Rich lessons in a year's worth of theatregoing

By Monica Prendergast, July 2016

The past year’s theatrical highlights included ghosts, tears, music and silliness.

Rehearsal of The ValleyTHE SUMMER THEATRE MONTHS are a bit quieter around town in regard to theatre. The Belfry always has a summer show and this year it’s a remount of the ever-popular Mom’s the Word. There are the outdoor options of the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival or Theatre SKAM’s SKAMpede. And, of course, the end of August brings us the Fringe Festival’s grab-bag of theatrical delights. Yet compared to many other months of the year, things slow down and Victorians turn their attention to nature-based activities, getaways and holidays. 

For me it is a good time to think back on the previous theatre season and reflect. I am a theatre educator in my work, so it feels only right that I consider what going to the theatre teaches me. What did I learn from this past season of local theatregoing and reviewing?

Let’s begin with the two professional theatre companies in town: The Belfry and Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre. I admit to missing the Belfry’s sell-out show of the season, the Leonard Cohen anthology Chelsea Hotel, that many seemed to love. Next season Artistic Director Michael Shamata has programmed a similar musical revue show, this time using the music of Joni Mitchell rather than Leonard Cohen. No doubt it will also prove to be popular. But my most memorable show of the Belfry season was Joan MacLeod’s The Valley. 

I interviewed MacLeod for my February Curtain Call column and am a big fan of her work. This play tackled the tough topics of mental health and police intervention. It brought these hot-button issues down to the level of the lives of two families and their struggles before and after a Vancouver Police officer has injured a young man suffering from anxiety and depression. MacLeod walks a fine line in not judging her characters. She gives us a story filled with compassion, complexity and a sense of hopefulness that, working together, we can support both those who are struggling to regain their mental health as well as those whose job it is to protect us from harm. The production was well-directed by former Belfry AD Roy Surette and the cast of four was compelling. I was moved to tears by the end, a testament to the empathy good theatre can evoke.

Blue Bridge’s 2016 spring and summer season has just begun, so I can comment here only on their first production, Long Day’s Journey into Night. It was definitely a highlight of the year for me. Performing the play is like climbing Mount Everest for the four main actors in it, clocking in as it does at three acts and nearly four hours running time. 

Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play was not performed until after his death, according to his wishes, as it is so revelatory about himself and his highly dysfunctional family. The play is an emotional marathon for both performers and audiences. I saw it on Broadway in 2003 with Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard. It was a shattering experience, so seeing it again I was definitely haunted by this memory. This happens often in theatregoing practice when seeing more than one production of the same play. The haunted sensation of seeing a play through your memory of a previous incarnation can be highly pleasurable or can be difficult, depending on context.

Brian Richmond did an excellent job directing this Blue Bridge production with Toronto actors David Ferry and Kyra Harper as the parents James and Mary Tyrone, and Elliott Loran and Jacob Richmond as sons and brothers Edmund and Jamie. As the mother Mary slips back into her morphine addiction, the father and his sons fight and drink whiskey and spill secrets and resentments. The play leaves an audience with little hope of any improvement in the lot of this early 20th century Irish-American theatrical family. To lose oneself, as Mary does, in the dope-filled haze of past memories is a temporary balm that avoids facing the challenges lying ahead: poverty, illness and death. 

Great art such as O’Neill’s masterwork reminds us that denial is a tactic doomed to failure and that (as Leo Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina) each unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique ways. I left the theatre feeling drained but a little bit wiser, another gift theatre can provide.

The one other professional company in town is Pacific Opera Victoria. They gave us a solid season but my highlight was The Barber of Seville for one reason. I took a group of my drama education students from UVic to see the show. I always take my students to the theatre. A comic opera felt like a good choice to introduce the art form to them and to encourage them to consider taking their own students to the opera and the theatre in future. Pacific Opera provides free classroom workshops for their shows so we were well prepared (including a viewing of the famous Bugs Bunny cartoon!) before we went. The production was terrific, but my memory of it is coloured by the pleasure of accompanying my students to the dress rehearsal and witnessing the enjoyment of their first time at the opera. Introducing young people to the performing arts has been a big part of my career. It feels very rewarding each time I am able to do so.

The three most memorable non-professional shows I saw this season were all musicals. I find this remarkable as I am usually more drawn to plays than musicals. But the Phoenix’s Threepenny Opera, Canadian College of Performing Arts’ Into the Woods and the Victoria Operatic Society’s Spamalot were all first-rate. 

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, directed by Brian Richmond (a UVic theatre professor as well as founder of Blue Bridge Theatre), was a strong production of an important piece of pre-WWII German theatre. Brecht’s anti-capitalist and anti-fascist politics are in clear evidence, wrapped up in the entertaining plot and razor-sharp lyrics of Weill’s songs. The continuing relevance of these critical perspectives (President Trump?!) was what I carried out the door with me that night.

At CCPA I enjoyed seeing one of my favourite theatre artist’s work performed by a group of talented students and capably directed by Sara-Jeanne Hosie. Stephen Sondheim is a notoriously difficult composer, but this cast tackled Into the Woods with plenty of gusto. This is another haunted show for me as I have seen productions of it in New York, Toronto and Vancouver. So, while I was definitely seeing and hearing some “ghosts” while watching this student production, I enjoyed the evident delight this young company took in tackling Sondheim’s heights. And the takeaway lesson here? Every fairy tale has an ending beyond its happy ending; “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the woods/You are not alone/Believe me/No one is alone.”

Finally, I recently covered Eric Idle’s musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail renamed Spamalot. The musical was a huge hit on Broadway and in many subsequent remounts and tours. It proved to be a huge hit here as well in director Roger Carr’s skilled hands and with a terrific ensemble of actor/singers, designers and dancers. The show was a sellout at the MacPherson Theatre and rumour has it there will be another run of the show in the fall. Not all theatre has to carry a message or a lesson to be learned. I left the MacPherson with a big smile on my face and giggled all the way home. Sometimes pure silliness shared with a few hundred others can carry the day.

Readers might be interested in performance theorist Marvin Carlson’s book The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (University of Michigan Press, 2001) as the source for some of theatre educator Monica Prendergast’s thinking here.