Two indie remounts of now-classic Canadian / Torontonian plays focus on the comedic and poetic tribulations of true love, which never did run smooth.
All too often, Canadian plays are produced once, perhaps given a remount or two, than fade into obscurity. So it’s a pleasure to see two comedic classics, both written by Toronto women, both full of beautiful poetry and pratfalls, being staged by new generations of indie theatre artists.
The renowned company Theatre Columbus celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this month with a party and a renaming; moving forward, they’ll be known as Common Boots Theatre, a name that references their history of collective creation, and their many outdoor site-specific works. To mark the occasion, the members of their theatre lab presented a TTC-set assemblage utilizing scenes from Theatre Columbus’ 27 produced works, and among them, two guests – Andrew Gaboury and Kasey Dunn of Off The Grid Theatre – performed a scene from their production of Theatre Columbus’ most enduring and prolific work, 1986’s The Anger in Ernest & Ernestine.
Off the Grid Theatre and Coffee House Theatre are presenting the play, a quirky look at an impulsive young married couple who discover they both have quick tempers, at east end storefront venue Sidemart Theatrical Grocery, on a shoestring budget with a skeleton creative team; besides the two actors in the title roles (and live accompanist & “furnace” Stephan Ermel), only director Evan Harkai and stage manager Kyle Capstick are credited in the program.
Ernestine (Dunn) and Ernest (Gaboury) have a cozy basement apartment with an erratic furnace, and service industry jobs they both seem to enjoy. But random interactions in public and, more crucially, with each other, often send them spinning into tantrums. They clearly adore each other, and attempt to develop coping strategies from hurting each other when their tempers flare. But will they be able to keep themselves from hurting each other too much to recover?
Dunn and Gaboury are both charming. The physical comedy sequences, like a play fight sequence incorporating inspirations both old (Bond films and Star Wars) and new (Game of Thrones), and Gaboury’s private, interrupted performance of Springsteen’s ‘No Surrender’, are entertaining and deft. It’s a satisfying performance and staging of the now-classic play. We also quite enjoyed the live score by Ermel, who the couple occasionally interacts with indirectly.
But with the five members of the production no doubt wearing multiple “hats” (we’re not referring to Ernestine’s bonnet here, but production roles), some details of the production are lacking. The set is well dressed, but rather uninspired, and the rudimentary side lighting had the characters often performing in shadow. Appropriate for a basement apartment, perhaps, but a drawback for a viewing audience. (Also distracting was when Ernest and Ernestine’s anger was overshadowed by that of a neighbour, banging on the venue door, complaining of the noise – clearly she was unaware that performances in a performance space sometime rise above the level of quiet conversation.)
New indie theatre company Severely Jazzed’s production of Claudia Dey’s Trout Stanley, on the other hand, suffers from none of these weaknesses, boasting an up-and-comer dream team both onstage and off. In the role of the protagonist twin sisters Grace and Sugar are company founders Tess Degenstein (best known online as android LN6-K in the webseries Space Janitors) and Hannah Spear, an honouree in our annual Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh feature in 2014 (and the star of the webseries Versus Valerie). In the title role is Colin Munch, who we named an MVP at last year’s Toronto Fringe Festival for his roles in Kat Sandler’s Punch Up, and Bad Dog Theatre’s improvised play Toronto, I Love You. (All three have been members of Bad Dog‘s repertory company.) Rounding out the cast is Dan Jeanotte of sketch troupe Uncalled For as a stationary Storyteller (and foley artist).
Helping the performers create a subtly skewed sense of magic realism are director Daniel Pagett, whose hand is as sure here as it was for his directorial debut at Storefront Theatre with The Skriker last fall; set and costume designer Hanna Puley, most recently behind the gorgeous set for A Woman Is a Secret, whose clever all white living room facilitates Melissa Joakims’ lighting; and sound designer Daniel Maslany, whose chopped remixes of classic Canadiana band Heart are excellent; Maslany also created Severely Jazzed’s tantalizing video trailers. (There’s also clearly been substantial work put into both the production and its peripherals by production manager Alanna McConnell and stage manager Kelsey Rutledge.)
Grace and Sugar, bound tightly by both birth and a tragic backstory, are on the eve of their thirtieth birthday. Sugar (Spear) hasn’t left the house in over a decade; Grace runs the local dump, with some other, more glamorous jobs on the side. Their lives are upended with the arrival of charismatic drifter Trout (Munch), who falls head over heels for Sugar in a way that Grace immediately suspects and resents. Also, there’s a killer of young women on the loose, and as circumstances develop, any of the three could be suspects in the eyes of the law.
Dey’s poetry is more verbose than the clipped lyricism of the Theatre Columbus play, but Trout Stanley is also packed with physicality, and as with The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine, it revels in being, first and foremost, a love story. First produced in Toronto in 2005, it’s been performed here since (a 2010 showing at short lived indie venue Bread and Circus, for example), but this is the first we’ve seen that may even have improved on the original Toronto production. The performers will be (we hope) a revelation to theatre audiences not familiar with their comedy work. Spear’s long coccooned Sugar who bursts forth; Degenstein’s fierce but brittle Grace; and Munch’s feral but stalwart Trout are all a joy to watch. All of them share fascinating philosophies coloured by their exceedingly odd life experiences, and as with Ernest and Ernestine, they’re underdogs we’re rooting for, same as with these upstart producing companies.