by Lynn on January 13, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

Reviews: Next Stage Theatre Festival continued

The Next Stage Theatre Festival continues this week until January 15. I saw these five shows over last weekend: Living with Henry, Loving the Stranger, Modern Love, Morro and Jasp in Go Bake Yourself and The Washing Machine.

LIVING WITH HENRY, music, book and lyrics by Christopher Wilson. Directed and choreographed by Donna Marie Baratta.

Michael is a sweet man who is looking for a meaningful relationship. Sometimes a quick pick-up in a bar is a nice fill in until Mr. Right comes along. He does meet someone and they have several days of passion before the guy tells Michael that he’s HIV positive. This certainly puts a damper on the relationship. Michael is conflicted about what to do. He confides in his best friend Jenni, then his understanding and worried mother. The relationship breaks up when Michael’s Mr. ‘Right’ is offended that Michael is upset he wasn’t told about the HIV positive situation earlier.

Michael then does meet another Mr. Right. They marry. Michael is told he is now HIV positive. Michael names this presence in his life Henry. Again, there is conflict when Michael’s partner is upset that the disease is taking over their lives. Michael decides not to take his drugs and nearly dies. His mother, best friend and Henry stand watch over him until he revives and decides to live as best as he can with Henry.

When I first saw this musical at The Best of the Fringe, I thought it was certainly ambitious on the part of Christopher Wilson. The story is obviously close to his heart. He has written the play, the lyrics and the music. That is a huge undertaking. I felt that there was the sense of ‘therapy’ about it—nothing wrong there. Both Wilson and his director Donna Marie Barata (in their program notes) certainly indicate how the subject has affected them. Initially I thought the effort was noble. On second viewing at the Next Stage Theatre Festival a more critical eye is observing, and the show comes up short.

I had to wonder what it was about the musical form that made Mr. Wilson decide to write his show as a musical, and not a straight play. It seemed to me that there would be a short bit of dialogue followed by song after song that went on to express a thought or conflict that could be as easily expressed in a little dialogue. Characters who were not developed properly had songs to sing without the background to be worthy of them. Even some of Michael’s medications had a song. Having HIV be represented as a living character takes ‘cloying’ to new heights.

Ryan Kelly as Michael is sweet and full of conviction. And many of the cast, at least those who can hold a tune, are good. But on the whole I had a head ache after the show from gritting my teeth so hard with the unnecessary songs with generally the same tempi, the preciousness of the piece and the busy and obtrusive direction by Donna Marie Baratta.

, or how to recognize an invert, written and directed by Alistair Newton.

The story is about artist Peter Flinsch and how he lived and survived as a gay man in German and certainly during the rise of Nazism. Flinsch was imprisoned because he was gay; survived and eventually moved to Montreal.

Alistair Newton’s text is culled from actual interviews and documentary sources, giving the piece a sense of authenticity. He reproduces songs from the 1920’s with a gay theme to underscore his play. And there are many scenes with Flinsch as he is being interviewed by an unseen interviewer. These are particularly effective because Hume Baugh is so good as Flinsch. The accent is slight, the delivery understated and forthright. It’s a touching performance.

Again, I found this production ambitious with its mix of projections, music, dance and choreography. It is also interesting to see the slow progress of gay rights coming into its own but certainly not without a price. While same-sex marriage is a fact in Canada and ‘only’ seven States, the fact that hate crimes has doubled in Canada puts a pall on the gains. It makes one wonder if the gains were worth it. I appreciated the production for making me think of the question.

, written and performed by Jessica Moss, directed by Eric Double.

Jessica Moss has written a play that asks the questions: “How can you feel alone when you have 600 (Facebook) friends? When you carry everyone you know in your pocket, why is it so hard to connect? There used to be loneliness I could only feel in crowded rooms, and now I feel it all the time.”

She taps in the question to her 600 Facebook friends asking if anyone wants to go to a movie. She receives no replies. Later she does meet a friend for a coffee but her friend is busy texting someone on her cell phone while apparently having a conversation with her. Connection is what Jessica Moss wants. Disconnect and silence is what she gets until she ‘meets’ Charlie Brown on line. They ‘talk’. He is bright and funny. He writes in full sentences with correct spelling and I don’t think an ‘lol’ is in sight. Such a connection after such ‘distance’ is daunting for her. How will she cope? Will they meet?

