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culture

SummerWorks 2012′s Standout Shows

Wondering what plays to catch as the SummerWorks Festival heads into its final weekend? Here are our top-rated shows.

Photo by Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda/Torontoist.

There are just a few days left for the SummerWorks Performance Festival, before Sunday’s closing night party. As a juried festival, there’s a certain level of professionalism to be expected at SummerWorks, so there are few true disasters. The difficulty is in singling out the truly exceptional shows from the ranks of the merely “pretty good.”

We’ve been seeing shows daily, and our indefatigable reviewers have written up those plays that made particularly strong impressions, due to their exceptional talent, startling subject matter, and original content. There are shows here for nearly every taste, and some that decidedly won’t appeal to some. But these are the ones we think people will be talking about after the festival has wrapped, and talent we think we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future.

Extinction Song
Voodoo Theatre Company

Ronald Pederson in Extinction Song. Photo courtesy of Voodoo Theatre Company.

PERFORMANCES:
Friday, August 17, 8 p.m.
Saturday, August 18, 5 p.m.
Sunday, August 19, 12:30 p.m.

VENUE:
Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue)

James is a young boy with a very active imagination. For instance, he believes that he was raised by a pack of wolves with names like Byzantine, after being saved from a car accident that claimed his real parents. When his mother shows him his birth certificate in an attempt to curb his disruptive behavior, he is still reluctant to accept the truth. This is largely because James’ father is an abusive Mountie with a penchant for beer and tough love, making it necessary for him to invent this more stimulating fantasy world.

All of this is brought to vibrant life by The National Theatre of the World’s Ron Pederson in an energetic performance that is by turns funny, empathetic, and heartbreaking. The script by Ron Jenkins—a 2009 Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award winner for Best New Play—takes its time in establishing James’s separate worlds, before things take a turn for the worse. An unfortunate trip to the supermarket is related with a naivete that renders the account all the more devastating. In the end, even the ferocity of innocence can be assailed by the harsh realities that await everyone, and the imagination remains a hiding place for only so long.

(Kevin Scott)

Ally and Kev
jsquared.theatre

Cara Gee and Jeff Irving. Detail of a photo by Alex Felipe.

PERFORMANCES:
Friday August 17, 9:30 p.m.
Saturday August 18, 7 p.m.

VENUE:
Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Avenue)

Siblings Ally and Kev are a case study in dysfunctional sibling behavior. They are seeking revenge on Ally’s ex-boyfriend, who has violated her, and have broken into and camped out inside his home to confront him. As they wait, the siblings struggle to convince themselves that retribution is the only courageous option in an unforgiving world. They equally struggle to direct their repressed anger at their target instead of each other, and even have a list of the horrors they plan to inflict.

The acting is very strong, and Cara Gee turns in a perfectly disturbing portrayal of Ally. The sparse staging and small venue of Passe Muraille’s backstage provide an intimate encounter with the characters; in other words, there’s nowhere for the audience to hide. The pair are haunted by their respective dreams, which exist as the only safe venue to explore disillusionment, shame, and loss. This challenging, dark performance is an absolute must-see.

(Desmond Cole)

Iceland
The Iceland Collective

Kawa Ada in Iceland. Photo by Hugh Probyn.

PERFORMANCES:
Thursday, August 16, 5 p.m.
Saturday, August 18, 10 p.m.
Sunday, August 19, 5 p.m.

VENUE:
The Lower Ossington Theatre (100 Ossington Avenue)

Along with much praise and glowing word of mouth, there are plenty of jokes floating around the festival about how Nicholas Billon’s next play will be titled for another Northern Atlantic land mass—in addition to Iceland there is also the 2009 SummerWorks hit Greenland. Iceland the country is a place at turns mythical and mysterious for the three characters in his new play. They are introduced and slowly connected via monologues delivered by three first-rate actors: Christine Horne as a highly educated Estonian immigrant turned escort, Kawa Ada as an amorally charming businessman, and Claire Calnan as a perturbed rental evictee. All three earn laughs and gasps with deeply rooted character quirks, and elicit sympathy as the tragedy of their connections becomes clear. Simply and effectively staged by director Ravi Jain, with a carefully crafted script by Billon, this is one of our favourite homegrown shows at the festival.

Steve Fisher

Barrel Crank
Suitcase in Point

The Cast of Barrel Crank. Detail of a photo by Rose Plotek.

PERFORMANCES:

Friday, August 17, 5:30 p.m.
Saturday, August 18, 8 p.m.

