Pedestrians in downtown Quebec City last week witnessed an odd sight: Spanish actor Albert Vidal taking a nap, brushing his teeth and performing other routine tasks in a zoo-like enclosure—part of his performance piece, The Urban Man. Meanwhile, in Toronto Greg Malone, a member of Newfoundland’s CODCO comedy troupe, delivered a hilarious impression of CBC host Barbara Frum gagging as she makes a commercial for cream of mushroom soup. Those events were among the richly diverse dramatic works included in Toronto’s du Maurier World Stage festival and Quebec’s biannual Quinzaine Internationale du Théâtre, both of which ended last week.
The two-week events featured everything from avant-garde Polish troupes to a production of August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie, directed by the renowned Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. And both festivals were critical and box-office successes, with many shows playing to packed houses. But equally important, they gave artists from different cultures a chance to trade ideas. Declared Toronto actor John Jarvis who attended the World Stage festival: “All of the shows were controversial and exciting—there were no flops. I think there is an enormous amount to be gained from a festival like this.”
Toronto festival officials originally tried to convince their Quebec counterparts to schedule events so that some of the same acts could move from one city on to the other. But they quarrelled openly when Quinzaine organizers won exclusive performance agreements from many of their festival’s participants. In the end, the two festivals shared only two events, Wedding in Texas by Cathy Jones of Newfoundland’s CODCO, and Stoeprand, a drama about pederasty by Holland’s Studio Hinderik. But despite the largely different lineups, similar issues emerged in the two events—most notably, whether theatre should rely on words and narrative or whether it can have a greater impact through spectacle and sound.
As World Stage artistic director Lilie Zendel noted, European theatrical companies tour widely and so must mount shows accessible to people of different languages. As a result, mime and dance played a crucial role in such plays as The Life of Archpriest Avvakum, which Poland’s Theatre Associa-
tion Gardzienice mounted in Toronto. Chanting dirges, the performers portrayed crucifixion, suffering and sexual ecstasy. And in Quebec, Spain’s La Cuadra de Sevilla presented Piel de Toro, a series of wordless, highly symbolic vignettes based on bullfighting.
A few Canadian productions demonstrated that domestic troupes can be as adept as Europeans at communicat-
ing in ways other than words. Indeed, one of the Toronto festival’s hits was The Dragon's Trilogy, a visually arresting production from one of Quebec’s most innovative companies, Théâtre Repère, and set on a floor covered with 7,000 lb. of fine gravel. The work is a mystical meditation on Canada’s cultural diversity, moving from Quebec City in 1910 to Toronto during the Second World War to present-day Vancouver. But most successful Canadian ! productions in the World Stage festi-
val tended toward the traditional—and the humorous. German playwright Patrick Siiskind’s The Double Bass is a one-man show starring Eric Peterson, who delivers the drunken ramblings of the third double bass player in a regional orchestra. Another Canadian critical success was also comical— Wedding in Texas, a collection of skits about relations between the sexes, written and performed by CODCO’s Jones. Her cast of outrageous characters included a talk-show hostess, Vave Fladney, who tells her viewers, “Sure, it’s awful being a woman, but look at the alternative.” The World Stage Festival also presented an opportunity to appraise a Canadian theatre legend. Last performed in Canada in 1972, Herschel Hardin’s evocation of life in the Far North, Esker Mike and His Wife, Agiluk, had won a reputation as an unjustly ignored classic. But critics agreed that the play had not aged well.
Unlike the World Stage, the Quinzaine failed to attract English-Canadian productions that appealed to critics and audiences. Wild Child by Toronto playwright Felix Mirbt and Toronto director/actor Hrant Alianak’s Lucky Strike were flops. Only Linda Griffiths’s Jessica, a play about the troubled life and spiritual growth of a Métis woman from Alberta, won guarded praise from both critics and paying customers alike.
For all their achievements, both festivals still lack a distinctive focus. Paul Thompson, an associate director of Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, enjoyed both festivals but he argued that neither has yet found a strong sense of style or direction. Added Thompson: “Until an audience’s enthusiasm virtually takes over a festival, the necessary excitement to inspire top-flight work simply isn’t there.” Generating that excitement over the next two years is a challenge that organizers in both cities must address if they are to keep their festivals in the creative spotlight.
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