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Culture smash 

Making an art out of picking 2007’s finest.

THEATRE by Kate WatsonBefore I sat down to write this year-end review, I decided to count the number of plays I had seen in 2007. I was astonished when they numbered over 60—a testament to the vibrant theatre community in Halifax. Here are just a few awards of merit in a truly memorable theatre year.

Most memorable: There are quite a few plays that I really enjoyed while I was watching them, but didn't give another thought to once I'd left the theatre. However, three plays in particular have actually stuck with me. They are: DMV Theatre Co-op's unsettling How I Learned to Drive, Zuppa Circus's haunting Penny Dreadful and Two Planks and a Passion's stunning outdoor version of The Odyssey.

Funniest: In truth, there weren't a lot of comedies in this year's crop of plays, which made Neptune Theatre's The Love List stand out even more more. It packed a lot of laughs and charm. The runner-up would have to be Luna/Sea's production of Alan Bennett's intelligent and highly amusing monologues Talking Heads.

Most challenging/thought provoking: Two contenders spring to mind: Not I directed by Tim Leary and starring Janice Jackson and Neptune's production of Old Times. Beckett or Pinter? Take your pick.

Most pleasant surprise: Director Paul Kimball's adaptation of a sci-fi short story called Doing Time proved theatre on a shoestring can be as entertaining as big-budget productions. The intimate basement room at The Wired Monk Cafe was perfect.

Best use of an alternative space: It's a tie between 2b theatre's staging of the lovely, memorable Revisited in the unfinished Citadel High auditorium and Da Po Po's audacious production of Sunday in the Park with George at Saint Mary's University Art Gallery.

Best renovations: The Theatre Arts Guild (TAG) has added a two-storey addition with a lobby, washroom and refreshment facilities that really improves the theatre experience. Honourable mention goes to The BusStop Theatre on Gottingen for the lovely new washrooms and ongoing work in the lobby.

Best filling of shoes: I couldn't imagine an actor other than Réjean Cournoyer embodying the autistic child in Jennifer Overton's God's Middle Name. But Christian Murray did a wonderful job, and also deserves mention for his great turn in Underneath the Lintel.

Most satisfying festivals: Eastern Front Theatre's On the Waterfront Festival (or as it is now known, SuperNova Theatre Festival) offers a chockablock full week of consistently high-quality theatre. A close runner-up is the Atlantic Fringe Festival, which offers an amazing variety of theatre experiences at reasonable prices. However, the very fact that it is a "fringe" festival means that the calibre of the shows fluctuates wildly from absolute dreck to polished gems.

Best costumes: The costumes in the DalTheatre production of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme were truly memorable and marvelous confections. DalTheatre also takes second place for the whimsical costume creations in the holiday show A Spider's Tale.

Biggest blockbuster: I groused last year about Neptune's choice of the downer Oliver! rather than the uplifting Beauty and the Beast for their Christmas show. The wisdom of that decision became clear when Beauty was extended and extended, due, in part, to the lucrative summer tourists.

Most outstanding show of the year: I thought about putting this show in the first category, but then decided it deserved an award all to itself. OneLight Theatre's original production The Veil was a unique piece of storytelling with highly creative visual elements and outstanding performances. It was truly the high point of the theatre year.

ARTS by Sue Carter FlinnNo great news, but no major mess-ups either: Here's hoping 2008 brings some closure (of a positive kind) for the Khyber Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Khyber building, and hopefully the club's reopening. A provincial election could put on the pressure for a returned arms-length arts council. And there's the city-wide Photopolis photography festival, and Go North!, to look forward to this fall. But that's getting ahead. Here's 2007 in a few strokes.

Best arts-geek celeb sighting: Heather O'Neill and Jonathan Goldstein are like a literary Posh and Becks. But from the Mordecai Richler streets of Montreal. And clever. On March 28, fans of the Lullabies for Little Criminals author anxiously lined up at the wonderful Halifax International Writers' Festival for O'Neill, to get copies of her beloved novel signed, then raced to Ginger's to hear Goldstein's mock self-deprecating WireTap thing, as part of Chutzpah!, the Jewish cultural festival. The place was so packed out with Goldstein obsessers, someone fainted before he got to the awesome Flintstone-Rubble phone message bit. As ladies swooned, O'Neill leaned against the back bar, unnoticed, looking quietly amused.

