annual MTC Master Playwright Festival
– this year dedicated to Swedish playwright August Strindberg – kicked off last night with the traditional introductory lecture. (I’ve always found the lectures provide interesting insights into the productions at the festival – if you missed the intro lecture, a panel with StrindbergFest directors
is scheduled for Jan. 30.)
Strindberg (1849-1912) was, if nothing else, a complicated man (and to paraphrase the famous song, perhaps no one understood him – not even his woman – given that he married three times). He was famously misogynistic, and yet wrote one of the best female roles in naturalist drama in Miss Julie; he was a student of science, yet dabbled in alchemy and black magic; his plays, moving beyond the melodramas of his time, exhibited great insight into human psychology and society, and yet he was remarkably misanthropic.
He’s a risky choice for the Master Playwright Fest as well – this marks the first time the festival has gone to a writer who did the bulk of his work before the 20th century, and the first time since BrechtFest that the festival has moved outside the British-American-Canadian canon.
The choice seems to have posed a challenge (or perhaps opportunity) to the producing companies, too – fully half of the 18 productions being offered are either adaptations of Strindberg, or original works “inspired by” the master playwright. (Perhaps this year’s festival should be re-christened “AsInspiredByStrindbergFest?”) Notably, both of the professional theatres involved are staging adaptations – MTC’s After Miss Julie riffs on Strindberg’s most famous play; and Winnipeg Jewish Theatre is presenting Toronto playwright Julie Tepperman’s version of Strindberg’s The Father.
All this makes for an eclectic range of material on offer from companies returning to the festival (including regulars Shoestring Players, Tara Players, and Theatre Incarnate) and new – and, much like the Fringe Festival, the Master Playwright Fest can be hit-and-miss, which is part of the fun. But for the betting types, here are five promising productions:
1. August Strindberg’s Flying Circus (Naughty Sailboat) – Strindberg is not noted for being a barrel o’ laughs (with the exception of this animated web series… I’m still sad no one decided to adapt it for the stage). So this cheekily-titled multimedia production of Strindberg shorts from local company Naughty Sailboat (who presented Kafka in Love at last summer’s Fringe Fest) may provide some needed levity.
2. The Big Gravel Sifter (One Trunk Collective) – One of the most ambitious adaptations in the festival, this production uses a Strindberg short story as its source material, and promises a blend of movement, theatre, and live music. There’s considerable talent behind the production as well – former RWB dancer CindyMarie Small performs, and local favourite Chris Sigurdson directs.
3. A Dream Play (Black Hole Theatre Company) – The U of M’s theatre company delivered one of the strongest productions of last year’s festival (Cloud Nine), and bring last year’s master playwright to this year’s festival – this interpretation of Strindberg’s expressionist play comes courtesy of Caryl Churchill, and creates a dreamscape through puppets, puppet-human hybrids, an original electronic music score, and more.
4. Miss Julie at the Gates (Manitoba Association of Playwrights) - Miss Julie gets quite a workout this year (with MTC presenting After Miss Julie and Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre presenting the original). Ross McMillan brings a Winnipeg spin to play, with his imagining of what might have happened if Strindberg brought a production of Miss Julie to Winnipeg. One reading only (Jan. 25 at Aqua Books).
5. Play Strindberg (The Adriana Theatre Collective) – Another adaptation – here, Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt turns Strindberg’s Dance of Death (a truly grim play that saw a production here a few years back) into a comedy. It also features spectacular talent – U of M professor Robert Smith directs, with fellow U of M prof Margaret Groome in the cast, along with Michael Lawrenchuk (whose recent work includes a stellar turn in SIR’s Othello) and Jon Ted Wynne (recently seen as an impotent doctor in MTC’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).