Reflecting on a decade of Manitoba theatre


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Why do we love actors so much?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/12/2019 (966 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Why do we love actors so much?

Is it because they entertain us? Do we see ourselves reflected in them? Is it because they challenge our world view and open our minds to new ideas and ways of seeing? Is it because they throw such good parties? All of the above?


After a lot of reflection on the past decade, it’s time to look ahead and see what the next generation of performers has in store for us. Here are five faces you’re sure to see on stages very, very soon:

After a lot of reflection on the past decade, it’s time to look ahead and see what the next generation of performers has in store for us. Here are five faces you’re sure to see on stages very, very soon:

Melissa Eve Langdon made her equity theatre debut this past season as Ericka in School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play. Written by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Nina Lee Aquino, the Obsidian/Nightwood co-production featured a cast of black and biracial performers who stormed the stage with humour, joy, pain and music. Locally, Langdon has starred in fringe shows such as Wren Brian’s Animosity and won the 2018 Reg Skene Award for her work as an actor.

Davis Plett is one of the most intriguing multidisciplinary artists working in Winnipeg today. Plett’s show 805-4821 made waves at Toronto’s Summerworks Festival this past year while Études for Keyboard played at Cluster Festival and WNDX Festival. When not creating mind-blowing interdisciplinary work, Plett also dabbles in sound and lighting design.

Reena Jolly is a current student in the acting program at the National Theatre School in Montreal. Before she moved, she was seen onstage as Ophelia in Shakespeare in the Ruins’ production of Hamlet and Torn Through Time at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People.

Kelsey Wavey is a recent graduate of Studio 58 at Langara College in Vancouver, one of Canadian’s top training schools for actors. She performed in Marie Clements’ play The Unnatural and Accidental Women, directed by Muriel Miguel, which launched the National Arts Centre’s Indigenous Theatre department this past September, and was recently seen on Winnipeg stages in Theatre by the River’s production of Keith Barker’s The Hours That Remain, directed by Tracey Nepinak.

Sophie Smith-Dostmohammad isn’t even finished school and she’s already making her equity theatre debut in not one but two productions at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre this season — The New Canadian Curling Club by Mark Crawford and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Ursula Rani Sarma.

I don’t have any answers, but inspired by Santa himself, I do have a list of some of my favourite stage-acting performances of the decade.

Before we begin, please note that this list has rules: a) this list only includes performances I saw live, b) does not include any production I personally worked on and c) only features either current or former Manitobans.

Now, without further ado, in chronological order (with a three-year gap missing because I went away for school and didn’t see many local productions), it is time to cue the lights on the 10 best theatre performances of the decade, in my humble-ish opinion.


Jennifer Lyon in Next to Normal

Tracey Nepinak (centre) embodies the character of Crazy Bone.

Next to Normal electrified Broadway at the end of the past decade, winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama and earned the breathtaking Alice Ripley the 2009 Tony Award for best performances by a leading actress in a musical for her portrayal of Diana Goodman, a woman living with mental illness.

A few years later, in the 2012 production of Next to Normal at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre directed by Robb Paterson, Jennifer Lyon was somehow even more phenomenal in her interpretation of Diana, playing antipodal beats with a heartbreaking and urgent vitality.


Sharon Bajer in August: Osage County

Jennifer Lyon offers birthday cake to Wright, even though it is no one’s birthday in Next to Normal.

With Broadway street cred, a movie adaptation in the works and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama secured, Tracy Letts’ play August: Osage County was destined to be a success in Winnipeg.

Directed by Ann Hodges, Sharon Bajer gave one of the most well-crafted performances of her career in the role of eldest daughter Barbara in the 2012 production at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

Bajer navigated the difficult and often emotionally violent script with aplomb, all the while acting opposite living legend Martha Henry (who played the family matriarch, Violet), proving that Bajer is something of a living legend herself.


Gislina Patterson in Heavenly Bodies

Sharon Bajer, right, gave an standout peformance with living legend Martha Henry in August: Osage County.

