Stage Door Review

The Best Productions of 2018

Jan 2, 2019

TORONTO

This year saw the #MeToo movement rise north of the US border. At a press conference on January 3, four women accused Soulpepper Artistic Director and co-founder Albert Schultz of sexual battery and harassment of a sexual nature over a 13-year period. Schultz resigned within hours of the conference. A few days later Soulpepper’s board of director cut ties with Schultz’s wife, Leslie Lester, Soulpepper’s Executive Director. The board asked Associate Artistic Director Alan Dilworth to assume the role of acting Artistic Director. The four women launched a civil suit against Schultz seeking $4.25 million in damages from Soulpepper and $3.60 million from Schultz. By August the suits were settled out of court with the claimants receiving their lowest acceptable dollar payments and all parties signing non-disclosure agreements. In October Emma Stemming was hired as Soulpepper’s new Executive Director and Weyni Mengesha as Soulpepper’s new Artistic Director.

In the world of music, Noel Edison, Artistic director of the Elora Festival, which he cofounded, and the Elora Festival Singers, was dismissed from his position following allegations of sexual impropriety from multiple male accusers. After the Festival and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, of which Edison was also the Artistic Director, launched a third party investigation into the allegations, Edison also resigned from the TMC. At the TMC David Fallis was made Interim Artistic Director through the 2019-20 season while it conducts an international search and Mark Vuorinen was hired as the new Artistic Director of the Elora Festival and the Elora Festival Singers.

In the wake of the incidents involving Schultz and Edison both theatre and music organizations re-affirmed the need to create and maintain safe workplace environments.

Here is my list of the ten best productions in Toronto in 2018. As usual, I have excluded productions that have previously appeared on this list. These include the sit-down production of Come From Away even though the new all-Canadian cast is even better than the original; the COC’s revival of Robert Lepage’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables in which Jane Archibald was an especially expressive Nightingale; and the Shaw Festival’s production of Will Eno’s Middletown that Crow’s Theatre brought in for a much appreciated Toronto run.

The most remarkable was:

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, Outside the March & Company Theatre. The most ambitious theatrical production of the year was this epic-scale masterpiece from 2009. Kim Coates played “Rooster” Byron, a modern-day Falstaff, viewed as a corrupter of youth because of the all-night, alcohol- and drug-infused dance parties he hosts at his caravan near the edge of the woods. The town authorities want Byron to move, not only because of his supposedly malign influence, but because the city has appropriated the land for housing units. Butterworth titles his play to refer to the medieval concept that England is another paradise. The question of what paradise should be expands far beyond any national mythology to encompass no less that the conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysian – the first represented by the city authorities, the second by Byron, representing the anti-mundane in all its squalor and its mythological majesty. Director Mitchell Cushman transformed the proscenium-framed staging that ran in the West End and on Broadway into an immersive staging that became one of Byron’s parties which made us automatically members of Byron’s celebrants and thus even more invested than in the previous productions in Byron’s fate. It was a brilliantly conceived production that in being not so dominated by its central character allowed us to understand the multiple symbolic resonances of the action happening in our midst.

The rest in alphabetical order were:

The Children by Lucy Kirkwood, Canadian Stage. Kirkwood’s deceptively simple 2016 play examined the lives of a couple living near the site of a Fukushima-like nuclear disaster and that of a visiting co-worker from their past. Under Ed Holmes’s insightful direction what emerged was not an indictment of the older generation by the younger but rather a poignant examination of what the point of living into old age should be in the face of the inevitability of death.

Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life by Anika Johnson and Britta Johnson, Outside the March & The Musical Stage Company. With this work the Johnson sisters created their most audacious, genre-expanding musical yet. Imagined by the Johnsons and director Mitchell Cushman as a memorial service for the founder of a cult religion, the audience became ambiguously-minded celebrants. Most daring of all, the Johnsons exposed through their beautiful, eclectic score how the metaphor of music and harmony can be used just as easily for nefarious purposes as for good.

The Dybbuk by S. Ansky, adapted by Rooi Chen, Gesher Theatre, Israel. Roee Chen’s adaption of S. Ansky’s classic 1920 play emphasized the work’s subtitle “Between Two Worlds” by creating characters in the afterlife to parallel those alive. He and director Yevgeny Arye explored the tragedy not only of the possessed woman Leah but gave voice to the dybbuk of the dead Hanan who possesses her that drew our sympathy to both in this spectacular production. Thanks to Show One Productions for bringing it to Toronto if only for two nights.

