Each week, we take a look at what’s going on in Toronto’s theatre scene and tell you which shows we think are worth checking out.
Erin Brandenburg gets intimate in Reesor at the Next Stage Theatre Festival. Photo by Ed Gass Donnelly.
There’s a somewhat unusual sight to be seen right now at the corner of Bathurst and Adelaide. Plopped down in the middle of Factory Theatre‘s recently renovated courtyard is a big white tent, looking for all the world like an oversized snow fort. Peek inside, and you’ll see that the heated hut is packed with people buying tickets and drinking the odd beer, as it happens to be Ground Zero for the Next Stage Theatre Festival (running until Sunday). Only in its second year, the winter offshoot of the Toronto Fringe, with its retro-futuristic ad campaign promising “the future of theatre,” is starting to gain a lot of attention (and audience members!).
It’s easy to imagine a festival like this could get lost in the shuffle, especially considering the inclimate weather, but shows have been selling out left and right. It’s wonderful to see people willing to brave the cold in the search of good theatre, and it’s also great to see the Toronto Fringe embarking on such an ambitious project. Beyond the Next Stage, our hometown Fringe has been developing exciting theatre initiatives all over the place, from grants for people remounting Fringe shows, to allowing small companies access to their offices in down periods, to a series of open meetings with the theatre community on the subject of, you guessed it, “the future of theatre.”
After the fold, we interview the festival’s executive director Gideon Arthurs, who fills us in on where Next Stage is coming from, and where it’s going. Also, every Next Stage show reviewed! And even more theatre news.
Gideon Arthurs Interview
Torontoist: Why does Toronto need the Next Stage Theatre Festival?
Gideon Arthurs: NSTF is fresh, full of potential, and important. It’s a festival that is a new, but deeply pure and true, incarnation of the Fringe’s principles. It’s more than an extension of what we do, it’s an evolution that makes sense. After twenty years, the Fringe is really in a place to claim its leadership role and continue to represent our constituents in new and innovative ways. My hope over the next few years is to see the Fringe become the voice for emerging and independent arts, a nexus of creative voices that cumulatively are stronger and louder than when alone, and whose ranks include artists and patrons as advocates for culture in our city. The Next Stage Festival is a major step towards that vision. In naval terms, Next Stage is the Cruiser to the Fringe’s Battleship.
Why is Next Stage “the future of theatre”?
Other than the spaceships, human-operated dinosaurs, and electric shoes with battery-in-heel? [All stuff you can see in the PDF of their brochure.] Unlike our summer festival, Next Stage is a curated event. The only prerequisite to apply is that your company must have previously created a show in any Fringe that is a part of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (which also includes some festivals in the USA, oddly enough). Once accepted, there is no cost to participate in NSTF, and we do everything within our power to give participating shows the tools to succeed. This includes funding for rehearsal spaces, travel assistance for out-of-town companies, marketing and publicity resources, etc. Last year, our inaugural year, was a huge success. Four of eight shows were picked up by major North American theatres. This included an off-Broadway opening for Bash’d and four Dora nominations for A Quiet Place (including Best Production in the independent category). We are enormously proud of the achievements of our artists, and feel fully vindicated in our belief that Next Stage will fast become synonymous with the future of theatre.
Why should audience members trek out in the cold all the way to the Factory Theatre when they could be at home watching Bromance on their laptops?
In short, three words: heated beer tent. NSTF saves you from the frigid pain that is January in Toronto. The shows take you to another world and at the same time inspire you with some of the hottest indie artists on the theatre scene.
Next Stage Reviews
David Christo chats with Cathy Murphy and Viv Moore in The Rake’s Progress.
Kate Hewlett’s The Swearing Jar was one of our favourites at last year’s Fringe, in no small part due to her fabulous script, which is both hilarious and heartbreaking. So it was with a certain amount of expectation that we approached Humans Anonymous, a remount of an earlier Fringe show both written by and starring Hewlett. Unfortunately, Humans never really gets it together the way the other show did, and the audience is left with something that at times seems more like an impressive Sears Drama Festival entry than its “Best of Fringe” credentials. The story centres on Ellen, played by the always competent Michelle Giroux, an emotionally unavailable woman who works in an office with arch British homosexual Peter (at least, we are told they work in an office; other than a desk on the stage, there is no indication of where they work or what they do; if they do anything at all, that is). Everything changes when Ellen accidentally winds up on a date with Jenny (she thought it was going to be with a man named Lenny). Jenny is a plucky young lesbian who apparently has buckets of time on her hands, so she decides to drop absolutely everything she was previously doing with her life to begin making gifts for Ellen which she sends anonymously with the help of Peter every single day. More improbability ensues, involving Peter’s wacky sister Gema (Hewlett) and a mysterious and socially inept fellow named Arden. There are some nice performances here, particularly from Giroux and Hewlett, and the requisite bons mots, but it’s hard to get past the ludicrous plot, the undeveloped “breaking the fourth wall” device, and Andrew Hachey’s limp and uninspired direction. Next performance: tonight at 6:15 p.m.
