Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Playing Catch-up - Best Shows to Date of 2012

Ronnie Burkett with his puppet creation Penny Plain.
Five of six cast members in Goodness by Michael Redhill
Kyle Kushnir as Man in Chair and Allison Roberts as Janet van de Graaff in The Drowsy Chaperone
Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage's The Blue Dragon
Four of five cast members in Theatre Inconnu's The Crackwalker

I haven't posted a review since November, much to my horror, and so I'm going to provide some capsule reviews of what I've seen the first quarter of this year. My Top Five to date:

1. PENNY PLAIN by Ronnie Burkett (seen in Toronto at Factory Theatre, February 5th)

Ronnie Burkett is what the Japanese would call a "living national treasure", one of the most remarkable and original theatre artists in Canada. His marionette shows, which he writes, creates and performs solo, have been seen across the country and internationally for decades. This latest production, Penny Plain, is probably the darkest show I've ever seen by Burkett. It takes place in the weeks and months before the end of the world, in and around a boarding house run by a sweet little blind old lady named Penny Plain. Her pet dog Geoffrey, life-sized and talking, decides to go out into the world for a final adventure. What happens in the time in-between his leaving and the play's final moments involves dozens of characters, all manipulated and performed by Burkett in a dazzling display of virtuosity, who each face the inevitable destruction and death ahead in their own ways. Geoffrey's return in the play's final scene is beyond horrific, as he calmly informs his beloved Miss Plain what will happen next. We are left to consider how savagely nature will reclaim this planet that we humans have so savagely destroyed. A masterful performance, the best show by far this season.

2. GOODNESS by Michael Redhill (seen at Belfry Theatre Spark Festival, March 16th)

I often prioritize getting to a touring show from Toronto when one lands for a few days in Victoria. Toronto is the theatre capital of Canada and my former home, so I'm well aware that chances are very good these shows will be worth my while. This Volcano Theatre production, directed by seasoned director Ross Manson, does not disappoint. Novelist Michael Redhill uses meta-theatricality to help him spin a story of genocide, revenge, guilt, rage and forgiveness. Six actors are on stage with chairs as the only 'set' present, along with a very few hand props. The narrator who addresses us directly is the playwright himself, and he implicates us in the action, through our watching, as silent witnesses to genocides throughout history. His story weaves back and forth from past to present and there is an extended story-within-a-story which is presented as a factual event reported to Redhill during an interview. The cast is extremely accomplished, both as actors and singers, as traditional songs from Africa and Europe frame a number of scenes. The central question explored in the play is how good people do bad things, a question that has plagued humanity for eons. To Redhill's credit, we are left with no easy answers at the end of this intelligent, moving and thought-provoking play, only more questions and and uneasy recognition of our own complicity in events that may seem very distant from our safe and comfortable lives.

3. THE DROWSY CHAPERONE book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar and music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (Langham Court Theatre, January 12th)

This is one of the biggest hits of the Victoria Theatre so far. Tons of fun! you can hear my review of it here:

Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage (Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, February 2nd)

This Lepage show was remounted in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics in 2010 and is now playing in Toronto. As ambitious and filled with over-the-top filled technical Lepage-style wizardry as ever, The Blue Dragon spins a trilingual (French, English and Mandarin, all spoken and surtitled through the show) story of a displaced Quebecois art dealer in Shanghai, a character first created in Michaud and Lepage's Dragon Trilogy in 1985. Pierre is now 50 and in a relationship with a very young Chinese artist named Xiao Ling. All seems well until Claire, Pierre's former lover, arrives with an agenda of her own: to adopt a Chinese baby...and it just so happens that Xiao Ling has fallen pregnant! The narrative is not the strength here, although all three performers have their moments. The star of a Lepage show is the design, and set designer Michel Gauthier has created a stunning two-level set with hidden panels that hide and reveal, and projections that take the breath away as they work with the story to show giant Chinese calligraphy letters twenty feet high emerge onscreen as Pierre writes them onto a scroll. Or dazzling multicolored lights that blur and swirl as Xiao Ling performs a traditional Chinese dance. There are plenty of treats for the eye in this show, which moves toward cinema and away from theatre in my mind. It therefore comes as no surprise that the program being sold in the lobby is a graphic comic version of this tale, which seems well-suited to that visual form as opposed to a good, if old-fashioned, well-made play.

5. THE CRACKWALKER by Judith Thompson (Theatre Inconnu, Saturday, March 3rd)

Theatre Inconnu continues to present well-chosen, directed (by Inconnu regular Graeme McDonald) and performed series of challenging, often dark, plays. My review is here:

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