Vancouver theatre: top ten 2016

Fight With a Stick produced Revolutions in an empty warehouse.

Revolutions, which was produced by Fight With a Stick is one of my favourite all-time theatrical experiences.

It’s true: in many ways, 2016 has been terrifying. The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States promises concrete horrors for years to come.

But, the way I see things, theatre provides an alternative to the values and impulses that will soon put Trump in the Oval Office. It’s no accident that the orange man went all Twitter-apeshit when the racially diverse, queer-trending cast of the musical, Hamilton, asked Mike Pence to assure Americans that the incoming administration would treat minorities fairly: theatre, especially determinedly progressive theatre like Hamilton, is in direct opposition to everything that Trump and Pence stand for.

Trump’s Twitter-verse is superficial and reactive. The unscrupulous showman built his campaign on fear of the other, on selfishness and hatred.

By its nature, theatre is uniquely positioned to oppose all of that. At its core, theatre is compassionate: playwrights and actors imagine themselves into the souls of other people, and audiences reflect—don’t miss that word reflect—in real, shared time and space, on how we know ourselves and treat one another.

That celebration of common humanity is a crucial form of resistance. And that resistance, which is a kind of love, is one of the things, these days, that gives me hope.

Here, in chronological order, are ten theatrical experiences from the past year that are particularly precious to me.

Betroffenheit (Electric Company Theatre, Kidd Pivot)– Betroffenheit is one of the most monumental—and profoundly brave—works of art I’ve witnessed. Created by theatre maker Jonathon Young and choreographer Crystal Pite, Betroffenheit draws its energy from real-life tragedy: Young’s daughter and her two cousins perished in a cabin fire. Betroffenheit explores Young’s subsequent entrapment in shock and grief.

Pite’s choreography is exquisite—there is a solo in Act 2 in which the combination of release and ongoing containment is as welcome as pain can be—and the evening’s theatricality is mind-blowing. Young plays a man who is imprisoned in a bleakly industrial room. In the opening moments, as Owen Belton’s score undermines your senses, electrical cables in that room come alive and twist, like snakes, across the floor.

 

Onegin (Arts Club) – March 23 – April 10 – Near the top of Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille’s musical adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel, Eugene Onegin, the characters sing, “Oh dear Father up in heaven, release us from boredom.” This runaway hit banished boredom on every luscious level.

The cast was perfect: Alessandro Juliani shining in the title role as the wounded narcissist; Meg Roe, powerfully transparent as the love interest; pros Andrew McNee, Catriona Murphy, and Andrew Wheeler, as well as newcomer Lauren Jackson gobbling up the witty lyrics and flinging themselves into the outsized emotions.

I want to live in Drew Facey’s lavish set and wear Jacqueline Firkins’s extravagant costumes.

 

Revolutions (Fight with a Stick) – This show fucked me up: for several minutes, I thought I might be losing my mind, and—in controlled circumstances—we all know how much fun that can be.

I dearly hope Revolutions will return, so I don’t want to give too much away. Let me just say that the poetry of this piece is concrete. Space speaks. Walls sing.

For me, Revolutions was all about the dissolution of modes of understanding, or maybe about transcendence. I have no idea whether or not creators Steven Hill and Alexander Lazaridis Ferguson were working with these concepts—and I don’t care, because this is the kind of piece that clearly invites active meaning-making. If that sounds heady, forget I said it. Revolutions was thrilling. It was a blast.

 

Hair (The Renegade Arts Co.) – In high school, I had such a big, curly mane that my nickname was Jimi Hendrix; director Dawn Ewen’s production of the landmark musical Hair almost made me feel like I had my hippie locks back.

Although many productions treat this 1967 musical as if it were a goofy cultural artefact, Ewen and her company embraced its passionate, complicated heart—and made clear sense of its associative plot, including a long, hallucinatory sequence.

The innocence of this production was pure and powerful—never more so than in the final number, “Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)”, in which the singers meet violence and hate with hope. I saw this production of Hair just after a shooter murdered 49 innocents inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. I would love to be in a theatre full of people singing “Let the Sunshine In” again.

