Reviews from The Next Stage Theatre Festival

by Lynn on January 6, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

This is the 10th anniversary of the Next Stage Theatre Festival in Toronto. It’s a winter extension of the larger Fringe Festival. The Next Stage Theatre Festival runs from Jan. 4-Jan. 15, 2017 and has a roster of 10 one act plays and dance pieces playing in three spaces of Factory Theatre. There is a heated tent where audiences wait between performances. Beer, snacks and hot chocolate are sold. On the opening night there was birthday cake.

Here are some of the highlights of what I’ve seen.

Clique Claque

By Mark Brownell
Directed by Sue Miner
Costumes by Nina Okens
Cast: Robert Clarke
Thalia Kane
Ron Kennell
Michelle Langille
Victor Pokinko

An intriguing comedy about the paid ‘claques’ in performing arts events, a group that opposes them and a gaze into the future of what might be.

Mark Brownell has written a comedy about that annoying group of paid ‘screamers’ called a claque. These folks go to live performances of music, opera and theare to see usually dreary shows, with worse performances to cheer on one of the artists who has arranged for such adoration. The show has the flavour of an English Music Hall comedy—sometimes silly, sometimes witty—even though the show is set in Paris. One can’t call it a French farce, (no slamming doors and not fast paced enough). Although director Sue Miner keeps things humming along nicely.

Clothilde and her accommodating husband Yannick organize and pay for the claque. But trouble is brewing in the person of Dubosc who has formed his own group, the Clique. These people don’t cheer; they hiss, boo and hurl invective at the lousy stuff coming from the stage. Dubosc wants the arts to return to the days of producing quality and if it’s not evident then he and his band of hissy-fitters will let all and sundry know, loudly.

It’s interesting seeing Clothilde’s brains working out how to get the best of Dubosc and how this Claque-Clique business can develop over the years. Brownell has some wicked lines about actors and directors in particular and theatre and music in general.

As Clothilde, Michelle Langille is stylish, sophisticated and haughty presenting one formidable woman. As Dubosc, Ron Kennell is smoothly seductive when picking up various companions for the night. And he gives a sound argument for booing lousy theatre.

The following two shows are short (30 minutes) and a bit out of the ordinary.

Date Me

Created and performed by Ted Hallett and Lisa Merchant
Directed by Melody Johnson
Musical director, Jason O’Brien
Technical Designer, Carmine Lucarelli

The premise is a first date and the whole enterprise is improvised by Ted Hallett and Lisa Merchant. The audience is asked to complete and submit a short form indicating information about their dates. Ted Hallett then picka a form at random to give them the location of the date. The duo bought a list of 10,000 profiles on a dating site. Hallett and Merchant then speed-scroll through the list on a computer and then randomly stop on a name. The audience and the performers see the pictures of the person and their profile. From that the couple improvise the first date scenario.

This proves a bit creepy. The woman’s photo looks someone immature and wears a bulky Disney Land sweater. Her profile seems immature too. His photo looks more in keeping with a guy who wants to impress but his profile is light on information.

While Hallett and Merchant toss ideas to each other as they play out the date, Lisa Merchant is the more inventive, buoyant with ideas. Both are charming, but it is that creepy beginning that doesn’t quite ring true.

Two Truths and a Lie

Created by Graham Isador, Rhiannon Archer, Helder Brum
Directed by Tom Arthur Davis

Simple premise: Each performer tells a story. A person from the audience has to chose who is lying. If the person guesses right everybody goes home happy. If the person guesses wrong the cast does not say who the liar is. It makes for interesting conversations after.

For my evening Graham Isador told of a relationship that went sour. (He has a tendency to drop his words and speak them too softly. Not helpful). Rhiannon Archer has a wonky wrist. She told the story of what happened to it when she was a kid. Helder Brum has a more delicate situation that involves haemorrhoids, pooping and other personal body emissions.

The stories are well told (yes, but speak up Mr. Isador!), funny and convincing. I think if you listen carefully you can decipher the liar. Good fun.

Blood Ties

Book, music and lyrics by Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston.
Directed by Ann Merriam
Musical director, Jeffrey Newberry
Set and costumes by John Leberg
Lighting by Andrew Clemens
Cast: Anika Johnson
Barbara Johnston
Carter Hayden
Jeremy Lapalme
Kent Sheridan

Wow! Slick, stylish, smartly done, beautifully composed with clever lyrics.

Anika Johnson and Barbara Johston are a powerhouse duo. They took a real event and spun it into a story of a wedding that went terribly wrong. Sheila is getting married and her best friend Franny and others are there to help celebrate. Sheila and Franny have a prickly friendship. Things happened in the past and they are hard to forget. Then there’s the matter of the blood and (eewww) brains all over the bathroom of Sheila’s aunt and uncle. The friends pitch in to help clean up the mess. There is a suicide note. But is it a suicide?

Blood Ties explores the nature of friendship, forgiveness, unrequited love, expressing love to someone who might not have noticed, and what desperate people do in desperate situations. And they all sing about it in songs and lyrics that you want to hear again they are so melodic and cleverly expressive.

Director Ann Merriam has a clear eye in bringing this complex story to the audience. Relationships are efficiently established and developed. John Leberg’s set and evocative costumes evolve in a witty, smart way, changing from clean whites to vibrant reds.

The cast to a person is strong but Anika Johnson as Sheila the bride with lots of secrets and Barbara Johnston as Franny her conflicted friend, are the bomb. They are powerhouse creators and terrific performers who sings and act beautifully.


Comment. The Next Stage Theatre Festival programs appear to conform to a particular format. The playwright, director, costume designer etc. are all named beside the appropriate title on the title page. But underneath this the cast is just listed by their names in alphabetical order but not with their character’s name. For that information one must look further inside the program at the various biographical blurbs to see the character’s name beside the actor’s name. Not helpful. What’s the problem with being consistent and naming the actor and the character he/she plays beside the name on the title page, as all the other creatives are listed?

Next Stage Theatre Festival Presents:

Opened: Jan. 4, 2017.
Closes: Jan. 15, 2017.

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