Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Dec. 17, 2013

Here are the nominees and winners of the 13th Annual Critics Choice Spotlight Awards. This was a very good season in Victoria with many excellent shows across town. My personal favorites from the nominees below include Casey Austin's performance as Sonya in Blue Bridge's Uncle Vanya, and Tom McBeath's Scrooge in the Belfry's Christmas Carol, both because they tackled iconic roles and made them their own. Amanda Lisman was also a lovely and spirited Eliza in My Fair Lady.

Direction-wise, Naomi Simpson pulled strong performances out of her cast in Theatre Inconnu's In the Next Room: The Vibrator Play, which was one of the strongest play choices of the season, written by young American playwright Sarah Ruhl. Inconnu's Golden Dragon was a wonderful play as well, by a relatively unknown (in Canada) German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig...it was fascinating, well-directed by Clayton Jevne and well-performed by the ensemble.

I thought the Belfry's Red was its best play of last season; although Christmas Carol was a flawless production, I grumped a bit at it taking up a slot in the four show season that, in my view, should be dedicated to contemporary plays. I didn't much care for the Australian play Speaking in Tongues and while the new musical Let Me Call You Sweetheart had its charms, overall the book needs a lot of work. So a mixed bag there.

Blue Bridge ran a solid summer season; I covered all three shows for CBC Radio's On the Island and enjoyed all of them. Uncle Vanya was good but felt a bit safe to me, and I had a couple of casting quibbles. But as I said above, Casey Austin's work was magnificent and when she was on stage I was content. Brighton Beach Memoirs was lovely and I really appreciated the work of Brian Linds and Sebastian Archibald as father and son, along with Amitai Marmorstein as the younger son and narrator. The show looked great and was well-directed by Janet Wright. My Fair Lady was excellent overall, albeit very long at three hours plus.

Pacific Opera Victoria had one standout production in Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring which was a delight. The Britten Centenary Festival featured three Britten productions, including this one. I caught all three and enjoyed every one of them, a real sense of community celebration of this great composer. Tosca was well-sung but a bit wobbly in the direction I felt, with the famous final moment of Tosca's suicide not accomplished in a satisfying theatrical way. You're a Good Man Charlie Brown cleaned up in many categories below, and was the standout of the university's Phoenix Theatre season, although many liked Reasons to be Pretty which I missed.

The best theatregoing experiences I had last season were at festivals, particularly the Belfry's Spark Festival and Intrepid Theatre's UNO Festival. At Spark I loved Little One from Toronto's Company Theatre Crisis by talented Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch. Creepy and cool. Oh My Irma, written and performed by Haley McGee and directed by Alisa Palmer, was a wacky delight. McGee is a young actor to watch for...I just saw her in a Green Thumb play by George F. Walker (Moss Park) at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto and she was outstanding. Fearless, intelligent, interesting to watch, vulnerable, all qualities to look for in a good actor that McGee has in spades. The ten minute long mini-plays by local theatre artists and companies at Spark were very good as well, particularly Brian Linds' autobiographical audio play, nominated below.

But the highlight of my local theatregoing last season was the UNO Festival. I purchased a five show pass and every one of the five I saw were strong, with three out of the five exceptionally so. That is a pretty great track record, and a testament to the fact that UNO is a juried festival. The three I loved were How to Disappear Completely, written and performed by lighting designer Itai Erdal (autobiography and grief therapy as a lesson in light and shadow...stunning), Till Death: The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Ryan Gladstone and performed by Tara Travis (in a comic acting tour de force), and Huff, written and performed by Cliff Cardinal. If I had to pick one show from last season as a standout, it was this one. Rarely am I knocked back in my seat, stunned and silent, at the end of a play. It was really difficult to applaud Huff, as applause felt like the wrong response to a play about the life of a young man on a northern reserve. The horrors upon horrors of parental neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, the ridiculousness of ineffective and culturally insensitive schooling, spiralled us all downward into suicidal oblivion with the narrator. And yet we laughed too, as Cardinal reminded us that the Raven trickster is up to his no-good work in tormenting these characters, and we leave hoping that our protagonist will find the strength to survive his hell on earth. I learned so much from this play, and felt changed by it as a result...and this is what great theatre should do. I have a deeper empathetic understanding of the challenges faced by too many aboriginal communities in Canada, and my empathy has engaged me in seeking political action to address these problems. I hope Cardinal's touring play is having the same effect wherever he goes, proving to me that theatre can, in fact, occasionally change the world.