First presented at the 2015 Winnipeg Fringe Festival, Heavenly Bodies was a gorgeous exploration of sexuality, power and exploitation. Penned and performed by Gislina Patterson with direction by Zorya Arrow, this underrated production was thankfully remounted by Happy/Accidents in 2017 at the Colin Jackson Studio.

The revamped production featured an expanded script and an incendiary, unforgettable performance by Patterson, who proved that the most groundbreaking and expansive work is often taking place on the smaller stages of the city.


Ray Strachan in The Whipping Man

Penned and performed by Gislina Patterson, Heavenly Bodies was a gorgeous exploration of sexuality, power and exploitation.

Ray Strachan is on your TV, on your stage, in your films and even in some educational videos in the Smart Choices Responsible Serving Certification online instruction manual.

In Matthew Lopez’s play The Whipping Man, presented by Winnipeg Jewish Theatre in 2017, Strachan played Simon, a former slave who wants to leave the past behind him.

Within the scope of a complex play and with the directorial guidance of Ari Weinberg, Strachan gave a challenging and articulate performance that cemented his status as one of Winnipeg’s greatest talents.


Tracey Nepinak in A Short History of Crazy Bone

Tracey Nepinak has been a go-to figure in Winnipeg theatre for decades. Whenever a production has called for an Indigenous person, Nepinak has been there, paving the way for future generations of Indigenous artists.

In Theatre Projects Manitoba’s 2018 production of Patrick Friesen’s A Short History of Crazy Bone, Nepinak embodies the character of Crazy Bone in a swirling, poetic role. Directed by Andraea Sartison, Nepinak gave her all in the part, imbuing it with power and vibrance and delivering one of the best performances of her career.


Darren Martens and Robyn Slade in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea

As part of one of the oddest Master Playwrights Festival themes in the history of the festival — has anyone ever referred to John Patrick Shanley as a master playwright before… or since? — the Keep Theatre presented Danny and the Deep Blue Sea for Shanleyfest in 2018 and it was phenomenal.

Guided by the precise, sensitive direction of Sharon Bajer, who incorporated intimacy coaching techniques into the process, Darren Martens and Robyn Slade brought Shanley’s best work to brutal, dynamic life.

Both are probably best known for their work in other genres (Martens for musical theatre and Slade as a comedian and part of the musical improv troupe Outside Joke), but both proved that they have the chops to take on any roles than come their way.


Rochelle Kives and Reid McTavish, Kiss of the Spider Woman (2019)

Ray Strachan in WJT’s The Whipping Man in 2017.

Musical theatre isn’t typically one of my favourite things, so I had absolutely no idea what I was walking into with Dry Cold Production’s 2019 offering of Kiss of the Spider Woman, directed by Christopher Brauer.

As it turns out, I was walking into a startlingly contemporary and thoroughly riveting musical written by none other than the classic pairing of John Kander and Fred Ebb, who brought us both Chicago and Cabaret, two musicals I actually love.

And thanks to the irresistible and spellbinding performances by Reid McTavish as Molina and Rochelle Kives as Aurora, by the end of this show, I had abandoned my anti-musical theatre stance entirely.


Maggie Nagle in John (RMTC Warehouse, director Christopher Brauer, 2019)

Gary Barringer
Reid McTavish in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

John — my favourite new play of the decade — is a fantastic script all around. Every actor has something rich to explore with their character, but it’s the role of Mertis, played in this 2019 Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production by the superb Maggie Nagle, that always steals the show.

Mertis is the cheery, infinitely patient, contagiously positive owner of the Gettysburg Bed and Breakfast in which the play takes place. On a more cerebral level, Mertis functions as a container for everyone else’s sadness and fears, all the while radiating hope and joy for a better future.

Under the direction of Christopher Brauer (who I guess would make it on my top 10 directors of the decade list based on his repeat appearances on his list), Nagle gifted us with all of the above, and so much more… and gets the best monologue of the decade to wrap up the show as a well-earned reward.

That’s 10, so it’s lights out on my list. What does yours look like?

Twitter: @franceskoncan

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