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):
The Howland Company joins forces with Bad Dog Theatre for a Toronto Fringe run of improvised theatre, creating a new show every night inspired by traditional farces with Entrances and Exits, directed by Paolo Santalucia and running on the Factory Theatre Mainstage. Split into two parts, the scene starts in the living room, then flips to the bedroom, where we see the same scene play out but from a different vantage point.
Last night, host and FX operator Connor Low set the stage and collected suggestions from the audience: a type of party and three sounds you don’t want to hear coming from a bedroom. We got New Year’s Eve party; and breaking glass, a blood-curdling scream and a gun shot. Hilarity ensues, with tension-filled marriages, grudge-filled resentment and competition, secret passions, startling revelations and a college wrestling uniform.
Last night’s ensemble featured the hilarious improv stylings of Ghazal Azarbad, Conor Bradbury, Nigel Downer, Dylan Evans and Liz Johnston (the ensemble also includes Ruth Goodwin). With high-energy antics and side-splitting shenanigans, these actors turned on a dime to create this wacky fun slapstick tale of friends and frenemies gathering to ring in the New Year.
Entrances and Exits returns to the Factory Mainstage tonight (July 14) at 9:15 pm and July 15 at noon; these guys are sold out, but you may be able to snag some rush seats if you arrive early.
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.
Lawyer Bernadette (Ruth Goodwin) and composer Oliver (James Graham)—young, in love, living together—must navigate their burgeoning relationship through a new 140-words/day law.
What will they say? How will they say it? Do words reveal or do they get in the way?
Weaving in and out of time and space, and featuring a meet cute and sharp, compelling performances, there’s lovely chemistry here. Goodwin’s Bernadette is delightfully neurotic and fastidious workaholic; Graham’s Oliver is laid back, creative and socially aware. Opposites attract, repel and complement.
Lovers navigate a 140-word day world in the provocative, intimate and sharply funny Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons.
Set in St. Louis, Amanda Wingfield (Tracey Hoyt) lives in a cramped apartment with her two young adult children Tom (James Graham) and Laura (Hannah Spear). Mr. Wingfield, famous and infamous for his charm and grin, is long gone – not dead, but absent; a fifth character in this story, present only in a grinning photograph. This is a memory play, narrated by Tom and featuring milestone moments in the family’s history. Painfully shy and incapacitated with fear, Laura has dropped out of school; preferring to live in a world of old music and glass animals. Concerned for her daughter’s future, Amanda, a displaced member of privileged, old southern society, hatches a plan to have Tom invite one of his warehouse co-workers (Jim, the Gentleman Caller, played by Samer Salem) over for dinner in the hopes of sparking a romance and eventual marriage for Laura. Meanwhile, Tom is working on a scheme of his own, with plans to break free from a life of ennui and movie house escape, and into a journey of real adventure.
Lovely work from the cast in this intimate portrait of desperate dreaming family life. Graham brings a melancholy tinged with a wistful, and at times dark, sense of whimsy to his performance as Tom. A philosophical introvert, Tom’s a ticking time bomb of frustration; burdened with being the family breadwinner, he’s torn between taking care of his mother and sister, and making a life he can call his own. Hoyt’s Amanda is a complex combination of old southern gentility and ruthless realism. The life and world Amanda’s come to live in are both foreign and a step down for her socially speaking; disillusioned and desperate for a secure future, Amanda is a well-meaning nag with permanent worry lines on her forehead. And we see how rooted she is in the past as she slips into girlish coquetry when Jim arrives.
Spear brings a lovely sense of fragility and solitude to Laura; a painfully shy and delicate soul who dares to dream. A creative and good-humoured introvert with low self-esteem, Laura is both genuine and awkward – and her failings are largely in her mind. Salem gives Jim a high-energy, charismatic and athletic spark. As Laura’s polar opposite, Jim’s high self-esteem – perhaps a bit too high – is tempered by a charm and sincerity; a man who appears to have peaked in high school, he is “disappointed but not discouraged,” and spends his time after work on self-improvement courses.
All are disappointed but not discouraged – to some degree, at least – but, as Amanda points out, despite one’s best efforts “Things have a way of turning out so badly.”
Keeping the script intact, but setting the scene in modern-day America – as well as offering a new take on the menagerie – this production of the Williams classic finds the past aptly mirrored in the present; bringing this story of ennui, economic struggle and dreams of a better life into current focus. When Laura plays her father’s old records, it’s on a CD player; and, beyond a mere collection of acquired knickknacks, the menagerie is her own creation. Like the mirror ball at the Paradise Dance Hall across the alley, the animals are covered in pieces of mirrored glass – and those who look upon Laura’s creations are reflected in them.
Staged in the round in the more intimate Incubator space at the Theatre Centre, the audience really gets a fly-on-the-wall perspective of this family drama. Shouts to set/costume designer Adriana Bogaard, and lighting designer Jareth Li for their work in creating this world.
Fond and fierce dreams in 73H Productions’/The Howland Company’s poignant modern-day reflection on The Glass Menagerie.
The Glass Menagerie continues at the Theatre Centre Incubator until September 11. You can get advance tix online; strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space and opening was sold out.
In the meantime, check out the trailer, created by Daniel Maslany:
The Howland Company’s production of TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi’s 52 Pick-up, directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Paolo Santalucia, is a truly unique, moving and entertaining theatrical experience that audiences are loving at this year’s Toronto Fringe.
Part sharply written theatre and part improv, 52 Pick-up tells the story of one relationship, played out over 52 short scenes, all dictated by words or phrases written on a deck of playing cards. The actors throw the cards into the air, then randomly select one and play the scene – repeating until they’ve gone through the entire deck.
The show will never play the same way twice, partly because of how it’s structured and also due to the fact that the pair of actors changes with each show: Ruth Goodwin and Alex Crowther, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Kristen Zara, Hallie Seline and Cameron Laurie, and Paolo Santalucia and James Graham.
The performance I saw yesterday featured Seline and Laurie – and they were a joy to watch. The relationship has broken up and we see them play out scenes from their history as a couple. Seline is lovely and sassy as the world traveller girlfriend of the pair, delivering some awesome emotive punctuation at the end of each scene, carrying through the mood as she places the finished card into the box. Laurie is adorkably sweet in a Harry Potter sort of way (he wears glasses in this), a homebody and so perfectly his girlfriend’s opposite/complement. Both actors are engaging and truthful as the couple struggles through the relationship’s ups and downs. Try as they may to be good sports with the other’s foibles, baggage and divergent life goals/desires, the two eventually come to face the reality that the relationship is just not meant to be.
From their awkward first meeting, to sharing personal histories, to the chilly silences and curse-laden fights, we see the world of this relationship play out over the course of 75 minutes – and, as the scenes are drawn randomly, the relationship is not revealed in a chronological arc. And I love how it all begins and ends with “Tell me a story…”
52 Pick-up is a remarkable show – a brilliant concept with an outstanding cast.