Wednesday, January 14, 2015

NSTF 2015: News from the Heated Beer Tent

NEXT STAGE THEATRE FESTIVAl, the Fringe of Toronto's juried series of 10 winter offerings in the Factory Theatre, opened last Wednesday and is now at the half-way mark.

I have seen two shows so far, both on the Mainstage:  FOR A GOOD TIME CALL KATHY BLANCHARD, a comedy by OUTSIDE INSIDE, and a contemporary dance show set to Motown music, PULSE by JASMYN FYFFE DANCE COLLECTIVE.

PULSE began with performers in the audience encouraging patrons to get up and join them in the aisles for the first number. The company then hopped and skipped onto the stage to continue the performance.  More audience participation takes place at the end.

The dancers, Jonna Abrams, Bretonie Burchell, Irvin Chow, Julia Consentino, Jasmyn Fyffe, Roney Lewis,Alyssa Petrolo,Steven Smith, Jessica Tomasone  are young, engaged and energetic. Their charm and playfulness went a long way towards wallpapering over some pretty ubiquitous choreography by Fyffe and made the forced gaiety of this type of audience participation somewhat easier to handle.

There were two stand out numbers in the 60 minute show: a duet about an abusive relationship set to an a capella version of NEITHER ONE OF US WANTS TO BE THE FIRST TO SAY GOODBYE.  Gladys Knight's achingly lovely voice soared over two damaged people trapped in a cycle of escalating violence, punctuated by moments of tenderness and remorse. That duet was well worth the price of admission.

A piece performed without music by three young men in the company was also charged with energy and danger, and was performed without music. I only wish the rest of the program had tried less hard to please and been as focused, intense and dynamic as those two sections.

 It's very challenging to create a dance piece of this length, that holds together thematically. PULSE is uneven,  but it's worth a look.

Then I was back Monday night to see FOR A GOOD TIME CALL KATHY BLANCHARD. After Tony Nappo's star turn as coke-addled enforcer John Kordic in SUDDEN DEATH at NSTF two winters back, it would be tough to come up with an equally compelling hockey story. FOR A GOOD TIME ...isn't it.

Michael Ross Albert's script isn't really about hockey. It reminded me of those '70s kitchen sink Canadian dramedies I sat through way too many of, back in the day. It churns out plot, leaving the actors to spew exposition, while most of the action takes place off-stage and, yes, there is an actual kitchen sink, downstage left.

The parental home in which the show is set is supposed to be under re-construction after a fire, but the cluttered, too bright set is more distraction than help to the production.

Watching the game has only a tenuous connection to the many threaded plot revolving around a musician/slacker Lawrence (a delightful Daniel Pagett) and the travails of his massive, extended family. We meet his endearingly over-functioning cousin Mary who, as played by  Jennifer Dzialoszynski, was my favourite thing about this show.  His girlfriend Amanda, a gawkily charming Caroline Toal, making the best of a bad business and the very funny Geoffrey Pounsett as Sky, get thrown into the mix along with affairs,a marriage proposal, house-fires, play-off hockey, dying parents,competing career objectives and an old flame in cottage country.

Any one of the pairings of characters could have furnished enough material for an hour-long play, especially with actors this good. There's some funny material here, some good dialogue, and some really fine acting, but the whole thing is far from ready to make a run for the play-offs. 

The seminal issue with both these pieces is they tried far too hard to be likeable. I don't go to the Fringe to see people blatantly pandering  for that elusive feel-good commercial hit, though I'm glad if that happens. I go to see compelling, often idiosyncratic and challenging work.

Speaking of feel-good, I've heard lots of  good buzz about two comedies, UNBRIDLED AND UNHINGED and GRAHAM SMITH READS THE PHONEBOOK.  I'm going to try get a ticket for BIG SHOT,  which was recommended by a writer and performer I respect, who had seen it on tour.

I have tickets to see DINK and MYTH OF THE OSTRICH this weekend.  Fingers crossed for some unique, high-risk theatre this weekend. By the way, the rummy cider is terrific and the tent is nice and warm!

Next Stage Theatre Festival continues at the Factory Theatre until Sunday, January 18th. for tickets and schedules. Tickets are also available in person onsite in the heated tent at 125 Bathurst Street.

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