Monday, 26 August 2013

Best of Winnipeg Arts 2012-13 Season, Part Two: Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

This is the second half of a look back at the best of Winnipeg’s 2012-13 arts season. The first post, which looked at the best classical music concerts in the city, can be read here.

As I noted in the first part of this series, Winnipeg is such a culturally-rich city that it's impossible to see everything - and, in rare cases, this doesn't apply to specific events, but to the kind of event you plan to go to. 

When I had the idea for these two posts back in January, I knew that one would probably be about  classical music, and I thought the other might be about theatre. It soon became clear, however, that I hadn't seen enough theatre, from enough companies, to make a comprehensive "best-of" list. I'd enjoyed the plays I'd seen at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, though, so I decided to create a retrospective of the plays at the RMTC's John Hirsch Mainstage and Tom Hendry Warehouse over the 2012-13 season. 

As this is a personal list looking at an individual theatre company, I've labeled each category as "Most Outstanding" instead of "Best". I've also put plays and musicals together under Most Outstanding Production, purely for convenience's sake. As well, Assassins and Ride the Cyclone: A Musical both had ensemble casts, so actors and actresses from those two plays have been included in the Supporting categories. 

Most Outstanding Supporting Actress

5. Sarah Constible - Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (Gone With the Wind) and Odysseus/Narcissa (The Penelopiad)
In Gone With the Wind, Sarah Constible fully embraced playwright Niki Landau's daring interpretation of notoriously flimsy Melanie Hamilton Wilkes and made her a fully-realized human being just as strong as her friend Scarlett. In The Penelopiad, Constible was one of the highlights of an all-female cast that took on male roles when required in Margaret Atwood's retelling of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. Her performance as Odysseus was both an illuminating take on the character, and, when in disguise during the archery competition to win the hand of Odysseus' wife Penelope, a welcome source of comic relief. 

4. Lora Brovold - Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway (A Few Good Men)
While Joanne Galloway was the lone female character in A Few Good Men's otherwise all-male cast, playwright Aaron Sorkin and actress Lora Brovold made it clear that Galloway was not simply present to provide an additional perspective on the play's events. Brovold's assured, intelligent and nuanced portrayal of Galloway made for one of the most captivating and memorable performances in what was an impressive start to RMTC's 2012-13 season. 

3. Rielle Braid - Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical) 
Of the six teenaged characters in Ride the Cyclone's cast, blonde overachiever Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg may have felt the most familiar to audiences, and therefore perhaps the easiest, or most irresistible, to caricature. Rielle Braid and the musical's writers, Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, certainly poked fun at the character's most Tracy Flick-like mannerisms (Ocean's solo number was an uptempo litany of her myriad accomplishments), and her interactions with The Amazing Karnack, the snarky fortune-telling machine that served as the musical's narrator, provided some of Ride the Cyclone's biggest laughs. However, Braid never lost sight of the genuine compassion just beneath Ocean's competitive outlook, which made the character's final decision as to the fates of her fellow choristers even more emotionally resonant. 

2. Kelly Sue Hudson - Constance Blackwood (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical)
If it's possible for musicals to have "breakout characters," I feel like Ride the Cyclone's would be Constance Blackwood, due largely in part to Kelly Sue Hudson's powerful performance. Constance, burdened with the title of "nicest girl in town", second fiddle to her supportive but driven friend Ocean, seemingly destined to stay in Uranium City for the rest of her life, was among Ride the Cyclone's most complex characters. Constance's number "Sugar Cloud", which showed off Hudson's incredible pipes, was a high point in a musical filled with memorable numbers and performances. Hudson greatly impressed me the first time I saw the musical with a theatre full of people in their 20s and 30s, but when I saw Ride the Cyclone again, this time with an older audience, I was able to further appreciate the subtlety and dignity Hudson brought to the imbued the role.

1. Miche Braden - Mammy (Gone With the Wind)
It's not every day that an actor or actress gets to do a previously one-dimensional character justice. Miche Braden's dignified, independent Mammy lived up to Niki Landau's thrillingly and refreshingly complex interpretation of the character. Mammy's opening scene with young Miss O'Hara set the tone for the character's powerful arc, and her speech prior to leaving Scarlett in Act III made more than one audience member's eyes fill with tears. Braden's performance may have been the most compelling indication of Gone With the Wind's success as an adaptation and as an individual piece of theatre. 

