Musical collaborations, a mysterious hacker, and a YouTuber love triangle.
The 26th annual SummerWorks Performance Festival is in full swing, and today marks the half-way point. Some shows, such as the rock n’ roll clown/dance show NO FUN, have already closed; some, such as Situational Anarchy, have just a couple of performances left; some, such as Empire of Night‘s all night PJ party, are still to come, or one night only.
Our reviewers Mark Kay and Steve Fisher have seen just over half of the festival’s eclectic slate of theatre, dance, music, live art, and performance pieces, and reviews of their favourites are below. Some shows, such as Lessons In Temperament, already show as sold out online—but there’s always the hope of at the door tickets, so don’t let a lack of an online booking stop you. After all, you can always try another show if the one you rush is a no go.
Inferno Productions in association with Dante Alighieri Academy
Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst St.)
A would-be cartoonist struggles to reconcile the lack of diversity in his fantastical superheroic genre with the often harsh reality of his life experiences as a black youth in Toronto. Nize It is a powerful offering from the Summerworks Youth Program that lives in the space between incisive satire and emotional strain. The ready sense of family and friendship portrayed between leads Matthew Worku and Ramon Sursona-Baltazar anchors the play and comes off as effortlessly and charismatically genuine. The students of Dante Alighieri Academy have created a moving, visually dynamic work that explores police and gang brutality, teenage daydreams, and the hard-earned notes of real world heroism.
Adam Lazarus’s one man show provides an enormous psychological impact. Daughter leaves an audience challenged and deeply unnerved from exposure to the ugliness of misogyny and the bullying and abuse that flows from it as a consequence. The character created to explore issues that continue to be agonizingly pressing feels too real, too truthful. The show leaves viewers forced to wonder what pieces of a horrific display might be lurking in the people around them, or worse, in themselves. Initial displays of engaging humour and early-parent empathy veer into a very human monstrosity, almost fostering a sense of spectator guilt for any previous light enjoyment, for losing the sense even for a moment where the performance might be going. It’s an important and brilliant choice to bring the audience into an initial sense of sympathy for Lazarus’s character. That choice makes it impossible to have a ready emotional wall to hold back feeling touched by the highly disturbing directions the play turns towards. The pre-show warning for the experience about to ensue is an accurate one, but the sort of conversation a show like Daughter demands of its audience to have, is one we need to have, and keep having.
A Moment of Silence
The Canadian premiere of a performance that has been staged globally, A Moment of Silence memorializes the Chain Murders of intellectuals and artists in Iran in the 1990s. The intertwined narratives of a threatened playwright, and the play within a play they create, serve as an aching elegy for lives lost to nothing more than fear of creative impulse. The internal performance tells the story of a woman who sleeps away years’ worth of family drama amidst Iran’s tumultuous upheavals and wars in the 1980s. The character’s troubles contrast with the struggles of her creator to live a life on her own terms. The use of slowly shrinking stage space helps the poignant, looming tragedies in the blending stories feel intimate, even as they create lasting testimony to defy our apathy towards events larger than ourselves.
Mr Shi and His Lover
A collaboration between musical artists from Macau and Toronto, this fascinating version of the story of a love affair between a Chinese opera singer masquerading as a woman (Jordan Chen, brilliant in his restraint) and a French diplomat (Derek Kwan) deconstructs the infamous relationship and its subterfuges. The tensions between East and West, and the conflicts of colonialism, are subtly manipulated by the casting of Kwan, whose character is French-born, but has roots in China. An even deeper struggle takes place between the now-estranged lovers over gender identity, and Chen’s Shi, inordinately proud of his convincing performance as a spy, is shaken as he realizes his performance is meaningless without his willing audience of one. All of this is exquisitely underpinned by Carol Xuanyu Wang’s xylophone and Njo Kong Kie’s piano. The performance takes place almost entirely in Mandarin, with English surtitles, and is consistently riveting.
Lessons In Temperament
It’s normally the Fringe Festival that boasts accomplished storytelling shows, while much of SummerWorks’s reputation rests on new theatrical work and performance art, but this year, we’ve been impressed at this festival by a number of exceptional, seemingly autobiographical solo shows like Thea Fitz-James’s Naked Ladies (part academic lecture on the historical context of women nude on stage, part confessional of her own conflicted feelings around a lifelong desire for nude self-expression), Graham Isador’s Situational Anarchy (an in-progress show by the noted storytelling host about his adolescent punk obsessions, which unfortunately has just three performances in the festival), and James Smith’s Lessons In Temperament.
