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Nova Scotia Theatre: Best of 2016

Reviewers Elissa Barnard and Andrea Nemetz look at some of the year's most memorable shows on the province's main stages and in smaller theatres.
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Ellen Denny was Belle and Jonathan Winsby The Beast in Neptune Theatre's production of the beloved Disney musical Beauty and the Beast, August through October. (CHRISTIAN LAFORCE / Local Xpress)
Local Xpress writers Elissa Barnard and Andrea Nemetz travelled from Sydney to Chester, from Canning to Parrsboro and theatres large and small within Halifax, to see plays by established and indie theatre companies. They've chosen their favourites from 2016.

Here are their top 10 plays on major stages in chronological order:

LET'S TRY THIS STANDING

Keep Good (Theatre) Company, Neptune Studio Theatre, Jan. 13 to 17

LTTSU-47Gillian Clark in Let's Try This Standing by Keep Good (Theatre) Company

In 2010, at the age of 19, Gillian Clark was hit by an out-of-control SUV as she walked on Spring Garden Road in Halifax. In 2016, she led audiences into gales of laughter during her courageous and joyful 75-minute one-woman show Let’s Try This Standing, presented by Keep Good (Theatre) Company in partnership with 2b theatre as part of Neptune’s 2016 Open Spaces program. Clark literally showed the audience her scars and put people on the precipice of pain in a story of torment and triumph. A beguiling performer, she engaged directly with her audience and her technician, Daniel Oulton. Clark, a gifted comedic storyteller, populated this play with boyfriends, parents and, in particular, Hands, the middle-aged male massage therapist who is trying to soften her scars on her inner thighs. Director Anthony Black used 2b's esthetic of strong lighting and technical fluidity to focus the audience’s attention on the actor within a darkened, intimate space for a powerful experience of one human being rising above tragedy. Let's Try This Standing also went to Parrsboro and Toronto.

THE DROWNING GIRLS

DMV Theatre, Neptune Studio Theatre, April 19 to May 1

041916TheDrowningGirls1Leah Pritchard, Andrea Lee Norwood and Ryanne Chisholm starred in DMV Theatre's The Drowning Girls. (RYAN TAPLIN / Local Xpress)

Based on the true story of what was known as “the Brides in the Bath Murders,” The Drowning Girls was written by Albertans Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic, and premiered at the Edmonton Fringe Festival. Pamela Halstead saw a later version done by Alberta Theatre Projects and was struck by the “stunningly beautiful imagery of women in their wedding dresses in bathtubs.” She brought the play about victims of early 20th-century serial killer George Joseph Smith to Halifax because it was artistically satisfying and because living in Canada, the ghosts of the missing and murdered aboriginal women are ever present. The DMV Theatre production, directed by Halstead, starred an outstanding cast of Andrea Lee Norwood, Ryanne Chisholm and Leah Pritchard as women who were all outcasts in Edwardian England. Lighting by Jess Lewis and sets and costumes by Katherine Jenkins-Ryan, including water cascading into three claw-foot tubs, set a chilling atmosphere for a memorable and thought-provoking production. 

PINOCCHIO

Shakespeare by the Sea, July 1 to Sept. 4

tk062516pinocchio2Peter Sarty as Jimmy T. Cricket, Madeleine Tench as Stella Blu, Melissa MacGougan as Pinocchio, Tom Gordon Smith as The Fox and Dan Bray at The Cat starred in the Shakespeare by the Sea original production of Pinocchio in Halifax's Point Pleasant Park. (TIM KROCHAK / Local Xpress)

Shakespeare by the Sea's Pinocchio was a kid-friendly midsummer night's hit staged in Point Pleasant Park under the setting sun. Director Jesse MacLean, working with the company's actors, enlivened the beloved folk tale with some wacky comedy, sweet music composed by Garry Williams and a lovely message about being true to one's self. Tom Gordon Smith played the evil Fox in a glorious, comedic pairing with Dan Bray as his partner-in-crime The Cat. The play starred Melissa MacGougan as Pinocchio, Peter Sarty as Jimmy T. Cricket, Daniel Gervais as Geppetto, Madeleine Tench as Stella Blu, Dorian Lang as master Wendell, Jade Douris and Jack Quail as Pinocchio's schoolmates and Catherine Rainville as master Wendell's punk daughter. Williams created a score to evoke 19th-century northern Italy where MacLean set the piece and where Pinocchio's author Carlo Collodi was from. He played accordion with a string band called The Fresh Pastas of Hilary Adams, Henri Gielis, Liz Anya and Simon Rainville. 