Most Outstanding Supporting Actor

5. Steve Ross - Charles Guiteau (Assassins)
Steve Ross' portrayal of Charles Guiteau, Andrew Garfield's killer, was one of Assassins' most satisfying performances. In a musical where dialogue mattered as much as lyrics, Guiteau's constant, aggressive declarations of his own importance were genuinely hilarious, even as they hinted at the troubled soul within. This approach culminated in the number depicting Guiteau's death, in which the fervently religious man sang "I Am Going to the Lordy" as every muscle and fibre in his body pulled him both toward and away from the steps leading up to the scaffold where his noose waited. 

4. Kholby Wardell - Noel Gruber (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical)
As with several other characters in Ride the Cyclone's cast, Noel Gruber - an artistic gay teenager who feels like an outcast in the society he lives in, here the rural wasteland of Uranium City, Saskatchewan - had many familiar characteristics, but these were traits that Kholby Wardell and the musical's writers took great pleasure in turning on their heads. His rousing cabaret-esque solo number, a fantasy about living as a prostitute named Monique in 19th-century France, brought down the house both nights, but Wardell also hit quieter notes that echoed Gruber's own development over the course of the musical. 

3. Elliott Loran - Ricky Potts (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical)
Ricky Potts was probably Ride the Cyclone's most ambitious character: a imaginative boy born with cystic fibrosis who, in the afterlife, is finally able to voice his dreams of being a "Space Age Bachelor Man." Ricky's gently self-deprecating nature was a pleasant surprise, and his love of comic books and video games appealed to the geeks in the audience; more than that, though, Loran masterfully conveyed Ricky's quiet realization that his newfound voice might not get to be heard by anyone in the land of the living. 

2. Graham Abbey - Sam Byck (Assassins)
Of all the assassins in Stephen Sondheim and John Weiden's musical, Sam Byck, played by Graham Abbey, was probably most representative of the darkly comedic mood which ran throughout the musical. Abbey's sarcastic rendition of "Tonight" from West Side Story was hysterically funny, as was his blubbering impersonation of Richard Nixon, the president Byck tried to assassinate by flying a plane into the White House. What made Abbey's performance truly stand out among a universally excellent ensemble cast, however, was his chilling speech about the distinctions we create between good and evil - and how these categories may be more fluid than one might want to admit. 

1. Paul Essiembre - Col. Nathan Jessep (A Few Good Men) and William Coles (Other People's Money)
Paul Essiembre's performance as the domineering, intimidating Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men alone would have earned him a place on this list. Essiembre's role as the more subdued middle manager William Coles in Other People's Money, however, demonstrated a impressive range that proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. Coles, arguably the 'hero' of Jerry Sterner's script - although, in the world of Other People's Money, there may be no explicit good or bad, only context - was, personality-wise, worlds away from Jessup, but both men were grounded in a sense that their actions were ultimately for the best. 

Head below the break for the Most Outstanding Lead Actresses, Lead Actors and Productions.

Most Outstanding Lead Actress

3. Julia Arkos - Kate Sullivan (Other People's Money)
Julia Arkos played Kate Sullivan, a young lawyer recruited by her mother Bea to help fight against greedy Lawrence Garfinkle's takeover of New England Wire & Cable, with an energy and tenacity that perfectly fit the witty tone and breakneck pace of director Ann Hodges' production. Kate's scenes with Garfinkle (Ashley Wright), her current rival - and future spouse - were a comedic delight, and Kate's growing doubt as to the success of her endeavours mirrored the quietly shifting moral landscape of Other People's Money.

2. Megan McGinnis - Jerusha Abbott (Daddy Long Legs)
It can't be easy starring in a two-person play; it must be even more difficult when it's a two-person musical. Megan McGinnis so perfectly embodied Jerusha Abbott, "the oldest orphan in the John Greer Home," and all her curiosity and determination, that she would be a standout in any production. Here, she positively sparkled. McGinnis rarely, if ever, hit a wrong note, musically or emotionally, and made even Daddy Long Legs' most sentimental moments ring true. 

1. Bethany Jillard - Scarlett O'Hara (Gone With the Wind)
The performance of the season. Bethany Jillard did what some might have thought impossible - she made Scarlett O'Hara both sympathetic and realistic; Jillard and playwright Niki Landau were fearless in their exploration of the less admirable aspects of Miss O'Hara's personality - Jillard's Scarlett was by no means afraid to "lie, cheat, steal and murder." I got some flack from the Gone With the Wind fan community, both here and over on the IMDb boards, for stating that Jillard's interpretation of Scarlett was superior to that of Vivien Leigh's in the 1928 film. Regardless, I stand by what I wrote, and hopefully Jillard's performance will become the standard by which future actresses playing the role are evaluated. 

