For obvious reasons, I haven’t checked out other reviewers’/blogger folks’ lists—so I don’t know what they’ve been saying—but is it just me or was this year’s top 10 list an especially challenging task? Seems to me that we had an extra large embarrassment of riches with this year’s theatre productions, so I’m cheating with a larger than usual honourable mention list this year.*
Top ten theatre productions for 2018 (in alphabetical order):
Set in present-day Stockport, part of the Greater Manchester, UK area, we become flies on the wall of the abandoned upper library of a tuition-paying grammar school, which a group of seniors has taken over as their hang-out. Lilly (Ruth Goodwin), the new kid trying to find her way, meets the good-natured William (Cameron Laurie), who’s more than happy to offer hilariously helpful tips to navigating the school. William also introduces Lilly (and us) to the rest of the gang: the sociable Tanya (Kristen Zaza), officially tasked by the school with showing Lilly around; the domineering Bennett (James Graham) and type-A Cissy (Hallie Seline), who are a couple; the jock Nicholas (Tim Dowler-Coltman); and the super intelligent, quiet Chadwick (Andrew Pimento).
William, who has an extremely poignant and unusual autobiography to share, is clearly crushing on Lilly, but she has eyes for someone else. Bennett is the class bully, with Chadwick as his prime whipping boy and some secret desires of his own; we see a brief moment of tenderness with his kid sister Lucy (Marleigh Merritt, who shares the role with Sophia Jin). Cissy has a photographic memory and barely studies for exams, but manages to get straight As—and is terrified of getting a lower grade. Nicholas is a gifted athlete, but doesn’t lord it over his schoolmates; he has a gentle, affable nature—and eyes for Lilly. Tanya is dealing with body image issues, expressing herself by adding colour to her look, and is just trying to fit in. The timid Chadwick is a science wiz, especially in physics—and he wears a jacket over his blazer to hide his school tie, which is different from the standard tie and sets him apart as a scholarship kid. Lilly, the daughter of a university professor who’s moved a lot, hides a self-destructive edge beneath a brave face exterior. The only adult we meet along this journey is the calm, steady Dr. Richard Harvey (Sam Kalilieh).
The upper library hang-out becomes a microcosm of the school, which in turn becomes a microcosm of the world at large. All of these kids are bracing themselves, preparing in varying degrees and states of distress, for their upcoming mock exams, a litmus test for their finals later in the year. Facing a crucial transition point in their lives, these 17-year-olds are continuously bombarded with social, family, academic, socio-political and environmental expectations and pressures. And as the heat gets turned up, the space between them becomes a pressure cooker—and everyone’s going to explode.
In the program, the director’s remarks include a note on dialect from the playwright, expressing a desire for North American productions to use their own dialects; this means the actors speak with their natural accents—and it brings an immediacy and intimacy to the performance of this timely, disturbing play. This could be any school, anywhere.
Outstanding work from the entire cast. As William, Laurie’s charming class clown persona gradually spirals from engaging and enthusiastic to deeply disappointed and troubled. And he has some lovely two-handers with Goodwin, who gives Lilly a secret dark edge of her own, masking Lilly’s own sense of fear and vulnerability. As class power couple Bennett and Cissy, Graham and Seline appear to be polar opposites. Bennett’s sharp intellect is overlaid with a wild, sadistic streak, while Cissy is a tightly wound overachiever whose smug self-assurance belies an underlying fear of failure. And Pimento’s Chadwick is the mouse that roared, his scientific mind spitting rapid fire facts about the impending global apocalypse.
Shouts to the design team: Nancy Anne Perrin (set and costumes), Jareth Li (lighting) and Andy Trithardt (sound). The use of animal masks during scene changes, coupled with the jolting punk rock soundtrack and dramatic lighting blasts, highlight the raw, primal underbelly of these uniformed, and largely privileged, teens.
The kids aren’t alright. Ferocious urges, dark thoughts and painful secrets in the raw, intense, disturbing Punk Rock.
Autobiographical, with an altered timeline and an amalgamation of several bands that were seminal in Isador’s life, Situational Anarchy is part self-discovery, part confession, and part ‘fuck you’ to betrayal and bullshit.
From the thoughtful, curious 11-year-old whose mind is blown when his mum gets real about his grade 6 music performance, to the awkward, large and bullied kid stumbling onto puberty, Graham is searching for meaning and desperate to belong. Try as he may, he can’t seem to find his place and almost checks out—then he discovers the punk band Against Me and its lead singer Laura Jane Grace, who later transitioned from male to female. Beyond the music, the social activism and humanity of this world resonate strongly.
