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theatre review

Freda and Jem's Best of the Week


Written by Lois Fine

Directed by Judith Thompson

Starring Kathryn Haggis

At Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto



Written and directed by Kat Sandler

Starring Justin Goodhand, Nicole Buscema, Michael Musi, Mara Zigler

At the Storefront Theatre in Toronto

Freda and Jem's Best of the Week, a new family play by Lois Fine, has an extraordinary performance from Kathryn Haggis at its centre. She plays Jem, a self-described "butch dyke," who is going through a divorce that is making her question every aspect of her identity.

Over the course of her life, Jem has gone from being a rebel to feeling behind the times. She was at the forefront of the sexual revolution, then, unexpectedly, became a pioneer in queer parenting. But she doesn't understand the new terms like "genderqueer" that her wife, Freda (a sensitive Diane Flacks), has picked up at grad school, and is sometimes skeptical of the direction gay and lesbian activism is headed.

Haggis creates an indelible picture of Jem, who works as a plumber and is part radical, part reactionary. She's not afraid to be unlikeable in a loud, working-class way – and her crass charms at times reminded me, unexpectedly, of Appa, the patriarch of Ins Choi's family comedy Kim's Convenience.

The script Fine has built around this character, while sensitive, feels often only half-written, however. It ultimately suffers from a point-of-view problem, with the rest of the family getting short shrift in the narrative.

Freda gets space and time to argue her side of the story, but she's not allowed either the first or the last word. This is Jem's Best of the Week – and, at not even an hour and a half in length, Fine's play could stand to either go deeper in that direction, or be fleshed out to live up to its title.

Lorraine Segato, lead singer of the Parachute Club, pads out the running time, performing very earnest songs from the side of the stage, equipped with an arsenal of guitars. Her music is not always well integrated into the show by director Judith Thompson – leaving many moments where Freda and Jem simply stare at one another past all meaning. Faults aside, the whole package is undeniably heartfelt and touching – and shows how the seismic shifts in our society can leave anyone flummoxed.

For another report from the frontlines of the now, Retreat, Kat Sandler's skewering of unpaid internships and Millennial mores, provides the second-biggest laughs on a stage in Toronto right now, after The Book of Mormon.

In Sandler's script, four corporate interns are sent away to a camp on a retreat run by an alcoholic scoutmaster (Kat Letwin), where they must compete against one another for the one staff position on offer. Think The Hunger Games meets Girls.

Like early George F. Walker, Sandler's work is heavily inspired by TV and film and the stereotyped characters that populate pop culture – in this case, a jock (Justin Goodhand), a flirt (Nicole Buscema), a nerd (Michael Musi) and a weirdo (Mara Zigler).

But they do develop and gain dimension – and the hilarious Goodhand is particularly adept at surprising with where he takes his character. There are a couple of stumbles along the way in an untidy script, but Sandler's ending is absolutely wild and completely unexpected – or maybe I've just been watching too many plays.

Freda and Jem's Best of the Week runs to Oct. 5 ( Retreat runs to Sunday (