Summerworks 2012: Jackie Mack's Festival Picks

Toronto's Summerworks 2012 Festival Picks
By Guest Reviewer: Jackie Mack

This summer’s attendance at Summerworks, unlike previous years where I was watching colleagues work, was dedicated entirely to reviewing what was seen. Thus rather than arranging my picks in an order of attendance, the following reviews have been arranged in my ascending order of preference. 

The Fever by Wallace Shawn. Directed by Rose Plotek

When choosing pieces to see, I was delighted to discover that one of my favourite plays, The Fever, written by Wallace Shawn, was on the roster.  A one-woman piece about a privileged American/European who encounters the world’s inequalities, and does nothing to change it, was, as I remember it, entirely moving. I was careful, when inviting a friend to join me, to mention that I had no foreknowledge of this particular production, but that the script was so rich, it would be worth a trip to the theatre.  While the production was disappointing, this still holds true.  The play is beautifully crafted, artistically written and contains a universal and timely theme.

Sadly, this particular production left my friend and I feeling like we had been preached at for an hour. It is important to note that Julie Fox’s set, a white carpet on black floor with one wood chair and an overhead fan of a similar wood, was perfectly symbolic of the ideas and setting of the written script. Oddly, there was a buzzing sound audible throughout the performance and this gave a nice atmospheric feel to the set. In addition the lights (Rebecca Picherack), which gradually moved their focus from the audience to light the sole actress (Katie Swift) from the front, top, and back, created magnificent images of an interrogation, an electric chair and creeping animals.

This was made possible by the collaboration of Ms. Swift’s only movement, which was from her two arms; these were raised up and down from the elbow at times in synchronicity, at times alternatively. While this created the aforementioned shadows, the moves were done to no other artistic affect. A larger problem than the dulling rhythm of the arms was the monotone quality of the actress’s voice.  While trained, and easily heard, her voice was unfortunately stuck in her mid resonators and so her good work in analyzing the script failed to intrigue. Cicero once wrote that the job of the orator is not to make his audience hear, but rather to allow them to see the images one speaks.  Unfortunately, the rich concepts of this piece were pushed at us rather than floating over around and through us.

Willow Bunch. Written and directed by Rona Waddington

I chose to see this play in part because it is a new Canadian work, in part because it takes place on the prairies, but mostly because it is an historical mystery, one of my favourite storytelling forms. As a whole, this was not an unpleasant evening’s entertainment, although it was not a great Summerworks find. The script itself is quite delightful.  Rona Waddington writes her characters’ dialogues well, and allows them lovely historical idioms like: “you are filled with tumult” and “prompt to excitement.” The audience’s favourite such line was a description of the U.S. ‘wild west’ as being “habitually criminal.”  While carefully structured, the script does appear to fall apart near the end.  As the direction of this production was its weakest link, I am inclined to think it was the staging and not the written word that caused the difficulties.

 Unfortunately, the direction, also by Rona Waddington, did not do this lovely new piece justice. David Ring’s symbolic set of five white curtains and five white buckets was never used to any effect.  The actors played in only three stage areas and moved painfully little, reminding one of a high school production, without the charm of youth. This lack of vision was most clearly evident when, near the end of the story, after a blackout, four of the five actors stood on the edge of the stage, facing the audience.  With such positioning it is natural that the audience began to applaud; however no one bowed, and eventually the playwright came running down the stairs to inform us that there was still an epilogue to go.  I trust this embarrassment will be corrected for further shows and I hope that any remount will reconsider the presently confusing overlapping scenes.

As with the set, the cast of experienced actors were never used to their potential.  Despite the men’s too-modern shoes, each actor’s costume (Alex Aminis) was true to the period and descriptive of the characters.  While inhibited by the staging, each of the actor’s voices did create their roles. Lou (Jane Johanson) was playful and clear; Clara (Tal Gottfried) was alternatively loving and desperate; Emily (Kate Besworth) had both a solid base and a British accent; and Rylatt (Jonathan Purdon) was complex yet loveable.  In all, the finest acting was by Matthew Edison who played Arden with the clear conscience and articulation of a “Due South” Mountie. 

Rona Waddington has a little gem of a piece here; perhaps if she can give the directing reins over to another, her writing will find its just expression.

