Toronto has been absolutely inundated with theatre this summer. In addition to the usual high-low, one-two punch of Luminato and the Fringe Festival, there's been Panamania and its surprising number of significant Canadian commissions. SummerWorks has now snuck up on the city without a break, but don't let festival fatigue keep you away from the 25th anniversary edition of this August indie performance celebration. It's by no means having a quarter-life crisis.
Counting Sheep, a Ukrainian folk opera with music from the party band The Lemon Bucket Orkestra, was my favourite from a weekend skimming the surface of what's on offer this year. It's an immersive recreation of the Euromaidan protests and revolution of late 2013 and early 2014 – the demonstrations in the central square of Kiev that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. We're so used to seeing images of anti-austerity protests in Greece and other countries aimed at Brussels that it's hard to remember that the continuing conflict between Ukraine and Russia was sparked by the desire of young Ukrainians to build closer ties to the European Union.
Counting Sheep (co-created by husband and wife Mark and Marichka Marczyk) begins as a banquet with borscht and perogies, but soon enough the tables turn – literally, as riot gear and makeshift shields are extracted from within them, and we're thrown into the heart of the Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square. There's much dancing and dodging amid surrounding projections of footage from the actual unrest. In one great musical-theatrical effect, four musicians from the folk-punk Orkestra in sheep masks armed with a sousaphone and trombone mimic a bulldozer commandeered by possible provocateurs.
The most touching moment at Monday's performance, however, came when filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who just happened to be in the audience, tried, unsuccessfully, to help a protester to safety after being shot. (Officially, 105 people died in the Maidan; their average age of was 24.)
In form, Counting Sheep reminded me of Here Lies Love, the much-lauded David Byrne/Fatboy Slim show about Imelda Marcos at the Public Theater in New York – also an immersive interactive song cycle. But I preferred the overall experience of Counting Sheep, which is much more urgent and authentically engaged with its subject, even if the Ukrainian folk is less up my alley musically. The show may be a one-sided and even propagandistic take of what happened and is happening in Ukraine, but I happen to be on that same one side, so I threw fake bricks at the fascists with glee.
One of Canada's great theatrical traditions is the collectively created documentary play. The prototype of this form was 1972's The Farm Show – when a group of actors under the direction of Paul Thompson went out into rural Ontario to work with and interview farmers, and then create a show based on their experiences.
You could see Counting Sheep as part of that tradition – its co-creators were both there in the Maidan in 2014. But Georgina Beaty and Jonathan Seinen's Architect Theatre has followed the Thompson blueprint more closely in works such as This Must Be The Place: The CN Tower Show and Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show – being an audience for their interview subjects, then becoming those interview subjects for their audiences.
Like There's No Tomorrow, Architect Theatre's affecting new show about Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipeline Project was researched in a similar fashion – with Beaty, Seinen and Paula-Jean Prudat travelling to Northern British Columbia to speak with people who live along the route of the proposed pipeline.
In the end, however, Architect broke the form and chose to present just one voice to their audience – that of Yvonne Lattie, hereditary chief of the Gitxsan Nation of northwest B.C. And, instead of performing Lattie, they play a recording of their interview with her over the sound system at Theatre Passe Muraille.
Meanwhile, Beaty, Prudat and Seinen silently mime surreal scenes inspired by the Joint Review Panel that recommended the federal government approve Northern Gateway in 2013 (subject to 209 conditions). Jesse Orr's haunting live animations are projected on a screen while the actors perform a beautiful burlesque of bureaucracy. (Anita Rochon is the director and the puppeteer Clea Minaker is credited for "visual dramaturgy.")
Like There's No Tomorrow is a little show, but gorgeous. A necessary questioning of documentary theatre and its appropriation of voice, it's – like Counting Sheep – also an interrogation of the idea that all sides must be represented equally. You'll have to seek out the voices of Vladimir Putin and Enbridge elsewhere. Don't worry; it's not hard to find them.
Also at SummerWorks: Fed up with the portrayal of women in prestige television? Beautiful Man, a new play by Governor General's Award winner Erin Shields, is a satirical skewering of shows like True Detective and Game of Thrones that insist on gritty realism – except when it comes to women's pubic hair.
Three unnamed women (Melissa D'Agostino, Anusree Roy and Ava Jane Markus) in an upside-down world discuss a recent film they saw, in which troubled women are the main characters in and creators of most drama – and men tend to appear in supporting and/or objectified roles both on-screen and off.
Playwright Shields follows the roots of sexism in storytelling back to Shakespeare and beyond in a surreal fashion that features a play within a TV series within a film. The digs are deft and very funny – at first, anyway. I got lost a little way down the rabbit hole.
Director Andrea Donaldson has the three performers miming various actions on and around stools while they talk; they seem to be at a bar, then the gym, then a shooting range. But the direction gets a little confusing, too – and diminishes the performances when the movement gets a little too aerobic.
Ultimately, Beautiful Man feels more like a reaction, an act of criticism, than an artistic action itself. I'm not sure if this war is to be won by creating one-dimensional ones in response – only the very funny Markus's unnamed character goes on a journey here.
Kudos to Brett Donahue, playing all of the dedicated partners and enslaved men described and even having to suffer through a little satirically gratuitous nudity. Tables turned, again.
SummerWorks Performance Festival (summerworks.ca) continues to Aug. 16.