Compiled by Nicole Estvanik in the January 2014 issue of American Theatre magazine. (View Archives)
The Light Princess: “These tears I’ve cried / I’ve cried 1,000 oceans / and if it seems / I’m floating in the darkness, well / I can’t believe that I would keep / keep you from flying….”. Singer-songwriter Tori Amos wrote these lyrics for her 1999 album “To Venus and Back.” Years later, she has turned her attention to a fairy tale in which the inability to cry is what unmoors a girl from her life on the ground.
Scottish author George MacDonald’s Victorian-era story “The Light Princess” is the source material for Amos’s new musical of that name, featuring book and lyrics co-written with playwright Samuel Adamson. The show has been extended at London’s National Theatre through the start of next month.
In MacDonald’s version, the cause of the princess’s buoyancy is her parents’ snubbing of a cantankerous magical aunt. (Will these fictional royals never learn to double-check their guest lists?) The curse that steals the girl’s gravity also leaves her emotionally crippled—she laughs incessantly, and cannot cry—yet her dilemma is mined for comedy, as when servants must fetch the giggling baby from the ceiling with tongs. In Amos and Adamson’s version, it is a different fairy-tale trope that levitates the princess: the death of her mother. A neighboring prince has suffered a similar loss, but he becomes heavy-hearted and unable to smile. Both romance and coming-of-age story, the musical is directed by Marianne Elliott, who helmed the National’s recent hit adaptations of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and War Horse (co-directed with Tom Morris). In a recent BBC Radio 2 interview, Amos referred to Elliott as “the cutest blonde with the biggest balls in London” and, indeed, it takes chutzpah to stage a piece in which the only scenes that don’t require the leading lady need not fly are the ones where she’s swimming. Elliott tapped War Horse designer Rae Smith and choreographer Steven Hoggett (Black Watch, Once) to bring the story visually to life. There are wires, but also black-clad puppeteers who maneuver the princess acrobatically through space.
Reviewers have been divided on the mostly sung-through score. It’s no surprise that the 11-piece band is anchored by a piano, Amos’s signature instrument, but Variety’s David Benedict objected to the “insistent chugging rhythm” of its chords, and the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner complained the “sometimes lush” music is more often “unexpectedly bland.” Meanwhile, the Standard’s Henry Hitchings lauded the score’s “bursts of thrilling exuberance” and the Independent’s Paul Taylor wrote that it “has a rich intricacy of texture and can rise to a pulsing, rhapsodic ardor.” Across the board, critics have lavishly praised Rosalie Craig’s breakout performance. By all accounts, the red-tressed princess—who looks remarkably like the striking composer—is a captivating singer, even while floating upside down. (Through Feb. 2; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk)
Pivot Theatre Festival: This five-year-old event is, according to its organizers, the Yukon capital city’s contribution to western Canada’s “edgy winter performance culture,” which also lights up this time of year with Vancouver’s PuSh Festival (see below), Edmonton’s Canoe Theatre Festival and Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo. Organized by Nakai Theatre, for the first time in partnership with the Yukon Arts Centre, this year’s Pivot Theatre Festival presents explorations of the “Canadian Identity” as performed by a Chilean Canadian, an Israeli Canadian, a First Nations Canadian, a French Canadian and a Filipina Canadian.
Anchoring the program are three solo shows. Huff, by Cliff Cardinal, blends Aboriginal “trickster” legends with video-game-warped teen life in Ontario. Carmen Aguirre’s autobiographical Blue Box is based on her memoir of revolutionary activity in Chile. And Jerusalem-born Itai Erdal’s How to Disappear Completely, about caring for his mother as she died of lung cancer, was originally planned (with her encouragement) as a film. Instead, Erdal decided to deliver his story—most recently, at Portland, Ore.’s Time-Based Art Festival this past September—directly to a live audience, interweaving photos, video and insights from his craft as a lighting designer. (Jan. 23–26; www.nakaitheatre.com)
PuSh International Performing Arts Festival: For its 10th iteration, this festival continues to aspire to the verb in its name, stretching boundaries and aesthetics. To develop Night, for example, artists from Toronto’s Human Cargo theatre company spent three months, over the course of three winters, in the round-the-clock darkness of Pond Inlet, Nunavut (in Canada’s northernmost territory) and Akureyri, Iceland. Night, which premiered at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre in 2010 and has continued to evolve through touring, is performed in both English and (surtitled) Inuktitut and follows the well-intentioned attempt of a Toronto anthropologist to return the bones of an Inuit man to their native soil after decades on a museum shelf. The play stars Toronto actor Linnea Swan and Inuk performer Abbie Ootova, now 17 years old, who became involved in the production through a community theatre workshop during one of Christopher Morris’s visits to Nunavut. Morris, who wrote and directed Night, has said in interviews that the project’s genesis was his fascination with darkness’s effect on the human psyche, but soon became an exploration of the relationship between northern and southern Canada.
The 2014 PuSh program also features Montreal’s Porte Parole, known for political theatre tied to current events, with Seeds. A docudrama about agricultural behemoth Monsanto, Seeds was written by Annabel Soutar using text from a four-year court case in which the corporation accused a Saskatchewan farmer of illegally growing its patented, genetically engineered crops.
In Have I No Mouth, a founder of the Irish troupe Brokentalkers, Feidlim Cannon, appears onstage with his real-life mother and their pyschotherapist to talk through the death of his father more than a decade ago. This pushing of personal boundaries toward catharsis appears on the same program as the more lighthearted Brimful of Asha, a touring Toronto production in which another mother and son, Asha and Ravi Jain, also air their family laundry on stage. (Jan. 14–Feb. 2; pushfestival.ca)
Pacamambo: For his first season at the helm of Canadian Rep Theatre, artistic director Ken Gass has assembled plays by top Canadian playwrights Wajdi Mouawad, Judith Thompson and George F. Walker. Mouawad kicks off the bill this month. A Lebanese-born, Quebec-based dramatist who writes in French, he is best known for a trio of plays about ancestral lands torn apart by war: Littoral, Incendies and Forêts (translated into English under the titles Tideline, Scorched and Forests). Canadian Rep has secured the English-language premiere of Mouawad’s 2000 play Pacamambo (also produced, in 2002, by Chants Libres of Montreal as a French-language opera for young audiences). Translated by Shelley Tepperman and directed by Gass, Pacamambo gets its first anglophone outing at the intimate 72-seat Citadel in Toronto. With this play, Mouawad posed for himself one of the hardest possible assignments: to write a play for children about death. Nor did he skirt the issue: In it, a missing young girl is found in the company of her beloved grandmother’s corpse.
(Jan. 17–Feb. 2; canadianrep.wordpress.com)