Extinction SongWritten by Ron Jenkins. Performed by Ron Pederson

I attended this piece for two reasons. First, it is about a child’s imaginative way of dealing with his father’s alcoholism; as I have two young friends dealing with that issue, it was topical.  I am also fascinated by solo performances and wanted to see as many as I could.  This production did not disappoint.

The play, winner of the 2008/09 Sterling Award for Best New Play, is outstanding.  It gives us insight into the mind of a child and is both poetic and funny. The ending was moving and shocking so I won’t give it away, but it alone would make the piece a must-see for anyone surrounded by alcoholism.  What is wonderful is that this production equaled the writing.  While Narda McCarroll’s set, costumes and lights were a little predictable, they were nonetheless successful representations of place, character and mood.  Happily, the sound and direction were a bit more imaginative.  The choice of “Peter and the Wolf” and “Bare Necessities” as the pre-show music set the right tone and the show sound, composed and designed by Dave Clarke, beautifully created space, time and mood. The direction, always a challenge with only one actor on stage, used the space fully, created significant images, and challenged our imaginations. Most particularly, it did what all good directing ought to do, it focused us on the story.

 And this story was fully lived and shared with us by Ron Pederson.  His work here approaches some of the best solo performances I have seen. While I found his raised shoulders for the child problematic, his confidence switching to other characters, including wolves, showed a true storytelling gift.  In particular, his physically and vocally succinct representation of the father was both true and deeply touching. Fully connected to the child’s trauma, he is open enough to let the audience live through the terrors with him.  He engaged us so well, that the scene in the frozen car and the next one with a gun, kept me on the edge of the seat. This show is difficult to watch, but it is a “good difficult” and I highly recommend it.

Medicine Boy by Waawaate Fobisher. Directed by Tara Beagan

We are told, in the Prophesy of the Seven Generations of the Anishnaabe that there will a come a time when we must chose how to live on this earth.  Both Native and Non-Native will be shown the spiritual path and we will have to decide whether to live in a good way, or not.  This ancient truth has found its newest artistic expression in Medicine Boy.

Thankfully, the work on this production is of the highest quality.  All three actors clearly performed multiple characters. With subtle changes, Jonathan Fisher’s loving and solid Grandfather became a casino smoking woman, a beer loving card player or a keen yogi.  PJ Prudat was a terrifying monster and then played an abused young girl with true childhood energy and a mother with the tired gentleness of illness come too soon. Garret C. Smith had the daunting task, as Mukukee, of guiding the audience through the confusion of the character’s “between worlds” state. His lightness with language and his solidity of physical expression kept us both intrigued by his journey and engaged in the outcome.

         The costumes, by Erika A. Iserhoff, were superb and carefully accentuated the theme each character embodied. Andy Moro’s design of the set and the lights were both exquisite.  The images projected on the upstage wall at first challenged our complacency about Canada’s history and then inspired us to see beyond this land and this world. At these I gasped in wonder more than once.  The leafless trees, symbolic of our generation, were also visible in the one set piece, a couch, which became the most interestingly used divan I have ever seen.  All these visions were held together by a sacred fire and haunting music. Importantly, Tara Beagan’s direction guided the audience through a multi-layered script with clarity and imagination.  She also brought out the best in all her fellow artists.

         It is good this work was so strong as it stood in service of an important play.  Set in the real/dream time/space of ceremony, overlapping realities come together when Mukukee realized his path in this, the Seventh Generation. Filled with the witty sarcastic humour of the Anishnaabe, the play contains both a story and a teaching.  Each time his grandson awakes from his sleep, Daebaujimod says, with ‘elder humour,’ hard to ignore: “Look who decided to wake up.” Half way through it becomes evident that the waking from a nap is not enough and Mukaukee is being guided to a spiritual awakening. And as he remembers his ancestors and their teachings he can, with Tobacco in hand, begin his and their healing. 

         Like most traditional stories, this play begins and ends in the same place.  It starts with the audience being welcomed and invited, although to what remains a mystery. By the last, the audience can see that we too are being welcomed to the healing and are now invited ‘to wake up’.

The play is an entertaining reminder of the traditional teachings and a look at the power they can hold in our time. Unlike Puck’s epilogue, these visions, this dream will not yield.   Meegwetch Gemnido *

Note: * Ojibway for Thank God

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