We saw all 10 shows running in the Next Stage Festival—from improv to dance, Greek tragedy to school drama.
The curated winter version of the Toronto Fringe Festival (not to worry, the shows are all indoors, and the beer tent is heated), the Next Stage Theatre Festival is a mix of artist and shows who’ve previously impressed at the massive summer festival (or, in the case of one show, at another city’s Fringe). It’s taken us longer to see every show for review this year, as several were sold out during the opening weekend, so we strongly suggest you buy your tickets in advance. Unlike at the regular Fringe, one hundred per cent of Next Stage tickets are available in advance (though there’s always a faint hope of waiting list tickets at the door). After reading our reviews and picking your choices (you can bundle them for a cheaper per ticket price with a pass), visit the Fringe’s website for for performance times and tickets.
Playwright and teacher Rob Kempson previously tackled high school politics and ethics pertaining to sexuality with his intimate two-hander Shannon 10:40 last year, but with Mockingbird, he’s looking at the ethics of the profession on a larger scale, depicting an entire department of teachers grappling with conflicting loyalties to each other and to the students in their care. The plot turns and shifting allegiances are swift and clever, and the exceptional ensemble has ample comedic and dramatic material to sink their teeth into, including Andrew Moodie as an pompous union rep and Paula Wing as a wise teacher at the end of her career. But it’s Kaitlyn Riordan’s Lee whose repressed feelings for her gay BFF John Foster (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) light a powder keg when he reveals a secret.
Stories don’t always need words in order to be told, as demonstrated by BreakinGround’s presentation of Urban Myth. Perfect for those with short attention spans, the hour-long performance is broken into seven segments. Each features a different story, told by different artists, using a variety of dance styles including waacking, krumping, and house. While you’ll likely become increasingly ashamed of your lack of moves as the show wears on, you’ll also come away with an appreciation for the body, and the many ways movement can convey meaning.
Heart of Steel
Previously performed in Sydney, Nova Scotia, this ambitious musical boasts a massive cast of twenty-one performers depicting the wartime replacement of Cape Breton factory workers by women as the men shipped off to Europe. Protagonist Amelia MacPherson (Nicole Power), torn between her desire to pursue her dreams in big city Toronto and her obligations to her family, ends up working at the same factory her deceased father did, which brings with it a host of complications with her suffering mother (Eliza Jane Scott), spunky little sister (Mercedes Morris), and fellow neophyte steel workers. There are numerous other sub-plots—the show has been cut substantially to fit the festival running time, and it shows at times—but the on-stage music and spirited ensemble, which boasts actors from across Canada, are a winning combination.
Three Men in a Boat
Picture Frasier and Niles Crane going on a Deliverance-like river adventure (except for that part). That’s Three Men in a Boat. Well, not literally. But it is about a trio of delicate, upper class British men as they attempt to conquer a wilderness in which they do not belong. Based on a travel diary from 1889, it’s brought to life with quick wit, physical comedy, charming a capella pieces, and illustrative use of minimal props. The production offers no real break from the dialogue and action, relying on the energetic and talented Matt Pilipiak, Victor Pokinko, and Scott Garland to keep things afloat—even when they find themselves on a sinking vessel.
All Our Yesterdays
Inspired by the 2014 Boko Haram abductions, playwright Chloe Hung has written a tense two-hander about two captive sisters–practical older sister Ladi (Amanda Weise), and younger sister Hasana (Chiamaka Umeh), whose mild autism changes how she views their dire straits. A series of flashbacks establishes the complicated relationship between the two, and Hasana’s dispassionate analysis of the situation inside their unseen captor’s hut (cleverly realized by producer Elizabeth Wilson) adds an element of absurdism akin to Waiting for Godot—especially as Ladi comes to realize how remote their chance of rescue is. Umeh is particularly good as the quick-witted if socially handicapped Hasana, and Hung’s implicit commentary on how the West has forgotten the abducted girls isn’t as heavy-handed as one might think.
This short education in cinema history, created by and starring Rebecca Perry (Confessions of a Redheaded Coffee Shop Girl) highlights the lives and Hollywood contributions of Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Betty Hutton, and Lucille Ball. Expertly weaving stories, songs, and impressions, Perry once again shows off her knack for making everyone forget that they’re watching a one-woman show. Not just entertainment, the performance packs in a lot of lesser-known facts—did you know I Love Lucy was the first television comedy to be filmed in front of a live audience? Or that there was a tornado in Kansas the day Judy Garland died? We won’t tell you any more, since you can afford to set aside half an hour to go see the show for yourself.
Improviser Natasha Boomer, who also serves as Next Stage’s volunteer coordinator, curates and performs in a series of two-handed scenes with a rotating roster of guest stars. For each show, she and her guest have one location and one scene to create a clever relationship and scenario on the spot, prompted by audience suggestion. For the festival crowd, it’s an introduction to longform improv, and Boomer has some of Toronto’s best practitioners joining her on the tiny antechamber stage. For the show we saw, it was Lisa Merchant (best known to Torontonians for her role on the improvised TV series Train 48) who crouched with Boomer in an old foxhole, trapped by an unseen rattlesnake. Boomer and her guests also have Scott White playing music and sound cues to aid their exploits. Future guests include Aurora Browne and Ashley Botting.
A Man Walks into a Bar
Some say that a joke is truth, wrapped in a smile. A witty two-person meta play, A Man Walks into a Bar revolves around two wonderfully—and somewhat painfully—realistic characters; a woman (playwright Rachel Blair), and her male friend (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) to whom she is telling a joke. Keeping with the idea that it’s all in fun, the story twists and turns on its way to the punch line, questioning social norms, while touching on uncomfortable shared experiences. You’ll have discussions and maybe even arguments about it as you leave the theatre, and that is exactly the point.
Montreal-based company Rabbit In A Hat Productions takes unusual pains for a festival show to dress their set up as a Western saloon, and playwright Paul Van Dyck’s dialogue may appeal to fans eager for the rumoured return of HBO series Deadwood as a film. Several of the twists and turns in this heist-gone-awry story can be seen far off in the distance, leading some audience members at the show we saw to chuckle at certain reveals, but suitably for a show with numerous brandished firearms, there is a shootout ending which isn’t robbed of its satisfaction by the predictability.
Playwright Nicolas Billon, whose Butcher was one of our favourite plays of 2015, returns to Greek tragedy with a follow-up to his 2010 adaptation Iphigenia at Aulis. We loved that stylized and mostly faithful adaptation at Summerworks, but this show takes the opposite approach, giving its characters modern slang and e-device trappings. There’s a point, of course—to depict the moral decay in the ancient story as akin to the trashy faux-celebrities we see in reality television—but it robs the tragedy of much of its impact. Since it is faithful to the Greek tradition of depicting violence offstage, the audience was soon as bored as Electra (Amy Keating), who spends her time on stage button mashing on a video game console.