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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Real & virtual worlds collide in the chilling, mind-blowing The Nether

Hannah Levinson & David Storch. Set and lighting design by Patrick Lavender. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Production warning: While nothing graphic whatsoever happens onstage, The Nether has violent and sexually explicit content, including rape, murder, suicide and pedophilia, that may be deeply disturbing to some. Please be advised.

Coal Mine Theatre joins forces with Studio 180 Theatre, opening its 5th season last night, taking us to a shocking virtual reality world with its Toronto premiere of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, directed by Peter Pasyk. Part crime procedural, part sci-fi thriller, The Nether explores the dark side of human desire, asking us: Are pedophilia, rape and murder, committed with impunity in an online world, truly victimless? And should these online crimes be punishable in the offline world?

The Nether is the evolution of the Internet in not too distant future; an virtual online world that provides access to “realms” of education, work and fantasy role play on a level never seen before. In a world where trees, grass and plants—aspects of nature we take for granted—are rare and costly, The Nether provides access to startlingly realistic environments that engage all of the senses; and the chance to become anyone you want via an avatar persona. It is here that Sims (David Storch) has created The Hideaway, a stately, secluded Victorian home placed in a pastoral setting lush with trees and a garden. Presenting himself as Papa to his virtual guests and employees, he plays host to those who, like himself, have certain proclivities that would be considered heinously criminal in the “offline” world. The Hideaway is a pedophile playground, where adult guests may interact with, rape and murder children with complete impunity. After all, Sims argues, these aren’t “real” children, so no crime has been committed; and his realm provides a service in that it keeps pedophiles from realizing their desires in the real world as they satisfy their hunger online.

Nether law enforcement Detective Moss (Katherine Cullen) would disagree and has taken Sims in for interrogation. [Mini-spoiler alert] As part of the investigation, undercover agent Woodnut (Mark McGrinder) infiltrates The Hideaway as a guest, to witness first-hand the goings-on there. Woodnut spends a great deal of time with Iris (Hannah Levinson), a girl of about 12 and Papa’s favourite. Eerily life-like and possessing of an old soul, Iris is aware of her role as child victim; she is patient and encouraging with newbie Woodnut, who is bashful and hesitant to fully play out the game, assuring him that she resurrects after each murder.

Moss also questions Doyle (Robert Persichini), a high school science teacher and former guest at The Hideaway who claims to know nothing about Sims’ motives and plans, but whose troubled demeanour suggests that he’s hiding something. He does confess to Moss that he wants to “cross over”—leave the offline world behind and live out the rest of his life completely online. Referred to as “shades,” those who set out to do so must make arrangements for life support for their corporeal bodies in the real world—and Moss is alarmed at the prospect, warning Doyle that these supports aren’t as advertised.

What’s critical for Moss’s investigation is that the characters at The Hideaway are not computer programs or AI constructs—they are avatars with a person behind them. And while Sims insists that he fastidiously vets all participants to ensure adult-only entry, Moss believes that his realm is far from victimless.

Gripping, laser-focused work from the cast in this haunting tale of a fascinating and disturbing new world—all the more troubling as it’s not too far into the future. Cullen gives an edgy, driven performance as Moss; determined to get to the truth at nearly any cost, Moss also has her own demons to tame. Storch delivers a razor sharp, complex pair of characters: the cool, clever virtual entrepreneur Sims, and the playful, warm father figure Papa. Masterfully compartmentalizing his offline and online lives, Sims rationalizes his creation by positing that he keeps pedophiles off the streets, but appears to struggle with personal attachments of his own in The Hideaway.

Levinson is a precious, likable smarty pants as Iris; playful, curious, observant and empathetic, Iris begins to question her world, putting her position at risk. Persichini gives a deeply poignant performance as the troubled Doyle; a sharply intelligent and profoundly lonely and sad man, Doyle longs to be in a world where he is loved and feels a sense of belonging. Nicely layered work from McGrinder as the kind, conflicted Woodnut; entering The Hideaway to investigate, he finds himself strangely drawn to this world—and must come to grips with the personal feelings that emerge while in this undercover position.

The ensemble is nicely supported by compelling, atmospheric design elements, from Patrick Lavender’s startling, transporting set and lighting design, to Michelle Bohn’s mix of period and futuristic costumes, and Richard Feren’s spooky, game-like sound design.

It’s a lot to process—and raises important moral and ethical questions about the power of technology to transport, entertain and engage. Would a realm such as The Hideaway keep society safe in that rapists, murderers and pedophiles could enact their dark desires only online? Or would it serve as a dress rehearsal for the real thing or convert those who’ve never considered such atrocities? And if you believe that behaviour is shaped by thought, is there really such a thing as a victimless crime in any world?

The Nether continues at Coal Mine Theatre until November 4; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.

In the meantime, check out cast and crew interview videos on the Coal Mine website.

