by Kelly Bedard
In our first year covering Toronto's Summerworks Festival we saw a total of 10 vastly different productions. From the beloved to the despised; from uber professional to pathetically amateur; pretentious to earnest; new works, established favourites, ensemble projects, two person vignettes, musicals, absurdist parables, dance pieces, hits, bombs, comedies, dramas and every possible thing in between.
Our week at Summerworks had it all.
With so much to talk about, we've divided our coverage into 2 parts: the best and the worst. For the sake of ending on a high note, we thought we'd start with our disappointments first.
So here's the lowdown on our 5 least favourite shows from Summerworks (from worst to best).
I freely admit to my mainstream sensibilities. I like good, relatable stories told in an accessible and entertaining way. But I see a lot of indie theatre. A lot. So I’ve come to appreciate the weirdos who live on the fringe of what’s popular- the people like the Red Light District and Soupcan Productions who push you well beyond what’s comfortable or pleasant to watch for the sake of teaching you something or saying something new. That’s clearly what the creators and company of Shudder thought they were doing with the dance/performance art piece. What they actually did was stage a pretentious and grotesque display of basic screwed up psychosis. The simplistic choreography did nothing to show off the technique of the athletic performers and the weak metaphorical wig use was predictable and easy. The lighting was good (in a hurts your eyes but stimulates your brain kind of way), so there's that! Shudder strove to shock its audience with the intermingling of graphic sex and horrifying violence, a display that did nothing to shock me or inspire anything other than worry about the mental well being of the artists. I have never wanted to leave a theatre more than during every molasses-like second of Shudder- a representation of the worst elements in indie theatre.
Danforth was probably the worst production I’ve seen this summer, but it was far from loathsome. In fact, I’ve rarely had more fun. The whole exercise was remarkably amateur- the script was dumb, predictable and clunky; the acting was awkward and forced; the direction was static, the characters annoying and, at 39 minutes, the unprofessional production was a bit of a rip-off. But I’m not sure I cared. I see so much theatre and so much of it is the high-minded lunacy of pretentious projects like Shudder that sometimes it’s an incredibly welcome breath of fresh air to see something with the amount of earnest good-intention that the inexperienced cast of Danforth possessed. The more you know about gino life in Toronto’s greektown, the funnier the script’s lame jokes were (or so I would assume, knowing next to nothing about gino culture in Toronto’s greektown) and the final conclusion that in the middle of a big, multi-cultural city, the unadventurous on the Danforth can feel like they live in a monotone small town, was interestingly poignant. But ultimately it was only the innocent charm of the production that saved it from being torturous. Without Christian Mattia Orue’s enthusiastic silliness (and decent comic timing), I couldn’t have gotten through it. But armed with a gigantic heart, Danforth overcame every single thing about itself and fully entertained me.
I didn’t have high hopes for Still Life, a friend picked it for our festival schedule. I feared the limitations of its synopsis: “the struggles of being queer in Toronto today”. In my experience, when a company reduces their product to a single hot-button issue they almost always fail to make their point. Hero and Leander (review to come) did 100x more for the portrayal of “queer stories” than Still Life did by treating their homosexual stories as stories no stranger or more important than any other. Still Life was made with the goal of examining what it means to be gay today, and while it had moments of horrifying reality and remarkable poignancy (mostly courtesy of Alisha Stranges, the most honest actor of the lot), what it did was essentially boil a wildly diverse culture down to a few choice stereotypes. There were other issues too (Matt, who should have been my favourite character, suffered under Indrit Kasapi’s forced acting style and the script’s improv-like qualities; Cole J Alvis lacked the charm to pull off his dangerously charismatic character) but mostly it was the simplification that bothered me. Still Life accomplished the exact opposite of what it set out to do- by trying too hard to shine a light on a culture, it belittled the intricacies of its subject.
It happens every couple of months that I’ll randomly select a production to see (this time it was a matter of what fit easily into my jam-packed Summerworks weekend) and sure as I breathe it’ll feature at least one familiar face- more often than not that face belongs to My Theatre favourite Jessica Moss (2010 My Theatre Award Best Actress Nominee and Performer of the Year Winner). Long Dark Night was my obligatory “Surprise! It’s Jessica Moss!” production of the festival. It also featured an old acquaintance (and a favourite from Hart House’s Equus), Sonia Lindner. The world is a very small place. Luckily, both these familiar faces delivered enjoyable performances in a very entertaining piece. While Linder is capable of much more than she showed here as a singer, he comic timing shone through a somewhat shotty script. Julianna Ozorio, similarly did a lot with a strangely written character (her vocals, by the way, were the best in the production). John McNeill as the seemingly central private dick was fine but as usual it was Moss who upstaged the whole show. Her exuberant take on enthusiastic PI assistant Irene Pffeffener was laugh out loud funny and sweetly endearing. I couldn’t have been more relieved to see her take up her boss’ notepad and play protagonist herself. Long Dark Night was far from perfect, but it was fun and with Moss in the ensemble, of course, it had its moments.
I’ was a very middling production, one that I saw because the friend I was going with had a periphery friend in the chorus. It was fine. The hour didn’t drag, it wasn’t overly crazy or completely uninspired. It wasn’t preachy or predictable or derivative. But it also wasn’t anything special. An interesting concept (a wannabe writer is inundated with controlling and multiplying incarnations of the mentor she puts on a pedestal) was executed well (I loved the completely aesthetically contradictory takes on I’ as an entity) with strong performers (Emmanuelle Zeesman was a strong lead, Michelle Polak a pitch-perfect supporting player, and David Macniven an engagingly confusing antagonist) and a clever script (the almost Marx brothers- esque play on “I” and “U” was excellent). Its absurdist qualities weren’t really my style and nothing about it really stuck with me but I' was an interesting exercise to say the absolute very least.
Stay tuned for more from Summerworks, including our top 5 shows.
Stay tuned for more from Summerworks, including our top 5 shows.