After 42 plays and more than a dozen bands, the sun set on the 2011 SummerWorks Festival this past Sunday. And with about 20,000 audience members and 1,500 to 2,000 Music Series tickets sold, the 10-day celebration of progressive theatre, dance, and music seems to have weathered the storm of losing its government funding just fine.
Though Heritage Canada’s refusal of grant money and the subsequent publicity and nationwide fundraising drive is no doubt partly responsible for the increase in numbers from 2010, SummerWorks routinely shows an increase in annual attendance. Perhaps when artistic producer Michael Rubenfeld reapplies for government funding next year, which he has said he plans to do, this year’s success might make the case again. Or maybe not. Just in case, Rubenfeld has said he is looking for other fundraising and sponsorship opportunities to avoid the last-minute rush for cash again.
Fortunately, government grants don’t impact the quality of the SummerWorks festival—so while Rubenfeld was busy making sure the books were balanced, local and national artists focused on making the 2011 productions some of the best so far. From open to close, we were consistently pleased with the performances we saw, with a few moments that stood out from the rest as particularly exciting. Here are our 10 favourite moments and highlights from the 2011 SummerWorks Festival that give it, in our opinion, a sunny forecast.
Michelle Monteith plays a twisted sister to Joe Cobden in Hannah Moscovitch’s Little One. Photo by Omer Yukseker.
Hannah Moscovitch’s writing in Little One
So, surprise surprise, we liked Hannah Moscovitch’s new play, Little One. With the same team of playwright Moscovitch, actress Michelle Monteith, and director Natasha Mytnowych that created the SummerWorks success The Russian Play in 2006, we (and everyone else) pegged it as a must-see before the festival even started. But that doesn’t change the fact that Moscovitch’s monologues are expertly crafted—telling a chilling narrative, exploring provocative themes without being explicit, while creating bitingly funny moments in a completely unfunny situation. However, our favourite part about Little One‘s script was its Ottawa setting, which she describes in the way only someone who grew up there can. Claire (Monteith) tells the audience how the Vietnamese mail-order bride across the street slowly adjusts to her new home: “She’s even finally started to get used to Ottawa, to the sound of a million people all being very quiet together.” Anyone who’s spent an extended amount of time there will understand the genius of that line, which, in our opinion, should have earned Little One at least one award on closing night (though Monteith and Cobden received honourable mentions for The Spotlight Award for a featured performer).
Another writer who did win an award, however, was Cliff Cardinal, who received The Theatre Passe Muraille Emerging Artist Award for his script Stitch. Don’t ask us how this twenty-something male was able to write a one-woman show about an oxy-addicted single mother and porn star so well. But this new script definitely demands a shout-out, along with Richard Sanger’s Hannah’s Turn, a smart, engaging new drama about philosophy and the role it played in the Holocaust (and an illicit affair). Canadian audiences are very likely to see these three shows at another theatre near home soon.
SummerWorks Spotlight Award winner Cara Gee (at centre, in teal dress) poses for the camera, between Birdtown & Swanville’s Aurora Stewart de Peña and Shakespeare in Action’s Kaleb Alexander. Photo by Stephanie Tonietto/SummerWorks.
“Double duty” standouts Cara Gee & Steven McKay
Every year, a few SummerWorks participants distinguish themselves by contributing to multiple shows and projects, which can make for some very tight scheduling. This year, while there were quite a few we noticed (such as Shaina Silver-Baird’s appearances in both Little Crickets and Program, and Beth Kates’ contributing design work to Malaria Lullaby and set design to Freda and Jem’s Best of the Week), two people in particular stood out for exceptional work in exceptional productions. Steven McKay was the SummerWorks Music Series MVP, contributing a charming set of his own material on opening night and backing the revitalized Bruce Peninsula on the drum kit while they weaved their choral magic. And Cara Gee, whose sensational turn in Cliff Cardinal’s Stitch garnered her the SummerWorks Spotlight Award, also impressed us in the large ensemble of funny and fierce lady “strongmen” in Birdtown and Swanville‘s The Physical Ramifications of Attempted Global Domination.
Amber Borotsik traverses the River Styx in ONE. Photo Courtesy of SummerWorks.
