“Ohio” and Tadeu end their lives in the Montague Parkette at the 36th annual Rhubarb Festival
by Bailey Green
Director, composer and librettist Bruce Dow’s upcoming piece in Rhubarb Festival, “the one with the goddamn long name,” is a new opera (?) about young love and suicide that focuses on the romanticization of suffering and depression in LGBTQ teens. This theatre-with-music creation tells the story of Ohio, a pre-op trans woman played by Jordan Bell, and her suicidal bully Tadeu, played by Jordan Fantauzzo. The performance will be 25 minutes of what would be a 40 minute first act in a three act piece. “Truncated like mad,” Bruce chuckles.
The action takes place in contemporary Toronto. Tadeu works in the back of his uncle’s meat shop in Little Portugal. Tadeu is in love with a trans woman and cannot accept that he is homosexual. His self-hatred manifests in the violent bullying of Ohio (and presumably others.) The other characters include his girlfriend and members of his high school clique (played by Cassie Doane, Kayla Coolen and Danik McAfee.) The themes are current and relevant. “We pretend that here [Toronto] it’s very liberal and forward thinking, but there are still many old world areas in town where it’s primitive,” says Dow. “We hear of middle class kids thrown out for being LGBTQ, of them committing suicide even when they have resources to seek help. How much of this happens here in our own neighbourhood?”
The piece originated from a performance Dow had seen as a child. The show was bunraku, a form of traditional Japanese theatre where three-quarter life size puppets play out the action. “You see the operators but you’re watching these amazing people, or puppets, act.” The plays have high emotion and drama, love and death. One particular bunraku writer completely captured Bruce’s fascination: Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote a play called “The Love Suicide at Sonezaki” which tells a very romantic tale of trapped lovers who eventually commit suicide. Bruce was drawn to the story and adapted it, re-configuring the courtesan as Ohio and the young merchant clerk as Tadeu. The structure shifted and changed beyond the original, but the framework remains.
As for the question mark next to the words “new opera” in the show poster, Bruce describes it as a marriage between opera and theatre with music. “It’s my idea of contemporary music theatre but the libretto is how people would talk,” Dow describes after delving into a brief history of verismo opera. “It’s very graphic in content and description and language, and they’re all singing, God bless Buddies.” The music is written for two pianos, though for Rhubarb they will be singing to tracks with the help of associate music director and conductor Mike Ross. Bruce says the experience of writing has been both vulnerable cathartic and has ultimately lead him to claim the title of composer with a sense of acceptance and joy. “Working through this libretto has been very personal. Even though I am not a trans woman, I know people who are,” Bruce says of creating the character of Ohio. “I will never know what the experience is like, but I’m coming to understand it more and empathize.” Bruce also found himself reflecting on his own coming out at the height of the AIDS crisis compared to the different, and yet similar, realities faced by young LGBTQ teens now.
“The singers are incredible,” Bruce praises his cast. “Jordan Fantauzzo is a member of the Theatre 20 Emerging Artist Ensemble and he did his MFA at The Boston Conservatory. Jordan Bell has this kick ass voice, but I don’t think anyone quite knows how absolutely great of an actor he is. Brilliant.” The other three members of the cast, Cassie, Kayla and Danik are recent Randolph grads. Their characters’ presence in the show would expand as the show developed further and Dow describes them as “smart little actors” who are “fucking fierce.” Stage manager Katie Honek, who Bruce met while Honek was apprentice SM on Sextet at the Tarragon, is brilliant and completely on top of things. Associate Director and Dramaturge Isaac Robsinson is “a smart hothead who helps me make the libretto work.” Bruce laughs, “I’m having the time of my life working on this.” Bruce also credits Mel Hague for inspiring him as an artist to be brave and risk big.
As for Rhubarb, Bruce is thrilled to be a part of the festival. “Once you’re accepted you’re given carte blanche to go create. It’s really new work in the sense of the word. Raw, and not quite complete. I can’t wait to see what other people are doing.”
A new opera about the romanticization of suffering and depression in LGBTQ youth. This workshop presentation will feature early explorations of the music and writing for the first act of the show.
When: February 11-14 at 9:00pm in the Chamber
Artists: composer / libretist Bruce Dow | performers Jordan Bell + Jordan Fantauzzo with Kayla Coolen, Cassie Doane + Danik McAfee | dramaturge / associate director Isaac Robinson | production stage manager Katie Honek