Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fall into Winnipeg's Winter Theatre Season

Snow landed in Winnipeg this weekend but the fall/winter theatre season began back in September with A WINTER'S TALE produced by TOM TOM THEATRE and a staging of a Dostoyevsky short story TO THE COUNTRY by the Winnipegger Ensemble over at the Gas Station Theatre.

After a summer on the Fringe circuit watching people work out of a suitcase, I was struck by the production values that are possible when companies are stationary and have arts council or university department budgets.

Fringe shows have to be set up and struck in 15 minutes for each performance. They get three hours to tech into the theatre in every city, no matter what. Most productions tour with minimal or no set and very basic lighting and costumes. After three months of viewing work made within these constrictions, I can't say that I've seen anything so far this season to equal what Jonno Katz ( The Accident) did with a bare stage or what Erik de Waal (Blue is the Water) achieved with a piece of fabric, a chocolate voice and a great story.

TO THE COUNTRY featured interstitial film by deco dawson, and a lovely, two sided, fun-house set. It was a charming adaptation if a bit precious for my taste, anchored by a particularly fine performance by Ross MacMillan as a hapless suitor.

The production of A WINTER'S TALE staged in the terrific new theatre at the University of Winnipeg made inventive use of an airy paper set, contemporary costumes, live music and a puppet in the role of a child. It was an enjoyable, well directed show, although it lacked the emotional impact of other productions I've seen of the play. Like its paper set, this TALE was lightweight.

The two independent productions were followed FemFest, billed as an annual festival of plays by women for everyone.

I saw three things at the festival: a reading of scenes from a group of new local plays in development, a staged workshop of a new play LOVE FOR SALE and Laura Harris' production of PITCH BLONDE about the life of Judy Holliday, particularly her testimony at the McCarthy hearings.

PITCH BLONDE was an apt choice at a moment in history where there's a global hunt for "terrorists" under every bed or at least in every airport. I'd seen Laura perform the piece on tour earlier this summer and I felt the intelligent writing and strong performance deserved a bigger house than the show got the night I attended it in Winnipeg.

The short readings featured two pieces about women in the "sandwich generation", one historical piece, the follow up to a hit Fringe play about an art school model, and a piece about a woman with a gambling problem.

I have to say I wondered why one of those plays wasn't chosen for a staged workshop over LOVE FOR SALE which was clearly in a nascent stage of development.

The convenience store on Christmas Eve seemed tossed up around a disjointed, if interesting grab bag of characters, situations and ideas. Both the structure and the relationships between the characters felt arbitrary and contrived. Tonally, the piece was all over the place: the writer couldn't seem to decide if she was writing a comedy, a farce or a drama. There were some fine monologues, some good ideas and some genuinely engaging characters ( the shop clerk, the impoverished single parent, the old Jewish lady in the nursing home hilariously portrayed by Nancy Drake) but the writer needs to focus this story if the current hodge-podge is going to metamorphose into something more coherent.

This week both CHERRY DOCS and 5 O'CLOCK BELLS opened in Winnipeg. I heard great things about 5 O'CLOCK BELLS from theatre lover and Winnipeg fringe devotee Brian Carroll while I was in Ottawa this summer. I'm also anxious to see what Graham Ashmore, an actor whose work I've consistently enjoyed is going to do with the role of the lawyer in CHERRY DOCS which I saw played by R.H.Thompson in Toronto some years ago. I'm looking forward to catching both shows.

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