Leave it to CanStage to somehow, in the midst of extreme internal upheaval what is maybe their darkest financial hour, be simultaneously running two of their strongest shows by far in recent memory. In fact, Palace of the End (which closes tomorrow night) and The Clean House (which runs until March 8) aren’t just good shows for CanStage, they would be amazing shows for anywhere. Hopefully, they can win the audiences they deserve, but it’s certainly disheartening to finally see the company do something really, really right while knowing what’s in store for the future. The abrupt departure of new Artistic Director David Storch a few weeks ago was enough of an unpleasant surprise. But further news reported in The Toronto Star was even more alarming. A total of 10 CanStage staff members have apparently been laid off, including dramaturge Iris Turcott, who, like Storch, will henceforth bear the dubious title of “consultant.”
The loss of the person in charge of New Play Development seemed to make no sense, until we realized that CanStage has pretty much given up on that department. Their tentative (and highly commercial) playbill for next season includes a stage adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, Broadway and West End hit Frost/Nixon, Miss Julie re-vamp Freedom Summer, and the return of the ever-popular Shirley Valentine and Doubt. Not only are none of those plays new Canadian works, none of them are even Canadian at all. This is a little strange for a theatre company that wants us to start calling it The Canadian Stage Company again, not to mention one which receives 18% of its operating budget from the government (way more than other, less Canadian theatre companies). Rumour has it, however, that this new playbill is only going to program the Bluma Appel Theatre, and that the Berkeley Street will be entirely programmed through co-pros with Nightwood, Studio 180, and Necessary Angel, which may be some kind of CanCon loophole. But that hasn’t calmed the rising ire of many Canadian playwrights, especially Joanna McClelland Glass, who apparently had her play pulled from the upcoming season.
Unlike Judith Thompson-penned Palace of the End, The Clean House‘s author, Sarah Ruhl, is an American. But her script is so charming and the production so lovely that we move to ignore the symbolic implications of this fact and just enjoy the piece of theatre for what it is. The Clean House tells the story of Lane (played with icy intelligence by Seana McKenna), a doctor who has no time to clean her own house. She hires Matilde, the self-proclaimed funniest person in Brazil, as her live-in maid. But Matilde doesn’t like to clean, so Lane’s sad-sack housewife sister Virginia secretly comes over to do Matilde’s job, leaving more time for Matilde to try to invent the Perfect Joke, like the one that killed her mother. Along the way, they uncover Lane’s husband Charles’ secret affair with an older woman named Ana whom he performed a mastectomy on. If it sounds far-fetched, it is. But the show is so funny and genuinely poignant that you won’t care for a second. The cast is uniformly excellent. Fiona Reid is at the top of her game as anal-retentive Virginia, and Nicola Correia-Damude’s Matilde has charm to spare. Combined with Alisa Palmer’s competent direction and Judith Bowden’s gorgeous and inventive set, these things make for an exceptionally strong show.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.