It’s February again, and thankfully, that means more than just bone-chilling temperatures. It’s also the start of undercurrents 2014, The Great Canadian Theatre Company’s annual mini-festival for theatre below the mainstream. The GCTC is presenting six productions, one interstitial show in the lobby and a one-night only event to keep you warm and toasty. I’ll be posting new reviews to this page all week, so stay tuned and check back often!
Should you see them?
Ramshackle Theatre has come all the way from the Yukon to present the story of a boy dealing with his grandfather’s descent into Alzheimer’s Disease. Writer and performer Brian Fidler has a great opportunity to connect with a large audience, since nearly everyone can relate to that situation in some way. Unfortunately, Broken didn’t connect emotionally with me. While young William’s obsession with his grandfather’s pictures from the war was interesting, it wasn’t enough to really sell me on the story.
Mostly, it lacked energy. There are moments in Broken where Fidler pops vividly to life – for example, there are visible tears in his eyes when he describes trying to spring his confused grandfather out of the hospital. However, these moments are few and far between, and the pace often drags as a result. Instead of bringing us into the story, Fidler is just telling us a sad tale. Broken feels less like a play and more like a verbal photo essay.
Fidler’s characters also lacked distinction. I would often have trouble telling young William from his grandfather, since Fidler didn’t change much about his physicality or even his voice between characters. Broken does features smart use of props, including some neat projections, a well-used light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a slide projector and an old-fashioned camera.
Let me just tell you right now that I know nothing about football, and neither do I really have an interest in football. Despite this roadblock, RiderGirl made me care. Colleen Sutton’s one-woman show is so energetic that you shouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself cheering along with her by the end of the show.
RiderGirl finds the poignancy in fandom, as a young woman uses her near-obsession with the Saskatchewan Roughriders to escape the problems that plague her daily life. Who has time to think about debt, illness, employment or failed relationships when there’s a Grey Cup on the line?
Sutton is excellent at representing multiple characters all at once; they all have their own ticks, speech patterns and body language. Even during quick exchanges, she takes the time to shift her body weight or change her voice ever-so-slightly in a way that makes it easy to keep up.
RiderGirl is funny, fast-paced and ultimately touching. Sutton really knows how to grab an audience and keep it in her pocket. I still can’t believe that RiderGirl is almost 90 minutes long, since it feels so much shorter. A great performance, Janet Irwin’s dynamic staging and a main character I cared about makes RiderGirl a winning one-woman show.
Ciseaux is the story of two girls; Phanie, a brash, bossy schoolyard bully and Olivia, a shy wallflower who just wants a friend. The play starts with an unhappy Olivia chopping off her long hair and running away from home. Then, the actual themes hit you like a ton of bricks.
Lisa L’Heureux brings the topic of child soldiers much closer to home using authentic Quebecois dialogue; Ciseaux is presented in French, with Phanie and Olivia speaking much like normal children. There are subtitles in English, so don’t let that stop you from seeing it. Besides, Lissa Léger and Marie-Ève Fontaine’s performances are strong enough to shine through the language barrier.
Although Ciseaux is powerful, it feels unfinished. It spends too long going through the ways Phanie and Olivia’s childhoods were ruined by a war they don’t understand before getting to their reunion as much-changed teenagers. It’s a shame, because the interaction between the two characters is really Ciseaux’s strength. I feel that the abrupt ending would have been more effective if we had been able to spend more time with the two girls as teenagers. This is definitely a play that could be lengthened beyond its 50 minute run.
A Quiet Sip of Coffee (or, This is Not the Play We’ve Written)
A Quiet Sip of Coffee is an interesting, surreal and alternately ridiculous and heartbreak journey into a prank that ruined a friendship. Nathan Schwartz and Anthony Johnston are a gay/straight best friend duo who convince a fundamentalist “ex-gay” organization to fund their fake play. The only catch? They had to attend two weeks of gay conversion therapy. Seven years later, they reunited to tell their story. This is the result of that reunion.
Nathan and Anthony are passionate performers. They keep assuring us that this is theatre, that it’s not real, but it’s easy to sense that part of it is real. Maybe it isn’t exactly how things went down – perhaps it’s not even close to the truth – but the emotions behind it are the real deal.
This is a production with a lot of elements; it’s a mix of snippets from their fake play, Never Cry Wolfman, re-enactments of their time at the camp and clips from An American Werewolf in London. For the most part, it works well, with the theme of hiding your true nature present throughout. The only downside that comes with both playing multiple characters is that transitions can get confusing at times; this is especially evident at one point where Anthony is suddenly playing Nathan, and the distinction between characters gets blurry when things start getting emotional.
Overall, A Quiet Sip of Coffee is an oddly honest take on friendship, hidden feelings and the difficulty of being someone you’re not.
The Tashme Project: The Living Archives
This verbatim theatre piece tackles what it was like to live as second generation Japanese-Canadian children, or Nisei, during the era of World War II. The Tashme Project mostly deals with a time of post-Pearl Harbor internment and resettlement after the end of the war. It’s a story worth learning about, and I was riveted by some of these memories.
Performers Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa embody each of their characters well, and it’s certainly an interesting topic to learn about. However, despite the vocal changes, the production could have used more movement. The Tashme Project is quite static, with its performers sitting at a table most of the time. Nevertheless, it remained engaging. It was interesting to see the way that stories of childhood games contrasted with some of the hardships that resulted from internment.
Despite its relatively short run time, Manning and Miwa give voice to so many different stories about so many different emotions and opinions; they manage to create an interesting narrative despite the large number of people interviewed for this project. This production is also well broken up into sections with the help of multiple paper cranes and some facts about internment. The Tashme Project is definitely an eye-opening production about a resilient people who found themselves facing discrimination in their own country.
Morro and Jasp do Puberty
Morro and Jasp are clown sisters who are going through a magical and confusing time in their lives: puberty. Morro is being dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood; she’s struggling with her first period and all the fun things that come along with it, when all she really wants to do is play soccer baseball. Meanwhile, Jasp desperately longs for these things to happen to her instead. If you are a woman, you are sure to see yourself in Morro and Jasp do Puberty.
Amy Lee and Heather Marie Annis are fearless performers who aren’t afraid to make you squirm in your seats more than a little, to great hilarious effect. They’re also fantastic at interacting with the audience, especially in one part when Jasp throws Morro a period party. Despite all the hilarity, this production has a big heart, and Morro and Jasp are both truly engaging characters.
Even though some incidents have obviously been embellished for comedic effect, most of Morro and Jasp do Puberty is cringetastically and hilariously true to life. Every scene, I could see the women in the audience laughing, nodding in sympathy and even whispering about their experiences to their cringing male counterparts. This is a show destined to bring back memories, good and bad, of that time in your life when everything started changing.
If you’re sitting in the first row or two, watch out – it is a projectile zone.