Ten Things We Loved at SummerWorks 2010
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Ten Things We Loved at SummerWorks 2010

“Underage” Orphan Solmund Patterson is lifted by the other Orphan dancers in the Hidden Cameras’ stage adaptation of their album Origin/Orphan. Photo by David Topping.

It’s taken a few days, but we’ve sufficiently recovered from SummerWorks, and had some time to reflect on the highlights of the multidisciplinary festival. Having seen twenty-five of forty-two plays, ten of ten Music Series concerts, three of three SummerWalks tours, and nine of ten performance art showcases, we’ve decided to hone our focus and pick some highlights. Here then, are our top ten favourite things about this year’s offerings.

10. The Hidden Cameras’ stage show at the Music Series

Fans of the popular ensemble led by Joel Gibb who expected a typically rambunctious performance from the Hidden Cameras themselves were probably disappointed: the band was seated at the rear of the stage to play an orchestral arrangement of Origin/Orphan in its entirety. But those who showed up anticipating something a little different enjoyed the stage show that was the night’s focus, which featured the spectacle of flamboyant mayoral candidate Keith Cole playing an arch villain who menaced a eclectic mix of “Orphan” dancers. Front row audience members being pulled up to dance with the Orphans at the end was icing on the cake.

9. Lindy Zucker’s mustachioed dance party up Bathurst Street

Uncle Lindy (Lindy Zucker) led a SummerWalks tour through the condos and alleyways south of the Factory Theatre. Photo courtesy of SummerWorks.

Once again, the SummerWalks tours this year offered playgoers a bit of exercise, the chance to get to know the Bathurst and Queen area a little better, and the opportunity to spend time in the company of tour guides who had some very specific knowledge to impart. Both Falen Johnson’s tour about cultural awareness and Daniel Sadavoy’s personal anecdotes of dates and breakups in the neighborhood’s restaurants and alleyways were worth our time, but for sheer enjoyment, the SummerWalks highlight was the conclusion of Uncle Lindy’s Quit Yer Snivelin’ Tour of Life, when Zucker lead her tour members—all outfitted with fake mustaches—up Bathurst Street, dancing to a boombox while passersby gawked. One woman asked, “Is this a flash mob?” and she wasn’t too far off the mark.

8. Post Eden‘s balance of technical wizardry and theatrical interaction

Described as a cinematic play, Jordan Tannahill and Suburban Beast‘s production of Post Eden combined split screen video projection with live narration and staged scenes. It was a very fine line to tread, the risk being that technology could have overwhelmed the actors’ naturalistic performances as suburban residents. Happily, the tech was used to augment the performers and never upstaged them. Some beautiful scenes took place in real time on stage, including the burial of a dog, and an imagined reconciliation between a married couple; the show ended up winning the Contra Guys Award for New Work, and it was clearly as much for the play as for the innovative staging.

7. The design of Iphigenia at Aulis

Photo by Alex Felipe.

We made note of the striking set in this Euripidean adaptation in our SummerWorks cheat sheet review, and it still stands out in our mind, for the simple and stark design of both stage and costumes by Jung-Hye Kim. Kim’s stage was covered in a material that made it look as if the ground had a sheen of crude oil, and the pure white costumes were all carefully stained up to the ankle with the substance. With no notes mentioning the design in the program, the audience was left to wonder whether the black ooze spoke to the black and white absolutes the Greeks see the world in, or whether it hints (as we said previously) of the slow corruption of logic that leads the Greek army to muster at Aulis, force their leader to sacrifice his favoured daughter, and sail to assault the city of Troy.

6. Nina Arsenault’s poses in I Was Barbie

Detail of a photo by Tanja Tiziana, courtesy of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

We also mentioned in our cheat sheet how we loved Nina Arsenault‘s show, for her insightful and droll observations on fashion and celebrity culture, and how the culture’s participants reacted to Arsenault’s serene interpretation of the famous plastic doll. But we also keep going back to Arsenault’s choreography in the show: it was all simple arm movements and slow, small steps, so as not to ruin the illusion that she is a life sized doll.

5. The double duty players: Sascha Cole for Theory/Post Eden, Ted Dykstra for The Kreutzer Sonata/Joni Loves Mitchell, and Allie Hughes for Fiasco Playhouse/Biggish Kids

Allie Hughes describes how to draw children in Bram Gielen’s Biggish Kids. Photo by Stephanie Tonietto, courtesy of SummerWorks.

