The Theatre School’s Summerfolk: A preview

Photo by Joseph Hammond
[S]tepping into the Ryerson Theatre School is like walking backwards through time. Its narrow, bustling hallways seem an unintended homage to high school; the air crackles with the nervous energy that high school brings. This energy, however, seems directed to the opening nights that draw near, and for some actors, the time travel is as real as well.

Summerfolk, the forerunner of RTS’ upcoming season, takes its entire 18-strong cast and its audience all the way back to 1904’s Russia. Written by Maxim Gorsky and based in part on the life of legendary physician and writer Anton Chekov, the events of the play happen months before the 1905 Russian Revolution of the masses against their rich and ineffectual monarchy.

Set within the cottages of the main characters, Summerfolk details differing attitudes within the bourgeoisie towards class differences while weaving in the personal stories and trials of its ensemble. At the heart of the play lies Varvara, at whose cottage most of the characters trade stories and qualms; Varvara, played by Elysia White, who is the primary “navigator” of the entire world, who is “part of everyone’s arc.”

There is Varvara, who White says “just wants to be free,” and then there is Susloff, played by Daniel Henkel, who is “aggressive and vile” but a product of his own contradictions, and then there are others, many others. But above all, talking to the two actors of the Ryerson Theatre School shows that there is a unified team behind the entire production.

The cast consists of 18 fourth-years from the Performance Acting program under the eye of much-acclaimed and oft-awarded director Dean Gilmour. Other guest collaborators include Joanna Yu as costume designer and Ryerson alum Kevin Fraser as lighting director.

Four years with Ryerson have provided the actors with numerous opportunities to learn new techniques, new names and faces. Along the way, White says most actors discover what it is that does and doesn’t work for them, and they constantly try to improve on their acting techniques. But the overarching effect four years of camaraderie and toil have also led to a cast that is, in Henkel’s words, “like siblings.”

Minutes away from their next rehearsal, Henkel and White bob and weave along with each other’s words as they talk about their characters, their production team and their experience so far – and you can clearly see the synergy that only comes with lengthy, rigorous rehearsals. “We’re [more] understanding of each other,” says Henkel of his cohort, and White just nods sagely.

Running October 26, 27, 29, 30, 31 November 1 and 2, Summerfolk is, for the audience, a chance to see the culmination of years of hard work on the part of both cast and the entire production crew. However, for the graduating actors involved, there is an added reward, a different dimension almost – this is their chance to “leave [their] heads and play,” entering fully into their characters and offering up Gorky’s words for our digestion. As to the manner of our digestion, perhaps it depends on how Summerfolk, as a play, is packaged.

“It’s like a cabbage roll,” says White. “Cabbage rolls are compact on the outside, but the second you cut into it, the insides spill everywhere… and they’re Russian, aren’t they?” Henkel considers this and responds, “Cabbage rolls are very Eastern European.”

White laughs. “Well, there you go.”

Official showtimes for Summerfolk: October 26, 27, 29, 30, 31 and November 1, 2 at 8pm.
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