Friday, April 5, 2024

Toronto Theater Trip: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," "SIX," and The Second City

When two actors from my favorite movie(s) are performing on stage in a play by one of my favorite playwrights, I will cross international borders to see it. Last weekend I did just that, taking a short two-hour flight to Toronto, Canada, to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead starring Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, aka Merry and Pippin from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The experience more than lived up to my expectations, and I fell in love with Toronto in a too short long weekend. Turns out it's a great theater town, not just with touring productions, but also local theater companies. I also saw the global phenomenon that is SIX, which two people in my group had never seen, and the other two (myself included) loved and would see as often as possible. And then I did something I rarely am able to do at home - I saw a 10pm comedy show! What can I say, I was on vacation, and simply could not pass up the opportunity to see a performance by the legendary The Second City, even if it meant staying up way past my bedtime. We're so lucky to have such an incredible theater community here in the Twin Cities, but it's also fun to experience theater in other cities. Travel and theater are my two favorite pastimes, and Toronto is a great option for both. 

Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan
(photo courtesy of Mirvish Productions)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
at the CAA Theatre
This production by Neptune Theatre premiered at their theater in Halifax, Nova Scotia in February, and then moved to Toronto in early March, closing in early April after a nearly sold-out run. Neptune's Artistic Director and director of this piece, Jeremy Webb, knew Billy because he had done some filming in the area. As listeners of Billy and Dom's podcast The Friendship Onion know, they have remained good friends in the 20+ years since filming the Lord of the Rings movies in New Zealand, and were eager to work together. And there really couldn't be a more perfect stage project for them than Tom Stoppard's brilliant play that reimagines the story of Hamlet from the point of view of two very minor characters, cleverly weaving characters, plot points, and dialogue from that play into this new story. There are many scenes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern talking to each other about everything and nothing, with whiplash fast dialogue as they discuss things like fate and death, and play silly word games. It is at times absurd, and reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. Dom and Billy's decades long friendship and experience working together shines through this story, they beautifully play off of each other. It was fun to see Billy play the smart one, since Pippin... isn't that. And Dom's facial expressions as the slower-witted one are hilarious. Their comedic timing is exceptional, both in the long awkward pauses, and the quick banter. But while these two BFFs were the draw for me, they're not the only great thing about this show. It's a terrific staging of a dense nearly three-hour play. The simple and effective set consists of two sets of bleachers that are rotated around in different formations, and a tattered curtain, with cool lighting and sound effects, and gorgeous period costumes. The supporting cast is fantastic, especially Michael Blake as The Player and Pasha Ebrahimi as the brooding Hamlet. It's like I got two gifts for the price of one - seeing two of my favorites live and in person and more than living up to my expectations of them, and seeing an all-around stellar production of this brilliant play.

the Toronto Queens (photo courtesy of Mirvish Productions)
at the Royal Alexandra Theatre
This was my 4th time seeing SIX, and I love it more every time (read about why I love it so much here). I'm currently reading a new history of the British monarch called Crown and Sceptre, and Henry VIII's reign and his six wives is one of the most fascinating chapters (also relevant - Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V about a century earlier in preparation for the Guthrie's upcoming History Plays). This perfect 80 minutes of music-theater gives the women a chance to tell their own stories, outside of their ex. It's a genius mash-up of history, pop culture, and social commentary, as they explore many facets of what it is to be a woman in the world, today and 500 years ago. There are many productions of SIX happening around the world right now; I believe the Toronto production is not part of any tour, and is currently scheduled to run through May. The cast is mostly, if not entirely, made up of Canadian actors (Jaz Robinson, Julia Pulo, Krystal Hernandez, Elysia Cruz, Lauren Mariasoosay, and understudy Bella Coppola), and each one of them is fabulous and unique, making these roles their own! But you don't have to go Toronto to see SIX, the North American tour will come back to the Ordway in June.

The Second City
To be honest, I'm not a huge comedy fan; I don't watch Saturday Night Live, or go to comedy shows on a regular basis. But even I have heard of the legendary comedy theater The Second City, mostly in terms of the original Chicago location that opened in 1959 (note: our own Brave New Workshop opened in Minneapolis in 1958, making it the longest running comedy theater in the country), and all of the now famous comedic actors who have come out of it. But my friend insisted we track down the Toronto location (that began life in 1973, as did I!) while we were in town (and it was a bit of a hunt - it's located in a mall with not the most clear signage). We stopped by one afternoon when there was nothing going on, and got a personal tour of their space with three stages. We didn't think we'd be able to see a show since we had theater plans every night, but when we realized there was a 10pm show that we could walk to after SIX, we couldn't resist. As loyal readers know, this morning person loathes a 10pm show, but I was on vacation, so I did it! Despite a few Canadian references that went over our head (turns out Canadians love a local reference as much as Minnesotans do), it was a hilarious evening of comedy performed by six talented performers whose names and faces I will remember for when they make it big: Andy Assaf, PHATT al, Coco Galore, Devon Henderson, understudy Sam Hancock (in for Liz Johnston), Ron Pederson, and Music Director Shane O'Regan accompanying the comedy on keyboard, with direction by Darryl Hinds. The structure is very similar to a BNW show - a series of comedy sketches followed by a short improv show (which we skipped because it was midnight and our carriage was turning into a pumpkin). They kept us laughing for two hours with the smart, silly, timely, and consistently funny sketches. Mostly unrelated sketches, but there were a few callbacks to previous sketches, marked by a flashing of the "stage door" sign on stage. There was a bit of improv and audience interaction (thank goodness they didn't ask us to name a Canadian province!), with some spilling out into the audience, and the performers were quick on their feet. Moral of the story - if you're in Chicago, L.A., or Toronto and have a chance to see The Second City - take it. It's where much of American and Canadian comedy is born.

This is a theater blog, not a travel blog, but if you're looking for travel tips - I highly recommend Toronto. It's easy to get to and get around with great public transportation, is littered with public art and parks, sports tons of museums (and two sports teams right downtown), and has every kind of restaurant you could imagine. And of course - more theater than you can possibly take in during a long weekend.