New Yorkers can say what they want (and frequently do), but Toronto is the best city on the planet. If you are tragic and don’t know this for yourself, then you should know because I tell you All The Time. To prove it yet again, I’ve been sampling the theatre scene for you this month- talking about shows from the giant range of sizes and styles happening around town. In my previous article I told you about a standout student show (the culmination of an inventive degree program), a steadfast and groundbreaking indie double-bill, and a fabulous musical that exists in that tricky area between small artistic and big commercial theatre. You could see all those things for under $40. Here are three more categories as we move our way up to the big ticket items.
The Sure Thing:
Regular readers know about my Soulpepper love. It’s new(ish) but it’s true. It’s strong. And it’s unconditional. Wait, no, it’s completely conditional. It’s conditional on the understanding that they maintain the level of excellence I’ve come to expect from the strongest acting company around, that they continue to produce smart, artistic work that is accessible and entertaining at the same time, and that the core repertory value system of the company stays in tact (that involves keeping the established members around, lending support to emerging Academy newbies, and balancing both meaty and tiny roles for even its biggest stars). The 2012 spring shows True West and La Ronde– though neither will make the list of my Soulpepper favourites- keep those conditions in tact.
True West is the more forgettable of the two both because it is arguably the inferior production and because it’s not, like La Ronde, a provocative ensemble exploration of human sexuality and connection. What True West is is a Sam Shepard-written one act play about brotherly tension. It has some real moments of poignancy (the ever-likable Mike Ross plays Austin’s unravelling well, both the pitiful wallowing and the exuberant toast-making) but generally fails to really say anything all that interesting about familial relationships that last season’s transcendent Long Day’s Journey Into Night didn’t say more interestingly. Nancy Palk’s direction is simple and safe, neither saving nor disabling Shepard’s somewhat lack-luster text and the production’s best feature (beyond the dramatically timed toast, which is admittedly fabulous) is Ari Cohen’s amiable but slippery Hollywood Producer. Ultimately the production is best characterized by Stuart Hughes’ take on Lee, Austin’s threatening drifter of a prodigal brother- he’s familiar and fairly obvious, and neither as funny nor as tragic as he needs to be to really hit the audience.
La Ronde, on the other hand, is neither familiar nor obvious in any way (even though I’ve seen it before). It also happens to be both funny and tragic. And brave in a way that few commercial theatres really are. Soulpepper’s 2012 season, for example, had a lot of Arthur Miller. Arthur Miller can be troubling and heartbreaking and even groundbreaking when done with enough artistry, but it’s a lot of people in period clothes talking. It’s not “Titus with bum fights” (a line I stole from one of my favourite avant garde directors from an actual production he once did that was literally Titus Andronicus set amongst violent homeless people). Don’t get me wrong, I Loved Soulpepper’s 2012 season, and I see nothing wrong with doing a lot of Arthur Miller and Arthur Miller-esque things if you do them well and with a sense of modernity and imagination, but I’m fascinated by the sharp turn towards “edgy” that the same company is taking with their 2013 season. There’s a lot of late 20th/early 21st century work on the slate this season, a fair bit of absurdism, a Brechtian 2-part “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” and, most shockingly, Jason Sherman’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s sexual round-robin La Ronde. Technically this is La Ronde‘s second go at Soulpepper but I was still surprised to see it on the roster. The aforementioned Titus bum fight company, they’re the people who do La Ronde, not the commercial Stratford offshoot with their ageing subscribers and venerable founders. But they did it anyway, because they thought it had something worth saying, and that in itself is pretty awesome.
