What makes the already difficult task of starting an indie theatre company in Toronto seem even more intimidating, if not impossible, is the number of other indie artists and companies who have also decided to take on this difficult and seemingly impossible task. Though it’s encouraging to have a healthy wave of young artists practicing and producing their own work, the number of small companies in the city brings its own set of challenges: increased competition for audiences, resources, space, and time—so much so that last year the Toronto Fringe Festival held a tent talk entitled Please Don’t Start a Theatre Company.
The Theatre Centre has responded to these challenges with its BMO incubator space and the Independent Creators Cooperative, which provides three emerging companies with six weeks of development, as well as funding and administrative support from The Theatre Centre and two other established companies, Theatre Smith-Gilmour and Why Not Theatre. This spring, the result is an intriguing trio of approximately one-hour shows: Business as Usual, Ralph + Lina, and Death Married My Daughter. All three will be in rotation at The Theatre Centre until May 18, and all have been heavily influenced by physical theatre and the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris—but that said, they have very little else in common.
ZOU Theatre’s Business as Usual (pictured above), created by performers Viktor Lukawski, Adam Paolozza, and Nicolas Di Gaetano, and directed by Lukawski, features a trio of employees on stage with an office desk, office supplies, and three moveable walls with large windows and blinds (that’s the key part). The trio plays a series of workers at a monolithic corporation—the kind where the corporate ladder is less about professional advancement and more about finding a higher rung from which to hurl oneself (which, as we learn, is something quite a few employees at the company have done). In often funny and sometimes horrifyingly bizarre sketches, Business As Usual skewers familiar topics like business speak, party or “bro” culture, and colleague competitiveness at the office—but, remarkably, finds new thematic territory in scenes that turns Lukawski’s boss figure into first an infant, then a pervert with an unhealthy fascination with desk lamps. Ken Mackenzie’s set is flexible and atmospheric, literally closing the walls in on these characters as they work under the assumption that they are free men. And as the program notes remind us, these horror stories are all too frequently real—the production is, in fact, a condemnation as well as a satire.
Ahuri Theatre’s Ralph + Lina is the most lighthearted of the bunch, and certainly the most charming. Real-life husband and wife Dan Watson and Christina Serra (both of whom also co-wrote the show with director Michele Smith) star as Ralph and Lina, and the love story that unfolds is based on the true story of Serra’s grandparents, who met and fell in love in Italy just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Separated from her for seven years, Ralph returns to find Lina engaged to another man, so the two concoct a continent-spanning plan to be together. Though there are plenty of moments that will make you smile—their courtship over lunch sandwiches is especially memorable—the best sequence comes right at the beginning, when we meet an elderly Ralph and Lina going through their morning routine, bickering and squabbling over the paper. At the end of the show, once we have learned how much effort it took to make their love story possible, this mundane and lighthearted scene takes on a new and profound significance.
And now for something completely different: Nina Gilmour and Danya Buonastella star as undead versions of tragic Shakespearean characters Desdemona and Ophelia in Play It Again Productions’ Death Married My Daughter, written by Michele Smith, Dean Gilmour, and the performers themselves. In keeping with the bouffon style of physical theatre, Desdemona and Ophelia are decaying zombie-like women who have returned to seek revenge on the patriarchal society that deemed their deaths to be footnotes in their male partners’ larger and more important stories. The opening of the show demonstrates this, as the two re-enact their deaths with grotesque glee. But that’s over relatively soon, and from then on, the mood turns more sinister, and the two women comment on larger contemporary issues: fascism, sexism, the traditional family structure—even Ann Coulter gets skewered. It’s wild and mean and ugly—really ugly—and although it often flies off the handle looking for shock value, it’s a thrilling ride. And it’s strangely satisfying to see two young female performers forgetting restraint and embracing their inner shit disturbers.