There’s certainly a performance to watch by writer and performer Smith as he tunes a piano in a different location for each show, and it’s fascinating—but it’s the story of his relationship to his brothers, and his family’s struggles with mental illness, that make this a must-see. Director Mitchell Cushman’s work with Outside the March has consistently worked in unorthodox locations, and his experience working with renowned and controversial storyteller Mike Daisy may partly be credited for helping him and Smith, an engaging personality whose career to date has been mostly as a music director, shape this into a brilliant performance that will (hopefully) continue so long as there are out of tune pianos in our city where an audience can gather around.
Trompe La Mort
A thrilling and funny look at a tech “pod” of app developers all chasing an (ethical) way to make a fortune and better the world, while a mysterious hacker (the titular character) is creating chaos by exposing government corruption and human rights abuses. Playwright Anthony MacMahon subtitled this show Or Goriot In The 21st Century, as it’s loosely inspired by Balzac’s novel Le Pere Goriot, but modern audiences will probably find more immediate parallels to Mr. Robot. It shares the TV show’s pessimistic view of the chaos that can erupt when change happens, and the personal cost that true “players” suffer as they must make increasingly amoral choices to further their goals. A first rate cast, with special mention of Ewa Wolniczek’s caustic security freelancer, is given an unusually elaborate and effective high-tech set to play on by director Ted Witzel and his design team; in particular, the rolling office chair interaction is a highlight.
d’bi.young anitafrika has had a banner year to date with the first two instalments of her Orisha trilogy; part one’s Esu Crossing The Middle Passage was an urgent and timely meditation about the past (the enslavement of Africans and their forced importation to the New World) and the present (the Black Lives Matter movement); part two’s She Mami Wata and The Pussy Witchhunt was a Dora Award-winning story of four friends’s lifelong struggles with homophobia set in Jamaica. Bleeders is a huge leap forward in scope for anitafrika and her Watah Theatre collective, with a live band and a cast of over a dozen, which anitaafrika said at our show’s talkback that she hopes to expand to something as “big as The Lion King“. The story of an apocalyptic future, where a young girl must undertake a spirit quest to discover how to begin to undo humanity’s past exploitation, has that potential in our opinion, though it’ll take a lot of work and funding to get there (Watah Theatre is currently crowd-funding to continue their work). The spirited ensemble boasts some incredible singing voices and strong (animal) character work, especially Nickeshia Garrick as a stately elephant, and a future freedom fighter.
This Is The August
Playwright Hillary Rexe has us duly impressed by this debut show, about a love triangle between ambitious YouTuber Edie (Lauren Beatty), taciturn multimedia artist Sam (Heath V. Salazar), and established professor and documentary filmmaker Bea (Kimberley Huffman). Rexe and director Megan Percey Monafu manage to make Edie’s vlog entries enjoyable to watch on stage, and the shifting allegiances between the three characters cover the clash between old-school feminism and new school intersectionality, and the blurry line between private enfranchisement and public identity. Salazar in particular impresses with a live painting performance, and they add grounded nuance to a gender fluid character not often portrayed on stage.
This Is How We Got Here
This somber character study of two older couples dealing with a traumatic loss due to suicide (mentioned specifically in the program as a trigger warning) boasts an exceptional cast and a elegant set design, though a few more lighter touches would help the characters ring true. As it is, the mostly two-hander scenes frequently elicit lumps in throats and tears in eyes. Lucille (Peggy Coffey) and Paul (James Downing) are estranged a year after losing their son; Lucille is living with her no-nonsense sister Liz (a sublime Deb Drakeford) and her husband Jim (Martin Julien), whose close friendship with Paul now has a huge gulf to bridge. The rural town’s woods are the setting and a strange fox draws the characters out of their repressed living rooms and helps them confront emotional trauma that is, for Jim certainly, becoming physically crippling. Again, a few in-jokes among the life-long characters so ably portrayed by the cast would go a long way towards balancing the script, but it’s fine work none the less.
This article has been corrected to indicate that Kimberley Huffman plays Bea in This is the August. We regret the error.