Next Stage 2013: Every Play, Reviewed
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Next Stage 2013: Every Play, Reviewed

Wondering what to see at the Next Stage Theatre Festival? Here are our thoughts on all 10 productions.

Julia Lederer in With Love and a Major Organ. Photo by Katherine Barcsay.

Next Stage Theatre Festival
Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street)
January 2–13
$10–$15; advance purchase recommended

The Next Stage Festival is where Fringe shows grow up. Every winter, a few of the most promising productions from summer Fringe Festival season graduate, as it were, and are given the chance to polish their work and showcase it to new audiences. This year, 10 plays were selected. We’ve seen them all, and we’re excited about several. There’s a heated beer tent for breaks between shows, and performances run through Sunday. What reason could you possibly have not to go?

Expect Theatre / Spark Collective

A grieving mother (Beryl Bain) is restrained by neighbors in Awake. Photo by Ed Hanley.

Tuesday, January 8, 6:45 p.m.
Thursday January 10, 7 p.m.
Friday January 11, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday January 12, 9:15 p.m.
Sunday January 13, 4:45 p.m.

Awake is a a kaleidoscope of a play, overlaying perspectives and shards of experience making up one picture—in this case, a picture of what it is like to grow up with and lose your child to violence in Jamestown. The script is composed of passages from transcripts of nearly 100 real-life interviews, spanning several years and including gang members, police, outreach workers, and—especially—mothers, from one of Toronto’s most torn neighbourhoods. Together these interviews don’t so much tell any one particular story as capture a certain kind of experience: of losing your son to a shooting in a community that’s already known for its shootings, after working for years to prevent just that.

It is two mothers—Nadia Beckles (Baryl Bain) and Audette Shephard (Quancetia Hamilton)—who form the twin spines of Awake. Nadia is severe, but with a purpose, determined to give her children structure and discipline. Audette is the freer of the two, geting swept away as she remembers her son, and the rap music she hated but then secretly found herself dancing to in the kitchen. As they wrestle with their sons’ deaths the community around them—and by extension, the audience—wrestles too, with how to break patterns and overcome perceptions, and how to not just move on but move forward.

(Hamutal Dotan)

Liza Live!
Total Betty Productions

Jennifer Walls as Liza Minnelli. Photo by Colleen Yates.

Wednesday, January 9, 8:45 p.m.
Saturday January 12, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday January 12, 6:15 p.m.
Sunday, January 13, 8:30 p.m.

Musical theatre performer Jennifer Walls has already made a career as a gifted mimic of musical celebrities, from Lady Gaga to Miley Cyrus. For Liza Live, she submerges completely into the personality flourishes of Liza Minnelli, the diva who’s decided (somewhat implausibly) to spend a half hour entertaining patrons of the Factory Theatre’s cabaret bar. Walls has charisma and vocal range to spare, and as far as we (admittedly no experts on the star beyond her basic pop culture image) can tell, she’s nailed Minelli’s distinctive timbre and mannerisms. She also has a decent rapport with her two band members, although a few scripted jokes fell somewhat flat with the crowd.

While Walls can belt with the best of them (and does for some of Minelli’s signature songs) we strained slightly to catch some of her lines in Liza’s distinctive lower register, especially those delivered to the other half of the L shape configuration of the antechamber room (a wireless mic on a low setting might have helped). But it’s a minor quibble: Walls delves gently into some of Minelli’s complicated history with her famous mother, and paces the exposition nicely with those signature tunes, making the half hour simply fly by.

(Steve Fisher)

Next Step Productions

Left to right, Mark Crawford, Mary Francis Moore, and Pierre Simpson. Photo by Sarah Miller-Garvin.

Thursday, January 10, 7:15 p.m.
Friday, January 11, 5 p.m.
Saturday January 12, 3 p.m.
Sunday January 13, 5 p.m.

Steven Gallagher’s story of a dying man’s attempts to plan and attend his own memorial before passing—and bond more strongly with his husband to be (Pierre Simpson) and close sister (Mary Francis Moore) while there’s still time—is a tearjerker, make no mistake. But Gallagher doesn’t go in for easy sentimentality. He’s written a lead character that’s both charming and manipulative, obstinate and sarcastic. Dylan, played by Mark Crawford, has no plans to go quietly and contentedly, and his struggles to deal with both his failing health and the people who love him is by turns hilarious and sobering.

