Looking back on 2017, it was sheer, fearless risk-taking that ended up marking the year on-stage.
We're talking about a wild, whirling skating spectacle at an East Side ice rink; a circus set in a kitchen where the acrobats actually cooked the audience a meal; a ballet that found its dancers hauling out hair-dryers and leaf-blowers; an opera featuring colossal, stylized headdresses; and a Shakespearean classic transported to a 1950s-era Italian film studio and set entirely in the grey scale of black-and-white cinema.
The year's most memorable productions ranged from the intimate and interactive to epic spectacles. And the stories being told gave voice to diverse cultural worlds: a multisensory exploration of the Indigenous men who fought in the First World War; a show that celebrated the street dancers of Algeria; a haunting look back at the residential-school system.
Here are just 20 theatre, opera, dance, and undefinable genre-mashing performances that stuck with us, that made our nights, that rocked our worlds, and that challenged our beliefs.
January at the Vancouver Playhouse; a Les 7 Doigts de la Main production, presented by Théâtre la Seizième
The circus met the delicious tastes and smells of food in one of the first shows of 2017, and for those lucky enough to have seen it, the results were unforgettable. Theatre critic Kathleen Oliver described it as "a spectacle that combines dazzling acrobatics with personal stories centred around food, offering deeply satisfying nourishment on so many levels". She praised the "human dimension that counterpoints its many awe-inspiring physical feats, and invites you to become part of the experience."
January at the York Theatre, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival
Sure, there were bigger shows at the PuSh fest in 2017, but for some reason this is the one we're still talking about with friends. German artist Volker Gerling's travelling flipbook-cinema-storytelling show was intimate and unflashy. But, as we wrote at the time, "watching his subtle images works a power over the viewer, as witnessed in the rapt audience that took in his mesmerizing presentation at the York Theatre on Tuesday night. Gerling is not a natural entertainer; he is a humble photographer and nomadic artist who simply stands up, shows his projected work, explains his process, and tells stories from the road in his quirky German accent. And yet it's spellbinding."The trick, we figured, was the oh-so-human truth he captured in his subjects, "because they think they are posing for a single shot or two when he sets off his madly clicking Nikon. Somewhere between the first frame and the last, the person reveals something about him or herself, or about a relationship with another person in the photograph."
February at the Fishbowl, by Boca del Lupo
This solo-hander was a modern horror story with huge relevance to the Vancouver market. Writer Andrea Warner called this intimate look (audiences were limited to groups of 20, divided into homeowners and renters) at the debt and housing crisis "a blisteringly funny and fraught act of catharsis, revenge, and consumer advocacy". In it, Karen Hines, an actor, writer, and clown, recounted her experience of buying a “condo alternative” in Toronto, and subsequently losing her life savings and what felt like her sanity.
March at the Vancouver Playhouse as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival
"It was terrifying, but I could not take my eyes off the show," one of our readers posted. No kidding: butoh-inspired Dairakudakan's carnival of unearthly delights was equal parts surreal nightmare, Lynchian dark comedy, and dire eco warning. "The production—from Japanese butoh legend Akaji Maro—is exotically terrifying, with ghostlike forms, echoing screams, and possessed laughter," we wrote. "But just as the epic, stage-filling visions of life, death, ecstasy, and torment reach their zenith, the sparkly-suited roller skaters arrived." Even better than those disco-satin-wearing roller skaters? After all the bizarre visions had finished, Maro appeared, robed in white to match his pancake makeup, to meet the applause and whooping with a bow, bringing the house down with his chilling deadpan stare.
April at Britannia Ice Rink, by Le Patin Libre, presented by the Cultch
Montreal’s Le Patin Libre turned the peewee-hockey-banner-lined East Van rink into a dramatically lit stage for a defiantly different kind of skating show. "Gone are the furry animal costumes, sparkling Lycra, and razzmatazz of traditional ice extravaganzas," we wrote. "Instead, in Vertical Influences, we get five young dancers on skates, wearing ponytails, dreads, and baggy street clothes, virtuosically reinventing the form and playfully using it to upend notions of time, space, and physics. With equal amounts of sass and technique, they tear up the sheet of ice. Pity Britannia’s Zamboni driver."
