Toronto. Summerworks 2011: Theatre Reviews Part I.

The Theatre Centre. Folks waiting for the show.The Factory  courtyard before the final showThe 10 PM show on the last day of Summerworks 2011 completed my theatre marathon of nine shows in three days.  Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!

I was tired but exhilarated by the variety of works available to see, and the wealth of talent from established to emerging artists that was part of the Festival. When I come for Summerworks again however,  I will make sure that I have more than just the final three days in which to see the Festival so I would have time to catch some of the music acts as well as see many more of the plays. As it was I saw 8 of  the 42 that were staged.

A torrid humid Toronto in mid-summer is not the most comfortable environment for someone who likes to keep the temperature in her condo icy as in Arctic-like but I decided to leave the waterfront breezes of Vancouver for two weeks in Toronto anyway. My initial impetus to travel East arose when I learned that my daughter, Amanda, would be directing a play in the Summerworks 2011 festival.  She loved the script of Waterfront:The Blessing and the writing of emerging playwright, Leah Jane Esau, and so I absolutely had to come to see the show. 

At the same time I figured that I could review a whole lot of theatre at Summerworks and see a feast of new theatrical works, head over to Stratford and catch some of the productions there, and investigate fine dining opportunities in both Stratford and Toronto. Thereby indulging in both cultural and gastronomic pleasures - my favorite type of vacation.

With other commitments keeping me in Vancouver, I arrived in Toronto late Thursday with only three days of the Festival left but I made the most of them, seeing 9 shows in total (one play twice). Here is Part I of  my mini-reviews of the shows I saw.

Friday August 12 th.

The first three plays that comprised Friday's selection included an absurdist play from 1960's communist  Poland, and two searing realistic family dramas.

Out at Sea. Photo  by Greg MajsterOut at Sea by Stawomir Mrozek
Directed by Aleksandar Lucak
Factory Theatre Mainspace at 5 PM

The story sounds deceptively simple. Three men are stranded in a boat with no hope of rescue. They are starving and the only possible source of food is one of the them. Two of the three select their victim and try every form of coercion possible to convince him that he must willingly sacrifice himself for the greater good. The ultimate altruism!

Gordon Bolan plays Thin Man, John Fitzgerald Jay plays Medium Man and Andre Sills, Fat Man. All three look remarkably healthy and in no imminent danger of starving to death. Yet a sacrifice is demanded and all three lie, cheat and bully in pursuit of their objective. They hold an election complete with campaign speeches and surplus ballots.

This absurdism is not subtle. Strange things happen. Unlikely objects conveniently float by, a postman (Sam Malkin ) delivers a telegram and a butler (Sam Malkin) swims up seeking his master. The crate, supposedly empty of any thing of nutrient value, delivers up fixings for a hearty meal and the implements to slay the sacrifice and chop the veggies. The victim's final epiphany comes with as little explanation or reason as anything else.

This political satire is a good choice to strike a chord with an audience as cynical about politics and politicians as many of us seem to be, and the four actors do a great job of delivering the message that there is no inherent meaning in life and the search for rationality is absurd.

It was good entertainment - but I was ready for a good dose of realism next.

Kathryn, Diane,Nick, SadieFreda and Jem's Best  of the Week by Judith Fine
Directed by Judith Thompson
Factory Studio at 8 PM

Freda (Diane Flacks) and Jem (Kathryn Haggis) are two women who fall in love and have children, a boy TeeJay (Nick Eddie) and a girl, Sam (Sadie Epstein-Fine). When the kids reach their teens, the relationship irrevocably falls apart. We see the story from the first meeting to the bitter end, in moments from present and past, signaled by Lorraine Segato's music.

The standout performance of this piece was Haggis's butch-dyke Jem, hungry for love and to be loved, and desperate not to lose the one woman who had "loved her to the moon". In fact the story might be most powerfully told simply as Jem's monologue and I wondered if that is what the original starting point  for this play had been.

As Freda, Flacks had less to work with so her participation in the relationship and its breakdown, and her character in general, was much less tangible. The two young actors turned in credible performances as teens devastated by the separation of their moms, but the repeated line of "I hate my life"  had the effect of counteracting any sympathy I felt for the young boy.

I was initially intrigued by the four staggered doors of the set but they seemed ultimately to be symbolic of the four lives, rather than a utilized theatrical device.

As I left the theatre, I thought that sadly this type of  domestic drama, whether with two moms, two dads, or one of each, probably plays out in dozens of homes every night. What's happened to commitment in our society?

Waterfront: The Blessing. Photo by Laura Findlay

Waterfront: The Blessing by Leah Jane Esau
Directed by Amanda Lockitch
Factory Theatre Mainspace at 10 PM.

The final play of this evening for me was that directed by my daughter, so I won't  comment on the overall production, other than to say that this play also deals with family relationships, this time between two brothers.

The setting is the waterfront home where Ed (William MacDonald) has lived for the past 10 years, with his ailing father, who has just died. Ed's younger brother Jeremy (Robert Fulton) came for the funeral, and is now busy packing up their father's possessions. As the brothers interact, lies and truths, and rights and wrongs bubble up to the surface, until the final denouement.

In Ed particularly, emerging playwright Esau has created a  complex and distinctive character and he is played compellingly by MacDonald, with Fulton as the "good brother" providing an effective counter balance. But I found that the ending of this play came too quickly. Act II maybe next time?

Sat August 13th.

Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl
directed by Kristina Nicoll
Theatre Passe Muraille at 12:30
 
In Eurydice, established playwright Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House, Dead Man's Cell Phone), retells the Orpheus and Eurydice myth as Eurydice sees it.
 
In this piece Eurydice (Caitlin Driscoll) at first seems to be a seductively charming young woman but on her wedding day seems to become an "Alice-in-Wonderland" naive girl.  She is easily taken in by the devilishly attractive Lord of the Underworld (Jesse Aaron Dwyer) and when the soulfully handsome musician Orpheus (Justin Rutledge) plays his way into the Underworld to get her,in this version she startles him and well- we all know the outcome.
 
Hardee T. Lineham plays her father who manages to avoid being dipped in the river of forgetfulness and  Elliott Loran, Moira Dunphy and  Elley-Ray Hennessey play the chorus of Stones, whose sometimes acerbic comments spice up the story with humour.
 
Overall I liked this show. The performances were strong and I especially enjoyed the deviltry of Dwyer and the musicality of Rutledge's role.
 
From Passe Muraille it was a pleasant walk back to Factory Mainspace, where I wanted to see the closing performance of Waterfront: The Blessing at 2:30. By 3:30 we were back at Queen's Street and hopping the tram west along Queen's to the Lower Ossington Theatre.
 
 
Hannah's TurnHannah's Turn by Mark Migotti and Richard Sanger
directed by Mary Francis Moore
Lower Ossington Theatre at 4:30
 
This play really succeeded in capturing my attention because of the compelling performances of Severn Thompson as the brilliant Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, and Richard Clarkin as Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher and her lover, who later joined the Nazi party.
 
The relationship between Arendt and Heidegger is shown through flashbacks interspersed with Arendt's discussions with Eva Hitschmanova, (Leora Morris) a student of hers, who is editing an article she wrote on Heidegger.
 
It is in a way an ironic piece. For me it is about a man whose life was dedicated to understanding humans and their world, and yet could not recognize the evil around him, and about a woman who loved him too passionately to forgive him. 
 
It was fascinating, moving and brilliantly performed. One of my favorite pieces so far.
 
For reviews of four more plays, Zugswang, Little One, White Rabbit Red Rabbit,  and Trolley Car,  see Part II.

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