Not only is Soulpepper doing Schnitzler’s daring and controversial piece, but Sherman’s adaptation actually pushes the envelope quite a bit further (as any modern adaptation of an erstwhile “shocking” play must). Sherman and director Alan Dilworth don’t expect the audience to be scandalized or enthralled by a little stage sex (or a lot of it, as the case may be), so they up the ante- graphic nudity, intimately simulated cunnilingus, autoerotic asphyxiation, a desperate prostitute shoving a wad of stolen cash into a used condom to hide it in case she’s strip searched (that one got my most visceral reaction of the night). But none of these things seem designed for pure shock value- they’re all rooted in humanity far beyond that of the original play. Where Schnitzler named his characters things like “the whore” and “the soldier”, Sherman gives them real names, identities, backstories. Hannibelle (played heartbreakingly by Miranda Edwards) isn’t just “the parlor maid”, she’s a wronged and alluring broken woman with a horrific past that echoes through many more of the play’s vignettes than she actually appears in. All of Schnitzler’s roles and their respective pairings are in tact, just fleshed out and adapted to make a filmmaker from “the poet” and a sex surrogate from “the actress”, among others. The concrete Toronto-ization is maybe a little much (the action doesn’t just take place in a mansion or an apartment, it’s in a Rosedale Mansion and an Annex Apartment) and I will never forgive Dilworth and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne for what they did to one of my favourite songs (Meat Loaf’s “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”), but there’s very little to nitpick in this La Ronde. The acting company is generally incredibly strong with only Paul Sun-Hyung Lee’s Shatneresque rhythms getting on my nerves. It’s a text that makes some serious demands of its actors and these guys go for it shamelessly (which I mean in the best possible sense). They’re so exposed that thinking too much about the repertory realities of Soulpepper is a little disturbing: that’s R&G:RIP‘s Ophelia (Leah Doz) up there shoving a used condom full of cash up her hoo-haw, that’s Mr. Alligator Pie (Mike Ross) going down on Grace Lynn Kung (not a Soulpepper regular but Canadians will know her as the innocent and over-eager intern in both Slings & Arrows and Being Erica), and, most upsetting of all, that’s Mr. Kim (of Convenience Store fame) with a ball-gag in his mouth! But such is La Ronde- it’s gritty and unpleasantly graphic (though this version is thankfully also refreshingly funny), and what Sherman’s managed to do with his interpretation is keep it that way even though the world is over a hundred years ahead of where it was when Schnitzler first made waves.
The National Ballet of Canada’s winter season was jam-packed. They remounted their Romeo & Juliet (which I skipped this time around) and did the intense semi-abstract biography Nijinsky (which was technically impressive but not all that thrilling) before heading overseas to tour R&J to London. Amidst all that, they packed in a heartbreakingly short 6-performance run of a truly breathtaking double bill. The evening began with James Kudelka’s Four Seasons, a National Ballet favourite that chronicles the ages of man through Vivaldi’s legendary concertos. Each season is centered around a pas de deux between the Everyman (Guillaume Cote, good as always but not at his most breathtaking) and a woman representing the struggles of that season in his life. The most thrilling by far is the insanely complex partnering and inescapable passion of “Summer”, featuring a breathtaking turn by Greta Hodgkinson and her mile-long limbs. Kudelka’s choreo beyond that impossibly grand “Summer” pas de deux is lightly pretty for the most part and ultimately not that memorable.
Memorable comes after intermission. I’m a story-driven person who likes character pieces with clear narrative direction, so you tell me that I’m about to see an abstract ensemble piece about bugs and I instantly roll my eyes. But… Wow. Emergence is only 28 minutes long but it had one of the biggest impacts of anything I’ve ever seen on the Four Seasons Centre stage. Or any stage, really. Owen Belton’s inventive score is furious and nerve-wracking in a beautiful way and the contributions of Linda Chow (costume design), Jay Gower Taylor (set design) and Alan Brodie (lighting design) are thrilling. But it’s choreographer Crystal Pite who made magic out of a weird bug parable. Her stunning anthropomorphic steps are beautiful and strange, intellectually engrossing and sexually evocative. The piece probes at societal constructs (of insects, of the human race, of microcosms as specific as professional ballet hierarchies) and comments on the psychology of interaction and mob movement and the gender-specific roles we play. 28 minutes have never gone by so quickly as I sat, mouth uncouthly agape, as Emergence set fire to my nerve endings and brought spontaneous and unexplainable tears to my eyes. It wasn’t until I was walking out of of the theatre that my brain got it together to process what I’d just seen. A big part of that, quite apart from the monumental artistry of the piece itself, was the insane feats of superheroic physicality the dancers delivered over those 28 minutes. Soloists Aleksander Antonijevic, Sonia Rodriguez, and Heather Ogden were mind-blowing themselves but the effect of the full corps was the most stunning It was like sea of pure human muscle and determination on stage in perfect synchronicity despite the unnaturalness of the choreography’s demands. Emergence was nothing less than the sort of piece that made you re-assess what you thought you knew about the limits of human artistic and athletic ability.
