My Theatre

17 January 2015

Thea’s Night at Next Stage

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Big-Shot1 2Big Shot
“I wish life were more like an action movie.” This is the plea of our young narrator at the beginning of Big Shot with Surreal SoReal Theatre out of Montreal. This solo show, written and performed by Jon Lachlan Stewart, weaves the story of four strangers who meet on a subway car, in a seemingly normal interaction. With a complex narrative that takes us backwards and forwards in time, beginning—and ending—with our young narrator in the subway car, Big Shot offers us a complex story of humanity. In it, we see people as they are—making mistakes, passing or failing tests, wanting connection, and wanting more. They are waiting for their big shot, as one character puts it. But while giving us an engaging story, Big Shot made me wonder why this play, rife with filmic metaphors, was a play at all.

In Big Shot, we are given the personal stories of our young, 12-year narrator; Killiger, the recovering drug addict; Otto Sung, the Japanese flower salesman; Byron, the Skyway Train Officer; one black-blazer-wearing film producer; and Gloria, our narrator’s mother. Weaving through these characters and jumping from one character to the next with great dexterity and skill, Big Shot is one of those typical one-man shows that demonstrates how to do it right: good, creative, tight transitions; complex, but accessible narrative; and a chance for the performer to really show his stuff. Hats off to Stewart for his performance here. While he certainly had some performative ticks—laughing being one of them—he portrayed each character as individuals, without falling back to the cop-out of stereotype. I was especially impressed with his performance of Otto Sung, the old Japanese man. When we see white actors perform race, it often becomes an unpleasant caricature reminiscent of Charlie Chan. But Stewart—in both writing and performance—elegantly portrayed this Japanese man, and his associated racial conflict, with grace. I was particularly impressed by how Otto Sung told most of his story in Japanese. As the character tells us, he takes our stereotype and throws it back at us. More performers and writers could take a leaf from Stewart’s book.

Further, the script is complex, engaging and creative. It was so nice to sit in the theatre and fall into the narrative—get caught in it—genuinely wonder what was going to happen next. It was equally nice not to be let down: I was surprised by the twists that Big Shot takes us on. Having the fortune of seeing this show twice, I can speak to the narrative ground work that it does—all the surprises, all the twists, are layed out well before, like any good story. Along with this, the back projection, while at times a little hokey, was a nice addition to the bare, simple stage of Big Shot.

The medium is the message, the say; and this is the main draw back of Big Shot. How often have we seen solo shows that should have stayed diary entries? Why are they plays, and not novels, short stories or poems? I left Big Shot wondering why it wasn’t a movie. Stewart imaginatively frames things for us, taking us emotionally through the scenes using filmic langue (“cut to,” “ext.”, etc). He builds, quite brilliantly, a filmic space for the world of the play. But why not just be a film? True, he does have moments where he plays with the conventions of theatre, with asides, or false endings. These however, while good in themselves, seem out of place in the play. The stick out, and take us out of the narrative.

Overall, Big Shot, was a nice theatrical escape. It offered complex, relatable characters and a storyline to boot. While I greatly enjoyed the play, I would be equally excited to see the movie. And in this, we might question the goal of the playwright and director. Why theatre? Why now?

For-a-Good-Time1 2For a Good Time, Call Kathy Blanchard
For a Good Time Call Kathy Blanchard, is a great title. Unfortunately, that’s perhaps the best you can hope to get out of this show brought to us by Outside Inside. Almost everything about this show is just okay. Okay acting, okay writing, okay story. It’s one of those indie theatre shows that leave you asking why that story needed to be told. Because it didn’t seem to be saying very much.

Now don’t get me wrong, there wasn’t anything awful about the show. There were even some funny moments. The story is this: Lawrence’s mother is in the hospital on her deathbed. To get away from it all, Lawrence has decided to stay at his mother’s house, where he finds his cousin, Mary. They are eventually joined by their brother-in-law, Sky, and Lawrence’s girlfriend, Amanda. All together in the house, as Lawrence tries to get them out of there, Sky tries to get to know them, and Mary tries to watch the Hockey game, we are taken through their personal lives, failings, hopes and, of course, family secrets. The set—a fractured living room wall, boxes, and a broken television set— brilliantly expresses the dislocated and ruptured nature of the family in crisis. The actors— Jennifer Dzialoszynski (Mary), Daniel Pagett (Lawrence), Geoffrey Pounsett (Sky), and Caroline Toal (Amanda)—were all charming and energetic. While they are clearly a capable and talented bunch, it seemed they were laboring under a mediocre script. Dzialoszynski, in particular seemed a creative and talented actor, and yet, in the role of Mary she came across as ranting and unlikeable. Whether this was the script or the direction (or both) is hard to tell. That said, all the actors—especially Dzialoszynski, Pagett and Pounsett— while at times bombastic, offered charming comedic moments that seemed all theirs.

The script itself, brought to us by Michael Ross Albert, needs work. It left me wondering what this show was doing at the Next Stage Theatre Festival. It’s the kind of writing that lacks subtlety; it does too much work for the audience. The kind that talks at us, and not to us. It’s the kind of writing where a character leaves the scene, leaving two others alone, and low and behold a heart to heart, or some kind of revelatory monologue ensues. This kind of realist trope was innovative in the 1900s, and unfortunately seems a little cliché now. As a result the story offers few surprises, and very little to keep us engaged in its plot. For a Good Time is a show we’ve seen before—on the fringe stage, in the highschool auditorium—and I’m in the opinion that we’ve seen it enough.

Myth-of-the-Ostrich1 2Myth of the Ostrich
My Theatre Award-nominated Myth of the Ostrich, with Offside Productions, is what NSTF is all about for me: the best of indie theatre. This show brought together good writing, strong performances, and creative direction to give us an hour of simply solid theatre. Too bad the last show is sold out—and no wonder—because Myth of the Ostrich is one not to miss.

The show opens with Holly (Astrid Van Wieren), the struggling writer, in her messy Toronto home. In walks Pam (Alanis Peart), the quiet, Christian mother of Evan. Evan it turns out, is dating Jody, Holly’s kid. Why Pam has come to visit Holly is not quite clear—whether it’s just to introduce herself as Evan’s mother, or express deeper concerns, we can’t be sure. It’s this question that fuels the beginning of the show—but not for long. Soon the pair is joined by the fowl-mouth Newfunlander Cherly (Renée Hackett), who immediately shocks the room and the audience with her morning trials of losing a condom mid-coitus. Without giving anything away, the three move through one hilarious caper after another, and the audience is brought along for the ride. The dynamic between the three performers is amazing. All strong capable actors in their own right, together they are a tour-de-force.

Matt Murray’s script is both brilliantly structured (with one hilarious Chekov’s gun going off in the final moments of the show) and hilariously written. Further, it’s nice to see people writing for women in this way: here we have three creative, interesting roles for women over the age of thirty. How often can you say you’ve seen that? Finally, it all comes together under the direction of Steven Gallagher. The timing, the delivery, and the staging are fun, energetic, charming and, at times, gleefully surprising.

The myth of the ostrich, we discover, is that they bury their heads in the sand. So to is this show about parents coming to terms with their kids, their problems and themselves. It is done balancing the complex themes of identity politics and class divide, with surprising ease and great humour. What better way to consider questions of family and identity than in those smiling moments between laughter? Myth of The Ostrich offers everything I love about new Canadian theatre: good roles, good laughs, and good good times.

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