by Lynn on August 15, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

Toronto is alive with the sound of theatre. Since it’s August that means the annual SUMMERWORKS Theatre festival is upon us. Our inexhaustible theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us of the highlights.

Hello Lynn. For those who might not be familiar with Summerworks, what is it?

It’s a 10 day festival now in its 20th year, that started as an indie theatre festival, but has expanded to include various musical offerings, interesting walking tours, and art exhibits. For our purposes, I’m focusing on the theatre.

Over the 10 days about 45 one act plays are presented at various venues. Since Thursday I’ve seen 18. Many of the companies are local, Some are from across the country. Some are written and or performed by experienced artists, some by novices. All the shows have a common thread — the selection of the plays is by a jury, unlike the FRINGE where the selection is by lottery.

I love the fearlessness and rough and ready aspect of the whole of Summerworks.

With so much to chose from, how do you decide what to see?

I would pick a production of an original work first over one of an existing play. Often it’s an artist that will grab my attention, be it an actor, a playwright or director. Sometimes it’s the description of the play in the Summerworks brochure that’s intriguing.

Once you’ve made your choice, what are you looking for in the production?

I’m looking for a compelling voice of the playwright, is the story interesting? Is there an intriguing thought in a play? I’m looking to be shaken, stirred, unsettled, moved, or driven to laughing. If it’s a performer, or director, whose work I know of course I’m hoping that what drew me to that person’s work in the first place, will draw me again.

Ok. You’ve seen 18 shows. What were the highlights?

I have five; in alphabetical order.

HAUNTED HILLBILLY is presented by Side Mart Theatrical Grocery from Montreal. It’s a musical adaptation of the novel Haunted Hillbilly about a singer who dreams of fame. He comes under the drugging influence of a mysterious wheelchair-bound clothes designer. It is wildly inventive from the lyrics to the direction to the performances. Irreverent, hilarious and wonderfully theatrical.

I WAS BARBIE, written and performed by Nina Arsenault. Ms Arsenault is fascinating. She was born a man and after 60 operations and many silicone Injections, is not a woman. She used a store mannequin as her idea of perfection. I WAS BARBIE recalls Arsenault being hired to be the living representation of BARBIE, the doll, on BARBIE’s 50th birthday, during Fashion Week in 2009. The show is full of caustic wit, perception, barbed observations and cupcakes. I love being unsettled by Ms Arsenault— a woman who idealizes a plastic creation but wants to be taken seriously as a living person.

That’s two, how about the other three?

KAYAK by Jordan Hall is a thoughtful play about a clinging mother trying to hold on to her son, and the son and his protesting girlfriend who try to break away. Rosemary Dunsmore as the mother, gives a gripping, heartbreaking performance, proving why she is one of this country’s best actresses.

REDHEADED STEPCHILD is written and performed by Johnny Walker (yes that’s his real name.) About Nicholas, a 12 year old ‘sweet disaster’ who has to cope with having red hair and all the attendant teasing, meanness and bullying that entails, plus dealing with an uninterested stepmother, and being a loner. The writing is sharply observed, the performance is wonderful as is the inventive direction. A terrific, moving, very, very funny production.

RIDE THE CYCLONE, presented by Atomic Vaudeville, the off-the-wall company from Victoria, BC. It’s a wacky, hilarious, almost surreal tale of a group of kids in a choir who rode a ride called the Cyclone at the fair, there was an accident and they died. They all come back to sing about their odd, weird lives. A buoyant production, energetically performed.

And I have some honourable mentions.

What are they?

THE KREUTZER SONATA is Leo Tolstoy’s short story, adapted and performed by Ted Dykstra, against a backdrop of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. About a jealous man obsessing on his wife and his belief that she is cheating on him. Dykstra is a revelation in this intense performance.

ME HAPPY by Amy Lee Lavoie and Matthew Mackenzie—about a convict in Newfoundland who mail orders cliff climbing shoes from a lonely woman in Ireland. Full of poetic, fantastical, imagery with two tantalizing performances by Chala Hunter and Alex McCooeye.

(Lack of time prevented me from mentioning): OR, by Liz Duffy Adams about Aphra Behn the 17th Century playwright, Nell Gwyn and King Charles II who had affairs with both of them. Raucous wit done at warp speed. Terrific performances. So all in all I had a grand time at Summerworks, as I always do.

SUMMERWORKS continues at various venues until August 15.