By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
2021 was the year a mystery box, gift-wrapped in silver with a Do Not Open warning, arrived at the house. At showtime three days later, it turned out to contain cues for a play — no, a theatre experience — custom-made for me out of my own memories, lost sensations, special moments, connections.
Ah, not so much made for but made by me. Starring me, blindfolded. Created on the spot, entirely by hearing and touch.
That was La Boîte Sensorielle, a theatrical Door Dash delivery from Edmonton’s francophone L’UniThéâtre of a “production” by Ghost River Theatre. Co-created by Christopher Duthie and Ghost River artistic director Eric Rose, it was an ingenious demo of the endless contortionist resourcefulness of theatre artists. And a reminder that there are many ways in a Zoom-flattened, constricted world to re-animate the old theatre truism that there’s no show without the audience. It felt like a hug. (Check out the mystery box here).
Here’s a sampling in no particular order of highlights from another pandemically obstructionist year in theatre.
The hot ticket of the year and the catchiest singalong: In a part of the world where political satire tends to be an import product, Grindstone Theatre’s hit musical Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer is of the here and now. It’s into its “fourth wave” come January (the first, second, and third waves have sold every ticket). Inspired by the year’s most infamous mantra “the best summer ever,” as proclaimed by the most unpopular premier in Alberta history and his compliant doctor sidekick, the rockin’ ‘80s frat party musical by Byron Martin and composer/musician Simon Abbott gave us the title character (played to the hilt by Donovan Workun) as a dazed ignoramus with a party-hearty “base.” Of the clever songs, the best part of a wilfully goofball entertainment, Fuck Kenney is the one that has the audience singing and cheering. Here’s the 12thnight Review.
And next … the cosmos (go vast or go home): From playwright/ actor/ theatre-maker Makram Ayache, a dizzyingly ambitious time-traveller, border-crosser of a play, epic in scale and vision, in which origin mythologies collide. At the centre of The Hooves The Belonged To The Deer is an outsider: a young Arab Muslim boy, a first-generation immigrant gradually discovering his queerness in a small/ rigorously conservative/ very white prairie town. In an era when the walls seem to be closing in on us, here’s a play that expands; it flies across cultures, out of the present the present back back back past whiteness to where the Tree of Forbidden Knowledge stands. It happened as part of The Alberta Queer Calendar Project, directed by Peter Hinton as a two-act podcast, with hopes for a live production in 2022. Read the 12thnight Review.
The get-off-your-butt tour: Playwright Gerald Osborn’s audio walking Fringe journey, in honour of the four-decade anniversary of our beloved summer theatre bash, took us, on foot, to 40th and Fringe, seminal sites in early Fringes to hear stories assembled by the festival’s wry unofficial archivist.
At Nextfest, the most calming experience of the year was Would You Wander, Sam Jeffery’s “nature/storytelling” podcast. It unrolled in six high-contrast episodes of storytelling and conversation direct to your ear, designed to accompany your own walking escapes from your house. Everything from an educational meditation on mushrooms to the invitation to sit under a tree and hear some poetry. See the 12thnight interview with Jeffery here.
Go small (AND stay home): The moody, troubled Prince of Denmark already gets more lines by nearly two to one than any other character in Shakespeare. In Thou Art Here Theatre’s experimental mini-series Hamlet in Isolation, he didn’t have to shove over for anyone else. The six half-hour episodes in May and June, starring up-and-comers who had never before played the role, were spun from the soliloquies. Read about it here.
The filmic pivot: In Northern Light’s handsomely produced The Look and The Ugly Duchess, two solo plays about appearance, image, screens, mirrors, screens (adapted by Trevor Schmidt and starring Linda Grass and Lora Brovold, respectively), had the satisfying reverb of medium and message in sync. Read the 12thnight reviews here, and here.
At Teatro La Quindicina, playwright/ actor/ director Belinda Cornish directed a selection of early short “lost” plays of Stewart Lemoine, absurdist in flavour, as a film — streamed in a real theatre (the Varscona) with a real stage, a real red velvet curtain, and real live opening nights in the theatre. That was Lost Lemoine Part 1. Lost Lemoine Part 2: A Second Round of Seconds, a whirl of small two-hander scenes capitalized on the recurring imagery only possible on film. In A Fit, Happy Life, a series of encounters between a department store bed salesman (Mathew Hulshof) and his customers, Kristen Padayas became a different character, in a different costume, in every scene.
The lure of the local: One of the delights of Belinda Cornish’s The Garneau Block, adapted from Todd Babiak’s 2006 novel, was the detailed way it lived in this place, down to references to Remedy, Continental Treat, and endless one-lane closure on 109th Street. Which felt like a response to the perennial question of why we live here. Holly Lewis’s farce The Fiancée brought its post-war setting and riotous sense of impending chaos on location to Edmonton too. They both premiered at the Citadel.
Prop of the year: the monkey sock puppet in Hiraeth. In Belinda Cornish’s new play (which premiered in a Bright Young Things production), an odd-couple comedy that turns emotional in a heartbreaking way, the puppet is the pivot on which the mystery turns.
Busiest theatre artist of the year: Belinda Cornish (see above). In the last half of 2021 two of her plays premiered, and she directed three films, and a live staged play (Fever Land at Teatro La Quindicina).
Storytelling as dress-up: Hero Material, designer Leona Brausen’s series of costume installations in the windows of the Varscona Theatre, told the stories of four inspiring and influential Canadian women — Viola Desmond, Emily Carr, Buffy Sainte Marie and k.d. lang — in costumes.
Inspired idea of the year (administration division): More than a few contenders. Here are four.
RISER: Edmonton is the first national expansion of an initiative by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre, designed to make indie theatre more do-able. Read about it here.
AZ-MAP: Azimuth Theatre’s mentorship and apprenticeship program gives the careers-in-progress of emerging artists a boost, with instruction, self-guided learning, and a real-live 8-month contract. Read about it here.
EPCOR’s Heart + Soul Fund continued to live up to its name. It’s made possible so many theatre productions and pivots of every shape and scale that you’d be right to wonder what theatre we would actually have experienced this year without it.
Péhonán: The name means “meeting place” in Cree. The Fringe devoted one of its 11 indoor venues exclusively to Indigenous theatre, a different show every night. Bear Grease was the first Fringe show to sell all its tickets in advance. Read about it here.
Re-pivoting the pivot (or the pirouette): The Plain Janes’ summer sequel to Scenes From The Sidewalk, their ingenious “inside out cabaret” that put the actors on the street looking at the audience inside the theatre lobby, had to be flipped. In a last-minute reversal smoke and the terrible air quality drove the cast inside the Westbury Theatre lobby (so… the “inside inside cabaret”). See the 12thnight review.
You know you’re in a deluxe improv town when … Die-Nasty does Chekhov. With The Stroganoffs, the first half of the current Die-Nasty season, the weekly improvised soap opera put the suds back into the Russian master. Many references to orchards.
The creative life of artists (living the dream?): The meta-musical Tick, Tick … Boom!, the feature film debut of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a riveting capture of what it’s like to live the artist’s life — the all-consuming passion, ambition, insomniac anxiety, fear, loneliness, frustration. A terrific performance from Andrew Garfield as angst-riven Rent playwright Jonathan Larson who died suddenly at 35 on the eve of that global success is centrestage.
No theatre artist was more articulate about inspiration and creation than Stephen Sondheim, whose death has made us all remember the first time they saw one of his musicals. A true game-changer. The 2013 HBO documentary homage Six By Sondheim is a fascinating glimpse into his world, and the mind of a genius.
Did you see 2021: the year Edmonton theatre returned to live (part 1)? You can read it here.