It’s been about a week since the skies opened up and summer arrived on the streets of Toronto. And by that, of course, we mean the SummerWorks Theatre Festival. Starting last Thursday and continuing until this Sunday, 42 plays and more than a dozen music acts are taking over West Queen West in celebration of new, bold, and unconventional artistic projects in theatre, dance, and music. Even with a tiny hiccup concerning federal government funding a few months ago, artistic producer Michael Rubenfeld and the rest of the play-going community are not letting the festival—which gets larger and larger every year in attendance and scope—lose its momentum.
Frankly, we haven’t let ourselves slow down either. With barely a breather after the Toronto Fringe Festival, Torontoist has been sprinting from Theatre Passe Muraille, to The Theatre Centre, to the Lower Ossington Theatre, to the MOCCA Courtyard (for some much needed R&R), separating the best from the rest. Now, we’ve whittled down our list to the top 10 most noteworthy shows (in quality, concept, or impact), and presented them in one handy little article. How nice.
Of course, we haven’t seen everything there is to see yet, let alone written about everything we’ve seen (honourable mentions go to Elora Gorge, Malaria Lullaby, and I—so if you feel there is a glaring absence in our list please make your own recommendations. Otherwise, don’t let the rain stop you from getting out and enjoying a bit of Summer while you still can.
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson Avenue)
As soon as Michelle Monteith emerged from the darkness to begin Little One with a monologue accompanied by a young Asian piano-playing girl with a red ribbon in her hair, lit only by a flashlight held beneath her chin making her normally delicate face look grotesque, her voice high and chilling, we knew that all the buzz surrounding this show was about to be justified. From the team responsible for the past SummerWorks smash The Russian Play, “it” playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s newest work explores two adopted siblings—Monteith as the deeply troubled Claire and Joe Cobden shines as her patient yet tortured older brother Aaron. Aaron also acts as the play’s narrator, telling the story of his childhood and adolescence dealing with Claire and her destructive behaviour as an adult, still haunted by her presence. It’s never revealed exactly what happened to Claire to send her off the edge as a toddler (though, we have a really good guess, and it’s not pretty), all the audience knows is that now she is unable to distinguish between loving something or someone, and hurting them.
Little One is a perfect storm of theatrical elements. Monteith and Cobden are perfectly cast, from their temperament even to their stature. Director Natasha Mytnowych (associate director of programming at Canadian Stage Company) captures tiny moments to send shivers up your spine, while Kimberly Purtell’s lighting, Michael Gianfrancesco’s set and costumes, Eric Meadow’s sound and Lily Ling’s music direction all work in harmony to create the most inharmonious atmosphere. If you’ve ever thought your younger sibling was a pain in the neck, catch this show. It will stay with you.
Amy Keating in Mr. Marmalade. Photo by Simon Bloom.
Outside The March
St. Mary Catholic School, Kindergarten Room 219 (20 Portugal Square)
A young girl’s imaginary companions reflect the abusive behaviour she’s observed in the adults in her life in Mr. Marmalade, a site-specific piece set in a bright and sunny kindergarten playroom at a Catholic school, across the street from the Factory Theatre. The narrator/guide (Ava Jane Markus) leads the audience back and forth to various areas of the large open space, as young Lucy (Amy Keating) interacts with imaginary “friend” Mr. Marmalade (David Storch), a harried executive with unsavoury habits that Lucy idolizes; Bradley (Sebastien Heins), Mr. Marmalade’s enabling and put-upon personal assistant; and real-life foils like Larry, a jaunty and bullied boy who’s attempted suicide several times. The witty script by Noah Haidle sends up all sorts of adult misdeeds through the prism of Lucy’s playtime, and while the entire cast digs into the absurd situations with relish, Storch in particular is excellent as the charming but dangerous title character. While the play moves swiftly from scene to scene, it exceeded its stated running time by at least 15 minutes at our viewing; however, we hear edits have been made since then to ensure it doesn’t go over 75 minutes.