His joy at discovering the music and the message increases when he finds community in the band’s online chatroom—and the cool, fun, smart Mouse, who lives in LA and steals his heart. Things fall apart when he gets caught up in Mouse’s unhealthy body image lifestyle and Against Me signs with Warner Music—which he views as a sell-out, as Warner also owns CNN—and he loses that online community and Mouse. Things come to a violent head when he drops by a local punk bar. It’s definitely not the community he knows and loves. Drafting a letter to Laura Jane Grace throughout, his correspondence serves as a framework for his story. And he’s calling bullshit on her. Years later, he takes a job interviewing her. So much to say.
Staged with multiple microphones, Situational Anarchy is a punk rock solo theatre piece. Isador’s performance is genuine, raw and personal, revealing a dark, edgy sense of humour and a profound longing to connect and belong. Weaving stories of coming of age, body image, homophobia, music and activism, he opens and closes his heart and mind to us in a funny and heart-breaking, at times violent, misfit’s journey of storytelling—reminding us of the power of music and message to inspire and unite.
With shouts to the design/running team: Ron Kelly (sound), Laura Warren (lighting/projection) and Heather Bellingham (stage manager).
Identity, community and calling shenanigans on bullshit in the raw, real, nostalgic Situational Anarchy.
Situational Anarchy continues at Stop Drop N Roll (300 College St., Toronto—above Rancho Relaxo) until June 3. Tickets at the door are Pay What You Want; advance tickets available online for $15. Heads-up: Seating very limited; only 25 seats per night.
All proceeds from the show (after expenses) will be donated to Trans Lifeline [US: (877) 565-8860 Canada: (877) 330-6366] and Gender is Over.
The closing performance will be followed by a set from Stuck Out Here.
The audience assembles in Dragon Alley, near the northwest corner of College and Dufferin. Soon, Eunice (Jasmine Bowen) appears bearing a stainless steel bowl, a sign that says $10 and another asking for spare change – the spare change she requests of us is the ticket price. Stella (Mackenzie Gruer) appears, and soon Stanley (Luke Gallo) and his pals Mitch (Alex Strauss) and Steve (Erik Kovalevskyy) stroll by, on their way to the bowling alley around the corner. Stella joins them. Soon, a well-dressed and lost-looking woman appears, toting a suitcase and desperately searching for information on her cellphone. This is Blanche (Lynne Rafter), just arrived in the Quarter to stay with Stella. Eunice offers assistance and beckons Blanche up the fire escape to the top floor apartment. The audience is instructed to follow – and watch our heads as we head up the steel steps. We assemble in the kitchen/living area of the apartment and Eunice leaves Blanche to go fetch Stella.
And thus begins a modern-day version of Streetcar, a punk rock tragedy that features a different live band at every performance. In this case, it’s the newly formed duo Lightning with Legs, acting as Stanley’s band/jam buddies. Given the intimate space – it’s a real apartment and can accommodate 20 patrons – this is Streetcar in extreme close-up. All the desire, brutality and personal tragedy are writ large and performed only a few feet – and, in some cases, inches – away.
The original script’s story of family dysfunction, personal scandal and financial ruin, steeped in brutality, alcoholism, desperation and desire, translates well into present day. It is easy to see how Blanche and Stella’s family home could fall prey to family circumstance and economic recession. The modern references to scandal, involving Blanche’s personal conduct and psychological damage, are nicely drawn with rumours of her questionable relationship with a student and moments where she finds herself haunted by the music that was playing when her first love/young husband died, a psychological ear worm that wreaks havoc on her already fragile psyche. Also notable is the fact that not much has changed regarding the double standard of the sexual dynamic between men and women: men are on the offensive, with women obliged to be on defence. Blanche breaks the rules with her aggressive flirting and scandalous past. And, even though such terms did not exist in the time of the original script, slut-shaming figures prominently in the climax of the play – and the sickening result of he said/she said skepticism and denial is that the victim is branded crazy and mistaken, or even worse lying.
The cast does an excellent job of bringing to life the colliding worlds of old-time rural chivalry and romance, and modern-day urban brutality with its unleashed primal urges. Rafter is heart-breaking as Blanche, vulnerably majestic and falling apart before our eyes. Gallo’s Stanley is a brooding caged animal, brutally sensitive and ready to pounce; and Gruer brings a lovely battered strength to Stella, a young woman caught between two forceful and passionate personalities, all the while navigating her own fears and desires. Strauss’s Mitch has a nice sense of internal conflict, unflinchingly loyal to his gravely ill mother and rowdy friends, and grappling with loneliness and longing to have a family of his own. Very strong supporting work from Bowen and Kovalevskyy as friends/downstairs neighbours Eunice and Steve, as well as Joe Bumbacco (Paper Boy), Peter Campbell (Doctor) and Anastasia LeSage (Nurse). And, if you’re lucky, the adorable house cat will also make an ad lib appearance, as it did toward the end of this performance.
A Streetcar Named Desire – The House Show continues for two more weeks – Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. – until October 6. Seating is limited and it was a full house last night, so best to get yourself to Dragon Alley early.