Arts lovers looking for a bit of festival buzz in the cold of winter should get on down to Factory Theatre, where the Toronto Fringe’s Next Stage Festival is playing through Sunday (heated beer tent and all).
Unlike the Fringe, which selects shows by lottery, Next Stage is curated, this year with a particular interest in national representation, says artistic director Lucy Eveleigh: four of the dozen shows come from beyond the GTA. Over a packed weekend’s viewing, I was able to catch half the program.
A Bear Awake in Winter
Written and directed by Ali Joy Richardson; presented by Binocular Theatre (Toronto)
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A short description of this play – that it’s about bullying in a high school band class in small-city Nova Scotia circa 2007 – doesn’t come close to capturing its complexity nor the significant entertainment it delivers, in amongst the serious parts. Each of the six teenaged characters (played by Michaela Di Cesare, Andrew Di Rosa, Bria McLaughlin, Hershel Blatt, Natasha Ramondino and Danny Pagett) comes across as a complicated and credible individual, as does their new teacher (Andy Trithardt), who’s got some issues of his own.
Writer/director Ali Joy Richardson skilfully balances the development of relationships with building tension toward a moment of upsetting violence. With a bare-bones set of chairs and musical instruments, Richardson and her designers (lighting by Steph Raposo, sound by Neil Silcox) skilfully create different playing areas and levels of theatricality.
With a bit more development this production could sit well in the mainstage seasons of any number of Toronto theatres, and would appeal to YA and adult audiences alike – a rare feat.
By David S. Craig and Richard Greenblatt; directed by Aaron Willis; presented by Convergence Theatre (Toronto)
Max, a journalist from the Outdoorsman magazine (Richard Greenblatt) interviews Tom (David S. Craig), the senior VP of an oil company in Fort Mac. The first site-specific show in Next Stage history, it takes place in a suite of Liberty Village offices done up to simulate the company HQ: an audience of 50 people watches the interview like flies on the wall of Tom’s office – site-specific theatre executed with the detailed precision we’ve come to expect from Convergence Theatre.
The stakes rise when Max reveals he’s a mad-as-hell environmental activist with very little to lose. The resulting scenario is perhaps over-familiar from blockbuster movies and BBC miniseries, but Greenblatt and Craig (who wrote the play themselves) use it as an opportunity to thrash through the resource extraction debate, giving more voice to the corporate side than is usually heard in progressive circles.
It’s an increasingly intense viewing experience steered skilfully by director Aaron Willis; the design/technical elements are impeccable. Sold out at Next Stage (though a wait list opens up an hour before each show), it deserves a longer run.
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By Marie Leofeli R. Barlizo; directed by Sophie Gee; presented by barlizo productions (Montreal)
Audiences may be best served not knowing in advance what real-life incident inspired this two-hander drama. Suffice it to say that Lucky stages an unlikely encounter between a university-aged Filipino-Canadian woman (Katharine King) and a guy in his mid-20s who used to be a skinhead (Christian Jadah).
Heavy metal pre-show music sets a tone that persists throughout: this is dark and gruelling stuff, exploring the pressure of societal expectations on these two people struggling to keep their lives on the rails. Jadah gives an impressively anguished and frequently scary performance, while King does not always find sufficient irony to pull off obvious lines such as people being served life “on a silver platter.”
Sophie Gee’s production navigates the ebbs and flows of their encounter well, but there is a lack of psychological complexity and credibility to the characters that makes it difficult to buy into the central premise.
Lauren and Amanda Do It
By Lauren Cauchy and Amanda Logan; directed by Madeleine Hall; presented by Toasted Theatre Company (Ottawa)
The “it” that Lauren Cauchy and Amanda Logan do in this 30-minute improvised comedy show is talk about sex, with Alli Harris providing musical interludes on guitar and vocal.
Madeleine Hall’s production is very chilled out, a smart tactic to put the audience at ease with frank discussion. After checking in with each other about their sexual activity since the last time they performed together (eg. less than 24 hours before), the pair riff on a randomly chosen theme: at the show I attended, the theme was sexual health, and it was all Pap smears, DivaCups and judgmental GP war stories from there.
A different guest features in each performance, at which point things got frustrating in that Cauchy and Logan could have asked followup questions to clarify the visitor’s stories. For me this show was like a field trip to a friendly feminist neighbourhood on Planet Millennial; I wish we all could have hung out longer.
Dinner With the Duchess
By Nick Green; directed by Geordie Johnson; presented by the Duchess Collective (Toronto)
Nick Green’s new play participates in a certain cultural fascination with divas in decline: think Sunset Boulevard, think Terrence McNally’s Master Class.
The meltdown we witness here is that of fictional violinist Margaret Allaire (Allegra Fulton), who’s giving one last interview at the end of her career. Young, ambitious music journalist Helen (Rosie Simon) asks the questions while Margaret’s husband David (David Jansen) throws in acidic commentary from the sidelines and cooks them all dinner.
Well-supported by her co-stars, Fulton tears into the meaty role and it’s entertaining, initially at least, to follow the build-up and chipping away of her self-serving narrative (the well-calibrated direction is by Geordie Johnson). The play wavers, however, between buying into and deconstructing the stereotype of the impossibly alluring dragon lady genius. Late in the action, things turn in an intriguing direction that could perhaps be cued earlier.
By Minh Ly; directed by Aaron Jan; presented by the Ga Ting Collective and the ARTillery Collective (Toronto)
Ga Ting (Cantonese for “family”) stages a difficult encounter between a middle-aged Chinese immigrant couple (Richard Tse, Loretta Yu) and their late son’s white boyfriend (Stephen Tracey).
This is Ly’s first play; its Richmond, B.C. premiere four years ago was hailed for opening up intergenerational dialogue in Asian communities around sexuality and cultural tradition.
The play follows a familiar dinner-party-gone-wrong structure, as initial awkwardness leads to experience-sharing leads to eruptions of emotion and truth-telling. Supertitles in English appear when the couple speak in Cantonese, excluding their visitor; flashback scenes are interjected with increasing predictability, filling in background about Kevin, the deceased.
While there are some wrenching moments late in the action, initially the stakes don’t seem sufficiently high for Aaron Jan’s performers: emotions are simmering a bit too far under the surface. While she’s conspicuously too young for her role, Yu gives an outstanding performance as the grieving, conflicted mother.
The Next Stage Theatre Festival runs through Jan. 20 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St. See fringetoronto.com for information.
Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2