There’s no shortage of amazing work at SummerWorks, but these were our standout productions and performances from this year’s festival. 

Big Plans, by Jeremy Taylor, directed by Tanner Harvey

I’m glad I found out after the fact that this disturbing tale was actually based on real events. Imagine this: A forty-ish man is alone in his apartment, meticulously setting the table for two. The audience knows that we are expecting another cast member. What we do not know, until a good 30 minutes into the 100-minute play, is that the guest has come over to allow himself to be the victim in an incredibly gruesome murder by the host. I’m not at all surprised that Big Plans won the Canadian Stage Award for Direction, it’s well deserved. ~ Melissa Allen

Dark Locks by Richard Sanger, directed by Mary Francis Moore 

Dark Locks opens at a lecture that many of us who attended secondary school in Canada recognize all too well – the colonization of what is now Quebec by the French. This narrative of how France came to ‘civilize’ (there were invisible quotation marks attached the this term throughout the performance) the rough land is a perfect mirror of the present day Montreal setting. The main character is torn between what civilized means to her: her family’s ultra-strict immigrant values, or her the ability to have the same independence as her peers. At times uncomfortable, the complex issues raised by this plot line were done justice by the talented cast: Arsinée Khanjian, Gord Rand, barely-out-of-high school Ashley Jagga, and her beautiful, long, dark locks. ~ MA 

Derailed by The AMY Project

 The AMY Project (Artists Mentoring Youth) is a free arts education program offered to young women between the ages of 14 to 26 in the GTA. As a firm supporter of women in the arts, especially in Toronto, Derailed, was my top pick, not just as a show of sisterhood, but because it’s important to hear the voice of the upcoming generation of women. Derailed is a piece that spans the length of a cross-town subway commute and the audience is treated to a bird’s eye (or subway mouse’s?) view of the struggles, hopes and wishes of a variety of characters and their interactions with each other and their own thoughts. The storyline is at once fragmented and unified as the dialogue jumps from group to group: a single mother trying to find new housing for her and her sick son, an aspiring artist who’s jaded by other people’s bitterness, a couple growing apart, and homophobia, to name a few. Yet by the end, each story comes full circle and with enough hope to leave the audience feeling uplifted. ~ MA 

Dumbo Squid by Birdtown and Swanville

Dumbo Squid was a nightmare you see in movies put on stage. The flickering fluorescent light and dirty old couch provided an eerie feel as soon as you entered the theatre. A junkie couple’s hidden secret begins to unfold when you realize they’ve been keeping a little girl locked in the basement – a girl who happens to be the junkie Girlfriend’s cousin. Her messed-up cousin’s life is revealed bit by bit by the young hostage – merely a voice delivered offstage, as though the drug addict’s inner and alternate conscience. You pity the Girlfriend who yearned for a better childhood. Though not as challenging of a script, it was an unsettling glimpse into dysfunctional “love” that made us glad we were watching from afar. ~ Desiree Gamotin

Dutchman by lemonTree creations

Written by African-American playwright Amiri Baraka in the 1960s, Dutchman is a conversation between a white woman (Lula, played by Sascha Cole) and young black man (Clay, played by Peyson Rock) on a bus during the Civil Rights movement. Frustrations between both parties arise until a fatal ending proves the inability to break away from the bigotry and ideologies of the social machine. The unconventional “stage” setting made all the difference as audience members got on board an actual bus stationed at a parking lot between Queen and Ossington. Cole’s performance was solid though the seating was awkward; those in the back of the bus may have missed moments of her wildly engaging facial expressions. Still, it was an experience nonetheless. ~ DG  

Evening Hymns with FIVER

Truly a sanctuary in the boisterous Dovercourt and Queen neighborhood, The Theatre Centre housed an intimate and sombre crowd for a set from Evening Hymns’ latest record; Spectral Dusk. A micro-amphitheatre that only seated half the attendees, people sat kindergarten-style on the floor by the stage, cross-legged or knees to their chests, taking in the 7-piece folk band and their collaboration with projection artist Sean Frey. While Jonas Bonnetta crooned heartrendingly honest songs of mourning and nostalgia for the loss of his father, Frey’s projections, puppets and paintings climaxed with every verse – a live art presentation that grew with every crescendo. All in all, it was an enchanting and emotionally-laden hybrid of music and art. ~ Iris Leung 

