2003 was, for the most part, a good year for theatre in Toronto. With companies across the city diversifying both their choice of productions and their casts, there was no need to trek all the way to Niagara on the Lake or Stratford or pay inflated ticket prices to the Mirvish spectacles to see an engaging, well-acted show. On campus alone, there were enough solid performances to keep a theatre junkie satiated. Unfortunately, the few clunkers of the year were not the forgettable sort-they were bad enough to stick in the memory and refuse to go away. Here are our picks for the best and worst of the year.
As You Like It – Hart House Theatre
One of the highlights of the theatre year was our own Hart House Theatre’s delightful fall production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Director David Gardner, back on campus after helming the theatre’s highly successful Macbeth the previous fall, assembled a strong cast that mixed Hart House veterans with newcomers to create a charming pastoral comedy with sets, costumes, and best of all, performances, which equaled those of any professional production. Particularly notable were Pip Dwyer and Jeremy Hutton, who as the play’s central couple Rosalind and Orlando combined evident chemistry with confident, nuanced delivery of the Bard’s words and made the production a joy to watch. If Gardner returns to direct at Hart House in 2004, it will not only be a boon for the theatre, but also for the campus and the local theatre community as a whole.
Glengarry Glen Ross – Steppenwolf Theatre Company (World Stage)
When it was first announced that renowned American company Steppenwolf Theatre was bringing its signature production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross to the World Stage Festival at Harbourfront, theatre aficionados in the city rushed to get tickets, willing to spend big bucks to see the company work its ensemble magic on a Toronto stage. No one, least of all the production’s cast, expected disaster to strike at the eleventh hour, when lead actor Mike Nussbaum was called home to Chicago due to a family emergency. While most theatre companies would have folded and left town, Steppenwolf refused to close the show, delaying opening night by only one day as company member Rick Snyder was flown in from New York as Nussbaum’s last-minute replacement. Performing the entire show with script in hand, Snyder gave the production his all, and the stellar group of actors around him almost made the audience forget he was still, as they say in the theatre, “on book”. If this is what the company can do with a lead actor gone and an understudy with less than 24 hours of rehearsal, the thought of what they are capable of at full strength is awe-inspiring.
Job: The Hip-Hop Saga – FDLT Productions (Tarragon Theatre)
With two fringe hits (Job: The Hip-Hop Musical and Job II: The Demon of Eternal Recurrence) under their belts, Montreal 20-somethings Eli Batalion and Jerome Saibil brought their remixed version of the Biblical story of Job back to the Tarragon, ready to turn two hits into one. The result was Job: The Hip-Hop Saga, a two-man tour-de-force that may well be the best Canadian musical ever. Batalion and Saibil are unstoppable high-energy talents, not only writing and performing the production’s intelligent and hilarious hip-hop rhymes themselves, but also serving as its producers and directors. Anyone who didn’t love this production is crazy. ‘Nuff said.
Rice Boy – CanStage (Berkeley Street Theatre)
The story of a 12-year-old boy struggling to find balance between his father’s Indian past and his own Canadian future, Rice Boy was a production for our country and our times-not only for its characters of immigrant parents and first-generation Canadian children, but also for anyone who has ever asked the question, “Who am I?” and longed for an answer. Sunil Kuruvilla’s lyrical script navigated the two very different worlds of snowy 1975 Kitchener and exotic Kerela, India with ease, stitching threads of continuity between both landscapes that gave the story both detail and fluid coherence. A strong ensemble cast brought Kuruvilla’s words to life, imbuing the production with clarity through confusion. As the play’s 12-year-old protagonist, Tommy, Zaib Shaikh realistically captured the awkward phase between childhood and adolescence, and Imali Perera’s performance as his paralyzed cousin, Tina, reflected his awkwardness with uncanny grace. The heart of the production, however, belonged to 92-year-old Bollywood veteran Zohra Segal, whose Granny functioned as both spirit and guide to the story’s young leads.
Sunday Father – CanStage
One of the first productions of the year was also one of the best. Following on the enormous success of Zaidie’s Shoes in 2001, young Toronto playwright Adam Pettle and his brother, actor Jordan, returned to the stage with Sunday Father, drawing on their own family past to create a touching tale of sibling love and rivalry. Both Pettles were at their best with this production-Adam’s script combined biting wit and humour with moving moments of realism, staying contemporary while dealing with universal themes; Jordan’s performance was nothing short of extraordinary, with lines that bounced from lighthearted joy to abject grief in a single word or pause. Ari Cohen was equally stellar as Jordan’s older brother, playing off the older Pettle brother like a true sibling. Despite one weak note-Lisa Repo-Martell, as the production’s only female, got lost amidst the dueling sibling dynamics-the Pettles can chalk this one up as another success. The local theatre community eagerly awaits their next collaboration.
Hello… Hello – Tarragon Theatre
Karen Hines’ Hello… Hello, a production almost eight years in the making, would have been better off left on the page in its earliest stages. At the very least, Hines would have done the theatre world a favour by sticking to writing rather than choosing to play the lead role herself. With a reedy voice reminiscent of nails on a blackboard, she subjected local audiences to over two hours of banal “Woe! The future is here, and it is bleak!”-style prophesizing set to a muzak-like score with amateurish lyrics. A play that was clearly dysfunctional for the sake of being dysfunctional.
Lion in the Streets – Hart House Theatre
Sadly, after having one of the best productions of the year, Hart House Theatre also gave us one of the worst. Last winter’s production of Judith Thompson’s Lion in the Streets was, despite its well-reputed director and striking set design, everything bad about campus theatre rolled into one. While lead actress Clare Paterson was remarkable in the key role of Isobel, the supporting cast failed to live up to her performance, delivering irritatingly affected performances that highlighted every grating element of Thompson’s pretentious script. Particularly cringe-worthy was a mind-numbingly atrocious depiction of a disabled character that made me want to leave the theatre in protest. Would be best forgotten, but still sticks out for all the wrong reasons.