Summerworks Fest highs and lows

With a few days left, here's NOW's look at the best and worst of SummerWorks.

SUMMERWORKS, runs to Sunday (August 13) at the Factory Theatre Mainspace, Studio and Upstairs (125 Bathurst) and Artword Theatre (75 Portland). $8, festival pass $40. 410-1048. Rating: NNNNN

POOCHWATER, by Mike McPhaden, directed by Patrick Conner, with McPhaden and Brendan Wall. Presented by AAA Theatre & Appliances at Factory Upstairs. August 11 at 7:30 pm, August 12 at 9 pm, August 13 at 5:30 pm. Rating: NNNN

As funny and profound as it is eventually moving, Mike McPhaden’s Poochwater focuses on a man (McPhaden) who finds a lost wallet in a Detroit park and tries to track down its owner even though he can’t remember his own name.

McPhaden’s evocative script makes us active participants in the play, letting us piece together what we need from his characters’ rants and rituals. The many surprises include a dialogue in Morse code.

Under Patrick Conner’s direction, there’s good use of space and movement, and the energy never lags, especially from the performers. McPhaden’s clown turn is like an existential Red Buttons, and Brendan Wall matches him in the play’s revelatory second half.

The subtext feels a bit too Drawer Boy, but, hey, you might as well borrow from a great play.

McPhaden’s clearly a writer, and performer, to watch. GS

Breakup breakout

THE EROTIC CURVE OF THE EARTH, written and directed by Conrad Alexandrowicz, with Hume Baugh and Greg Campbell. Presented by Wild Excursions Performance at Artword. August 12 at 2:30 and 6:30 pm, August 13 at 12:30 pm. Rating: NNNN

Shattered romance has never been as mockingly hilarious — or touchingly heartbreaking — as in The Erotic Curve Of The Earth, a wonderful tonic for those who have loved, lost and lamented. And isn’t that all of us?

Writer/director Conrad Alexandrowicz uses pop song lyrics — Burt Bacharach’s What Do You Get When You Fall In Love is both melodramatically cheesy and truthful — to delineate the physical and mental state of Stan (Hume Baugh), who can’t stop pining for Roger (Greg Campbell). Campbell, who also pops up as other figures, including St. Finbar, patron of breakups, and Baugh are splendidly paired in this double-edged paean to lost love, an amour whose flame burns with Olympic-torch brilliance. JK

Sweet dreams

DREAMING ELSEWHERE, by Charles Picco, directed by Marion de Vries, with Anne Anglin and Ralph Small. Presented by Rain and Fog at the Factory Studio. August 11 at 11 pm, August 12 at 8 pm, August 13 at 12:30 pm. Rating: NNN

Here’s a writer whose work deserves play beyond the festival circuit. Charles Picco’s Dreaming Elsewhere looks at a pair of bar habitues, played by Anne Anglin and Ralph Small, whose hopes and drinking sessions reveal two yearning and unhappy souls through a blend of funny and touching scenes.

Under Marion de Vries’s careful direction, Anglin (in one of her best roles) and Small make the most of the script’s concise character portraits of childhood acquaintances who need each other more than they’ll admit. JK

Twilight Zone: the play

SOMEONE YOU DON’T KNOW, adapted and directed by Michael Kessler, from a story by Richard Matheson, with Kory Bertrand and Nicole St. Martin. Presented by Bitchy Six at Factory Mainspace. August 10 at 5 pm, August 11 at 8:30 pm, August 12 at 10 pm. Rating: NNN

The talented Michael Kessler employs some clever directorial tricks with sound and image in his own adaptation of a Richard Matheson story, but why bother?

The plot — the play is virtually entirely plot — is about a struggling young couple (Nicole St. Martin and Kory Bertrand) who are promised a million dollars if they’ll press a button, killing someone they don’t know.

The lurid material, spiked with jarring heavy metal, could be played as all-out dark satire. Or it could dig deeper into issues of greed and class. But Kessler chooses to play it straight, with uneven results. Still, committed performances, especially from St. Martin.

Science solo soars

LAMBTON, KENT, by André Alexis, directed by Ross Manson, with Yanna McIntosh. Presented by Volcano at Factory Studio. August 12 at 3:30 pm, August 13 at 2 pm. Rating: NNNN

Southwestern Ontario takes on a mysteriously foreign life in Lambton, Kent, a monologue/lecture by a Nigerian anthropologist whose tour of small communities reveals the fallacious jumps in logic sometimes made by Eurocentric scientists in Third World countries.

