Review: Summerfolk (Ryerson Theatre School)


Ryerson Theatre School’s Summerfolk is a treat bag of debutantes, dingbats, and good acting

Summerfolk is a Russian play written in 1904 by Maxim Gorky. It is about a garden party attended by elites. As the party progresses, it collapses into something that is part circus and part soap opera. Who doesn’t love a good party?

That the party collapses is a good thing. It allows the veneer to be stripped off of a stuffy tea party and people’s real personalities to emerge.

Summerfolk is a play about a group of young and privileged people. In those days, in Russia, doctors, lawyers and other young professionals were referred to as the intelligentsia. Nowadays, they would be called the “1%”, or worse.

With a cast of at least 19, some might argue that there isn’t significant time for character development, even though the play comes in at three hours. To develop one character might mean to lessen the importance of others. I haven’t read Gorky’s work for a long time. I seem to recall that he regarded people as equals, but also as simple beings. I tend to agree. A main character is no more, and no less, important than “Gentleman in top hat”. My man Max was a Socialist, not a Monarchist.

The huge party is hosted by Varya (Elysia White). I thought White was strong throughout, particularly before intermission. It’s easy to empathise with Varya early on. She wears simple, relaxed summer clothes. For me, she was like a mixture of different young moms that I know. Varya and White are the epitome of “mom, apple pie and The World Series.” Well, at first, anyway.

Speaking of intermission, I think playing Bob Dylan may have chased away some theatre goers during the break. I think it really ruined the atmosphere, especially for those of us who don’t care for Zimmerman’s particular brand of twang.

After the break, the party continues and the alcohol flows more freely. There is a lake offstage and we can hear events that we cannot see. There is an attempted suicide offstage. There is course language and there is smoking. There are misogynistic speeches that make our skin crawl. Summerfolk really brings back a lot of college memories!

Varya becomes distant and I can’t relate as well. We all mature as characters fall in lust and out of love.

I thought Daniel Henkel was the star of the second half. He has great stage presence and his character cut through the intelligentsia hubris. He reminded me of Steve Buscemi. On further thought, I think he may be the star of the entire play.

That being said, I think every cast member had a shot at the spotlight and took turns shining. The cast is huge and hugely talented. It is comprised of the graduating class of Ryerson’s four-year BFA Acting program. Summerfolk is very Socialist in that regard.

Dora Award winning director Dean Gilmour has done a great job. He orchestrates Summerfolk seamlessly. He is a great ringleader for this particular version of what reminded me of The Moscow Circus.

I like that young performing artists and audiences are rediscovering a play like this. I love that I had the opportunity to see the work of one of my favourite authors performed. It was great to dust off my old Gorky collections.

Ryerson Theatre is splendid and comfortable. It is also massive. However, I think that this production Summerfolk would benefit from a more intimate venue.

Summerfolk also reminded me of three movies. The first was Barton Fink because of the socialism and alcohol abuse. The second was Reservoir Dogs. Mostly, though, it reminded me of a 1990 film about young rich people in Manhattan called Metropolitan. Both that film and this play are all about debutantes and dingbats.

At three hours, Summerfolk is longer than most plays. However, great writing, great directing and the enthusiasm of all involved make sure that it is never boring. Time flew by for me.

It would have flown by even quicker if not for an over-perfumed young woman sitting in the middle of the audience. She insisted on inflicting her forced giggles upon everyone during the rare lulls onstage. Oh well, sometimes life imitates art. Not even a creature such as her could spoil a tremendous evening for me.

Give yourself a treat during this Halloween season. Go see Summerfolk at Ryerson Theatre.


  • Summerfolk is playing at Ryerson Theatre (43 Gerrard Street East) until November 2, 2012
  • Shows run through Friday November 2nd at 8:00
  • Tickets are $18, $14 for students and seniors
  • Tickets are available at the door or through the box office at 416-979-5118

-photo by Joseph Hammond