Our critics round up the must-see selections of this year's late-summer showcase.
Erin Shields has a twisted and dark sense of humour, and Beautiful Man has this as its biggest trophy, even bigger than the well-dressed (and increasingly less-dressed) man standing alone on a pedestal at the back of the stage. While actor Brett Donahue occupies the background, mostly silent and often in staged poses, three women are relishing the rehash of a new favourite movie that features a gritty, unemotional female cop tracking a killer with young, beautiful, male victims. Their conversation evolves from the show within the play, to the show within the show within the play, to the play within the show within the show within the play, each exploring a different gender-bending character stereotype, but the inception-like structure gets a little confusing by the fourth level. Nonetheless, it’s thrilling to watch the three women (Melissa D’Agostino, Anusree Roy, and Ava Jane Markus) take such delight in this guilty pleasure. Their chemistry is palpable, as director Andrea Donaldson suggests their trajectory from the office to the gym to the gun range, but doesn’t move them physically. It’s a slick, funny show with great potential for one of the city’s bigger, more mainstream stages. Actually, it’s puzzling it had to go through SummerWorks at all.
Performance About A Woman
Liz Peterson is a dream to watch. She says in her solo show, A Performance About A Woman, that someone once told her that her strength onstage was her ability to be vulnerable. And that may be true, but Peterson’s deadpan delivery as she carries herself in impulsive, sharp movements makes you laugh. Partly due to the play’s title, and partly because of Peterson herself—who changes from tomboyish outfits to her underwear and back again—Woman forces the ever-present question: How does the actor’s being a woman change the performance, and should it at all? Is it sexist to call a female performer “vulnerable,” or its cousins “brave” or “honest,” in a performance? Is her wild dance improv a criticism of douchey bros? You can read into it, or not, but Peterson makes you laugh the whole way through, eventually leaning into routine stand-up comedy.
The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely
Sadly, there are lots of recent events that make Ngozi Paul’s The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely particularly timely; she notes Sandra Bland and Ladi Apagu in the programme. But we’ll add policing women of colour’s bodies and sexuality, from Kim Kardashian to Nicki Minaj. So not only is The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely an impressive first play for writer and performer Ngozi Paul, but it feels truly great to see a black woman owning herself onstage. As Lovely, Paul explores her history and relationship with sex and love from childhood to a formative affair with a married man, punctuated by several excerpts on the life of Sara Baartman, the South African woman whose “exotic” body was put on display in France for almost 200 years, and some exciting dance sequences choreographed by Roger C. Jeffrey. Side note: Stick around for the talkback, built into the schedule by director d’bi young anitafrika, which are always informative and interesting.
This year’s “production in residence” at SummerWorks is a deeply affecting and unsettling look at the highs and lows of the “Revolution of Dignity” in Ukraine, precipitated by the corrupt ruling party’s rejection of a European Union agreement in the fall of 2013, until the government fell (and Russia began barely concealed attempts at annexation) in the spring of 2014. Co-creators Mark and Marichka Marcyzk met and fell in love while living among and interviewing protestors occupying the Maidan area in Kiev, and have created an intense and immersive theatrical experience that plunges audience members into joyous feasts and dancing and the raucous chaos of riots, with food served, (Styrofoam) bricks thrown, barricades constructed, and menacing helmeted thugs. An enthusiastic cast of 15 whirls around the space, transforming it constantly, urging audience members to join in, and playing music and singing throughout; there’s no dialogue in the show, but screens on three sides of the space show continuous footage and timeline information about the events depicted. Fair warning: even audience members in the balcony are strongly pressured to join in, and there’s plenty of triggering action that could lead to anxiety for people disturbed by depictions of armed conflict and state oppression. As immersive experiences go, this show is a close as one could get to experiencing a revolution without actually putting your life on the line in defiance of an oppressive regime.
Are You Still Coming Tonight?
The setting is simple, at the start: a half-dozen friends sit around a table, enjoying dinner and each others’ company. But soon, one at a time, they begin to exhibit exaggerated behaviour, physically and audibly externalizing their inner urges and thoughts, though these outbursts are ignored by the other guests. A seventh guest arrives—DJ and musician Caitlin Woelfle-O’Brien—whose music begins to soundtrack the breakdown and violation of the guest’s social niceties. The members of Social Growl Dance begin to interact physically with each other, and monologue to the audience, in a physically exuberant rendition of much of the motivations behind bouffon performance. Lewd and revealing, often funny and never boring, the performances may make some viewers shift in their seats, but you won’t be taking your eyes off the cast—especially when they break the fourth wall and walk up the aisles and into the audience.
