Be sure to check out Part 2, Part 3 and our Full Listing of SummerWorks 2014 reviews.

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cropped-picTransfusions (C)
The AMY project is a company devoted entirely to exposing young women to theatre and inspiring future artists. Transfusions feels very much like the product of that process; because it is. The 9-person ensemble is composed of mostly 17-year-olds, for many of whom this is the culmination of their first real theatrical experience. I suppose what I’m trying to say is this isn’t really about us (meaning the audience), so it doesn’t really matter that the play’s not all that good. Transfusions is ensemble-developed, somewhat autobiographical, a little bit over-arty, thematically scattered, roughly executed and clearly very important to its creators. This process- its catharsis, its artistic expression, the required teamwork, the thrill of creation- was likely transformative for these girls (among whom Sara Yacobi-Harris stands out with a strong stage presence and sense of nuance), far more than the presentation of an established (and arguably better) piece of theatre would have been. Every diverse actress in the group gets her moment to shine in a very personal way, whether it’s through a dark and disturbing slam poem or a melancholy folk song, and the takeaway theme of the pressure of being 17 (University Applications Will Crush Your Soul!) comes through clearly (don’t worry, kids; I chose entirely the wrong university and everything turned out fine. Just breathe). Transfusions is not a piece of theatre that will or should survive beyond these particular girls in this particular time but the experience of seeing it is the experience of seeing nine girls discover a medium that might change their lives, it’s watching them come out of their shells and show their souls and care about something more than they’ve likely cared about anything before (hey, camp productions of Very Serious Student-Assembled Theatre Pieces, I loved you); I’d happily sit through a weird, badly paced, awkwardly executed play to see something that important.

HERO-Rielle-Ritchie-and-Sarah-Irankhah-620x500The Devil You Know (B)
The Devil You Know is a student play (out of the Sears Drama Festival) written and directed by an adult with a handful of adults mixed in with the young actors. The effect is weird- if there are adults in this world (playing mothers, co-workers, support group attendees), why is the psychiatrist 17? The adults (including playwright Wendy Krekeler) make very annoying drunk co-workers (not hard) but they are stunning in a series of profound monologues as incest survivors of varying sorts. The monologue series is the play’s most effective device, addressing the ambiguity of abuse and spotlighting a trio of superb performances (from Jonelle Gunderson, Darla Biccum and Krekeler). Because the material deserves mature performances, I’m tempted to say that The Devil You Know should not be a student play at all but Rielle Ritchie, who plays the main role of incest survivor Rachel, is a startling talent for someone so young (and apparently also composed and performed all the original music!) and I actually did understand why they chose a young actor for the part (she tells the story as an adult but flashes back often to the inciting incidents from her childhood). But, ultimately, the student actors can’t quite keep up with their costars and more established actors could have brought home the reality of the material more effectively. Though I like the idea of turning an issue that affects children but is never talked about among children into a youth play, The Devil You Know deserves powerhouse performances that these students can’t quite muster.

HERO-AQSOP-small-620x500A Quiet Sip of Coffee (A)
I loved this show. I had no idea what I would be getting when I chose it (this year I scheduled based on timing rather than synopsis) and thus I took my seat prepared for anything from improv to sketch to clown. A Quiet Sip of Coffee, it turns out, is a little bit of all those things, folded carefully into an ultra-meta, non-linear narrative that is at once hilarious and heartbreaking. Anthony Johnston and Nathan Schwartz play Anthony and Nathan who play David and Jack who’ve created a werewolf-themed allegorical play that for which they’re hoping to secure sponsorship from a gay conversion camp (it’s more straight forward than it sounds). To secure said sponsorship, Anthony and Nathan (pretending to be David and Jack) agree to attend said camp. There they encounter earnest but horrifically misguided camp director Jonathan and sad, scared gay teenager Michael (among others) as they pretend to attempt to cure Anthony/David’s gayness. The play’s most jarring moment is when this silly tale of modern subversives infiltrating and mocking the wrong right hits a tragic wall of loss with the ambiguous revelation that, when the camp finally came to an end, best friends Anthony and Nathan didn’t speak again for 7 years. Johnston and Schwartz brilliantly use their own names and elements of their own backstories, paired with melancholy assertions that “it’s only a play” (says one) “that’s what we tell ourselves when we get too close to the truth” (says the other), creating a multi-layered confusion of reality that- especially when considered alongside the abrupt ending- makes A Quiet Sip of Coffee as frustratingly complicated and deceptive as the real world. The theme of realistic ambiguity is refreshingly consistent throughout the play, extending to the fallout around the Michael character (played with great tenderness by Johnston) and, perhaps most notably, to Jonathan who at one point is played aggressively by Johnston (the actors switch places as needed so that they’re not talking to themselves) only to have the role reclaimed by Schwartz who says “buddy, if you’re not going to play Jonathan with grace and empathy, you’re not going to play him at all” (what an intriguing nod to Anthony’s soon-to-emerge resentments and Nathan’s innocent insensitivity to them; what an insightful note of sympathy even for a man whose life’s work is to tell healthy people that they’re sick- by far my favourite moment of the play). Anthony and Nathan’s friendship (whether intensified for the stage or usefully translating clearly) boasts a beautiful reciprocity, possibly destructive intimacy and the shared wavelengths of somewhat misplaced soulmates. It’s then absolutely devastating to watch them torn apart, neither quite knowing why, how to fix it or whether they even want to. Some of the play’s goofier bits drag at times (the best thing about the wolfman play is the discussion of why they chose to include the scenes, even if I would have preferred that they reached a different conclusion on the issue) but the story is so engulfing and the performances so intricate and powerful (sometimes for their comedy, always for their humanity) that I felt the 75 minute play ended far too soon, well before I was ready to see Anthony and Nathan leave each other.