VENUE:
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (‪16 Ryerson Avenue)

In Barrel Crank, Annie Edson Taylor’s attempts to maintain her dignity after successfully making it over Niagara Falls in a barrel don’t stand a chance against the venue’s sensationalism and tackiness—which is a good thing for the audience. Both the script and performances capture all the cheesiness associated with the tourist trap since the 19th century, while preserving moments of sympathy for the none-too-savvy Taylor (who was the first person to make the attempt and live). Deanna Jones’ narrator holds the show together, full of vaudevillian spirit, as she presents the story a la a sideshow huckster, while Amy Nostbakken’s Taylor is a hilarious straight man to the procession of characters played by Muoi Nene and Trent Pardy. Projections mixing cutouts of past and present daredevils and filmed bits add to the laughs.

(Jamie Bradburn)

Haunted
Tango Co.

Tiffany Wu. Photo by Samya Kullab.

PERFORMANCES:
Thursday August 16, 10:30 p.m.
Sunday August 19, 3 p.m.

VENUE:
Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue)

Touching, funny, and occasionally disturbing, Haunted is the story of middle-aged mother and her 20-something daughter dealing with the death of their husband/father. Mother Abby attempts to find solace by pursuing a relationship with her much younger rabbi, while daughter Sarah begins to see her father’s ghost standing by the window. Haunted is smartly written with dialogue that ranges from witty to heart wrenching, but it is the performances that make the play pop. Rosemary Dunsmore is excellent as Abby, a woman attempting to maintain a sense of balance while dealing with both her own grief and her unresolved issues with her late husband. Her humour is wry, her more serious moments raw and honest. Jonathan Widdifield is equally good as her love interest/rookie rabbi; his David is charming but by no means smooth, and pious without being preachy. Between the strong script and excellent acting, Haunted managed to cover a lot of emotional ground without seeming crowded or awkward.

(Chris Dart)

Terminus
Outside The March

Ava Jane Markus. Photo by Ryan Parker.

PERFORMANCES:
Thursday, August 16, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, August 18, 10 p.m.
Sunday, August 19, 2:30 p.m.

VENUE:
Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street)

It’s looking like there’s nothing theatre company Outside the March can’t do well if they put their minds to it, after their spring production of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and the recent remount of last year’s SummerWorks hit Mr. Marmalade. In Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus, making its Canadian debut, three blue-collar characters tell stories of increasingly dark brutality and fantasy—a fantasy of otherworldly trappings, in which every detail is luridly beautiful. That’s because from the start, when Maev Beaty’s character describes her demoralizing help-phone job, all three monologists speak in a beat-poetry cadence, and occasionally in rhyming couplets, in an eloquence at odds with their background and stations. That eloquence renders the worst of the play’s described gore exceptionally vivid, and elicited many collective gasps from the audience. As the audience is seated on the stage itself, be forewarned: this would be a awkward show to leave early if such imagery becomes too intense for you.

Steve Fisher

I, Animal
Kazan Co-Op

The cast and creative team of I, Animal. Photo courtesy of Kazan Co-Op.

PERFORMANCES:
Friday, August 17, 10 p.m.
Sunday, August 19, 12 p.m.

VENUE:
Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street)

There’s a little bit of animal in all of us. In three monologues, Daniel MacIvor’s play reveals similarities that connect man and beast, and perhaps even more about the inherent bonds among humans. A “queer” male nurse has attempted to replace the love of his life with a dog, while struggling with a violent temper that leads to him punching out a doctor over the semantics of homosexuality. A teen notorious for videotaping a dead cat gets the chance of a lifetime with the hottest girl at his new school. And a successful middle-aged businesswoman attempts to maintain control over her complicated divorce, drawing inspiration from the demeanor of horses.

The stories are told in a captivating manner, boasting all of MacIvor’s trademark wit and humor. Through a slowly dissipating thick mist, lit in alternating stark blasts of colour, the actors sink their teeth into the material with great relish. Stewart Legere as the “dead cat kid” is especially effective, milking the character for every ounce of humor and pathos. It may not be most cohesive piece from the playwright, but is perhaps noteworthy for how absorbing the man’s minor works can be.

(Kevin Scott)

Big Plans
Two-Wheeler Productions

Karl Graboshas, Andy Trithardt, and Leni Parker in Big Plans. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Taylor.

PERFORMANCES:
Thursday, August 16, 8 p.m.
Friday, August 17, 8 p.m.
Saturday, August 18, 8 p.m.
Sunday, August 19, 2 p.m.

