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):
Thirteen letters responding to a 1992 gay personals ad sit in a box unanswered. What does the recipient say to these men 26 years later? Memory, nostalgia, connection and hindsight figure prominently in timeshare productions’ SummerWorks presentation of novelist Brian Francis’ autobiographical Box 4901; directed by Rob Kempson and running on the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage.
Long before the age of smartphones and Grindr, a 21-year-old Francis—then a student at the University of Western Ontario—posted a personals ad in The London Free Press looking for a connection in the small LGBTQ world of conservative London, Ontario. Of the approximately two dozen letters he received, 13 went unanswered and were discovered years later. Francis narrates and responds as 13 queer actors perform each letter.
Featuring actors Bilal Baig, Hume Baugh, Keith Cole, Izad Etemadi, Daniel Krolik, Michael Hughes, Tsholo Khalema, Eric Morin, G Kyle Shields, Chy Ryan Spain, Jonathan Tan, Chris Tsujiuchi and Geoffrey Whynot, the responses to the ad range from the bashful to the pornographic. Coming from a variety of men—ranging in age from high school senior to father figure—from various walks of life (“regular guy,” teacher, farmer, jock, “straight-acting,” leather community), the letters are sassy, charming, eloquent and humourous. The replies are frank, witty, sharply observational; and tempered with kindness, and the hindsight of age and wisdom.
There are some missed chances and missed bullets. All of these men share the same desire to reach out; longing for connection and a cure for aloneness, there’s a vulnerable authenticity in even the cockiest of responses. And the fear of being outed to family or housemates is as palpable and strong as the excitement and anticipation of a new connection.
Box 4901 has one more SummerWorks performance at the Theatre Centre on Aug 19 at 4:45 p.m.; it’s already sold out, but you can try your luck by arriving early to see if there are any no-shows.
Famously performed by the late actor/playwright Linda Griffiths, there’s well-deserved buzz about a passing of the torch in Canadian theatre with this production, as Riordan (also AD of Shakespeare in the Ruff and an emerging playwright herself) takes on this one-woman powerhouse of a play, portraying Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Maggie Sinclair and Henry (a reporter following their story).
Henry is our tour guide of sorts, a newspaper reporter who confesses his fascination with this unusual, unlikely relationship, and can’t refuse a request to follow their story. Part of what makes their love story so compelling is the unlikely nature of Maggie and Pierre’s relationship—and not just because of the 30-year age difference. He, a highly intellectual, political animal determined to create a Canada in the image of his idea of a Just Society; and she, an effervescent young woman navigating a world of social change from her well brought up, ‘good girl’ background to the freedom and exploration of the flower child movement, and burgeoning mental illness/mental health advocate. We witness the two seeming opposites in their mutual attraction; following their love affair and marriage from honeymoon period to disillusionment and dissolution—the public’s romance with them running parallel with their own.
With physical, verbal and energetic precision, Riordan delivers a stellar performance, shifting seamlessly from one character to another—at times during quick exchanges. As Henry, she gives us a hard-nosed, jaded newspaper scribe; more than a bit embarrassed, like the rest of us, he’s silly in love with Maggie and Pierre and can’t look away. A conflicted professional witness to the relationship, he’s torn between the drive to report what he observes, no matter how unflattering, and the instinct to protect their reputation. Her Pierre is dashing, charismatic and arrogant; and she nails the tight, academic bearing and razor sharp mind. Pierre is the reason in this equation, while Maggie is the passion. Riordan’s Maggie is a lovely mess of self-discovery, confusion, enrapture and authenticity. While there’s humour in her fish out of water experience of the old boys’ world of politics and requisite social events—her increasing discomfort being under the international spotlight is heartbreaking to witness as we realize the toll it’s taking on a fragile soul.
Maggie & Pierre is as much about emerging Canadian identity and our fascination with celebrity as it is about the tumultuous relationship between two seemingly polar opposites. The writing and storytelling style is aptly Canadian: irreverent, insightful, good-humoured and also compassionate. With a luminous performance that’s as captivating, entertaining and charming as the story Riordan’s telling, we can’t look away.
Maggie & Pierre continues in the Tarragon Workspace until May 19; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate space and an outstanding show, so advance booking strongly recommended.