January 6, 2014The Gazette
December 21, 2013
By Pat Donnelly
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MONTREAL -- Another year, another look back at the wealth of theatrical offerings relished or endured, a select few etched forever (or at least until now) in the memory of The Gazette’s Theatre critic.
Early in this calendar year (this is not a summary of the 2012-13 theatre season), there was a volley of exceptional English-language productions. More continued to surface throughout the year.
There were memorable visitations, too, including a modern take on Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, from the Schaubuühne Theatre of Berlin, a Danish tribute to Leonard Cohen titled Dance Me to the End On/Off Love and an odd piece on Casanova, starring John Malkovich, called the Giacomo Variations.
This 2013 calendar year of overachieving has inspired me to do a Top 10 list of English-language plays.
1. Seeds: This riveting documentary drama put us back on the Canadian map. True, it has been kicking around for a while, but the recent Centaur Theatre run of Annabel Soutar’s brilliant exploration of the Monsanto vs. Percy Schmeiser court case marked the first major exposure Seeds has had here in English since its inception in 2005. Chris Abraham took over the direction in 2012 for the Toronto run, raising the bar. The French version proved a hit at La Licorne that fall. And the Canadian tour continues at the PuSh Festival in January and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in March and April. Bravo!
2. Oroonoko: Paul Van Dyck’s deftly staged, thought-provoking adaptation of a 17th-century novel by Aphra Behn, about an African prince sold into slavery, brought an archaic work into contemporary relevance. Persephone Productions made it all possible at the MAI Centre. A strong ensemble, including Jaa Smith-Johnson as the prince and Aiza Ntibarikure as his sweetheart, kept us compelled throughout.
3. Kafka’s Ape: Who knew Franz Kafka could be so entertaining? Guy Sprung’s adaptation of Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy, updated into modern antiwar satire, was memorably performed by Howard Rosenstein as an ape wearing a tuxedo addressing a board of directors, with his wife (Alexandra Montagnese) watching from the sidelines. Infinitheatre brought it back for a second run this fall. Definite touring potential.
4. Innocence Lost: Beverley Cooper’s Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott, directed by Roy Surette, made absorbing drama out of an infamous court case that almost led to the execution of a 14-year-old Canadian boy in 1959. This National Arts Centre/Centaur Theatre co-production with its accomplished cast played Ottawa after Montreal.
5. Gold Mountain: One of the most intriguing English-language works produced in Montreal this year was actually co-produced by a francophone theatre company (Les Deux Mondes) and the Unity Theatre of Liverpool, England. This immigrant tale of a Chinese sailor who settles down with a British bride, written by British actor David Yip and performed by Yip and Eugene Salleh, was magically staged by Daniel Meilleur.
6. Othello: The Segal Centre production of Shakespeare’s Othello was directed with intelligence and panache by Alison Darcy. For once, neither Othello (Andrew Moodie) nor Iago (Sean Arbuckle) dominated. There was an unusual gender balance that emphasized the women’s roles, an interesting thing in a play that depicts conjugal violence. Strong performances by Desdemona (Amanda Lisman) and Emilia (Julie Tamiko Manning) suggested a feminist perspective.
7. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Repercussion Theatre’s 25th anniversary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Amanda Kellock, was delightful. Alain Goulem was a most hilarious Bottom, anchoring a strong cast. The set was a fanciful cobweb, magic was afoot, people were entranced.
8. Sherlock: Andrew Shaver’s spoofy staging of Greg Kramer’s play, Sherlock, made it into an intriguing theatrical event. The marquee value of the Hollywood actor (Jay Baruchel) who played Sherlock helped to sell a lot of tickets. (Even though he wasn’t present for many performances toward the end of the run because of a film shoot.) But Baruchel performed within the context of a strong team in which he wasn’t necessarily the most outstanding player. That Kramer died suddenly just as rehearsals began added a layer of poignancy.
9. The St. Leonard Chronicles: Steve Galluccio’s comedy St. Leonard Chronicles, directed by Roy Surette, was the runaway hit of the year, selling more than 22,000 tickets at Centaur Theatre. It’s a cleverly written piece about a family in turmoil at the dinner table, which rings a familiar, local chord as it pits two Italian enclaves (St. Leonard and Ville-Émard) against each other. St. Leonard Chronicles is destined to rise again next year, in French, at Théâtre Jean Duceppe of Place des Arts, where Galluccio’s biggest hit, Mambo Italiano, was launched.
10. Waiting for the Barbarians: A South African novel (by J.M. Coetzee) adapted by a Moscow-trained director (Alexandre Marine) and performed by a dynamic, mostly South African cast proved to be a memorable evening of dance theatre. It arrived here as a co-production between the Segal Centre and MoPo Cultural Trust, headed by former Centaur Theatre artistic director Maurice Podbrey.
On a sad note, Andrew Shaver and his Sidemart Theatrical Grocery have recently deserted us to set up shop in Toronto. They will be coming back to visit. But the greater gravitational pull of Toronto (in regards to English language theatre) is likely to keep them booked elsewhere most of the time.
Because I work for an English-language publication, I only get to see a limited number of French-language productions in Montreal, so I try to choose carefully.
On the night I took in La Venus au vison, by David Ives, at Théâtre Jean Duceppe, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. The play, a sizzling showdown between a director (Patrice Robitaille) and a female actor (Hélène Bourgeois-Leclerc) auditioning for a seductive role, lost little in translation. Bourgeois-Leclerc was stunningly good as the dominatrix, Vanda. She’s now at the top of my theatrical vedette list along with Sylvie Drapeau, who did a memorable turn in the surreal office satire Survivre, by Olivier Kemeid, at Théâtre de Quat’Sous.
Michael Mackenzie’s timely Instructions pour un éventuel gouvernement socialiste qui souhaiterait abolir la fête de Noël, at Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui, another man/woman showdown, starring Luc Picard and Sophie Desmarais, was also remarkably good.
The year 2013 was also rich in musicals, both French and English, local and imported: Billy Elliot, Oklahoma!, The Odessa Files, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Mahalia Jackson, Ste-Carmen de la Main, Hairspray, Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and Spring Awakening. But they are another topic, for another time.