 

Pericles (Bard on the Beach) – In director Lois Anderson’s story-theatre approach, we were watching terra cotta figurines jousting on a field represented by an expanse of fabric. Then that fabric magically transformed into a horse. In their sublime simplicity, moments like this remind us of the glory of our imaginations.

Anderson reinvented Pericles—which, frankly, needs inventing—cutting material, rearranging scenes, and adding text from sources as diverse as Rumi and Euripides. The result was an enchanting and moving fairy tale.

 

The After After Party (at the Vancouver Fringe) – Crazy, youth-driven genius.

In The After After Party, which they co-wrote and performed, Katie Hoffman and Cheyenne Mabberley played a pair of drunk, stoned teenagers who are looking for the after after party, but that they can’t remember what they did at the party or the after party, so they snort Ritalin to focus their minds and travel back in time.

Amazingly, this comic team keep the surprises coming for an hour. When snorting Ritalin doesn’t work, they shove it up their asses. After Hoffman’s character has been uncharacteristically quiet for a minute, she comes round and says, “I was dead there for a bit. God was a giant baby that was just welcoming everybody—except the masturbators.”

Outrageous? You bet. Unique? Uh, yeah. And very, very skilled.

 

The Orbweaver (Once Once Producciones, Quimera Theatre Collective, and UBC Players Club at the Vancouver Fringe) – In Paula Zelaya Cervantes’s magical realist play, Quiron, who is unfortunately engaged as Death’s chauffeur, meets Elena when Death comes for her father. They fall in love, but soon realize that they can only meet when someone in Elena’s village dies. So they start killing people.

The physical production, which featured shadow puppets, lovingly detailed costumes, and extremely handsome people, was a delight. And there is a moment near the end of the play that identifies the theatre as a transcendent—perhaps eternal—place of communion. It made me weep.

 

The Flick (The Arts Club Theatre) – Annie Baker’s The Flick unspools in a movie theatre. For about three hours, we just watch three employees chat as they clean the space between shows. But that chat and our observation of it are meditations on time and yearning. How does technology, including the shift from film to digital projection, mediate our experience? How do we connect with others when we barely know ourselves?

A couple of times, the characters go into the projection booth. We can’t hear them talking when they’re in there; we can only watch them, suspended, in a rectangle of light—and wonder at their beauty.

Director Dean Paul Gibson’s production featured excellent performances from Shannon Chan-Kent, Jesse Reid, and especially Haig Sutherland.

 

Elizabeth Barrett in Angels in America, Part One: Millenium Approaches (Studio 58) – How much fun is it to discover new talent? Do you like falling in love? It’s kind of like that.

In director Rachel Peake’s masterful production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One, Elizabeth Barrett, played Harper, a Valium-addicted Mormon housewife married to a gay man. Harper is one of the best female roles in the modern canon, and Barrett aced it, delivering a witty, intelligent—and, above all, skinlessly responsive—performance.

When Harper runs in to Prior in one of her hallucinations—Prior is a character who’s living with AIDS and who is experiencing his own version of extended reality—she tells him that she sees a part of him that is so pure it cannot be touched by disease. That moment between Barrett’s Harper and Julien Galipeau’s Prior broke my heart so expertly I thought I might have to leave the theatre.

 

East Van Panto: Little Red Riding Hood (Theatre Replacement) – Knock me over and tickle me senseless: I had such a good time at East Van Panto: Little Red Riding Hood.

That’s because of Mark Chavez’s hilariously surreal script: when Red gets lost on the Adanac bike path on the way to Grandma’s house—Grandma lives in the Woodward’s Building, rather than the woods—she consults Siri, who complains, “I am so alone.” It’s also because Andrew McNee makes a ridiculously charming, roguishly sexy Big Bad Wolf; nobody has more fun on-stage than McNee does. And, of course, it’s because the audience was full of kids, who are, essentially, ball bearings of happiness: embrace their presence and you can let your adult theatregoing experience skitter about on their glee.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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