Three Shows at Ottawa’s Magnetic North Theatre Festival

Five Easy Steps (to the End of the World). Photo by Scott Munn

Ottawa is only two and a bit hours by bus from Montreal, just close enough for Culturebot to drop in for three days of Magnetic North Theatre Festival, and just far enough to make it feel like a real trip. Arriving in Ottawa, I remembered just in time that the Greyhound actually stops at the university and I tumbled off the bus right at the entrance to the theatre where the first ticket on my list was showing.

I’m glad to make it to Magnetic North this year. The festival brings together theatre innovators from across Canada, from emerging artists to life-time achievers. There are always a few companies that I have never heard of and there are always wonderful surprises. The festival manages to appeal to the public while remaining an artist’s festival, an environment where artists and presenters can meet, mingle–and actually relax and enjoy themselves. By changing the location of the festival every year, the organizers of Magnetic North are really bringing Canadian theatre to Canada.

This gives Canadian artists from all across the country the chance to kvetch about their own theatre scene while away from home and kvell about it when they get the chance to host.

And on the subject of kvetching and kvelling, the first performance I saw off the bus was Yichud (Seclusion) from Toronto companies Convergence Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille.

The story follows Orthodox Jews Rachel (playwright Julie Tepperman) and Chaim (director Aaron Willis) on the day of their arranged marriage. Having only met a few times before, there is understandably a fair amount of excitement and anxiety that leads up to the moment when they are alone together for the first time. The theatrical design turns the studio theatre into a synagogue, complete with a façade outside the theatre. The production tries very hard to be interactive, creating an opening setting where men and women can dance (separately) with the performers and receive blessings from the bride in the pre-wedding celebrations. But, despite the effort, I found the excitement a little forced and the play fairly conventional.

The main theme has two satellite stories that support it; one features Chaim’s two brothers as they struggle with their jealousy of each other and the other follows Rachel’s parents as they spiral through the last stages of a divorce. While the scenes with the brothers work well and feature the strongest performances of the production, the parents are melodramatic and played for laughs.

Thought I must admit that the script did make me laugh out loud more than once during the play, even my own laughter made me a bit uncomfortable. Perhaps that discomfort comes from the presentation of cultural clichés, always a danger zone. I think Tepperman and Willis have tried very hard to write beyond clichés with this production but, while they have moments of success, I came out of Yichud feeling that they had overplayed the surface comedy, often shying from the emotional truth of the matters they were dealing with.

Yichud (Seclusion) has made it to Magnetic North through a bit of a hailstorm. Just before they first opened two years ago in Toronto, one of the major funders withdrew their substantial contribution out of concern that they play might be taken the wrong way. That the contributing agency saw this play as potentially inflammatory speaks to the insecurity of the agency. While I did feel that the play approached cultural tourism, I did not find it subtle enough to be at all unflattering or controversial. Just goes to show, I suppose, how many ways there are to look at a piece.

I was one of the first in line for the general admission to Five Easy Steps (to the End of the World) from Zuppa Theatre Company and my patience was rewarded. The ushers brought the audience into the space in groups of 4 or 5. All of the seating was covered in white plastic, lifted off without ceremony as we were seated. An alley shaped seating arrangement was punctuated by about 15 chairs arranged in twos and threes on the stage itself. I braved it and sat in one of these hot-seats.

One of the several apocalypse performances on my schedule for this season, Five Easy Steps shows us three friends–Warren (Ben Stone), Samantha (Susan Leblanc-Crawford), and Jasper (Stewart Legere)–on the last night of the world. Outside, as they tell us, there is complete mayhem. Inside they are determined to go out “the right-way.” This they proceed to attempt, revealing the still-tender wounds of their past and their continuing search for the present.

Does every town complain about their own theatre scene? Every Canadian city I’ve lived in seems to. I overheard folks behind me in the audience last talking about how hard it is to work in theatre in Halifax. Well, if that’s true, the ensemble members of Zuppa Theatre are proving themselves against the odds. The actors were all fantastic, filling the space with the full range of their emotions with honest and truthful performances – not an easy thing when confronted with the end of the world, karaoke, and choreographed dance routines. They had me laughing, crying, and biting my lip. So close to the actors, it was easy to imagine that we were part of their reality.

Through his searing writing, MacIvor has become a Canadian theatre icon but he is also an accomplished actor and director and as a triple-threat, I find his work rather awe-inspiring. A few years ago he publicly announced that he was not going to make any more solo shows. Rethinking his position he has teamed up with long-time collaborator, director Daniel Brooks to bring us This is What Happens Next.

The piece is heady and leans philosophically towards self-reflection and self-irony. Though it claims to start from an autobiographical standpoint, “truth” is just a springboard for the collection of characters that we are introduced to and the stories that we hear. The characters, who are, for the most part only encountered once each, include Me (a character that we understand to be MacIvor himself), Will (the pessimistic philosophical embodiment of Me’s motivation), Warren (what is it with characters named Warren at this year’s festival?), The Lawyer, and several others. Each character gives a fast-paced and revealing monologue that links them to at least one other character.

The amazing thing about the production is its precision. Lighting, direction, soundscape, and performance are all minimalist and yet minutely detailed and exact. I was impressed that, though the text flows fast and furious, MacIvor never sounds like he is speaking memorized text. Ever.

Last night the whole theatre was right there with MacIvor, in the palm of his hand. Though MacIvor warns throughout that there are no happy endings, we were all caught up in the laughter that comes with an accurate reveal and self-recognition. MacIvor led us all, laughing, straight to the tragedy of the piece. And then, with a little smile, reminded us that he made all of the stories up.

Magnetic North Theatre Festival
June 3-11, 2011
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

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