Review: (re)Birth: E. E. Cummings in Song (Soulpepper / Global Cabaret Series)

rebirth

Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre presents (re)Birth: E. E. Cummings in song as part of their Global Cabaret Festival

In his curtain speech before (re)Birth: E. E. Cummings in Song, artistic director Albert Schultz welcomed us home. On his account, (re)Birth represents one of Soulpepper‘s great successes. Not just a marvelous piece of theatre on its own merits, and not just a testament to the strength of their Academy program — perhaps the best early-career program for theatre workers in English Canada — (re)Birth is a tiny glimpse at the beating heart of Soulpepper: musical, lively, accessible, unpredictable, polished and — above all — playful. Its initial run did do so well that it was brought back, extended, remounted, and here it is, alive once more, to open their 7th annual Global Cabaret Festival.

The hour-long show presents somewhere between 12 and 15 of Cummings’ poems in varied musical styles: “goodbye Betty, don’t remember me” as dixieland jazz; “maggie and milly and molly and may” as heavy metal; “i like my body when it is with your” as a sultry Parisian waltz. The company of 10, dressed in utilitarian Edwardian costumes — all tweeds and browns, accessorized with oversized gumboots, images of sparrows, and newspaper pirate hats — play their own instruments and do their own stagecraft. The whole thing is sweet and innocent, like a school play or a community pantomime.

My guest Joan, seeing the show for the first time, found the show to be a little muddled: pieces shift from one to the next without any connection or continuity. As she explained, it was a well-staged concert, rather than a piece of theatre. Fun to watch, a neat universe to inhabit for an hour, but an exploration or an experiment rather than a play or musical. (And thus entirely appropriate for a cabaret festival!) She also felt — and I agree with her here — that sometimes Cummings’ words got lost: the company do an amazing job of squeezing emotion out of the audience (I definitely saw a few grown men wiping dust out of their eyes), yet afterwards, both of us walked down King Street struggling to remember any of the poems. For a show ostensibly about the poetry, this is a problem.

But lord, is this show fun.

The music — devised by the company under the guidance of Director of Music Mike Ross — is deeply affecting and has a way of drilling itself into your brain. I defy you to wake up the morning after and not be humming “I like kissing this and that of you”.

The show is also visually-striking, with a few images that will haunt you afterwards. Ins Choi playing bass as the minions of “a terror musical” advance upon him; Tatjana Conji accompanying herself on the accordion as light fills the bedsheet fortress below her; and, especially, Abena Malika pressing “play” on a vocal recorder, thus allowing Cummings to speak for himself.

Like Albert Schultz, (re)Birth has long been one of my favourite Soulpepper outputs. While the newspaper hats are a little frayed, and there’s a little more grey in the performers’ hair, the core of this show — especially that embrace of playfulness — has endured. An excellent hour-long show, and something which I think might be of special interest to parents who want to get younger people interested in the performing arts.

Details

  • (re)Birth: E. E. Cummings in Song plays through Saturday, October 25th as part of Soulpepper’s Global Cabaret Festival. (Young Centre for the Performing Arts, in the Distillery District, near King and Parliament.)
  • Showtimes vary; see website for details.
  • Tickets are $26; $20 for students.
  • Tickets may be purchased online, by telephone (416.866.8666), or in-person from the Young Centre for the Performing Arts box office. Be aware that this series inevitably sells out; advance purchase is strongly recommended.
  • While the show does include some exploration of Cummings’ erotic poetry, the subject is handled with taste and grace, and the content of this show should be suitable even for young children.

Production photograph by Sian Richards. Photograph depicts the original (2011) production, and does not reflect the current casting.