mainstage.

Her latest work, made in collaboration with director Sarah Garton Stanley, is based off Smith’s experience at the men’s prison in 2018, as well as her youth in the late 1970s, as she coped with her father’s imprisonment.

“I’m looking at how my childhood has affected me,” Smith says of The Big House. “In the prison [last year], I got to see how the childhoods of the incarcerated men affected them.”

Although Smith’s relationship with her father, a criminal lawyer who died by suicide, has been explored in some of her previous one-woman shows, The Big House provides the performer with an outlet to examine loneliness and isolation.

“This is the first time I’ve really looked at [how] I live alone,” she tells The CJN. “Because of some of the trauma and loss and pain and heartbreak that I went through when I was little, I isolated myself in some ways to protect myself from feeling that pain again.”

Investigating those feelings was important for the writer, especially when one recalls the confessional style of theatrical storytelling she helped establish with SOULO Theatre.

“So much of my work has been about bringing people together,” Smith says. “[Theatre] normalizes the struggles that other people go through, and then people feel less alone.”

Although this is a one-woman show, Smith will inhabit more than 10 separate characters.

Much of The Big House occurs at “an imaginary Passover seder,” in Smith’s words, as family members unite to provide different perspectives on her father’s life. These portions are based on interviews the playwright had with relatives during the show’s development.

The Passover holiday also provides a fruitful space to discuss themes of generational trauma and freedom.

She also explains that this newest show is a tribute to her mother, whose resilience helped the young Smith get through her father’s incarceration and sudden death.

“One thing that really helped me is my mother’s strength and her sense of humour,” Smith says.

“It’s apparent in the show.”

 

The Toronto Fringe Festival runs July 3 to 14. Visit fringetoronto.com

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