Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2 and our Full Listing of SummerWorks 2014 reviews.
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Peppered with powerful moments from all three performers (Billy Merasty’s dignified power, Dillan Chiblow’s gorgeous vocals) this story of one man at three stages of his life as a “kept boy” is somewhat disjointed but at times incredibly evocative. Garret C. Smith is particulary powerful portraying the age (a hunky twenty/thirty-something) between Chiblow’s meek young boy and Merasty’s jaded senior. But perhaps the most notable thing about this production is Cris Derksen’s immense contributions as composer and on-stage cellist/dj, transitioning smoothly from haunting emotional score to techno club background noise and exponentially lifting the fairly good production’s impact.
The Container (A)
The concept of The Container is brilliant. Sacrificing the sales potential and audience appeasement of a proper theatre, director Zachary Florence traps his small audience in a shipping container (literally) and gives them only a bottle of water to curb the discomfort of the dark, stuffy space. That’s as far as Florence dares take the sensory experience of the play, thankfully leaving the real horror- the smells, the waste, the sickening motion of the vehicle- to the imagination, but it’s enough. The audience is in the experience (though it’s admittedly softened) alongside the characters as they illegally flee their home countries (Turkey, Afghanistan, unnamed other places of extreme tumult) in search of safety and freedom in London. The tension is palpable and the stakes sky-high, a thrilling theatrical combination if ever there was one. Playwright Clare Bayley’s characters as personified by an excellent cast (highlighted by the always excellent Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) are excellently complex- sympathetic, infuriating, heroic but also realistically somewhat mundane- inspiring the best and (more often) the worst in each other as they attempt to survive their real life Huis clos experience. A brilliant marriage of inventive concept, practical execution, and strong performances.
Unknown Soldier (A-)
Unknown Soldier at first glance is about too much. Set in an American military prison where Chelsea Manning sits in solitary confinement on intrusive suicide watch (a bored inquiry of “are you okay?” piercing her inner monologue at five minute intervals), the political and moral quandaries that define the play’s central plotline are more than enough to send the audience away from the hour-long play still processing. In 2013, Manning was tried under the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years in prison for the crime of releasing classified military intel to Wikileaks, a crime she maintains was rooted in a sense of duty more than rebellion. On top of that already thematically rich story, playwright Jonathan Seinen explores Manning’s diagnosed gender identity disorder and touches on the larger issue of the treatment of transgendered prisoners, especially in military prisons (where hormone replacement therapies are prohibited). My first instinct was to say that the two major story elements get in each others’ way, especially when the runtime is limited and the whole story rests on a single performer (though if anyone can balance two heavy and tonally dissimilar themes it’s Jeff Ho who delivers a brilliant and complex solo turn). Were this a work of fiction, I absolutely would have expected Seinen to tackle, in depth, just one of these major themes, giving the piece the clarity and direction that it lacks. But Unknown Soldier is based on the true story (and, in some cases, actual words) of Manning whose real life is messily political and thematically over-taxed, because life doesn’t come in an easily digestible three-act structure. Thus, neither does Unknown Soldier.
The latest entry into the relatively new but wholly welcome micro-genre of solo shows by charming lanky men with ukuleles (see also Mark Shyzer), Alex Eddington’s semi-musical monologue tells the slightly sporadic tale of the creator’s summer spent in relative isolation on Scotland’s Isle of Mull. As the story plays out in the Majlis Art Garden’s outdoor space (Thursday’s show was bitterly cold), the production gets stranger and stranger (example: a lamb puppet who represents Eddington’s most self-destructive thoughts) but the natural charisma of Eddington as a storyteller keeps the avant garde adornments from overwhelming the point. The ultimate theme, as bluntly stated in the end, is a little bit muddled but Eddington’s emotional journey comes through clearly in the play’s best moments. The climactic incident where he lets himself miss something he’d been looking forward to is particularly effective, as is his Rodgers & Hammerstein-inspired contemplation of “am I weird because I’m lonely; or am I lonely because I’m weird?”. The play could use the focus that might come with cutting about twenty minutes off the runtime but it gets by easily on the simple fact that Eddington (armed with his ukulele, bird whistle and clever repetition sound system) is the perfect conduit for his story.