Every year at SummerWorks at least one performer stands out for exceptional work in more than one show; this year, there were three. Sascha Cole played against type (and age) as a brittle abandoned housewife in Post Eden, and also perfectly embodied the idealistic young professor harassed by an anonymous student in the thought-provoking Theory. Ted Dysktra adapted Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata into a gut-churning solo show, imbuing the haunted character with a deep loathing for himself and others; he also played a sleazy and inveterate rock n’ roll veteran in Joni Loves Mitchell, digging into the comedy with relish. And theatrical rock n’ roller Allie Hughes, whose band topped Fiasco Playhouse‘s opening night with a terrific and uninhibited set, also excelled in Bram Gielen’s song cycle Biggish Kids; surrounded by an exceptional cast of cabaret singers, she stood out in a humourous number as a schoolteacher with a low opinion of her charges.

4. Daniel Karasik’s writing and directing for The Innocents

Philip Furgiuele played a rising star lawyer with little sexual experience in Daniel Karasik’s sharply written and directed The Innocents. Photo courtesy of SummerWorks.

Daniel Karasik’s play about twenty-somethings with different social and economic statuses who, for the most part, fall for the old truism that the grass is always greener, struck a chord with audiences. His sharply written, ably portrayed characters may have been mired in their own insecurities and self-criticism, but they were all eloquent in their attempts to relate to each other in a series of two-person encounters. As young or younger than the subjects of his play, but already an experienced playwright, Karasik has been touted in the past for his SummerWorks productions, and The Innocents will certainly add to that reputation.

3. The Wilderness of Manitoba and The Weather Station sets at the Music Series

Once again, the Music Series at SummerWorks featured a wide-ranging assortment of some of the city’s best musical talent. We got up and danced with The Elastocitizens and Diamond Rings, and enjoyed sets by buzz acts PS I Love You and Evening Hymns, but our favourite night belonged to The Wilderness of Manitoba (whose album we reviewed last month), and openers The Weather Station. Both bands played melodic and achingly beautiful songs tinged with banjos, and both also humbly shared their time slots with sister acts Entire Cities, and The Mountains and The Trees. The Hidden Cameras may have made more of an effort to create an original show in line with the theatrical roots of SummerWorks, but the four bands that played the August 12 showcase focused on presenting their music simply and sincerely, and the audiences were quietly appreciative.

2. Fiasco Playhouse‘s collaborations

Atomic Vaudeville’s Sarah Jane Pelzer and guest performer Laura Anne Harris perform at Fiasco Playhouse. Photo by Stephanie Tonietto, courtesy of SummerWorks.

For the second year in a row, the National Theatre of the World was responsible for some of the best performances in the SummerWorks Festival. For the Performance Art Bar, The NTOTW made a concerted effort to collaborate spontaneously, or with just an hour or two of preparation, with its roster of guests. The company performed dance choreographed by Monica Dottor; participated in Istvan Kantor’s frustrating (and bloodletting) performance piece; and sang Beatles covers with Colleen and Paul, accompanied by Ron Sexsmith (who volunteered himself from the audience as an accompanist). Some of these happenings were immensely entertaining (like their radio play with Kitchen Band Productions or the impromptu Grand Analog dance party), and some uncomfortable (when Zeesy Powers told Matt Baram she didn’t find him attractive in her truth telling interviews, for example), but they were always fascinating to watch.

1. The out-of-town musicals: Victoria’s Ride the Cyclone, Montreal’s Haunted Hillbilly, and Ottawa’s Countries Shaped Like Stars

The best shows in this year’s Theatre Series—or at the very least, the most appreciated by the audience—were all musical acts that had been previously mounted elsewhere, and polished to a high sheen, before coming to Toronto. Mi Casa Theatre‘s Countries Shaped Like Stars has played across the country and in a few places outside of it; Sidemart Theatrical Grocery has seen two productions of Haunted Hillbilly in Montreal; and Atomic Vaudeville‘s Ride the Cyclone—the deserved winner of both the Prize for Production award and the Audience Choice Award—had been produced twice in its hometown of Victoria (in conjunction with Intrepid Theatre). All three shows are potentially returning to our town (we hear rumours of a bidding war for Ride the Cyclone by several Toronto theatres), which could come as a comfort if you missed them at the festival.
The interesting question these successes raise is this: where were the Toronto musicals? The Fringe Festival has traditionally been used as a proving ground for new musicals, while SummerWorks has been seen as the venue of choice for new dramatic work. SummerWorks has already begun addressing this disparity with this year’s inaugural Musical Works in Concert series (showcasing three works in progress); perhaps by next year, one of Toronto’s local companies will produce a quirky and impeccably staged musical for SummerWorks, something that might measure up to the visiting ones we enjoyed this year.