Moss is an energetic, winning performer who makes us root for her character. She is full of depth, contradiction and confliction about the computer world and this guy Charlie Brown. The conversation she has with Charlie Brown is projected onto a screen.

Jessica Moss has written a funny and perceptive piece about life in our modern world. And the question is so of the moment—how can you feel alone when you have 600 friends. Many shows tap into the computer world, commenting on its immediacy without intimacy and connection. Moss brings both to her play with natural charm and emotion.

MORRO AND JASP: Go Bake Yourself. Created and performed by Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee. Directed and dramaturged by Byron Laviolette.

I must confess that clowning is not my favourite kind of comedy. The effort seems so great for such a small return. I had seen Morro and Jasp in a previous show, which I loathed. But I went to see MORRO AND JASP: Go Bake Yourself with an open mind, and perhaps to see what I was missing.

Morro and Jasp would be ‘baking’. I was warned about the splatter zone of the first row and sat at the back. Jasp is the calmer, clearer thinking of the two. Morro is the more kinetic, the one more likely to splatter batter around the room and onto the front row. Jasp spent a lot of time keeping Morro in gear.

Many ingredients went into a bowl, some eye-brow-knitting. Cayenne pepper, corn flakes, chocolate, coke, salt, that kind of thing. An unsuspecting man in the front row was hauled up to taste it. The audience tried to suppress its giggles at the hapless taster. Jasp then went off with the guy leaving Morro to fend for herself, but came back later. I found that their dealing with the audience member in this case was rather gentle compared to the previous show I saw, and was grateful for it.

Heather Marie Annis as Morro and Amy Lee as Jasp have that disarming open-faced look that warms an audience and the stuck on red noses are always good for a smile. I still don’t understand the appeal of clowning, but I’m glad I saw this group.

THE WASHING MACHINE, written by Radha S. Menon. Directed by Sasha Kovacs.

Isabelle comes back from England to India her childhood home, a plantation. She has been recently widowed but she is having an affair of sorts with James, a boyhood friend who has been taking care of the plantation.

She has brought a washing machine with her. It’s a metaphor for the modern age to be used by the main servant, Ayah. Ayah doesn’t see it that way. She sees it as a means to diminish her presence in the plantation. Ayah takes pride in her work. She has done this work for years. This is what she does. But she now perceives a struggle to maintain that position with Isabelle’s ‘gift’.

THE WASHING MACHINE is an interesting take on being true to one’s promises to maintain traditions; the caste system in India; the power of secrets and how it comes back to haunt the people who keep them.

Playwright Radha S. Menon has written a complex story, sometimes confusing and dense with metaphors and symbolism. A strange character named “Mummy” sits drinking tea outside the main action but watching. She is an echo from the past we learn later in the play. Trying to keep track of all the secrets and threads of the story and who is related to whom is also challenging. But it is a noble effort by all concerned.

Of the nine shows I saw during the Next Stage Theatre Festival I had already seen LIVING WITH HENRY (as one of the Best of the Fringe) and LOVING THE STRANGER (at Summerworks). But wanted to see them again to see how they progressed to the “next stage” as it were.

I’m finding “Next Stage” might be a misnomer. I’m not really seeing a progression or development to ‘the next stage’ in what I originally saw. Perhaps performances are tighter, but problems with the writing or direction have not really been addressed.

I’m fascinated with how many playwright and director’s notes are in the programs explaining the story, the intension, the point, the symbolism and why they needed to tell the story. Surely the play should speak for itself, or am I being picky?

And giving us a detailed and convoluted mission statement of why a company was formed (to change the world through theatre, or to give a contemporary spin on issues, for example) is just pretentious. Please don’t put it in your programs. One assumes you want to do good theatre that communicates with your audience. That’s all we need to know.

The Next Stage Theatre Festival continues to Jan. 15 at the Factory Theatre.

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