LIBERATION DAYS

Two Planks and a Passion Theatre, Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, Canning, July 5 to Aug. 13

PRINT_Liberation Days_Jamie_Konchak_Devin_MacKinnon_photo_KenSchwartzJamie Konchak and Devin MacKinnon starred in Liberation Days, David van Belle's wartime romance about the aftermath of the Canadian liberation of Holland, a Two Planks and a Passion production at Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, near Canning. (KEN SCHWARTZ) 

Canadian playwright David van Belle's Liberation Days was a gripping postwar romance and a look at war's grim reality staged in a pastoral paradise at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts this summer. Director Ken Schwartz, in his 10th Theatre Off the Grid production as artistic director of Two Planks and a Passion Theatre, worked with a tight ensemble of actors speaking Dutch and English to recreate a bleak postwar Holland. Liberation Days starred Jamie Konchak as Emma, a chippy, charming Dutch woman whose fiancé is missing in Germany, Burgandy Code as Emma's embittered, stony mother and Devin MacKinnon as the Canadian soldier Alex, who falls in love with Emma. Not just a love story, this complex, intelligent drama explored the trauma of war, broken love and questions of faith. It also starred Ryan Rogerson as a local religious leader, Graham Percy as the Canadian commanding officer, Jeff Schwager as a returning soldier and Stephanie MacDonald as an ostracized young Dutch woman and featured a lively, lovely trio of female singers à la the Andrews Sisters — Chris O'Neill, Victoria Houser and Frietzen Kenter. By setting this play outdoors, Schwartz emphasized how war disrupts nature and the natural cycles of human life. Two Planks, which also staged the mysterious, startling Mary Celeste by fire, celebrated its 25th anniversary with a record-breaking season. Its 2017 productions are Nothing Less!, a story about small-town suffragists in 1918, co-written by novelist Ami McKay (The Birth House, The Witches of New York) and Schwartz, with a fireside performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream. 

GOODNIGHT DESDEMONA, (GOOD MORNING JULIET)

Valley Summer Theatre, Wolfville, July 6 to 31

20160705_224346James MacLean as Romeo, Jackie Torrens as Constance/Constantine and Andrea Lee Norwood as Juliet, starred in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) at Valley Summer Theatre in Wolfville. (RENA KOSSATZ)

Jackie Torrens was dazzling as Constance, an absent-minded academic who finds herself swept up in a world of Elizabethan intrigue and mistaken identities in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). Ann-Marie MacDonald's Governor General's Award-winning play puts Constance on a mission to prove that tragedies Romeo and Juliet and Othello were originally comedies. Filled with witty wordplay worthy of Shakespeare and inventive takes on Jacobean theatrical conventions, the monologues blended some of the Bard's best lines with MacDonald's use of iambic pentameter for a text so seamless it seemed as if Shakespeare himself could have written the script. An excellent Emma Slipp played Desdemona with surprising ferocity and Andrea Lee Norwood shone as a mischievously randy Juliet. Directed with heart and humour by Pamela Halstead, Goodnight Desdemona, (Good Morning Juliet) was clever and entertaining. Richly detailed costumes by Jordyn Bochon effectively evoked the Elizabethan era, with Rob Greene's superb sound design transporting the audience to the 16th century, assisted by the simple yet splendid set by Katherine Ryan.

