Ontario lifted some of its Omicron-related restrictions on theatre performances on Monday, meaning that audiences across Canada’s most populous province can theoretically return to live shows held at 50 per cent capacity this week.
In the most frustrating of ironies, however, the disruptive protests now taking place in downtown Ottawa, in opposition to government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions like the ones just loosened, have led one show that just barely managed to survive those debilitating orders to throw in the towel.
The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time, a solo show written and performed the legendary 79-year-old theatre actor Walter Borden, was supposed to have a preview performance at the National Arts Centre on Friday, an opening night on Saturday and run until February 12.
Over the weekend, however, crucial rehearsals had to be suspended due to the protests in the vicinity of the NAC, which is located within sight of Parliament Hill.
Last night, the NAC made the decision to postpone the entire run of Borden’s show “given the uncertainty and ongoing security challenges, and the fact the City of Ottawa has advised that the public avoid the downtown area,” spokesperson Sean Fitzpatrick wrote in an email to me today.
This is no small loss. The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time, which is directed by former NAC English Theatre artistic director Peter Hinton-Davis, is a reworking of a show that Borden first performed in 1986, which was one of the first Canadian plays to explore homosexuality from a Black perspective.
It was to be the first show presented at the NAC’s English Theatre as part of its new co-curation model with Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop – an experiment that could have wide-ranging impact on how theatres are run across the country.
Borden, a Black Canadian theatre pioneer who has a galvanic presence on stage unlike anyone else in the country, will turn 80 this year. It was already a crime against the performing arts that he lost two years of his acting career to the pandemic at this point in his life – but that the so-called “freedom convoy” has now extended that hiatus is unforgivable.
With actors of Borden’s vintage, every performance is a precious gift. Getting up on stage is a physically and mentally demanding activity that gets harder and harder with each passing month at a certain point – and, as the loss of David Fox, Martha Henry and Christopher Plummer in 2021 reinforced, time does eventually run out.
Borden, himself, however, is taking the delay in stride. “It is, of course, disheartening for everyone who has in any way been connected with bringing this production to fruition, to shoulder its postponement at this time,” the actor said in comment sent by email. “Yet, it is in no way a despairing or dispiriting occasion. The care, concern, dedication and support that has been lavished on the production by the NAC has been nothing short of extraordinary.”
“For me, well, it’s been a 48 year journey, so a few more months is just a walk in the park. I have a message to deliver and deliver it I will. Onward!”
Onward, yes. But these protestors are only extending the pain of the hardest hit sectors in Ottawa right now. And I don’t mean just theatre and live performance: With the postponement of The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time today, I will be among many who were planning to attend but will be cancelling hotel and dinner reservations, too.
On stage this week: Productions of contemporary international plays that aren’t from the United States or Great Britain are rare in Toronto – so I was very much looking forward to seeing Necessary Angel and Soulpepper’s cancelled co-production of Germany playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play Winter Solstice, which was set for May of 2020.
While that English-language production has yet to be rescheduled, however, Théâtre français de Toronto is returning to live performances at the Berkeley Street Theatre for the first time since February 2020 this week with the same Schimmelpfennig play presented in French as Solstice d’hiver. Former artistic director Jöel Beddows directs a cast of five in this co-production with Montreal’s Le Groupe de la Veillée and Théâtre Prospero. (A Montreal run that was supposed to take place in January was cancelled due to Omicron-related restrictions there.)
If you’ve never checked out the fine work of TFT, this is a great time to do so given the lack of competition. Don’t worry about the language barrier: The theatre company presents its show with English surtitles. Solstice d’hiver runs Feb 4 to 12.
Is any theatre scene in Canada as hopping right now as the one in Calgary? Alberta Theatre Projects is currently presenting the world premiere of Louis Casemore’s solo show Undressed, which asks the question: What do you do with a used wedding dress? (On to February 13.)
Vertigo Theatre, the city’s mystery-focused theatre company, is producing (to February 13) Cipher, a new commission from playwrights Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths about a forensic toxicologist looking into the case of a man who washed up on the coast of British Columbia with a code sewn into his clothes in 1958. (On to February 13.)
Also this week, Lunchbox Theatre ends a run of Flora & Fawna have Beaver Fever (and so does Fleurette!), the latest in playwrights Darrin Hagen and Trevor Schmidt’s series of Fringe hits about the pre-teen adventures of the NaturElle Girls. (Close February 6.)
Online this week: Everybody’s favourite Belgian theatre company, Ontroerend Goed – whose works have been presented in Canada by both avant-garde theatre festivals and big commercial theatre companies – has a new online, interactive show called TM, and it is being presented by the Cultch in Vancouver from February 2 to 13. The one-on-one show engages with questions surrounding populism, conspiracy theories and online manipulation.
The Next Stage Theatre Festival, which was originally set to close on January 30, is continuing on in its all-digital pivoted form – and, in fact, opens its final show, She’s Not Special on Monday. Up-and-comer Fatuma Adar’s show is described as a mixture of comedy and music about “the pressures of Black Excellence” – and the joys of mediocrity.
Last chance: The PuSh Festival in Vancouver is now its final week – a week that just happens to include all the shows that I recommended in this newsletter last month. If you feel comfortable, go out and support. Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.