fb_event_320707918314105-jpg-resize-_opacity_100-frame_bg_color_fff-h_800-gravity_center-q_70-preserve_ratio_true-w_1200_Toronto Fringe’s winter mini-fest Next Stage is in a tricky spot. It plays host to the first productions of every year in Toronto theatre; the audience full of hope and anticipation and ready to have the bar set for the year to come. Curated and titled as it is, it’s not hard to expect something a bit more polished from the 10-play Next Stage Theatre Festival than one might from the 150-show lottery-selected Fringe Festival. Every single year I go into Next Stage anticipating a sort of Best Of Fringe with a few extra months of dramaturgical development. That’s never what I get. Usually there are a couple shows that actually fulfill the promise of “like a Fringe show but at the next stage of its development”, a couple fun Fringe-level charmers, and a couple duds. This year there isn’t much to write home about at all.

The good news lies with the comedians and improvisers, a delightful if somewhat commonplace trio of shows that deliver decent Fringe-type entertainment that’s not really trying to be the next stage of anything. Pressgang Theatre’s Two Truths and a Lie is exactly what it sounds like- three stories (told by Graham Isador, Rhiannon Archer, and Helder Brum); two true, one fake. I heard one great story, one good one, and one decent one- a more than pleasant way to spend 30 minutes. Also a lovely way to spend 30 minutes (that Antechamber really is the most reliably entertaining space at Next Stage)- Ted Hallett & Lisa Merchant’s Date Me, an improvised online date inspired by real profiles chosen at random. Hallett is particularly winning in this low-stakes, high-charm two hander, latching onto his assigned profile’s details and spinning them into fleshed-out absurdity with infectious enthusiasm and immense charisma. Outside of the Antechamber, the only truly dependable hit is Songbuster- An Improvised Musical, the MyTheatre Award-nominated troupe whose excellent ensemble includes newbie Nicky Nasrallah (whose big solo number at Saturday’s show could very well have been in an actual musical, as could Nug Nahrgang’s sweet ballad of grandfatherly advice) and MVP Kristian Bruun (who skied into the show as an adorable Norwegian then proceeded to pull out three different well-defined accents as his role morphed from awkward cousin to German spy infiltrating a family reunion to steal buried treasure). Clutch harmonies and counterpoints from group founder Stephanie Malek give the made-up silliness an air of musical legitimacy that really seals the deal.

Silk Bath, My Big Fat German Puppet Show, and MANICPIXIEDREAMGIRLS are all either strange but strangely enjoyable or marked with the “hm, that was pretty good!” competency of an impressive Fringe show but a merely fine piece in any other context. Rock Bottom Movement’s ridiculous dance show is arguably the most interesting thing at the festival. Its flashy absurdity made me roll my eyes at first but a moment of unexpected earnestness and the delicious combination of star player Josh Doig’s killer technique and sparkling showmanship eventually won me over despite the tone-deaf ironic fact that an absurdist contemporary dance deconstruction of a pop culture archetype (created by Garden State, the only example this show quotes from) is the most manic pixie dream thing anyone could do.

Western and Clique Claque are both over-long and generally uninteresting though neither is offensively bad and Caroline Toal gives her most grounded and emotionally mature performance to date as a sister retelling her brother’s tragedy in Western.

Then, oh boy, the two stars of the festival, the over-hyped mainstage shows that are at the top of pretty much everyone’s must-see list. Blood Ties and The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics are two of the most frustratingly obvious, messy and poorly cast (not to mention poorly directed and poorly designed) shows I’ve seen in quite some time. Outside of Fringe, that is. But Fringe is different. Fringe is a lottery. It’s an indie breeding ground. It’s a place where new ideas start, and new artists try things out, and new things start happening. Next Stage is supposed to be the NEXT freaking STAGE where good ideas get further development, no-longer-new artists follow through, and good things keep happening but happen with (slightly) better resources and backup and a curator’s endorsement. More and more, Next Stage is becoming just mini-Fringe, without the lottery and the scope and the community. But the Fringe is defined by its lottery, scope, and community. Those things cannot be replaced. The Next Stage Theatre Festival has to provide consistent quality above what you can find at the Fringe; that’s the only way it makes any sense. There isn’t a single show in this year’s lineup that’s as good as the best of the 2016 Fringe and there certainly isn’t one that’s better.