Year in Theatre: Plays aplenty in 2012

All the Way Home moved audience to tears, Chelsea Hotel charmed pants off Cohen fans

- The 2012 Vancouver theatre season got off to a great start early last January with All The Way Home, a wonderful, joy- and sorrow-filled show that sold out all five performances well before opening night. The buzz had been on for months: Electric Company Theatre's co-founder and Siminovitch prize winner Kim Collier was back in town to direct Tad Mosel's Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of James Agee's novel. Collier staged the play behind the curtain in the huge QE Theatre's backstage; we sat on benches, beds, pillows, chairs and a dining room table. It was an outstanding cast with Meg Roe and Jonathon Young in the lead roles. The final image of Young, whose character has died in a car accident, is forever emblazoned on my memory. Young walked into the dark, cavernous QE Theatre, up the aisle into the balcony. The theatre ceiling twinkled with tiny lights as he waved goodbye to his character's wife and child. In the audience, a whole group of teenaged girls - those of the eye-rolling "whatever" generation - openly sobbed. One of the best shows I've seen and a hard act to follow.

- But in the next month there was a ton of talent in Chelsea Hotel conceived and directed by Tracey Power at the Firehall Arts Centre. Six smart and sassy young performers played more than a dozen instruments and sang a selection of Leonard Cohen favourites. Marshall McMahen's set was adrift in scrunched-up paper as The Writer struggled to put words to paper whilst juggling love affairs and drinking a lot of scotch. Whether or not you are a Cohen fan (lives there a woman who isn't?), Chelsea Hotel was a treat to warm up a dreary winter evening.

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- Goodness, part of the Chutzpah! Festival and co-presented by Touchstone Theatre and Volcano Theatre, was an exercise in meta-theatre and a chilling, nightmarish post-Holocaust tale. Performers sat around the stage, took on various roles and sang, a cappella, haunting Balkan melodies. Written by Toronto's Michael Redhill and presented on a bare stage, it was a harrowing tale of tracing roots from Poland to Rwanda - the kind of show that makes you grateful to live in Canada.

- Then disaster struck: the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, B.C.'s prestigious professional theatre company that would have celebrated its 50th anniversary later in the year, ceased production. It was hard to believe that one of Canada's 15 large regional theatres was going down. Disbelief gave way to tears and anger.

- By the end of that same month Osimous Theatre opened Hedda Gabler in Roedde House. Directed by Bob Frazer, Anna Cummer was a chilly, self-absorbed Hedda and Craig Erickson was a dithering, well-intentioned Tesman. The play moved through several rooms of the old West End mansion with the audience moving along with the action. Dawn Petten was a desperately vulnerable Thea and Aslam Husain was a darkly handsome Lovborg whose very presence seemed to send electric shocks through Hedda.

- As part of the Tremors Festival, Main Street Theatre squeezed us all into its tiny venue for a real treat in April. Directed by Stephen Malloy, this scrappy young company produced Endgame with ash-covered Nagg (Daryl King) and Nell (Sasa Brown) imprisoned in trashcans by their son Hamm (Josh Drebit). At his beck and call was Ryan Beil as Clov. Known for productions of David Mamet's plays, this small company proved once again its versatility and virtuosity with Beckett's apocalyptic tale.

- Surprising us all was the Bard on the Beach production of Shakespeare's seldom-produced King John. There's usually a good reason a play is not often done but this King John felt thoroughly contemporary and relevant. It's a fascinating exploration of how dangerous is a leader who is unfit to lead. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson, Scott Bellis (as King John) was brilliant and appeared to wither before our eyes as circumstances led the monarch to unspeakable brutality. Challenging the king was his Chamberlain, portrayed by Todd Thomson in what was arguably his most outstanding performance to date.

- September ushered in the Vancouver Fringe Festival with some new faces and fresh material. Til Death Do We Part: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, written and directed by Ryan Gladstone and performed by Tara Travis, was definitely fresh. Travis played all the wives - sometimes simultaneously - in a dazzling, aerobic performance that blended humour and history.

- It was still summery in October when UBC opened The Duchess: a.k.a. Wallis Simpson. It didn't matter if the facts had been toyed with because the show was so stylish thanks to Michael Bock's art nouveau set and Miriam Thom's period gowns. Not in Linda Griffiths' original script but added by the divinely inspired director Sarah Rodgers was singing, piano-playing Alexander Keurvorst as Noel Coward. The music was such a bonus it's hard to imagine The Duchess without it. Pippa Johnstone was so headstrong and swanky as Mrs. Simpson, the woman who stole Edward VIII's heart, I'm certain Eddie would have fallen for Ms. Johnstone, too.

- Rainy November was enlivened by Winners and Losers, produced by Theatre Replacement and Neworld Theatre in Studio B at Gateway Theatre. Longtime friends Jamie Long and Marcus Youssef squared off in a game that turned so nasty I wondered if they'd still be friends by December. It started off playfully enough with debates about winners and losers: Mother Teresa, Marilyn Monroe, microwave ovens, Obama, Harper, etcetera. But when it got personal the gloves came off. Not a game I'd want to play but tremendously exciting to watch. It was scathingly honest and revealed how envy and animosity can lurk just beneath the surface of a great friendship - and can be overcome for the sake of that friendship.

- December brought two terrific plays: Eternal Hydra and Race. Directed by Touchstone Theatre's Katrina Dunn, Eternal Hydra wrestled with the subject of appropriation of voice. Who has the right to tell stories? Are writers merely thieves or do they give voice to the voiceless? John Murphy played deceased writer Gordias Carbuncle; Laara Sadiq was the obsessive, besotted scholar of his epic work, The Eternal Hydra; Andrew Wheeler portrayed the publisher who wasn't worried about plagiarism as long as it sold books; and Cherissa Richards was the African American writer whose work Carbuncle purchased and passed off as his own. So provocative was Eternal Hydra, we stood outside in the rain discussing it after Studio 16 closed its doors.

David Mamet's Race, produced by Mitch and Murray Productions, got us worried - again - about lawyers. Craig Erickson was the accused; Kwesi Ameyaw and Aaron Craven were the lawyers for the defence; and Marsh Regis was the junior partner with her own agenda. David Mackay directed this stellar cast that kept us on the edge of our seats wondering whether the legal system is not about justice but simply about winning and losing. With racism and misogyny rampant in that law office, it didn't appear that truth would have a chance in the courtroom.

- Too good to forget: Do You Want What I Have Got? created by Bill Richardson and Veda Hille; Honest Fishmongers Equity Co-op's production of King Lear with the incomparable Simon Webb as Lear; Michael Kopsa as a devilish and devilishly charming Satan in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot; Jonathan Ryder's breathtaking lighting effects in Electric Company Theatre's Initiation Trilogy; Jack Paterson's direction and France Perras's performance in The List; Rebecca Northan and the amazingly intimate admissions she drew out of her 'dates' at The Cultch in Blind Date; and, again at The Cultch, Tobias Wegner and the amazing effects his team produced in Leo; David Adams as stoic yet warm and fuzzy Tevye in Gateway Theatre's production of Fiddler On The Roof.

- Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna continues until January 16. The PuSh program is out and packed with goodies from Jan. 15 to Feb. 3. Ride The Cyclone is at the Arts Club from Jan. 17 to Feb. 16 and that's a ride you don't want to miss.

2013 is already shaping up to be a Happy New Year.

joled@telus.net

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