Fortunately for us, Toronto is chock-a-block with dynamite theatre on a good day, and recently there have been more good days than bad days.
Currently, there are two shows running that are created by, and feature, forerunners in Canadian creativity, talent and ingenuity: CRUEL AND TENDER at Canadian Stage, directed by Atom Egoyan and featuring Arsinée Khanjian, and PENNY PLAIN at Factory Theatre created by Ronnie Burkett, and featuring him along with his Theatre of Marionettes.
First things first - if you haven't seen a show created by Ronnie Burkett, you're missing out. BIG TIME.
He is literally one of THE most talented people I have come across. Ever. Not only does Burkett design and build all the marionnettes, he writes the show, is the voice for all the characters, and is the sole maniuplator of the puppets. All of which are done with such precision, it's easy to forget that the characters on stage are not moving at their own will. It's a stunning acheivement for one person.
PENNY PLAIN, currently running at the Factory Theatre is his latest creation, and, although it's beautiful, it's not his best work. At times the story veers into 'Where are you going with this?' territory and there was too much time spent on extraneous dialogue. The show could've used some scissors. (!!0 mins with no intermission is long!)
But despite that, the man's a creative genius and his ability to create deep, rich, compelling and real characters is still ever-so-much in tact. There was an audible collective gasp from the audience when a marionette reappears at the end of the show, who had obvious signs of abuse.
All of us were invested in this make-believe world of apocalypse and puppets. We laughed, we cried, and it was absolutely better than CATS. You need to witness the genius of Ronnie Burkett and his Theatre of Marionettes. It is literally unlike anything you've ever seen before.
Another phat-cat of Canadian talent is Atom Egoyan. That guy who was nomiated for Oscars and stuff? He's directing a play a CanadianStage called CRUEL AND TENDER, an adaptaion by playwright Martin Crimp of Sophocles' tragedy THE WOMEN OF TRACHIS.
It stars another hot commodity in the Canadian arts world, Arsinée Khanjian as Amelia, a spoiled woman of the West who is waiting for her husband to return from war in Africa, unaware that her world will be forever altered with the news of the war atrocities he has committed, and by the arrival of Laela, a young African woman for whom her husband has fallen in love with. Struggling with these shocking revelations, and coping with her own feelings of neglect and loneliness, Amelia attempts to bring her husband home from war by (spoiler alert!) poisoning him, and ultimately killing him.
I enjoy a solid and epic Greek tragedy, and the set design by Debra Hanson reflected the grandiose, non-naturalistic feel of the play. Plus it looked very cool. The supporting cast were strong and the costumes were beautiful.
But... I didn't care about it. Any of it. The only character I felt somewhat connected to was Brenda Robbins as the Housekeeper, and there were times when I had to deliberately shift my attention to action on stage other than Arsinée because she annoyed me so much. Her intentional, heightened delivery of dialogue served only to distance me further from the story, a Brechtian technique worthy of doing if it serves the play and it's intent, but it didn't work here.
There was such build-up to this play and hype about the creative team behind it, that it really needed to knock-my-socks off to measure up. Unfortunately it didn't. For a play that discusses the horror of war, I didn't feel horrified nor did it make me reflect on war in Africa or elsewhere.
So what was the point?
PENNY PLAIN is on at the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St.) unti February 26. For tix visit factorytheatre.ca
CRUEL AND TENDER is on at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front St. E) until Feb. 18. For tix visit canadianstage.com