Fun Home by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, The Musical Stage Company. This 2013 beautifully written musical based on Alison Bechdel’s memoir had as its usual subject matter the coming out of its lesbian protagonist paralleled with the agony suffered by her closeted homosexual father. The three performers playing Alison at different ages – Hannah Levinson, Sara Farb and Laura Condlln – were all excellent and Evan Buliung as Alison’s father gave what must be his best ever performance in a musical. The show and the performances were ones to treasure.

Harlem Duet by Djanet Sears, Tarragon Theatre. The Tarragon Theatre production of Sears’s new Canadian classic far exceeded that at the Stratford Festival in 2006. As director Sears drew impeccable performances from the entire cast with an especially complex, emotionally wrenching performance from Virgilia Griffith in the Desdemona role of this tripartite re-envisioning of Shakespeare’s Othello. Sears’s central question about the virtues of assimilation versus separation for Black people has only grown more relevant.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson, Soulpepper. Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu led the Soulpepper company in an electrifying production of August Wilson’s 1984 play set in 1920s Chicago. Otu showed the play to be a study about the different strategies Black people use to cope among themselves and with White society. She carefully negotiated the play’s turns toward both comedy and menace to lead it to a shattering conclusion.

The Return of Ulysses by Claudio Monteverdi, Opera Atelier. OA’s second mounting of Monteverdi’s 1640 opera achieved the perfection that its initial production in 2007 did not. This was due in large part to the riveting performances of Krešimir Špicer in the title role as well as those of Mireille Lebel as Penelope and Christopher Enns as Telemaco. Director Marshall Pynkoski revealed the underlying pattern in the opera that passes from allegory to myth to human psychology.

The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, The Howland Company and Crow’s Theatre. Director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster achieved a incredible ensemble performance from a group of nine actors that was as physically as it was emotionally demanding. DeLappe’ girls soccer team became a subtle examination of the need for both rules and freedom in society.

Xenos by Akram Khan, Akram Khan Company (UK). Khan’s solo work inextricably combined theatre and dance just as his virtuoso performance inextricably combined modern dance and kathak to tell the tale of South Asians soldiers transported to Europe to fight for their “motherland” in a place they’d never seen – the soldiers’ pain of alienation melded with the horrors of battle. Thanks to Canadian Stage for bringing Khan’s last full-length solo work to Toronto.

On the other hand...

Declarations by Jordan Tannahill, Canadian Stage. This play demonstrated that not everything Canada’s latest wunderkind touches turns to gold. The performance piece consisted of 70 minutes of declarations each beginning with “This is...”. Only Tannahill’s programme notes but not the play itself give any clue as to what is happening or why. Tannahill claims the play is a ritual, but, if so, it is a ritual without efficacy if observers do not know what it celebrates or commemorates. Ten months later Canadian Stage provided an example of how to make a play about such list-making as a defence against harsh reality in the form of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing (2013) that was as engaging and highly theatrical as Tannahill’s play was tedious and off-putting.

STRATFORD

The 2018 Stratford Festival produced several fine shows this year. Robert Lepage gave us a flashy, cinematic Coriolanus that showed little understanding of the plot and the Festival had great success with the deliberately trashy The Rocky Horror Show where high production values contradict the show’s inherent aesthetic. The three best shows were:


Napoli Milionaria! by Eduardo De Filippo. The best thing Antoni Cimolino did this season was to choose and direct this play. It is an extraordinarily detailed realistic drama about the way war abases the morals even of those who do not fight in it. As the central character Gennaro, Tom McCamus gave a complex, deeply felt performance that ranks with the greatest ever seen at the Stratford Festival.

The Music Man by Meredith Willson. This was the third time the Festival has staged Willson’s masterpiece and also the best. As Harold Hill, Daren A. Herbert had in superabundance the necessary charisma that previous leads have lacked, and Donna Feore’s high-energy, acrobatic choreography for the male dancers was simply tremendous.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Christopher Sergel. This was the second time the Festival has staged Sergel’s 1990 adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel. Director Nigel Shawn Williams related the negative events of the play directly to those of today and had the brilliant idea of having the adult Scout follow her younger self through the action to remind us of how tragically little has changed.