LITTLE THING, BIG THING

Festival Antigonish, July 21 to Aug. 6

LittleThing1Gordon Gammie as ex-con Larry O'Donnell and Francine Deschepper as Sister Martha McCann were on the run in Little Thing, Big Thing at Festival Antigonish. (ASHLEY PETTIPAS)

An ex-con and a nun were on the run for their lives in the Festival Antigonish production of the Irish comedy Little Thing, Big Thing. Gordon Gammie and Francine Deschepper easily slipped between their multiple roles in the "little play with a big heart," directed by Jeremy Webb. Donal Kelly's stellar, thoughtful script propelled the action of the road trip-thriller that took place at a breakneck pace but never went off the rails or became confusing thanks to Webb's sure hand. Tour de force performances from Festival Antigonish favourites Gammie, who played a dozen roles, and Deschepper, who incarnated nine, gave weight to the show that featured multi-layered characters in a world where what was right was grey, not black and white. Kelly's rich writing and minor shifts in costume and major changes in voice and body language brought the many characters to life. Though the production featured lots of laughs, the look at how chance events shape a person's life made a lasting impact.

CHASING CHAMPIONS

Ship's Company Theatre, Parrsboro, Aug. 3 to 28

2016_RISK_Ships_Jacob-4Jacob Sampson wrote Chasing Champions and starred as Sam Langford in the world premiere play at Ship's Company Theatre in Parrsboro. (INGRID RISK)
Annapolis Valley native Jacob Sampson wrote the world premiere drama Chasing Champions about Weymouth Falls boxer Sam Langford, often described as  "the greatest fighter nobody knows." Sampson also played Langford, capturing the fighter's game enthusiasm and bringing a wistful naivete to the role of a man who took for granted his ability to knock out much bigger, more experienced boxers. Directed with perfect pacing by Ron Jenkins and told through flashbacks, an old, blind, penniless Sam recalled his career for a New York Herald Tribune reporter played by Marty Burt, who also provided a welcome steadiness and gravitas as Sam's trainer. The boxer dubbed the Weymouth Wizard, the Boston Bonecrusher and, disturbingly, the Boston Tar Baby won the heart of saucy seamstress Martha, played with delicious sass by recent Dalhousie graduate Micha Cromwell. Designer Garrett Barker did an excellent job turning the Ship's stage into a boxing ring with the audience turned into fans as they surrounded the stage on three sides. The sound design, by Joe Micallef, had a cinematic quality, appropriate to the documentary feel of the play. It also provided a pulsating beat to Sam's fights, staged as beautifully choreographed dances. The cast, including Zach Faye in multiple roles, returns when Eastern Front Theatre stages the knockout drama at Neptune Studio Theatre, April 19 to 30.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Neptune Theatre, Aug. 16 to Oct. 9

cl081616beautyandbeast1Ellen Denny as Belle and Jonathan Winsby as Beast starred in Neptune Theatre's production of the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast. (CHRISTIAN LAFORCE / Local Xpress)
Neptune Theatre took a foray into summer theatre with its stellar, classic production of Beauty and the Beast, which opened in August, ran into October and was a hit with attendance well over 20,000. Little girls clung to their fathers, kids were quiet and older women needed Kleenex during the high-energy, heartfelt and funny production, which was stupendous in design and had a great cast. Two duos stole the show, the comic duo of Jeremy Webb as Cogsworth and Ryan Brown as Lumiere and the romantic duo of Ellen Denny as Belle and Jonathan Winsby as Beast. Director George Pothitos, Neptune's artistic director, perfectly balanced the light and the dark, the fierce red-eyed wolves with the comedy of Gaston (Daniel Cannis) and his abused sidekick (Michael Donald). The "tale as old as time" was high in quality with musical director Paul De Gurse leading five musicians, a reprise of Paul Daigle's lavish 2007 costume designs and Geofrey Dinwiddie's sets, including a spooky two-storey castle interior, Johnny Cann's dramatic picture-book projections and Leigh Ann Vardy's sensitive lighting with choreography by Stephen Gray making the Be Our Guest scene a crowd-pleaser.

