Next Stage Festival, a curated winter spinoff of summer's Toronto Fringe now in its sixth year, is officially about presenting "exciting Fringe artists who are ready to make the leap into the big time."
But at this point, Next Stage, like SummerWorks, has become a place where theatre artists from the "big time" leap into the fringes to, entrepreneurially, try out new work – and then hope that it gets picked up for a full production by a professional company. Indeed, about a third of Next Stage's shows go on to a future life.
This isn't a complaint. From an audience perspective, there's nothing to complain about theatres outsourcing their new-play development. This year, at least three exceptional Next Stage shows will no doubt be coming soon to a regular season near you – at about three times the ticket price.
Post Eden, my favourite of the three, is a theatre/film hybrid that redeems the idea of mixing media. It helps that its talented young director, Jordan Tannahill, has written an achingly honest and unadorned script as its base.
Tannahill's play is set in 2008, on the day the European Organization for Nuclear Research was set to switch on the Large Hadron Collider. There were fears among some doomsday theorists that the collider would cause a black hole to swallow Earth. You know, the last time the end of the world was nigh.
Ashley (Sascha Cole, sweet and very true) wakes to the sound of a wail coming from outside on her dead-end suburban street (shades of Daniel MacIvor's Cul-de-sac). There, she finds a strange schoolmate, Jacob (Kevin Walker), with a wound he claims is from a coyote bite. After getting him cleaned up, the two plan what they'd like to do before the impending apocalyse. No, not that – though Jacob, being a teenage boy, tries.
When Ashley fails to show up for dinner, her recently divorced parents, Susan (Linnea Swan) and Robert (Sean Dixon), must reconnect. There's also the matter of the family dog, Eden, the catalyst for their break-up and – on this eve of the apocalypse – possibly for a reunion.
Tannahill layers film over this American Beauty-style ennui. The actors mostly perform in front of microphones, while moving images are projected on a screen behind them. Sometimes the film shows us wordless versions of the scene we're in; sometimes we're shown complementary images or given a glimpse of a character's interior life.
At exactly the right point, however, the film aspects and ominous sound design drop out entirely – and Susan and Robert share a traditional, unamplified scene. Exposed in every way, Swan and Dixon give tremendously vulnerable performances, and the hope that their two characters might rekindle their marriage kept me breathless.
Chaotic artifice also drops away to reveal a touching moment in Sudden Death by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, a twentysomething writer who was nominated for a Governor General's Award a few years back, and then dropped off the theatre map (aka went to work for actual money in television).
John "Rambo" Kordic, the former hockey enforcer, is meeting his future partner Cindy for the first time. A stripper, Cindy is performing a private lap dance for the NHL player, but all he wants to do is talk about are his problems. Her insistent silence touches a nerve. "God, you remind me of my dad," he says, as she lowers her breasts onto his face.
In a tornado of white powder, Tony Nappo plays the bruised bruiser with gusto, punctuating lines with a loud whistling snort that suggests a septum with more holes than a bow-legged goalie. Melissa-Jane Shaw gives a similarly fearless performance as Kordic's love Cindy, who likes to perform as Snow While because, she says, she had an evil stepmother.
The scene of how they met is a flashback. Corbeil-Coleman's play takes place in 1992 in the Quebec City hotel room where Kordic fought his last fight – with cops who were trying to subdue the raging, drug-addled 27-year-old – just before he died of heart and lung failure. His hallucinatory last night on Earth gets a play-by-play by Bob and Harry, two hockey announcers whose function lies somewhere between vaudevillian double-act and Greek chorus. (Greg Gale and Andrew Shaver give it 110 per cent.)
Sudden Death is unwieldy and a little repetitive, but its energy and heart keep you involved. And, like a classic tragedy, even though you know how it's going to end for the hero, you start to hope he'll stage a late-game comeback.
Speaking of hopeless situations, Natasha Greenblatt's The Peace Maker shows us a young Canadian Jew losing her idealism, twice, on a trip to Israel and Palestine.
Greenblatt, star of Mirvish's recent The Railway Children, has two aces up her sleeve in her treatment of this well-worn story. First, Rebecca Auerbach – a fine singer, actor and guitar player – is a revelation as Sophie, a self-effacing Canadian musician who discovers in the Holy Land that she can be both sexy and Jewish. Secondly, there's the versatile six-piece band playing music – Israeli, Arabic and a pinch of Ace of Base – that weaves its way joyously through Theatre Columbus artistic director Jennifer Brewin's production.
Like Corbeil-Coleman, Greenblatt is a young, second-generation theatre creator. Her father is Richard Greenblatt, who co-created one of the country's biggest musical hits, 2 Pianos 4 Hands. Nature or nurture, Canadian theatre's next stage looks bright.
All three plays close January 13 at Toronto's Factory Theatre. Tickets at 416-966-1062 or www.fringetix.ca