Real estate can seem like an insane, irrational business in Toronto – and particularly so in the case of the city's theatrical spaces.
On the one hand, we have large city-owned theatre buildings, subsidized to sit empty for much of the year, too big and expensive for local artists to use. On the other, we have Toronto theatre companies that have cultivated dedicated audiences for decades performing in converted warehouses or factories, desperately in need of renovations – and newer troupes evicted from even more makeshift homes after they help gentrify an area and the rent goes up. (The latest victim of the latter: The Storefront Theatre, an indie organization popular with younger audiences, which is being kicked out of its home at the end of the month.)
Every so often, however, Toronto's theatre creators and theatregoers get a space that they deserve – and the latest is Streetcar Crowsnest, a purpose-built theatre that opened last week at the bottom of a new condo at the corner of Dundas Street East and Carlaw Avenue.
After 34 years of bouncing around, Crow's Theatre has a permanent home – and its artistic director, Chris Abraham, one of the country's best directors, has a place to produce in and curate most of the year.
The Crowsnest opened last week with The Wedding Party, a new comedy by Kristen Thomson that takes place at the reception of a marriage. With formidable comic performances by Thomson and Stratford Festival stars Tom Rooney and Trish Lindstrom in particular, it's a great introduction to a tall and attractive hall that will, as it happens, double as a wedding and event space itself in the summers.
Thomson came to prominence as a writer with her hit 2001 play, I, Claudia – in which she told the story of a 12-year-old girl dealing with the divorce of her parents from behind a series of masks.
The Wedding Party was created in a similar way, but with a group of six actors doing mask work and improvising characters. A loose plot eventually emerged, a clash of classes at a wedding: The rich and somewhat snooty Sealy-Skeetes, headed by father-of-the-groom Jack (Tom Rooney), and the artistic and alcoholic Boychuks, headed by mother-of-the-bride Maddie (Thomson).
While we never see the bride and groom, we watch dozens of their relatives and friends engage in awkward conversation in the first act and bad behaviour in the second as new grudges are born and long-buried family disputes rise to the surface with the help of $8,000-a-bottle champagne.
Although I was well aware there were only six actors in the play, it still was astonishing to see only half a dozen people take a bow on the stage at the curtain call. Thomson, Rooney, Lindstrom, Virgilia Griffith, Moya O'Connell and Jason Cadieux do a heck of a job whizzing from one character to the next, even playing waiters in their downtime. (In some of the seats, you might get served by them as well.)
Most of them are playing characters they created – the exceptions being Cadieux, stepping in for Tony Nappo; and Virgilia Griffith, subbing for Bahia Watson.
Some of the characters are more clownish than others and gender-bending goes both ways throughout. Griffith, saddled with being the wedding planner/straight woman for most of the show, makes a wicked impression as the late-arriving Latin lover of the sister of the bride. And that sister of the bride is played with great dignity by Rooney.
While The Wedding Party is an ensemble piece, by the end it has found its centre of gravity around Rooney – who also plays both Jack and his estranged twin brother, Tony. Directing, Abraham lets the absurdity of the confusion between the two play out in Polkaroo ("he was just here!") fashion at first, then uses a film footage to have the two interact, and finally lets Rooney simply conjure the two at once in a deliciously theatrical conclusion.
If the show has a loose, improvisational feel, that is the inherent drawback of the approach Thomson has chosen to create the play – and yet, few recent works penned by a single author sitting alone in a room have created so many laugh-out-loud moments. Abraham doesn't try to rein in the actors or the energy too much, embracing the shambolic nature of the piece – and letting us enjoy the small moments, such as Maddie, cut off from the bar, storing up glass after glass of white wine on a ledge behind her while in conversation.
What's missing at times – and makes the play feel slightly overextended over two acts – is the opportunity to feel for these characters, not just laugh at them.
There are exceptions. Lindstrom, a Stratford and Mirvish Productions vet who has lately revealed herself to be one of most mind-bogglingly committed clowns in Canada, does a tremendous job of portraying a rough-edged teenager, the bride's cousin, who yearns to be an artist. It's a hilarious burlesque of a boy turning into a man – but also overflows with heart.
Likewise, Rooney manages to engage our emotions as Tony as he wrestles with the mixture of love and hate he feels for his brother. His tentative flirtation with Maddie is a highlight. "Haven't you ever googled yourself?" she asks him flirtatiously. "Oh, no – I'm a good Catholic," he replies.
In the end, The Wedding Party also doubles as an advertisement for the Streetcar Crowsnest. It's certainly a fine location to see a play about a wedding, anyway.
The Wedding Party (crowstheatre.com) continues to Feb. 11