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Top 9 of '09: Best Festival shows, Part 1: Summerworks

January 18th, 2010 Steve Leave a comment Go to comments

The second post of my Best 9 of ‘09 series was supposed to be theatre in general; however, when I realized that 4 of my preliminary picks were Summerworks shows, I realized that Fringe and Summerworks deserved their own lists entirely. So there’ll be a Best of Theatre ‘09 list down the pipeline, but first – a post each, celebrating Toronto’s new work festivals. The Next Stage Theatre Festival is running to the end of this weekend at the Factory Theatre, featuring many of the actors and companies singled out for praise in these lists; I’ll mention their current offerings where applicable, as well as shows outside of Next Stage.

Naive little me thought I’d manage a post a day (hah!) when I started these retrospective posts, but they’re working out to 5 or more days apiece, so it’s entirely possible I won’t finish until the end of January! But for those curious, next up will be the Fringe Festival, then the Best Comedy Shows of 2009, then a Best Singles of 2009 post (plus an update by next Friday).

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Best Summerworks Moments of 2009

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One of the remarkable things about how the Summerworks Festival has evolved under Artistic Director Michael Rubenfeld is how it’s grown to include performance events that aren’t strictly stage plays; for this past year’s festival, I saw 27 plays, 18 bands, 9 Performance Gallery pieces, and 3 Summerwalks tours. So I’ve tried to pull from all those experiences in listing my top Summerworks picks, by citing particular events and moments that stood out and crystallized why that show was worthy of mention.

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#9: Maev Beaty’s painter seduces Erin Shields’s shopgirl in “Montparnasse

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Erin Shields and Maev Beaty played with audiences' conceptions of the nude model as their characters gradually succumbed to greed, lust, and jealousy in the riveting "Montparnasse". Photo by Amanda Lynne Ballard.

When both of the writer/performers of this fascinating look at nude models in 1920’s Paris first shed their clothes on stage, they did so in a way that lulled the audience into accepting the nudity as natural and non-sexual, and therefore non-threatening. The posing and attitudes all suggested that the character’s disrobing was being done for art and beauty’s sake, and that anyone sexualizing it (or thinking of it as shameful) would be ruining the compact by subverting something liberating and beautiful.

But midway through the play, Beaty’s lesbian painter Amelia seduced Shields (playing a secondary character, an assistant who can help further Amelia’s career), succumbing to both her own lust, and the desire to insinuate herself into the inner circles of Paris’ cultural elite. All of a sudden, all bets were off. As Amelia slowly stripped clothes off the tough-talking shopgirl, her brusque demeanour dissolved, and was replaced with a vulnerability hitherto unseen when skin was exposed; a vulnerability that was taken advantage of. The apple had been tasted of, and for the rest of the play, the nudity was no longer quite so innocent.

Many critics marveled at the bravery of Shields and Beaty for spending so much time nude in “Montparnasse“, but it was this re-contextualizing of that nudity that was the audacious choice in their show.

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#8: Oh No Forest Fires‘ cover of “Footloose

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There were all sorts of incredible performances over the course of the Summerworks Music Series. Two of the bands on my Best Albums of 2009 list, Think About Life (#1) and Great Bloomers (#10) were among the bands who played extraordinary sets (and since they’ve already been mentioned, were “disqualified” from this list), and nearly every night, as least one of the bands got people up and dancing.

Among the best to do so, however, were ONFF and their set ending cover of Kenny Loggin’s classic “Footloose“. Faced with a smaller mid-week crowd than most of the festival’s nights, ONFF gradually got the crowd warmed up and dancing, and when they busted out “Footloose“, there wasn’t a still foot in the house.

Sadly, ONFF recently announced their last show on Jan. 23rd (which you should definitely consider attending); in the meantime, while there is a video of ONFF performing “Footloose, the sound quality is pretty terrible, so here’s a clip of them performing their own song, “It’s Not Fun and Games Unless Someone Loses an Eye“.

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(The rest of the Summerworks list, including some choice videos, follows below.)

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#7: Meeting Byron Abalos‘ “Lola Lita

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Byron Abalos and his Lola Lita were the highlight of the inaugural Summerwalks program.

I really enjoyed Dana Puddicombe’s Summerwalks tour through Queen St. West’s alleyways and along the main street, and her attention to historical details about her adopted neighborhood, but Abalos’ personal connection to the area that we toured (um, South Queen West?) added something special to “Lola Lita“. As the tour progressed, he spoke about how his family had immigrated to Toronto in the 70’s, and how his grandmother had lived within an eight block radius for over 30 years. The story of the neighborhood became the story of his family, specifically his grandmother, and how she raised and supported her family, even to recent times, as Abalos became “roomies” with her while attending Ryerson Theatre School.

At the conclusion of the tour, we met the woman we’d spent the last hour hearing about, with no detail spared, and she was both modest and gracious in welcoming all these strangers to her front stoop.

Abalos is currently starring in “The Making of St. Jerome” at the Next Stage Festival, which is selling out and garnering rave reviews; while I have no doubt he is putting his considerable skills as a performer to good use, for his Summerwalk, he demonstrated that he was willing to invite total strangers into his personal life and that of his grandmother in hopes of instilling in them the love his family obviously has for their neighborhood, and each other.

