Stage Door Review

2021: The Year in Review

Friday, December 31, 2021

If  the year 2020 will go down as the worst year for the theatre industry in living memory due to the global pandemic, 2021 at least saw a respite from the harshest restrictions in public gatherings and the return, albeit in altered form of theatre festivals across Ontario, including the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival which had cancelled all productions last year. Nevertheless, an air of provisionality hovered over all theatrical efforts throughout the year. Then, with the advent of autumn came the hope that theatre could return to what it had been before the arrival of Covid. Such hopes were soon struck down with the arrival of a new variant of Covid that led to December cancellations and a feeling of gloom as we faced the new year.

Even without Covid, 2020 was a sad year in Ontario theatre with the deaths of so many beloved performers. This year we lost three of the most famous artists in the history of Canadian theatre.

Christopher Plummer died in February at age 91. To the rest of the world Plummer was the Canada’s best-known classical actor. While his acting in Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival made him known in Canada, it was his award-winning work in England, on Broadway and especially on film that made his name outside Canada. He was the only Canadian ever to win the so-called Triple Crown of Acting – i.e. an Academy Award (1), a Tony Award (2) and an Emmy Award (2). His natural charisma married to impeccable technique made him stand out in every role he played.

Martha Henry died in October at age 83. Henry was the grande dame of English Canadian theatre for decades, renowned for her work in classical theatre at the Stratford Festival from 1962 to 2021. She played nearly all the leading female roles in Shakespeare and Prospero in 2018, as well as many of the greatest roles in American classics. Her performance as Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1994 drew raves and theatre goers from all across North America and her final performance as A in Albee’s Three Tall Woman was a masterclass in acting, equal to the best she had ever done. She was one of the very few actors, along with the late William Hutt, whose highly nuanced delivery could convey more than one emotion with every line. With her death one feels an era of such detailed acting has passed.

Christopher Newton died in December at age 85. Newton was acclaimed both as an actor and director and as the founder of Theatre Calgary. Yet, he will always be known for his 23 years (1980-2002) as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. During his tenure he raised the profile of the Festival from a small endeavour devoted to a long-lived, wordy, opinionated playwright to a world-class festival, second in size only to Stratford, which blew the cobwebs off of Shaw to discover a radical thinker of boundless imagination. Newton’s about-face in his view of Shaw, reflected in his inspired direction, sparked a similar re-evaluation of Shaw in Britain. The same occurred with Newton’s rediscovery of greatness in Shaw’s British contemporaries like Harley Granville Barker. At the same time Newton assembled the greatest troupe of ensemble actors that Canada had ever seen, one praised for its amazing unity of style and purpose both in the US and in Britain. Newton’s incisive direction changed a quirky little festival with a seemingly quixotic mandate into an major festival with of an unwaveringly high artistic calibre.

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Toward the end of last year many theatre and opera companies sought to demonstrate the continued importance of theatre in a period where indoor public gatherings were not permitted by “pivoting” (to use the hateful word) to video and film. This was a quixotic adventure since video and film necessarily lack exactly what makes live theatre unique and vital. As critic David Benedict pointed out in The Stage in 2021: “theatre on your TV is actually nothing like the real thing. Theatre works live. Crucially, as Richard Eyre once said, it’s art on a human scale, and on a screen at home, that’s exactly what’s missing. We’re entirely removed from the experience. We no longer participate in the act of it, the held silence of engagement. It’s literally happening somewhere else. Online screenings were necessary, widened audiences and allowed work to be seen as best as could be hoped, but the lack of connection, let alone concentration, profoundly missed theatre’s essence”.

For me the loss of connection, or what drama theorist Melanie Blood calls the constant “cyclic interchange” between audience and performers in live theatre, made watching theatre on film too depressing. Those who have found theatre on film “just as good” or “even better” than live theatre are only aiding the demise of live theatre. Nevertheless, 2021 saw at least three examples of productions of film or video that had been so carefully conceived that the cinematic elements supported the shows’ theatricality rather than supplanting it.

In alphabetical order these were:

An Acorn by Caridad Svich, impel Theatre, Toronto. Svich, a Latina-American playwright unknown in Canada but winner of an OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement, finally received a showing here through the agency of impel Theatre’s Kendra Jones. Jones had the brilliant idea that Svich’s 2018 play about four people struggling with anxiety, boredom, disruption, disconnection and anger in reaction to an unspecified disaster could be perfectly reimagined as a Zoom meeting. The top-notch cast’s urgent performances made us feel we had somehow tuned into the agonized characters’ meeting that very minute.

rihannaboi95 by Jordan Tannahill, Young People’s Theatre, Toronto. Tannahill’s 2013 play was one of the first ever written to be recorded on a portable device and is a masterpiece in this new genre. One aspect of the 45-minute-long play is the double-edged sword of both praise and disgust that is social media in allowing people to express themselves to the outside world. The air of fear and claustrophobia surrounding the central character, masterfully played by Davinder Malhi, felt even more relevant now than it did in 2013.

21 Black Futures conceived by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Obsidian Theatre, Toronto. The massive anthology features 21 short monodramas, all written, directed and performed by 63 Black artists, presented by CBC Gem in three 70-minute parts. In answer to Otu’s question, “What is the future of Blackness?” the plays presented a kaleidoscope of viewpoints that expanded anyone’s preconceived notion of what Black theatre is and provided a sophisticated showcase of unparalleled historical importance for the talent of Black Canadian theatre artists.