Most Outstanding Lead Actor

3. Tom McCamus - Rhett Butler (Gone With the Wind)
If one is to adapt Gone With the Wind, casting the right Rhett Butler is just as crucial as casting the right Scarlett O'Hara; if the two characters' chemistry happens to be off, the adaptation itself will most likely be unsuccessful as a whole. There was never any doubt in my mind that Tom McCamus was the perfect Rhett for Bethany Jillard's Scarlett - his lionine appearance made Butler far more rugged, handsome and physically imposing than Clark Gable ever was, and his and Jillard's scenes as a married couple bristled with tension. 

2. Charlie Gallant - Lt. J.G. Daniel A. Kaffee (A Few Good Men)
Charlie Gallant was excellent as the quick-thinking, resourceful attorney Daniel Kaffee, and he deftly navigated the twists and turns of Aaron Sorkin's snappy, intelligent script. Gallant imbued his performance with wit, charisma and a surprising amount of gravitas, making his potentially cliched courtroom showdown with Paul Essiembre's formidable Col. Nathan Jessep genuinely enthralling on both dramatic and emotional levels. 

1. Ashley Wright - Lawrence Garfinkle (Other People's Money)
Ashley Wright's turn as avaricious and aggressively masculine Lawrence Garfinkle (colloquially known as "Larry the Liquidator") was more than just the best performance in Other People's Money - it was an all-around triumph. Director Ann Hodges' fast-paced production kept her five-member cast constantly on their toes, and Wright, who arguably had the most physical acting to do, never showed signs of fatigue. Larry had plenty of great moments, but what made Wright's performance truly brilliant was how Larry, with his competitive "change or die" attitudes toward business and life, slowly became the most sensible individual on stage, both to his fellow characters and to the audience. 

Most Outstanding Production

5. A Few Good Men (Mainstage; attended October 20th 2012)
A co-production with Toronto's Citadel Theatre, A Few Good Men had all the hallmarks of great theatre - a universally strong cast, well-paced direction by James MacDonald, and a suitably atmospheric and forbidding prison-inspired set by Michael Gianfresco. RMTC took a bit of a gamble choosing a play with such a serious topic to be their Mainstage opener in place of traditionally lighter fare like Pride and Prejudice and Grumpy Old Men: The Musical, and it more than paid off, setting a standard for excellence that continued throughout the season.

4. Other People's Money (Mainstage; attended January 26th 2013)
Other People's Money not only capped off one of RMTC's most successful seasons but was a timely and thought-provoking example of the way in which theatre can provide both reflection and commentary on the present day. Every element worked seamlessly together to conjure up a high-stakes world of finance tempered by the emotions of its inhabitants, particularly Brian Perchaluk's revolving set, which contrasted Norman Rockwell-inspired furniture and costumes with the brightly-lit skyscrapers rotating above. 

3. Ride the Cyclone: A Musical (Warehouse; attended March 23rd and March 27th 2013)
I went into Ride the Cyclone not knowing what to expect from a musical about a small-town chamber choir killed in a rollercoaster accident, and left as a diehard fan of this brilliant production by the Victoria-based theatre company Atomic Vaudeville. In fact, I saw it twice, the second time closer to the stage so I could see all the details I missed from my original seat in the upper left corner of the Warehouse. In the process, I gained a deeper admiration for Ride the Cyclone's set design, choreography and, above all, Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond's inspired script. 

2. Assassins (Warehouse; attended January 26th 2013)
Brought to Winnipeg by Birdland Theatre and Talk is Free Theatre for SondheimFest, Assassins was a gripping and impactful work of musical theatre I won't forget anytime soon. The songs of Assassins stayed with me for at least a week and a half after I saw the musical - from its famous opening number "Everybody's Got the Right" and its equally as well-known lyric "everybody's got the right to be happy" to the heartbreaking post-Kennedy assassination ballad "Something Just Broke" - as did the performances of its cast, who, under the direction of Adam Brazier, found a superb blend of pathos, tragedy and dark humour. John Weidman's book and Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics are as relevant now as when the musical premiered eleven years ago, perhaps most significantly for how the two writers transformed their characters into remarkably sympathetic individuals as much in search of fulfillment as anyone else. 

1. Gone With the Wind (Mainstage; attended January 7th 2013)
I guess part of my choosing Gone With the Wind as the 2012-13 RMTC season's Most Outstanding Production might be hometown pride - this and Assassins were almost neck-and-neck for first place - but Niki Landau's adaptation of the Margaret Mitchell novel was truly remarkable for how it resolved issues while creating its own distinctive take on Mitchell's story. Everyone involved, from Landau to director Stephen Schipper to the cast and crew, should be proud of their achievement. You can read my in-depth review of the play here.

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