HERE LIES HENRY

Chester Playhouse, Aug. 17 to 21

Rhys_editRhys Bevan-John was brilliant in Daniel MacIvor's Here Lies Henry at Chester Playhouse.
Nova Scotia actor Rhys Bevan-John was brilliant as Henry in award-winning Cape Breton-born playwright Daniel MacIvor's 1994 hit Here Lies Henry, a comedic, existentialist, 65-minute show about nothing and everything that was part of the Chester Playhouse Summer Theatre Festival. Bevan-John twinned his talents at clowning and serious dramatic acting for a tour de force performance that shot his opening night audience to its feet. Strongly directed by Chester Playhouse artistic director and MacIvor fan Mary Lou Martin, Bevan-John crafted a pitch-perfect performance marked by a stunning physicality, a marvellous rhythm, an intensity and a beautiful grace. Bevan-John had a busy year performing his own solo show Happy Hobo in Moon Land at Eastern Front Theatre's Stages Theatre Festival in June, teaming this fall with Christian Murray in Stones in His Pockets at Neptune Theatre and starring this December in the one-man A Christmas Carol for Eastern Front Theatre.  

TOMPKINSVILLE

Eastern Front Theatre, Nov. 24 to Dec. 3.

tk112316tville1Jeff Schwager, Laura Caswell and Lee J. Campbell starred in Tompkinsville, written by Reserve Mines native Lindsay Kyte with original music by Ian Sherwood. It was a co-production of Eastern Front Theatre and Go Fly A Kite Productions. (TIM KROCHAK / Local Xpress)
Reserve Mines native Lindsay Kyte, great-niece of co-op pioneers Joe and Mary Laben, brought this gritty, impassioned history to life in a fast-paced, intense story true to human nature and authentic to Cape Breton's culture. Tompkinsville, a powerful, epic drama with Ian Sherwood's original music sung by Kyte (co-lyricist), accompanied by guitarist Chris Corrigan, was produced by Eastern Front Theatre in association with Go Fly A Kyte Productions at the Neptune studio theatre. Lee J. Campbell starred as the blazing Father Jimmy Tompkins, who urges downtrodden coal miners Joe Laben (Jeff Schwager) and Dancin' Archie Devison (Ian Gilmore) to experience "divine discontent" and take charge of their own lives. Directed by Martha Irving, Tompkinsville also starred Laura Caswell as the quiet, intelligent Mary Laben, who first believes Tompkins' message, and Kiersten Tough as Archie's tough-talking Irish wife. Garrett Barker's lighting design was key to the mood. All the songs were original, with the exception of Herrin' and Potatoes, a contest-winner written by Sherwood's Cape Breton grandmother Winnifred Proutherou.  

Six plays from smaller theatres

WEEKEND HEALER

Kazan Theatre, The Waiting Room, May 6 to 22

tk050516healer1Kathryn MacLellan, left, was Betina, Allie MacDonald was Curtis and Stephanie MacDonald was Lindalou in Bryden MacDonald's Weekend Healer at The Waiting Room in Halifax. (TIM KROCHAK / Local Xpress)

Cape Breton native Bryden MacDonald's searing family drama The Weekend Healer played to sold-out audiences and tore out hearts in its run at The Waiting Room in May. The play premiered at Factory Theatre in Toronto in 1994 where it was seen by both Dean Gabourie, who directed Kazan's hit production of Best Brothers last season, and Kathryn MacLellan, who founded Kazan Co-op in 2011, though the two didn't know each other at the time. Directed by Gabourie, The Weekend Healer is the story of a mother and son who go to visit their grandmother, a Cape Breton transplant living in Scarborough. MacLellan, who played the mother, Lindalou, in a production directed by the playwright himself at Neptune Theatre in 1995, starred this time as grandmother Betina, while Stephanie MacDonald was Lindalou and Cape Breton native Allie MacDonald returned from Toronto to make his Halifax professional debut as Curtis. The fraught relationships between three damaged people, and the power of the three accomplished actors to make the characters real, made watching the show an intense, gut-wrenching but ultimately rewarding experience. Kazan Co-op also brought two performances of pure fun to Halifax when beloved Toronto drag artist Miss Conception presented her hits Miss Conception Does Broadway and Miss Conception Goes to the Movies at The Waiting Room during Halifax Pride.

