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A scene from A Line in the Sand, a Factory Theatre production.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

A Line in the Sand

Written by Guillermo Verdecchia and Marcus Youssef
Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams
Starring Danny Ghantous, Morgan David Jones
At Factory Theatre in Toronto
Three and a half stars

Gertrude and Alice

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Written and performed by Anna Chatterton and Evalyn Parry
Directed by Karin Randoja
At Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto
Three stars

Toronto's mid-sized theatres are firing on all cylinders at the moment.

Factory Theatre's comeback continues with the company's so-called Naked Season's next pared-down production – a lean and mean revival of Guillermo Verdecchia and Marcus Youssef's 1996 war drama, A Line in the Sand. Its first act is the best-written, best-acted, best-directed 45 minutes I've seen on a Toronto stage this season.

Set in the months leading up to the Gulf War, among Canadian troops stationed just outside of Doha, Qatar, Verdecchia and Youssef's play follows the growing relationship between a 20-year-old soldier named Mercer (Morgan David Jones) and a 16-year-old Palestinian pedlar named Sadiq (Danny Ghantous).

At first it seems stereotypical, straight out of South Pacific – a lonely, horny military man far from home buying trinkets from an overeager, English-mangling local vendor.

Over the course of seven sharp scenes, however, both Mercer and Sadiq become more complex as they meet to exchange purple Canadian dollars for pornographic photographs and gradually let their guards down. Their politics and perception of America, in particular, may surprise you.

Eventually, the displaced Palestinian's carefully contained anger erupts – and the Canadian's submerged feeling of superiority rises to the surface in a scene that is shocking, in a subtle way.

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The young actors playing Mercer and Sadiq are both great discoveries – to Toronto audiences, anyway. Jones, strong yet vulnerable as the lost soul that is Mercer, performed alongside Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire; Ghantous, sensitively steering Sadiq through his sad dance of attraction and repulsion to Mercer, is straight out of Ryerson Theatre School.

Director Nigel Shawn Williams's production is staged in a sandbox between two tranches of audience. Instead of props, the actors mostly pick up handfuls of sand that then slip through their fingers, giving the production an ethereal, dream-like quality that is punctuated by unsettling bursts of gunfire and flashes of light. The whole thing is tantalizing and tense.

While A Line in the Sand is set in the lead-up to Canada's participation in the 1991 Gulf War, it is informed by what we euphemistically refer to as the Somalia Affair – the torture of a Somali teenager to death by two Canadian soldiers on a humanitarian mission in 1993.

Even if you don't realize that going in, A Line in the Sand's second act feels redundant. It's another two-hander, where Mercer is interrogated by a colonel, with the excellent John Cleland playing good military cop, bad military cop all on his own. The problem is that in wrapping it all up, the writers also spell it all out for the audience. The actors pull it off, but the not knowing during the intermission is more horrifying.

In its original incarnation, A Line in the Sand also featured an interview/interrogation of the playwright "Marcus," as Verdecchia and Youssef explored a straight-up satirical vein of writing that they'd put front and centre in later collaborations such as Ali & Ali and the Axes of Evil.

I do have one question I'd ask the playwrights now, though: Is the name Mercer a nod to the family of David French's plays? Coming after Factory's production of Salt-Water Moon, it seems both a nod to him – and a shake of the head at the tradition of painting Canadians as mostly victims of colonial wars, rather than also as collaborators in them.

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Over at Buddies in Bad Times, new artistic director Evalyn Parry and collaborator Anna Chatterton are resurrecting Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas.

In Gertrude and Alice, Parry and Chatterton, playing Stein and Toklas respectively, speak to us directly – wondering why we're there. "How many of you have read all my books?" Stein asks. She's not happy with the answer, at least at the Sunday matinee I saw; the author wonders if we're there because we like the idea of this lesbian power couple that never used the word lesbian, because we're fascinated she counted Picasso as a friend and Hemingway as a pupil, rather than because we admire Stein's artistry.

In the language of Stein, Gertrude and Alice takes place in the same "continuous present" she aimed to write her fiction in. "Continuous present is one thing and beginning again and again is another thing," she explained in a lecture from 1925. "These are both things. And then there is using everything."

If you're confused, that's okay. Stein is there to assert her timeless genius and spin out mesmerizing circularities, while Toklas – wonderfully wry, hunched over in Chatterton's enjoyably eccentric performance – is there to anchor us in the world of cooking and embroidering and love (and jealousy!).

Chatterton and Parry's bio-play of this avant-garde novelist and the woman who loved her becomes less avant-garde as it goes along, turning into a charming and accessible set of anecdotes about Stein and her life partner.

Parry doesn't inhabit Gertrude quite as entirely as Chatterton does Toklas; she often seems as posed as when she's posing for the Picasso painting of her. But the love between the two women resonates. In the end, it's the heart of the piece that hits you.

A point of connection: A Line in the Sand features a short scene in between the acts where the actors recite the basic facts of Canada's involvement in the Gulf War; they then juxtapose speeches from Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper that connect the dots between the actions of our CF-18s in 1991 to their recently ended air strikes against the Islamic State.

Similarly, in Gertrude and Alice, the main characters often point out that there are more facts than they can fit in the play. They direct us to cahiers they have provided if you want to know more about the timeline of Stein and Toklas, or the truth about the latter's brownies.

Essentially, both plays have footnotes, performed or printed. I like it. Better than overloading drama with exposition, or that popular new audience activity, Googling during intermission.

A Line in the Sand continues to March 27 (factorytheatre.ca), as does Gertrude and Alice (buddiesinbadtimes.com).

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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