Your Cheat Sheet to SummerWorks 2010

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Your Cheat Sheet to SummerWorks 2010

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Photo by Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda/Torontoist.


SummerWorks is like the Fringe Festival’s more polished older sibling: a bit wiser, a bit more put together, and a little less rambunctious. The juried festival began its life devoted to theatre, but in recent years has expanded to include music, walking tours, and other fun stuff. Plays remain at the heart of SummerWorks though, and while the overall quality of the shows is a bit more consistent than Fringe, the schedule is still packed enough to seem a little daunting. With more than forty productions, it can be hard to find your way around.
Enter your intrepid Torontoist reviewers, who have seen almost every play on the roster. Over the past week, Hamutal Dotan, Steve Fisher, Kelli Korducki, Suzannah Showler, and Ryan West have taken in most of what SummerWorks has to offer, and we’ve culled our list of can’t-miss shows down to the very essentials. Forthwith, your guide to SummerWorks 2010…

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Aftershock

Why reality TV may be bad for the soul.

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All of Him

A bombshell surprise brings a piece of interactive theatre to life.

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Biographies of the Dead and Dying


Not your average ghost story.

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Haunted Hillbilly

A gothic southern musical. Really.

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Iphigenia at Aulis

Noble warriors and sacrificial virgins.

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I Was Barbie

Strike a pose!

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The Kreutzer Sonata

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.

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Me Happy

Saving the Irish town of Muff, one letter at a time.

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OR,

Madcap spying and other lascivious behaviour.

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Post-Eden

Press up against the border between urban and wild.

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Ride the Cyclone

Quirky musical numbers and witty, ostracized children.

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Theory

When censorship isn’t purely an academic issue.

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The WITCH of Edmonton

Supernatural betrayal.

 

Aftershock

20100810swaftershockSQUARE.jpg Following a guest stint on an Extreme Makeover-esque reality show, Anna returns to her dysfunctional family’s trailer park home unable to move. What begins as an in-your-face stage farce rapidly unfolds into a grotesque fable whose focal point is the deceptive relationship between outward appearance and positive change. As the cracks in newly beautiful Anna’s life quickly tailspin beyond repair (largely at the hands of abusive husband Gary, played to sinister effect by Patrick Garrow), she embarks upon a calculated self-destruction. Lynne Griffin is a source of much-needed comic relief as Anna’s fortune cookie wisdom–spouting mother (whose tension-killing “Confucius was one smart little shit!” could not have come at a more necessary time), while Amy Rutherford is fantastically tormented as Anna. KK

All of Him

20100810swallofhimSQUARE.jpg Writer/actor Tanya Pillay’s one-woman biographical play–cum–public dialogue (and, perhaps, psychoanalysis session) focuses on the life of Pat, her father. It begins innocently enough, touching upon Pat’s work in the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, and his tremendous accomplishments as a husband, career microbiologist, and father. The tale moves along with pauses for such audience interactions as Q&A sessions and the passing along of artifacts from Pat’s life (replete with a sachet of pipe tobacco “in case some of you haven’t ever smelled it”), when a bombshell of scandal is dropped and the tone irrevocably shifts. Pillay moves from storyteller to discussion facilitator as the audience helps mediate the narrative of her relationship with her father and his wrongdoings. This makes for an unexpectedly engaging, and rewarding, piece of interactive theatre. KK

Biographies of the Dead and Dying

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Photo by Julien Lafleur.

Set on the atmospheric west coast of Vancouver Island, this new show from British Columbia’s MachineFair follows a one-hit chick lit author’s effort to find inspiration in an allegedly haunted house. Far from your average ghost story, Andrew Templeton’s script is a clever exploration of the creative process and the tribulations faced by writers in several mediums. Aviva Armour-Ostroff channels pure frustration as the struggling novelist, while Jeff Meadows slips seamlessly between the characters of her insufferably talented poet ex-husband and her earthy landlord and neighbour. There may be no rattling chains or spectral visitors in this ghost tale, but there are plenty of astute observations on the craft of writing itself. RW

Haunted Hillbilly

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Photo courtesy of Alexis Taylor.

