Summerworks Picks: Part 2

14 Aug

Here are some more stand-out productions participating in this year’s Summerworks festival!

 

Iceland

From writer Nicolas Billon and directed by Ravi Jain, Iceland is set largely in a swank downtown Toronto condo and is structured as a series of three narrative monologues each delivered from a spot-lit chair. It’s a simple set up for a rich piece of storytelling that artfully weaves the three monologues together into a cohesive and circular whole. Money acts as a thematic centrepiece, although it serves to inform rather than overshadow the more important human elements.

Iceland’s unique characters (an Estonian student turned call girl, a ladder climbing real estate agent, and an unstable Christian conservative) share the same world, but each speak and act with such distinct style and perspective that the experience is very much like watching three separate but interconnected plays – a fact that speaks to both Billon and Jain’s versatility as artists. The notable cast of Christine Horne, Kawa Ada, and Claire Calnan all deliver excellent performances, but it is Horne’s delicate and understated naturalism that packs the most deceptively powerful punch.

 

Artaud: Un Portrait en Decomposition

“Decomposition” is an apt adjective to use in conjunction with Antonin Artaud, surrealist poet and rebellious theatre maker. This artist of alienation (his most extreme works would have even left Brecht scratching his head) was eccentric and misunderstood – a status no doubt exacerbated by his bouts with mental illness and drug abuse. His personal trajectory was not always a happy one, and towards the end of his life he was largely isolated save for a very few dedicated friends.

Creators Adam Paolozza and Michelle Smith can be commended for their artful restraint. They wisely do not play biographer by attempting to explain Artaud or his inner workings via transparently expositional monologues, or put him up on a pedestal as an unsung hero, but rather use his own words to paint an evocative portrait of the complex and enigmatic man. Paolozza, who also plays Artaud, delivers the entire piece in French (accompanied by English surtitles) doing justice to the poet’s words, and to his manic energy too, at times writhing and galloping with abandon.

Artaud: un portrait en decomposition is a well crafted, organic, and thankfully three dimensional homage to an artist whose work is now more commonly found in classrooms and textbooks than on stage.

 

Your Side, My Side, and the Truth

The Summerworks roster is often heavily coloured by issues of social justice, politics, and other chin-stroking material. That is not to say that there aren’t a few feel-good (and intelligent) antidotes in the mix. Atomic Vaudeville’s previous smash hit Ride the Cyclone is one perfect example, as is this year’s Your Side, My Side, and the Truth from writer/actor Rebecca Auerbach.

Charming without being annoyingly quirky, smart without being overwritten, relatable without being generic, and moving without being maudlin, Auberbach’s story about modern relationships strikes the perfect tone. Drugs, blowjobs, yoga, hangovers, and STDs all firmly ground Auerbach’s characters in urban twenty-something reality while matter-of-fact voice over narration gives her piece a literary edge.

Of the capable cast members, Auerbach herself shines brightest as Renate, an easy going hedonist whose thick hide is challenged by an unexpected romance.

 

Huff

Actor/Writer Cliff Cardinal (whose 2011 Summerworks show Stich turned a lot of heads) applies his comedic sensibilities to painting the some of the darker realities of contemporary native life in this compelling one man show. Using the story of two young brothers as a means to explore issues like gas huffing (in case you wondered what the title referred to), alcohol abuse, suicide, and other nastiness, Cardinal puts a human face on headlines that still seem all too familiar.

Cardinal spins this tragic material into theatrical gold with imaginative dream sequences, personified talking animals and video games, more laugh out loud moments than you think would be possible considering the subject matter, and a challenging moment of fourth wall breaking that had audience members yelling out in genuinely concerned protest.

Director Karin Randoja and designer Elizabeth Kantor support Cardinal’s script and performance with lively staging and a simple but visually effective and multipurpose set.

 

Petrichor

Writer/Director Erin Brandenburg, along with her company Kitchenband Productions, is back and wooing audiences again with their trademark combination of rural Ontario storytelling and folksy musical interludes played on unusual and often homemade instruments.

Unlike their previous productions, Reesor and Pelee, which were both set in the past, Petrichor is the tale of a modern day tomato farm near Leamington, and the love that blossoms between the boss’ son and a young migrant Mennonite worker. It’s a simple and tender story, and an authentic glimpse into the world of those who provide the sustenance on which we live day to day. It’s refreshing to be reminded that while many of us grapple with mundane problems like subway delays and line ups at Starbucks, there are others in this province whose livelihoods can be made or broken by nothing more than the whims of rainfall (incidentally, ‘petrichor’ refers to the distinct smell of rain hitting dry earth).

Brandenburg fills the stage with visual appeal, using subtle animation, shadow play, and plenty of rustic set pieces, while music director (and cast member) Andrew Penner provides a soothing and evocative soundscape.

What made this reviewer’s experience particularly memorable was that, unbeknownst to the patrons enjoying the performance inside, a light rain shower was simultaneously passing over outside, and upon exiting the theatre audience members were treated to the real scent of petrichor. Magical.

 

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