It’s hard to walk in downtown Winnipeg without seeing how much the landscape has changed in the last decade – and more is yet to come. Of note is the downtown arena that is not only host to the reclaimed NHL franchise of the Jets, but also of grandiose rock concerts and Cirque du Soleil calibre events. It’s not surprising that the Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE) is at the heart of an ambitious revamp of the neighborhood’s surrounding area to make it into a sport and hospitality entertainment district.
PTE has long been situated within the Portage Street mall. It, too, has known construction in the last year, contributing to revamping and modernizing the downtown scene. Its new lobby and lounge is more welcoming to those who know that downtown Winnipeg is the place to be if you are looking for entertainment. This is nothing new for this little theatre that has offered four decades of professional theatre. And its 40th season aims to uphold the tradition of solid theatre in a downtown setting.
The task of putting together a season might seem daunting, but for artistic director Bob Metcalfe it’s an exercise in tapping into a rich theatre community in North America. Nonetheless, Metcalfe has the challenge of giving a voice to the people of Winnipeg and Manitoba, because as he puts it: “The great thing about theatre is it should move forward with society.” This explains why PTE is opening its season with Ellen Peterson’s The Brink (Oct. 11-28) as this play is part of PTE’s playwriting unit and will be its 140th world premier; proving that it is possible to give voice to Manitobans. The play is set in a period marked by the moon landing. The world had a feeling that civilization was on the brink of something big. But the period is still about families, and this play centres on a family that is struggling to save a print shop that had an unfortunate typo slip by on one of the biggest jobs they’ve ever managed. But not all family members are in the business. Family tension arises from other “professional” challenges, as family members are also involved in POW camps and barralling over Niagara Falls.
The season then flows to its most notable play, Gunmetal Blues (Nov.15 to Dec. 2). This successful musical also succeeds in placing you in a different era. However, this is done with a nod to a genre not often explored in the theatre realm: film noir parody. Accordingly, the action is set in a piano bar of a hotel that would never get today’s five-star rating (two to three stars max!). But this is film noir, so we need a private dick and a missing blond. So the piano bar simply allows the lounge singer to narrate the story, thus making this play a musical and helping transform it into a parody. Gunmetal Blues has been done by various theatre companies through the years, but this version allows the Vancouver Playhouse to showcase their talents, as like all parodies, the play will straddle the line between clever and cheesy.
Next, PTE offers up two plays that will resonate with our current world situations. The first is The Dishwashers (Jan. 24 to Feb. 10), a play that will resonate with the shifting economic realities that have many re-inventing themselves as they are pushed to stay employed by taking up jobs that might not be what they wanted. Specifically, the play exposes us to a character whose fortunes lands him with the job of a dishwasher in one of the best restaurants in town, the same one he used to frequent often as a patron. The objective is to make us laugh, instead of making us depressed about what might happen to us under the current economic climate. Nonetheless, it can only dish out a little humility as we can’t always be served and their always needs to be someone who does the dishes. And for many of us, this will be a glimpse into the life of a dish-pig. Something we might not have spent a lot of time contemplating since our university days when any job seemed attractive in the face of tuition fees.
Not all realities are meant to be laughed at. This world is full of drama. Therefore it’s appropriate that PTE delivers a drama that is relevant to our reality. This is War (Feb. 21 to March 10) tackles the still fresh and still controversial Afghanistan war. It tries to do so by presenting the war through the perspective of four different characters, or more specifically witnesses to a critical event. Written by Hannah Moscovitch, this young playwrite is courageous to tackle a story that is still evolving and makes most Canadians uncomfortable.
The Swearing Jar (April 4 to 21) and The Magical Mystery Munsh (Dec. 21 to Jan. 6)will lighten the mood. The first is the story of a married couple determined to talk to one another with language more fitting for their soon to become family environment. This proves to be a difficult habit to kick as life has ways of making us use this quick frustration release. The couple might be struggling with this, but the family holiday show has mastered the art of story telling in a way befitting he whole family. An easy task when one brings to life the high-energy and madcap stories of famed and beloved author Robert Munch.
For full details of PTE’s 2012-2013 season, please visit www.pte.mb.ca . Details on when and how you can attend can also be found on the website.
— Eric Plamondon is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.