We've seen almost two-thirds of the 2017 SummerWorks Performance Festival's offerings, and here's what we've been really impressed by so far.
The annual SummerWorks Performance Festival, which opened August 3 and closes this Sunday, August 13, features nearly 60 different events as part of its programming: plays, dance performances, music concerts, panel discussions, and some events that are several of those things, and more. We’ve been seeing multiple shows every day, and will continue to until the festival closes; some events, like the rock opera musical Are We Not Horses (which has just added a second performance on the afternoon of Friday, August 11, to accommodate demand) have yet to happen, and some, like the idyllic park experience Lulling Time, have already closed. But most of the shows have around three to seven performances, so you still have an opportunity to catch some of them (click on the company links to see their schedule). Here are the ones we’re still thinking about.
These Violent Delights
The most visually arresting show we’ve seen so far at the festival, These Violent Delights, devised by Vancouver-based company Guilty By Association, uses Shakespeare as a jumping off point, as have some of the most successful #TheaTO shows of 2017 (WhyNot’s Theatre’s award-winning Prince Hamlet, or Macbeth Muet at the Toronto Fringe Festival). But unlike those shows, this one isn’t an adaptation, but is rather inspired by the events of Romeo and Juliet, focusing on a brief final exchange where Romeo’s grief-stricken father pledges to Juliet’s: “For I will raise her statue in pure gold,” to which Capulet responds to Montague, “As rich shall Romeo by his lady lie…” One of the show’s indelible images is of a massive monument rising, while a grief-stricken Nurse (played by almost all the members of the company at varying times) sits in supposed exile outside the city walls; another is of the actual memorial, where Juliet (a lithe Emilyin Sims) and Romeo’s (Matt Winter) likenesses stand atop a pedestal, while the Chorus questions the point of all this excess. Many sequences, like a halting pas de deux between a Nurse and Juliet’s corpse, are carried out in dance, while a sweetly authoritarian voice (Shira Leuchter, who also features prominently in Smile Off Your Face) works to convince the balking Nurses to join the jingoistic fervor for the monument. There are some clever and “meta” lines by director and script writer Cole Lewis, including “Can’t do Shakespeare without addressing the audience” or a scathing bit of sarcasm by a Nurse (“women aren’t funny—that’s why sometimes they get a man to play me”). But it’s the devised movement sequences that make this show a must see.
An all-women cast depicts a fantastical, post-apocalyptic, Wild West dustbowl Ontario driven by extreme water scarcity. The play itself can feel a bit muddled at times in whether it’s going for comedy or pathos, but that is entirely offset by the strength of the performances, the detail and inventiveness in costumes and props—like water bottle-made guns—and staging of the set. A particular stand out is Aviva Armour-Ostroff’s corrupt, insane preacher, striding over the land in a trailing black getup that compliments a deranged, thousand-yard stare in a turn as the most sinisterly charismatic post apocalyptic gang leader this side of Negan.
The Smile Off Your Face
It’s a terrifying scenario, for some people: in order to participate (and it is participatory) in this show, the concept of which is originally by Belgian theatre collective Ontroerend Goed, audience members are required to be seated in a wheelchair, blindfolded and hands tied, before they’re pushed into the show’s “gauntlet.” But the relinquishing of that control is part of the pleasure; giving yourself over to the performers, and trusting them to care for you (more on that appeal in the Serenity Wild review). The experience as executed by the Re:Current Theatre ensemble is designed to stimulate all your other senses, including taste and smell (make sure you’re upfront about any allergies or food sensitivities during the intake). There are some fairly obvious interactions involving wafting smells and food tasting, but there’s also some unexpectedly moving exchanges with the unseen performers, none of which we intend to spoil for you. A recent Globe and Mail article on the underwhelming aspect of immersive theatre when it’s done on the cheap applies to some of the other shows in this festival, but Re:Current has managed to find a way to do so effectively and economically by applying (literal) blinders, and narrowing the audience’s focus; we strongly recommend this one-a-a-time bite-size adventure.
