Top 10 theatre 2018

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):

Dry Land – Cue6

George F. Walker Double Bill (Her Inside Life & Kill the Poor) – Leroy Street Theatre/Low Rise Productions/Storefront Theatre

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Soulpepper

Maggie & Pierre – timeshare productions 

The Message – Tarragon Theatre 

The Monkey Queen – Red Snow Collective

The Nether – Coal Mine & Studio 180 Theatre

Peter Pan – Bad Hats Theatre & Soulpepper 

The Pigeon – Alumnae Theatre FireWorks Festival

Punk Rock – Howland Company 

 

Honourable mentions:

Category E – Coal Mine Theatre 

A Christmas Carol – Three Ships Collective & Soup Can Theatre 

Little Gem – Toronto Irish Players 

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua – Theatre Passe Muraille 

The Royale – Soulpepper 

Secret Life of a Mother – Theatre Centre

Vitals – Theatre Born Between 

What I Call Her – In Association & Crow’s Theatre 

*Including shows I covered in life with more cowbell this year. As I was employed by Nightwood Theatre, either on staff or freelance, I have not reviewed their shows this year.

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A Christmas Carol in a delightful, unique, immersive production at Campbell House

Thomas Gough & Christopher Fowler. Costume & prop design by Chelsea Driver. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

The Three Ships Collective and Soup Can Theatre have teamed up to present a delightful, unique, immersive production of holiday favourite A Christmas Carolwith original text by Justin Haigh, direction by Sarah Thorpe and musical direction by Pratik Gandhi—opening last night at Toronto’s Campbell House Museum. Incorporating live music and song, this version of the Charles Dickens classic ranges around the various rooms at Campbell House; the dynamic, effective staging taking us through time and space as we follow in the footsteps of Ebenezer Scrooge’s eye-opening, heart-wrenching and frightening journey of enlightenment and redemption.

This version of A Christmas Carol has a dark, Gothic edge that goes beyond the staging in a historic house that surely has ghosts of its own. Opening in the basement room opposite the kitchen, which serves as Scrooge’s office in the present and Fezziwig’s in the past, our tale opens with a haunting solo violin version of a familiar Christmas carol (performed by actor Amy Marie Wallace), as Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit (played with affable put-upon optimism by William Matthews) huddles over his desk, trying to keep warm as the coal fire dies.

Joining us as narrator and guide is the ghost of Jacob Marley (Christopher Fowler, nicely combining gravitas and melancholy), who looks on as Scrooge arrives (Thomas Gough, exuding stone cold malice and disdain), adding an extra chill to the already glacial office. Rebuffing a dinner invitation from his nephew Fred (played with jovial cheer by John Fray) and a request for a donation from two local philanthropists (the earnest Jim Armstrong and the crisp Kholby Wardell), Scrooge goes on to later refuse the pleas of a young woman (Tamara Freeman, in a moving, impassioned performance) whose injured father and struggling family are facing foreclosure of their home on Christmas Day.

Left alone in his home after vexing his housekeeper Mrs. Dilber (played with feisty cheek by Alex Dallas), Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old friend/former partner Marley—and his journey of reclamation at the hands of three spirits begins: the Ghost of Christmas Past (an ethereal, eerily calm turn from Wallace), the Ghost of Christmas Present (a hilariously rowdy, brutally honest Christopher Lucas) and the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come (played with eerie, imperious silence by Tiffany Martin).

The alternate back story on Scrooge’s youth (Little Scrooge played with adorable, wide-eyed sweetness by Makenna Beatty, who also plays Tiny Tim; in rotation throughout the run with Chloe Bradt) reveals a loving home, with a father (Fray) who made bad financial decisions and subsequently forced to leave his wife and two young children at Christmas for a three-year sentence in debtors’ prison; this makes Scrooge’s miserly ways all the more poignant and his callous disregard for the destitute all the more despicable. The shy, introverted young Scrooge (played with wallflower likability by Mike Hogan) who falls in love with the adventurous extrovert Belle (Martin, with lovely, playful forwardness) at his mentor/boss Fezziwig’s (a jolly, hearty Armstrong, with Dallas as Fezziwig’s well-matched wife) rollicking Christmas office party later takes over the business—and we see the money-grasping materialism start to take hold, destroying his engagement to Belle and distancing him from the world.

