At various venues
There's no single style at Toronto's SummerWorks festival, but this year it seems to be a haven for documentary plays - an immediate form of theatre that is in
unfortunately short supply in Canada.
The Middle Place is an eye-opening, intelligent and funny piece of verbatim theatre that shines a light on Toronto's problems with truth in a way that other recent plays have failed to with fiction.
Andrew Kushnir created the script from two years of video interviews he conducted with 16 youths and several caseworkers living and working in a GTA shelter. Having watched all manners of fictional heart-of-gold street people and metaphysical or metaphorical tramps tread the boards over the years, it's refreshing to hear these voices of real homeless people onstage.
To Kushnir's credit, he has avoided a series of sob stories in favour of a more general portrait of the people he met. It's less about the how and why of youth homelessness, and more about the who. Along the way, though, there is plenty of insight into the issues of drugs, guns, abuse and poverty, as well as forays into art, love, education and family.
The title The Middle Place invites us to view this Toronto shelter as a sort of purgatory; the play gets its tension from guessing in which direction these young men and women will eventually exit it. Are they headed up, or further down and out?
Director Alan Dilworth skillfully builds the purgatorial atmosphere by corralling the youth in a bright circle in the centre of the stage; the caseworkers, meanwhile, speak to us from outside the circle. The four actors who play all the characters "buzz" in and out of the circle, as they move between the worlds.
The standouts are Akosua Amo-Adem, as a lippy and witty young woman, and Kevin Walker, as one of the 30 per cent of the shelter residents with mental-health issues, but Jessica Greenberg's soft-spoken Nevaeh will haunt you the most.
(Fourth cast member Antonio Cayonne's characters suffer from being a little too universally huggable.)
Why create a documentary through theatre rather than film? Well, for one, the method Kushnir adopted allows a greater degree of anonymity for the interview subjects. This means greater honesty and a decided lack of YouTube posturing.
Documentary theatre also has an advantage over film by avoiding voyeurism and allowing us to be in the same room with the people interviewed. The connection to the subjects is, counterintuitively, stronger due to their personalities being channelled through the blank slate of an actor. Here, it strengthens that sense of "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
Lovers of language will enjoy The Middle Place, too. The transcribed dialogue is fresh, creative and contemporary, and makes you wish playwrights spent more time listening to the world around them.
It also makes you wish playwrights spent more time looking. If you go to see a lot of theatre, you can start to feel as if you are suffocating inside a hermetically sealed container. The Middle Place opens a window.
Two less successful SummerWorks shows draw on documentary techniques in other ways.
Dave Deveau's My Funny Valentine is a mix of fact and fiction based on a recent murder in Oxnard, Calif. In February of last year, Brandon McInerney, 14, walked into his school computer lab and allegedly shot his classmate Larry King, 15, in the head, execution-style. The apparent reason? King, an openly gay youth who enjoyed wearing high heels to class, had asked McInerney to be his Valentine the day before. (McInerney awaits trial as an adult.)
Deveau plays himself, a theatre artist whose interest in the case becomes an obsession. He also summons up four characters, a mix of real, semi-fictional and completely invented: There's King himself; a teacher he came out to when he was 10 years old; his grieving brother; and a girl with two dads who received King's liver. (King was taken off life support on Valentine's Day and his organs were donated.)
The play makes a compelling case that schools need to do a better job of handling sexual orientation. There's a lack of protocol in terms of what to do with a 15-year-old boy who shows up for school in a dress, or a pre-teen who declares she is gay.
Deveau's passionate identification with King is My Funny Valentine's strength and also its biggest weakness. It makes the play undulate with an emotion that goes some way toward making up for the limited acting skills on display. But it also blinds Deveau to some of the complexities of King's case that would be worth exploring. McInerney, in particular, remains a cipher, as if he were simply the logical output of a society rife with homophobia. The play is missing a conflict, because the characters and narrator are all on the same page.
There's a little more of an attempt to understand all sides in The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa, or Agnes Bojaxhui Superstar.
Director and playwright Alistair Newton has previously created performances about (almost) universally reviled figures - anti-gay pastor Fred Phelps and Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl - and now turns to the missionary nun whose name is synonymous with pure goodness and self-sacrifice.
The play is certainly not a celebration of "Mother T," as she is referred to here: The first character to appear onstage is writer Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great), who has argued that the Albanian nun wasn't a friend of the poor, but a friend of poverty.
It's clear from the director's aesthetic - Cabaret-style emcees, devils and angels in bondage gear, puppetry - that he is on the side of hedonism rather than the self-restraint of "Mother T." But the portrait ends up being more well-rounded than you'd expect. (And convincing parallels are drawn between S&M and Mother Teresa's philosophy that suffering is a gift from God.)
The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa includes original songs (music composed by Reza Jacobs), parodies ( Agnes Bojaxhui Superstar) and borrowed tunes (Tom Lehrer's The Vatican Rag), all of which are sung with vigour by the young cast of 10. The structure is unsatisfying, however, and the pace is very stop-and-start - a frenzy punctuated with clunky blackouts.
SummerWorks continues at Theatre Passe Muraille until Sunday( http://www.summerworks.ca).