Every year, artistic directors spend an entire season pouring over entire forests’ worth of scripts to cull a few hardy saplings they hope will grow into towering successes. And then, just as regularly, one Fast Forward writer sits down to whittle those choices down to a few sharp picks, before torturing a tree metaphor.
These are those picks. And the torture of a tree metaphor has already happened.
October 18 – November 6, 2011
Alberta Theatre Projects
Endorsing the latest production by master puppeteer and storyteller Ronnie Burkett is almost a no-brainer. Really, a puppet could do it.
Still, a season pick list would be remiss without including a nod to the former Calgarian’s puppet theatre, with its intricately carved figures, supernaturally dexterous puppeteering and emotionally charged scripts. And Burkett’s presence is no small feature either, populating his own vivid worlds through the unmoving mouths of his puppets. In his latest world, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the titular Penny Plain entertains visitors from the wastes in a gothic drawing room comedy. (The play immediately reminds of both Samuel Beckett’s post-apocalyptic End Game and the British animated film When the Wind Blows, which follows eerie British calm in the face of nuclear catastrophe.)
Burkett is no stranger to the gothic — one of his early works, presented by Edmonton’s Theatre Network in 1990, was a gothic musical called Awful Manors — and he’s always been adept at finding dark humour. Knock on wood for this one.
November 9 – 11, 2011
Theatre Junction/Temporary Distortion
Theatre Junction continues to curate some fascinating work from around the world. As a curatorial entity, in fact, their only rivals are theatre festivals like One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo and the Calgary International Children’s Festival (both of which are invariably solid bets in their own rights).
In the interests of choosing a single work, I offer Newyorkland, the third in a play cycle created by New York’s Temporary Distortion to explore film genres. In this case, the company has staged what is essentially a cop movie, albeit one synthesized from a variety of media.
Video footage, found text and interviews with working police officers form the basis for playwright-director Kenneth Collins’s work. One of the greatest advantages of curating work from other markets is the opportunity to see approaches that are engagingly alien. Or, in this case, at least, American.
February 14 – March 4, 2012
Downstage’s last ensemble creation, In the Wake, was a charming drama that played out entirely on a tiny, illuminated stage with its four actors serving as everything from the denizens of a struggling British Columbian fishing community to the creatures that might save it. It was beautiful but, perhaps more importantly for a socially conscious theatre company, it also showed a willingness to alternatively demonize and lionize all sides of the dilemma. Rather than a polemic against the evils of genetic engineering or overfishing, In the Wake managed to find and exploit the issue’s tensions.
With Good Fences, presented as part of Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites Festival, Downstage is taking aim at a subject near and dear to all Albertans’ hearts: gas. In a province fuelled financially and literally by oil and gas (just look to the primary sponsors of most major theatre companies) there are few topics more potent or perpetually timely.
To prepare for the piece, the company’s creation ensemble conducted interviews in Longview, Alberta, as well as others with industry. If their latest piece captures the same balance and humour in natural gas that In the Wake found in the destruction of the oceans, Downstage will have firmly established itself as a singularly engaged voice in Alberta theatre.
The Highest Step in the World
October 19 – 29, 2011
Ghost River Theatre
It seems only fair to counterbalance an endorsement for a currently unwritten play with one for a proven success. Ghost River Theatre premièred The Highest Step in the World in 2010, transforming the Big Secret Theatre into a blank, white space with a harness system and strikingly precise digital projections (created by the design team of Ami Farrow, Ben Chaisson and Court Brinsmead). And, appropriately for a production about flight, it took right off.
Written by co-artistic directors David van Belle and Eric Rose, and starring van Belle as the play’s sole actor, The Highest Step in the World uses Joseph Kittinger, the holder of the world record for the highest parachute jump, to meditate on human ambition. Transformed by the production’s projections and flown through the air by his harness, van Belle becomes a variety of historical figures and, memorably, his own exposed skeleton. It’s a hell of a thing to see, again.
Peril in Paris
The Whimsy State
Read casually, five plays attached to a single theatre company might look like the surest bet around. Fortunately you, as an astute reader, have been good enough to keep reading. Hello there.
This season, Lunchbox has the unchallenged lock on Calgarian content (Calcon?), featuring five plays by seven Calgarian playwrights (Ethan Cole, Eric Rose, Neil Fleming, Mark Hopkins, Charles Netto, AJ Demers and Dave Kelly). Most of these plays are products of Stage One, the company’s annual new play reading series.
This season’s offerings include a Parisian rescue tale, a Christmas comedy of errors, a haunting riff on a hotel chain, absurd national sovereignty and a musical meditation on dying. It’s a list long enough to need a picks list of its own, but if you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Calgarian playwrights took over a stage, you’ll have to set your eyes on Lunchbox’s.