THE NEXT STAGE a festival of new works and remounts presented in rep (Toronto Fringe). At Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Runs to January 16. $12-$15, passes $48/$88. 416-966-1062, fringetoronto.com. See listings.
From twisted fairy tales to a history of duelling, from a detective story to a rewrite of Swan Lake, The Next Stage runs the gamut of storytelling.
The festival's greatest contrast, though, is between the sexually hot atmosphere of The Apology and the bone-numbingly frigid setting of Tom's A-Cold.
We never seem to tire of stories about bad boys and bad girls experimenting with sex and drugs.
It's not just a contemporary story either. Darrah Teitel's The Apology is a tale of polyamory that involves people you know in another context: Romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley and Shelley's wife, Mary, who wrote Frankenstein. The fourth member of the sexual quartet is Claire Claremont, Mary's stepsister.
Shelley's novel offers a metaphoric frame for the play, explains Teitel, "since it's about human perfectibility and a utopian vision of society. In a parallel to Victor Frankenstein creating life, the four characters experiment with their lives, hoping for the best. In both cases, the result is an uncontrollable monster."
Set in 1816, the play is as much about politics as it is about sex.
"I hook into the material through feminism," says Teitel, a National Theatre School grad whose play Marla's Party was produced in SummerWorks 2008. "Mary's parents were William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft; he was the father of anarchism, she the mother of feminism.
"I see Mary and Claire as trying to emancipate themselves but getting caught in attempting to reconcile emotions, theory, maternity and politics. It's a feminist quandary that many still face."
But don't get caught up in The Apology's philosophy. There'll be lots of sex onstage.
"I always wanted to write a show that begs the question of where art ends and pornography begins," Teitel smiles. "Director Audrey Dwyer and I have encouraged the actors to investigate all realms of emotion and the dark side of their sexuality.
"The audience has to be turned on by the experiment, or they'll never sympathize with these people and the theories they talk about and try to live."
If The Apology suggestively burns the stage, David Egan's Tom's A-Cold (opens today, Thursday, January 6) will give viewers the shivers. Set in the Arctic, the play follows two men who sailed with Sir John Franklin in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, only to become caught in the ice.
Three years later, Thomas and George, one an officer and the other a sailor, are in a rowboat attempting to get to safety. Starvation, frostbite and scurvy are only some of their problems; cannibalism's also on the menu.
"The characters are based on two men found frozen in a rowboat," explains Shane Carty, who plays George. "They were surrounded by useless objects like combs, scented soaps and slippers.
"The playwright wondered if the pair were abandoned, thrown out with useless objects as if they were trash, or were so fried with fear and cold that they grabbed what they could and left to reach civilization."
Winner of the Herman Voaden National Playwriting Competition, Tom's A-Cold's title conjures up an image of King Lear's madmen on the heath. The two characters set up their own society, with Thomas as captain and George as, in several senses, his mate.
"George is an able-bodied seaman, uneducated but intelligent," says Carty, who's returning to Stratford for his seventh year. "He's sensitive, perceptive and stubborn and is the one who understands the gravity of their situation."
Despite the subject matter, it's also a very funny play, says the actor.
"The men rely on each other, a bit like Beckett's characters, and recognize the absurdity of their situation, though the laughs they generate are sometimes frightening."