André Alexis’s script blends sly humour and a seemingly wandering story that ties up neatly at the end, though at times the engine idles in neutral. There’s no faulting Yanna McIntosh’s clever, engaging performance, under Ross Manson’s thoughtful direction, as the objective scientist who reveals her human subjectivity. JK

Sultry Sartre

NO EXIT, by Jean-Paul Sartre, directed by Tom Osborne, with Lauren Brotman, Kerry Segal, Rob Sternberg and Reno Maurati. Presented by Unbound Productions at Factory Studio. August 11 at 8 pm, August 12 at 5 pm. Rating: NNN

The tango becomes an insidious, even demonic, force in director Tom Osborne’s production of the classic No Exit, in which a trio of self-centred characters are trapped in a hell of their own personalities.

Far better than the recent Fringe production of the script, this version creates three figures whose egos and insecurities ensure that each is tightly bound to the other two in an ongoing dance of torture, tension and shifting alliances. As secret after secret is revealed, the actors — Lauren Brotman, Kerry Segal and the sometimes stiff Rob Sternberg — play nicely with the violence that lies beneath the exchanges, as does Reno Maurati as the suave, mocking valet. JK

Grisly Girls

GIRLS AND HORSES, by A. Shay Hahn, directed by Karla Faulconbridge, with Emily Hurson, Joe Pingue and Mary Francis Moore. Presented by Mad Craft Habit at Factory Mainspace. August 12 at 12:30 pm, August 13 at 6:30 pm. Rating: NNNN

Packed with city vs. country laughs, thoughtful environmental concerns and more than a touch of spine-tingling creepiness, A. Shay Hahn’s Girls And Horses pits a jaded urban IT worker against two rural fruit sellers who want him to sample their wares.

Karla Faulconbridge’s careful direction ensures that things aren’t quite as they seem, with sound, vocal rhythms, staging and lighting creating tension.

Emily Hurson’s blank-eyed country girl suggests another era (though it’s hard to hear her at times), and Joe Pingue gets every city shrug and mumble down pat.

But it’s Mary Francis Moore who’s always watchable as the more controlling of the women. The always focused Moore can’t read a line without filling it with subtext and meaning. GS

House needs cleaning

HELL HOUSE!!, written and directed by Sky Gilbert, with Jason Jazrawy, Richard MacDonagh and Tara Samuel. Presented by Sweet Jesus Co-op and Cabaret Company at Factory Studio. August 12 and 13 at 9:30 pm. Rating: NN

After the subtleties of The Emotionalists, Sky Gilbert returns to heavy-handed, preachy theatrics in Hell House!!, an intentionally two-dimensional look at the Christian sideshow “entertainments” that alert teens to the dangers of liquor, drugs and sex.

Performers Marcus and Tiffany (Richard MacDonagh and Tara Samuel) draw Bobby, a raucous audience member (Jason Jazrawy), into the action, though Bobby’s more interested in Marcus’s meat than his morality. Trouble is, Gilbert speaks lamely to an already converted audience, with humour that’s obvious and boring. It’s Samuel who holds the show together, both as the increasingly jealous and put-upon Tiffany and as the morality-play characters she acts silent-movie style, complete with a nudge-nudge, wink-wink to viewers. JK

Road worth travelling

AU “COUNTRY ROAD”, by Marie-Josée Lefebvre, directed by Sanjay Talwar, with Louise Gauthier, Lefebvre and Tony Nappo. Presented by Theatre Tojo at the Factory Studio. August 12 at 6:30 pm, August 13 at 8 pm. Rating: NNNN

We might not share the dreams of the three characters in Au “Country Road,” but it’s easy enough to understand the hopes they’ve pinned on those dreams. Marie-Josée Lefebvre’s bilingual script is clear even to those who don’t speak French, in part because of the strong emotions with which she, Louise Gauthier and Tony Nappo grab the audience.