VENUE:
HUB 14 (14 Markham Street)

In 2001, a man in Rotenburg, Germany posted an ad online, looking for someone who would willingly submit to being killed and eaten. Playwright Jeremy Taylor has taken the facts of what followed and used them to craft a chilling, visceral tale of loneliness, self-loathing, and repression. Andy Trithardt plays the infamous cannibal Gordon as a charismatic control freak, bullying his nervous but willing victim played by Karl Graboshas. The added phantasmic presence of Leni Parker as Gordon’s hallucinated mother offers historical and psychological insight into the breaking of this ultimate taboo. The intimate space of dance studio HUB 14 is put to brilliant use as the cannibal’s small apartment, with chairs set up around a stage so that audience members feel both entangled and complicit, forced to make guilty eye contact with each other as the grisly—and in some instances, nearly stomach-turning—events unfold. The show seems eerily well timed, with so many recent instances of cannibalism in the news, offering some insight into the roots and motives of such a macabre act. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

(Ryan West)

When It Rains
2b Theatre Company

Francine Deschepper and Conor Green in a 2011 production of When It Rains. Photo by Nick Rudnicki.

PERFORMANCES:

Thursday, August 16, 5 p.m.
Friday, August 17, 2:30 p.m.
Sunday, August 19, 5 p.m.

VENUE:
Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst Street)

Are a cruel string of events a test of a person’s character or a bad combination of statistical probabilities? That question is debated at one point in When It Rains, alongside allusions to the Book of Job and contrasting depictions of how two couples handle life-shattering events that test their relationships. While the dark humour could have resulted in a piece drowning in cruelty, grounded performances turn stereotypes like Conor Green’s probability geek and Marc Bendavid’s oh-so-French philosophy professor into relatable human beings, while the quiet moments in the script are both heartbreaking and hopeful. Well-designed, imaginative digital projections serve as a fluid set and a black running commentary on the disasters befalling everyone. Also impressive: one couple’s ability to sit up in “bed” on a very awkward angle.

(Jamie Bradburn)

Your Side, My Side & The Truth
A Compass and Trying Science co-production.

Photo courtesy of Compass and Trying Science Productions

Jeff Gladstone and Rebecca Auerbach. Photo courtesy of Compass/Trying Science Productions.

PERFORMANCES:
Saturday, August 18 10 p.m.
Sunday, August 19, 7:30 p.m.

VENUE:
Scotiabank Studio Theatre at Pia Bouman (6 Noble Street)

Writer Rebecca Auerbach captures all of the dizzying highs and perilous lows of the tumultuous surge towards adulthood with inventive flair and charm. She also heads up a cast of five as an artist who has easily seduced an insecure sci-fi enthusiast stricken with an embarrassing fear of spiders. Elsewhere, an adopted brother and sister navigate the minefield of their possible mutual attraction, and an unattached woman searches for fulfillment through yoga.

The actors all make the most of their individual moments, from emotional payoffs to musical interludes to hilarious non-sequiturs (“Let’s get a lobster pizza!”). As for Auerbach, it’s hard to watch (and hear) her without thinking of a talent like Girls‘ Lena Dunham. Not to imply that her work is at all derivative, only that she is another new young female voice discussing the peculiarities of growing up in a refreshingly frank and funny fashion.

(Kevin Scott)

Artaud: Un portrait en décomposition
TheatreRUN

Adam Paolozza. Detail of a photo by Marc LeMyre.

PERFORMANCES:
Thursday, August 16, 5 p.m.
Friday, August 17, 10 p.m.
Sunday, August 19, 5 p.m.

VENUE:
Scotiabank Studio Theatre at Pia Bouman (6 Noble Street)

While Dean Gilmour and Michelle Smith aren’t on stage for this theatrical profile of poet/perfromer/psych ward patient Antonin Artaud, Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s signature style is immediately recognizable: material culled from archival letters, writings, and accounts; a mostly bare stage; settings and multiple characters fluidly realized. Adam Paolozza (who’s co-starred in a number of Smith-Gilmour shows), playing the titular character, confidently makes the show his own and commits fully to a character who can generously be described as not all there. Paolozza portrays Artaud at his eloquent best (shocking a Parisian audience with a monologue about plague buboes) and his unhinged worst (ranting at his friends, then pleading with an asylum doctor not to administer electroshock therapy). Coleen MacPherson is quietly effective in several supporting roles but the show is owned by Paolozza, in one of the most impressive individual performances of the festival. (The multilingual actor speaks Artuad’s writings entirely in French, so if you have a difficult time watching a show and reading surtitles, this one isn’t for you.)

Steve Fisher

Huff
Dependent Theatre Projects

Cliff Cardinal in Huff. Photo by Elizabeth Thipphawong.

