The Pastor Phelps Project: A Fundamentalist Cabaret is certainly one of the most talked-about shows at this year’s SummerWorks Festival. Although the notorious funeral-picketing pastor‘s Westboro Baptist cronies didn’t actually make it into the country, it certainly can’t have hurt the show’s ticket sales. A collective creation made up mostly from found transcript text (FOX News, The O’Reilly Factor, The Tyra Banks Show, etc.), the play explores the role Fred Phelps, Sr. has carved out for himself in popular culture.
The cast is fantastic, the costume and lighting design are very engaging, and the show overall is very entertaining. But there’s also a lack of cohesion to the work. Individual scenes are very funny and engaging (the Tyra scene is a riot), but there’s no real dramatic through-line. A sequence with Ann Coulter performing a dance of the seven veils is very entertaining (and beautifully performed by Kaitlyn Regher), but has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the show. A little boy holding a St. Sebastian Ken doll seems to serve as a Greyson-esque queer art shorthand for homo suffering, but needs way more development to work in the show.
Down the road at Passe Muraille, Erin Shields’s If We Were Birds is an absolute knock-out. A modern adaptation of Ovid’s “Tereus, Procne and Philomela,” Birds re-imagines the grisly metamorphoses through the context of 20th-century wars and conflicts that have used rape as a weapon. Philomela is surrounded by a Chorus of slave women who each represent a different historical conflict: Rwanda, Bangladesh, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nanking, and Berlin. Shields’s prose is as lush and gorgeous as the set design, which is as good as anything you could hope to see at SummerWorks. Alan Dilworth’s direction is focused and deft, and the cast is very, very good. David Fox steals a few scenes as Pandion, but the bulk of the play rests on the shoulders of Tara Rosling, who is phenomenal as Philomela. Let’s hope this one gets picked up by one of the theatres in town. It deserves it.
Over at Factory, One Reed Theatre’s latest collective creation, (Never Underestimate) The Power, is a real departure from their last SummerWorks hit, Nor The Cavaliers Who Come With Us. The focus this time is small, centring on two brothers, played by Frank Cox-O’Connell and Evan Webber, living in Toronto during August 2003. For those of us with long enough memories, that month will always stick with us for The Great Blackout. Larger ideas about the end of the world and North American identity lie just beneath the surface in this piece, but it’s also perfectly engaging as a simple story about the two men. Megan Flynn rounds out the cast as a Queen Street chanteuse who knows both brothers and hints at a greater understanding of what’s going on through her song lyrics. The vibe of the show is pleasantly mellow and, like anything by this company, the staging is sharp and highly effective. There are probably more places this show could go in terms of development, but One Reed is definitely a theatre company worth keeping your eye on: they’re going to be around for a while.
SummerWorks Music Series continues tonight with performances by The Bicycles and Young Rival, which all the cool kids seems pretty excited about. On Tuesday you can catch Peter Elkas and Julie Fader, and then on Wednesday it’s The Diableros and Will Currie & The Country French. All concerts are at The Theatre Centre at 10:30 p.m.
Photo by Alistair Newton.