Our SummerWorks reviewers look back at their favourite performances, staging, and creative work at the just-concluded theatre, music, and performance art festival.
After a tumultuous (though productive) couple of years, all the best drama was back up on the stages at the 2012 SummerWorks Festival. With the festival’s federal funding restored after a groundswell of public support, it was able to put on an expanded slate of live performance art, interdisciplinary collaboration, and (of course) the Theatre Series and Music Series. Altogether, it drew more than 20,000 patrons.
Torontoist has hashed out a list of the most memorable and worthwhile experiences from this year’s SummerWorks. (Not surprisingly, many of our picks were also recognized with awards at the festival’s closing party.) From lurid poetry on buses and gangplanks, to one-man rock operas, to innovative staging with new technology, there was plenty of creativity on display.
10: The young writers/actors of Derailed
Every theatre performer’s journey has to start somewhere, and the AMY (Artists Mentoring Youth) Project offers a golden opportunity for those looking to jump into the deep end. As evidence, the AMY cast of Derailed possessed a comfort onstage that belied its years. The group performed vignettes—all set on the subway—that ranged from humorous observations to deeply personal accounts. All of the production’s young ladies (and one man) brought a fresh energy that was undeniable, and while the show may not have been the most polished, it was most welcome at the festival. One only need look at 18-year-old Ashley Jagga’s work alongside established actress Arsinee Khanjian in fellow SummerWorks entry Dark Locks to see where the AMY participants’ enthusiasm and talent could propel them in time.
9: The bravery of Ajax (por nobody)
Before SummerWorks, Alice Tuan’s Ajax (por nobody) was an impossible play. But all it took was a plucky young director (Zack Russell) and four local actors to show the world that the shock of the production’s explicit sexuality was only skin deep. Widely praised by audiences and critics, Russell’s version of Ajax (por nobody) by no means downplayed the controversial content of Tuan’s script. Instead, the production used it to highlight underlying personal conflicts over morality, excess, and social expectations. Considered “unstageable” when it was written 11 years ago, it still caused more than a few walk-outs during its SummerWorks run (let’s not forget, we’re still living in an era where people are vilified for watching porn). But those who stuck around got a heck of an experience, one we’re glad SummerWorks is willing and able to provide.
8: Hawksley Workman’s harmonica playing in The God That Comes
It was another banner year for the SummerWorks Music Series. Many shows were at the very limit of The Theatre Centre’s capacity, and chairs went only to those who arrived well in advance. While all the musical acts were of consistently high quality, the series also did a fine job of encouraging collaboration between musicians and other artists. A particular favourite was a joint performance by Evening Hymns and visual projection artist Sean Frey. Buck 65 with dancer Ame Henderson was also great. The most fruitful collaboration, though, was between 2bTheatre’s Christian Barry and musician Hawksley Workman. The two created a series of inventive staged scenes that greatly enhanced Workman’s solo operetta about Dionysus and Pentheus. Workman shifted between three main characters, and delighted the crowd with clever and ribald sequences, including one where a mouth harp piece doubled as an erotic act.
7: James Alan’s sleight of hand in Lies, Damn Lies and Magic Tricks
Any magician is only as good as his tricks, and James Alan had more than a few doozies up his sleeve. Or, considering that he took pains to show that there was nothing up his sleeve, perhaps the secrets were hidden elsewhere. Alan used his poker face to enigmatic effect, in the manner of greats like Ricky Jay, and his dry humour and abundance of audience participation (at the afternoon show we attended nearly everyone in the crowd ended up on the stage) were perfectly suited to the small Scotiabank Studio Theatre at the Pia Bouman School. This show left us wondering many things: How exactly did those cards end up there? And just how the heck did he do that while wearing a blindfold? It’s probably best not to think too much about any of it.
6: “The Ecstasy of Nina Arsenault” story in 40 Days and 40 Nights
Performance artist Nina Arsenault pushed herself to extremes for her installation piece. While much of the fascination with 40 Days and 40 Nights hinged on the more sensational aspects of her publicly viewable ascetic retreat—like her exercise cycle self-flagellation—it was her soft-spoken storytelling that proved most captivating. Arsenault committed to devoting the the same amount of time to her project that Jesus is said to have spent in the desert. She meditated, fasted, prayed, and created. Her studio was open to the public every night for the last eleven days of the feat, to align with SummerWorks. For approximately an hour each night, Arsenault would tell the story of her experience going under the knife for radical cosmetic surgery, and how it felt to be fully conscious for the whole procedure. A personal discomfort with needles and scalpels kept us away from Arsenault’s previous show on a similar topic, The Silicone Diaries (though we enjoyed her more comic I Was Barbie). This time, we came and were transfixed. Her serene but emotional delivery, speaking about an experience she found sensuous and life-affirming, helped us (at least temporarily) overcome our own aversion.
