Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Next Stage Theatre Festival - The Winter Fringe

An event I happily anticipate opened late last week:  THE NEXT STAGE THEATRE FESTIVAL which is hosted on the premises of the Factory Theatre.

The FRINGE of TORONTO produces the juried festival.  The plays on offer are made by people who have previously produced or performed at the Fringe. It feels less manic than the summer outing with only 10 shows and one handy site. At $10-$15 a ticket, the festival offers a great post-holiday theatre bargain.

The range of work is a good representation of what you might see at the Fringe:  two musicals, one a genre parody and one an adaptation of Chekhov (!), a clown/buffoon show, a monologue by a young man, a adaptation of a play by a famous playwright, a show about the Second World War and Holocaust survivors,  a naughty literary adaptation based on a famous book and revivals of a few hit shows from previous Fringes.

All the performances take place within the confines of the Factory, using its usual two venues, the 100 seat studio, the 200 seat Mainspace and the Antechamber which is really the upstairs theatre bar with 39 chairs placed in it and the bar-rail turned into the tech booth.

The drinking, socializing and ticket sales for the festival take place in a cosy,  heated, outdoor tent in the courtyard of the Factory with music and a bar with hot chocolate, hot toddies and, of course, beer.

I love the tent.  My only wish was that they had killed the interrogation-bright overheads and just used the fairy/Christmas lights but I expect the brightness was for safety considerations.  Theatre patrons these days seem to be, in the main, under 30 or well over 60. On an icy, dark winter weekend the light was needed to navigate the stairs outside.

I saw four shows this past weekend: SCHEHERAZADE by Nobody's Business Theatre, FATHERLY by monologist, Sam Mullins, RIFLES adapted from Brecht by Governor General award winner Nicholas Billion and POLAR OPPOSITES a mask-buffoon piece  by TiltHAUS.

SCHEHERAZADE  is a GGG (syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage's "good, giving and game") take on the fascinating and unwieldy 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS, one of the most famous texts in literature. The stories have their origins in 7-9th century Persia, Saudi Arabia and India.

Here, writer Johnnie Walker transposes the ancient tales onto a very modern, mediated world of broadcasted weddings, on-demand porn and commodified marriage.  The slick production makes great use of both visual intertexts projected onto a screen and wicked humour to bring to life the pathos and terror of a universe where a very few rich men rule, appearances count, and everyone contorts and adapts to being constantly seen but rarely heard.  I found the production arch, sexy and really fun with a uniformly great cast of eleven talented actors and sharp, stylish direction.  At the beginning, and in the end, it is also quite moving. The script could use a little pruning and shaping, but as it stands, it is well worth seeing.

Then, I had a classically great Fringe experience, Sam Mullins' FATHERLY.  Mullins is a wonderful, charming and natural storyteller and his tale of baseball and his dad was both affecting and engaging. It left me wanting more.  He's in the tiny Antechamber.  Book early: he'll sell out.

POLAR OPPOSITES makes impressively creative use of the same tiny space, positioning two "bears" on ladders and using a gorgeous soundscape and ping-pong balls (you have to be there) to create a very atmospheric yet existentialist take on the lives of two hungry creatures in a rapidly shrinking universe. This play owes as much to Beckett as it does to mask/buffoon.  The charm of the performances and the inventiveness of the production make it worth a look.

RIFLES by PRAXIS THEATRE is a challenging and compelling adaptation of Brecht's SENORA CARRAR'S RIFLES. The writer of the adaptation, Nicholas Billon, just won the Governor General's Award for his trilogy, FAULT LINES.  If this is any indication of what his work is usually like, I'm glued.  Michael Wheeler did a great job of directing his wonderful cast as they drag through the moral quagmire of the Spanish Civil War. I loved this.  The hard questions it raises remained with me long after I'd gone home and turned on the news to see a world that hasn't changed much in some ways since 1937.

I understand shows are selling out, but don't let that deter you.  I got into everything I wanted to see last weekend by going down early Friday and buying my tickets for the weekend in one go. It's usually possible to get in on a weekday night or by booking in advance. Arrive early and enjoy a hot chocolate or a hot toddy in the beer tent.  It really is a wonderful festival of independent theatre in a lovely and lively venue. The Next Stage Festival runs at the Factory Theatre until January19th.

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