Freda and Jem’s Best of the Week
Thompson and Fine
The Factory Studio Theatre (125 Bathurst Street)
Freda and Jem’s Best of the Week is about the life and death of a family—a family that is born at a nightclub, blossoms around the kitchen table at the end of the week, and ultimately falls apart, at no particular time or place. It encapsulates love and loss, beginnings and endings, history and the future, adolescence and identity. In other words, it could be about any family struggling with the tribulations of a divorce. But, it’s not. Jem and Freda are also a lesbian couple, with two teenage kids who see the split as the end of their family bonds. But as ludicrous as it sounds that a breakup between two heads of household would mean the imminent dissolution of the family unit, it’s just as ludicrous to think that the sex of Jem and Freda would make their breakup any less heartbreaking.
Freda, Jem, their daughter Sam, and son TeeJay, are a unique family facing the issues that come with that, like a son trying to discuss wet dreams with one of his mothers. But in the end, their story is one shared by about half of married couples today. The script by author and queer activist Lois Fine and direction by Judith Thompson create a fine balance between all of the facets involved—the evolution of Jem and Freda’s relationship, the effect of the breakup on Sam and TeeJay, and Jem’s soliloquies to the audience specifically about lesbianism and “being butch.” In fact, the rest of the creative team is a female theatre tour-de-force, from set/costumer designer Beth Kates, to musician Lorraine Segato, to actors Diane Flacks (Freda) and Kathryn Haggis (Jem), who are captivating. Freda and Jem’s Best of the Week is one of our best of the fest.
Dependent Theatre Projects
Factory Theatre Studio (125 Bathurst Street)
Playwright Cliff Cardinal’s debut play for a solo performer takes obvious inspiration from crossover porn star Sasha Grey (The Girlfriend Experience), known as much for her uncommon eloquence in interviews as for her ferocious performances in XXX features. He also has an ace in the hole in actress Cara Gee, whose fearless portrayal of “Kylie Grandview” embraces the character’s aggressive sexuality, short temper, and selective insight. Like the characters in HBO’s Californication, Grandview is witty and well-spoken, but increasingly unable to control her self-destructive tendencies. A few cliches about the porn industry squeak at tight corners, but this is an terrific first effort by Cardinal, and Gee, who also shines as a serene Chairman Mao in Birdtown & Smallville’s The Physical Ramifications of Attempted Global Domination, is an early contender for best in fest.
You Should Have Stayed Home
Praxis Theatre / The Original Norwegian
The Theatre Centre (1087 Queen Street West)
We left the opening of YSHSH pretty upset, and given Tommy Taylor’s story, that reflects well on the effective staging by Taylor and Praxis Theatre; every Canadian should be furious over the gross violation of civil rights that Taylor and his fellow detainees, many of them arrested at random (including a couple dining out at the Keg steakhouse) endured over the G20 weekend. But Taylor, a genial storyteller, also managed to wring a sizable amount of laughter out of the packed opening house, due to the absurdity of the situation. If we had any sway with the powers that be that continue to ignore calls for a full public inquiry, this would be the play they’d been obligated to attend—and especially those politicians who think the policing was handled well.
Hero & Leander
Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst Street)
With cell phones, texting, email, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Apple FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and whatever online communication tool is next down the pipeline, gone are the days when a young man would have to swim across an ocean every night to reach his beloved. Other parts of falling in love—the thrill and fear of a new relationship, the torture of unrequited affection, the scorn of jealousy—well, that stuff that will never get old. Hero & Leander is a modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth of the two star-crossed lovers who disregard the gods Venus and Neptune in order to be together, this time with catchy musical numbers and set in Toronto (seen most clearly through a scene taking place in a line-up for brunch). The script, co-written by Kevin Michael Shea (who also directs), Wade Bogert-O’Brien, and Scott Christian, has been years in development, and now the young cast is clearly enjoying a full-out production. The jokes are clever, the singing is beautiful, and the performances are over-the-top, just like they should be. Most notable is Kimberly Persona as an Yzma/Lady Gaga hybrid Venus. Though we’d like to see Neptune’s wrath fully unleashed earlier on in the action, we think Hero & Leander has the chops to brave much larger waters.
