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Next Stage Festival a spinoff in need of a focus

The cast of "The Apology"

Now in its fourth year, the Next Stage Festival is a winter spinoff from the Toronto Fringe Festival. Its slogan is: "The Fringe's best, served cold."

Clever, but not entirely accurate. Though Next Stage has a beer tent (heated), that's where the direct similarities with the Fringe end. There are eight shows in the festival, rather than upward of 100, and they're juried instead of randomly selected. Only a couple are "next stage" productions of Fringe hits: Some are new shows by established Fringe artists (if that's not an oxymoron), while others are by fairly well-known theatre professionals from Canada and abroad.

In other words, Next Stage has no clear focus. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that; the audience keeps growing every year.

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Lack of focus is a problem, however, for The Grace Project: Sick!, created and directed by Governor-General's Award-winning playwright Judith Thompson.

Though she has been writing plays for more than 30 years, Thompson continues to experiment with different ways of telling stories theatrically. A few years ago, at the behest of a soap company, she created a piece called Body and Soul, in which 12 "real women" - that is, non-actors - over the age of 45 told their personal stories onstage. Sitting somewhere between Love, Loss and What I Wore and inclusive performance art, it worked rather well, and she remounted it without the sponsor.

Now, with The Grace Project: Sick!, Thompson turns her sculpting skills to "younger people facing serious adversity." She's shaped and directed the autobiographical stories of 14 performers, including a man who had (and may again have) breast cancer, twins with diabetes, a girl with Crohn's disease and an actress with Down syndrome.

There are others in the cast whose challenges are not easily associated with the word "sick" of the title, however - a gay Muslim teenager, for instance, and two young black women. And, unlike Body and Soul, the performers aren't all new to the stage - there are professionals here who have worked at Stratford or the Factory Theatre as well. The presence of more seasoned actors makes the whole exercise feel less "true."

While I found many of the individual moments in The Grace Project: Sick! compelling or unsettling - a detailed description of a day in the life of a bulimic stands out - I was ultimately left confused as to what it was all about. Tackling disability, illness (mental and physical), racism, homophobia and bullying in a single show means tackling nothing. It was like a watching a box set of Degrassi in an hour and a half.

There is true teenage drama of the historical variety in Darrah Teitel's The Apology, in which teenaged Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin runs away with her married lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and her stepsister Claire to Lord Byron's castle on Lake Geneva. Over the course of summer, 1816, opium is injected, poetry is written, a baby is born, another is conceived and Mary pens a book called Frankenstein.

In Teitel's imagining of this real-life writers' retreat - written in salty contemporary language, spoken by actors dressed and undressed in current fashions - Shelley put his thoughts on "free love" into full practice and radical feminist and anarchic ideas bashed against one another along with young bodies. (Among the solid young cast, David Beazely is a standout as a bisexual Byron who turns out to be not entirely as beastly as he first seems.)

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Director Audrey Dwyer's production begins drenched in sex, but Teitel, a 2007 graduate of the National Theatre School's playwriting program, is not as seduced by the situation as it initially appears; she slowly reveals the trail of dead children and lovers' suicides that followed in the wake of these people we now call Romantics. (I couldn't shake the feeling that the 29-year-old playwright really has the Boomer generation in her sights.)

While the individual scenes are often very well constructed, The Apology lacks a driving force and a stronger directorial hand is needed. Still, it is a decidedly fresh take on the literary bio-play.

With a bigger budget and some rewriting, Duel of Ages could be a popular hit. Over the course of nine scenes written by eight authors, fight directors Kevin Robinson, Todd Campbell, Simon Fon and Daniel Levinson give a thrilling crash course in different forms of personal combat including sword-fighting, pistols at dawn and samurai battles.

On the night I was there, there were illegible projections, technical problems and the final scene wasn't included due to the injury of a cast member. Canada's low-budget answer to Spider-Man? Even with the snafus, Duel of Ages was pure, dorky fun with onstage visits from the likes of Bat Masterson, Rob Roy and Errol Flynn. Not, alas, engaging in stage combat against each other - unless that's what happens in the final scene (now reinstated, I hear).

Toronto's Next Stage Festival runs at the Factory Theatre Mainspace and Studio until Jan. 16 (

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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