January 21, 2020

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Curtain rises on new era in city theatre

Will new artistic directors mean new approaches? Only the upcoming 2019-20 season will tell

Curtain up. Light the lights. You’ve got nothing to hit but the heights.

Something about the beginning of a new theatre season somehow invokes Ethel Merman singing Everything’s Coming Up Roses from the musical Gypsy.

But that may be truer than usual in the 2019-20 Winnipeg theatre season, with help from an infusion of fresh talent in the artistic director chairs of four key city theatre companies: Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, now under the direction of Toronto transplant Kelly Thornton, Prairie Theatre Exchange, which is showcasing the first season of all-Canadian shows entirely programmed by new A.D. Thomas Morgan Jones, Rainbow Stage, newly committed to production of Canadian musicals under the stewardship of Carson Nattrass and Shakespeare in the Ruins, whose new A.D. Rodrigo Beilfuss is bumping up the company’s bard content just in time for William Shakespeare’s inclusion in the Master Playwright Festival in January.

Kelly Thornton is the new artistic director of the Royal MTC.

PHIL HOSSACK/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kelly Thornton is the new artistic director of the Royal MTC.

Here’s what’s playing on your year-long theatre set list, month by month:

October

Peter Pan (MTYP, Oct. 18-27)

This show from Toronto’s A Bad Hat’s Production (where it won three Dora Mavor Moore awards) re-imagines J.M. Barrie’s classic tale for the 21st century, with an infusion of live folk and jazz music. Recommended for ages five and up, it’s also notable for having premièred at the Old Flame Brewery in Port Perry, Ont. The Winnipeg show replicates that circumstance by packing 11 actors into a tight 4.5-by-4.5-metre space.

MÆ- Motion Aftereffect (PTE, Oct. 30-Nov. 3, 2019)

Created and performed by intermedia artist Freya Bjorg Olafson, this world première in PTE’s alternate Leap Series imagines society’s future with advances in virtual reality technologies coupled with a high-energy physical performance.

Freya Björg Olafson won the Making a Mark Award at the Mayor's Luncheon for the Arts in June. Her futuristic new show will make its world première at PTE.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Freya Björg Olafson won the Making a Mark Award at the Mayor's Luncheon for the Arts in June. Her futuristic new show will make its world première at PTE.

November

Tiny Treasures (MTYP, Nov. 8-17)

This MTYP production, having its Canadian première, tackles the subject of young caregivers in the story of 13-year-old James, who is obliged to care for both his ailing mother and younger sister. Originally created by Theatre Hullabaloo in the U.K., the show was the product of extensive workshops with children and young people who look after siblings and/or parents.

Fun Home (Royal MTC Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre, Nov. 14-30)

Adapted from Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, this multi-Tony Award-winning musical examines a lesbian cartoonist’s complex relationship with her closeted father.

Five to watch

If you can only afford, say, five plays to see this theatre season, here are some suggestions

The Third Colour (PTE, Oct. 2-20)

One of Winnipeg’s premier playwrights has been on a bit of a time out; one reason we’re particularly excited to see Ian Ross (fareWel) return with his own distinctive take on the Indigenous history of Canada, from pre-settlers to present day. Ross gained a reputation as one of the flat-out funniest guys in the city on the strength of his character “Joe from Winnipeg,” and while this play promises to deliver his sense of humour, it’s also something a little more abstract and experimental. One waits with bated breath.

Bang Bang (Warehouse Theatre, Oct. 3-19)

Royal MTC’s freshly-minted artistic director Kelly Thornton kicks off the Warehouse season by directing this darkly comic work by Toronto-based playwright Kat Sandler. Bang Bang is a topical take on how popular culture refracts reality as a white playwright plays fast and loose with a news story in which a black female police officer has shot an unarmed black youth. Though programmed by departed A.D. Steven Schipper, this co-production with Victoria’s Belfry Theatre may offer an immediate sense of how Thornton will leave her imprint on the Royal MTC brand.

The Color Purple (Royal MTC John Hirsch Mainstage, Oct. 24-Nov. 16)

The original musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel premièred on Broadway in 2005, but the Royal MTC production is based on the leaner (and more acclaimed) 2015 revival in telling the story of Celie, a much-abused woman who rises above the forces that attempt to keep her down. A co-production with Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, it will be directed by Winnipeg’s Kimberly Rampersad, who is fresh from a directing stint at the Shaw Festival. It’s safe to say she knows her way around the material: Rampersad was at the helm of a hit production at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre earlier this year.

Narrow Bridge (WJT, March 28-April 5, 2020)

The main enticement of this upcoming Winnipeg Jewish Theatre world première is to see how Winnipeg playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff follows up with his brilliant drama, Deserter, a production of Moving Target Theatre and a high point of the 2018 theatre season. The provocative subject matter has a character with a vision of drifting through the mechitzah (the barrier separating men and women in Orthodox synagogues) and coming out the other side both as transgender and an Orthodox Jew.