For this performance, we were fortuitously seated near author Derek McCormack, whose novel is the basis of this gothic southern musical, and we can report that he wholeheartedly approves of the show. “It’s cheerier than the book,” he remarked to us after the curtain call, “but it’s probably more entertaining on stage that way.” Of that we have no doubt: this musical is obscenely fun, reveling in the sinister charm of Machiavellian “couturier” Nudie (Greg Kramer), the golly-shucks naiveté of protagonist Hyram (Matthew Raudsepp), and the note-perfect affectations of the rockabilly cast (all of whom get a chance to shine). Matthew Barber’s original songs are period and genre-appropriate gems, and while The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an obvious influence (there’s even a tall, ghoulishly pale manservant), this story of an amoral (and possibly immortal) genius’s corruption of everyone he meets is more deliciously wicked sleaze than cheese. As for McCormack’s hope that it’ll inspire a fresh wave of readers, that’s probably assured. (We’ll be picking his book up just as soon as the festival is over, at least.) SF

Iphigenia at Aulis

20100810swaulisSQUARE.jpg Nicolas Billon’s adaptation of Euripides’s tragedy will draw inevitable comparisons from regular theatre-goers to Erin Shield’s recent Tarragon triumph If We Were Birds (which itself debuted at SummerWorks in 2008), not least because both plays benefit from David Fox’s presence (here, he plays a humble servant who acts as the oft-ignored voice of reason), and Alan Dilworth’s deft direction. But rather then subverting and humanizing the characters in this ancient tale, Billon’s faithful version hews to Euripidean archetypes. Passion and desires are expressed through rhetoric, and fatalism is absolute (the ancient Greeks believed immutably that their fates were subject to the capricious whims of the gods). The powerhouse cast is uniformly excellent, and while the audience tittered at odd moments when noble warrior Achilles (Stephen Gartner) or the titular sacrificial virgin (Eryn Murman) describe how honour compels them to extreme actions, their alien convictions are strong and completely believable. The visually striking set consists of dead tree stumps dotting the inky black stage, and the oily blackness appears to be creeping up the white-clad cast’s stained feet, hinting at how the ill-advised war campaign against Troy will ultimately bring ruin to them all. SF

I Was Barbie

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Photo courtesy of Nina Arsenault.

Transgendered performer Nina Arsenault, who’s undergone sixty plastic surgeries to attain an idealized female body, seized the role of a lifetime when she was offered the chance to personify Mattel’s Barbie for the doll’s fiftieth anniversary party, during Fashion Week 2009. Arsenault’s description of the surreal night she spent mingling (as Barbie) with fashion and celebrity elites is devastatingly candid as she describes floating through the evening in a haze of wish fulfillment and Ativan tranquilizers, dealing with ego bruising and eye-opening encounters (most notably with TV personality Ben Mulroney, whom she implies has disappeared into his Ken doll–like shell). The highlights of the show are her observations of how partygoers reacted when she approached them and offered them cupcakes: a potentially humiliating experience that Arsenault subverts into a rapturously spiritual one—the baked treats almost become pop culture communion wafers. The most revealing moment is when she sits on the floor, becoming truly vulnerable for the first time, and we realize what a prodigious effort has gone into maintaining the various doll-inspired poses she’s been striking. SF

The Kreutzer Sonata

20100810swkreutzerSQUARE.jpg The Kreutzer Sonata, like the piece of music for which it is named, haunts you long after the performance has ended. Adapted from the novella by Leo Tolstoy, the play is a classic tale of love, betrayal, and revenge, with a streak of punishing moralism raising the stakes even higher. Ted Dykstra is a tour de force in the one-man performance, showing incredible emotional range and technical skill in bringing what might otherwise be a slightly caricatured character to life. He (and Tolstoy) are smart enough to leaven the drama with wit, and the vivacity of the resulting narrative is all the more powerful. HD

Me Happy

20100810swmehappySQUARE.jpg Biddy is naively bawdy resident of the small Irish town of Muff, known for its majestic cliffs. Logan H. Hasselhoff (no relation) is a world champion cliffdiver, currently incarcerated in Newfoundland. Pyretic Productions’s quirky, enthusiastic love story unfolds as a series of letters between the two boisterous personalities, as they conspire to save Muff from destitution. Chala Hunter and Alex McCooeye seem to have so much fun with their characters it’s hard not to get caught up in their energy, while the script from Amy Lee Lavoie and Matthew MacKenzie offers them plenty of rich dialogue to work with. Fun fact: the two playwrights each brought characters together from previous shows and collaborated by writing actual letters to create the epistolary structure of the performance. RW

OR,

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Photo courtesy of Seventh Stage Productions.