The reinterpretation of the Greek myth in ONE
Modern theatre as we know it was born of ancient Greek choruses, and thus they have always been an integral part of the art form. But this summer, the Greek myth seemed to have a bigger presence than ever before—though sometimes you’d be hard-pressed to recognize it. Take ONE, by Jason Carnew, which tells the story of a young woman who travels to the underworld to rescue her true love, George, who has drowned (loosely based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth). Instead of a chorus narrating the drama in unison and avoiding the melodramatic monologues so characteristic of Greek theatre, ONE uses a series of incredibly moving images to bring young Philistine to a dusty archive of memories, through a nightmarish River Styx, face to face with demonic creatures reminiscent of Silent Hill‘s Pyramid Heads. In fact, the direction from Ghost River Theatre‘s Eric Rose (which earned him the Canadian Stage Award for Direction) was so strong that we wish the actors would only dance and not speak. An umbrella floating up through the air, Philistine (played by Amber Borotsik) literally swimming in red fabric, a dance sequence that bravely shows off Kristi Hansen’s missing foot, and a stunning lightning sequence are just a few examples of the theatrical magic SummerWorks audiences witnessed in ONE.
But ONE wasn’t the only twist of the Greek myth. Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl also provided a stripped-down but quirky interpretation of Orpheus’s myth, helped greatly by Justin Rutledge’s music, and Kevin Shea’s Hero & Leander was a welcome fresh take on the Greek gods, exposing them as even more flawed than their mortal aides—Neptune (Rick Jon Egan) is fickle and insecure when Leander refuses his advances, and Venus (Kimberly Persona) is the total opposite of grace and beauty.
Larry (Ishai Buchbinder, at left) confronts Mr. Marmalade (David Storch.) Photo by Simon Bloom.
David Storch’s death scene in Mr. Marmalade
Mr. Marmalade, inventively staged in and around a bright kindergarten classroom by Outside The March‘s Mitchell Cushman (co-winner of the Emerging Artist award with Stitch scribe Cliff Cardinal), was blessed with fine performances from all its cast members, including Sebastien Heins as a perky but mistreated personal assistant and Amy Keating’s effervescent but lonely young Lucy. But veteran actor David Storch made the deepest impression as the increasingly malevolent title character, an imaginary “friend” onto whom Lucy projects the poor behaviour of the adults in her life. Weaving back and forth between charm and drug-addled debauchery, Marmalade comes to a grisly but entertaining end, and Storch’s ritual suicide outside the classroom, seen through the window by the constantly shifting audience, was a fitting underscore of the narrator’s (a confident Ava Jane Markus) warning towards the end: “…which ends in death—which is where all stories go if you follow them long enough.”
Tommy Taylor’s caged wisdom in You Should Have Stayed Home. Photo by Will O’Hare.
Water in You Should Have Stayed Home and White Rabbit, Red Rabbit
For a very political festival, only two shows had overtly political themes—You Should Have Stayed Home by Praxis Theatre and The Original Norwegian, which is Tommy Taylor’s story of incarceration during the G20, directed by Michael Wheeler (winner of the RBC Arts Professional Award), and White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Volcano Theatre and Necessary Angel, a script written by Iranian Nassim Soleimanpour and read cold by a different actor every performance. Both examined the idea of civil and human rights, their fragility, and their value to a free and good life. Both also used water as a representation of these rights. In YSHSH, Taylor’s story is at its most dire when he and the rest of his caged inmates are forced to beg for a Styrofoam cup of water. Meanwhile, in WR, RR, Soleimanpour (who received the SummerWorks Contra Guys Award for Outstanding New Performance Text) forces the audience to act upon their freedom of choice to save the actor from a maybe-poisoned glass of water, whereas the playwright, unable to travel or leave Iran, is forced to live without such a sense of agency. As an essential necessity for life and health, water is an obvious indicator of quality of life. But in these shows, the flavourless, colourless, odorless liquid was strong enough to instill a sense of anger and incredulity at the vulnerability of human rights, both overseas and at home.
Aerialist Holly Treddenick floats above Allison Bradbury on the bed in a fever dream sequence from Malaria Lullaby. Photo by Beth Kates.
The visual flair of Malaria Lullaby
In a festival full of indelible images—the mouth stretching in Shudder, the inventive staging with simple props and precise movement in ONE, the bear puppet in Exit, pursued by a bear—Company Blonde and CANDLES ARE FOR BURNING‘s Malaria Lullaby was the show that infected our minds most virulently, with a combination of aerial acrobatics, fascinating projection, and sound design by The Playground’s Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson, and the use of a diverse selection of backing music, including several tracks from Arcade Fire. The show, following a young woman (Allison Bradbury) who flies to a tropical country and is preyed upon by disease-carrying mosquitoes, ended with a bravura sequence where dancer Holly Treddenick climbed up a silk above the ill protagonist’s bed and mirrored her feverish shifting in an “out of body” experience. Our only criticism of the show would be that we’d have liked to have seen it in a space a little wider that the usually amply sized Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, as the airborne dancers needed more open space around them when they ascended three in a row.
