The Next Stage Theatre Festival (continued)

by Lynn on January 10, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

I finished my short stint of seeing shows at The Next Stage Theatre Festival with the following shows: The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy), Silk Bath, WESTERN, a play with music and My Big Fat German Puppet Show.

In their own way each have something to say, some are substantial in their reach others are not as challenging but are still worthy.

The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy)

Written and directed by Kawa Ada
Lighting by Andre du Toit
Sound design/composition by Deanna Choi
Costumes by Laura Delchiaro/Kawa Ada
Cast: Elley-Ray Hennessy
Nina Lee Aquino
Trenna Keating
Tennille Read
Ellora Patnaik

Writer/director Kawa Ada does not tackle small ideas in his plays. In The Wanderers (his previous play) he writes about displacement, wandering from country to country to find sanctuary. He certainly uses his and is family’s experience of coming from war-torn Afghanistan circuitously to Canada in that play.

With The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy) he writes an homage to his resilient mother by conjuring the grit, tenacity, fortitude and smarts of several world leaders who are women. They are Imelda Marcos, Margaret Thatcher, Kim Campbell, Benazir Bhutto and Malala Yousafzai. Woow. The premise is that most of these women are there for the funeral of Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

While Ada captures the obvious jokes about Imelda Marcos and her spending and shoes, there is a savvy mind showing how to get what she wanted. Kim Campbell is portrayed initially as silly, but that was before she became Canada’s prime minister. Margaret Thatcher and Benazir Bhutto are formidable political minds, with Margaret Thatcher showing her razor-sharp political brains and giving a lesson in leadership to the other women. Malala represents the future and can offer another point of view to these powerful women.

While each actress brings her character to life, Elley-Ray Hennessy as Mrs. Thatcher is eye-popping. Hennessy is a consummate comedienne, but here she is astonishing as Mrs. Thatcher and it’s not a send-up either. It’s a serious, gripping, formidable performance of a woman who did not entertain fools with kindness. From the facial expressions, to the lower voice to the body language, this is Margaret Thatcher who makes you sit up in your seat.

As Kawa Ada rightly notes in his programme comment, this kind of festival is for taking baby steps in the production of a play on its way to a mature journey. There is further work to be done; cutting, pruning, re-examining, but for a beginning it’s impressive. I can hardly wait for next stage of The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy).

Silk Bath

By Aaron Jan and Bessie Cheng, with contributions from Gloria Mok
Directed by Aaron Jan
Lighting by Logan Raju Cracknell
Set and costumes by Aram Heydarian
Cast: Bessie Chang
Dorcas Chiu
En Lai Mah
Amanda Zhou

Another ambitious play about a serious subject. Aaron Jan and Bessie Cheng look at a futuristic world with a Chinese focus that looks at the world of conforming. Various people stuck in a drudge world compete to leave the strict world and get out. They lie, cheat and connive to one up their fellow ‘inmates’ to gain the all-important freedom.

It’s a compelling world that director Aaron Jan has created. All the ‘prisoners’ are in whiteface so as to further accentuate the sameness of the characters, the lack of individuality, even though there is plenty in their lives that would make them individuals.

He directs with a good sense of theatricality. There is nothing tentative about this production.

Interesting work all round.

My Big Fat German Puppet Show

Written, directed and performed by Frank Meschkuleit
Musical composers and collaborators, Cathy Nosaty and Mark Korven
Designed by Frank Meschkuleit

I have wanted to see Frank Meschkuleit’s puppet/performance work for years. Bless the Next Stage Theatre Festival for offering the opportunity.

He plays Franz Poopenschpiel, a portentous creature with a magical top hat and the most impressive ‘large’ suit you have ever seen. His waistcoat billows out in front of him, his vest is buttoned up, his belt suggests a shirt underneath is struggling to stay together. Miraculously a stage and puppets appear from beneath the costume.

Meschkuleit performs skits illuminating his sterling imagination and puppetry. One skit deals with zombies; another is an homage to the great Tom Waits. In each Meschkuleit teases and taunts the audience. He is witty in a dark sort of way, graceful, inventive and dexterous. I can hardly wait to see his next show.

WESTERN, a play with music

Text by Matthew Gorman
Music by Gordon Bolan
Directed by Geoffrey Poundsett
Movement and puppetry by Brad Cook
Designed by Lindsay Walker
Cast: Mairi Babb
Sam Kalileh
Brendan Murray
Caroline Toal
Jocelyn Adema on fiddle
Gordon Bolan on everything else.

The story is writer Matthew Gorman’s idea of the west as told in stories around a campfire. A young boy shoots another boy and runs away. His older sister who is taking care of him (their parents are dead) goes looking for him. The dead boy’s mother wants the boy too. A kind of shadowy character plays a sheriff looking for the boy as well. And there is another mysterious character with lots of sound advice.

Gorman writes in a heightened poetic language. Gordon Bolan offers original music and lyrics which don’t offer much in the way of story or character development. Geoffrey Pounsett’s direction is clever but too busy. For example, the young boy who killed the other boy is suggested by a pair of shoes that are ‘worked’ by an actor kneeling on the ground, hands on the shoes, moving them as if stepping. Another actor holds a child’s hat in the air above the shoes, the height of what this young boy might be. At one point the boy is tied in a chair. The shoes fidget and the hat tips a bit as if the boy is moving. Later a swath of material will be maneuvered and held as it is the boy sleeping on the ground. This is all too busy and distracting. Wouldn’t a hand-held puppet do the same thing with less fuss?

I can appreciate the effort and imagination, but this is a simple, slight (?) story and all this extra ‘stuff’ clutters the issue.

The whole cast is earnest.

The Next Stage Theatre Festival presents:

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

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