The worst show was:

Brontë: The World Without by Jordi Mand. The paradox about the Brontë sisters is how three women who led such bland, uneventful lives could produce novels of such vivid imagination and strong emotion that they have become classics of English literature. Mand’s play in no way helped explain this paradox. In exhausting detail she demonstrated that indeed the Brontës lived completely uninteresting lives of crushing tedium that led them to turn on each other in pointless petty squabbles. The frequent scenes stupidly depicting the inanity of all three furiously scribbling away on their portable desks demonstrated that neither Mand nor her director Vanessa Porteous had a clue about how to examine much less explain the Brontës’ amazing creativity.

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE

Tim Carroll’s first season as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival created a general sense of unease among longtime patrons. Carroll’s second season left them in despair. The only plays by Shaw on offer were three one-acters, only one of which was about World War I. There were no plays by any of Shaw’s contemporaries and no play resulting from the Festival’s famed “literary archeology” as former AD Jackie Maxwell put it, where undeservingly neglected plays were revived – discoveries that have often led to revivals of these plays elsewhere. Worse, Carroll dismissed almost all of the company’s actors over 50 to replace them with younger people. Carroll had inherited what was arguably the finest acting ensemble in North America only to destroy it. Who are the senior actors the younger actors will learn from? These are the actors that made audiences willing to see unknown plays by unknown authors because we could always count upon the distinction of their acting.

Now, for the first time in recent memory, the Shaw actually put a 20-year-old on stage with grey-sprayed hair to play an old man. Because of a poor choice of plays, of directors and of casting, the Shaw Festival has now fallen below the level of some regional theatres. The board should consider looking for a replacement soon before Carroll does irreparable damage to what was once the most consistently excellent of North American theatre festivals.

Of the slim pickings in 2018, the three best were:


O’Flaherty V.C. by George Bernard Shaw. One of four plays by Shaw about World War I (why not do them all for the anniversary of the end of World War I?) – a very funny and well-acted if slight play about an Irishman who tries to hide from his mother that he has been fighting for the English.

Of Marriage and Men by George Bernard Shaw. A well-matched double bill of two one-act plays – the first, How He Lied to Her Husband, about a man getting the better of his wife, the second, The Man of Destiny, about a woman getting the better of a man, Napoleon no less.

Grand Hotel by Robert Wright and George Forrest. A very well sung, acted and danced 1989 musical based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel that surveys life from high to low, comic to tragic, as it appears in the interactions of guests in one hotel.

The worst show was:

Henry V by William Shakespeare. Given the number of plays written during the original Shaw Festival mandate about World War I (like R.C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End of 1928) or recent plays about it (Peter Gill’s Versailles of 2014), it was a bizarre decision to say the least to programme Shakespeare’s play about the English fighting the French. Even more perverse was Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll’s notion of having soldiers trying to rehearse the play while in the trenches and later having the nurses of the wounded join in reading the play aloud while trying to care for them. Bennett and Carroll made a vibrant play static and forced professional actors to act as if they were amateurs. Ridiculous.

ELSEWHERE IN ONTARIO

This year a fascinating shift became apparent among the theatres in Southwestern Ontario. Just as the light of the Shaw Festival dimmed in ambition and quality the light of the Grand Theatre, London, grew in both. All the shows I saw at the Grand were more complex and more imaginatively directed than any I saw at the Shaw Festival. All this is due to the fact that Dennis Garnhum has a clear vision for the Grand that Tim Carroll is lacking for the Shaw. Garnhum’s new motto for the Grand is “World Curious, London Proud” which he fulfilled by making the Grand the only Canadian stop in the North American tour of Inua Ellams’s The Barber Shop Chronicles from the National Theatre, London (UK). This also explains why the Grand appears so often in the list below.

At least ten productions seen outside Toronto, the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival deserve special mention.

The most remarkable was:


Bed and Breakfast by Mark Crawford, Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa. The GCTC presented what is likely the definitive production of Mark Crawford’s 2015 comedy. Not only did it star Crawford himself and his real life partner Paul Dunn as the central gay couple, but director Ashlie Corcoran and designer Dana Osborne took a more abstract approach to the play which brought out the play’s serious themes and it nature as play-as-play more fully than, say, the Soulpepper production that preceded it by four months. Unlike the Soulpepper production, the actors used no props to play 22 characters between them and Corcoran did not try to push the play to be funnier than it already is. Luckily, this production of Bed and Breakfast will tour Canada for the next several months, giving audiences the best possible view of what will soon be regarded as a classic Canadian comedy.