PERFORMANCES:
Friday, August 17, 7 p.m.
Saturday, August 18, 11:30 a.m.
Sunday, August 19, 2 p.m.

VENUE:
Theatre Centre (1087 Queen Street West)

Huff opens with playwright Cliff Cardinal addressing the audience in a glib monologue, all with a plastic ziplock bag taped over his head. This sets the tone of aggressive facetiousness that permeates Cardinal’s one-man tale of two young brothers growing up on an Ontario reservation called Shit Creek. Oral tradition and folklore interweave with profanity and and cans of Lysol, as the boys face a dispiriting environment of neglect and abuse, where arson can be blamed on trickster gods and a knack for shoplifting can be one’s divine gift from Creator. Last year, Cardinal made our list with his debut Stitch, and he continues to impress this time around with this darkly moving and physically punishing performance.

(Ryan West)

FRANCE, or the Niqab
Old Pirate

Beatriz Yuste, Charlotte Gowdy, and Salvatore Antonio. Photo by Keith Barker.

PERFORMANCES:
Friday August 17, 10:30 p.m.
Saturday August 18, 3 p.m.
Sunday August 19, 8 p.m.

VENUE:
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson Avenue)

In this fast-paced comedy, a peppy French lawyer named Tabatha gets a visit from Samira, a niqab-wearing woman who wants to challenge the country’s ban on her clothing. With cheek and resolve, Samira convinces Tabatha not only to represent her, but to walk a mile in her niqab (which the lawyer consistently calls a “burqa”). Tabatha’s new clothing draws attention from a pesky policeman, and also provokes assumptions and judgments from disapproving compatriots. After landing in jail, Tabatha gets a visit from a mystery man who has been anonymously paying the fines of niqab-wearing women.

Beatriz Yuste plays Samira with an insolent charm, and she balances out Charlottle Gowdy’s brash, headstrong Tabatha; their exchanges are witty and endearing. Salvatore Antonio successfully hams it up as the officer, although his French accent is somewhat muddled. A dance scene with the two veiled women is funny, but a touch too long. Overall, this denunciation of France’s obsession with the niqab (inspired by a column by the Globe and Mail’s Tabatha Southey) asks the right questions and answers them with flair and physical humour.

(Desmond Cole)

Petrichor
Kitchenband Productions

Henry Adam Svec in Petrichor. Photo by Marcel St. Pierre.

PERFORMANCES:
Friday, August 17, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, August 18, 12 p.m.
Sunday, August 19, 7:30 p.m.

VENUE:
Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street)

Petrichor is the word for the smell of rain on dry earth. Beyond this boost to your vocabulary, the new musical from Kitchenband offers an elegiac window into the lives of migrant Mennonite workers in Canada. The plot revolves around your classic West Side Story romance with Maria, a Mennonite, but the real draw is the music. Performed on a series of improvised ‘junkstruments’ that double as farm equipment, Petrichor‘s songs are solemn bluegrass odes to the stark beauty of the rural Canadian landscape. There are no toe-tapping dance numbers to be found, but the music (composed by cast members Henry Adam Svec and Andrew Penner) taps into a profound sadness that lingers with you long after the lights have come up.

(Ryan West)

Ajax (por nobody)
Hot House Theatre

A scene from Ajax (por nobody). Photo by Angela Besharah.

PERFORMANCES:
Saturday, August 18, 2 p.m.
Sunday, August 19, 9:30 p.m.

VENUE:
Theatre Centre (1087 Queen Street West)

Playwright Alice Tuan, fresh out of graduate school, wrote Ajax (por nobody) out of frustration, intentionally composing something as obscene and un-producible as she could imagine. Director Zack Russell, 14 years later, saw the now notorious script as a challenge, and found Toronto actors brave enough to bring it to life. The result is absurd and graphic, though the show gradually builds to its violent, messy, full frontal climax. Where other SummerWorks shows only imply subjects like incest or hint at death offstage, Ajax brings it all casually to the fore, exploring the depths of obscenity—though there’s less pervasive nudity and violence then you might think. Another wrinkle: most of what happens is between consenting adults, in a vaguely Hollywood and casually pornographic adult waking dream (or nightmare). All four of the actors are fearless, and nuanced in their performances, but it’s David Christo who leaves the most indelible mark, as arguably the most innocent character who descends to the most depraved depths.

Steve Fisher

CORRECTIONS: The above photo for FRANCE, or the Niqab is credited to Keith Barker, not Old Pirate Productions. The show time for Ajax (por nobody) on Sunday, August 19 is 9:30 p.m., not 7 p.m. Both of these have been corrected, above.

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