Reassembled, Slightly Askew
Playwright Shannon Yee knew, after emerging from a coma and fighting to readjust to her place in the world, that she would use the experience of her rare brain infection to stage a show born from the experience. The audience immersive journey of Reassembled, Slightly Askew is the result of her efforts, a production that goes well beyond the boundaries of a conventional performance to better help patrons understand an extremely unconventional condition and recovery. Through the use of blindfolds, headphones, hospital beds, and some truly creative auditory techniques, the audience is able to get a glimpse of struggles for consciousness and coherence Yee went through. The encounter is intense and brilliantly crafted, existing as a rare opportunity to gain perspective on disabilities that can often seem hidden and out of place from a general understanding and awareness.
We don’t normally read other reviews before writing our own, but we made an exception in this case, given the intriguing reactions so far to Katie Sly’s new play (their first to be performed by an ensemble). Some reviewers haven’t been able to see past the admittedly harrowing traumas depicted on stage; others have focused on the elements of BDSM depicted, and oddly written about some other hypothetical show they’d have preferred to have seen.
The encompassing malaise of the trauma of childhood abuse, and the transformative power of bondage and sexplay (when paired with care and consent), are both topics Sly has covered before at SummerWorks, in their 2015 one-person show, Charisma Furs. In Serenity Wild (which won the 2016 Wildfire playwright’s competition for writers 30 and under), many of those autobiographical details are ascribed to Amy (Julia Matias), a young woman living a conventional life, but who’s unfulfilled creatively and sexually, despite persistent pressure (respectively) from her friend and mentor (Patricia Marceau) and her intense boyfriend (En Lei Mah). In flashbacks with her mother (Terra Hazelton) and stepfather (Chy Ryan Spain), we see some of the incidents that have Amy paralyzed, and that cloud her judgement and threaten her relationships.
An ultimately optimistic story, director Audrey Dwyer coaxes committed performances from her cast, including a standout turn by Dainty Smith as a preternaturally centred dominatrix. There’s poetic writing elsewhere in the festival, but Sly’s characters don’t just mouth beautiful words; they use them to express urgent need and desire, which the other characters hear, even if they don’t always listen. Some issues with pacing could be resolved outside of the festival’s time limits; we hope this is a show we’ll see on Toronto stages again in the future.
Boys in Chairs
The idea that there can be people made to feel like outsiders in a community that itself still struggles with issues of acceptance is a difficult one, but Boys in Chairs doesn’t shirk from a full on exploration of that experience. The stories, songs, and group participation questionnaires of Andrew Gurza, Ken Harrower, and Frank Hull take their audience through the lives (and sex lives) of queer, disabled men, offering a perspective not often given wider scale thought. The performers do so with a heart, sometimes brutal honesty, and a very pervy sort of humour that creates a sense of the intimate and an understanding that these men are here to be seen not as inspirational stories or objects of pity, but people with vibrant lives and sexual identities.
Explosions For The 21st Century
We’ve seen some very good solo shows at the festival so far, but the most engrossing has been by a professed non-performer. Sound designer Christopher Ross-Ewart’s soundscape creation/lecture asks if his work has political meaning and context in the same way that the text and “bodies on stage” in theatre do (which we audiences and critics certainly tend to focus on), and explains his motivations, using his trade. There are several mind-blowing revelations involving how and what we hear influences us in both subtle and profound ways, and more (Ross-Ewart has the definitive answer to the philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no-one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?”). It’s also the funniest show we’ve seen so far at the festival (more cowbell!).
Erased: Billy and Bayard
Erased is the twinned stories of Bayard Rustin and Billy Strayhorn, pivotal, even crucial figures in civil rights and musical culture who find themselves on history’s outskirts for happening to also be black and queer. A single show isn’t going to reverse that degree of whitewashing by its lonesome, but the sheer quality and energy of the production is a good start. Backed by the Queer Songbook Orchestra, Andrew Broderick and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff serve as narrators and proxies for Rustin and Strayhorn, respectively. What could have come off as a dry reading of a great deal of biographic information is instead infused with life, humour, sincerity, and a very winning charm by the pair, whose clear enthusiasm for the material is infectious. The backing of the orchestra frames the entire performance as an extended jazz concert, soulful when it needs to be, seductive when it needs to be, and moving all throughout.