The Widow (C)
On description alone, The Widow was one of the productions I was looking forward to most. A culturally resonant love story with commentary and consequences beyond the single couple in question- the premise had such promise. Unfortunately, the execution is incredibly lacking. The cast is shaky across the board, stiffly delivering dialogue and accidentally earning laughs I’m pretty sure the playwright wasn’t asking for. Amir Al-Azraki’s script is clunky and predictable, helped along not at all by Mark Cassidy’s inhibited direction. Considering the content, the lack of emotional resonance in this piece is simply confusing, but perhaps most concerning is that there doesn’t seem to be any one particular culprit- nobody delivers.
Another entry into the ever-popular melodramatic genre parody canon (see also: Paradise Red), GASH! is successful mostly because of the moments where parody takes a backseat to humanity. Playwright David Benjamin Tomlinson and director Clinton Walker strike a careful balance between the heightened absurdity of B-grade horror movies and the emotional consequences of characters beset with so much tragedy that the fact that one of them treats a doll like a real child is more of an accepted comfort than a worrying quirk. The script could use another pass, if only to tighten up the haphazard third act, but GASH! is generally a melancholy barrel of laughs (which sounds kind of horrible but is actually really satisfying). They key to the production is the playwright playing big sister/pseudo matriarch Joan. There doesn’t seem to be any real reason beyond cheap laughs that Tomlinson and Ryan Kelly (as dutiful housekeeper Hope) appear in drag but the lack of reason quickly ceases to matter because the performances are so good. Tomlinson is grand, fierce and selectively tender, very rarely leaning on the drag conceit for an easy chuckle; a true star turn in slightly messy piece that smartly strives to be more than parody.
Chicken Grease is Nasty Business (C+)
That’s a pretty fun title (delivered as a line of dialogue from the pretty fun character of Delmar played by the pretty fun Christian Lloyd) and the play is listed as a “riotous new comedy” on the festival website. What’s strange, then, is it’s not all that funny. I’m not saying that it’s a badly executed comedy; I’m saying that it doesn’t even really appear to be trying to be a comedy, per se. There are certainly jokes (some that swim, quite a few that sink) but the tone isn’t zany enough, the pace isn’t quick enough, and the jokes don’t come frequently enough to make a comedy from a story featuring a baby with AIDS, two different boys abandoned at birth (one of them lovingly referred to as a crack baby), religious hypocrisy, cheating, lying, possible incest, and a character named Jolene who is so over-the-top obnoxious that I wanted to rip her flouncy church hat off her head and whip it at her. There’s also a happy, sentimental ending where everyone remembers that they love each other and everything works out far more conveniently than you could ever imagine. If it had been a bit more wild, a bit less sentimental, and laced with far fewer traumatizing topics, Chicken Grease could have lived up to expectations and been a riotously fun interlude amidst SummerWorks’ other self-serious fare. Instead, it’s merely forgettable.
Half Girl/Half Face (B)
Solo performer Arlen Aguayo Stewart spends the entirely of Half Girl/Half Face recording a video of herself to post on the very internet that has been making her life, well, hell is the wrong word, weird, maybe? Intellectually it’s a strong concept but in execution much of the thrill of live performance is missing. Stewart is recording live, obviously, but she’s engaging with her computer instead of with the audience and, like the jumbotron at a concert, it’s tempting to spend the whole play watching the video projected overhead rather than the real girl below (there’s metaphorical value there, just not enough to make the distancing effect worth it). Conceptually, playwright Zoë Erwin-Longstaff is on-point, tackling contemporary themes of real vs. internet identity and the gender politics that refuse to stay out of such affairs. Central to the play is the idea that there is a real person behind the face that became a meme. What’s annoying, then, is that the young girl in the play feels barely more real than the picture of her on the internet. Both Stewart’s performance and Erwin-Longstaff’s direction have a few strong moments that get to the heart of the play’s point but the overall effect is fairly stereotypical, almost condescending in its portrayal of its teenage everygirl. “Like” and vocal fry abound as Stewart prattles on with far less consequence than almost any teenager I’ve ever met. She occasionally slips into refreshing eloquence, but the rest of the character’s way of being makes such moments seem dramatically out of place, as though Erwin-Longstaff accidentally just let a bit of her own vernacular slip into the script. Like so many shows this festival, there’s a lot of interesting ideas here, but those ideas need to rest on shoulders sturdier than this belittled characterization.
