Thursday, December 20, 2012

Critics Choice Spotlight Awards and Year-End Theatre Reflections

Another year nearly over, and my poor neglected blog has not had a review posted since this spring. Oh happens. Highlights of my theatre-going this year have been generally outside of Victoria. Not to diminish the theatre that I see and review in town, but it is always wonderful to have the chance to see some shows in a larger centre. Earlier this year I saw Robert Lepage's Blue Dragon and Ronnie Burkett's Penny Plain, both of which were running in Toronto in February. How great to see two of Canada's finest theatre artists' works. My vote was for Burkett's dark but often funny end of the world exploration over Lepage's visually beautiful but emotionally cool transnational and trilingual storytelling.
Catherine Walker, Niamh Mc Cann and Eleanor Methven in The House by Tom Murphy, directed by Annabelle Comyn. On the Abbey stage, Thursday 7 June to Saturday 14 July 2012. Photo - Anthony Woods.

However, the best show I saw in 2012 was at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, on my birthday no less! The play was The House by Tom Murphy, one of over 20 plays Murphy has had produced at the Abbey, Ireland's national theatre. It was 3 hours of Chekhovian Irishness, set in the 1950s when many young people were emigrating to England and North America for better opportunities. We see some of these emigrants as they return for summer visits to a small town where locals are falling on hard times, including a formerly wealthy family now forced to sell their house. With echoes of The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters (there are three sisters in the de Burca family at the heart of the play), Murphy weaves a tale of ambition, passion, disappointment and despair. The pub scenes felt anthropological in their accuracy portraying that aspect of Irish life. The acting, directing and design work (with a large cast and impressive moving set) were all topnotch. I was riveted throughout, as was my husband, and we felt both entertained and enlightened, that the play had taught us a lot about Ireland and its recent history.
Featuring (L to R): Gerry Mackay (Jacob Marley), Tom McBeath (Ebenezer Scrooge), and Simeon Sanford Blades (Tiny Tim) in A Christmas Carol / Photos by David Cooper

In town, I have to admit to feeling this year was a bit so-so, despite the massive hit that was Drowsy Chaperone at Langham Court.  And Slowly Beauty swept the Critics Choice Spotlight Awards, as can be seen below, but was a 2011 show. I liked both Red and Christmas Carol at the Belfry this fall, both directed by Artistic Director Michael Shamata, although I have groused about the latter being one of only four mainstage productions when I'd rather have it as an add-on. For me, as fine as show as it is, a sell-out hit (not surprisingly as it has done very well in Toronto and elsewhere in other productions by Shamata), it takes the place of a contemporary play in the season. That quibble aside, it is a pretty seamless show, beautifully cast and performed. Vancouver's Tom McBeath is an excellent Scrooge, Gerry Mackay does great work quadrupling as Jacob Marley and the three ghosts, and many local actors (Brian Linds, Jan Wood, Celine Stubel, Amanda Lisman), a couple more Vancouver-based actors and four charming young actors round out the cast. The show has lovely costumes (although I found the Xmas Past, Present and Future costumes to be a little bizarre, but perhaps accurate to descriptions in the novel) a simple yet effective design, and devotes itself to a well-paced and engaging rendition of this familiar tale. I felt the Tiny Tim death scene was milked a little for its sentimentality, which for me verged a bit too closely to melodrama, and slowed the pace somewhat. But these are nit-picky points in the face of what is obviously a very strong production.