And as Scrooge’s heart softens over the nostalgia of good times and lost love, it begins to break when he sees the hardship at the Cratchit house—and how, even in the most dire of circumstances, Bob and wife Emily (played with warmth, pragmatic perseverance and fierceness by Margo MacDonald) put on a brave face to make the best holiday celebration they can for their children. Then, the terror at the realization of his own mortality, and how all he strived to gain in this world can be sold off to local pawn dealer Old Joe (an edgy, menacing turn from Hogan). His heart and soul reclaimed, he joins his fellow men for the holiday, reaching out with newfound warmth and generosity to those around him (lovely work from Gough on Scrooge’s transformation).

It’s a classic cautionary tale that still speaks to us today—perhaps even more so, now that hard-right conservatives are emerging in positions of power all over the world. The hard-hearted philosophy that the poor should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is unfortunately still alive and well. And maybe a certain president and premier would benefit from some ghostly visitations.

A Christmas Carol 1
Top row: Mike Hogan, Tiffany Martin, Christopher Fowler, Christopher Lucas, Amy Marie Wallace, Kholby Wardel. Middle row: John Fray, William Matthews, Thomas Gough, Jim Armstrong. Bottom row: Margo MacDonald, Tamara Freeman, Chloe Bradt, Makenna Beatty, Alex Dallas. Costume & prop design by Chelsea Driver. Photo by Graham Isador.

A Christmas Carol continues at Campbell House Museum until December 22; check here for exact dates and times. The run officially sold out before opening, but keep an eye out on Soup Can’s Twitter and Facebook feeds for released tickets. Due to the intimate nature of the performance, audience size is limited—so you must book ahead online.

In the meantime, give a listen to host Phil Rickaby’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with actor Thomas Gough on his experience playing the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge in this unique, immersive production.

Note from the production team: Due to the immersive and mobile nature of this production, audience members will be required to stand for a significant portion of the performance. A very limited number of seats can be reserved for patrons unable to stand for extended periods of time. Please contact the Campbell House Museum at 416-597-0227 ext. 2, or antonia@campbellhousemuseum.ca, to confirm availability of these seats and to reserve in advance.

While this production is family-friendly, it does touch on some mature themes and is recommended for children 10 and older.

Note from me: Cellphone gawkers beware! Jacob Marley has his eye on you, and will silently and swiftly call you out on your naughty behaviour.

All the scared, brave, brash humility & humanity of the remarkable Joan of Arc in Heretic

Sarah Thorpe in Heretic - photo by Laura Dittman
Sarah Thorpe in Heretic – photo by Laura Dittman

Soup Can Theatre opened Sarah Thorpe’s Heretic at Theatre Passe Murraille (TPM) Backspace this week, this production co-directed by Thorpe and Scott Dermody.

Entering the TPM Backspace is like stepping into church and back in time. Early sacred music fills the space, with haunting Latin a cappella harmonies echoing throughout. On the back wall are Joan’s three saints, her three heavenly voices in chalk board stained glass triptych: St. Catherine, St. Michael and St. Margaret. Groupings of white candles mark the corners of the apron, and a wooden lectern sits centre stage.

Sarah Thorpe in Heretic - photo by Laura Dittman
Sarah Thorpe in Heretic – photo by Laura Dittman

Inspired by a monologue from Shaw’s St. Joan, Thorpe plays multiple characters as she takes us on Joan’s journey, told from her point of view, in this modern-day retelling; from a 13-year-old farm girl who hears voices of three saints, to the young cross-dressing woman fighting to drive out the English and crown the Dauphin, to the 19-year-old put to death for heresy and witchcraft. Emboldened by her voices, with a great reverence for God and the Church, and not taking no for an answer from her parents, the military and noble powers that be, the inexperienced girl that everyone thought was crazy became the inspiration that gave the French the upper hand over the English in a country that had known war for decades. Using the black floor as a chalk board, Joan draws out the history, the places, the plan – always trusting her voices even through her own terror at the battle to come. She became the poster child for the uprising of an underdog nation, only to be put down when the powers that be were done with her and her presence had become a liability to them.

Sarah Thorpe in Heretic - photo by Laura Dittman
Sarah Thorpe in Heretic – photo by Laura Dittman

Thorpe does a lovely job with the many facets of Joan, an earnest, driven young woman who dares to put on men’s clothes and throw herself into the fray – always with Joan’s humanity at the core of her performance. Some great moments of comic relief: Robert de Baudricourt, the gruff and macho garrison commander at Vaucouleurs; the randy Dauphin who became King Charles VII and his party girl mistress Agnes Sorel. And a surprisingly poignant monologue from Geoffroy Thérage, the executioner who lit the fire. The girl, the warrior, the symbol, the martyr.

