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Repetitive Strain Injury
Repetitive Strain Injury

Onstage now: two holiday hits and one serious miss Add to ...

Hate, as much as love, is a feeling to cherish as a spectator. It’s a reminder that you feel passionate about an art form – and it can be especially welcome at a time of year where a low-intensity cheeriness, one that can easily tip over into melancholy, is encouraged, if not enforced, pretty much everywhere.

With most of the city’s stages full of fun or feel-good holiday programming, December allows Toronto’s indie theatre companies a chance to shine with Christmas counterprogramming. Nazis and all sorts of other assorted nasties are all on tap if you look for them. The Tin Drum, currently on at the Aki Studio Theatre in Regent Park, is UnSpun Theatre’s free-wheeling adaptation of Gunther Grass’s famous 1959 magical realist novel of the same name. This is not what I hated.

As he celebrates his 30th birthday in an asylum, Oskar (Jesse Aaron Dwyre) tells us the story of the rise and fall of Nazism from his unique perspective: He decided to stop growing at age 3 and dedicate his life to drumming (or so he says).

Artistic director Chris Hanratty has been working on this overstuffed, but absorbing epic since 2007. It begins prewar in Danzig in a family that, like the semi-autonomous city-state, is also split between Polish and Germans; in the second half, Oskar journeys to the front with a troupe of morale-boosting little-people performers.

The narrative is bizarre but nevertheless always remains clear in Hanratty’s crackling production. An enigmatic Dwyre anchors a cast of seven who rotate through dozens of characters – presenting, rather than inhabiting them – and providing sound effects when not directly involved in a particular scene. (Monica Dottor provides the often arresting movement.) In a note, Hanratty argues Grass’s book is about bystander responsibility in the horrors of history. “How easy is it for us to remain the disaffected witness?” he asks. In this ambitious adaptation, illustrated rather than dramatized, it is very easy.

If it’s emotional engagement you’re looking for, however, head to the west end of Toronto; Aaron Willis is currently helming a revival of John Patrick Shanley’s 1983 two-hander, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. I did not hate it, either.

A Bruce Springsteen song come to life, Shanley’s play gives us a couple of white, working-class misfits who share a beer, a bed and the possibility of redemption one night in the Bronx. Danny (Mark Wiebe) is a loose cannon who nearly beats men to death for reasons he cannot explain; Roberta (Brooke Morgan) is a single mother with a death wish and a dark secret she all too easily reveals to Danny.

Willis’s production is charmingly ramshackle: Audience members have to pick up their folding chairs part-way through and rotate them to watch the end of the play. (In an added touch of louche, you can order real beer at the fake bar.) The script has an air of authenticity coming from ex-Marine Shanley – who would go on to win an Oscar for the screenplay of Moonstruck and, two decades later, a Tony for Doubt. It’s a piece refreshingly free of cynicism – and the leads are promising, young actors going out on a limb.

Repetitive Strain Injury, playing not too far away at the chilly, under construction Factory Studio, is the inaugural production of a new company called Kid Logic. It also features young actors of promise – from film and television as well as theatre – and an attractive set that looks like it was designed by Paul Smith (it’s by Trevor Schmidt). They are put in service of a disaster of a script by Rob van Meene, described, all too accurately, as Neil LaBute meets How I Met Your Mother.

Dave (a shaggy-haired, near catatonic Pat Kiely) and Julie (Amy Matysio) are about to get married. They spend the play nearly splitting up during inane, extended arguments where phrases such as “I don’t want you to want me back like this” are uttered.

It’s excruciating – and the subplot is only slightly less so. Robin Dunne, who it says here has a starring role in a SyFy network series called Sanctuary, co-stars as Dave’s pick-up artist pal. We get to watch his “negging” in action as he awkwardly insults an attractive young woman in a bar, who then immediately and unconvincingly goes home with him. The talented Ava Markus is wasted as this manipulated piece of meat in a succession of short skirts, while Imali Perera has an even more cringeworthy role as a wisdom-spouting woman with a Pakistani accent.

Van Meenan has no idea how to structure a scene, never mind a whole play. I thought it had ended at intermission, but alas it had not. I hated his play, and for that I thank all involved.

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