Better Angels: A Parable
Slavery still exists and not just in the developing world, as Andrea Scott asserts in her provocative—and at times outright creepy—”parable,” Better Angels. A middle-class Canadian couple (Sascha Cole and Peyson Rock) bring in a young immigrant from Ghana (Akosua Amo-Adem) to work as their live-in maid and nanny. But behind their white-liberal façade lurk condescension and racism, not to mention closeted homosexuality (his) and insane jealousy (hers). Cole is especially memorable as the monstrous wife, a wannabe novelist, who has no problem with cultural appropriation or making her hired help feel guilty about asking to be paid. Amo-Adem’s abused maid, meanwhile, finds solace in Islam and in our old friend from African folklore, Anansi the spider. Tautly directed by Nigel Shawn Williams, on a tangled set by Laura Gardner that suggests both a web and police caution tape, Scott’s play wraps some serious questions about first-world exploitation within the threads of an artfully spun nightmare.
The Marquise of O—
A German classic gets a modern, German-style deconstruction at the hands of director-adaptors Lauren Gillis and Ted Witzel, who turn Heinrich von Kleist’s 1808 novella Die Marquise von O—about a mysterious pregnancy and possible rape—into a lurid scandal for the Age of Kardashian. The marquise (Rong Fu), a respectable young widow, finds herself unaccountably with child and is wooed by a dashing Russian count (Kaleb Alexander), who seems to know more about her predicament than he lets on. The staging combines a parody of 19th-century conventions—actors in whiteface, painted flats—with present-day video and props, and the culture clash doesn’t end there: in one amusing digression, the ideas of 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant are illustrated using the TV show Friends. The play aims for an ironic commentary on romantic notions of “forced seduction” (very timely, of course) but be that as it may, it’s a funny, unruly, and highly entertaining piece of theatre.
Stupidhead! (A Mucisal Cmoedy)
The confessional solo show, that stock-in-trade of every fringe theatre festival, can still feel fresh depending on who’s doing the confessing. Katherine Cullen, best known for her super-serious turn as a burnt-out EMS worker in Outside the March’s Vitals, is disarmingly goofy and self-deprecating in Stupidhead!, a semi-musical account of her struggles with dyslexia. Assisted by bouncy co-writer Britta Johnson on keyboards and backup vocals, Cullen gives a mostly comic spin to her learning frustrations as a child and adolescent. It will be heartening for older audience members to hear of a teenager who is actually clueless about the internet. And not all of Cullen’s many embarrassments are disability-related—fellow actors will cringe along with her at her hilariously bad choice for an audition piece: Judas’s death scene from Jesus Christ Superstar. Cullen’s show is a sweet, spunky ode to inadequacy that is more than adequate.
The Living doesn’t make for easy viewing, inspired as it is by playwright Coleen Wagner’s travels in Rwanda and the stories told to her by the women of that nation. But the experience of the play is a rewarding one all the same, an intense and ultimately cathartic exploration of loss, hatred, forgiveness, and the ghosts of guilt and atrocity people carry with them (the latter personified literally within the play). The shots fired at Christianity were a bit easy, and a few of the line deliveries a bit stiff, but the performances overall created a moving, even raw atmosphere of people struggling with lofty ideas of reconciliation in the face of more immediate struggles for day to day survival.
Upon the Fragile Shore
Reminding an audience of global tragedies past and ongoing that have long since moved out of the sexy part of a news cycle runs the risk of coming off like a lecture. Upon the Fragile Shore deftly sidesteps that pitfall by taking us deep into the human experience of those who have suffered, then try to find their way back into the world. Pain, rage, joy, hope, and defiance are on vibrant and vulnerable display, from the prisons of Caracas to a runner’s path in Boston. The play layers vignettes and the changing outfits of the performers to create a greater emotional whole that shows no sorrow is too big to approach, to come to terms with, and to remember.
Show up early to this live art solo performance, and Katie Sly will teach you some origami (full disclosure: I utterly forgot everything she taught me 10 minutes after the show, but I still have the pretty boxes). Sly otherwise takes her audience along for an evocative, episodic ride that explores her insecurities and strengths, failed relationships, visits to sex shows, family bonds, the music of Ginuwine, and her work in computer coding. The show even has the most emotionally articulate explanation of what a first time submissive got out of being dominated you are likely to ever hear. The experience is eclectic and intimate, brought out by sheer personality in a shared small space.