Kristy Kennedy in Combat. Photo by John Lauener.
Toy warfare in Combat
Set mostly in the sales department at a TV shopping network, employees treat each stint on the phones as a battle in no man’s land, and the guest appearance of Marie Osmond as a special op of extreme importance. Combat wove together the goofy and the intense, exploring how violence and anger can seep into the most trivial situations. While we thought the characters and premise of such an office felt too exaggerated in the script, what we loved most was the use of toy soldiers, tanks, and helicopters in the staging—with the childhood idea of “playing war” itself the perfect combination of silly and serious.
The cast and band of Oracle, post-performance. Photo by Stephanie Tonietto/SummerWorks.
The delivery musical number in Oracle at the Musical Works in Concert Series
Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli’s Oracle may have been the musical least far along in staging at the festival, with its singers rooted in front of music stands, but it had the most evolved character development, streamlined plot, and polished book and lyrics. The three singers—Patty Jamieson as Leigh, the directionless hardware store clerk; Julie Martell as Phoebe, a no-longer-chaste Oracle banished to the present day from ancient Greece; and Jeff Irving as “Bagel Boy” Jim, a jack of all trades who’s keen to make a home in Delphi, IN, with Leigh—were all full of life and did ample justice to Turvey’s clever book and lyrics. The anachronistic differences between 4th-century (BC) Phoebe and 21st-century Leigh and Jim were never played for a cheap laugh, until a climactic and hilarious scene where “BB” acts as doula for Phoebe, who used the 21st-century’s f-word in the funniest way we’ve seen on stage in a long time. We laughed at other musicals in the fest, like at Kimberly Persona’s raunchy Venus in Hero and Leander—but Oracle was the only one we’ll admit to tearing up a little while watching.
Danny Wild, Susanna Hood, and Alanna Kraaijeveld in Shudder. Photo by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin.
Not shying away from juvenile sexuality in, well, a lot of shows
Okay so before you send in your hate mail—we don’t actually like child sexuality. Not at all. But, for some reason or another, it seemed to be a common theme among several of our favourite shows. In Little One, it’s never stated outright, but there is strong evidence that Claire was sexually mistreated as an infant. In Strange Mary Strange, the titular Mary is hyper-sexualized since the age of nine. Young Lucy in Mr. Marmalade takes playing House and Doctor a little too seriously with her imaginary boyfriend and four-year-old Larry. And the dancers in Shudder displayed all sorts of taboo behaviour between a daughter, father, and mother, in their Francis Bacon–inspired nightmare visions. Watching these shows explore the sexuality of their characters was never comfortable, but for taking on these issues the plays’ creators deserve recognition, and watching their work certainly was jarring, edgy, and captivating. Which is exactly what SummerWorks intends to be.
Graham Van Pelt’s Miracle Fortress set used lasers to accentuate his sonically layered performance. Detail of a photo by Stephanie Tonietto/SummerWorks.
Miracle Fortress’ light and sound show at the Music Series
This was the year that the SummerWorks Musical Series, which has had exceptional programming since its inception in 2008, really came into its own. The series enjoyed a 25 per cent boost in attendance over last year, as music fans figured out where the Lower Ossington Theatre was, and theatregoers cottoned onto the fact that there were great bands on every night of the series. Hooded Fang packed them in on opening night, Bonjay earned an enthusiastic welcome home (from Berlin), as did a reinvigorated Bruce Peninsula, who’d been on hiatus while lead singer Neil Haverty underwent treatment for leukemia. But the best set of the fest came from Miracle Fortress; Graham Van Pelt, who’d been at the series in 2009 with both Miracle Fortress and his “party” band Think About Life, came back with a fantastic set of tunes from his new album Was I The Wave?, and also made the best use of the black box space, incorporating lasers that spilled beams all across the walls and appreciative crowd.
The photo caption for the picture accompanying “Double Duty Standouts Cara Gee & Steven McKay” originally suggested Kaleb Alexander is associated with the Classical Theatre Project when, in fact, the company he’s working with is “Shakespeare in Action.” We regret the error.