Review: Double Bill (Soulpepper)

Double Bill is two short collaborative creations showcasing the talent of the Soulpepper Academy. The Academy is described on their website as “a twelve month paid training and performance residency for actors between the ages of 22 and 26 years old. While at the Academy, actors will receive intensive professional training in ensemble and creation performance…”

The first play is (re) Birth: E.E. Cummings in Song. I love E.E. Cummings very much and I was delighted by their treatment of a selection of his poems.

A note on capitalization: his name is often spelled in all lowercase letters because he did not use capitalization in standard ways in his poems. However, the internet leads me to believe he had no preference for his name to be all lowercase, so I will capitalize it.

In a show such as this, the audience member obviously wants to see their own favourite poems represented and the creators want to cater to their audience at least a bit. So they did include popular favourites such as anyone lived in a pretty how town and may my heart always be open to little birds. It was not, however, a Cummings hit parade – there was no in Just-, or all in green my love went riding. It was an ideal mix of the well-known and the not-so-known.

Being who I am, I have a particular affinity for Cummings’ sexier poems. I did not get to hear my beloved may i feel said he, but they did do i like my body when it is with your body, which is pretty steamy. Other personal favourites they did include Buffalo Bill and here is little Effie’s head.

The musical ability of the cast was impressive. I don’t think being able to play multiple instruments is a requirement to get into the Soulpepper Academy, but many actors are musical. Some of them may have picked it up along the way – and some of the instruments, such as xylophone and tambourine and a squeaky frog, might be easier to learn than others – but they switched from instrument to instrument with considerable skill.

The music itself was whimsical and haunting and inventive – as was the staging – and those three words are exactly how I would describe Cummings’ poetry.

The music reminded me of Kurt Weill. That’s a very good thing. The staging involved use of shadow play that at times is hilarious and at times poignant.

One of my favourite things was the costuming: they were all wearing rubber boots, inherently reminiscent of in Justs-’s “mud-liciousless”ness, and they all seemed to have a “little bird” image somewhere on their clothes. Some of them wore newspaper hats which I think must be a reference to a Cummings poem I don’t know. I am now inspired to read his entire canon.

My companion did not know Cummings work but she enjoyed the inventiveness and musicality of the evening and she seems to be interested to read some Cummings now. I encouraged her to because, as wonderful as the show was, just as when you go to a concert you can’t really retain the lyrics of the songs, a lot of Cummings’ unique mastery of words was lost in the music. That’s not a criticism – there’s nothing to be done about it – if anything it’s wonderful that it inspires an audience member to read more Cummings.

I think the 2009/2010 Soulpepper Academy should consider a recording of the show. I’d buy it.

The second play of the evening was Window On Toronto and the Window in question was that of a hot dog van stationed at Nathan Phillips Square. The stage is cut off by a wall with a window in it and we see from the vantage point of the hot dog vendor. Shenanigans ensue.

And I don’t mean the word “shenanigans” lightly. This isn’t some mildly whacky fun. This is full on acid-trip level. Abandoned musical instruments play themselves, masked Grim Reaper figures and dancing babies appear, a miniature hot dog van rises up from below to add some meta-theatricality. What does it mean? I don’t know. I don’t think it means anything, I don’t think it’s supposed to. It’s just kind of funny, and random, and I think “funny” and “random” is probably fairly true to the experience of your average hot dog vendor, albeit without the dancing babies.

The main strength of the show was in the physical comedy. The nine cast members, excluding the hot dog vendor himself, all played a variety of outlandish characters, and they played them to the hilt.

Somehow, a well-executed stage slap never ceases to be funny. And there’s a Laurel and Hardy type bit that’s funny exactly because it is so classic and predictable. And as much as representations of the mentally unwell sort of people who are on the streets can be contentious, one can’t deny they’re there and for the most part I think the Soulpepper Academy did a good job in portraying them humorously but not offensively.

While it’s impossible to tell from either of these shows if any of these young artists are capable of creating a complex dynamic character, they certainly are capable of engaging musical and comedic performances. So I’d say the future of Canadian theatre is promising. And I still want to buy the Soulpepper Academy does E.E. Cumming Soundtrack.

Details

Double Bill is playing at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street, Distillery District) until June 18th, 2011

– Shows run at various times both evenings and matinees; check the schedule to find a showtime

– Ticket prices range from $28 to $65

– Tickets are available online or at 416.866.8666

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann