My Theatre

13 March 2013

Winter at the Young

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Page_1Much as I appreciate the founding principles behind “Winter at the Young”, it hasn’t lived up to its potential really at all. Considering the consistent strength of The Young Centre’s principal resident Soulpepper (which shares it’s Artistic Director with The Young Centre) and the great and/or decent success of its annual showcases The Global Cabaret Festival (great) and The Word Festival (good), I was expecting the winter run of small shows- specifically curated for the superb Distillery space that hosts much of the best work in the city- to live up to the Young Centre’s standard. With the exception of Brent Carver’s cabaret show (which I actually took in at the aforementioned Cabaret Festival and not during Winter at the Young), none of the chosen pieces had the moving effect on me that I was hoping for.

All three of the non-Brent shows chosen to be part of Winter at the Young were recent hits somewhere else in Toronto (at The Fringe or The Factory) and it’s clear why they’ve been and continue to be so popular. The three chosen topics are all either popularly sentimental or glamorously self-righteous, both things that make objective evaluation of their merit as a piece of artistic output incredibly difficult. Alas, I shall try my best, though I guarantee their will be times when I throw in the towel or declare analysis pointless since the rest of the audience seemed happily on board.

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RARE
This is a piece that prompts lots of towel throwing-in. In fact, most reviewers have settled for calling it “brave” and “emotional” then refused to grade it on their usual scale. I’m lucky in that we at My Theatre never set up a grading system that concretely allocates stars or letters, because I too would be looking for a way out of it when talking about Rare. I think the only way to appropriately analyse the piece is to separate it and its performers (a tough thing to do when something is billed as ensemble-created but any other framework places me too uncomfortably on the line that separates unbiased criticism from well-meaning patronization, a line I struggle to walk even under less sensitive circumstances).   The ensemble itself- consisting wholly of performers with Down Syndrome- is refreshingly eclectic and wonderfully brave in the vulnerability of each person on stage. I’ve seen few actors without similar struggles who’ve been able to expose themselves so fully to an audience, putting their biggest hopes and fears on clear view.  Some of the performers are hard to connect to or even hard to understand, but some are extraordinary by any means of measure, like Nada Marie Christiane Mayla who speaks so many languages that I lost count; I think it was 5. Acting-wise, the highlights are Krystal Hope Nausbaum and Dylan Harman Livaja whose heartfelt performances have the most polish.

It’s Livaja who delivers what, to me, is the standout moment of the production- when he screams his frustration that theatre schools refuse to admit him on the basis of his condition. My personal experience of Rare was interesting in that few of the points it furiously makes were game-changing ones for me. I responded to most of the “we can do things everyone else can do” revelations with “of course you can” and the overwhelmingly pro-life stance that clouds my generally liberal politics made their plea against the abortion of babies prenatally diagnosed with DS a preaching to the choir moment. But that moment where Livaja swore about theatre school startled me. First of all in its incredible relatability (I loved how he abandoned the politeness and poetry of the rest of the piece to be exasperated for a moment on a subject that so many young people want to swear about) but also because it was a genuinely complicated moment. Livaja is a bright guy with a pretty clear speaking voice and an expressive face, I know lots of people who’ve gotten into theatre school with less. But the reality of the situation is that his condition would inform every part he could play and almost every director he encountered would shy away from that. A life in theatre will be incredible hard on Livaja and his struggle to get into theatre school is just the first step of that. After an hour of seeing both the theatrical accomplishments and the grand-scale limitations of DS actors on stage, I can’t say for certain whether I would let him in either, and that tears at my sense of right and wrong more than anything else in the play.

Now, I said I would address the piece itself, outside of its performers, and I will try to do so. From a purely theatrical standpoint, it bothers me that the whole point of Rare is “look, these performers have Down Syndrome”. It’s a play about them and their struggles but it doesn’t have a clear form and its non-linear quality feels distractingly Judith Thompson-y. The co-creator/director is known primarily for creating pieces so abstract that they require hours of intellectual deconstruction. She carries that form over to Rare but looses the complicated stuff, resulting in something that has lots of parts and nothing of substance to connect them. The performers do their best within the piece to carry the audience’s interest from segment to segment, and they absolutely succeed in individual moments of transcendence, but they overall seem a little lost. And who can blame them? I was a little lost too.

 

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I’d like to preface this by saying that although I have a great respect for clowning and physical theatre; generally speaking, I don’t find it very humorous or entertaining.

Spent, a clown piece conceived by Dean Gilmour, Michele Smith, Ravi Jain and Adam Paolozza attempts to state the absurdity of the recent financial crisis we have been experiencing across the globe. While conceptually this is a fine idea, and some found the piece to be highly entertaining, I found it repetitive and redundant.

Both Jain and Paoloozza, who perform the piece, are extremely talented performers; the level of energy they contribute to each of the 40 odd characters they portray collectively is outstanding. But I couldn’t help but feel that the entire show was self-serving in that its only purpose seems to be an outlet to shoe off the performers’ strengths. While tackling relevant content, besides drawing parallels between how the current economic climate has affected society and farce that is humanity, the show doesn’t say anything fresh or informative at all. In other words, what is the point? It seems that it is to point out the absurdity of the situation but nothing beyond that—I don’t know if the concept itself is enough to sustain an entire show.

Beyond that, everything is taken a little too far—when making yet another point regarding our gluttony for money, a sequence of gobbling and defecating money goes a digestive cycle or two too long. Again, I must reiterate that a lot of the choices made are stylistic to the form of clowning.

All in all, besides the captivating performances given by both Jain and Paolozza, this show fell flat for me.

 

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This is at once the lightest piece in Winter at the Young and the pushiest.

The audience was lapping it up like it was the poop-in-the-sink scene from Bridesmaids. Perhaps because it’s “no they didn’t!” humour; perhaps because it’s “women can be outrageous too!” politics; probably because it’s both. Either way, I was left in the same position that I was in when watching Bridesmaids, unmoved by “daring” humour and unimpressed that a woman dared to do something a man might do (ie: create something for public consumption that is far too revealing and uncouth to conform to ideals of femininity). This is 2013, The Vagina Monologues has been boring post-feminists for almost 2 decades, can all we all just agree that vaginas aren’t interesting anymore? How long did it take the Victorians to get over the ankle thing?

What Bahia Watson and Liza Paul’s half-sketch half-monologue show has to distinguish itself from other “I am woman, hear me talk about cunnilingus” pieces is its specific West-Indian bent, but since most of the scenes with that focus get lost amidst unintelligible accents and way-too-fast line deliveries, the intriguing cultural point of view gets overshadowed.

pomme is french for apple has its moments. A montage of horrific come-ons and the occasional one-liner are well-constructed and honestly funny enough to earn the laughs they get. Most everything else seems to get its laughs because the actresses are dressed as genitalia. Literally. Genitalia. Bahahahahaha! *glares*.

The idea that women can’t be funny is one of the most absurd concepts ever voiced, but if women limit their comedy exclusively to their physiological female-ness and rely on audiences to laugh because it’s an area of discussion mysteriously labeled “off limits”, they’re leaving the entire rest of the world for male comedians to own. Paul, especially, is incredibly bright with fantastic timing, she could be going toe-to-toe and winning on the basis of wit but instead she’s wallowing in vagina humour that’s not inventive enough to be funny if you’re over the idea that vaginas are inherently funny.

This has been an overarching problem at Winter at the Young this year. Whereas Soulpepper is a storytelling company, this series seems to be issues-based. Disability, The Financial Crisis, Women’s Issues- these things alone do not a theatrical production make. All of these pieces have strong contributors capable of doing a lot more than pushing easy buttons for an audience already programmed to respond to the issue at hand.

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