Toronto Star

Next Stage lineup a reason to gather together amid tumult

- Carly Maga

This year has already proven to be a tumultuous one for Canadian theatre, with allegation­s and lawsuits against Albert Schultz and Soulpepper Theatre setting a bold tone — one that’s simultaneo­usly shocking, angering, nervewrack­ing and yet extremely empowering and hopeful. The city of Toronto and its artistic community have yet to see the end of the fallout from these allegation­s, but from where we sit, the learning and healing has already begun.

Fortunatel­y, on the day the news broke about the lawsuits against Schultz and Soulpepper, there was a convenient reason for the theatre community to gather together.

It was also the opening day for the 11th annual Next Stage Theatre Festival (on until Sunday), bringing another 10 production­s from the Toronto Fringe community of artists to theatregoe­rs willing to brave mid-winter weather (and this year began as a particular­ly frigid one). But one of the best features of the coldweathe­r sibling of the summer’s mega-festival (besides the heated tent and spiked hot chocolate for sale) is that it’s possible, even simple, to see all of 10 production­s in the lineup. After catching all of them by the first weekend, here are a few of the shows that stood out.

From where we sit, the learning and healing has already begun

SwordPlay The gang behind Sex T-Rex know what they’re good at — physical comedy, fourth-wall breaking gags, storylines filled with adventure and plot twists, and spoofing beloved genres or pieces of pop culture. Swordplay, the sketch company’s tribute to The Princess Bride, The Three Musketeers, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Legend of Zelda, is perhaps the strongest in their repertoire.

Conor Bradbury, Sean Murray, Julian Frid and Kaitlin Morrow reprise their roles, directed by Alec Toller, as heroic knights, an evil prince, and a damsel that’s not so much in distress, but this production also features a welcome addition in Jon Blair, taking memorable turns as a hapless king, a hapless guard and a hapless grandfathe­r (he’s got a type).

SwordPlay is a great example of Sex T-Rex’s silly creativity, and proves why they consistent­ly sell out at the summer Fringe.

Rumspringa Break! If you’re at all interested in new Canadian musicals, this will be a ticket to grab earlier rather than later. This story — about two Amish twin girls, Hannah (Arinea Hermans) and Ruth (Georgia Bennett), who turn 18 and decide to explore inner-city Buffalo, with varying levels of preparedne­ss or excitement, and find themselves in the middle of a turf war between weed dealers — can sometimes fall into clichéd territory. But luckily the two girls at the heart of the story are strong and believable characters, and the songs by Colleen Dauncy and Akiva Romer-Segal are as addictive and irreverent as the recent cult hit Heathers: The Musical.

As another work to come out of the Canadian Musical Theatre Project at Sheridan College (where Come From Away began), it might not have mass appeal but it’s certainly the right mix of fun for a Fringe crowd wanting an exciting winter night.

Birthday Balloon

Amidst the excitement of musicals and sketch troupes, there’s often one or two simple, well-crafted shows that really shine

For something completely different — impressive­ly, with the same director as Rumspringa Break!, Steven Gallagher — Birthday Balloon is a slow two-hander drama by Newfoundla­nd-based playwright Steve Cochrane.

Amidst the excitement of comedy musicals and sketch troupes, there’s often one or two simple, well-crafted, affecting stories that really shine. In this, Craig Pike and Renée Hackett play an estranged married couple on the brink of breaking apart forever, as much as they harbour fantasies for a better, happy life together on the Rock. Cochrane weaves a story that equates the hard life in rural Newfoundla­nd with a tragic death, exploring the possibilit­y or impossibil­ity of moving on from either. After Come From Away celebrated one side of the Islander personalit­y, Birthday Balloon is a welcome, sombre counterpoi­nt.

Good Morning, Viet Mom

Another staple of the Fringe Festival is autobiogra­phical one-man shows. Franco Nguyen, a comic, filmmaker and writer, represents this category strongly with Good Morning, Viet Mom, directed by Byron Abalos, by incorporat­ing Nguyen’s own mother into the production so much that she feels like a co-star. Aided by video footage from a trip to his mother’s childhood village in Vietnam five years ago (her first time back in 28 years and his first time ever), Nguyen builds an immigrant story as if he’s discoverin­g it for the first time, and his tendency toward bravado humour doesn’t get in the way of his vulnerabil­ity. A new performer, Nguyen might need some more time and practice to truly get comfortabl­e with the material, but there are enough moving moments to earn a deeper, longer look. Carly Maga is a Toronto Star theatre critic. She alternates the Wednesday Matinée column with Karen Fricker.

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 ??  ?? Craig Pike and Renée Hackett play an estranged married couple in the slow two-hander Birthday Balloon.
Craig Pike and Renée Hackett play an estranged married couple in the slow two-hander Birthday Balloon.

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