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Ronnie Burkett's Penny Plain (Trudie Lee)
Ronnie Burkett's Penny Plain (Trudie Lee)

Year in review

Highlights of 2011 from the West Coast Add to ...

Now this is exciting: a guest spot on Kelly Nestruck’s theatre blog. He’s asked me for my top Vancouver theatre experiences of the year, and I’ve narrowed it down to five. I don’t get to as much theatre as I’d like – I wish I could see everything – so please don’t see this list as definitive, but rather as a walk through some personal highlights.

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Ride the Cyclone

Atomic Vaudeville’s tragicomic musical (written by Jacob Richmond with lyrics and music by Richmond and Brooke Maxwell) has stayed with me since I saw it almost three months ago at the Revue Stage on Granville Island. Six high school kids lose their lives in a roller coaster accident, but before they take off to that big amusement park in the sky, they each sing a final song encapsulating their lives. Smart, funny, sad and unforgettable, I fell for each character harder than the last. I was so entranced with Rielle Braid’s performance as the overachieving mixed-faith schoolgirl Ocean Rosenberg that I spent the next day Googling her (I don’t usually do this; I swear).

1984

On opening night of Virtual Stage’s new production of 1984 at The Cultch, adapted from George Orwell’s chilling novel by Andy Thompson and Andrew Wheeler – who played party official O’Brien – received what was described as a blow to the head early in the second act. The performance stopped for about 10 minutes. (Alex Lazaridis Ferguson, who played Winston Smith with a British accent, came on stage and made the announcement, sans accent, which was kind of weird.) Then the show went on, Wheeler sporting a bandage over his left eye.

After the performance, Wheeler went to the hospital where he received five stitches. The next day, he was back on stage – for two performances. Wheeler’s tenacity was not the only remarkable thing about this production: it was a dark whirl of chaos and fear, and I mostly loved it (re-reading my review, I recall that I felt the show lost momentum in the second act, and wondered if it was because of the injury; it might have been). I hope this smart adaptation resurfaces, but fear its cast of 27 (mostly graduating Studio 58 students from Langara College in this case) will prove cost-prohibitive.

Ronnie Burkett’s Penny Plain

The Cultch is a few blocks from my home in East Vancouver, and after the two-minute drive home (normally I would walk, really, but there were extenuating circumstances), I walked in the front door of my house and then turned around again. “I need a moment,” I said. The fact is: This show terrified me.

Using puppets, Burkett has created an experience more real than apocalyptic feature films; one that stands up to chilling documentaries full of frightening facts about the consequences of what we’re doing to the planet. This puppet show put a pit in my stomach, jolting me out of a complacent calm. The story of an old woman in the final days of the world, interviewing potential candidates to replace her faithful dog, was smart, dark, funny and real. And the puppets – wow. Burkett’s intricate marionettes are beautiful, and despite the longer-than-usual strings in this production, he handled them with great mastery. It’s little wonder this was the most successful production in the history of The Cultch.

Hairspray

When Jay Brazeau, playing Edna Turnblad (the role is traditionally played by a man), suffered a minor stroke during a preview performance of the Arts Club’s production of Hairspray last May, the show’s future was thrown into question. There was no understudy – the Arts Club can’t afford such luxuries, its artistic managing director Bill Millerd explained to me, as he scrambled for a solution (he was also directing).

Enter Andy Toth. Timeline: Brazeau’s stroke happened on a Thursday night. Toth was secured by early Friday afternoon. The Friday night and Saturday performances were cancelled as Toth rehearsed like a madman, and the curtain went up Sunday, opening the following Wednesday. I saw the show a few days later and Toth was wonderful. There was no suggestion whatsoever that he was less-than-prepared for the part. Brazeau returned to the show in June. I was away, but Globe reviewer Michael Harris called it a “committed and assured comeback” and audiences responded with big laughs and standing ovations. P.S. Jennie Neumann was terrific as Tracy Turnblad.

Grim and Fischer

This extraordinary Fringe show had us laughing and in tears – and finally on our feet – at Performance Works on Granville Island in September. Mrs. Fischer (Kate Braidwood) leads a quiet existence in a retirement home, and misses her husband. But when Grim – as in Reaper (Andrew Phoenix) – comes for her, she puts up a fight. She’s not ready to go just yet. The characters’ masks – Braidwood’s creations – were so well constructed and Braidwood and Phoenix’s physicality so on the mark that I swear I felt the expressions on those masks transform. Amazing.

I’m looking forward to more great West Coast theatre in 2012. It kicks off in a big way, with The Electric Company’s take on Tad Mosel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Way Home – directed by 2010 Siminovitch Prize winner Kim Collier; Red at the Vancouver Playhouse; and the always interesting PuSh Festival.

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