Best of 2013 – Theatre year in review

For a theatre critic, an end of year ‘best of list’ feels completely unnatural and foreign. Theatre cycles are counted via seasons after all, not by calendar years. To consider a show from spring 2013 in the same breath as a winter production in the same year is for me like a blueberry bagel – an artificially constructed amalgamation of two things that simply do not belong together. So why then am I participating in this exercise? Well, I’m not sure I have a good answer. I’ve been asked to create a list by several people and I guess I’m flattered that there is someone out there wanting to know my thoughts.  My colleagues are doing it, and anticipating that I might scoff at their choices I suppose it’s only fair that I give them equal target back at me. But I think the real reason I’m doing it is that it’s miserable outside and I should be working out or at least doing laundry but today these tasks seem far more arduous that compiling a best of  theatre list. So, in that spirit here we go……

The first thing I notice in the 11 plays that jump out at me from 2013 is how many of them are solo shows. Granted Calgary gets a glut of these types of productions due to both the Fringe Festival and from smaller theatre companies looking for maximum bang for investment. But even I was astonished at how many of them managed to shine.

Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife produced by Third Street Theatre was a decent play made extraordinary by Paul Welch’s outstanding performance under the astute direction of Kevin McKendrick.  This story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who managed to survive and thrive under both the Nazi regime and communist-controlled East Germany challenged Welch to play thirty-six characters of different gender, language, accent and age. I was mesmerized with the result.

Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel produced by Rosebud Theatre also had me searching for superlatives to describe a one man performance. Nathan Schmidt had already wowed me by his acting the previous year and once again he did not disappoint despite some shaky narrative and directorial moments in the production.  Playing a nerdy and stiff Dutch librarian who set off on a global quest after encountering a book that is one hundred and thirteen years overdue, Schmidt enchanted me with his boundless talent for onstage warmth, intelligence, humour and the ability to break the fourth wall as though it was the most natural thing in the world. His performance in combination with Jerod Falman and Rachel Peacock’s low tech slide show and sound design made this play a grand delight.

When it came to unabashed laughing, it was the Fringe Festival and two solo shows that ticked my funny bone to the point of reverence.  Till Death: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, written and directed by Ryan Gladstone and performed by Tara Travis was without a doubt the best researched and performed one-woman comedy I’ve seen. Travis, hysterically chameleon-like as all six of Henry’s dead wives in limbo on their way to regular heaven or royal heaven, had me laughing so hard I was crying and convinced that if history had been taught like this in high school I would have retained far more information. Nashville Hurricane was another unqualified tour de force by Chase Padgett, one of the most talented musician/actors/Fringe artists I’ve had the pleasure of watching. A side-splitting comedy with just a touch of melancholy, the story of a young painfully shy boy who is forced into country singer stardom is Padgett at his sweetspot best. He sings, he plays guitar, but mostly he plays distinctly unforgettable characters as he shows off his uncanny timing onstage that had me eating out of the palm of his hand.

However for overall excellence in every production aspect at the Fringe, my pick would be Kyall Rakoz’s wonderfully creative and stupendously performed one-man play, Ludwig & Lohengrin. Based on historical events, the play examines the life of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his “madness” as a result of having to split himself into several irreconcilable pieces. Rakoz is astonishingly good in his many-character performance, but what really pushed this effort over the top for me was the brilliantly orchestrated design and direction. Never before has a plain white sheet been put to such good use on a stage in what can only be called linen choreography. When I learned that it was also Rakoz who directed and designed this gem of a show, my level of creative respect hit a record high note.

Getting out to the theatre has never been more fun and intriguing as Melanie Jones’ ENDURE: A Run Woman Show. Described as a performance in motion, audience members run or walk a 5k outdoor route following and listening to Jones as she prepares for a marathon. It’s the listening here that’s the terrifically creative bit as audience members are each given iPods that play Jones’ inner narrative throughout the show.  The whole thing could have been gimmicky had it not been for Jones’ punch in the stomach writing and thrilling execution. Totally unique and a thrill to participate in.

Rounding out the solo shows for me is Ins Choi’s spoken work poetry piece Subway Stations of the Cross which gives us a homeless man singing/pontificating from a subway platform while referencing everything from icons of 80’s pop culture to Japanese Anime love metaphors, all the while addressing notions of faith through the character of Jesus Christ. Choi’s cerebral writing excites and entertains and his embodiment of vagabond/messiah is as haunting as it is electrifying. Choi’s better known crowd-pleasing play, Kim’s Convenience, also makes my list this year thanks to the folks at Theatre Calgary who along with Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company brought the play to Calgarians this year. The play about a Korean-owned convenience store in the early throes of gentrification and the intergenerational issues faced by immigrant families is a wonder of comedy and heartbreak and what it means to love your family. Choi’s writing is full of life but the true ingredients for success in the production are Ken Mackenzie’s hyper-real set design and the deliciously outsized performance of Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Appa, the family patriarch.

The final three shows on my list range from a well-known tale to familiar trope to one that was completely new to me.  Lyric Hammersmith and Vesturport’s highly unique production of the Franz Kafka classic, Metamorphosis was a revelation. In this interpretation, the story of a man named Gregor turned into a bug is told not through his voice but instead via his family’s, illuminating the isolation and de-humanizing aspect of this surreal absurdist story. Mix in original music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and a physically amazing acrobatic performance by Gisli Örn Gardarsson as the insect and this was a production that affected me deeply long after the curtain went down.

From a man/bug to another kind of horror story, a play I had no expectation of liking easily makes my list this year. The Shakespeare Company, Ground Zero Theatre and Hit & Myth production of William Shakespeare’s LAND OF THE DEAD by John Heimbuch had me marvelling at the level of talent onstage and shaking my head in disbelief that a mash-up of the “Bard of Avon” and a zombie thriller could be so smartly entertaining. Once again Kevin McKendrick wowed me with his direction, never allowing the production to devolve into slasher stupidity and Haysam Kadri as a petulant William Shakespeare was a joy to watch.

Nothing makes me happier to end my best of list than with a world premiere play by a new Calgary playwright. Arun Lakra’s Sequence, thoughtfully directed by Kevin McKendrick never underestimates its audience’s intelligence as engages us in the notion of luck and chance and a heavy dose of high level maths.  In addition to some very human drama, the play asks us to consider arithmetic theories, probabilities of coin tosses, inherited behaviour, recursive numerical sequences and the very heated genetics vs. the hand of God discussion. There’s a lot going on in this play and in the wrong hands it could have ended up feeling more like a lecture than a piece of entertainment. Instead it was the most intellectually fulfilling and meaty play I’d seen all year and yes, it was highly entertaining.

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One comment

  1. dianestinson@shaw.ca · January 6, 2014

    Hi Jessica,

    Just heard your review on High Performance Rodeo on CBC. Sounds great, as always.

    Ken Cameron’s newest production from Productive Obsession, “HOWiRAN: Three Plays for iPod,” sounds very interesting. Hope you have a chance to check it out at the CPL Jan. 23-Feb. 1.

    Diane Stinson

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