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit
Necessary Angel Theatre Company/Volcano Theatre
The Theatre Centre (1087 Queen Street West)
It’s impossible to review the quality of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, since it’s impossible for the same show to happen twice. What we can say, though, is that this is a theatrical experience unlike any we’ve had before. An actor of any age, gender, or nationality, is given an envelope with two things inside: a set of instructions, and the script for White Rabbit, Red Rabbit to be read cold, on the spot, with no idea as to where its words will take them or the audience throughout the evening (other than, at some point, there will be an impersonation of an ostrich). Without giving too much away, the script then takes on many roles—the voice of playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, a commentary on obedience, and a social critique of Soleimanpour’s home of Iran, with a cliffhanger ending of sorts. It’s not your run-of-the-mill play, but for those looking for something different and not afraid of potential audience participation, this could be the pick of the festival.
The Lower Ossington Theatre (100A Ossington Avenue)
At a festival seemingly dominated this year by work exploring disturbing themes of rape, incest, and child sexuality, Shudder will undoubtedly stand out as the most polarizing show. Our show-going partner declared it “55 minutes of self-indulgence,” and said it’d replaced spoken word as her most loathed form of theatre. We found it fascinating; using the paintings of Francis Bacon as an inspiration, creator/choreographer Susanna Hood and her three limber and seemingly inexhaustible performers explore Electra-like conflicts in a mother/father/daughter trio through movement and vocalization, accompanied by an occasionally jarring sonic landscape. There’s literal interpretation of the show’s title (we observed that a shudder alone is chilling, but a shudder in an embrace is unmistakably sexual), and violent and sexual sequences aplenty; but the most disquieting sequences involved stretching of the mouth, a repeated inability to speak clear thoughts, and direct looks at the audience. You’ll certainly never look at a wig the same way…
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson Avenue)
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Ancient Greeks are so hot right now. First, there was the Canadian Opera Company’s highly praised production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice directed by Robert Carsen this past spring, and Canadian Stage Company’s own dance interpretation of that myth Orpheus and Eurydice coming up in November. SummerWorks is not immune either, with Hero & Leander, ONE, and Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice also stemming from Grecian inspiration. But true to the SummerWorks aesthetic, none are what you’d expect from an ancient tale. Eurydice is an adaptation of the myth of Orpheus travelling to the underworld to rescue his deceased wife, the titular Eurydice, that instead explores her perspective on the matter. This is a stripped-down version of Ruhl’s quirky script, directed by Tarragon’s assistant artistic director Kristina Nicoll, as is necessary for a festival format, but there is lots of room to include more elaborate and complex staging to match such unorthodox characters in the classic tale, like an incredibly stoned Chorus of Stones (Moira Dunphy, Elliott Loran, and Elley-Ray Hennessy) and a Lord of the Underworld (an excellent Jesse Aaron Dwyre) who glides around on a bright red tricycle. But seeing as it’s a tale about a legendary musician, Justin Rutledge as the melancholy Orpheus really brings this Greek classic into the 21st century.
Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst Street)
This national series entry from Calgary just won a trio of Betty Mitchell awards (that city’s version of Toronto’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards), and it’s easy to see why; ONE is packed with bravura staging and movement sequences, eliciting comparisons to The Overcoat, in its re-imagining of the Greek myth of Orpheus attempting to rescue Eurydice from the underworld. While we had a few reservations about the script (it’s always a little awkward when a character repeatedly shouts “Is anyone there?!” out into a packed audience), the performers, especially Keith Wyatt as a fussy bureaucrat, imbue their archetypes with dextrous flair, and there are set pieces, including several using simple ribbons and props, that you’ll remember long after the story itself fades.
Photos courtesy of SummerWorks unless otherwise noted.
This post originally indicated that the performers in Shudder explored the Oedipal complex, when in fact the mother/father/daughter characters are technically exploring the Electra complex. We regret the error.