Compared to last year there was much more theatre staged live. Among the most notable examples (in alphabetical order) were the following:

Blindness by Simon Stephens, a Donmar Warehouse production presented by David Mirvish. This light and sound installation with the recorded voice of Juliet Stevenson heard over earphones rather pushes the definition of “live theatre” except that the consciousness of other audience members present in the same space is integral to the experience. Stephens’s adaptation of José Saramago’s 1995 novel about a plague of blindness that sweeps through a nation could not have been more relevant and chilling, especially with Stevenson’s voice whispering right in one’s ear.

Chase the Ace by Mark Crawford at the Theatre Orangeville Summer Festival, and later at the festivals in Prince Edward County and Blyth. This latest play is Crawford’s fifth hit comedy in a row. It showed Crawford experimenting with form, the latest play being a solo show where Crawford, also the performer, plays at least 17 different characters. The show not only displayed Crawford’s abundant virtues as both playwright and performer, but deftly combined the genres of comedy and mystery through his gift for storytelling.

Divine Interventions by David Danzon, Anika Johnson & Matt O'Connor, presented by Corpus Dance Projects at various parks in and around Toronto. This whimsical, magical fusion of dance, music and design was 30 minutes of sheer bliss. Five goddesses arrive before the audience on a quint tandem bicycle. Singing in nonsense syllables for all but the final number the five explore our world as if it were new and marvellous and in so doing make us re-see it as new and marvellous, too. This was an intervention of art into life that uplifted the spirits and demonstrated how powerful even such a small dose of imaginative theatre can be.

Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim by Talk Is Free Theatre, Barrie. Talk Is Free Theatre had twice presented sold-out performances of Michael Torontow’s reimagined version of Sondheim’s musical. Finally, it visited Toronto in the ideal venue of the Winter Garden Theatre. This was not a concert version of the show as advertised, but rather a brilliant minimalist staging where clever doubling of roles for the talented cast only enhanced the show’s humour and theatricality.

Kroehler Girls by Severn Thompson and the company at the Here For Now Theatre Festival, Stratford. Here For Now Theatre Festival, which so boldly went forward with its small-scale summer festival last year when the Stratford Festival cancelled its own festival, produced a second wildly successful summer festival this year. One highlight was a play about Stratford’s own Kroehler furniture factory women’s baseball team staged on the very location of the team’s diamond. This was documentary theatre at its best with the past vividly brought to life in the present.

The Ladies Foursome by Norm Foster at the Norm Foster Theatre Festival, St. Catharines. Like Spontaneous Theatre’s inventive staging of Romeo and Juliet last year, this year the Norm Foster Theatre Festival wins the prize for inventive staging under Covid restrictions for its production of Foster’s 2014 comedy. Director Emily Oriold staged Foster’s play set at a golf course at four golf courses in and around St. Catharines and kept the audience physically distant by seating them in golf carts in a semi-circle facing the players. This brilliant idea was complemented by the strong, totally committed performances of the cast in what is one of Foster’s most thought-provoking works.

Post Alice by Taylor Marie Graham at the Here For Now Theatre Festival, Stratford. Another hit for HFNT was Graham’s imaginative play that united four women from different short stories by Alice Munro. In exploring how the four have been haunted by a real event that happened in 1995, Graham created one of the best new Canadian plays I’ve seen in a long time – a lyrical meditation on the loss of the past and the loss of the people we once  thought we were.

The Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway at the Stratford Festival. The great news from the Stratford Festival’s first-ever staging of a play by Highway is that it confirmed this 1986 play as one of the true classics of Canadian literature. Jessica Carmichael’s incisive direction drew absolutely committed performances from the entire cast who did the best ensemble work of any show this season. The show was so good that it was hard to imagine that this look at the lives of Indigenous women’s life on the reserve could ever be bettered.

Three Tall Women by Edward Albee at the Stratford Festival. The Stratford Festival’s first production of this late Albee play dug deeper into the work than any previous production I’ve seen. This was in large part due to Martha Henry’s magnificent performance in the complex central role of A, a stern, aged, emotionally labile woman in whose mind the second half of the action plays out.

Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Childress’s play caught the eye of producers on Broadway and at the National Theatre in the UK this year, but the Shaw Festival was the first off the mark in staging it. Her play about the accommodations Black actors are and are not willing to make to be in a play by a White author staged by a White director mirrored the racial tensions in today’s world so closely the piece felt as if it were written yesterday rather than in 1955. It was a much needed resurrection of an unjustly neglected play and featured a searingly powerful central performance by Nafeesa Monroe as a Black actor fed up complying with White imaginings of the Black experience.

The runs of all of these productions sold out. This demonstrated that there is a strong hunger for live theatre and theatre companies with the willingness and imagination to meet it. We will have to hope that at some time in the future theatre can be presented live without the threat of postponement or cancellation hanging in the air.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Christopher Plummer, Martha Henry, Christopher Newton; Alison Sealy-Smith in 21 Black Futures, Season 3, © 2021 Keenan Lynch; Brefny Caribou as Zhaboonigan, Kathleen MacLean as Emily, Tracey Nepinak as Philomena, Lisa Cromarty as Marie-Adele, Christine Frederick as Veronique, Nicole Joy-Fraser as Annie and Jani Lauzon as Pelajia with Zach Running Coyote as the Bingo Master in The Rez Sisters, © 2021 David Hou.