 

Outrage, love & brotherhood – The Normal Heart

Finally got out to see Studio 180 Theatre’s remount of  The Normal Heart at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night – and I was especially happy to be there as I’d missed last year’s run. Written by Larry Kramer and directed for Studio 180 by Joel Greenberg – remounted from its 2011 season in this year’s 10th anniversary this season – the play’s title was inspired by a phrase from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.”

Set in New York City and spanning a time period from July 1981 to May 1984, The Normal Heart follows the struggles of real people – friends and colleagues renamed by Kramer for the play – in the early days of the war against AIDS. Writer Ben Weeks (John Bourgeois) is called to arms by Dr. Emma Brookner (Sarah Orenstein), and assembles a group of gay men in the fight against an unknown virus that is starting to take quick and deadly hold in their community. Joined by friends Bruce (Martin Happer), Mickey (Ryan Kelly), Felix (Jeff Miller), newcomer Tommy (Jonathan Seinen) and even his homophobic but supportive brother Ned (Jonathan Wilson), Ben wages war not only against the virus, but against apathy in both government and the community. And the fight turns inward on the group when it becomes apparent that communication styles don’t match, with out and proud Ben taking a more aggressive, uncompromising – and, for some, alarmist – approach, while closeted Bruce plays good cop, and aims to play nice and compromise.

It is that debate over how to best deliver their vital message to the gay community that makes this play especially interesting. Ben is accused of driving the community back into the closet and a position of shame when he urges gay men, at Brookner’s insistence, to stop having sex as a means of stemming the illness. For some, the precious sexual freedom gained in the previous decade is at stake. And it is this argument that provokes the question: Is having sex with men the defining attribute of gay culture? The group struggles with community apathy as the doctor gropes in the dark for answers to a question that no one else seems to care about. Internal battles – both personal and communal – ensue. Closeted vs. out. “Promiscuous” vs. “virginal” – which both sides put foward as a means to find love. And Ben and his brother Ned have their own battle over tolerance vs. acceptance. Ben believes that gays are the same as straights and refuses to allow sex to be the defining trait of his community – but his friends fear an attack on their culture as gay men if their sexual freedom is compromised.

The action unfolds on a square tile floor playing area (designed by John Thompson, who also did costumes) , with audience on all sides, and with minimal props and furniture to evoke place. And scene changes on the set are accompanied by throbbing 80s disco music (sound design by Verne Good), with the ensemble executing the change-overs – the flavour of their action in keeping with the tone of the scene.

This is an outstanding cast – which also includes Mark Crawford and Mark McGrinder, both in multiple roles – inhabiting characters with life and death stakes against an unseen enemy. Bourgeois is passionate and forceful as Ben, a man so much in his head he’s neglected his heart, his fragility showing in his love of his brother and his efforts to connect. Orenstein is a powerhouse, taking names, kicking ass and accepting no excuses as Brookner, wheelchair-bound by polio. Like Ben, she is overworked, overwhelmed and fed-up with political bullshit they have to navigate, but refuses to stop fighting. Lovely work from Kelly as Mickey, who finds himself wading through hell – his normally upbeat personality pummeled and broken. As Felix, Miller gives us a heartbreaking portrait of a vital, handsome gay man dealing with the ravages of disease. And Seinen’s Southern boy Tommy, the youngster of the group, is as adorable as he is chivalrous – a supportive friend and comrade in this war.

The Normal Heart continues at Buddies until November 18. Go see this.

Some music & theatre shouts for this week

I can tell it’s Fall when I’m hardly home and off someplace seeing something or another – and invariably painting a theatre set too (which is what I’ll be doing up in the studio at Alumnae Theatre this week – for their upcoming production of The Drowning Girls).

Here are just a few theatrical events happening this week:

The Normal Heart: on now till November 18 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Studio 180 Theatre production of Larry Kramer’s play, directed by Joel Greenberg- featuring actors John Bourgeois, Mark Crawford, Martin Happer, Ryan Kelly, Mark McGrinder, Jeff Miller, Sarah Orenstein, Jonathan Seinen and Jonathan Wilson. Check the Buddies website for more info: http://buddiesinbadtimes.com/shows/the-normal-heart/

Dinner with Goebbels: October 25-28 at Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen St. East – at Logan). Act2 Studio production of Mark Leith’s play, directed by Les Porter. For more info and reservations, visit the Studio2 site page: http://www.ryerson.ca/~act2/activities.html#goebels

Songbook Series 4: A Celebration of Musical Couples – one night only:Friday, October 26 at 10:30 p.m. Theatre Passe Muraille upstairs (16 Ryerson Ave.) – featuring performers Nathan Carroll and Eden Richmond, Rebecca Perry and Matt Eger, Kat Leonard Arlene Paculan, The Book Club, Kanika Ambrose, Alison Wong, Matthew Tapscott, Autumn Smith and The Family Band (Kristin Rodgerson, Eric Chisholm, Sam Sholdice, Rebecca Jess and Rob Kempson). Check out the Facebook invite here: https://www.facebook.com/events/449748015076267/?notif_t=plan_user_invited

What will you be seeing this week?