Lighting designer Michelle Ramsey helps the actors flow smoothly from warm-hued flashbacks to cooler tinged present day scenes; slightly less effective is a framing device of pictures gradually populating a hanging display. But anyone who’s coped with losing someone to cancer—which statistically is most of us—will appreciate the care Gallagher’s put into examining both the absurd humour and the complex emotions that accompany saying drawn-out goodbyes prematurely.

(Steve Fisher)

The Peace Maker
Pomme Grenade Productions

Razi Shawahdeh and Rebecca Auerbach in The Peace Maker. Detail of a photo by Amy Siegel.

Tuesday, January 8, 9:15 p.m.
Wednesday, January 9, 7 p.m.
Thursday January 10, 9:15 p.m.
Saturday January 12, 4:30 p.m.
Sunday January 13, 4:45 p.m.
Sunday January 14, 9:15 p.m.

Like so many productions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Peace Maker is characterized by its good intentions and its tendency to fall prey to cliché. The story of a young Canadian woman who travels to Israel to learn more about her Jewish heritage and winds up teaching music to Palestinian kids in the West Bank for a few months, it’s based on the playwright’s own experiences but feels too pat to ever fully come to life on stage.

Sophie is charmingly played by Rebecca Auerbach—all of the performances are strong, as is the play’s use of music to punctuate the story—but her experiences and the characters she meets are ultimately too predictable to shed any light on a situation we all already know is fully mired in history and grief, misunderstanding and intransigence. In a sense, it’s making Sophie the central character that’s the problem: we’re watching something on stage, and so already at one remove from the situation. Making Peace Maker primarily about the woman who goes to observe rather than what she found there makes the audience doubly removed, and keeps us too far away to be surprised, or learn anything new.

(Hamutal Dotan)

Pitch Blond
Convection Productions

Laura Anne Harris. Detail of a photo by Jacklyn Atlas.

Tuesday, January 8, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, January 12, 8:30 p.m
Sunday, January 13, 4 p.m
Sunday, January 13, 6:30 p.m

Throughout her career comedienne Judy Holliday (measured IQ: 172) was known for playing dumb blondes. This skill proved handy when she was called to testify during a government hearing at the height of the Red Scare in 1950s, where she played stupid to avoid naming friends and past collaborators. In Pitch Blond, writer/performer Laura Anne Harris looks at the performative aspects of Holliday’s life and her dream of being a playwright. Harris interacts well with pre-recording sound clips, including an actual McCarthy-era appearance on What’s My Line. For Next Stage, Pitch Blond was cut in half to 30 minutes, which is unfortunately a bit too apparent at points, and a pity given Harris’s engaging performance.

(Jamie Bradburn)

Post Eden
Suburban Beast

Sascha Cole and Kevin Walker stand over "dog" Lindsey Clark in Post Eden. Photo by Jordan Tannahill.

Wednesday, January 9, 6:45 p.m.
Friday, January 11, 7 p.m.
Saturday, January 12, 9 p.m
Sunday, January 13, 2:45 p.m

Inspired by interviews with residents of a Richmond Hill street with the all-too-suburban name of Neighbourly Lane, writer/director Jordan Tannahill’s production carefully mixes film projections and live action. Of the storylines, the one involving parents Sean Dixon and Linnea Swan carries a stronger emotional pull, especially if you’ve experienced a long-term relationship where the bloom faded away. Their attempt (real or imagined?) to rekindle the fire plays out most honestly compared to other, more surreal aspects of the script—and gives a lesson on how not to use plaster. The irony of the play’s final message—“let’s start living again”—being spoken by a dead dog (played by Lindsey Clark, who deserves recognition for being buried in sand several times) sums up the mood throughout the show.

(Jamie Bradburn)

Salt Baby
Salt Baby Productions

Paula-Jean Prudat, Derek Garza, and James Cade in Salt Baby. Photo by Keith Barker.

Tuesday, January 8, 7:15 p.m.
Thursday January 10, 5:15 p.m.
Friday January 11, 9:15 p.m.
Saturday January 12, 5 p.m.
Sunday January 13, 8:45 p.m.

What does it mean to be Indian when you don’t look it? For the titular character (Paula Jean Prudat)—part Mohawk, part Tuscarora, and part white—it’s a vexed question that complicates her family life, her relationships, and her sense of identity after she moves to Toronto.