HERO-HLQ-crop-2-small-620x500He Left Quietly (A)
Yael Farber’s play about an innocent man’s time on South Africa’s over-populated death row was crafted around the true testimony of Duma Joshua Kumalo. It’s a captivating and infuriating story and Farber made the invaluable structural decision to allow it to play out between flashback and modern narration to allow the audience a full view of the man at the captivating and infuriating story’s heart. A second character (Farber herself here played by Aviva Armour-Ostroff with great thoughtfulness and a distracting accent) facilitates the storytelling and fills in a few key roles in the flashbacks but He Left Quietly belongs to Kumalo, the young and the old, the before and the after, the subject and the narrator. Though they look nothing alike on the surface, Tawiah M’Carthy and Conrad Coates together get to the heart of Kumalo, their connectivity highlighting the poignancy of the places where they contrast (changes to the man wrought from time and pain). M’Carthy evocatively portrays the young, angry and terrified prisoner who lives buried beneath decades of scar tissue within Coates’ nuanced older Duma (who narrates the action with quiet solemnity and grace). Anything less than star turns from the two Dumas would have left this story feeling underserved but at SummerWorks M’Carthy and Coates leave far more than a quiet mark. 

HERO-thebull_7424-credit-to-Serena-McCarroll-smallThe Bull, The Moon & The Coronet of Stars (B+)
You need to know a bit more about Greek mythology than I do to get the most out of playwright Van Badham’s intense sexual epic. I suspect that there’s an intellectual experience to be had here that I was missed out on; certainly the somewhat snide tone of the ending suggests that there is. But even if there isn’t much to it beyond what I saw (if you know quite a bit about Greek mythology, please see the show and report back), The Bull, The Moon & The Coronet of Stars is evocative at times, emotional at others, strange much of the time and occasionally quite funny. Ron Pederson and Daniela Vlaskalic are both compelling performers who navigate the tricky business of narrating their own actions fairly well, an especially daunting task considering they not only look nothing like the characters they’re describing (why no glasses at the very least?) but they’re often doing the opposite of the things they say they are doing (when described as having their chests pressed together, they stand back to back). Powerful performances and a stirring script make The Bull, etc memorable though it doesn’t seem to comment on the myth it is telling, the whole thing leading (however enticingly) to the big “Surprise! Did you get it?” ending that annoyed me more than a little.

HERO-ParadiseRed_AlexContreras02-small-620x500Paradise Red (B-)
Bruce Gibbons Fell’s faux telenovela about a Chilean military family is stuck in a weird middle ground that keeps it from being much of anything. It’s too silly (quick, everyone make your “Shocking Twist” face!) to be poignant and too dark (Murder! Dictatorship! Rape! Incest!) to be particularly fun. Because it’s supposed to be stylized, the actors are limited in trying to attain any kind of authenticity or nuance, but you can see them fighting the awkwardness of spending nearly an hour and a half being purposefully bad actors and thus they don’t really achieve the sort of super-heightened style they need in order to make the telenovela conceit really work (Rosa Laborde in particular seems hardly sure that she should be hamming it up at all). The result is acting that looks bad because it’s a little bit better than it’s supposed to be and a story that is bad on purpose but more serious than a bad story should be (why bring in politics if you don’t have anything to say about them?). Paradise Red has some key things wrong with it but you can’t help but feel that it’s just a little bit left of being fairly enjoyable. Alex Contreras is ridiculously good looking and charming enough to make a really effective soap opera leading man and Carmen Aguirre smartly revels in her villainy (even if it’s not particularly well written); they might have made an interesting pair in something less convoluted than an exploration of South American oppression and military corruption, loosely based (I’m assuming) on Hamlet, in the style of one of the world’s most obnoxious art forms. 

Brochure-Graphic-May-26-v2-ColourTragedy: a tragedy (A)
This is the story of the people who frame our stories. Playwright Will Eno uses the commonplace occurrence of nightfall to explore modern newscasting and the circular nature of hopelessness. As a one-act, it’s a little too long, dwelling on some of the sillier subplots a bit too much, but the remarkably human characters that make up this local news team made Tragedy: a tragedy a truly touching theatrical experience (note: it’s also funny, in case that’s a deal breaker for you). The production also features an incredibly strong cast (including standout turns from all five players- Don Allison, Benjamin Clost, Miranda Edwards, Cyrus Lane and Christopher Stanton), which contributes in no small part to the profundity of the affair, to say nothing of the general polished quality that is so rare at an indie festival. Sit in the second or third row on the stage right side to be directly in the sightline for Clost’s beautifully executed nervous breakdown and Allison’s calming words of solidarity as the stalwart, empathetic anchor. From there you’ll also be the first to absorb Stanton as the civilian passerby whose simple expression of hope is one of the most beautiful moments in the play. Cyrus Lane’s downtrodden legal advisor Michael is possibly the text’s simplest but also one of its most effective characters, Lane striking a perfectly touching balance between laughable awkwardness and lamentable sadness. Miranda Edwards as field reporter Constance delivers some of the text’s strangest moments (I’ll admit the play lost me a little with the horse bit) but is also responsible for some of its best comedy and a particularly beautiful monologue delivered with delicate serenity. A cast this consistent is a real get for a production of this scale, their presence here a clear reflection of the beauty and insight of Eno’s refreshing (if distinctly American) play.