The Drowsy Chaperone (Rainbow Stage, June 30-July 19, 2020)

When he took the job, Rainbow Stage’s artistic director Carson Nattrass vowed to introduce Canadian content to the Kildonan Park venue, which had become mired in stale-dated Broadway fare and jukebox musicals. Darned if he didn’t deliver his first time at bat with a winning production of Strike: The Musical this summer. For his next trick, Nattrass offers up this Tony-winning musical parody, cooked up as a party piece among a quartet of Toronto theatre artists before transmogrifying into a Broadway hit.

The Golem’s Mighty Swing (Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, Nov. 16-24)

The first world première of the WJT season is a puppet-enhanced adaptation (by Marcus Jamin) of a graphic novel by James Sturm about a barnstorming Jewish baseball team touring America in the 1920s. A co-production with Toronto’s Outside the March company.

The Wedding Party (PTE, Nov. 20-Dec. 8)

This comedy from Toronto playwright Kristen Thomson (I Claudia) employs six actors to play dozens of characters attending a wedding fraught with more than the usual amount of drama. "It’s one of the funniest new Canadian plays I’ve ever read," Jones says.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly (Royal MTC John Hirsch Mainstage, Nov. 28-Dec. 21)

An "imagined sequel" to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, this is Royal MTC’s second consecutive swing at Austen, following last season’s Sense and Sensibility. It centres on Elizabeth Bennet’s bookish younger sister Mary, who finds herself being courted over the holiday season by Mr. Darcy’s cousin.

The Hours That Remain (Theatre by the River, Nov. 29 to Dec. 8)

This drama by Keith Barker takes on the subject of the notorious Highway of Tears, an 800-kilometre stretch of British Columbia road between Prince George and Prince Rupert, where at least 18 women — and as many as 43 — were murdered or went missing between 1969 and 2006. Directed by Tracey Nepinak.

December

Alissa Watson adapts The Paper Bag Princess as part of PTE's annual Robert Munsch holiday offering.

(SUPPLIED)

Alissa Watson adapts The Paper Bag Princess as part of PTE's annual Robert Munsch holiday offering.

A Year With Frog and Toad (MTYP, Dec. 6-29)

This Christmas-friendly MTYP production for ages three and up is a rollicking musical based on Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books.

The Paper Bag Princess (Dec. 19, 2019-Jan. 5, 2020)

PTE’s usual holiday show — the Robert Munsch-based anthology — gets a slight shakeup with a production of just one of Munsch’s books, instead of a handful, adapted by frequent Munsch performer Alissa Watson taking over from longtime Munsch interpreter Debbie Patterson.

January

As You Like It (Royal MTC Mainstage, Jan. 9-Feb. 1, 2020)

A co-production with the Citadel Theatre, this adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy is set in the counterculture of 1960s Vancouver (it premièred in that city’s Bard on the Beach theatre company) and is infused with 25 Beatles songs. This will be the keystone production in the annual Master Playwright Festival, finally getting to William Shakespeare in its 20th year.

Awaken (Shakespeare in the Ruins at the Rachel Browne Theatre, Jan. 16-26, 2020)

The world première of a brand-new play by local actor-playwright Tracy Penner imagines what happened in the 16-year gap in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, when Paulina keeps Queen Hermione in hiding, waiting for the return of Princess Perdita. SiR’s entry in Shakespeare Fest is directed by Krista Jackson.

Playwright Ian Ross on the set construction for his PTE production 'The Third Colour.'

(SUPPLIED)

Playwright Ian Ross on the set construction for his PTE production 'The Third Colour.'

Ghost Light (PTE, Jan. 22-Feb. 9, 2020)

An actor visits his mother at a nursing home and — during the Murder, She Wrote commercial breaks — he receives pearls of wisdom from mom, an amateur actress of "some renown." Actor-playwright Shawn Wright based this play on his own experiences visiting his mother and describing their conversations on Facebook.

Every Brilliant Thing (Warehouse Theatre, Jan. 23-Feb. 8, 2020)

Produced in association with Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie, Ont., this play by Duncan Macmillan employs audience participation in the story of a boy who tries to cheer up his depressed mother with a list of the wonderful things in the world, and carries on that practice to cope with his own challenging adulthood.

New Owner (MTYP, Jan. 30-Feb. 2)

This production from A Last Great Hunt in Perth, Australia, comes from the same folks who brought you the western-themed It’s Dark Outside in 2018. This show uses similar multimedia techniques — puppetry, live action and animation — to tell the story of a puppy named Bernie who seeks to get adopted by the lonely widow Mabel. Recommended for ages eight and up.

Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) (Theatre Projects Manitoba at Colin Jackson Theatre, Jan. 31-Feb. 15, 2020)

Playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald won the Governor General Award for Drama with this story of an overlooked academic (Robyn Slade) striving to prove her theory about two of Shakespeare’s best-known plays: Romeo & Juliet and Othello. Produced as part of Royal MTC’s Shakespeare Fest.

February

Rimah Jabr (left) and Natasha Greenblatt negotiate a new friendship in Two Birds One Stone.

(SUPPLIED)

Rimah Jabr (left) and Natasha Greenblatt negotiate a new friendship in Two Birds One Stone.

