April 10, 2020

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All for one

First season from new artistic director features fresh voices, timely classics examining universal themes

"I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now, and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’"

Howard Beale in Network

Howard Beale’s "mad prophet of the airwaves" made that memorable call to action in the 1976 movie Network, which was retooled in 2017 by playwright Lee Hall for a Broadway show that featured Bryan Cranston in a Tony-winning turn as Beale.

The Canadian première of that very show was front and centre as a call to action for patrons of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre to renew their subscriptions as newly minted artistic director Kelly Thornton announced the lineup of mainstage and Warehouse shows Friday evening.

It’s the first season in more than three decades not bearing the fingerprints of past artistic director Steven Schipper, who retired last year.

Peter Finch made the role of anchorman Howard Beale famous in the 1976 film Network. Winnipeg-born actor Jim Mezon will portray Beale in the stage version, coming to the John Hirsch Mainstage Oct. 15-Nov. 7. (United Artists)

Peter Finch made the role of anchorman Howard Beale famous in the 1976 film Network. Winnipeg-born actor Jim Mezon will portray Beale in the stage version, coming to the John Hirsch Mainstage Oct. 15-Nov. 7. (United Artists)

Though not a musical, Network (Oct. 15-Nov. 7) promises to be Royal MTC’s flagship production of the season in much the same way The Color Purple and Come from Away captured the imaginations of theatregoers in seasons past.

"I’m so excited for Network," Thornton said in an interview in advance of the announcement, adding that Beale will be played by Winnipeg-born Shaw Festival mainstay Jim Mezon. The show will be directed by Daryl Cloran, the artistic director of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, which will co-produce in conjunction with Royal MTC and Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company.

"It’s really great and edgy content," says Thornton. "I watched the movie again originally over the holidays and it is incredibly visionary. Much of what Lee Hall has written in the adaptation for the stage is right out of the movie. The monologues are very, very similar.

"(Paddy Chayefsky) wrote it in the ‘70s and yet it describes the society that we live in," she says. "It really was the seed to the world of fake news that we live in now, this sensationalized world where ratings are more important than truth."

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. The Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical comes to Royal MTC Nov. 26-Dec. 19. (20th Century Fox)

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. The Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical comes to Royal MTC Nov. 26-Dec. 19. (20th Century Fox)

The followup mainstage show is something a little more classic befitting the holiday season: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The Sound of Music (Nov. 26-Dec. 19), also produced in association with Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.

Thornton will direct that show, and she will do so, she says, with an understanding that the musical is not all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.

"I’m very excited to kind of give (credit to) the most uplifting lovely elements of that story, but also to not be afraid to make everyone realize there’s a real underbelly of that play that is about the threat of nationalism and what that means in a society and how it totally erodes freedoms," she says.

"In the backdrop is the rise of (German) nationalism," she says. "And you shouldn’t forget that inside of this beloved musical with all these lovely songs, it’s also the story of displacement and being refugees."

Adding swash and buckle to the mainstage mix is The Three Musketeers (Jan. 7-31, 2021), a 2015 adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas classic by Catherine Bush of Virginia’s Barter Theatre.

"It’s the story of a young D’Artagnan, who comes to Paris wanting to be a musketeer to defend the King’s honour and gets wrapped up in the intrigues," she says. "Ultimately, I think it’s about power and corruption in politics, and how an underdog comes in and is faced with this and rises.

"I read about 10 adaptations of The Three Musketeers and I rested on this adaptation by a female playwright because I felt like in some of the adaptations, the female characters are somewhat two-dimensional," Thornton says.

"Christopher Brauer (John, Kiss of the Spider Woman) is directing Three Musketeers and Rick Skene is doing the fight choreography," she adds. "I said, ‘I want to see the most astonishing fights I’ve ever seen onstage.’ That’s my mandate. Blow our minds!"

Calpurnia is written by Royal MTC associate artistic director Audrey Dwyer. (Nightwood Theatre)

Calpurnia is written by Royal MTC associate artistic director Audrey Dwyer. (Nightwood Theatre)

Thornton didn’t go too far afield to line up the playwright for the spring show at the mainstage. Calpurnia (March 25-April 17, 2021) was written by Audrey Dwyer, Royal MTC’s new associate artistic director. It is a co-production with Canada’s National Arts Centre.

Set in a wealthy Jamaican-Canadian home, it’s about Julie, a screenwriter, on a mission to re-interpret the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird through the perspective of Calpurnia, the Finch family maid — even as her family’s Filipina housekeeper, Precy, essentially functions as a Calpurnia to Julie’s family.

"It’s the funniest play," Thornton says. "It takes a beloved novel and turns it on its head."

One of two world premières in the season, Burning Mom (April 29-May 22) from writer-director Mieko Ouchi, follows Dorothy, a 63-year-old woman, who, in the wake of her husband’s unexpected death, decides to head to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert alone in the RV she intended to drive across the country with her husband.

