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.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Week at the Movies: DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and SHAME

The Holiday period is officially over.

The remains of the ham is now pea soup, and meat slabs in the freezer.  The tree is still up but my Mom is Ukrainian and that means it is Ukrainian Christmas this week, allowing me to extend certain seasonal pleasures by a few more days.

Next week, NEXT STAGE Theatre Festival opens and the winter theatre season begins.

The snowy season around New Year's always seems like the perfect time to head into a cinema or to Queen Video and rent a movie.  This past weekend, I did both.

A filmmaker friend and I went to see THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB on Friday night at the Carlton.

I'd been there earlier this year for the first time since I got back to Toronto and it was great.  It was packed, someone was playing the piano and it was possible to have wine and popcorn while watching the film,  just like I would if I was curled up on the sofa under an afghan at home.  The Carlton is quite a bit cheaper than the Varsity and the screens are certainly not smaller than the ones in the so-called VIP theatres at that venue.  The Varsity, like TIFF, often shows films you can't see elsewhere in town, but I always feel like I'm paying a Yorkville price for the same service I could get for less elsewhere. The Carlton will be getting more of my movie money this year.

Enough about the amenities, on to the film.

DALLAS BUYERS' CLUB features Matthew McConaughey in the role of a white trash, party-boy bull rider and electrician, Ron Woodruff.  The film begins with a foursome in a bull-pen having sex while watching bucking bulls through the slats.  It's a tawdry bacchanal with devastating consequences.  Weeks later, Ron is diagnosed with AIDS.  His T-cell count is 9.  It's 1985 and AIDS drugs are at a clinical trial stage in the U.S. The doctor tells him he has a month to live.

This begins a fight for survival that changes Ron's self-destructive, red-neck, homophobic life.  Used to buying and selling illegal drugs (mostly cocaine) Ron turns his talents for scoring dope into a hunt for HIV treatment drugs south of the border and eventually, globally.  He finds unlikely allies in a young female physician and an HIV-positive, smart, self-destructive drag queen named Rayon ( Jared Leto in a star turn).

One of my favourite scenes in the film is the first night Rayon actually drags Woodruff into a gay bar.  As he sits at the bar watching Rayon bump and grind with some guy in cowboy gear, Ron realizes people are just dancing, drinking, scoring, flirting, getting high and having a few laughs like they would in any other club.

I liked this film a lot.  I was reminded of many friends of mine, long-dead, who suffered through crap drug trials and horrible side effects as they fought for their lives.  Director Jean Marc La Vallee does not gloss over anything about that period in history:  not its homophobia, nor the self-destructive, common-place use and abuse of street drugs and casual unprotected sex, straight and gay. He also shows the power the FDA and Big Pharma have in the lives of desperately ill people.

HIV/AIDS is now treatable: with very expensive drugs that are not easy to obtain or afford in much of the world.  There is still no cure. The fight is not over yet.

Gay and straight, we need to stand together to battle HIV/AIDS world-wide.  This film was a great reminder of the brutal start to a long battle that's still ongoing.

Then, last night, I rented the Steve McQueen film, SHAME.

I'd avoided the picture for a long time.  Earlier this week, I saw a documentary on the CBC that said habit and addiction exist on a continuum: that is to say, they are a matter of degree. At one end, there's the cup of coffee I have every morning first thing.  I always quit at two. Coffee is a habit of mine.  On the other end there's addiction:  that awful, unstoppable, run-away freight train of compulsion, self-loathing, self-destruction and regret.  I think most of us know it when we see it and some of us know it because we've been there ourselves or with loved ones.

Does sex addiction exist?  I don't know.  It's gone off and on the various editions of the DSM.  Can sex be as nihilistic, debasing, self-destructive and compulsive as drugs or alcohol? You bet.

Michael Fassbinder gives an astonishing performance as Brandon, a man for whom getting off:  with hook-ups, prostitutes, on-line masturbating to porn, in chat rooms or alone in toilet stalls and showers has become a compulsion.  He goes to work, he eats take-out or in restaurants, he has sex, he showers, he sleeps.

He's functioning:  he has a job, money, an apartment. He also has an utterly empty life, as blank a void as the white walls of his high-rise apartment.  He likes sex from behind, in bathhouses, in dark alleys with strangers, anonymous and faceless.

Then his sister (Carrie Mulligan in a terrific performance) Sissy, an unemployed musician, homeless after a break-up, shows up on his doorstep. She's one aching hole of neediness, pain and self-destruction.  She's the mirror held up the void of Brandon's  life:  the visceral embodiment of everything he's too afraid to allow himself to feel and the mess he fears will follow if he does.

We see Brandon once on a date with a colleague he actually likes.  He can't order dinner.  He can barely speak.  When he tries to make love to her, he can't perform.  His terror of engulfment is so overwhelming, rage is the only emotion he allows himself to feel.

His sister's clinging and neediness is unbearable.  Pushing her out of his home only serves to bring down the reign of emotional chaos he fears more than life itself. Brandon goes on a self-destructive sex bender as Sissy goes off an emotional cliff.

The film is a great character study and an unflinching look at sex as a drug, a self-soothing commodity capable of bringing pleasure and pain in equal measure.

SHAME offers no pat solutions, no happy ending, no easy answers. It's not an easy film to watch, but it is well worth seeing.

It's a time of year when many of us determine to change our habits whatever they are.  This year, among other things,  I'm going to try to see more movies and try write here more often.  We'll see how I do.  Happy New Year!  May you acquire only good habits in 2014.