Finally, along these lines, I want to acknowledge the remarkable project undertaken by my friend and colleague Will Weigler, working with Krystal Cook and a large volunteer cast to create the walking labyrinth production From the Heart: A Journey into the Heart of Reconciliation last summer. Weigler worked at superhuman levels to bring this community-based theatre production to fruition, and it had powerful effects on many audience members who took it in. I had some issues with the show, particularly with its singular focus on the settler experience of colonization and oppression of First Nations. But Weigler was adamant, following the work of Paulette Regan in her book Unsettling the Settler Within, that settlers have to take on the responsibility of reconciling themselves to the legacy of imperialism before moving into true reconciliation with aboriginal communities. I'm not completely sold on this perspective, and found the show somewhat out of balance as a result, but cannot deny that for new immigrants this process would be valuable, definitely. New Canadians should encounter and come to terms with the history of their new homeland, and theatre can be an effective way to do so. Therefore, even though I feel the play needs some rethinking, it is also well-deserving of the Best New Play Award.

Happy Theatregoing!



Bill Adams, 84 Charing Cross Road, Langham Court
Patrick du Wors, My Fair Lady, Blue Bridge
Christina Poddubiuk, Tosca, POV
Naomi Simpson, In the Next Room, Theatre Inconnu

        Winner: Patrick du Wors, My Fair Lady, Blue Bridge

Nancy Bryant, A Christmas Carol, Belfry
Patrick Clark, Albert Herring, POV
Patrick Du Wors, My Fair Lady, Blue Bridge
Shayna Ward & Allyson Leet, You're A Good Man Charlie Brown, Phoenix

        Winner: Nancy Bryant, A Christmas Carol, Belfry

Michael Laird, Speaking in Tongues, Belfry
Brian Linds, Story with Sound: A Lucid Moment, Belfry's SPARK
John Mills Cockell, Uncle Vanya, Blue Bridge
Mike Rinaldi, Helen's Necklace, Belfry

        Winner: John Mills Cockell, Uncle Vanya, Blue Bridge

Alan Brodie, A Christmas Carol, Belfry
Scott Henderson, Red, Belfry
Giles Hogya, Uncle Vanya, Blue Bridge
Gerald King, Tosca, POV

        Winner: Alan Brodie, A Christmas Carol, Belfry

Roger Carr, Miss Saigon, VOS
Clayton Jevne, The Golden Dragon, Theatre Inconnu
Michael Shamata, Red and A Christmas Carol, Belfry
Naomi Simpson, In the Next Room, Theatre Inconnu

        Winner: Michael Shamata, Red and A Christmas Carol, Belfry

Ensemble, You're A Good Man Charlie Brown, Phoenix
Andrea Macasaet, Miss Saigon, VOS
Odile Nelson, In the Next Room, Theatre Inconnu
Marisa Nielsen, Reasons to be Pretty, Phoenix

        Winner: Ensemble, You're A Good Man Charlie Brown, Phoenix

Casey Austin, Uncle Vanya, Blue Bridge
Oliver Becker, Red, Belfry
Amanda Lisman, My Fair Lady, Blue Bridge
Tom McBeath, A Christmas Carol, Belfry

        Winner: Amanda Lisman, My Fair Lady, Blue Bridge

Let's Make an Opera/Little Sweep, POV/Belfry
Miss Saigon, VOS
The Sound of Music, VOS
You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, Phoenix Theatre

        Winner: You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, Phoenix Theatre

An Improvised Dungeons & Dragons, Scott Thompson
From the Heart: Enter into the Journey of Reconciliation, Will Weigler & Krystal Cook
Judgement Day, Robin Gadsby
War of the Eagles, Roderick Glanville
        Winner: From the Heart, Will Weigler & Krystal Cook

84 Charing Cross Road, Langham Court
The Golden Dragon, Theatre Inconnu
In the Next Room, Theatre Inconnu
You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, Phoenix Theatre

        Winner: In the Next Room, Theatre Inconnu

A Christmas Carol, Belfry
Albert Herring, POV
My Fair Lady, Blue Bridge
Red, Belfry

        Winner: Red, Belfry

The Adversary, Andrew Bailey
An Improvised Quentin Tarrantino, Paper Street Theatre
The Birdmann in Momentous Timing, The Birdmann
The Twelfth Night in Kabuki Style, Ryuzanji Company

        Winner: The Adversary, Andrew Bailey

Huff, UNO Festival
Little One, SPARK Festival
Mike Daisey's American Utopias, UNO Festival
Till Death: The Six Wives of Henry the Vlll, UNO Festival

        Winner: Huff, UNO Festival

Let Me Call You Sweetheart, Belfry Theatre