"It will be hugely innovative," Thornton says. "She’s talking about having a full RV on stage that then unfolds and creates a wild projection screen and takes us to Burning Man.

"She’s got big stage innovation ideas around it. It’s not every day a one-person show can come along and hold the mainstage. And this is actually a true story."

Bridge the gap

Michelle Bardach in Children of God, which comes to the John Hirsch Mainstage Feb. 18-March 3, 2021. (Matt Barnes photo)

Michelle Bardach in Children of God, which comes to the John Hirsch Mainstage Feb. 18-March 3, 2021. (Matt Barnes photo)

Royal MTC's new season announcement happens to coincide with ShakespeareFest, the 20th and final edition of its Master Playwright Festival, raising the question: What will replace it?

Artistic director Kelly Thornton announced it will be replaced with The Bridge, a large and multi-faceted community event encompassing plays, panels, concerts, symposiums and communal gatherings. The dates have not yet been firmed up, but its centrepiece will be playwright-director Corey Payette's mainstage musical Children of God (Feb. 18-March 3, 2021), which will reflect the theme of the inaugural program: art and reconciliation.

Royal MTC's new season announcement happens to coincide with ShakespeareFest, the 20th and final edition of its Master Playwright Festival, raising the question: What will replace it?

Artistic director Kelly Thornton announced it will be replaced with The Bridge, a large and multi-faceted community event encompassing plays, panels, concerts, symposiums and communal gatherings. The dates have not yet been firmed up, but its centrepiece will be playwright-director Corey Payette's mainstage musical Children of God (Feb. 18-March 3, 2021), which will reflect the theme of the inaugural program: art and reconciliation.

The work is a new musical about the children of an Oji-Cree family taken to a residential school in northern Ontario, and the impact that has on family members.

"Corey has brought this production to most of the regional theatres across the country and it hasn’t come to Winnipeg," says Thornton. "And I think in terms of Winnipeg having the largest urban Indigenous population, it feels amazing to bring it here.

"It’s a real story of reconciliation and it’s a gorgeous musical."

It is also a conversation-starter that should allow Winnipeggers to engage in "the pertinent issues of our time," Thornton says.

"The Bridge doesn’t fit the glove of the master playwrights festival completely," Thornton acknowledges. "It came out of a talk about how do I serve my community? What do I do for next generation of artists that are wanting to feel included. How can I support them?

"So The Bridge is really a festival of ideas, I guess," she says. "It will balance great theatre with dialogue and insight. It's a place to ask questions, laugh, listen and learn."

Another world première opens the Warehouse season. New (Nov. 5-21) by Pamela Mala Sinha, recounts Sinha’s own roots in telling the story of a group of immigrants coming from India to Winnipeg in 1970.

"It’s based on her mom and dad’s story of coming to Winnipeg," Thornton explains. "So she’s created Winnipeg in 1970.

"I think Pamela’s deepest desire is to upend what our perceptions of the immigrant story is," Thornton says. "These are just really groovy people who are struggling with love and marriage and desire and they happen to be doing it in a new culture.

"She wants to smash the preconceived ideas of what immigrants look like and give them a voice and create a really meaty play."

The Wolves (Dec. 3-19), written by Sarah DeLappe and directed by Krista Jackson, is a Pulitzer Prize finalist set on the pitch for a teenage soccer team’s weekly warm-up. Thornton says she was attracted to a story centred on a group rarely portrayed onstage: Teen girls.

"It’s a great coming-of-age story of young girls facing into a world that they’re inheriting," Thornton says. "To get the next generation of young actors on the stage for me is a huge mandate."

Yaga (Jan. 28-Feb. 13, 2021) sees the return of Toronto playwright Kat Sandler (Bang Bang) to the Warehouse stage with a murder-mystery/revenge comedy in which a cop and a private eye try to determine the fate of a missing yogurt scion, possibly at the hands of a seductive witch based on the legendary Baba Yaga.

"I wasn’t sure about going right back to Kat’s work, or give space to other people," Thornton says. "But I know other people who saw it in Toronto and they told me: ‘This play is incredible. You’ve got to do it.’

"It really spoke to me and it’s really provocative," Thornton says.

Human Cargo Theatre’s The Runner stars actor Gord Rand. (Supplied)

Human Cargo Theatre’s The Runner stars actor Gord Rand. (Supplied)

Closing the Warehouse season is The Runner (April 8-24, 2021), by Christopher Morris, about an Israeli ZAKA volunteer (a member of an emergency response team) who, in a moment of crisis, opts to save the life of a Palestinian suicide bomber instead of a soldier, and finds his life changed.

"The Runner is a mind-blowing piece of theatre," says Thornton of the Toronto production, which won the 2019 Dora Mavor Moore Award for outstanding production, outstanding direction and outstanding new play.

"All of us as theatremakers, as artists, are trying to repair our world," she says. "It’s about offering plays that help us understand our common humanity. And the world is in such disrepair, so this play really resonates."

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

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

Read full biography

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