This solo show reminded me of that Bugs Bunny scene where he plays all the positions in a game of baseball. He’s pitching, and even if he’s really killing it on the mound, he has to sprint to third to ground the ball then to first to tag the runner, because he’s playing alone. It’s miraculous that he’s able to record an out at all. In Blindsided, writer/performer Sabrina Reeves is not so lucky. She begins as a professor, pulling the audience into her class about film restoration by talking about the chemistry and her grandmother who discovered double exposure. With her easy charm, interesting subject, and clever use of set and video, Reeves had me engaged pretty quickly. But then she veers off into another character, and another, and another, and the video footage seems to take over the play’s central narrative, leaving Reeves as a chameleonic colour commentator and little else. The extreme non-linear nature of this dissociative one-woman show makes it hard to follow and extremely hard to invest in despite the impressive technical feats involved.
Madam Mao (A-)
Chronicling the final days of Chairman Mao’s revolutionary fourth wife Jiang Qing in 1991, Madam Mao is a clever and engaging glimpse into the grayscale of political life in Communist China. After a brief introduction into the tone and world of the play by Amanda Zhou, the body of the piece is carried by Janet Lo as the titular former tyrant- imprisoned by the state after her husband’s death- and Samantha Wan as her keeper/tormenter/accuser/storytelling vehicle. Wan in particular gives an excellently vulnerable performance as she attempts to mine the motivations behind Qing’s treachery, reflecting on her own backstory through dance juxtaposed with the frank retelling of Qing’s past. Director Severn Thompson and design assistant Cassandra Brennan use pristine red banners that are weather-torn and frayed at the bottom as excellently symbolic but refreshingly simple set dressing, a good indicator of the frank effectiveness of Madam Mao.
This production is much bigger than most at SummerWorks. The cast is huge, the set elaborate (surely hard to strike), and the text (by poet Anne Carson adapted from the Sophocles tragedy) demanding. Such an undertaking often doesn’t reap huge rewards at a festival of this size but Antigonick is so excellently executed that it’s hard not to think of it as a large-scale production running independently at The Theatre Centre. The play is essentially Antigone as supervised by an enigmatic and wordless character named Nick (a slyly enticing and quietly observant Joshua Stodart). Anchored by exceptional performances from Sascha Cole (Antigone) and Dmitry Chepovetsky (Kreon) and elevated by Reid Thompson’s excellent set design and director Cole Lewis’ insightful use of space (entrances as carved out by x-acto knife!), Antigonick is one of the best all-round productions of the festival, as emotionally affecting as it is intellectually intriguing and theatrically impressive.
The Good Story (A)
The title of Alexa Gilker’s new work about a naive young traveller looking to do good in the world is one of those Good Will Hunting titles that can be seen many different ways, depending on the emphasis. Alex (played with beautiful sincerity by Pippa Leslie) is a deeply religious girl who frames her story with references to The Good Book, in particular the story of Ezekiel. The narrative form the story takes allows Alex to jump from incident to incident (with some guidance from the beautiful Dana Deoraj as her strong and tragic friend Sarita) and address the audience directly, asking “wasn’t that a good story?” after telling of an experience eating dinner in South India. But more than either of those contexts, the beautifully ambiguous title tells the audience exactly what the play is about- it’s a story of goodness, or at least the quest for it. As Alex and her friend Paris (Diana Luong balancing comedy and empathy to great effect with a knockout monologue to highlight the understated character) travel the world, they are so desperate to help others that they end up doing harm. Sheltered and shortsighted, Alex is a symbol of middle class North American self-importance but she also represents the best of millennial optimism (misguided though it often is). She’s a true child of the Feeney-taught generation, not always doing well but attempting to do good. Gilker, minimalist director Sandi Barrett and this excellent cast of women do just that.
MARACATU YOU! (B+)
This aggressively loud, adorably exuberant music show functions mostly as an ode to the Brazilian culture and specific art form (a music/dance/drumming extravaganza), to art as a redemptive force, to community, and to the group’s leader and teacher Aline Morales. Through a series of monologues, each of the diverse members of Baque de Bamba shares their experience of discovering maracatu. In each case, the power of the music is a central feature and, for many, the embrace of the community or particular members of it is key (one of the sweetest details comes with the revelation that two of the performers met through maracatu and are married now) but what most monologizers come back to is Morales and the inspiration she gave them. Morales’ warmth and passion come through beautifully, reflected in the eyes of her pupils as they play the music she taught them and, most emotionally, in her own monologue of discovery in which she begins to tear up. Beyond Morales’ monologue- a genuinely moving theatrical moment- most of MARACATU YOU! had the same effect on me as a lot of improv comedy, which is to say that it looked like a lot of fun and I could tell it was really important and transformative for the performers to participate in their art, but as an audience member I didn’t get as much out of it as the performers seemed to.