Classics edged out contemporary fare ever so slightly when in came to our critics selections for their favourite moments on Calgary stages this past year. Nonetheless, regional talent such as Edmonton’s Brad Fraser and Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop more than proved that when it comes to quick-witted, innovative productions, the local theatre scene is hardly stuck in the past.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Let’s face it: the words “Shakespeare” and “fun” generally only figure in the same sentence when it comes to the most erudite of theatregoers. Theatre Calgary’s spring production of Much Ado About Nothing, however, proved an exception. The war of wit between the feisty Beatrice and Benedick took place in a beautiful vineyard in Italy — as lush and atmospheric as any stage setting could possibly look. Director Dennis Garnhum cast the leads (Valerie Planche and Allan Morgan) older than I have seen them before — a refreshing choice given that both Beatrice and Benedick are savvy, worldly wise folks whose observations on marriage and relationships suggest a sophistication of years. Besides generating laughs through the bard’s text, director and cast also found humour through physicality and the interaction of the players with the set. An infectious, spirited and truly fun romp.
TRUE LOVE LIES
Alberta Theatre Projects
Alberta Theatre Projects’ season opener was a play by Edmonton’s Brad Fraser, of Unidentified Human Remains fame. With its blade-sharp dialogue and boundary-pushing humour, True Love Lives secured his reputation. (I mean, how often do references to elderly folks with dementia provoke laughter?) The story focuses on a father whose former gay lover re-enters his life after many years, befriending the former’s teen children. The lover’s reappearance acts as the catalyst that causes family members to examine their lives, their identities and their relationships with one another. Fraser captured each character’s unique voice and predicament so precisely — particularly that of the teen male who is depressed, lonely and struggling to find out who he is and what makes him “tick.” Under Kate Newby’s direction, True Love Lies raced from scene to scene, never pausing a moment to allow the audience’s attention to wander. The play was funny, witty and relevant, but still had serious undertones that kept it a thinking person’s comedy. Fraser also managed to include a generous helping of pathos in the show, particularly when it came to the stagnant nature of the mother’s situation. True Love Lies was one of those shows that warranted plenty of post-show chat — the hallmark of a successful piece of art.
HOW I BECAME INVISIBLE
Clunk Puppet Lab
Did you see this? A tiny puppet show that ran for just over a week. You don’t often hear of puppets and ballet in the same sentence, but that’s really the best way to describe it. Light on narrative and dialogue, Invisible drifted and ambled in a slow-motion dance. A trio of puppeteers commandeered and navigated a set of dripping-wet underground sewers, touching on the joys of life, the horrors of death and somehow everything else in between.
Aided by a perfectly quaint ambient soundscape, the production demonstrated acute attention to the movement of each character — from the heavy old man shuffling his way into a spaceship, to the young child tip-toeing along drainage pipes. You may not have understood every loosely connected scene as they folded into each other, but the images and movements lingered with an eerie weight. Presented by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop — a hidden, (hand) crafted local gem.
On the other hand, if you want to go big, you might as well go all the way. An operatic double feature running well over two hours, this pairing of a tragedy and comedy turned out to be a classy choice and a great night out. First, the story of Pagliacci’s tormented clown was encased in a massive set and surrounded by a full ensemble cast giving every ounce of their collective lung capacity.
But it was Gianni Schicchi that stole the show with a charming turn by baritone John Fanning as the man that comes between the dead Buoso Donati and his inheritance-hungry relatives. With the cast’s exaggerated body language and caricature-like portrayals of the greedy family, every character in the production was exposed for their overt ridiculousness, leading to something you don’t often hear at the opera — an audience doubling over with laughter.
The Shakespeare Company
You can do Shakespeare lots of different ways. For their production of Richard III last April, The Shakespeare Company chose austere. With minimalist costumes and set design, the play’s fine language and brutal emotions shone through. The story — filled with manipulation, machinations and murder of innocents — follows crippled Richard III’s ascent to the throne.
Richard III is likely one of the most evil and sadistic characters to be found in English literature, and Trevor Leigh’s performance was a tour de force. Effortlessly bending the Elizabethan lines into everything from sardonic humour to dark cunning to blistering rage — often with maniacal swiftness — Leigh’s Richard was masterful, memorable and consummately horrifying.
The starkness of the production only enhanced its most powerful moments, with Richard’s ultimate demise raising a gasp of revulsion from the audience. Richard III created the sort of catharsis that scrapes your soul.
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE
Who do you see when you look in the mirror — industrious, law-abiding Dr. Jekyll or violent, hedonistic Mr. Hyde? Vertigo Theatre’s take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story about good and evil took full advantage of mirror illusions with a clever high-gloss set. Sometimes the tall walls would obediently reflect the action onstage and, at others, would glow menacingly, revealing the Hyde lurking within the soul.
This version of the play, scripted by Jeffrey Hatcher in 2008, artfully cascaded the character of Hyde into four different actors, which worked in two ways: the Hyde actors sometimes handed off cape and cane along with dialogue, and at other times joined forces as a malevolent chorus.
Throw in Andrew Blizzard’s evocative score, which had you hooked within a fraction of a second, plus a hair-raising closing scene: Jekyll & Hyde was a winner, a nuanced foray into good and evil that kept me thinking for weeks.