What to Catch at the 33rd Annual Rhubarb Festival
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What to Catch at the 33rd Annual Rhubarb Festival

The Rhubarb Festival, which opens tomorrow, continues its reign as Canada's oldest celebration of new and experimental theatre, spanning two weeks, with more than 40 performances and over 100 artists.

Toronto gets to join the Party Safari with Tom & Gary's Decentralized Dance Party.

The Rhubarb Festival
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street)
February 8 to 19
Wednesday to Sunday evening passes $20, Sunday afternoons PWYC

For quite some time now, artists have said that this isn’t the most friendly time to be a theatrical risk-taker. For example, there was the SummerWorks funding crisis last summer, which survived on the back of its nationwide support and renowned reputation. Now two Canadian icons, playwright Michael Healey and Tarragon Theatre, have split due to worries that Healey’s latest script Proud could draw the ire of the Prime Minister’s office yet again. Shit, as they say, got real.

Which makes institutions like the annual Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre so refreshing as a forum for new and established artists to push their own boundaries without fear or judgement. In its 33rd incarnation, and the second time up for festival director Laura Nanni, the event doesn’t shy away from provocative, political, queer, and diseased issues in its mainstage shows, many of which are still in development. This year also adds fresher elements to the lineup, like visual artists and musicians, the return of the successful Mobile Works, and introducing the new One-To-One series.

This particular Rhubarb patch is full of very promising buds, so here is a small selection of slices that Torontoist thinks will leave the strongest flavour:

The Little G8 That Could…
Edge of the Woods Theatre

The events surrounding 2010’s G20 left a permanent mark in the history of downtown Toronto, and have been the subject of extensive analysis and discussion on screen, paper, and stage. But that wasn’t the only international meeting of the minds in Ontario that summer, and we hardly stop to think about how such a political, hot-topic event affected its tiny cottage-country host of Huntsville. Edge of the Woods Theatre, headed by Dan Watson and Christina Serra, has a mandate to produce theatre about and with members of the Muskoka/Parry Sound region. With The Little G8 That Could… (directed by Watson), the company explores the aftereffects of the G8 in what they call a “live-action documentary.” Plus, if you missed the G20’s fake lake adorned with Muskoka chairs, here’s your second chance.

Adam Lazarus and Phil Luzi

In probably one of the most intriguing descriptions of the bunch, Bleed is about a man named Normal Shore who stays home from work one day. Then he begins to bleed. Written and directed by one of the city’s leading clown and physical actors, Adam Lazarus, co-created and performed by another, Phil Luzi, it’s bound to be a weird but devastating piece—and with a Blood Design credit to Gillian Gallow, well, pretty gory too.

Yamantaka//Sonic Titan

Yamantaka//Sonic Titan

Acts like Yamantaka//Sonic Titan serve as a perfect illustration of Rhubarb’s mandate. The duo of Alaska B and Ruby Kato Attwood don’t necessarily push boundaries so much as dissolve them altogether, blending “Noh, Chinese Opera, Chinese, Japanese and First Nations Mythology, Black & White Television, Psychedelia & Rock Operatics” in their unique musical performance acts. On the heels of their first self-titled album and just before a Canadian tour, they’re adding a gender-bending Noh-wave rock opera, 33, to the Rhubarb lineup. A definite must-see.

Marine Life
Presented in association with Aluna Theatre

While the Rhubarb Festival is a vessel for performers in Buddies in Bad Times’s Young Creators Unit (run by Evalyn Parry) to show their work, it also gives established theatre makers a home too. Take, for instance, the cast and crew of Marine Life: written by Rosa Laborde (Sugar,Leo, Hush), directed by Natasha Mytnowych (SummerWorks’s Little One), starring Tommie-Amber Pirie (The Trotsky), Phillip Riccio (co-artistic director of The Company Theatre), and Scott McCord (of Scott McCord and the Bonafide Truth) in a tale of two siblings at the end of the world. With an equally strong design team, it’s an apocalypse to behold.

The Gay Heritage Project
Buddies in Bad Times residency program

Andrew Kushnir, Paul Dunn, and Damien Atkins of The Gay Heritage Project. Photo by Andrew Wasyleczko.

As part of the Buddies in Bad Times residency program, Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn, and Andrew Kushnir blend historical fact and artistic performance as they explore queer issues of representation and community throughout the years, featuring members of Project Humanity, responsible for the acclaimed verbatim theatre piece The Middle Place. Also presenting shows in the residency program are Birdtown and Swanville‘s Settlers and The Independent Aunties‘s Gertrude and Alice.

Performance Artists

Headlining this year’s Rhubarb Festival are a few iconic performance artists known around the world. Justin Vivian Bond, a New York City fixture of cabaret (Kiki, in Kiki and Herb), film (Shortbus), music scenes, Obie Award winner, and Tony Award nominee will perform a selection of songs from his album Dendrophile and readings from his autobiography Tango. Canadian-born, San Francisco-based Keith Hennessy brings his performance piece, inspired by the artist Joseph Beuys Crotch, to its Canadian premiere after touring the United States and Europe. And sex educator Mikiki, who chooses to go by “they” instead of “he” or “she,” will present their response to Susan Sontag’s AIDS and its Metaphors. For something edgier, these pieces will surely provide some material for discussion.

Mobile Works

This year’s duo in the Mobile Works series are of both political and frivolous nature. The Department of Public Memory will literally take audiences to the sites of potential budget cuts to experience their effects first hand (a bus route in Week 1, the Toronto Reference Library Week 2), while Tom and Gary’s Decentralized Dance Party will literally take the party to the streets, inviting the public to bring bright costumes, props, boomboxes, dancing shoes, and good spirits to their impromptu rave at a secret location disclosed on the day of the event. Both of these Mobile Works projects are free.

One-To-One Series

Brand new this year is a series of 11 performances that joins audience member (yes, that’s singular) with performer in an intimate, personal journey—either literal or metaphorical. Playing dress-up like you never have before with trans-identified artist Evan Vipond, turning your body into a musical instrument, having your fortune told by a series of canned foods, or sharing a unique Valentine’s Day date at Nathan Phillips Square are just a sample of activities available for a Pay-What-You-Can fee. Most take place at the 519 Community Centre, a new partnership for the Rhubarb Festival.