Two recently opened plays, Actors Repertory Company's Moment and Soup Can Theatre's Circle Jerk, make for intimate theatre-going experiences.
It’s been a very busy fall in Toronto for theatre. According to Globe and Mail theatre critic Kelly Nestruck’s theatre Wikispace, there were more professional theatre openings in October than there were days of the month; that trend continued into November, when there were nine openings last Thursday and Friday alone.
Savvy theatre-goers are realizing that excellent and innovative fare is being staged not just at established companies and venues such as Soulpepper and Canadian Stage, but also by select independent companies, in converted studios and storefront spaces (a trend we remarked on in last year’s arts and culture Heroes selection). What these smaller companies may lack in budgets or plush seats and amenities, they make up for by providing more intimate and visceral experiences. And two recently opened shows are heightening those experiences by staging in the round—almost 50 audience members sit in a circle around the actors, close enough to the action that when clothes are ripped off or bodily fluids fly, there’s a chance they may land in their laps.
Actors Repertory Company (or ARC for short) has been operating in Toronto for 16 years now, and it’s got an unusual mandate for a Toronto independent theatre company: rather than create or stage Canadian work, it brings in contemporary work from around the globe. (Dealing with production rights can often be cost-prohibitive for smaller companies.) Its Canadian English-language premiere of Irish playwright Deirdre Kinahan’s Moment is—at least judging by what we’ve seen over the past decade—its finest work yet.
Staged (mostly) on the main floor of bodega-turned-performance-venue SideMart, director Christopher Stanton’s production features a large dining table that the actors revolve around—and occasionally, on. Kinahan’s play is a high tragedy and has much in common with recent American drama August: Osage County: an extended and estranged family comes together around a table, opening bottles of wine and visiting old traumas. Most of the play is realist, with occasional sound and music (also designed by Stanton) flourishes at heightened moments or in flashback; these, along with the the intimate setting, make it resemble recent local site-specific piece True by Rosa Laborde.
The cast is the finest ensemble in an independent production we’ve seen in a long while—since at least Birdland Theatre’s Assassins. The characters are defined mostly by how they deal with pain: protagonist Niamh, played by Janet Porter, wears hers like an open wound. Her mother—Deborah Drakeford in a remarkable performance—represses hers and manipulates most of the family through a desperate preoccupation with trivial matters, such as which appetizer to serve. Aviva Armour-Ostroff’s younger sister Ciara has most successfully suppressed her experience of the family’s shared past trauma, while her jovial husband Dave (Andre Sills) is the buffer when the women in his life start to antagonize each other. Niamh’s guileless new boyfriend Fin (Gordon Bolan) is the stand-in for the audience, a new player in the family dynamic who receives some of the blowback when personalities clash; Bahareh Yaraghi’s Ruth, who arrives at the Lynch family home in the company of absentee son Nial (Ryan Hollyman), serves much the same purpose, provoking a long delayed blow-up. Hollyman is superb as the troubled black sheep of the family, harbouring a secret that may never have been fully revealed until this night.
While ARC’s show is a polished and exceptionally detailed production, younger and scrappier company Soup Can Theatre is presenting a selection of short new works by local playwrights, collectively known as Circle Jerk, at Chinatown performance studio lemonTree Creations. Although the programs warns of nudity, mature themes, and explicit sexuality, the titular slang term is not dramatized on stage, but refers to the format: each playlet starts with the seemingly random last line of the previous one. The theatre pieces are broken up by new classical music compositions, played by a rotating quintet and named for the connecting lines: “Subtlety Is Not Your Specialty”, “What’s Bulgarian for Slut?”, “I Think It’s Time We Talked About Your Filthy Rituals”, and “I Fucking Hate Potatoes.”
Soup Can’s challenge to the playwrights was to start and end their new pieces with the pre-determined lines, and they spent the summer workshopping for this fall’s premieres. The playlets, featuring emerging actors, exhibit different strengths. Scott Dermody’s well-choreographed Dust Peddling: Part II generally succeeds in its presentation of a kinky transaction between consenting adults (played by himself and Lisa Hamalainen), involving poetry, bondage, and the Wikipedia definition of “orgasm.” Wesley J. Colford’s Sex and This is the least risqué (and perhaps most thought-provoking) work, and features two self-absorbed young girls (Tiffany Deobald and Carys Lewis) dealing with a sudden tragedy and the 21st-century impact of social media. Brandon Crone’s Maypole Rose is the most conventional piece, but also the most nuanced: a couple (Alexander Plouffe and G. Kyle Shields) spends a night of somewhat mismatched passion together. Closer The Session, by Soup Can co-producer Justin Haigh, is the driest and most cerebral, a verbal stand-off between a safety supervisor and a workplace therapist (Allan Michael Brunet and Matt Pilipiak) in a nuclear power plant.
Whereas Moment is fully immersive, Circle Jerk doesn’t quite black-box the space for the show; we could dimly discern shapes of passers-by through the opaque sliding-windowed wall (though there was no sound bleed). Intentional or not, it provided a sense that the various stories were occurring in the busy downtown core they’re staged in. Moment could very well be taking place in an isolated rural Irish house (the cast wisely doesn’t attempt the accent) or a suburban one; the exterior isn’t important, just the immediate reality and personalities being presented. Both shows invite their audiences to encounter performers up close: in a city crowded with choices for entertainment on the town or in your own home, the intimate spectacles they’re offering are ones large stages or screens can’t.