5: Double duty players Ron Pederson and Rosemary Dunsmore
Every year at SummerWorks, a couple of performers distinguish themselves in multiple productions, and this year was no exception. Ronald Pederson earned one of our two five-star reviews (and a SummerWorks Spotlight Award) for his high-energy and heartrending solo turn as a boy with an active imagination (and an abusive parent) in Extinction Song. He was also an entertaining and genial host every night at the SummerWorks Performance Bar. One of the guests Pederson interviewed was veteran actress Rosemary Dunsmore, who turned in a pair of captivating performances at the festival herself. As a recent widow who starts a relationship with a much younger rabbi, she anchored Daniel Karasik’s excellent Haunted. She also had a memorable role as a scared but sympathetic mother cornered by Cara Gee’s disturbed home invader in Jason Maghanoy’s Ally & Kev, which got our other five star review this year.
4: The up-close proximity of Big Plans and Terminus
The physical separation between audience and performer is beginning to disappear, as a result of an increasing fascination with non-traditional performance spaces. But two of this year’s most intimate productions, Big Plans and Terminus, both took place in traditional venues. It was directors Tanner Harvey and Mitchell Cushman, respectively, whose clever staging brought audiences right into the action, unable to look away from both of the plays’ incredibly intense and disturbing subject matter. In both cases, audience proximity was a strong aspect of bold and brave visions. Harvey rightfully earned the Canadian Stage Award for Direction, and Terminus received the SummerWorks Prize for Best Production.
3: The digital projection work in When It Rains
While we’ve seen plays in the past where images were tossed onto backdrops for no real reason, several of this year’s SummerWorks productions demonstrated the creative potential of digital projections. Barrel Crank used them to hilarious effect, whether for recreating a barrel ride over Niagara Falls or for bringing a newspaper to life. Medicine Boy’s swirl of images aided its jumps in time and space. Meanwhile, Huff‘s projections bolstered playwright-performer Cliff Cardinal’s fast-paced storytelling. But When It Rains was a standout. Its projections added narration that framed the play like a graphic novel and offered running commentary. The digital backdrop also provided a series of virtual sets that allowed for a wider range of settings, and probably saved the company money in acquiring, building, and lugging around props.
2: The hilarious libretto of Blood Ties
SummerWorks fare can be pretty heavy. The festival leans toward pushing boundaries and tackling difficult subjects, after all, and you don’t often get lots of laughs when you theatrically explore brutal violence, hidden incest, mental illness, and the like. This year, we really relished those plays we saw at the festival that were as funny as they were insightful. Established playwrights Erin Shields and Rosa Laborde were more playful in their new work—Barrel Crank and Marine Life, respectively—than in their darker past plays. Our reviewers also especially enjoyed the satirical comedy France, Or The Niqab, and the whip-smart relationship observations of Your Side, My Side, and the Truth. But the funniest show of the festival was part of the Music Works in Concert series. Chamber musical Blood Ties, written by Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston, mined tonnes of character comedy as part of its “inspired by real events” story of a bachelorette retreat gone very, very wrong. The show was rewarded with the most rousing standing ovation of the festival.
1: The monologists of Iceland and Terminus
A cornerstone of good drama is the interaction between characters, but in this year’s SummerWorks two of the best productions—arguably the best productions—had little onstage interaction, if any at all. Iceland and Terminus each used three actors to tell well-rounded and entirely captivating stories. Both plays used intricately woven plotlines to reveal how their characters’ lives intersected. We strongly commend both casts (Iceland‘s Claire Calnan, Kawa Ada, and Christine Horne, and Terminus‘s Maev Beaty, Ava Jane Markus, and Adam Wilson), playwrights Nicolas Billon and Mark O’Rowe, and directors Ravi Jain and Mitchell Cushman on their perfect storms of theatre magic.