David Ferry’s current, sold-out world premiere production of The Postman is an extraordinary phenomenon. It is arguably the hit of Panamania’s 35-day arts and culture festival with long lists of eager ticket buyers. Surely, depending on the cast’s availability, it will outlive the PanAm Games by either being extended or remounted later this year. No announcement has yet been made.
More than a sensational hit, “The Postman” is destined to be a classic, a new variation of site specific, immersive theatre reminiscent of Toronto’s 1981 breakout production of the wildly successful “Tamara.” “The Postman” ups the ante by placing performances by some of our most talented artists literally right in your neighborhood.
Conceived and written by Albertan John Krizanc, “Tamara” received two 1982 Dora Mavor Moore Awards for outstanding new play and outstanding production in addition to Chalmers and Governor General Awards.
Set in pre-war, Fascist Italy, “Tamara” is about Tamara de Lempicka, the Polish Art Deco painter considered as “the first woman artist to be a glamour star.” Her paintings were inspired by Picasso/Braque’s cubism, and they made her popular with Hollywood stars of the 1920s. She painted the portraits of many duchesses, socialites and grand dukes.
The story regards her meeting with the Italian poet-playwright Gabriele d’Annunzio at his villa in Italy to which he had invited her. D’Annunzio, a veteran of World War I, went on to strongly influence the ideology of dictator Benito Mussolini. She hopes he will commission her to paint his portrait.
“Tamara’s” original production played in Strachan House in Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods Parks, opening in May 1981. Other productions included one in Los Angeles, where it ran for nine years after opening in 1984. Another opened in New York in 1987. International productions followed including one in Rome and others in Buenos Aires and Mexico City.
Like Krizanc’s remarkable work, “The Postman” is “an exploration of structure and space.” Unlike the former, the latter’s exploration takes place out-of-doors, specifically within the streets of Toronto’s Annex.
“Tamara” and the immersive plays of the much vaunted UK Punchdrunk Theatre Company, could be said to be a type of “promenade theatre” in which “the staging or performance area may be set in various locations in a venue, often with no distinction between the area in which the audience sits or stands and the space for action. The audience inhabits, not just watches, a space.”
At each of “Tamara’s” performances, audience members were divided into groups, each assigned to a character. When I attended, I was directed to the kitchen and the beautiful young cook, who was fast at work with her pots and pans bubbling. The room was redolent with mouth-watering smells.
But after the first scene, you were free to roam the manor, either following another character, or picking up on the major plot or a sub-plot. It was kind of a play as “art installation.”
By comparison, although “The Postman” is also immersive and site specific, audience members gather at a pre-determined spot, say a driveway behind a house at the corner of Palmerston Ave. and Ulster St. in the Annex. That’s where the play begins with Albert Jackson, the postman’s, opening soliloquy as he welcomes everyone to Toronto, 1918.
The action then moves along the street with song and music … highlighted by a banjo and euphonium… as the cast marches and dances merrily along, followed by audience members as well as delighted neighbors nearby who want to get in on the joyful pageant. The difference is the audience stays with the action as each scene is played out on a different porch on each Victorian house and in the gardens that were originally on Albert Jackson’s mail route in the late 19th and early 20th century.
So, you see, a Toronto company was doing immersive theatre of this nature almost a decade before the UK’s Punchdrunk theatre company, celebrated for such popular productions as “Sleep No More” (London 2003, New York 2011) and “The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable” (2013).
(“Sleep” was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” staged as a Hitchcock suspense thriller in an old Victorian school in London and a disused, faded hotel in Manhattan. “The Drowned Man” was an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s dystopian play “Woyzeck,” set in a film studio in the 1960s. It was performed in a shuttered postal sorting office in Paddington, London.)
Today’s young directors, most noticeably Toronto’s Dora Award-winning Mitchell Cushman, are inspired by Punchdrunk to mount their own immersive plays, most recently Sheridan College’s 2015 Dora Award-winning … “Most Popular Play”… “Brantwood.”
Produced by Michael Rubinoff, Sheridan College’s Associate Dean of the Visual and Performing Arts, “Brantwood” was co-created by Cushman and Julie Tepperman. Presented this past April and May, it continues to be developed as part of the school’s Canadian Music Theatre Project.
The budget of the three-week production is rumored to have been $250,000. No announcements have been made for a remount. The intent was admirable, but at such a cost, if true, “Brantwood” amounted to little more than a morale building vanity project, not a wise expense of taxpayer’s money.
By comparison, the budget of “The Postman’s” budget is much less. It received seed money from Panamania, but still David Ferry and crew had to work tirelessly to raise the funds needed.
For information regarding ticket availability, prices and show times, please visit:
- www.thepostmanwalks.com – Info
- www.gofundme.com/thepostmanwalks – How to donate
- twitter.com/thepostmanwalks – Read the tweets for up-to-date info and add your own
About Panamania: Presented by CIBC, it is the 35-day arts and culture festival intended to enrich the Toronto 2015 PanAm/Parapan Am Games experience. More than 250 unique performances and exhibitions, both free and ticketed, will take place around Toronto from July 10th to August 15th. Panamania is programmed to showcase the diverse cultures and artistic excellence of Ontario, Canada and the Americas through music, theatre, dance, the visual arts and fashion.
By Dennis Kucherawy