Don’t Look (review by Mitchell Cushman)
The cutest exploration of cousin love since George Michael and Maeby Bluth. Daniel Sadavoy and Rebecca Applebaum’s Don’t Look tells the story of two awkward relatives who have been harbouring a crush and a healthy fear of genetic mutation since making out at a funeral in their early teens. Less about incest than it is about the lasting sting of embarrassment, the play explores how we can all serve as our own greatest taunter. The creator/performer pair act out the play in the same unassuming style in which they have written it. Lines are occasionally flubbed and the energy of the piece fluctuates, but the endearing frankness of Sadavoy and Applebaum’s repartee more than sustains the evening. The highlight of the show is definitely Applebaum’s portrayal of Tina, a smiley wallflower with a compulsion for shaking hands that makes fantasizing about your relations seem down-right normal. There’s some strangely out-of-place Judaica and farting noises (though not in rapid succession), but the laughs are consistent and the focus is offbeat enough that it’s hard not to enjoy yourself. Director Maya Rabinovitch’s production may not pierce, but it washes over you nicely. In the end, Don’t Look manages to be about a controversial issue, without trying to be controversial or issue-driven—and that’s an achievement in itself. Next performance: tonight at 6:45 p.m.
L’Ange Avec Les Fleurs (review by Hamutal Dotan)
L’Ange Avec Les Fleurs is a genre-busting whirlwind, a production that blends circus, vaudeville, cabaret, puppetry, and narrative theatre in roughly equal proportions. We enter the theatre to find eight ragamuffin clowns already on stage, going through a set of pre-performance exercises that range from the predictable (stretches, vocal warm-ups) to the silly (butt-shaking features prominently). The fourth wall is nowhere to be found: in short order the audience is heckled, cajoled, made to sing, and yelled at by an officer of the Third Reich. The performers then set themselves to enacting a play-within-the-play, also (appropriately) named L’Ange Avec Les Fleurs. It’s a classic tears-of-a-clown tale: France’s beloved entertainer, Baptiste, finds himself beset by existential anxiety and decides to leave the big top in search of a more authentic life. As his adventures unfold, a sardonic, eyebrow-raising master-of-ceremonies/accordionist/war-resister provides a running commentary that is both sympathetic and piercing. We had some qualms about the ending (existentialist stories tend to wrap up rather predictably), but the two male leads are excellent, and the set is a miracle of ingenuity. L’Ange is not for traditionalists, to be sure, but it’s a well-executed flight of fancy unlike anything else we’ve seen. Next performance: tonight at 8:15 p.m.
Cami Alys Yankwitt in L’Ange Avec Les Fleurs. Photo by Julie Milford.
Convergence Theatre continues the tradition it began with AutoShow and The Gladstone Variations of exploring new ways to immerse and engage the audience in Yichud/Seclusion. The title refers to the first time an Orthodox Jewish couple is allowed to be alone in a room together after their wedding. For gentiles who might feel alienated by the subject matter, there is no need to worry: Convergence makes sure that every audience member gets to be a honorary Jew for the duration of the show. The second you enter the theatre, you’ll probably notice the boisterous klezmer band performing in the lobby, and if you’re a man, someone will hand you a yarmulke as well as a program. And when the ushers seat you, it’s strictly men on one side, women on the other. Each of the three scenes we see is related to a different aspect of the wedding ceremonies of Rachel Blitzer and Chaim Berman, but what each scene is really about is sex. In the first, Rachel’s father attempts to save his marriage by introducing his wife to the concept of “kosher sex.” In the second, Chaim’s brothers and cousin have a few “men’s conversations” about sex within marriage (as well as without). Most charmingly, the last scene features Rachel and Chaim’s first, painfully awkward attempt at sexual contact. The performances are all engaging and the script is very entertaining, although it’s hard to leave the show without being convinced that Orthodox Jews are completely sexually dysfunctional and more than a little crazy. There are times when the show’s own Jewishness seems overwrought; it seems like the characters are incapable of saying a single sentence that doesn’t have something to do with their religion. And does anyone really sing songs from Fiddler on the Roof to their spouse on their wedding night? Next performance: tonight at 8:30 p.m.
The Rake’s Progress (review by Hamutal Dotan)
In the 1730s, English artist William Hogarth painted a series of eight canvases depicting the degeneration of a young man named Tom Rakewell—a charming but lazy country boy who unexpectedly inherits a fortune and fritters it away in the brothels and gambling houses of London. The Rake’s Progress, adapted from an opera of the same name (PDF,) takes those eight paintings and brings them almost literally to life. Over the course of the play, Hogarth’s scenes are recreated on the stage, one by one. The actors are dressed in white, grey, and black, mimicking the colour palette of the original artwork, and they manipulate a large wooden picture frame throughout the performance, using it highlight certain moments—to frame the action. The story of Rakewell’s ethical and psychological unravelling is sometimes a little glib: to us, the mere prospect of moving to the big city no longer suggests moral decline, and so Tom’s descent through depravity and into madness isn’t entirely convincing. The Rake’s Progress is intriguing, though: morality tales have largely fallen out of favour, and this heartfelt production is a welcome reintroduction. Next performance: tomorrow at 5:15 p.m.