We’re happy to report that OR, which toplined our Summerworks preview, delivers on all the promises director Kelly Straughan made in our interview: the show contains plenty of slamming-door farce, lascivious behaviour, and perfectly imitated Restoration-era lyricism. Sophie Goulet’s cunning and headstrong playwright Aphra Behn, who dabbles as a spy, is the devious anchor of the play, which builds slowly from her clandestine (and fictional) meeting with an amorous King Charles II (Damien Atkins), to a madcap pace for the final third of the show. Both Atkins and Melissa Jane Shaw change quickly between multiple roles; Shaw’s comic timing is spot-on, particularly as the lusty and uninhibited actress Nell Gwynn, while Atkins’s turn as a sweetly domineering noblewoman theatre producer earned an enthusiastic outbreak of spontaneous applause at the matinee we attended. SF

Post-Eden

20100810swedenSQUARE.jpg An incredibly original production that mingles video with live theatre, documentary with fiction, and animal with human, Post-Eden totally gets its liminality on, and totally rocks it. Riffing off interviews with real-life residents of Richmond Hill’s Neighbourly Lane, writer-director Jordan Tannahill spins these into a full-fledged fictional world of characters pressing up against the border between urban and wild. A newly separated couple-turned-neighbours, a young girl on a macabre mission, a boy waiting for the end of the world, and the spirit of a dead family dog populate a beautifully rendered, eerie space where fantasy and reality look and feel the same. The catch is that the live acting onstage is both bolstered and fragmented by two video projections in the background. Handled less skillfully, this could have very easily strayed into the territory of gimmick. Instead, with Tannahill’s strong directorial vision and a cast of consistently compelling actors, the distortion offered by the multiple viewpoints feels authentic. It is also, it must be said, gorgeous to look at. SS

Ride the Cyclone

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Photo courtesy of Atomic Vaudeville.

Ride the Cyclone, Atomic Vaudeville’s sequel of sorts to smash hit Legoland, takes the successful elements of that show—the quirky musical numbers, the witty, ostracized children—and expands on them. Instead of a couple of musical numbers, we now get a full song cycle, and instead of two children, there’s a half dozen (plus a motorized soothsayer and a giant bass-playing rat). Six choir geeks died in a tragic carnival mishap, and Uranium City, Saskatchewan, has become a ghost town, populated only by the spirits of the restless disaster victims, including one nameless girl with the creepiest eyes and demeanour. The children each sing a song to encapsulate their short lives and dreams, and there’s not a weak link (or tune) in the bunch. The cast is perfect alchemy, the dance numbers are side-splittingly funny, and the children’s sad stories are quite poignant; this one’s an immensely enjoyable treat (though due mainly to one rap-inspired song, it’s definitely not for actual kids). SF

Theory

20100810swtheorySQUARE.jpg Censorship is a hot topic at SummerWorks this year, and Theory pulls no punches in exploring the dubious parameters of art and communication. Norman Yeung’s aggressively intellectual script centres on a film theory class run by Isabelle, a progressive prof who wants to galvanize her students. Upon creating an anonymous posting board for class discussion she finds her experiment getting out of her control, as a mysterious agitator begins posting increasingly offensive material. While Isabelle agonizes over the line between academic discussion and offensive material, the agent provocateur begins to focus on her in an increasingly personal—and disturbing—manner. Director Joanne Williams’s effective use of visual media and stage layout prevent a largely verbal play from growing too flat, while Sascha Cole as Isabelle provides visceral reactions to the events unfolding around her. The material at times feels so academic that you should be scribbling notes, but promises to fuel animated discussions long after you’ve left the theatre. RW

The WITCH of Edmonton

20100810swwitchSQUARE.jpg This mobile, site-specific performance by The Red Light District has nothing to do with the capital of Alberta—it is an adaptation of an Elizabethan-Jacobean drama set in the similarly named village just outside of London. The story revolves around a tormented old woman mistaken by her community as a witch, who sells her soul to a the devil in the form of a dog to get revenge. The community was hardly wanting for sin in the first place, but with the dog’s help their greed and lust is driven to betrayal and murder. The sordid story is thoroughly engaging and the inventive cast makes the dialogue accessible, but the real star of the show is the environment. Touring through Trinity Bellwoods Park in the dark of night, the players explore familiar spots and hidden corners alike, weaving the text right into the landscape. Dancing, lynching, seductions, fisticuffs; all presented with fearless physicality and rich creativity. RW

SummerWorks showtimes, ticket and pass information, venue maps, and more are all on the festival’s website.
All photos provided by SummerWorks unless otherwise noted.

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