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Biting Into Rhubarb: Part One

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Birdtown & Swanville’s Aurora Stewart de Peña and Nika Mistruzzi get to the heart of gender. Photo courtesy of Rhubarb.


Welcome to Week One of our coverage of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s Rhubarb Festival. It’s a jam-packed, jelly-filled, marmalade-oozing-out-of-the-edges kind of festival, with three separately programmed weeks of shows, a variety of one-night-onlies, and enough different things happening at the same time every night that you could go two evenings in a row and still not see everything that’s happening that week, so be sure to consult the schedule before you show up. If you’re going tonight, for instance, you might wanna stick around at 9:30, when the other shows are letting out, to see The Neal Medlyn Experience, in which the eponymous artist performs a faith re-enactment of a Beyoncé concert, complete with back-up dancers and “cameos by Destiny’s Child.” Last night, Torontoist made the trek to 12 Alexander Street, where we spent the evening among lady wrestlers, massacred teddybears, and a whole lot of glitter.
Like we said earlier, you can’t see everything in one night at Rhubarb, which means it’s a festival about choice. Do you go see the piece where you become the studio audience for an Italian TV show, or the one that The New York Times described as “an obese transvestite in tights”? An opera based on the concept of Obeah, or a couple of deranged clowns re-enacting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with an assortment of teddybears. One choice we were very pleased to make was that of seeing Dead Wrestlers by Birdtown & Swanville, which is a highly-detailed parody of a 1980s epic pro-wrestling match between two warring clans of macho muscle-heads. But here’s the twist: every single dude is portrayed by a skinny girl, skewering the sport’s machismo—and highlighting its extreme silliness—while at the same time revelling in its traditions and tropes.
We caught up with Birdtown & Swanville’s Aurora Stewart de Peña and Nika Mistruzzi, who created Dead Wrestlers and also make up part of the cast. Keep reading after the fold to find out how the Rhubarb Festival made Nika chip a tooth.


Torontoist: Why is the Rhubarb Festival important for Toronto?
Nika Mistruzzi: I think that the Rhubarb Festival is important because it’s willing to take risks. Also, they are life savers—so supportive.
Aurora Stewart de Peña: I didn’t know until I got here how excited and happy I’d be, but I love the atmosphere of this festival. Alex Wolfson and Erika have picked exciting things. This does not try to be a festival of crowd-pleasing hits. I love that. Experimentation is valued and encouraged, and this is how we move ahead as an art community and as a society: through fearless experimentation.
What kind of research did you have to do to pull off the wrestling verisimilitude in your piece?
Aurora: We, you know, watched wrestling. I love wrestling. And we got Craig, our amazing, brilliant fight co-ordinator in to show us how to do it all. I also love to read the biographies. Mick Foley’s is the best. I love Brett Hart’s, too. I stare at wrestling websites. I also hung out with scores of boys when I was young. We played with those rubber figurines together.
Nika: I found this one Andre the Giant DVD in the garbage a few months ago. That was pretty serendipitous. I think that maybe I gave it to Aurora as a present and we watched it together while eating chips. Yeah, many an hour of RAW and SmackDown... and carbohydrates. Anyone intrigued should watch Wrestling with Shadows, a documentary about Bret Hart’s last year in the WWF.
And has the fighting ever been a bit too realistic? Any injuries?
Nika: One of the first times I was body slammed, I chipped my tooth…just a little bit.
Aurora: Currently I am icing a giant bruise…on my face. I love the bruises in the most detached-from-my-body way. Unhealthy, maybe. I have been photographing them. I think women are taught to be a afraid of pain, told that we can’t take it, so if it is a potential consequence of something that may seem exciting or rewarding, we still may avoid it. I have loved exploring my physical limits this way. Sometimes a bit of pain feels good.
Finally, what else are you jazzed to see this year?
Nika: It all looks amazing, but I am particularly intrigued by Jordan Tannahill’s Insurgency.
Aurora: Chris DuPuis, Ulysses and Sherri Hay, Jordan Tannahill, Parole, Parole, Lindsey Clark, Tragic Magic…It’s all going to be amazing.
The Rhubarb Festival runs until February 28. Check back next week and the week after that for our continued coverage.

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