The only other show that made a significant impact on me this year was one that I was in myself, and therefore am in no place to comment on from a critical perspective. My friend Kate Rubin was invited by prison theatre company William Head on Stage (WhoS) to direct an adaptation of The Hobbit (which she had done herself some years ago for her acting studio's youth ensemble) and asked me to play Thorin, leader of the dwarves. I was cast along with two other local female actors, Bronwyn Steinberg and Anne Cirillo. I have seen and reviewed a number of WHoS shows over the past few years, and was intrigued by what it would be like to be a part of a WHoS project. Well, it proved to be a fascinating, challenging and hugely rewarding experience. Working alongside a group of about 20 inmates, we created a very strong production that was seen by over 1400 people in its five weekend-long run. Kate did a tremendous job directing the show, making excellent use of the difficult high school stage/gymnasium-like space in the institution. We had over half a dozen exit and entry points, all around the space, so that the audience was literally surrounded by the action. Designer Carole Klemm and puppet-master Tim Gosley worked with the guys ("The Guys" being our preferred term for the inmates) to create a post-Apocalyptic and more adult version of this favorite tale, featuring amazing giant spider and eagle puppets. We had no furry feet or elf ears, thank god, and all of us were in contemporary dress. Gandalf wore jeans, a denim jacket and a hoodie...although he had a kick-ass staff he made himself. In this way, the show was attempting to create a Middle Earth made up of "tribes" trying to survive in a hostile environment. Overall, I have to say from my admittedly biased perspective that we pulled it off...audiences seemed to love the show. We held Q & A sessions after each performance, which gave us a good sense of the audience reaction, plus dozens of positive comments were written in a guest book at the front door of the auditorium.
Anne Cirillo as Gert the Troll and Monica Prendergast as Thorin the Dwarf in The Hobbit. Photo provided courtesy of William Head Institution.

We were all very proud of what we created together. Half of the cast had never been on stage before, and it was astonishing to see all of the guys' commitment to making the show the best it could possibly be. I learned a lot along the way, about prison systems (largely how broken, dehumanizing and corrupt they can be), prisoners (how totally "human" they are, and generally how hopeful about turning their lives around) and my own attitudes, privileges and abilities. It was a joy working on this show, side by side with these men. I was delighted to get to know them, feel each and every one of them to be a friend, and wish nothing but the best for them. We became an ensemble, we worked hard, came to trust each other deeply, and ended up having a ball. As one of them wrote in the program, the past is over and the future unknown, but " this moment, we are free men". That's the power of theatre, the power of the present moment rendered on stage, and it can be freeing. Doing this project reminded me why I love the theatre, as its freeing power took on such literal force in the context of a prison.

Happy holidays to all, and best wishes for the New Year!

* indicates winner

* John Ferguson and Tamara Marie Kucheran, And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
Ian Rye, Mary's Wedding, Pacific Opera
Mary Kerr, Euridyce, Phoenix
Patrick Du Wors, Little Shop of Horrors, Blue Bridge
* Susan Ferguson & Di Madill, The Drowsy Chaperone, Langham Court
Patricia Reilly, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Erin Macklem, On The Edge, Belfry
Patrick Du Wors, Little Shop of Horrors, Blue Bridge

* Brooke Maxwell, And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
Donna Williams and Alan MacKenzie, The Drowsy Chaperone, Langham
Brian Linds, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Neil Ferguson, Euridyce, Phoenix

* Rebekah Johnson, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Bryan Kenney, Euridyce, Phoenix
Michael Walton, And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
Alan Brodie, Mary's Wedding, Pacific Opera

* Michael Shamata, And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
Roger Carr, The Drowsy Chaperone, Langham Court
Brian Richmond, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Glynis Leyshon, God of Carnage, Belfry

* Melissa Blank, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg / Crackwalker [both], Inconnu
Kyle Kushnir, The Drowsy Chaperone, Langham Court
Nick Sepi, The Foreigner, Langham Court
Naomi Simpson, Beauty Queen of Leenane, Langham Court

* Dennis Fitzgerald, And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
David Ferry, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Gary Farmer, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Jackie Richardson, Big Mama, Belfry

* The Drowsy Chaperone, Langham Court
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Chemainus Theatre
Big Mama, Belfry
Little Shop of Horrors, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre

* Kitt and Jane
Mary's Wedding
Cougar Annie Ta
The Adversary

* The Drowsy Chaperone, Victoria Theatre Guild
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Theatre Inconnu
Euridyce, Phoenix
Shining City, Theatre Inconnu

* And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
Mary's Wedding, Pacific Opera Victoria
Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
God of Carnage, Belfry

* Hanafuda Denki
Fear Factor: Canine Edition
The Tenant Haimovitz

* Rookery Nook, Phoenix Theatre

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