Saturday, January 31, 2015


Last weekend,  I saw some very challenging new dance that left me with a lot of questions and no easy answers.

Last Friday night, I went to see DANCEMAKERS most recent offering, an evening of contemporary dance/performance art consisting of two pieces:  IN TOUCH - 1976 &  RECENT FUTURE.

DANCEMAKERS is working on a creation model where two curators offer space, time, and supports to a group of resident artists, who evolve work over a two year period.

The work is processed based, seeking to address the questions: What is dance?  Why are we dancing?

The first piece, by Dana Michel, was a solo, 1976.

A headless creature emerges, yellow legged, swaddled in fur, with spectator shoes.  Foot and leg movement deconstruct street tap and from the fur embryo, in a black, blow up chair a creature emerges.  This performer morphs a few times:  the squirming shape-shifts suggesting an  uneasy alliance with her own body and the decision to be watched.  It is not a comfortable performance, but it is compelling.

In RECENT FUTURE ,  Zoja Smutney and her collaborator Gunter Kravis perform on a  stage divided by long swaths of transparent plastic. The two performers, striped shirts on the top (is this prison?) textured, reptile skin, black mesh hose  decorating the legs, are present on stage, as are we, to watch and interact with the performers, and the space.  The performance is an elaborate game of 'Simon says" between a man and a woman in an ambiguous relationship, rife with issues of power, and presentation. At one point, he asks her to "perform narcissism".

Both pieces explore the sometimes uncomfortable, and oft-times unholy alliance between the audience and the performer. Do we, the spectators, function as a kind of mirror to the performer? Or, when I want to look away, is it because the performance has held up a mirror to my own zones of discomfort?  When a show makes me uncomfortable, is it because of the work, or because of me, because the work is making me think about things I'd rather avoid thinking about? Or, when a show makes me uncomfortable, is it the performers' projecting what they can't, or don't want, or haven't gotten around to processing before displaying, onto the audience; "Hey, I'm not sure how I feel about being exposed physically and psychically out here, or if this is exposure is germane to the work, or even what it means in this context, you figure it out."

This was DANCEMAKERS'  first iteration of the process based focus of the resident artists' production model.  The work I saw emerge last week was thought-provoking and challenging, if somewhat slippery and yet unformed.

DANCEMAKERS continues this weekend with  a larger cast reconstruction of 1976.  If you'd like some cool, challenging food for thought about what it means to watch and be watched, while you feed your performance-viewing habit, check this out.

DANCEMAKERS continues until January 31ST at  8:00 PM at Centre for Creation, 9 Trinity St., 3rd floor, in the Distillery. Tickets are $22 and $29 at the door.

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.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Oh, Babies: LUNGS at the Tarragon Theatre

I missed LUNGS, the critical hit, when it was staged last spring at the Tarragon. It's currently being revived at the Tarragon.

Everyone I spoke to raved about it:  the writing, the acting, the subject matter, the direction.  Today, I went with a regular theatre-going friend of mine, to see what the fuss was about.

LUNGS is a two-hander that takes place in 70 minutes, on a minimal set:  a bare room with nice, wood paneled walls, and floor, designed by Ken MacKenzie.  British playwright, Duncan MacMillan apparently insists on this bare room stricture, along with "no mime, no props, no lighting changes."  Kimberly Purtell lights it like a Fringe show, with subtle tonal shifts, but no specials.

This leaves the director, Weyni Mengesha and the actors, to bring the dense text to life, and they do so adeptly.

A 30-something straight couple: the gratingly loquacious and neurotic W, (Lesley Faulkner) and her long-suffering mister, M (Brendan Gall)  are trying to decide whether or not to procreate.  They are good people, they tell us.  They are educated.  They recycle.

What about the carbon foot-print?  What about money? What about the over-populated planet?

After a lot of agonizing, they decide to go ahead and get pregnant.  Complications ensue.

LUNGS is well-acted, with solid physical and vocal work from both actors. It is well written, if kind of pretentious, and overly talky. It's well-directed, within the constraints imposed on the director by the playwright.

I just didn't like it very much.

There's a lot of great dialogue, but when you really dislike one partner in a couple, it is hard to root for them as a pair, and hope they'll stay together.  I had moments when I felt compassion for both of them, but W was so annoying, I just couldn't believe M didn't run out of the room screaming early on in the courtship.  After a great, gut-wrenching plot twist late in the play, the feel-good ending felt like a tacked-on, pandering, rom-com style cop-out.

LUNGS is worth seeing for the performances, and some of the witty and thought-provoking dialogue.  It's a worthy effort,  just not great.

LUNGS continues at the TARRAGON EXTRA SPACE until January 25, 2015.  for more information and tickets.