Thursday, January 27, 2011

3 Brilliant Shows

Barrymore, Oh My Irma, Assassins

To have seen two solo performances in one week on consecutive nights is no small feat. Each coming in at just over an hour made the experience gratifying from this theatre minimalist’s point of view. I’ve always felt that if you have a lot to say then try to say it as quickly as possible, and for the love of scotch, please give me at least one intermission, or don’t go over an hour! Both Haley McGee and Christopher Plummer satisfy my bladder influenced spectatorial needs in an utterly fulfilling manner. One performer delights from the vantage point of an emerging, brilliant twenty-something renaissance artist, while the other joins the ranks of great geniuses able to captivate audiences during the eighth decade of a truly incredible career.

Plummer’s one man show depicting the final days of John Barrymore’s life was still in preview when I saw it, and if this was any indication of the highs he will reach during the Elgin Theatre five week run of a superbly tragicomic script, then it is a must see, a once in a lifetime chance to witness truly great solo performance. McGee’s show, Oh My Irma, ran in the always loveable Theatre Passe Muraille backspace, replete with portable backrests and a steep seating area akin to a seedy amphitheatre for classical porn flicks or Coliseum style blood baths - the perfect venue for this dizzying one woman journey through a surreal take on extreme trauma seen through the eyes of a very quizzical, disturbed, and impressionable young woman.

McGee’s dexterity as a writer and performer, combined with director Alisa Palmer’s unfailing ability to take the artist’s words and craft complementary movement into each narrative nuance and gesture, is a delight from start to finish. And yet the very idea of ‘delight’ in this particular script is heavily scarred by the terrible trauma that the performing subject is presenting before our very eyes. Near the end of this sixty-five minute tour de force I noticed one distressed young man clutching his face and eyes, something I reserve for films like The Black Swan, Carrie, or Friday the 13th. Oh My Irma is a perfect post modern pastiche of horror, performance art, beat poetry mimicry, clown work, unflinching bouffant facial expression, and sheer theatrical skill coming from a very promising young artist. Somewhat reminiscent of the work of Diane Flacks and Daniel MacIvor, McGee takes complete ownership over a complex character and a dense narrative, revealing the near schizophrenic proportions of a young life exposed to severe violence at the hands of a totally dysfunctional parental unit.

Unlike Barrymore, Oh My Irma refuses to follow a linear narrative and may confuse traditional sensibilities when it comes to plot credibility. But this is the strength and the beauty of an incredibly layered and poetic text that reads like an extended, post-modern prose performance poem come to life. Like Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, recently presented at the Theatre Centre, McGee’s fragmented disjunctive story delves into the complexity of violence and self hatred and reveals reactions to these terrifying acts as supremely diverse, moving from hilarity through hysteria, murder, remorse, pleas for acceptance, and cries for help in one fell swoop.

The richness of Toronto theatre this past month has been impressive to say the least. Three shows, Assassins, Oh My Irma, and Barrymore all attest to the power of the stage is it transcends everyday life, giving us the mature, exuberant textures of Christopher Plummer as John Barrymore, the magnificently maudlin melodies of Sondheim, and the post adolescent roller coaster bravado of a wonderful newcomer who dares to alienate audiences and critics as she lays bare the darkest and most comical musings of a truly memorable character hell bent upon making us laugh and cry until we are barely able to tell the difference.

Barrymore - Elgin Theatre - until March 7th

Oh My Irma - Theatre Passe Muraille - January 5th - 29th

Assassins - The Theatre Centre - January 8th - 23rd

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