toronto summerworks 2012

The best from SummerWorks 2012

SummerWorks 2012 will go down as one of the best performance arts festivals in recent memory.

Long before the first performer took to the stage, the lineup featured critically-acclaimed playwrights, directors, designers, and actors from Toronto and beyond the province. But when it opened last week, it was the incredibly diverse range of expression — music, live performance, theatre, the festival's first ever film screening, and unique interactions with the audience — that engendered such widespread enthusiasm for this year's offerings.

It's a festival that, while already an annual highlight on the arts calendar, feels like it has grown firmly into itself. You can see it in the clean and playful yellow, orange and black aesthetic, the confidence of this year's live art and performance bar selections, and the overwhelmingly dark and political material. Comedic acts are far and few between on SummerWorks stages. Rather, these plays are asking tough questions, pushing the envelope, and grappling in the dirt.

Artistic Director Michael Rubenfeld has a lot to be proud of. Here are some of the events making waves at this year's festival:

Ajax (por nobody) / Theatre Centre
Alice Tuan's "unstageable" play gets its first full production at SummerWorks and boy is it something. From forced sex to castration and a lot of other things in between, the play doesn't shy away from difficult and unpleasant scenes. Yet there's an exploration of capitalism and sexual desire, akin to the novels of Bret Easton Ellis, that's sophisticated. Director Zack Russell and his courageous cast invest in characters that could very easily be written off as selfish hedonists. Upon exit, I overheard a couple exclaim what could be the show's tag line: "Well, I'm SO glad we didn't bring the kids."

Iceland / Lower Ossington Theatre
On the surface, Nicolas Billon's play documents the traumatic events of an afternoon in a condo for sale in Liberty Village. Peer longer and you'll find that Iceland is a complex drama about fear and anxiety borne out of one of the world's most disastrous financial crises. Billon and director Ravi Jain prove a winning pair. The playwright's handle on reveal in his monologues, along with Jain's subtle staging, builds the narrative to a quiet crescendo. When the most relatable of the three characters is an Estonian sex worker, you know you're in for an interesting experience.

My Pregnant Brother / Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace
There's something so incredibly unique about Johanna Nutter's play, that it feels like you'll never watch something quite like it again. Nutter tells the story of how her brother, who was once her sister, went through a pregnancy. This is, of course, not the splashy Oprah version, but a deeply real experience that's had a profound effect on the playwright. Nutter's vulnerability is what makes this play special. If you weren't sitting in a full audience, you'd swear she was telling the story directly to you.

One/Un / The Theatre Centre
On paper, Mani Soleymanlou's One/Un reads like a solo show about a search for identity amidst a nomadic upbringing. Fully realized, however, Soleymanlou's journey cleverly bucks the stereotypes of what you'd expect from a project inspired during a spotlight on diversity called "Discovery Mondays" at the National Theatre School. Soleymanlou's humour and casual retelling make the more serious moments, about the recent elections in Iran, all the more poignant. Like Nutter's piece, subtlety and truth triumph over fanfare.

Live Art / Various Locations
Curated by Deborah Pearson, award-winning artist and co-director of the UK collective Forest Fringe, Live Art brings a new dimensionality to SummerWorks that showcases process over end-product. The new programme solidifies the festival's move from 10 days of theatre to 10 days of performance (something that had already been taking shape). The collection of international artists — Andy Field, Brian Lobel, Tania El Khoury, Silvia Mercuriali — together with some incredible homegrown talents create a rich tapestry of experiential performance.

Terminus / Factory Theatre Mainspace
Mitchell Cushman pulls together all the right elements for Mark O'Rowe's Terminus. The captivatingly dark and surrealist script is delivered in Irish brogue by three committed actors (Maev Beaty, Ava Jane Markus, Adam Wilson). The production's economical staging fits perfectly with the interrogative lighting from Nick Blais and taut sound from Richard Feren. Cushman's most mature choice here is ultimately to stay out of the way of the cadence of the dialogue, which seemingly floats and flutters to the ear all the while painting a disturbing landscape. The effect is haunting.

The God That Comes / Theatre Centre
A one-night-only extravaganza, and labeled as something of a work in progress, Hawksley Workman and Christian Barry's concept album about Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, was arguably the festival's hottest ticket. Taking Euripides' The Bacchae as its primary source, Workman laboured like a fiend on the instruments before him. Part rock concert, part ritualistic storytelling, it will be interesting to see how this piece develops. The same Dionysian spirit runs throughout the festival.

When It Rains / Factory Theatre Mainspace
At first I was a bit dubious about the projection and lighting effects used by Anthony Black in When It Rains. They feel very similar to the Lepage aesthetic. But as the show progresses, the design blends into a graphic novel telling a tale of suburban trauma. Not merely sleek backdrops, the gray patterns come to oppress the performers who inhabit this little world. Black weaves grand questions of determinism, karma, and morality into four very flawed and human characters, while Marc Bendavid is particularly strong as the black-nose French clown, Louis.

If there's an obvious improvement to be made for next year, it's punctuality. SummerWorks could learn a thing or two from its cousin, the Toronto Fringe Festival, which abides by its start times and latecomer policy. But for now, the weekend promises yet another full slate of top-notch shows. It's the perfect pairing for the dog days of August.

Photo from Ajax (por nobody)

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