I saw a tonne of great shows last year, but these five stood out among the rest:
5. The Anderson Project (Ex Machina/Canadian Stage, (October 26)
Robert Lepage is probably the foremost Canadian theatre artist of our time. His stagecraft and the way he seamlessly intertwines it with video and projection make both pieces seem necessary parts of a unified whole – in a way that other shows I’ve seen that combine projection and live action never do.
The Anderson Project is a play about adapting a story for an opera. It’s also about the artistic process and the loneliness and difficulty of communication it entails. Also, cultural difference and how the French always seem to be on strike. It is a remarkably beautiful piece of work. This is an embarrassingly uncritical admission, but watching Lepage is one of the few times theatre feels totally magical to me, even when I can figure out how they’re doing what they’re doing.
4. Courageous (Citadel Theatre/Tarragon Theatre, February 5)
So, my interest and background in theatre is much more in classical than contemporary, and part of the reason I started going to see so much in 2010 was to fill in part of the shameful gap in my knowledge of Canadian playwrights. That is to say (among other things) that I had never read or seen a work by Michael Healey. (Okay: that’s not exactly true. I saw Healey in Studio 180’s Stuff Happens: he played George W. Bush, and though Bush is such a familiar figure and it would have been so easy, and reasonable, to just do an impersonation of the public figure we all recognize, he instead seemed to build the character from the ground up, while still rooting it in the man himself. Beautiful work.) It’s possible if I had, I would have been prepared for the bizarre turn the play took after intermission. At first the two acts seemed only tangentially related, but the more I thought about it afterward, the more clear the connection became. This play is mostly on this list for two monologues in the second act about fairness. They’ve both stuck with me, even months later.
3. The Tempest (The Bridge Project/The Old Vic (London, UK), August 16)
I went to London for the first time in August 2010, and Sam Mendes’ Tempest was the first show I saw. In the Bridge Project, Mendes brought together a company that was half English actors from the Old Vic, and half American actors from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and toured them in rep doing two classical plays. This was the second year of the project, and close to the end of the run. It’s only fair to admit that while I had never before seen a stage production directed by Mendes, my knowledge of his work directly informs the way I read Shakespeare and think about its staging, so I was pretty excited to see this show. It’s also important to acknowledge the effect the venue had on me: the Old Vic! It was also the single quietest audience I have ever been a part of. During the course of the play, I didn’t hear anyone clear their throats or shift their weight. What I liked the most about it is how much the production relied on the text and the actors, and how little it relied on anything else. Perhaps in part because it was a touring production, there was very little set, and all of the choices (including the ‘magic’ which is such an important part of the play) were clearly based on very close textual reading, even at the expense of flashy and impressive effects. This play reminded me why I love Shakespeare, why I think it’s still worth producing, and why I want to do the work I want to do.
2. Studies in Motion: the Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge (Electric Company Theatre/Canadian Stage, November 23)
This piece of Physical/Theatre by Vancouver’s Electric Company was fascinating. It used projection and movement to help illustrate stories of Edweard Muybridge; his serial photographs of animals in motion, and an earlier point in his life when he killed his wife’s lover. It started with a lengthy movement piece that had people moving across the space in different ways, and at different speeds, mostly completely naked. It was jarring in the moment, but it meant that when actors were naked for plot reasons during the rest of the play the audience wasn’t distracted by squirming or titillation. It must be said: once you’ve seen a nude man do a few cartwheels, nothing else can distract you.
In addition to being a truly fantastic piece of work on its own, Studies in Motion really opened my eyes to what’s going on in the theatre scene in Vancouver. I’ve heard a little about the takeoff in the devised theatre movement over there, and it was really exciting to see some of the work first hand. It’s a big country I live in, where lots of great theatre is produced, and I never forget how little of it I really see.
1. If We Were Birds (Groundwater Productions/Tarragon Theatre, April 30)
This play by Erin Shields was the show in Toronto I was most excited about seeing all year, and frankly was the one I was most likely to be disappointed by. It was by a playwright who I’d only seen one other play by and it had been fantastic; I knew that it treated the legend of Procne, Philomel and Tereus, which I was super excited about; and I knew that it was working in a Greek tragedy format, which is my favourite style to see, but really tricky to work in.
Director Alan Dilworth and Shields did something brilliant to the chorus that managed to treat it simultaneously a collective and composed of individuals, that worked both as an other in the story and a surrogate for the audience. In adapting the ancient story, the textual references (e.g. proper nouns) were the same, but somewhere between costume and other referents, the action wound up taking place in a very specific, very much present-day world, which allowed it to keep the scope and breadth of the original story, while making it feel very personal to a contemporary audience.
The story has an inherent staging difficulty in that a central plot point involves a mute character weaving her story into a tapestry which another character discovers, reads, and interprets. That it’s non-verbal is a pretty important thematic element, and the solution the production used was elegant in its simplicity and very moving in its theatricality.
The writing was great and the performances ranged from very good to fantastic. It cut close enough to the bone that people had to leave during the show (which, in another good decision, was presented without intermission). This was definitely the best show I saw last year – probably for several years.