Second place goes to CBC's coiffed correspondent Jian Gomeshi, who stealthily attended a February panel discussion on arts and activism—part of the memorable Imaging a Shattering Earth: Contemporary Photography and the Environmental Debate at Dalhousie Art Gallery—and asked a pointed question or two.

Overheard from gallery staff: "Oh! I thought that was a geography student, who looked like Jian Gomeshi."

Most touching moment: Eyes welled up during Graeme Patterson's heartfelt speech at the opening of his Art Gallery of Nova Scotia exhibition, Woodrow, in January, as he spoke about his family, and the inspiration behind his sculpture-and-animation installation.

Comprised of real and imagined scale models of a ghost town in ruin, Woodrow was forged of real memories and retold mythology and constructed out of painted foamcore and wood; it showed a world with appeal to artists, school groups and newbie-gallery-goers alike.

My personal teary moment was being hugged by Gee's Bend's Mary Lee Bendolph. I'm sure I was the 20th person she hugged that day, but I'll never forget it.

Best homegrown: Although Halifax's smallest gallery, the Willow Street attic Gallery Deluxe Gallery, pulled up the ladder for good this year, it was quickly replaced by Super Eight Super Theatre.

Other alternative spaces like 161 Gallon Gallery, the Creighton Roxy backyard cinema, Anchor Archive and other one-off events (including a bicycle drive-in behind Staples on Gottingen) prove that you don't need money or bureaucracy to make art happen. Props also to the organizers of Fast Times DJ nights at the Marquee for including local artists like Laura Dawe and Rachael Parsons on the bill.

Most subversive take on local history: Two Anna Leonowens Gallery shows took calculated liberties with Nova Scotian history this year. The Sub-Scotia Museum was the baby of DIY explorers, John Mathews and Dennis Hale, who constructed a log raft called the S.S. Rozinante with reclaimed wood extracted from a sculpture by Warren Homeniuk, and rowed it to George's Island. There they founded a utopian region called Sub-Scotia. The gallery hosted artifacts from its "museum," including the raft, passports, homemade ropes and breadcrumbs from the founding ceremony picnic.

I love monkeys and I love art, so Andrew Hunter had me like a PB&J sandwich with The Ballad of Louis the Monkey, about a mysterious stuffed monkey who apparently accompanied Anna Leonowens from Siam to Halifax in 1878.

Best piece of Halifax in Toronto: Toronto alt-weekly Now gave Cathy Busby's The North End exhibition at Art Metropole four stars, calling her archive book of collected north-end Halifax posters, "a powerful statement about the extent of the creativity of an entirely homegrown culture...they look so pretty it's hard to believe they've been referred to by some civic-minded folks as eyesores."

Biggest surprise: Taking a school bus from Saint Mary's University Art Gallery to Exhibition Park for their Burning Rubber performance. Half of the 150 people packed in the bleachers were there for art, half for the cars. It was loud, stinky and an environmental slap in the face. But man, there's nothing more frickin' exciting than watching a pimped-out car chained to a large post blow its tires and the pavement to smithereens. The second big surprise was the reemergence of Halifax photographer George Steeves. His MSVU Gallery exhibition last March—photographs of friends, lovers and himself—might make some squirm with its images of deep, raw emotion, eroticism, pain and nudity. Technically, they are stunning.

Best prizes: Don Domanski took the Governor General's Award for poetry, beating out Mags "McLongpen" Atwood. Amy Jones, who appeared in last week's Holiday Fiction issue, won enRoute's literary contest.

Glynis Humphrey was honoured with the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award for her video installation, Breathing Under Water, at MSVU Gallery. Heather Harkins was the perfect recipient for the Linda Joy Society's first Helen Hill Animated Award.

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