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#6: The “running” sequence in “Nohayquiensepa

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L to R: Ravi Jain, Gina Jaimes, Carlos Gonzalez-Vio, and Beatriz Pizano in "Nohayquiensepa". Gonzalez-Vio, who seamlesly integrated into the mostly mute collective for this show, also impressed as the beast man Enkidu in "The Epic of Gilgamesh". Photo by Trevor Schwellnus.

I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from many of the shows at Summerworks, but Aluna Theatre’s “No One Knows“, a “visual poem told through theatre and dance in tribute to the lost” (I THINK I have the translation more or less right from their poster), knocked me on my ass when I saw it. I’d heard next to nothing about the show, and it was a visual tour de force. The show utilized recorded audio, visual projection, video, and nearly every other audio/visual trick in the theatrical book, to tell a non-narrative story of how violence creates collateral damage that effects us even when it’s committed against strangers. Despite all the impressive technical effects, the performers were still integral to the production; there was very little spoken on stage, but there was plenty of collaborative dance and movement work.

The most entrancing staging involved a running sequence, with real-time cameras trained on the running on the spot actors; the images were then manipulated to project multiple images behind and beside them that swelled to immensity and swallowed them whole. Brilliant, mesmerizing stuff.

Aluna Theatre’s newest work, Beatriz Pizano’s “La Comunion“, opened January 12th at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and runs to the end of the month; the 10 person collective includes Carlos Gonzalez-Vio (who also deserves a special Summerworks mention for his ardent portrayal of the beast man Eniku in Groundwater Production’s “Epic of Gilgamesh“), Rosa Laborde (who’ll be mentioned further down this list), and Sam Malkin (whose work in ‘09 is mentioned in the upcoming “Best Theatre” post).

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#5: Hannah Cheesman’s bathroom monologue at the Performance Gallery

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Hannah Cheesman in "German Lollipop". Photo by Ayngelina Brogan.

The Summerworks Performance Gallery at the Gladstone Hotel was once again both a welcome respite from the hurly burly of the main festival venues, and a chance to see all sorts of intriguing work, much of it interactive. Chris Stanton, who also delivered a bravura monologue in The Room’s “Red Machine: Part 2“, delighted at the Gallery as an immobile old man telling outlandish “stories on tape”, and Clinton Walker demonstrated the various comfort zones most people have when it comes to personal space in “The Distance Between Us“.

But the best of the Gallery performances had an established fourth wall, though the venue was certainly unorthodox; up to a dozen strangers at a time crammed into the second floor washroom to watch Hannah Cheesman perform a monologue in a bathtub and sitting on a toilet (lid down) in “German Lollipop“. She was mesmerizing as a soldier’s wife slowly driven mad by her husband, who insists, since his return from the front, that she smells like rotting flesh.

Unfortunately, Cheesman’s run of “German Lollipop” had to end early in the festival, as she was taking the show on the road -  to Columbia. Cheesman is just wrapping up a short run of “Guns n’ Roses” at the Toronto Centre of the Arts (her co-star Ben Sanders also impressed in Deus XM’s “Fear and Misery of The Third Reich” at Summerworks); she also stars in the Toronto premiere of playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s “In This World” in May at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People.

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#4: Forest D’Urberville Lovers

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As I stated earlier, there were all sorts of great sets during the Summerworks Music Series, but this one was truly special. Forest City Lovers opened up the night, with Kat Burns and co. delivering a short but typically (for them) lovely set of string-heavy pop; The D’Urbervilles followed immediately with a minimum of tear-down, delivering their particular brand of punky goodness, but again, a very short set. Then, a whole lot of moving and set-up began, leaving the crowd perplexed; the sets had been awfully short, and weren’t they the only two bands on the bill? But it soon became apparent there was to be a second set featuring the two bands mashed up, and thankfully, it was recorded; watch for yourself.

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Neither band has been idle since last summer: D’Urbervilles frontman John O’Regan has a surprise video hit on his hands for his solo outing as Diamond Rings, and FCL have just recently released a lovely new video that will cheer you on a cold winter’s day.

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#3: “The Middle Place“’s rotating spotlight

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L to R: Antonio Cayonne, Akosua Amo-Adem, Kevin Walker, and Jessica Greenberg never met the interviewees they portrayed, saw the footage, or learned their real names, but they all did magnificent work in bringing their subject's stories to life.

The “recorded interviews turned into dramatic monologues” conceit has become a popular one in Toronto theatre over the past few years.  It’s a very sensible method of constructing a show for a fledgling theatre company that’s willing to put the legwork in to find interesting subjects and interview them; the actors get to show some range portraying multiple characters, the show may appeal to people based on the subject matter more than the resumes of the creators, and the company can do some real good by shining a light on the disenfranchised – if the material is handled sensitively.