The two women long to be C&W stars like their school chum Shania Twain, while the boyfriend of one has his own recipe for renown. There’s great chemistry onstage — the women fight as only fast friends can — while Nappo’s comical machismo is neatly skewered by Lefebvre. This is the SummerWorks show that radiates the most energetic fun. JK

Dumb Waiter delivers

THE DUMB WAITER, by Harold Pinter, directed by Kelly Thornton, with Terrence Bryant and Robert Tsonos. Presented by Sometimes Y at Factory Mainspace. August 12 at 8 pm, August 13 at 12:30 pm. Rating: NNN

A set, no matter how good, shouldn’t upstage the actors. But I found myself staring more at Sherri Hay’s evocative blotchy blue walls in The Dumb Waiter than at the performers in Harold Pinter’s classic two-hander.

That’s not to say that Robert Tsonos and Terrence Bryant don’t have their moments as two contrasting hired assassins waiting for their next victim in a rundown hotel. Tsonos is especially good as the more inquisitive, nervous killer.

Kelly Thornton’s production is stylish and retro, evoking the men’s isolation and Pinter’s disturbing themes of class and religion with bleak brio.

But why this play, now? Why the effort? It feels like an exercise, a display of obvious talent. But to what end? GS

Newcomers pass test

OBEDIENCE, by Hugh Gibson, directed by Adam Nayman, with Nic Carlino, Chris Donald and Evan Webber. Presented by Northern Secondary School at Artword. August 10 at 6:30 pm, August 12 at 11 pm. Rating: NNN

Winner of eight Ontario Drama Festival Awards, this concise piece by Hugh Gibson covers some familiar territory — the scientific experiment that doesn’t let its subjects in on what it’s trying to test — but is remarkable for the claustrophobic tone sustained by the young artists who assemble to perform it.

Under Adam Nayman’s direction, there’s palpable tension between the Experimenter (a scarily emotionless Chris Donald) and the increasingly self-doubting Washington (Evan Webber), while Nic Carlino, the third member of this sharp triangle, suggests dramatic depths far beyond his onstage time. JK

Children’s hour

WHEN CHILDREN FALL, by Bobby Del Rio, directed by Nicole Stamp, with Del Rio, Laura Mulhall and Matt White. Presented by Filthy Mexican Productions at Artword. August 12 at 12:30 pm, August 13 at 2 pm. Rating: NNN

Here’s a chance to catch the next generation of talented theatre artists. When Children Fall highlights the skill of a quartet of young people in the tale of a long-term friendship and a new relationship darkened by a nightmare.

While the narrative has problems, including a feeling of being forced to tie up ends, there’s plenty of strength in playwright Bobby Del Rio’s dialogue, and he’s just as fine an actor working with Matt White as an enamoured man who finds the girl of his dreams (Laura Mulhall). Collaborating with director Nicole Stamp, the actors understand how to connect with the characters’ emotions and thereby carry us along on their journey. JK

Getting physical

E–MERGE(NCY), created and performed by Marye Barton, Mark Brose, Rachel Gorman, Kathleen Rockhill, Spirit Synott and Kazumi Tsuruoka, directed by Miriam Rother. Presented by E*merge(ncy) Collective at Artword. August 10 at 8 pm, August 13 at 3:30 pm. Rating: NNN

There’s probably no SummerWorks show more moving in its physicality than E*merge(ncy), an empowering collective work by a group of disabled and able theatre artists. Its series of unrelated episodes emphasize the laughter, dreams and sensuality in their lives, elements that most viewers likely haven’t considered.

The show isn’t a complete success — despite the strong emotions in the occasional text, the spoken segments don’t all play out well as theatre — but when Kathleen Rockhill balances an exercise ball on her shoulders like a determined Atlas, or when Rachel Gorman and Spirit Synott perform an elegant, balletic pas de deux sharing a wheelchair, the production takes flight. Some of the dance segments, in fact, should be longer and more developed. A liberating experience for performers and audience alike. JK

Nifty noir nightmare

INDIFFERENT EYES, by Ben O’Brian, directed by Blake Melnick and Ken Klonsky, with O’Brian, Adam Allett, Emily Gualtieri, Frank Ostello, Andrew Bryan and Carlo Spidla. Presented by In the Flesh at Artword. August 10 at 11 pm, August 12 at 3:30 pm, August 13 at 6:30 pm. Rating: NNN

Another student group demonstrates the skills that budding artists are picking up in school drama programs. Ben O’Brian’s Indifferent Eyes twists and turns with some bizarre plot developments, but the company sustains the script’s grimly humorous touch of irony and its sour, noirish tone with committed performances, notably by O’Brian as the narrator and later as a mysterious gangster who heads a multipurpose firm, and Adam Allett as a one-armed drug addict saddled with a corpse on his living-room floor. Here’s a play with plenty of atmosphere, even if the narrative is occasionally jumbled. JK