Two Birds One Stone (WJT, Feb. 8-16, 2020)

Writer-performers Natasha Greenblatt and Rimah Jabr are, respectively, a Jewish Canadian and a Muslim Palestinian who met in Toronto and turned their friendship into an examination of that fraught relationship between Israel and Palestine. "Natasha and Rimah are friends and this is very much about how they negotiate their friendship," says WJT artistic director Ari Weinberg.

The New Canadian Curling Club (Royal MTC Mainstage, Feb. 13-March 7, 2020)

This Canadian comedy by Mark Crawford is set in a small Canadian town where a politically incorrect curler must answer to his ex-wife’s challenge to teach four new immigrants the ins and outs of the roarin’ Canadian sport.

Exciting Consequences (PTE, Feb. 19-23, 2020)

Dancer, choreographer and performance artist Ming Hon, commissioned by PTE under her new company A.O.V. Adults Only Video, creates a performance that considers human sexuality and the culture of pornography. Befitting the name of Ming’s company, the show is for audiences 18 years of age and older.

The Mush Hole (MTYP, Feb. 21-29)

Produced by Ontario’s Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, this dance show, recommended for ages 13 and up, explores the lives of kids forced to attend Ontario’s Mohawk Institute residential school. Creator Santee Smith will appear in the piece, which features performers from two generations to view the residential school experience through a lens of intergenerational trauma and consequences.

Women of the Fur Trade (Warehouse Theatre, Feb. 27-March 14)

Award-winning Winnipeg playwright (and Free Press arts reporter) Frances Koncan has written a full-length version of her comparatively stripped-down Toronto fringe show telling the story of three 19th-century women who tell their stories in the language of the 21st century.

March

Tom Keenan (left) and Matt Peters, a.k.a. Heavy Bell, adapt an Elizabeth Smart poem into a theatrical production.

(SUPPLIED)

Tom Keenan (left) and Matt Peters, a.k.a. Heavy Bell, adapt an Elizabeth Smart poem into a theatrical production.

By Grand Central Station (PTE, March 11-29, 2020)

This song-cycle collaboration between actor Tom Keenan and Royal Canoe frontman Matt Peters — known as Heavy Bell — adapts the celebrated prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart. Performed by eight musicians and two dancers, it’s a fully theatrical version of a comparatively stripped-down show Keenan and Peters already toured throughout Canada.

A Thousand Splendid Suns (Royal MTC Mainstage, March 19-April 11, 2020)

Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation of the book by Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) is the story of two women who join forces to prevail over the oppressions of Afghan society. A co-production with Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company.

Beep (MTYP, March 20-29, 2020)

Another kid-oriented show from Australia, this Windmill Theatre Production out of Adelaide uses music and puppetry to tell a story of a robot who crash-lands into a village and inspires its initially startled residents to help out the beleaguered "Beep."

April

The Gingerbread Girl (PTE, April 15-May 3, 2020)

The story by local actress-playwright Sharon Bajer sounds like the unholy child of Into the Woods and Shrek as a childless couple ask a witch to help them conceive. When the blessed event arrives, it’s a gingerbread cookie. But it’s emphatically not for kids, says Jones.

Five Moments (Theatre Projects Manitoba at Circle Moliere Theatre, Apr. 23-May 3, 2020)

A new play by Rick Chafe commissioned by Theatre Projects Manitoba, takes a conventional domestic set-up — the story of a husband, wife and their child — and mixes it up with a sci-fi time-travel twist.

The Legend of Georgia McBride (Royal MTC Mainstage, April 23-May 16, 2020)

An Elvis impersonator with a baby on the way is obliged to adapt when he must fill in for a drag queen on a bender, only to find unexpected success, which he tries to keep secret from his family. Scripted by Matthew Lopez, whose play (The Whipping Man) was a hit at the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre in 2017.

May

Spelling 2-5-5 (MTYP, May 1-9, 2020)

Playwright Jennifer Overton, who has an adult son on the autism spectrum, once wrote a book about that special parenting experience titled Snapshots of Autism and was encouraged to create a play on the subject, but from the perspective of a sibling. Spelling 2-5-5 is that play, focusing on two brothers who share a room. Simon must adhere to a strict routine to care for his autistic brother, Jake, but when he gets a chance to participate in a televised spelling bee, Simon takes advantage of an opportunity to be the centre of attention.

June

The Winter’s Tale (Shakespeare in the Ruins, Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park, dates to be determined)

SiR’s mainstage spring show happens to be a favourite of A.D. Beilfuss, but beyond that, few details are forthcoming on this late comedy of Shakespeare’s. "We are still solidifying a potential partnership with another local theatre company for this project," Beilfuss says.

August

Follow the yellow brick road to Rainbow Stage to see the Wizard of Oz next summer.

(SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

Follow the yellow brick road to Rainbow Stage to see the Wizard of Oz next summer.

The Wizard of Oz (Rainbow Stage, Aug. 11-30)

Rainbow Stage has produced The Wizard of Oz six times in its 64-year history. A.D. Nattrass isn’t offering any details on whether this production will, like a Kansas tornado, shake things up.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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Updated on Friday, September 27, 2019 at 11:59 PM CDT: Fixes photo caption.

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