This past year might be remembered by the theatre community as the calm before the storm: Established and fledgling companies faced the recession head-on, taking over every stage (and park and beach) they could, only to be hobbled at year’s end with potentially crippling government budget cuts for 2010. But if the last 12 months showed audiences anything, it’s that Vancouver actors, playwrights, and directors aren’t backing down.
From innovative staging, to youthful troupes coming of age, to women reigning supreme, WE turns its spotlight on some of the year’s most memorable stage moments.
SISTERS ARE DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES
Female performers, playwrights, and directors made major impressions in 2009. Kicking off the year was Arts Club’s production of The Constant Wife, W. Somerset Maugham’s Roaring Twenties-era comedy of manners. A classy middle finger to the notion that women should be reliant on men, this visually intoxicating, well-acted, and deeply subversive disguised-as-fluff comedy was further buoyed by leading lady Nicole Underhay’s portrayal of the nonchalant wife of a cheating doctor, and Moya O’Connell as her tough-as-nails spinster sister. At the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum — but no less effective — was Toronto-based playwright Linda Griffiths’s Victorian-era drama, Age of Arousal. A Touchstone Theatre Company and Arts Club collaboration, skillfully directed by Touchstone’s Katrina Dunn, Arousal explored feminism, women’s burgeoning sexual liberation, and the delicate balance of power between lovers Laara Sadiq and Susan Hogan. Ruby Slippers Theatre’s A Beautiful View featured a powerhouse Colleen Wheeler and Ruby Slippers co-founder Diane Brown blurring the line between friends and lovers. Capping off a phenomenal year in this area is Blackbird Theatre’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (currently running at The Cultch). Meg Roe lights up the stage as Honey, the young wife and comic foil to Gabrielle Rose’s wondrously venomous, gin-soaked Martha.
Well, they’re not really kids, but they are the relatively new kids on Vancouver’s theatre block. The past year offered a stellar showcase of up-and-coming theatre companies defying expectations to put on professional-quality productions that were both thought-provoking and pulsing with youthful energy. Itsazoo Theatre debuted resident playwright Sebastian Archibald’s modernized version of The Canterbury Tales. Entitled The Road to Canterbury, it was an entertaining and sly commentary on our muddy, modern society, with riffs on well-known Bob Dylan songs and jabs at our corporate culture, in much the way Geoffrey Chaucer’s Tales critiqued late medieval England. This was the group’s second summer using Queen Elizabeth Park as the setting for their special brand of roving theatre, hopefully signalling a new annual tradition to replace the summer meanderings of seemingly extinct production company Boca del Lupo. And Fighting Chance Productions — who in 2008 braved the not-so-biblical wrath of Westboro Baptist Church “God Hates Fags” pastor Fred Phelps for their production of The Laramie Project — literally shook the North Vancouver walls of the Presentation House with their brash and bold take on the ’90s Broadway hit, Rent.
Under Morris Panych’s direction, The Constant Wife was an immediate hit, but credit must be shared with Ken MacDonald and his Jessie Award-winning set design. All eyes were rivetted on the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage’s transformation into an Art Deco House & Home centrefold, featuring austere white pillars, rounded walls, and dreamlike sky-high windows. On a more economical and incongruous note, Vancouver playwright Andrew Templeton’s Fringe Fest hit Biographies of the Dead and Dying employed a rusted cast-iron bathtub as the centrepiece of its bare-bones set. Whether director Jeremy Waller envisioned some sort of overarching metaphor for his salvage-yard find or merely picked it up on a whim, watching cast members Heather Lindsay and Simon Driver lug it to and fro across the stage (or simulate violent sexual encounters on top of it) was, to say the least, unforgettable. But sometimes it’s the smallest details that stand out, even when watching an overblown musical comedy. Such was the case with Playhouse Theatre’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in which a boardwalk bicycle transformed itself into the roulette wheel of a French Riviera casino. You may have missed the moment if you blinked, and yet, for those fortunate enough to catch it, it encapsulated in miniature all the innovation, wonder, and surprise that live theatre can offer.