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BY TRAV S. D. | “Canada is looking better and better.”
If you’re like this correspondent, you’ve been uttering those words daily for months. Now that I’ve been introduced to the work of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, I am all the more convinced of the rightness of that sentiment.
Founded in 1998, Soulpepper has rapidly grown into something like a national civic theatre for Canada. As this innovative company approaches its 20th season, Canada too celebrates a milestone: the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the moment at which Britain’s remaining North American colonies became Provinces of a single Dominion. In commemoration of both of these historic anniversaries, Soulpepper has taken the unprecedented step of bringing the core of their company — 65 artists — to New York City, where they are presenting a repertory season at The Pershing Square Signature Center through July 29. The company will be presenting 11 separate productions, including theatrical adaptions of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” and Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” an original concert evening called “New York — The Melting Pot,” and a series of nightly cabarets.
While it’s common for ballet companies, orchestras, and circuses to bring their entire operation to faraway towns, not since the early 20th century has it been usual for an entire company of actors to visit as a single traveling unit as a showcase of the company per se. Back in the day, such operations were known as stock companies — an idea quite distinct from the modern notion of touring, in which a single show tours, employing a company specifically hired for that single show. Soulpepper is a repertory company, a group of artists who have been performing together for many years, and who bring with them a menu of several different theatrical productions.
Given the nature of the organization, said Soulpepper Founding Artistic Director Albert Schultz, they have to: “Since we’re a rep company that operates year-round, all of our work is interwoven like a fabric. So the notion of bringing a single show to New York is out of the question. The fabric would just fall apart. Our primary resource is human beings. Theatre is the glue. A lot of our actors go through our training program, the Soulpepper Academy, and so they become profoundly connected. They develop this complicity. Forgive the pun, but it’s our signature as a company.”
I was fortunate to catch “Of Human Bondage” and was struck by this quality: a tightly knit ensemble operating as a single, complex organism, with rich, confident interactions that would only be possible where each member knew every other member, just as a musician knows his instrument. Just as impressively, the actors provide the play’s soundtrack live onstage, meaning that they also literally play musical instruments. Acting and design all function as one interrelated concoction, or, as Schultz described it, a “gumbo.” It all makes for a very impressive evening of theatre.
Judging by reviews, Toronto and Canada alike are proud of their homegrown institution. There is a certain logic in Schultz wanting to introduce it to the city he calls “The Center of the Universe.” To realize this ambition, Soulpepper launched a special fundraising campaign that netted $1 million. “People wanted this to happen,” Schultz said.
In addition, Soulpepper’s residency at the Signature Theatre is designed not only to showcase the company’s work, but its philosophy.
“Everything we’re doing here is a reflection of the values of the company,” Schultz explained. “The space at Signature is very similar to our own, with a central public space, with four or five venues, or portals, radiating off of it. This creates an opportunity for interactions, for conversations with the audience. In addition to our mainstage shows, we have nightly cabarets in the main space, which I’ll be hosting, and company members and guests will be performing. It’s an opportunity to get to know us.”
And like any good guest, Schultz and Soulpepper have brought their host a gift. In this case, it’s a musical concert called “New York — The Melting Pot,” to be presented on July 21 and 22. According to its promotional description, the show “traces the contributions of immigrant cultures to the creation of the soundtrack of the 20th century.”
“It’s an ode to this city and its best impulses,” Schultz said. “New York invented the 20th century, largely through the contributions of three refugee cultures: Jewish, Irish, and African American. It’s a program we first put together in August of last year. Without changing a word we’re finding it’s gained much more resonance given the current political reality.”
It’s nice to know Toronto appreciates what makes New York City great, even if a certain son of New York who now presides in Washington seems a little confused on that score.
If the rest of Soulpepper’s season is anywhere near as good as their production of “Of Human Bondage,” none of their “interwoven fabric” is to be missed.
Soulpepper is in residence through July 29 at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St., btw. 10th & 11th Aves.). For tickets ($25-$80), call 888-898-1188 or visit soulpepper.org.