It’s trendy lately for theatres to claim that what audience members really want these days is to be in on the process of creation.
I’m skeptical: Does your average spectator really want to see a rehearsal or a work in progress? Do patrons actually want to pay to play dramaturge?
It’s certainly true that theatregoers like the bragging rights that come from seeing artists and shows before they become big – and the SummerWorks Festival in Toronto has long been the country’s best place to do that.
But, for the 2018 edition, artistic and managing director Laura Nanni has acknowledged what has long been a fact at the curated performance bash: Some of the shows are, more or less, in their final form, and others are in a much earlier stage of development. And so she’s formally divided the programming into Presentations and Labs.
On the opening day of the festival, I tried to binge as much as possible – and I belatedly realized that many of the shows I happened to book were Labs. This gave me the opportunity to consider a question: What can you get from watching a show that admits it is not finished?
I got quite a bit out of The Private Life Cabaret, a production based on a series of playlets about life in Nazi Germany that playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote in exile in the late 1930s. The original is known by a couple of different titles in English: Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, and The Private Life of the Master Race.
Esther Jun, billed as both director and creator, has selected a handful of Brecht’s scenes (translated and adapted here by Toronto theatre’s Teutonophile enfants terribles, Taedon Witzel and Susanna Fournier) and put them in a cabaret setting. Broken Social Scene member Jason Collett hosts as a Gumby-like MC named Johnny Pompadour.
The Brecht skits effectively mix comedy and terror. One shows us a mother (Jasmine Chen) and father (Craig Pike) scared stiff when their son (the always excellent Jennifer Dzialoszynski) goes out to the corner store to get a chocolate bar. Might the boy actually be ratting out on their private political sentiment to his scout leader?
In another, quieter scene, a Jewish wife practises what she will say to her gentile husband as she tries to sneak out of the country without endangering him. In a clever move, Jun has three different actors tap in to the part of the wife over the course of the scene to universalize her experience. Who will they come for this time?
I’m not familiar enough with the original to be able to say how much Witzel and Fournier are showing parallels to the strongmen of today versus drawing them in their translation – but those who fear the way Western democracies are going will find plenty of hair-raising scenes that suggest that not even fascists will be happy under fascism.
In between the Brecht, there are straight-forward amusements: magic tricks, burlesque numbers and a spine-tingling, slinky rendition of Katy Perry’s Roar sung by Tess Benger.
As with her recent dance-filled production of Girls Like That at the Tarragon Theatre, Jun alternates between agitprop and pure entertainment in an unusual and jarring way. But The Private Life Cabaret’s framing as a “lab” made its current shambolic state endearing rather than aggravating – and I actually wondered if I’d enjoy it less if it were more polished.
Oddly enough, the show I felt most critical of on the first day of SummerWorks was the only Presentation I saw. In …And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next, playwright and Vice contributor Graham Isador chronicles his attempts to pitch personal essays to a popular online media outlet.
Isador first performs the confessional stories that he tried to sell – and then tells the audience what his editor’s feedback was. He’s slowly guided towards maximum vulnerability – but, when he does finally go viral, he starts to ponder the downside of exploiting himself for clicks.
Isador’s stories are well crafted and engaging (at least when he’s close enough to the microphone to be heard), but the overall structure needs work. ...And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next is intended to both showcase the writer’s storytelling and also question it, somewhat similar to the way that Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nannette is both a stand-up set and a critique of stand-up. The pivot needs rethinking for it to fully land – but it’s a promising premise.
I wonder what I would be writing if Isador’s show it had been labelled a Lab rather than a Presentation. These different frames don’t change what you see, but do change how you see it – and I think I now understand why artists are so eager to open up their process to audiences, anyway. It leads one to be open and forgiving and invested rather than slip into the familiar pose of judgmental consumer of culture. Wait – is this a theatre review that ends up questioning theatre reviews?
SummerWorks (summerworks.ca) continues to August 19.
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