I make a point of regularly catching productions by local theatre-school conservatory programs, where I have a chance to watch students in their final year and see the talent that will soon be on professional stages. It's a way for me to watch process, just as enjoyable as catching workshops of scripts that will come to fruition somewhere down the road.
I mostly see shows at George Brown and Ryerson, and over the years I've watched the early work of such talents as Ben Clost, Brett Christopher, Julie Tepperman, Aaron Willis, Ryan Ward and Janick Hébert.
This fall George Brown staged Jean Giradoux's The Madwoman Of Chaillot, directed by Jason Byrne, who wowed audiences with his work on the Company Theatre's Whistle In The Dark. Giradoux's script, in which the title character and her friends battle the greed of money-hungry capitalists and lead them to a private dark hell underneath Paris, is too full of whimsy for my taste.
Byrne helmed a spare production with the company in whiteface, and while he encouraged an edgy physical style, the results were mixed. Still, Alex Paxton-Beesley as the paradoxically naive yet wise countess who knows how to deal with evil has a fine stage presence, and I look forward to see how her work develops over the next few years.
For the first time that I can recall, Ryerson offered shows in rep, with Judith Thompson's Lion In The Streets playing one evening and a double bill of Will Eno's The Flu Season and Harold Pinter's The Dwarfs the next.
Lion is one of Thompson's best plays, and director Richard Greenblatt's production lets us rediscover her extraordinary language. The play is a series of interconnected character studies linked by the ghost of the young murdered Isobel (Megan Watson), who functions as outcast, Cassandra figure and saviour. The other nine actors played over 30 characters who provide lessons in cruelty, victimization and the difficulty of understanding others. The second act was especially strong, and Thompson's pungent words have never been better.
The double bill proved again the extraordinary talent of director Jennifer Tarver. The Flu Season, played out on Camellia Koo's spare black and white set, follows the up-and-down relationship between a man and a woman (Benjamin Sanders and Kathleen Werneburg) in a psychiatric hospital, where they are cared for (though that's a very loose phrase here) by a doctor and nurse (Jesse Tyrell and Katherine Corbett).
The story is quirky enough, but Eno also throws in a postmodern characters called Prologue and Epilogue (Thom Stoneman and Raffaele Ciampaglia), mirror opposites of each other; the former is a smiling optimist, the latter, a saturnine, sardonic pessimist. They not only set the scene and comment on the action, but also philosophize about the nature of writing and the problems of creating for the stage.
The pair might be younger and older versions of the same person, representing innocence and experience.
The script sometimes loses dramatic tension, but the cast and director gave it enough shape to hold the audience for two hours.
The evening's highlight, though, was the Pinter, a rarely revived early script that looks at the power struggles and relationship shifts involving three men (Matthew Dionne, Ian McRoberts and Tim Welham). Working with assistant director and dialect coach David Jansen -- why doesn't that fine actor direct more? -- Tarver polished the difficult hour-long work, coaxing expert performances from her young cast, keeping the rhythms taut and exploring the playfulness and the darkness in and underneath Pinter's words.
Not only was The Dwarfs an expert student production, it was also one of the best shows of the fall season.