This Company is Dynamite in Festen

There are some productions that I see that hit me a little extra hard. Some shows that make me lean forward in my seat, engaged to the point of transfixion, and that resonate with me far after I have left the theatre. The Company Theatre’s production of David Eldridge’s play Festen was one such experience.
The play is based on the Dogme film and play of the same name written by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo hr. Hansen. I don’t want to write too much about the story, as it packs the most punch when the audience doesn’t know what to expect or from where. I think it is best to go into this play fresh, with no preconceived ideas about the material, although I would warn my readers that it deals with mature content and contains harsh language. I felt the Berkeley Street Theatre cringe at several points during the matinee I attended, which added to the level of excitement I felt about this show being produced in Toronto. The show throws questions at you like rapid-fire. What is truth? What is real? Who is good or bad, what does that mean and what can be done? As the story kept unfolding, I kept finding my inner voice saying, in varying volumes and intensity: Holy Shit!
The acting in this show is phenomenal. I am especially intrigued about eleven year old Isabella Lobo, who I saw last year in the Canadian Stage Company’s production of The Pillowman (even less for the faint of heart than Festen). She seems to be forging a career in highly intense, dramatic, maturely twisted productions. I find this fascinating. I would love to interview her. She is great in this play, ushered around by her relatives, quiet, pensive and almost haunting, reacting to everything as though it were unfolding for the first time. Caroline Cave is equally riveting as the girl’s mother Mette, who has such depth beyond her words, which often contradict with her actions. Milton Barnes only appears as Gbatokai in the latter half of the show, but he comes in with such strength of personality that it is obvious he is integral to the dynamic that has been created. Rosemary Dunsmore is perfect in her detailed and difficult portrayal of the deeply conflicted grandmother Elsa, and Eric Peterson is equally magnificent in playing the grandfather, Helge, with so many layers, and contradictions that shift the audience’s opinions and judgments and their inclination toward empathy back and forth as though they were all on a teeter-totter. Thankfully, Gary Reineke is able to provide comic relief as the Great-Grandfather, without undermining the rest of the story, and rooting himself in a strange touch of perversity. Tara Rosling plays Helene with such honesty, the character becomes so real and complex, detailed and subtle; it seems incredible that she is a walking fiction. Philip Riccio brings brilliance to his portrayal of Christian, and Allan Hawco is equally amazing as Michael. Together, Riccio and Hawco drive this powerful show and their performances are two of the best that I have seen in Toronto to date.
The play was directed by Jason Byrne and his choices are strong and continually interesting to watch. The actors are in constant motion all around the audience, the house lights are up, which breaks the illusion that an audience is watching a show, instead it feels as though it is a part of the party. At one point a crowd of actors run offstage, open a door, clearly visible, and go outside into the cold. The sense of realism in this piece is integral to its power and it is a testament to the acting talents of the entire cast and the genius of the director that the play achieves in sustaining such gripping momentum. At one point, the entire cast is seated around a dinner table, speaking soft-spoken and overlapping slightly and I genuinely could not tell whether this dialogue was scripted or improvised.
The Company Theatre was co-founded by Philip Riccio and Allan Hawco and it is “committed to challenging artists and audiences alike in its creation of bold works featuring Canada’s leading talent collaborating with the world’s foremost theatre artists.” I am so proud to have a company with this mandate working in Toronto. I love theatre that seeks to challenge, and to provide an alternative space for plays that may not be suitable for production by the more conservative theatres in the country. I think one of the benefits of the Canadian Stage Company’s Berkeley Street project is that it supports, encourages and provides a space for theatre companies like The Company Theatre, and that’s fantastic. I also love the idea of collaboration that Riccio and Hawco speak of, and how important it is, and beneficial it is, for our theatre artists to have the opportunity to work with and learn from theatre practitioners from around the world.
Festen runs only until Saturday, December 13th, 2008 and so you should all storm the Berkeley Street box office to ensure that you will catch this mind-blowing show before it closes. You’ll support a great Canadian theatre company, and see a world-class piece of theatre- so, you really can’t lose!!
The show runs at 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. For tickets call 416 368-3110 or visit for more information.

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