Women dominate Next Stage Fest

NEXT STAGE a festival of new works and remounts running in rep. Presented by the Toronto Fringe at Factory Theatre.

NEXT STAGE a festival of new works and remounts running in rep. Presented by the Toronto Fringe at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Opens Wednesday (January 4) and runs to January 15. $10-$15, passes $48-$90. 416-966-1062, fringetoronto.com/next-stage-festival.

For the past decade, the Toronto Fringe has been heating up the theatre scene with the Next Stage, a festival that lets Fringe artists take their work to the next level.

In addition to 10 shows and a warm tent that offers up frosty beer and the chance to talk to the artists between shows, this year’s lineup also includes a number of shows that tackle, in a kaleidoscopic fashion, ideas of feminism and what it means to be a woman in the past, present and future.

Choreographer Alyssa Martin draws on her own changing beliefs for MANICPIXIEDREAMGIRLS, inspired by her fixation on and identification with the main female in the film Garden State, “quirky, childlike and with a lovably whimsical and crazy nature.”

The term that gives the show its title, coined by pop culture critic Nathan Rabin, struck a chord for Martin.

“I became angry later in life when I realized that I was brainwashed into spending my preteen years modelling myself after female characters like this, thinking I’d be a more charming woman because of it. In fact, their uniqueness was calculated and male-serving.

“In this satiric dance/theatre work, I’ve taken back that character, setting her free to play out her own story. The women in the show embrace their quirkiness and use it to empower themselves they’re the trope pushed to an extreme.”

Martin includes some dream boys along with her dream girls, setting the dancing to pop music by Fleetwood Mac and several strong female recording artists, among them Grimes, Jewel and Rihanna.

Bessie Cheng, Aaron Jan and Gloria Mok play with another stereotype in Silk Bath, a hit at last year’s Fringe, in which four Asian immigrants selected for a game show fight for a place in a Canada-like country called The Nation.

“In China, the older generation of women had to depend on men for their worth they bore the children and took care of them. Silk Bath explores the fetishizing of Asian females through the character of an old woman. She has someone waiting for her in The Nation, which is her motivation for wanting to beat the others.

“Unlike the other two women, she’s distrustful, holds back and refuses to be overtly aggressive. She understands how to be meek, pliable and play up her sexuality to please a white male. But by the end, she also starts to question her behaviour: is this all I’m aiming for, all I work for?”

Cheng, who also performs in Silk Bath, points out that two of the play’s authors are women who’ve created “strong and independent female characters. They all have their own ambitions and goals and, by the end, prove they’re not dependent on the men in their lives.”

The two women in Mark Brownell’s Clique Claque couldn’t be more different from each other. Set in 1883 Paris, the play looks at a group hired by artists to applaud their work, thus influencing others in the audience.

“There’s no doubt that Clothilde, married to Yannick, the head of the company, is really the play’s head honcho,” says director Sue Miner, a long-time Fringe participant along with Brownell (most recently, Three Men In A Boat). “She’s the real business organizer, with both a short- and long-term vision for success. Clothilde’s found a niche where she feels she does a service for the artists who employ her and also for the sheep-like audience who don’t really know what they like.”

Then there’s Clementine, a young woman with a murky past who works for Clothilde.

“She tries to be like Clothilde but is rather less successful at it because she has a sense of morality and a different kind of heart. Those morals may be skewed, but she’s in survival mode for most of the play, using manipulation to get love or whatever else she craves.

“Clementine’s more the typical woman in that world, and also in ours. It’s hard for a woman to yell without apologizing or explaining her actions a few minutes later. A man doesn’t apologize or explain his actions, and neither does Clothilde.”

Another pair of contrasting women are central in Johnson and Johnston’s Blood Ties, an early musical by the talented Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston that has toured to the Edinburgh Festival and been highlighted on Orphan Black.

When old pals gather for Sheila’s wedding, they find themselves asked by the bride-to-be to clean up the bloody scene of her uncle’s ill-timed suicide.

“Sheila and Fran are the polarized sides of what it means to be a woman today,” says Johnston, who plays Fran to Johnson’s Sheila. “They’re both frustrated with the status quo and confused about the institution of marriage, about settling down and being tied to someone.

“There seem to be so many details that matter when a friend marries, including bachelorettes as well as stag and does the wedding becomes an ordeal, a test of friendship. It can seem almost a betrayal when someone you’re close to weds.”

Sheila is happy to take her husband’s name and go through the traditional ceremony, while Fran, even if she did find the right man, would have none of that.

“Sheila, the seemingly normal one, turns out to have some secrets, while Franny, who appears ‘loose’ (one of her lyrics states, “I’d rather sing a thousand songs than be stuck in one duet”), is envious and resentful of Sheila’s situation.

“At some level, the show looks at the backlash against feminism and asks what that word means these days. Fran and Sheila don’t even think about not needing men – they really don’t.”

Freedom and power aren’t much of a worry for the female characters in The Death Of Mrs. Gandhi And The Beginning Of New Physics (A Political Fantasy). Set in 1984, Kawa Ada’s satire brings together Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Imelda Marcos and a young Kim Campbell for Indira Gandhi’s funeral. They’re visited by Malala, a teenaged time terrorist from the future who brings them a warning.

“Malala is the antagonist whose arguments the others have to counter,” says Ellora Patnaik, who plays the role. “They all get their power from their political past, while hers comes from fighting for women and especially empowering young women. Her integrity is ironclad and clear as day her job is to convince the others, using a variety of tactics, that change has to start in the 1980s.

“For me the play is about how women got where we are, and where we’re going – how not to become more like men in order to move forward.”

The surprising figure here is Campbell, whom the others underestimate and see as the naive person in the room.

“The audience quickly clues in that there’s more to her than meets the eye,” smiles actor Trenna Keating. “She always holds onto her moral compass and humanity when the others try to use their authority to climb to the top of the food chain Campbell slowly finds her voice.”

Malala is the one who tries to open the eyes of these cartoonish characters, she notes.

“Why do we have to do things the way they’ve been done for years? What are our moral obligations as voters and politicians? Kawa asks these sorts of questions in a humorous way no one is safe from attack.”

“The final question these strong women have to face is whether they have to play the games set up by men,” agrees Patnaik, “or whether what they should do is empower the goddess within.”


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