Well, Project: Humanity’s “The Middle Place” delivered in spades on all that potential. The company, founded by Ryerson Theatre School alumni, has been actively involved in community outreach and social cause fundraising for over a decade now, and had produced shows for at risk youth in shelters and prisons (full disclosure: I’ve acted in some of these), and it was this work that inspired them to produce their first public production. They enlisted an experienced director (Alan Dilworth), an up-and-coming writer (Andrew Kushnir, who also serves as the company’s Creative Director), and assembled a gifted cast to bring the project to fruition. Experienced actor Paul Dunn (currently on-stage once again in the 3rd remount of “East of Berlin” at Tarragon Theatre), playing “the outsider” who interviews the young adults in the homeless shelter from offstage, helped ground the work, but it was the four young actors on stage who really pulled the difficult material off. In turns funny, heartbreaking, and unsettling, they gave us a sobering look at how the residents of the shelter were smart, engaging kids who had suffered great misfortune, and been forced to grow up too fast (or had never quite managed to grow up fully) due to their situations.

Since the show closed, Project: Humanity has begun preparations to tour the show to schools around the GTA, and hopefully this year, across Ontario.

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#2: “Impromptu Splendour“’s Naomi Snieckus offers Colin Mochrie a candy

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From Top to Bottom: Ron Pederson, Matt Baram, and Naomi Snieckus mess with all your favourite playwrights to devastatingly funny effect in "Impromptu Splendor". Photo by Skye Regan.

I find it tremendously difficult to pick just one moment out of an Impromptu Splendor show to highlight.

Firstly, since each show is completely improvised, that particular show will never happen again. It makes it difficult (or at least, makes me feel guilty) to single out a moment the majority of the audience of their run can think of as a touchstone; after all, only the audience that saw that specific show was privy to it.

Secondly, it’s hard for me personally. I was the first person to write about Impromptu Splendor on the internet, and I’ve seen so many of their shows now that I worry; have I come to expect the remarkable scenes they produce with astounding regularity as simply being par for the course? I’m never bored or jaded with the stellar work that Naomi Snickus, Ron Pederson, Matt Baram, and their many wonderful guests continue to produce; it does mean, I suppose, that I have to constantly remind myself of the utter alchemy the troupe produces every time they step onto the stage and write a new play “in the style of” a playwright, in the moment.

I guess if I had to pick just one favourite moment out of the several shows I saw of their Summerworks run, it’d be when Naomi Snieckus offered a candy to guest star Colin Mochrie (pinch hitting for an absent Matt Baram) in their homage to Harold Pinter. As he popped it in his mouth, Snieckus informed him they were terrible, and he spit it right out onto the table. A simple sight gag, but emblematic of the incredible comic timing and choices required to lead up to the payoff.

At the conclusion of their Summerworks run, Impromptu Splendor won the RBC Arts Professional Award for their clever marketing campaign, including a nightly “opening & closing” party for their shows at the nearby Taro Grill, terrific photographic documentation of their work by Skye Regan, and a series of YouTube videos edited by Baram (his latest, advertising Monday night’s return to Theatre Passe Muraille, is below). Since then, they’ve also won the 2009 Canadian Comedy Award for Best Improv Troupe. I think it’s fair to say that I can no longer gripe that their work isn’t fully appreciated by either the theatre or comedy communities.

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#1: Melissa-Jane Shaw replaces Ingrid Rae Doucet mid-way through “Melancholy Play

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The cast of "Melancholy Play". Top, L to R: Anna Hardwick, Pamela Rhae Ferguson, Cheryl Ockrant, & Ennis Esmer. Bottom, L to R: Salvatore Antonio, Melissa Jane Shaw, & Ingrid Rae Doucet. Photo by Michelle Bailey.

I’m going to quote myself here, in speaking in general about Project Undertow’s “Melancholy Play“:

“…my favourite show to date at the festival, “Melancholy Play“, is anything but. Ingrid Rae Doucet stars as a blonde depressive who finds that her maudlin demeanor causes people of both sexes and all walks of life to fall head over heels for her – until she overcomes her depression and realizes her new-found cheerfulness has the opposite effect. This absurd and delightful farce boasts a surfeit of comedic talent, and director Rosa Laborde, herself a Dora and Governor General Award nominated playwright, makes an assured directorial debut. While the script itself is by American playwright Sarah Ruhl, it’s an outstanding example of a independent Canadian company (Project Undertow) demonstrating great prowess in all aspects of theatrical production; the performances, live music, sets, and costumes are all note perfect.”

What I can now add, since the production has come and gone, and it’s no longer a spoiler: the most brilliant bit of staging and casting for the show was having Melissa Jane Shaw step in as Tilly after her transformation from depressive to sunny optimist. Where Doucet had excelled at milking Tilly’s bewitching woefulness for comedic effect, so did Shaw hit the high notes of unbridled sunniness and cheerleader enthusiasm. By changing the actors, director Laborde made it crystal clear that none of the people in Tilly’s life can see her as the same person after her personality change. It was a perfect, crowning touch to a show that was already hitting all the right notes.

Shaw’s just wrapping up a turn as the titular character in Seventh Stage Production’s “The Red Queen Effect” at The Next Stage Festival (she’s also the Artistic Producer for Seventh Stage), and that show looks to be a lock as my favourite of that festival, as well…

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Part 1 is over and done with – upcoming is my faves of the Fringe

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