R. Jeanette Martin
THE NEXT STAGE THEATRE FESTIVAL A fest of new works and remounts presented in rep by the Toronto Fringe at the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Runs to January 13. $10-$15, passes $48-$88. 416-966-1062, fringetoronto.com.
The sixth annual Next Stage Festival presents a dramatic kaleidoscope with an emphasis on conflict.
From local gun violence (Awake) to finagling for empire (Throne Of Games), subtle suburban tension (Post Eden) to a native woman's troubled search for identity (Salt Baby), characters battle against society or their own desires as they search for happiness.
But it's Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman's Sudden Death and Natasha Greenblatt's The Peace Maker that best explore the extremes of discord and harmony.
In the former, Canadian hockey enforcer John "Rambo" Kordic goes through a dark night of the soul as he confronts addiction, incessant fighting and an unhappy past. The Peace Maker follows a young Jewish-Canadian woman who tries to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through music.
Corbeil-Coleman began her play as a graduation piece for the National Theatre School. Its inspiration was a man doing a line of coke and saying to the audience, "I want a baby."
Says the playwright, whose work includes Scratch (nominated for a Governor General's Award), collaboration with Architect Theatre and the TV series King, "I knew I wanted to write about hockey in a theatrical way."
She's sure done that. Set in the motel room where the drugged Kordic died of a massive heart attack while battling police, the action is styled as a hockey game, complete with three periods and two commentators. She's also added surreal elements, including Wayne Gretzky as one of Kordic's internal demons.
"I read an article about Kordic's crying in the locker room because his father wouldn't see him after a game. A strong-arm enforcer losing it over family matters was a fascinating combination of ideas. In early versions the play was a dark comedy about addiction and getting all used up by what you do.
"The comedy's still there, but now the sadness of the man sneaks up on you. I feel for Kordic deeply, since I think he started by loving hockey and then was pushed into a role."
Central to the action is Kordic's relationship to his wife, Cindy. A flashback scene shows them falling in love in the strip club where she works.
"They're both desperate to be loved and, surprisingly, have lots in common. Trapped in cycles they can't break, they travel in repetitive circles rather than dramatic arcs."
The commentators echo the macho guys in the booth at many a broadcast hockey game, but they also bring a touch of vaudevillian cabaret.
"I was trying to blend the ideas of a hockey game and a Greek tragedy, with the announcers as the Fates and Kordic's demons as the chorus," says Corbeil-Coleman. "My central tragic figure is a man who wants so much from the future but is held back by his past."
Sophie, the central character in The Peace Maker, also hopes for a more positive future, but one bigger than the personal. After travelling to Israel under the auspices of Birthright - an organization that sends young Diaspora Jews to visit Israel, hoping they will immigrate - she then works at a West Bank music centre.
That's when she has an inspiration: if her Palestinian students could perform for Israelis in Jerusalem, she'd build a bridge between the two peoples.
"Sophie goes in with a real desire to understand and learn more," says playwright Greenblatt. "Like a lot of young people, she wants to make the world a better place. The step she takes is big and bold, maybe ill-advised, and it leads to a lot of conflict. Still, I see Sophie as a naive character who's also amazing."
Greenblatt, a National Theatre School grad who won an acting Dora for Get Yourself Home Skyler James, went on a Birthright trip in 2009, later volunteered in Palestinian Nablus and drew on her experiences for the script.
"I know that when I went, I was confused and had lots of provocative questions as I tried to situate myself as a Jewish-Canadian artist."
Sophie finds herself caught between two worlds. She gets involved with an Israeli soldier, while her Palestinian translator develops a personal interest in her. She has to win the trust of the talented daughter of the music school head, just as the man who leads her Birthright group tries to persuade her of Israel's rights and her duties as a Jew.
Not surprisingly, music is a big part of the show. Some members of the stage orchestra are also actors within the story; others, teens from Toronto schools, are the age of Sophie's students. The musicians play both Palestinian students and Israeli soldiers.
"Privileged to be on both sides of the wall, I wanted to write about what I experienced without making anyone a villain," notes Greenblatt. "The result is a work about identity, global politics and how a trip like this can change who you are as a person.
"Maybe Sophie is a metaphor for Canada in the world. We're peacemakers and have the best of intentions, but sometimes things can go so awry."
Both plays are at the Factory Mainspace. Sudden Death is currently running; The Peace Maker opens tonight (Thursday, January 3).