Drama Club: I Got Soul(pepper), but I'm Not a Soldier
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Drama Club: I Got Soul(pepper), but I’m Not a Soldier

Each week, we take a look at Toronto’s theatre scene and tell you which shows are worth checking out.

Soulpepper’s home: The Young Centre in the Distillery District. Photo by Scott Norsworthy from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Despite the fact the our fair city is still blanketed in snow that shows no sign of clearing anytime soon, the theatre, bravely, has already started to come out of hibernation. Actors, technicians, and drag queens have all been hard at work at Tarragon, Factory, Passe Muraille, Buddies, and The Theatre Centre. But when is it time for classical rep to get going again? Sooner than it used to be, that’s for sure. And closer.
Okay, so day trips to Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake are still a few months off, but it wasn’t too long ago that the April-to-November Stratford and Shaw festivals were summertime-only events. And since both festivals’ upcoming seasons have already been announced, we’re sure keeners have already started buying tickets and planning weekends. But for those of us who just can’t wait, there’s been a closer-to-home option for the past few years. Soulpepper has been programming an almost year-round season since 2006, and this year’s edition begins in a couple of weeks, which means now is a great time to have a look through the brochure and try to decide which shows to see and which ones to skip.
After the fold, we take a closer look at Soulpepper’s 2009 season, plus more theatre news.

Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara chill in Stoppard’s Travesties. Illustration by Sam Webber.

It’s hard to remember sometimes that Soulpepper has only been around for a decade. Since 1998, the company has become such a part of Toronto’s cultural landscape, it’s hard to imagine our theatre scene without it. But that decade has meant a lot of change for the company. What began as a young, hip company using space at the Harbourfront for its often minimalist and always bold productions of modern classics and forgotten gems has now become a serious establishment with its own venue, lavish production values, and a mammoth season. Their debut season had two plays. This year’s has eleven. But bigger does not always equal better, and there have been productions in Soulpepper’s recent seasons that have felt bloated, confused, or simply there to pad out the season. Last year’s most interesting productions were probably Uncle Vanya, Under Milkwood, and Top Girls: all remounts. This year’s bill, however, does look promising, and it includes a mix of “safe” favourites and a few riskier ventures.
Things kick off in February with Travesties by Tom Stoppard. A riff on The Importance of Being Earnest featuring James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, and Tristan Tzara as characters, Travesties is one of the famous playwright’s most respected works. Soulpepper had a real hit a few years ago with Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and it will be interesting to see if they can repeat that success. Their production of David Mamet’s enduring Glengarry Glen Ross, however, directed by the very talented David Storch, seems more like a guaranteed hit. The play won a Pulitzer, inspired a popular film, and the cast features Peter Donaldson, Eric Peterson, Jordan Pettle, and William Webster among others; all the ingredients are there for a winning production.
The next two shows on their bill are a bit more obscure. In June, it’s Joe Orton’s Loot, a dark satire involving a bank robbery gone awry, and Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!, a play about a Jewish family’s struggles in Depression-era New York. Later on the same month, Ted Dykstra directs Of the Fields, Lately, the third chapter in David French’s ever-popular Mercer family saga. French fans who enjoyed Soulpepper’s previous productions of Leaving Home and Salt-Water Moon will no doubt rejoice. (Those of us who had to study them in high school—and who realize that Soulpepper’s apparent commitment to performing one of the Mercer plays a year means we still have two more plays to go after this one before that miserable family’s tale is finished—may have less reason to celebrate.)
In August, Diana Leblanc directs Diego Matamoros and Nancy Palk as George and Martha in Edward Albee’s sensational Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Arguably the best play of the 20th century, there seems to be absolutely no reason that this production can’t be stellar: let’s hope they do us proud. Later in the month, it’s Ferenc Molnár’s The Guardsman, directed by Hungarian master László Marton. Soulpepper has a long history of working with internationally renowned Marton, who has helmed some of their most acclaimed productions, including Uncle Vanya, The Wild Duck, Mirandolina, and Molnár’s The Play’s the Thing. His last new production for them, however, was 2007’s uneven Three Sisters. And while Molnár’s The Play’s the Thing was a huge hit for the company, the only other one of his works they’ve performed, Olympia, was a decided dud. Also playing in August (replacing the earlier announced remount of Under Milkwood), is Canadian classic Billy Bishop Goes to War. One of the most famous Canadian plays ever made, this production is a fantastic opportunity to revisit the show thirty years later with original creators/performers John Gray and Eric Peterson.
September starts with a really interesting choice: a new version of Antigone, adapted by Chris Abraham and One Reed Theatre’s Evan Webber, who is probably the youngest writer the company has ever worked with. The co-production with Crow’s Theatre promises to be set somewhere between Ancient Greece and contemporary Canada. New adaptations finish off the season with Parfumerie in November and Civil Elegies in December. Parfumerie is Adam Pettle and Brenda Robin’s take on the Miklós László short story (that inspired You’ve Got Mail!). Pettle is one of the best playwrights the country’s got, and the piece will be directed by love-him-or-hate-him auteur Morris Panych. Civil Elegies is a collaboration between Soulpepper Academy grads Mike Ross and Lorenzo Savoini, based on the work of famous Canadian poet Dennis Lee (Alligator Pie!).

On Stage This Week

Nightwood’s production of Bear With Me continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre. The new one-woman show about motherhood from the hilarious Diane Flacks promises to be entertaining. It plays until January 24.
Tarragon’s remount of Hannah Moscovitch’s East of Berlin has been selling like crazy. This fabulous play about a young man coming to grips with his Nazi heritage in the years after the Second World War has twice added new shows to its run, but it must close on February 8. If you’ve got any ideas about grabbing a couple of tickets to one of the few non-sold-out performances, get on it quick!
Them & Us continues at Passe Muraille. The new show written by Tracy Dawson and directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones is a series of vignettes about the difficulties of male-female relationships and features Michael Healey and Sarah Dodd among its cast members. Some vignettes are less successful than others, and there’s an indulgent sketch comedy vibe to the whole thing that betrays Dawson’s Second City roots. Still, there are also some great comedic moments and even the occasional insight. It plays until January 31.
Zona Pellucida & The Needle Exchange continues at Buddies. The queer double-bill features a new work by the drag performance artists 2boys.tv in the first part of the evening and a variety show hosted by Keith Cole in the second. It runs until January 24.