THE COLOUR OF COURAGE

July 5 to 10, Alderney Landing Theatre, Dartmouth

Colour3ofCourage063016Taylor McMillen, as Lt. Robert MacIntosh, points his gun at an unseen soldier as Joshua Thomas, Ryan Willis and Devon Taylor, soldiers in the No. 2 Construction Battalion, look on in Anthony Sherwood's play The Colour of Courage at Alderney Landing Theatre, Dartmouth. (ERIC WYNNE / Local Xpress)

Montreal actor-writer-director Anthony Sherwood (Street Legal, Airwolf) premiered his charged drama of racism, revenge and reconciliation, The Colour of Courage, at Alderney Landing Theatre in time for the 100th anniversary of the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion in Pictou in July. Inspired by his great-uncle's First World War diary, he wrote a story about four soldiers in the unarmed black battalion trapped in a trench during enemy fire in conflict with the white, patronizing lieutenant who jumps in to keep them safe. Sherwood's great-uncle was Rev. William White, father of singer Portia White and the only black chaplain in the British military. He helped form the battalion in Pictou for black soldiers who were not allowed to fight but could work overseas with the Canadian Forestry Corps. Sherwood had a great young cast of Dalhousie acting students Nathan Simmons and Taylor McMillen, and film and TV actors Ryan Willis, Devon Taylor and Joshua Thomas. In The Colour of Courage, people's experiences, hopes and dreams came alive in a way they can't in a history book. Sherwood plans to tour The Colour of Courage, which was presented by Alderney Landing Theatre and Anthony Sherwood Productions.

THE PRINCESS SHOW

Angels & Heroes, Bus Stop Theatre, Aug. 31 to Sept. 10

PrincessShowAngels and Heroes' The Princess Show was the winner of the Best of Festival Award at the 2016 Atlantic Fringe Festival in Halifax. The show, starring Richie Wilcox and Aaron Collier, was also a Fringe Hit.

Multimedia musical The Princess Show won the Best of Festival Award for overall favourite production at the 26th Atlantic Fringe Festival in Halifax. The Princess Show, presented by Halifax-based Angels & Heroes and Theatre Outré, starred Aaron Collier, Richie Wilcox and Deonie Hudson. Wilcox also directed the production written by Collier, a founding member of Scientists of Sound and former keyboardist with the Jimmy Swift Band, whose alter ego is the bearded Princess Edward. The mesmerizing hour-plus production featuring animé heroes, bass guitarist rock stars and an epic journey by Princess Elizabeth to save her one true love. Lip-synched seamlessly from beginning to end, it was a surprisingly melancholy and touching experience. The Princess Show was also one of five Fringe Hits, determined by ticket sales. Angels & Heroes had a busy 2016, staging Castrati: An Electric Drag Opera at the Bus Stop during the Queer Acts Theatre Festival in July and Nation, an electronic music concert with large-scale projections inspired by the Canadian landscape, at the Bus Stop in November.

ROCKY HORROR

Rolling Bold Productions, Oct. 27 to 30, North Street Church, Halifax

IMG_1446
Rolling Bold Productions brought the Time Warp to North Street Church, Oct. 27 to 30 with its staging of Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Show.
No show during the 2016 theatrical season was more fun than Rolling Bold Productions' staging of Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show. In the words of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, it was an evening to "give yourself over to absolute pleasure." Directed by Lara Lewis and Sam Horak, who also played Columbia, the cast included Frankie Hollywood as Frank-n-Furter, Ian Mullan as Brad, Emma Ross as Janet, Amanda Mullally as Rocky, Stephanie Walker as Magenta, Charlotte Doane as Riff-Raff, Tim Sullivan as Eddie and Arjun Lal as Dr. Scott. The Holy Snappers band got the sold-out crowd — many dressed in fishnets and bustiers — rocking, the cast ably belted out the familiar tunes and narrator Connor Purdy enthusiastically encouraged and chastised the crowd, urging them to shout "slut" and "asshole" whenever Janet and Brad appeared. Costumes by Maria Eileen Brine paid homage to the 1975 movie with Susan Sarandon and Tim Curry and choreography by Kara Friesen thrilled, chilled and fulfilled the crowd who eagerly jumped up to do the Time Warp. Here's hoping Rolling Bold makes The Rocky Horror Show an annual event.