April at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, as part of the Vancouver Opera Festival
Only time will tell if the new Vancouver Opera Festival can grow into a success story, but one thing is for sure: its inaugural event featured a mind-blowing staging of a contemporary opera. "Anyone who doubts that opera can speak to the here and now needs to see the powerful new production of Dead Man Walking, which quickly established itself as the must-see at the city's newest festival last night," we wrote.
The sets and music were superb, as was the acting, with Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch wearing the role of the central convict as naturally as the jailhouse tattoos that covered his arms and legs. "The brilliance here is his pain never feels melodramatic, and he never tries to make his character sympathetic. Helped by the taut libretto, he shows a tough-guy exterior but also the self-loathing that nags underneath," we said in our review.
April at the Vancouver Playhouse, presented by DanceHouse
At the top of the evening, Cannes-based artist Hervé Koubi explained how he had always believed he had French heritage until he was 25, when his father suddenly revealed his Algerian roots. What the Day Owes to the Night was the mesmerizing result of his ensuing journey to his parents' homeland, where he recruited a troupe of performers who had never been to dance school, but did hip-hop and capoeira in the streets and on the country's beaches.
The work was at once ancient and contemporary, spiritual and street-smart: "There's a transcendent moment in What the Day Owes to the Night when the sight of men whirling like Sufis gives way to others who spin upside down, on their heads, hip-hop style," we said. "The presentation last night—which met with a warm, extended standing O—felt like an experience larger than a dance show. That's in part because choreographer Hervé Koubi took the time to share the story behind his creation. You can feel the brotherhood he's formed with these committed, insanely chiselled, bare-chested young men, and it's moving."
April at Presentation House Theatre and Studio 16, by Hardline Productions
Thanks to innovative lighting, sound design, choreography, and props, we deemed this play about Indigenous soldiers an ambitious and artful sensory feast "unlike anything we’ve ever seen before". "It’s an all-too-rare thing when a world premiere literally feels like something brand new; that more than just a story or a script, it’s an actual experience that the world hasn’t seen before," we wrote." Redpatch is wholly immersive and brilliantly inventive theatre that, hopefully, heralds a new age of risk-takers and innovators on Vancouver stages."
April at the Arts Club's Granville Island Stage
"Though the humour is well-crafted, the honesty and generosity at its heart are undeniable," Oliver raved about the return of the Moms. "These artists have been friends for decades, and one of the show’s unique gifts to audiences is that it lets us witness the delight they take in one another."
"I loved it and have recommended to everyone!" one of our online readers concurred.
May at Pacific Theatre
The play was the result of famed American playwright John Patrick Shanley finally embracing his Irish roots. And Pacific Theatre gave this trip to the Emerald Isle countryside a loving adaptation here. "Under Angela Konrad’s direction, this excellent cast finds every drop of humour and heart in Shanley’s idiosyncratic characters," we wrote. The production happened to look and sound great, too: "Lauchlin Johnston’s lighting delineates both a rainy landscape and the warm respite of set designer Carolyn Rapanos’s country kitchen. That warmth is echoed in Julie Casselman’s sound design, which draws on traditional Irish fiddle tunes."
May at the York Theatre
We called this play about a man who reflects on his painful years in a residential school "a brave work, and a starting point for important conversations". "The scope of his ambition is enormous: a number of Canadian plays have addressed the legacy of Canada’s residential school system, but few have attempted to dramatize the experiences of children in the schools," we wrote at the time.
Marshall McMahen’s set was also a stunner: "the playing area is shrouded by an enormous paper backdrop shaped like a whale’s fluke and painted with dark clouds. Jeff Harrison’s gorgeous lighting plays on that sky, bathing it in moody colours."
June at Bard on the Beach
"Bard on the Beach delivers a near flawless production that’s charming, hilarious, and daringly creative," Warner wrote in her review of this festival opener. You had to appreciate the sheer fun of the setting: a 1950s-era, Fellini-esque Italian film studio, all portrayed in meticulous black and white.