The rest in aphabetical order were:

Chariots of Fire by Mike Bartlett, Grand Theatre, London. One would never think that the 1981 film about running could be made into a stage play, but adaptor Mike Bartlett and director Dennis Garnhum found highly theatrical ways to do so and succeeded in making the story more immersive and immediate than any film can be.

The Drowsy Chaperone by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, St. Jacobs Country Playhouse. One might have thought that no production could top the Broadway production of this Canadian musical, but the Drayton Entertainment production directed by Max Reimer proved that the show is best suited to a small theatre and that Mike Nadajewski is every bit as funny as the original Bob Martin.

Holiday Inn by Irving Berlin, Hamilton Family Theatre, Cambridge. Like the original 1942 movie, the stage version of Holiday Inn is really just an excuse to perform a great collection of incomparable hits by Irving Berlin. With a cast of strong triple-threats in the form of Matthew Armet, Jayme Armstrong Alexandra Herzog, and Zach Trimmer under the expert direction of Michael Lichtefeld the show was one pleasure after another.

The New Canadian Curling Club by Mark Crawford, Blyth Festival. Crawford continued his amazing winning streak at Blyth with his third hit comedy in a row. In this play Crawford confronted with well-observed but all-too-painful humour the topical question of rural white male prejudice against immigrants of four different ethnic backgrounds

Prom Queen: The Musical by Colleen Dauncey, Akiva Romer-Segal and Kent Staines, Grand Theatre, London. The Grand Theatre’s High School Project for 2018 proved an eye-opener for many reasons. The public supported a musical about a gay boy asking his boyfriend to the prom even though school boards did not. The show proved one of the best written Canadian musicals of the 2010s. And the cast under Dennis Garnhum, with the authenticity of highschoolers playing highschoolers, gave performances of unshakable commitment and evidence of an abundance of young local talent.

Renovations for Six by Norm Foster, The Norm Foster Theatre Festival, St. Catharines. The most recent of Foster’s 51 plays proved to be one of his cleverest and most theatrical. Three couples are all renovating their houses while they contemplate renovating their lives. Meanwhile, each holds a piece of the puzzle that needs to solved if they can all manage to get along long enough to cooperate.

Silence by Trina Davies, Grand Theatre, London. Davies’s examination of the close relationship between Alexander Graham Bell and his deaf wife Mabel rises above obvious irony to become a poetic meditation on communication in general and the place of human beings in the world.

Spider’s Web by Agatha Christie, Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton. Marcia Kash gave one of Christie’s lesser-known plays the kind of precise direction and attention to detail that the mysteries at the Shaw Festival were once known for. Kash also successfully navigated the unusual tone of the play that, unlike most of Christie, fascinatingly teeters on a knife-edge between humour and fright.

The Velocity of Autumn by Eric Coble, Lost & Found Theatre, Kitchener. L&F gave a funny and insightful production to this 2011 American play about an adult son trying to convince his elderly mother to move into a retirement home that uses the situation to depict older people compassionately when both their bodies and their children start to fail them.

And the worst was:

Le Cid by Pierre Corneille, Le Nouvelle Scène, Ottawa. Three theatre companies combined to produce this travesty by director Gabriel Plante that presented less than a 20th of Corneille’s masterpiece in about 70 minutes and was determined to decontextualize it and reduce it “un enchaînement de sons”. To do so he afflicted all four characters with a pathological stutter so that took each at least five minutes to say even the first syllable of a character’s name. Suddenly, however, the stutters disappeared and the characters proceeded to recite lines of the play out of chronological order. Unfortunately, for Plante his Oedipal struggle to destroy the father of French drama only succeeded in making him and the producing companies look like fools and left one longing to see Le Cid in a production that respected its language and subtlety.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Christo Graham, Kim Coates, Philip Riccio and Peter Fernandes in Jerusalem, © 2018 Dahlia Katz; Brigit Wilson and Tom McCamus in Napoli Milionaria! © 2018 David Hou; Ben Sanders and Patrick McManus in O’Flaherty V.C., © 2018 Emily Cooper; Mark Crawford and Paul Dunn in Bed and Breakfast, © 2018 Andrée Lanthier.