THE SPANISH TRAGEDY

Villains Theatre, Bus Stop Theatre, Nov. 15 to 20

tk111016villain2Colleen MacIsaac, left, was Lorenzo and Leah Pritchard was Balthazar, in the The Villains Theatre production of The Spanish Tragedy, at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax. (TIM KROCHAK / Local Xpress)
Few horror movies can compare to the bloody, stomach-churning scene in The Spanish Tragedy when Hieronimo (Katherine Tufts) bit off his own tongue. Thomas Kyd's 16th-century revenge tragedy, set during the Spanish Civil War in the Villains Theatre production, was almost unbearably contemporary as men of unremitting evil plotted against their pure-of-heart brethren, carrying out heinous deeds without the slightest hesitation. Directed with precision by Dan Bray, the all-around excellent cast featured Leah Pritchard as Balthazar, Rachel Hastings as Pedringano, Sarah Deller as Bel-imperia, Madeleine Tench as Horatio,Tufts as Hieronimo and Colleen MacIsaac as the villain, Lorenzo, in a rapidly moving play about the nature of justice. The work of costume designer Kelsey Stanger and set designer Patricia Vinluan was outstanding in evoking the 1930s with a nod to the 1500s. The motives and intentions in the play were effervescently clear, the characters deftly drawn. It it is no surprise that this original revenge tragedy influenced Shakespeare.

DAVID SEDARIS' UNCOMFORTABLE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY FUN TIME HOUR

Kick at the Dark Theatre Company, The Waiting Room, Dec. 7 to 18

ew120616uncomfortablexmas4Katerina Bakolias, Jamie Bradley and Andrew Chandler starred in David Sedaris' Uncomfortable Christmas Holiday Fun Time Hour, a Kick at the Dark Theatre Company production at The Waiting Room. (ERIC WYNNE / Local Xpress)

Andrew Chandler wore what was possibly the ugliest Christmas sweater ever on a set that would likely win tackiest holiday decorations hands down in David Sedaris' Uncomfortable Christmas Holiday Fun Time Hour. Chandler produced and co-directed the 65-minute show featuring three of the American humorists' "grinchiest characters." The laugh-filled evening pleased both those who rail against the commercialization of Christmas and those who just can't get enough of the December festivities. Chandler played a frustrated theatre critic who savages elementary and middle school Christmas pageants in "Front Row Centre with Thaddeus Bristol," Katerina Bakolias was condescending TV exec Jane Timothy talking down to the "hillbillies" she hoped to win over to produce what she assured them would be the best holiday special ever and Bradley was a wealthy man who gives new meaning to the phrase “Christmas Means Giving” in the darkest monologue of the three. All three actors inhabited their unlikable characters so completely it was hard to separate the actor from the role (side note, all three are actually lovely people). Music by Guy and Doll (a.k.a. Nick Cox and Audrey Eastwood) played on keyboards and electric and acoustic guitars nicely complemented the show's cynical tone with tunes written by Jonathan Coulton, The Doubleclicks, Rachel Lark and Tim Minchin. Eastwood played a whiny little girl upset "Christmas ain't about me anymore," in a melancholy ditty sung in the minor key, while Cox mused that Christmas was about getting a week off in another seasonably satiric offering. For those looking for a more traditional Christmas, Eastwood and Cox performed carols in beautiful harmonies before the show began. Christmas in Halifax now means David Sedaris. 



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