July at Malkin Bowl, by Theatre Under the Stars
"It’s a good thing Mary Poppins is being presented outdoors: no walls could contain the exuberance of this terrific production," Oliver raved about the summer's spoonful of sugar. The TUTS production nailed the Broadway-style musical's big numbers, and the show's design exploded with colour and creative touches.
September at the Vancouver Fringe Festival, by Mind of a Snail
Shadow puppetry and sex made excellent bedfellows in the multiple-award-winning Fringe hit, which ended up scoring the Georgia Straight Critics' Pick award. "The show’s freewheeling inventiveness, technical precision, visual and acoustic texture, and giddy transgressiveness (toothbrushes engage in X-rated activities, a toilet talks) make it a must-see for anyone who appreciates artistic risk—and wildly original success," our critic wrote.
September at the Vancouver International Fringe Festival
"This is one of the most harrowing, unsettling, and mesmerizing plays I’ve ever seen," Warner wrote in her review of this other Fringe standout, the story of a mother who pimps her daughter to dance for men, and the blind man who arrives for his appointment and upends their lives. "Ten hours after leaving the theatre, I’m still shaken by its uniquely poetic horror, and marvelling at the complexity of what acclaimed playwright Anosh Irani weaves in Bombay Black’s dense 75 minutes."
October at the Firehall Arts Centre, by Touchstone Theatre with Ruby Slippers and Diwali Fest
"Happy Place goes to places that are far from happy, but in this beautifully realized production, it does so with grace, generosity, a huge heart, and ultimately, hope," our critic said of this play about the residents of an in-patient facility for women who have attempted to take their own lives. The work walked a delicate balance between humour and tragedy, and the cast was top-flight.
October at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, presented by Vancouver Opera
Vancouver Opera pulled another hit out of its semi-season, with this stylized spectacle, rightfully earning accolades as "the best production Vancouver Opera has done for years" in our online comments section.
By creating a mythical, pastiche-happy version of “legendary Peking”, the Montreal creative team of director Renaud Doucet and set and costume designer André Barbe avoided all the pitfalls of the kitschy, dated “Orientalism” of composer Giacomo Puccini’s time. "Instead, they embrace and exploit the mashed-up, multicultural roots of Turandot, a Persian folk tale translated into French and German before it was adapted by an Italian librettist with a penchant for commedia dell’arte," we wrote. The approach included fantastical, culture-crossing clowns who wore long johns under their neon-hued silk robes and had martini shakers hidden in their attendants’ backpacks. Characters wore exaggerated headdresses, the emperor lording over everyone in a gigantic, antlerlike contraption.
November at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, by Ballet BC
Swedish choreographer and Nederlands Dans Theater alumnus Johan Inger introduced a warped and wonderful new addition to Ballet BC's repertoire with a work that not only took place on a soft carpet, but built breezy atmosphere with giant fans, hair dryers, and even a leaf blower. As we wrote, "The work is so playful that it’s easy to forget how demanding it is." Inger had told the Straight that the piece was about the winds of change, how small events can spark political and social revolutions. But it didn't take too many skirts fluttering up in the wind to realize B.R.I.S.A. was also about sex.
November at the Cultch, by Rumble Tehatre
Here's a show that proved audiences still have a comfort zone that they can be taken out of--and that shock value still has a place in theatre. Our critic called it "a great night of jaw-dropping, audacious theatre." Written by Colleen Murphy, it was adapted from William Shakespeare’s bloody revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus—the title of the play-within-a-play staged by the unhinged bouffon troupe that is the Society for the Destitute.
The play forced viewers to contend with the rise of violence and our complicity in war. And the cast was brilliant: "Madness glints from their eyes and their twisted smiles as they engage in a ceaseless barrage of heinous acts, some hilarious and some bleak, all of them disturbing," we wrote in our review.
To January 6 at the York Theatre, by Theatre Replacement)
Truly one of the most laugh-out-loud, enjoyable shows of the season, complete with a setting at Playland, a Hot Topic Snow White, and an evil West Van-dwelling stepmother (Allan Zinyk in his wildly over-the-top return to this East Van holiday tradition). Our reviewer called it "a hyperlocal and wonderfully creative reimagining" of the fairy tale. Added bonus: you can still catch a few more shows of this hit in the new year.