Don’t let the quaint beachside location fool you. From a macabre Jacobean tragedy to a probing look at the 1980s AIDS crisis, Ensemble Theatre Company’s series serves up decidedly smart, unfluffy summer repertory fare by the waterside at Jericho Arts Centre.
“My own personal thing is, I don’t like pieces that talk down to an audience,” artistic director Tariq Leslie tells the Straight over the phone. “And I like pieces that challenge the cast.
“I blame it on being raised on things like Masterpiece Theatre in the ’70s, or watching I, Claudius,” the Victorian-born thesp, who’s done stints at the Shaw Festival and studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, adds with a laugh.
Leslie’s unusual mix of shows created buzz in its first summer last year, and he’s hoping it’s a combo that will fuel Ensemble’s growth in the second. “Essentially the feeling is we’re complementing exisiting summer-theatre offerings and we’re trying to create a semi-permanent ensemble,” he says. “We’re offering a repertory fest that provides an eclectic mix of plays for audiences and artists to cut their teeth on that they might not get to normally.”
His three-show recipe spans a dedicated classic, a modern classic from the 19th or 20th century, and a contemporary work. This year, that means the Ensemble team will tackle John Webster’s 17th-century masterwork The Duchess of Malfi, Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical AIDS tale The Normal Heart, and Martin McDonagh’s bitingly dark 1996 Irish comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan.
Leslie himself will direct Heart and Malfi, the latter an ode to his favourite historical era, the Jacobean (which predated and then ran into Shakespeare’s time). “The plays were more visceral and bloody and dark, with a language much more economical,” he says. “It’s not about how flowery and excessive it is, but about how spare it is.”
He likens the tone of Jacobean theatre to that of Breaking Bad and Dexter today. “And certainly anything Tarantino is Jacobean!” he says. Those comparisons certainly ring true with The Duchess of Malfi, the story of a young duchess who secretly marries her steward, provoking her brothers into cruel revenge.
Life and death are also at play in the emotionally rending The Normal Heart. “What I’ve found is that it’s a poignant reminder of how far we’ve come, yet how far we haven’t yet travelled,” Leslie says of Kramer’s portrait of prejudice and indifference as gay men began dying of AIDS in early-1980s New York. “The inaction during that time was just inexcusable. But when we see people with a label, that sets us up for reprehensible behaviour.”
Meanwhile director Matthew Bissett, who helmed last year’s critically acclaimed version of The Farnsworth Invention, takes on The Cripple of Inishmaan, by the edgy writer of In Bruges.
This year’s ensemble, which includes Rebecca Walters, Sean Allan, Troy Anthony-Young, and Adam Bergquist, will take on two shows per person, adeptly jumping between disparate eras and accents. As Leslie puts it, half-jokingly: “The people who are your spear carriers tonight are your leads tomorrow.”
It’s not every day a new theatre festival finds its way in Vancouver, and Leslie admits the work is hard. But the upside has been a warm reception from theatre audiences—and, of course, that picturesque location. “I love doing this out here,” he says. “It has enough of that Niagara-on-the-Lake, Syracuse feel, but it’s just a stone’s throw from downtown. And it’s actually not that hard to get to: the Jericho Arts Centre is serviced by a number of bus routes that drop you off a block and a half away from the theatre.”
In fact, Leslie, who’s already planned an thought-provoking mix of plays for future seasons, intends to stake out Ensemble’s place by Jericho Beach for years to come. And can you blame him? “There’s very little else I’d like to do,” admits the 44-year-old artist. “I would love in my perfect world to retire from this job at 65.”
Ensemble Theatre Company’s summer-repertory theatre festival runs from Friday (July 11) until August 16 at Jericho Arts Centre.