Prudat shines in the scenes she shares with her boyfriend (James Cade)—their flirting and fighting, words and body language, capture the dynamics of an evolving romance precisely. Scenes with other characters, ranging from her concerned father to a psychic who can’t calm her itch to learn about the past, aren’t quite as compelling, unfortunately, though that’s often due to a script that is in a rush to get to the point. There’s room for more in this play: the central struggle (of Salt Baby with herself) is articulated in plenty of detail, but there is too much telling and not enough showing to ever get us fully engaged.

(Hamutal Dotan)

Sudden Death
Pyretic Productions

Tony Nappo and Melissa-Jane Shaw. Photo by Max B Telzerow.

Thursday, January 10, 5 p.m.
Friday, January 11, 5:30 p.m.
Saturday, January 12, 7 p.m.
Sunday, January 13, 2:30 p.m.

It’s clear you’re in for a spectacle as soon as you walk into Sudden Death, where, belying festival convention, a massive set suggests both a hockey arena and a sleazy hotel room. Two fast-talking announcer/narrators (Greg Gale and Andrew Shaver) introduce the “game’s” protagonist John “Rambo” Kordic (Tony Nappo), a self-destructing former NHL enforcer. Over three “periods”, you’ll see a surreal retrospective of Kordic’s last night and life, a true story re-imagined vividly by playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman.

Nappo anchors the show with a towering performance; the already burly actor has physically transformed into a heavyweight gladiator, and embodies a man tormented by demons, vacillating between ferocity and piteousness as he tries to piece back together a life that’s already doomed. Those demons manifest as conflicting influencers in his life—an overbearing mother (Maria Vacratis), a manipulative junior A coach (Layne Coleman), and a judgmental fellow player (Brett Donahue), who audiences will instantly recognize.

There’s generous helpings of laugh-out-loud humour at Kordic’s delusional exchanges—those supporting characters are often ludicrously over the top. But it’s the quiet moments that pull you in the most, especially interactions between Kordic and his flame Cindy (Melissa-Jane Shaw, in as complex and physical a role as Nappo.) A woman almost as damaged as Kordic, she nevertheless gives both him and us hope that these two can find some peace together. The genius of the show is that, despite knowing how Kordic’s night ends, the lovers find some small victories, even if they aren’t on the scoreboard.

(Steve Fisher)

Throne of Games
Bad Dog Theatre Company

Some (but not all) of the cast of Throne of Games. Photo by Shauna Jean Doherty.

Wednesday, January 9, 9:30 p.m.
Friday, January 11, 9:45 p.m.
Saturday, January 12, 2:30 p.m.
Sunday, January 13, 7:15 p.m.

Dozens of Toronto’s talented improv players collaborate to bring the sprawling fantasy series (and HBO show) Game of Thrones to the stage, both to tell its story, and to pay playful homage. Certain improvisers, at the performance we saw, did this more successfully than others. Real life couple Kris Siddiqi and Aurora Browne excelled as the honourable but repressed Ned Stark and Catelyn Stark-Tully, respectively; audience favourites also included Ken Hall as fan favourite Tyrion Lannister, who brought a bemused audience member on stage to faciliate a trip to a brothel; and Nug Nahrgang, playing the genial and boisterous King Robert Baratheon. But, with each show roughly corresponding to an episode of the TV series, characters will come and go, and many will get opportunities to shine (and crack a good joke). Obviously, many of the jokes reward familiarity with the source material. But even for Game of Thrones neophytes, it’s a pretty impressive showcase of the depth of the Toronto improv talent pool.

(Steve Fisher)

With Love and a Major Organ
QuestionMark-Exclamation Theatre

Tuesday, January 8, 9:30 p.m.
Wednesday, January 9, 9 p.m.
Thursday, January 10, 9:30 p.m.
Saturday, January 12, 7:15 p.m.
Sunday, January 13, 7 p.m.

A sell-out at last summer’s Fringe, Julia Lederer’s quirky tale of a stolen heart remains a hilarious look at how crazy people can act when they fall head over heels for their fellow subway commuters. It also shows that there is still a practical use for old tape recorders, based on the number of recorded messages passed around. Lederer shines both script-wise and as the heart-less woman whose loss of a vital organ leads to amusing physical complications. She is well matched with fellow performers Robin Archer (the sweet, innocent target of Lederer’s obsession) and Martha Ross (as Archer’s mother, who grows funnier the more she imbibes during speed dating sessions).

(Jamie Bradburn)