No Sanctuary

SANCTUARY, by Emil Sher, directed by Colleen Williams, with Jennifer Hall and Adrian Churchill. Presented by Dante Theatre at Factory Mainspace. August 11 at 5 pm, August 13 at 10:30 pm. Rating: NN

It’d be easy to write off Emil Sher’s symbol-rich play about two lonely souls who meet one morning as obvious and trite. But one extended scene near the end catches us unawares with its thrilling theatricality and genuine emotion. That and Adrian Churchill’s understated performance as an artist make the show watchable. Jennifer Hall plays his opposite number at the same obnoxious pitch throughout, and huge patches at the start feel undirected. GS

Acting out anger

SPITE, written and performed by Jean Yoon, Bruce Beaton and Michael Achtman. Presented by Bitter, Mean & Nasty at Factory Studio. August 10 at 9:30 pm, August 11 at 6:30 pm. Rating: NNN

There’s no lack of anger and dramatics in Spite, a trilogy of pieces by a trio of deft theatre performers. The most successful of the works is the funny and sharp title piece, written and performed by Jean Yoon –in a white wedding dress with a knife in her heart — who’s both furious and rationalizing about an angst-ridden breakup.

Bruce Beaton’s narrated “film” Gas is clever in its take on the importance of home, if at times too full of detail to follow in a packed, hour-long program. Michael Achtman’s three short turns connect with the other material in the show’s anti-Harris theme, though Achtman’s drag satires are still in need of shaping and tuning. JK

Sweet success

SWEET PHOEBE, by Michael Gow, directed by Daryl Cloran, with Colin Glazer and Gema Zamprogna. Presented by Theatrefront at Factory Upstairs. August 11 at 9:30 pm, August 12 at 5 pm, August 13 at 7:30 pm. Rating: NNNN

A cute canine alters the empty lives of a success-oriented couple and makes them more appealing characters in Michael Gow’s Sweet Phoebe.

Gow and talented director Daryl Cloran toy with audience sympathy, surprising us with the characters’ contrasting journeys.

Colin Glazer and Gema Zamprogna (the latter the former wide-eyed Felicity from Road To Avonlea) display admirable chemistry, and their growing education is thrilling to watch.

Zamprogna — let’s see her do more stage work! — gets so into her role as a woman fascinated by other people’s lives that she revitalizes the few cliches in the script and almost makes us forget that the show could be 15 minutes shorter.

Definitely worth checking out.

Making Hay

SHIFTING GEARS, written and performed by Carolyn Hay, directed by Adrian Truss. Presented by Rev Me Up at Artword. August 11 at 11 pm, August 12 at 9:30 pm. Rating: NNN

Carolyn Hay puts smoke, lights and a revved-up motorcycle engine to entertaining use in Shifting Gears, in which a legal secretary on a cycle sets out to right the wrong she’s unintentionally committed.

Making great use of Glenn Davidson and David Hoekstra’s all-purpose motorcycle — fitted out with lots of surprising extras — Hay takes us on a road journey of mini-epic proportions, full of nicely realized character sketches and a few sharp curves in the highway. The humour isn’t yet as pointed as it undoubtedly will be, but Hay easily ingratiates herself with viewers, and from its midpoint the story barrels home with high-energy vroom. JK

Bankable Chekhov

THE FESTIVITIES, by Anton Chekhov, directed by Jonathan Watton, with Dmitry Chepovetsky, Martin Albert, Nicole Libin, Jillian Hart and Gene Pyrz. Presented by Rushin Productions at Artword. August 11 at 9:30 pm, August 13 at 8 pm. Rating: NNN

Chekhov’s little-known farce The Festivities, which contrasts a whiny, put-upon bookkeeper and an elegant, self-impressed bank manager, gets a generally smart presentation by director Jonathan Watton.

Dmitry Chepovetsky’s performance as the neurotic pencil-pusher — all too aware that he gets no respect for his work — anchors the show, while Martin Albert’s pompous manager expecting ceremonious adulation offers a balloon that’s impossible not to pop. They’re alter egos, each high-strung in his own way.

The female characters aren’t nearly as solidly played. Even though they’re farcical, they require a humanity that Jillian Hart and Nicole Libin fail to capture. JK

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