The world according to Joan. All the scared, brave, brash humility and humanity of the remarkable young woman in Heretic.

Heretic continues at the TPM Backspace until Nov 22; it’s an intimate space, so advance booking is a good idea – you can purchase tix online.

And you can keep up with Soup Can Theatre on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And consider supporting the company via their online silent auction fundraiser.

Raw, real, funny & socially astute – Soup Can Theatre/safeword/Aim for the Tangent Theatre Co-pro Circle Jerk

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Playwright/director Brandon Crone (Maypole Rose – safeword)

Was back out to the Spadina/Queen West neighourhood last night to see the Soup Can Theatre, safeword and Aim for the Tangent Theatre co-production Circle Jerk at lemonTree studio (196 Spadina Ave., just north of Queen St. West).

Featuring four short, new plays, the production provided some interesting instructions to playwrights: they were to use selected lines of dialogue – submitted by the public (almost 300 submissions) – as the opening and closing lines of their plays (with the closing line of one play also serving as the opening line of the next play). The four selected lines were:

“Subtlety is not your specialty.”
“What’s Bulgarian for slut?”
“I think it’s time we talked about your filthy rituals.”
“I fucking hate potatoes.”

Throw in the tagline: Sex. Death. Bananas. and, along with the cyclical structure – a round robin of short plays that literally play off of each other, one tagging another – and there’s the title of the production.

Dust Peddling: Part II (Soup Can Theatre), by Scott Dermody and directed by Joanne Williams. Have you ever had an orgasm? A bed. A man. A woman. Erotic and poetic, physical theatre meets verse and prose in this beautifully edgy and lyrical hybrid piece, where the words are dialogue, foreplay and more. Lovely, candid work from actors Dermody and Lisa Hamalainen.

Sex and This (Aim for the Tangent Theatre), by Wesley J. Colford and directed by Jakob Ehman. What the actual fuck?! Two energetic young urban women getting ready for a themed costume party at a friend’s house are interrupted by some dire news. Facebook and text-reliant Millennials deal with communicating loss. Darkly funny, poignant and truthful performances from Tiffany Deobald and Carys Lewis.

Maypole Rose (safeword), written and directed by Brandon Crone. Two fags, a potent fatty and a bag of junk food. A young married, health-conscious gay couple indulge in stoned monkey lovin’ and junk food consumption. A frank fly-on-the-wall look at a relationship – workaday inanity, bedroom rituals, gender roles, secrets and all. Sexy, raw, tender and funny, with fabulous and honest performances from Alexander Plouffe and G. Kyle Shields.

The Session (Soup Can Theatre), written and directed by Justin Haigh. When under extreme pressure, everyone has his/her breaking point. A workplace counselling session goes to some very dark places as the plant therapist (Matt Pilipiak) and nuclear safety expert (Allan Michael Brunet) work through their introductory meeting. Brunet and Pilipiak do a remarkable job with the back and forth of power/control and vulnerability/fragility, as well as the dramatic tension and dark humour of the piece.

Circle Jerk also features live music inspired by the four lines of dialogue: Subtlety is not Your Specialty by Marla Kishimoto, What’s Bulgarian for Slut by Soup Can Theatre’s Music Director, Pratik Gandhi, I Think it’s Time We Talked About Your Filthy Rituals by Peter Cavell, and I Fucking Hate Potatoes by Patricia Stevens. Directed by Gandhi, the five-piece mini-orchestra includes an upright bass, cello, clarinet, flute and keyboard. The pool of musicians includes Katie Saunoris, Subrina Sookram, Ainsley Lawson, Rachel Gauntlett, Cory Latkovich, Matteo Ferrero-Wong, Brandon Sked and Susan Kim. Lighting on intense, whimsical and cultural flavour – from a piece featuring a hilariously bad (on purpose), yet passionate, clarinet solo to a jolly Irish-inspired tune that turns into a meltdown – the music mirrored and enhanced the theatrical content perfectly.

Sometimes a banana isn’t just a banana. Circle Jerk is a raw, real, darkly funny and socially astute set of short new plays, combining a trio of fine local indie theatre companies with crowd-sourced creativity and multidisciplinary talent. So get yourself out to lemonTree studio and go see this.

Circle Jerk continues its run at lemonTree studio tonight (Nov 15) and tomorrow (Nov 16), and this coming week from Nov 21 – 23; all performances at 8 p.m.