SummerWorks: the last roundup

Feeling melancholy that summer play is over or the Melancholy Play from last summer.

Summer 2009 may seem sometime ago (especially by internet standards) but really was it so far back? Justin Haigh submitted his final round-up of mini-reviews for Toronto's SummerWorks Festival right in the middle of the Victoria and Vancouver Fringe Festival madness. We had to table the reviews - and Justin's take on the overall Festival experience - until now, when we've had a bit of a chance to catch our breath.

 So, relax, put your mind back to hot, humid days on the shores of Lake Ontario and let Justin remind us all of what really happened last summer...

The end of Toronto’s SummerWorks festival is always a bittersweet occasion. It marks the last of the city’s major performing arts festivals and leaves one wistful, with only the memories of long days bouncing from venue to venue and late nights at the beer tent to keep one’s appetite satisfied until next year.

SummerWorks is far more than just a seasonal bookend though; under the leadership of artistic producer Michael Rubenfeld a number of engaging and immediately popular new components have been added to the schedule. Among them, nightly concerts featuring popular Canadian indie bands, themed walking tours of the iconic and bohemian Queen West neighbourhood, and a rotating series of short performances pieces housed in the spare rooms of the boutique style Gladstone Hotel.

Shiny new attractions aside, the heart of Summerworks remains its theatrical programming. Unlike the Fringe Festival’s selection process which is lottery based (the factor most responsible for the Fringe’s “anything and everything” style of content), SummerWorks’ is juried, resulting in a more refined and focused, if perhaps less animated collection of performances.

Even though one can expect a more even audience experience from SummerWorks, its shows nevertheless manage to challenge and provoke, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Here then are bite size run-downs of some of the hits and close misses of this year’s festival.

Melancholy Play

This magic realist comedy by Sarah Ruhl contemplates the nature and necessity of melancholy using a quirky cast caught up in a complicated love quadrangle. If troubles of the heart weren’t enough for Ruhl’s characters, they must also contend with an epidemic of human to almond metamorphoses brought on by global malaise. Although not an original script, Project Undertow’s creative team does justice to the wry and bizarre story with definite direction and delightfully bright performances from the cast. It’s a stylish, witty, and occasionally insightful piece that is sure to delight cynics and optimists alike.

Nick Drake Project
After years on stage as ‘Ash Williams’, hero of ‘Evil Dead the Musical’, Ryan Ward stretches his creative legs again as director of this dark fantasy based on the songs of 60's musical icon Nick Drake. This ‘Alice in Wonderland’ meets ‘Dante’s Inferno’ styled tale likely offers more layers of meaning to those familiar with Drake’s work and his lyrics, and wanders more than necessary, but nevertheless stands on its own as a phantasmagorical hour of entertainment complete with puppets, hilarious off-stage banter, and biographical tidbits. Ryan Tilley deserves a special nod for his laid back and authentic performance.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

This ancient tale is presented with modern flair by Groundwater Productions, winners of last years ‘Outstanding Production Award’ for ‘If We Were Birds’. Unfortunately lightning has not struck twice for the company. Although this production has a lot of polish and a sly performance from the always reliable Frank Cox-O'Connell as the self absorbed teenager-like king makes for a very worthwhile audience experience, Erin Shields’ script needs a bit more meat, especially where the central theme of humility is concerned.

Toronto Noir
Using the short stories compilation of the same name as its basis, Cheeky Magpie Productions’ ‘Toronto Noir’ hops between several tales of deviousness, debauchery, and death. There is plenty of urban grit to the stories, as well as a healthy amount of tongue in cheek humour to temper the often ridiculous conventions of the noir genre. The ‘Toronto’ element is not shied away from with plenty of local landmark and geographical name dropping throughout. The fact that the entire cast remains on stage regardless of whether their particular story is in focus or not mirrors the lack of solitude that is city dwelling, subtly adding to the mood of the piece.

Red Machine Part 2
Following part 1 presented as part of the Fringe, the collective known as ‘The Room’ returns with the middle piece of their Freudian and dream-like trilogy. The hour is divided up into scenes each thematically related to different aspects of the psyche and brain, such as “Light and Vision” and “The Pleasure Centre”. The most memorable is “Language” which manages to take a simple linguistic device, the open ended phrase “This sentence...”, and stretches its repetitive potential to the extreme - clearly not the output of a creative mind prone to writer’s block. Part 2 marks a positive improvement over part 1 with the central character more fleshed out and with less abstraction for abstraction sake. For those who have made an effort to follow the series, part 3 is awaited with anticipation if for no other reason than to see how, if at all, this theatrical labyrinth is tied up.

The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa (or Agnes Bojaxhiu Superstar)

This stylish Brechtian cabaret from Ecce Homo (the company behind last year’s lightning rod of a production ‘The Pastor Phelps Project’) is one part musical satire, one part counter culture dissection of a popular icon. The cabaret format is an effective and efficient means of touching on many facets of the Romanian missionary’s mixed legacy, although the opportunity to engage in a truly meaningful discourse is lost in the eccentric artifice of the production. It’s not a great loss as plenty of entertainment value, a musically astute cast, and a strong directorial showing from Alistair Newton leave the audience thoroughly delighted.

Impromptu Splendor
Improv is not what one normally expects to find at a straight-faced theatre festival like Summerworks, but Impromptu Splendor (comprised of Matt Baram, Naomi Snieckus, and Ron Pederson) bridges the gap with long form sets inspired by the writing styles of some of the world’s foremost playwrights such as Becket, Williams, or in the case of the performance reviewed, Mamet. Between’s Pederson’s comic strength, Snieckus’ knack for dialogue, and Baram’s ability to push the story forward, the performance is held together by a structurally sound triangle of talent. The trio’s spot-on parody of Mamet’s rhythm and shark like characters, as well as a stream of jokes, some of which are so effortless it’s easy to forget it’s off the top of the performers’ heads, makes for a very fulfilling hour of art-meets-entertainment.

By Justin Haigh