HUFF by Dependent Theatre Projects

It was meant to be a one-man show laden with “dark humour” but don’t expect the kind from a Wes Anderson flick – this is possibly the most disturbing and sadly realistic portrayal of a young native boy’s life on a reservation. Writer and actor Cliff Cardinal manages to juxtapose his charismatic personality with an unsettling story of two brothers who struggle with every kind of abuse – from drugs to rape to domestic violence. Cardinal holds his own on the stage delivering fantastic story-telling and convincing impersonations of every character while infusing mythic elements into each scene. Some moments were so uncomfortable I started breaking into sweat. It was brilliant. ~ DG

Les Deminmondes by Operation Snatch

Brazen, shocking and unapologetic, Les Demimondes is narrated by Prostitution herself – a 3,000 year old woman (Alex Tigchelaar) who, straight out of the gate, none too gently shoves sex worker activism down our throats using full frontal nudity, crude humor and stark intelligence. After a half hour of having lady bits waved at us and understanding what historic, cultural and contemporary stigma plagues these women, we become accustomed to what initially made us uncomfortable – the ins and outs of sex work made commonplace. Using a steady stream of mixed media presentations sampled from film, music, television, print media and capital-A art woven into dance, video and monologue – Les Demimondes aimed to please and provoke, and is best enjoyed with an open mind. ~ IL 

Terminus by Outside the March

Two words to describe Terminus: Brain. Explosion. As soon as you step inside Factory Theatre, you’re immediately disoriented as ushers direct you to your seats ON the stage, with only a small black platform before you and empty theatre seats as its backdrop. As each of the three characters (played by Maev Beaty, Ava Jane Markus and Adam Wilson) take turns telling their stories through heavily Irish-accented spoken-word monologues, you’re sucked into a tunnel vision of their disturbing experiences, their pangs of loneliness and emotional distress. You start to make the connections, the intertwining tales of desperation and love, insanity and fear, life and death that are delivered so well, you yourself recreate these dark, supernatural images in your mind. Next thing you know, you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for what happens next – like Campfire Stories: The Extreme Edition. The actors hardly breathe in between their tongue-twisted words (yes, it all rhymed!) and for that, the audience hardly blinks for a second. I have chills just thinking about it all over again. ~ DG 

When It Rains by 2b theatre company

Easily my favourite SummerWorks production, When It Rains tossed us back and forth from very funny and charming character deliveries to devastating instances of unjustified misfortune. The lives of four people are told through perfectly choreographed actions that synced in with graphic novel-style projections. Captions and Sin City-type animations added to the relationship story lines and multiple perspectives, making the entire production extremely entertaining when it needed to be – like the French character’s “take me back” serenade in the rain (played by Marc Bendavid) – and equally heart-breaking – when the husband stands beside his comatose wife. Written and directed by Anthony Black and performed by the critically-acclaimed 2b theatre company, make sure to keep your eye out the next time these guys roll back into town. ~ DG 

Wondermart by Rotozaza

Narrated by a soft and conspiratorial English-accented voice, Wondermart is a two-person podplay asking you to rethink the ordinary. Armed with a partner, an Mp3 player and a grocery cart, you navigate the aisles of a local Loblaws trying to blend in, while immersed in an anti-consumerist soundscape that is equal parts unnerving and educational. At times the voice lets you in on subliminal marketing techniques supermarkets use to pull the wool over the shopper’s eyes, and you find yourself seeing this highly-frequented public space in a surreal light. And at others, the guided tour incorporates psychological elements that have the products on the shelves come to life and neighboring shoppers become mere pawns in the grand scheme of commercialism.  ~ IL 

~ Melissa Allen, Desiree Gamotin, Iris Leung. Photos by Iris Leung