The tree is down, the seasonal parties are over, and the grim part of the winter has arrived: cold, snow, depleted cash, and expanded girth being all that remain of last month's festive excesses.
What better way to cheer oneself up after facing the dreary prospect of a Toronto January, then to travel down to the Factory Theatre where Next Stage Theatre Festival is heading towards its final weekend.
At this juncture, I've seen half the festival. It's a strong program this year, with a number of exceptionally fine scripts. There's also a very nice heated tent housing the box office, and a bar with hot chocolate and other warming libations.
I started my festival-going with THREE MEN IN A BOAT, Green Pea's adaptation of a turn-of-the century comedic novel by Jerome K. Jerome. It's no wonder this Toronto Fringe festival remount has been a run-away audience favourite. The cast of three (plus Montmorency, the fox terrier) are absolutely delightful. The arch production has a clever and very funny script by Mark Brownell and deft direction by Sue Miner, who keeps the trio's droll antics teetering on the precipice of camp. Matt Pilipiak, Scott Garland and Victor Pokinko play a hapless trio of toffs who decide to take a boating holiday on the Thames. Together they offer their fortunate audiences a combination of great chemistry, manic energy, and impeccable comic timing, making this feather-light vintage treat a must-see. Nina Oken's spot-on period costumes and the lovely vocal harmonies on those 1889 pop hits are the garnish on a show that goes down as effortlessly as a Pimm's #1 cup on a warm summer evening.
Next up was STUCK. Natasha Boomer and an assortment of friends improvise a half-hour play on the basis of a suggestion thrown out to the comedic duo by the audience. The day I was there, Boomer and Kevin Whalen were madly improvising on the premise they were stuck in his wife's bedroom closet. Whelan's actual wife, with baby in arms, was seated in the front row. As if that weren't enough plot for 30 minutes, the fire alarm went off in the theatre. The performer's played through like the troopers they are, incorporating the ringing bells into their act, until the Toronto fire department insisted we evacuate the premises for real. We were about 12 minutes in at that point. Bummer! The performers were so three G (that's good, giving and game for you non Dan-Savage readers) that I'm happily heading back in this weekend to see what a complete version of this high-stakes premise turns out like. I'm betting fast and fun.
Monday night, I saw BLOOD WILD, by Rabbit in A Hat Productions from Montreal. It's a cleverly written and well-executed (all puns intended) old fashioned, shoot 'em up Western, with whiskey, saloon girls, gunslingers, train robbers, and, of course, a sheriff. Directors Paul Van Dyck (also the writer) and Sara Rodriguez keep the ton's-o-action plot moving along at a good giddy-up. The cast of David Baby, Julia Borsellino, Eric Davis, Patricia Sumersett, Alex Weiner and Paul Van Dyck manage the gun-play and word-play with equal ease. Sumersett and Borsellino play siblings, and the intensity and tenderness of their relationship gives the show heart.
Next up, was one of the most anticipated plays of the festival, Nicholas Billon's adaptation of the Greek tragedy AGAMEMNON. Billon does not credit his source material in the program, although "after the play by Aeschylus" is clearly on the handbill, so perhaps this was simply an oversight. Certainly, I was glad I knew the original play. His truncated and cryptic adaptation is long on visuals and smart ideas, but short on the development of story and relationships.
Designers Shannon Lea Doyle (set/costumes/projections), Kaitlin Hickey (lighting), Andy Trithardt (sound) and director Sarah Kitz offer a very stylized and au courant production, with the ghost of Iphigenia hovering over the production, unseen by the household, but ever present onstage, perched on a massive pair of stilts.
The cast is excellent and the characters Billon has created are fascinating, but the roles are, for the most part, underwritten. Susanna Fournier as Chrysothemis is a wilding teenager, anorexic-thin and throwing herself at any and every man who comes into her cross-hairs. Amy Keating does a fine job of creating an Electra who is an asexual gamer/psycho/hobbit. Samantha Brown as Cassandra is a foreigner brought home as a trophy of war by Agamemnon. Ron Kennell makes a blackly comedic meal of the role of Clytemnestra's castrato/toy-boy/henchman Aegisthus. Marcel Stewart as Halaesus does fine work in one of the more developed characters in the play, Agamemnon's buttoned-down, PSTD addled aide-de-camp. Earl Pasko is also wonderful as the Old Man.
As Agamemnon, Nigel Shawn Williams plays the conquering hero with great gravitas and a smouldering undercurrent of violence. As his wife, Clytemnestra, Brigit Wilson creates a middle-aged woman both defiantly reveling in, and afraid of losing her sexual power. The murder of her rival here is so unsupported by the text that nothing the actors valiantly try to do can wall-paper over the gaping hole in the text. The laughter that greeted her bloody appearance after the murder came from complete disbelief at the turn of events. The ending was fantastically chilling: foreboding and terrifying.
It's a 45 minute show in a 75 minute slot. I hope Billon finishes writing the play and remounts it. It's definitely going to some really intriguing places: but it's not quite there yet.
NEXT STAGE THEATRE FESTIVAL continues until January 17th at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street. For a full schedule, tickets go to http://www.fringetoronto.com or call 416 966 1062.