The Big Tour:
The first thing I think you need to know is that I wore a pink dress and a cardigan to the Sony Centre when I went to see the big Rock of Ages tour that came bounding into town in March. I don’t usually wear pink but I feel like that anecdote makes my point the most clearly (that and this one: the version of “No Diggity” I have on my ipod is performed by Anna Kendrick. It’s not a rock song, but you understand my meaning). I may know all the words to “We Built This City” but I don’t for a second believe that you can build a city on rock and roll (you can barely assemble a futon on rock and roll). I like my ACDC in moderation through ipod speakers because anytime I’m dragged anywhere resembling Rock of Ages‘ Bourbon Room I just want to go home, wash my hands, and rest my eardrums. So I find comfort in the inherent artificiality of a jukebox musical like Rock of Ages– these are not the badass unwashed rockers they are pretending to be (those people scare me); these are kids who went to theatre school. They’re wearing wigs and dance belts, and remembering what their vocal coach taught them about pushing their upper register too far without switching into a head voice. If you’re a real rock fan, someone like the characters in the show, someone who gets a rush from that sense of rebellion, from sex and drugs and amps turned to eleven- there is no way in hell you will appreciate Rock of Ages. The theatrically softened, corporate-backed, completely unthreatening reality of turning songs like these into a Broadway musical all but undermines the founding principles of rock and roll. But I liked it that way. In fact, the reason I liked the musical So Much More than I liked the idiotic film adaptation is that it has more of that theatre friendliness (and thus, fun for me). There’s more choreographed dancing from the fantastic chorus, there’s clever fourth wall breakage (complete with a meta narrative twist in the final scene that I would go so far as to actually call clever), there’s a truly silly subplot about a misunderstood German boy! (more on him in a moment). Rock of Ages isn’t very rock and roll at all (even for a Broadway musical- both Rent and Spring Awakening are easily more raw and rebellious) but it is damn fun.
It’s about as far from a sophisticated show as you can get- the humour is painfully low brow and the plotting about as enlightened as Glee– but the songs are iconically fun and the cast brings an energy so infectious that you can’t not have a good time (even if, like me, you spent the entire first act with your arms crossed praying that there wouldn’t be any audience interaction or calls for dancing in the aisles). Dominique Scott is a likeable romantic lead as Drew with a strong voice that’s not too musical theatre-y for the character and Chris Sams and Danny McHugh stand out in a myriad of small roles (the ever-present and silent on-stage band is also selectively amusing and steals some scenes). Among the many changes that were made for the film version, one of the biggest is the shifting of focus towards temperamental rocker Stacee Jaxx. It was a smart choice- Tom Cruise’s performance of the role is one of the only particularly good things about the film- but it does make how easily the character (here played by Universo Pereira) gets lost in the stage show sort of a letdown. The lead role in the stage version actually turns out to be Lonny, the oddball manager of the Bourbon Room who serves as the show’s narrator. The semi-improvised, interactive narration in the stage show actually made me understand for the first time why that role was given to Russell Brand for the film. If they’d made fewer changes to the storytelling and left some of the elements of narration, the comedian would have made a lot more sense in the role than he did. In this Second National Tour, Justin Colombo is fun but not always as clever as I’d like him to be as he guides the audience self-awarely through the good time.
The other huge change that the film made was a complete reworking of the subplot. Being me, my favourite thing about the film was Catherine Zeta-Jones’ righteous hunt to tear down the Bourbon Room. I thought she was funny and furious and had all the best songs (“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and half of the film’s best number, the “We Built This City”/”We’re Not Gonna Take It” mashup). But she’s not in the stage show. Instead we get this weird father-son pair of Germans who want to build condos and a crazy hippie activist named Regina who’ll set herself on fire to stop them. It’s a sillier story but the father-son struggles are compelling and, in this particular cast, the subplot enjoys the welcome boost of featuring by far the standout performers of the cast. Megan McHugh is amusing and fiery as Regina but this is Stephen Michael Kane’s show from the second he pirouettes into the opening number looking completely out of place with his well-groomed hair and bowtie (he was instantly my favourite character, if only because I was so pleased to see someone for whom showering seemed important). As the conflicted Franz, Kane is a triple threat powerhouse who manages to make some seriously unfunny storytelling really work and a seriously unlikely romance into something I fully bought into. And my three favourite songs? They still belong in the subplot- just in different places (though sadly the mashup was apparently not originally a mashup in the stage show). There were a lot of fun things about Rock of Ages, but nothing quite as fun as watching Kane pull Franz up to his full height and challenge his overbearing father to “Him Me With Your Best Shot”. It’s a feel-good show that manages to be exactly that- fake sex, fake drugs, sort-of-fake rock and roll, but real fun and lots of it.