After almost two years of lockdowns and limited movement, we’re ready to venture into the world again. Canadian Stage is taking that further, hurtling its audiences out of this world and into space. For its first live indoor performances since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Toronto theatre company is launching an acclaimed stage version of the extraterrestrial classic, Solaris.
Brendan Healy, Canadian Stage’s artistic director, says he chose Solaris as his company’s opener partly for its bold theatricality. “I wanted the first show to be something spectacular,” he says, “something that relies on the magic of the theatre.”
Set on a space station orbiting a mysterious sentient planet, the play is a new adaptation, by Scottish playwright David Greig, of the 1961 novel by Polish scientist and author Stanislaw Lem.
As the station’s scientists vainly attempt to study it, the ocean-bound Solaris instead penetrates their minds, with disturbing results. In the case of the central character, psychologist Kris Kelvin, it materializes a dead lover.
The book inspired a haunting 1972 Russian film, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, and a 2002 Hollywood version by Steven Soderbergh, starring George Clooney.
Healy, however, believes Greig’s dramatization, which premiered in Edinburgh in 2019, comes closest to the intentions of Lem’s original work. He also says its story speaks to the unease of the present time.
“Its characters are caught between the known and the unknown. They’re struggling to make sense of what it all means,” he says. “That seems true to where we’re at as a society.”
Healy is directing the production, which plays in the St. Lawrence Centre’s Bluma Appel Theatre. It stars Dora Award-winning actor Irene Poole as Kris (a woman in Greig’s version) and Healy promises an elaborate multimedia design, with set and lighting by the team of Lorenzo Savoini and Kimberly Purtell. “We’re cooking up something pretty special,” he says.
Where Solaris sends theatregoers into an eerie future, Leopoldstadt transports them back into the tragic past. Stoppard’s Olivier Award-winning play follows the fortunes of a middle-class Austrian Jewish family in Vienna, from the beginning of the 20th century, through the Holocaust and into the 1950s.
It was universally praised when it premiered in London’s West End in 2020, The Spectator calling it “Stoppard’s Schindler’s List.” The show returned to the West End this fall, after a pandemic hiatus, and Mirvish Productions is transferring it to Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre in January.
Before that, Mirvish is plunging back into big productions in December, with the reopening of the hit homegrown musical Come From Away and a British touring revival of Jesus Christ Superstar.
I wanted the first show to be something spectacular“something that relies on the magic of the theatre.
Other Toronto producers are testing the waters this month. Soulpepper Theatre is currently presenting Draw Me Close, an immersive experience using virtual reality technology that is performed for one person at a time. The work, by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, premiered at London’s Young Vic in 2019 and was originally intended for a Soulpepper run prior to the pandemic.
Crow’s Theatre has already been doing live indoor shows since September, when it hit the ground running with actor-playwright Cliff Cardinal’s crafty “retelling” of As You Like It.
In January, it stages the long-awaited Toronto premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger and the Baghdad Zoo. A wickedly imaginative dark comedy, which surveys the U.S. invasion of Iraq from the viewpoint of the titular tiger, it had its Broadway premiere in 2011, starring the late Robin Williams.
Crow’s Theatre artistic director Chris Abraham, meanwhile, is remounting his 2019 Shaw Festival production of Cyrano de Bergerac this winter. It’s part of the Niagara-on-the-Lake festival’s newly expanded calendar for 2022.
The Shaw, which traditionally hasn’t opened until spring, will host the visiting production of This is How We Got Here by Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts at its Studio Theatre in February. It’s followed in March by Cyrano at its Royal George Theatre.
Tim Carroll, the Shaw’s artistic director, admits starting that early is “a bit of an unknown,” but he doesn’t think bringing the Native Earth show to the intimate Studio space is too big a risk.
“I think our audience trusts us,” he says, “I think they know that if we say, ‘This is a beautiful show that you ought to see, by a company you ought to know about,’ that they’ll come and check it out.”
Keith Barker’s heart-rending drama, about an Indigenous family dealing with a loved one’s suicide, won a Dora Award for best new play in 2020.
Cyrano, meanwhile, was a big crowd pleaser when it had a short run at the end of the 2019 season.
“It was always in the back of our minds that if it went really well, we could bring it back,” Carroll says. Tom Rooney is repeating his moving performance as the brave-hearted, big-nosed poet-swordsman in this new adaptation by the Shaw’s Kate Hennig.
Both Carroll and Healy unveiled their theatres’ seasons just before Ontario lifted capacity limits on live performance venues. They are, understandably, jubilant that they’ll be able to potentially play to full houses, although given the pandemic roller coaster, they’re cautiously optimistic.
“We’re happy to follow whatever the public health guidelines are,” Healy says of Canadian Stage, adding with a laugh: “We’ve all become really adept at shifting!”
Solaris runs Jan. 25-Feb. 5, 2022, at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts; Leopoldstadt runs Jan. 22-March 13 at the Princess of Wales Theatre; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo runs Jan. 11-30 at Streetcar Crowsnest, all in Toronto. This is How We Got Here runs Feb. 9-19 and Cyrano de Bergerac runs March 20-May 8 at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
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