First Hand Woman
This show is way better than it has any right to be. Get the concept: five women, each representing one of the stages of grief (Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression, and Acceptance) work together to get over a really bad breakup. Methods include yoga, bellydancing and lots of metaphors. With its Dove Campaign for Real Beauty-esque promo pictures, First Hand Woman sounds like a estrogen-soaked wankfest tailor-made for the lululemon-wearing, Eat, Pray, Love-reading, Eve Ensler–quoting, Oprah-worshipping set. And it is. But it’s also an exceptionally well-done wankfest. The cast is uniformly electric; each woman is a fantastic, captivating performer, and the energy they generate on stage is phenomenal. Each of them deserves to be a star. The direction and design are both spot on, the choreography (oh, you know there’s choreography!) is fluid and graceful, and the sound and music design are beautifully incorporated into the whole. The script, by Sarah Michelle Brown who also plays “Depression,” is often funny and engaging, even as it veers towards some beyond-flowery prose and serious theatre-as-therapy territory. There’s a moment halfway through when the tone abruptly changes due to a revelation of abuse that doesn’t entirely seem to gel with what we’ve been told before, but if you’re willing to let that go, this is an incredibly difficult show to dislike. Next performance: tomorrow at 5:30 p.m.
Take it Back (review by Hamutal Dotan)
Take it Back is Next Stage’s sole dance production: an exuberant, irresistible mash-up of b-boy moves and swing-dancing style, inspired by the idea that it’s high time partnered dancing made a comeback. Presented by Solid State Breakdance (Montreal), four dancers flirt, battle, tease each other, and tease the audience at every turn. Co-creators JoDee Allen and Helen Simard have stripped breaking of its social, political, and cultural trappings, and treat it as a pure dance vocabulary which they can play with at will. Lindy-hop provides the look (tweed vests and newsboy caps) and the presiding structure (partnering, choreography rather than improvisation), but the majority of the dance moves are straight out of a b-boy’s bag of tricks. Fusion dance can often seem gimmicky, but this is a combination that works incredibly well. There’s a good bit of tongue-in-check humour, much of it focused on flipping traditional gender roles: the girls lead as often as they follow, toss the boys across the stage whenever they choose, and do flares and windmills with the best of ’em. Infused with the sheer joy of movement, Take it Back will leave you searching for the nearest dancefloor. Next performance: tomorrow at 9:15 p.m.
Reesor was a town in northern Ontario. It doesn’t exist anymore. But when it did, in the 1930s, when this story is set, hardworking people had come from all over the world to try to settle there, on land the government erroneously claimed was farmable. Reesor‘s story centres on Anna, a young Mennonite girl who guides us through the ghost town, offering a peek into the kind of life she lived. Reesor Productions stages the whole thing in a rustic, DIY aesthetic that becomes as much a star of the show as Erin Brandenburg’s lovely Anna. Props and sets are established through the use of found fabric, buckets, bits of wood, an apron: whatever happens to be around. Echoing the modest scope of the story, the show’s design finds beauty and even magic in simplicity. Brandenburg is joined on stage by three other performers who sometimes act, but mostly appear as musicians and occasional foley artists, providing background noises and sound effects in unconventional ways. Reesor is an absolutely vital and wonderful addition to the rural Canadian genre, managing to be surprising, optimistic, and utterly original. Bound to be popular with audiences of all ages. Next performance: tomorrow at 9:30 p.m.
Also Playing This Week
Nightwood’s production of Bear With Me continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre. The new one-woman show about motherhood from the hilarious Diane Flacks promises to be entertaining. It plays until January 24.
It’s your last chance to see The Red Light District’s production of Methusalem or the Eternal Bourgeois, since it closes on January 17. The indictment of capitalism plays at the Whippersnapper Gallery.
Them & Us continues at Passe Muraille. The new show written by Tracy Dawson and directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones is a series of vignettes about the difficulties of male-female relationships and features Michael Healey and Sarah Dodd among its cast members. Some vignettes are less successful than others, and there’s an indulgent sketch comedy vibe to the whole thing that betrays Dawson’s Second City roots. Still, there are also some great comedic moments and even the occasional insight. It plays until January 31.
Zona Pellucida & The Needle Exchange continues at Buddies. The queer double-bill features a new work by the drag performance artists 2boys.tv in the first part of the evening and a variety show hosted by Keith Cole in the second. It runs until January 24.
That’s it for this week’s edition of Drama Club. Next week’s will be shorter, we promise!