A stop along the way

By Monica Prendergast, March 2014

Touring productions enrich and enliven the local theatre scene this month.

Our local theatre artists give us substantial seasons to enjoy all year round. I am grateful for this, but I must admit that I also look forward to what the touring circuit brings to Victoria. Travelling productions are generally supported by the Canada Council and other arts granting agencies because the shows are already acknowledged in their hometowns as worthy of national attention. March brings no fewer than five productions to Victoria, all of which promise to enrich our theatre-going experience.

Halifax’s 2b Theatre has been hosted here before by both Intrepid Theatre and The Belfry. 2b’s collaboration with musician Hawksley Workman in a musical version of the Myth of Bacchus, The God That Comes, was a recent hit at Vancouver’s PuSH Festival after scoring at Intrepid. I regret missing this piece since I have been impressed by 2b’s other productions in previous years. An adaptation of a classic play, Revisited, a new version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and a play by one of Canada’s hottest young playwrights, The Russian Play by Hannah Moscovitch, were both very compelling. This year as part of the Spark Festival at The Belfry, 2b is presenting When it Rains, described as “a live-action existential graphic novel.” Not to be missed. 

The second highlight at Spark is the Irish play Terminus from Toronto’s Outside the March Theatre. On the basis of reviews of productions in Toronto and Vancouver, I am very intrigued to see Mark O’Rowe’s “lyrical rap opera.” This small company had the great fortune to be invited by producer David Mirvish to remount the show at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. In that imposingly large Toronto space, Terminus was performed with all audience members sitting on stage along with the actors, an unusual approach that was well received. The play itself is challenging in both form and content, as it explores three characters whose poetic monologues reveal the darker side of a night in Dublin. Another must-see. 

The third road show pulling into Spark is Little Iliad. Constructed as a Skype conversation between two friends, one of whom is shipping out to Afghanistan, the audience taps into the connection via headphones. The duo of Ontario-based actor/creators Evan Webber and Frank Cox-O’Connell explore the “theatre of war” on at least a couple of levels: as dangerous territory literally shared by soldiers, and thematically by these two artists. The Spark Festival runs at the Belfry March 17-30.

Also in March, Pacific Opera Victoria and Early Music Society of the Islands are co-hosting a touring production, which is a rare treat. At the McPherson Playhouse on March 14 and 15, the Boston Early Music Festival is performing Orphée, a blend of two French Baroque operas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. La Couronne du Fleurs, based on a text by Molière, depicts a musical contest in which shepherds sing and dance to the glory of the Sun King Louis XIV. La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, an unfinished opera, is woven in as a segment of the contest and tells the familiar mythical tale of the musician Orpheus descending into the Underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from Pluto, the ruler of Hell. Those who love opera and early music—performed by the Boston ensemble with period orchestration including viola de gamba and harpsichord—will be sure to add this event to their calendars.

The fifth out-of-town production arriving here in March is actually here-in-town just as much; that is, commissioned by our own Blue Bridge. Now firmly based in Vancouver, ITSAZOO Theatre began in Victoria as a UVic theatre student company, co-founded by Chelsea Haberlin, Sebastian Archibald and Colby Wilson in 2004. A number of ITSAZOO shows were successful in Victoria, including their site-specific comedies at Mount Douglas Park, (Grimm Tales, The Road to Canterbury). They have also presented original plays, often written by Archibald, an intelligent young playwright. Having recently completed her MFA in directing at UBC, Haberlin occupies that chair in the company.

ITSAZOO’s former mentor, UVic professor Brian Richmond, also artistic director of Blue Bridge, shows his loyalty to this group of dedicated alumni by inviting them back to Victoria to present the Canadian premiere of The Flick. This play had its Off-Broadway debut only a year ago. It usually takes much longer for a cutting-edge critical success like this to reach Victoria, so we are indeed fortunate to have the chance to catch this play’s first production north of the border.

The New York Times describes playwright Annie Baker as “one of the freshest and most talented dramatists to emerge Off-Broadway in the past decade, [who] writes with tenderness and keen insight about the way people make messes of their lives—and the lives of people they care about—and then sink into benumbed impotence, hard pressed to see any way of cleaning things up.” The Flick takes us into the lives of three staff members at a single-screen movie house in Worcester County, Massachusetts. In an inspired matching of play and location, The Flick will be performed at the Roxy, itself a movie house currently in transition to a live theatre space (March 18-30). 

Clearly, March is exciting for the wealth of theatre created by artists from elsewhere who are bringing their work to us here. We who care about the performing arts should be very appreciative that these shows receive the public funding necessary for us to be given the opportunity to see them. This holds for other performing arts series, such as the wonderful Dance Victoria series that I have subscribed to for many years. Dance Victoria producer Stephen White took on the challenge of convincing dance companies to cross the Georgia Strait. If not for his efforts, and those of arts funding agencies, dance lovers would still be travelling to Vancouver and Seattle to see internationally recognized performances that now appear downtown as a stop along the way. 

I moved to the Island 15 years ago from Toronto (one of the great performing arts cities in the English-speaking world), and have made regular trips back there, as well as to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and occasionally further abroad to London and Sydney, to encounter world-class performance. I make these journeys to Broadway or the West End, or to catch Toronto companies such as Soulpepper, Tarragon, Canadian Stage and Factory Theatre, to fill myself up with dramatic art I would not otherwise have the chance to experience. 

Yet, writing this Focus column is helping me to better recognize how much homegrown theatre we have to celebrate here. In addition to that, I respect how Victoria’s artistic directors and producers understand the importance of bringing productions to their audiences from other places whenever possible. This is how an audience and a theatre community become better educated, enlivened and enriched. The takeaway here for me, and perhaps for all of us, is to be vigilant about protecting public funding for touring productions. If you too value performance culture visiting us, perhaps you might call or email your representatives in government to tell them so (I trust you have already contacted them to register your opposition to the pipeline, right?)

Monica Prendergast reviews theatre for CBC Radio’s On the Island, teaches and researches drama/theatre education and applied theatre, and has worked as an actor or director on many stages in Victoria and beyond.