A Hart House tradition since 1936, this year’s edition of the annual U of T Drama Festival (a showcase for student work that is adjudicated by a veteran theatre professional) took place last week, and our writers were there to review all of the plays that competed. (See the complete list of prize winners below.)

JANUARY 28

Broken Moon (St. Michael’s College Drama Society)
Rating: VVV

Playwright (and lead actor) Laura Cockburn’s Broken Moon is an ambitious play rich with subtlety and articulated with genuine craft. Jane (Cockburn) and Ben (Efraint Klamph)’s unusually pure friendship emerges, ironically, because of Asperger’s Disorder, a form of autism that prevents Ben from interacting naturally with others.

His erratic behavior ranges from timing her arrival, constantly re-ordering pens on his table, and yelling point-blank facts about Russia’s unmanned satellite Sputnik. However, Klamph’s meticulous depiction of Ben’s literal-mindedness is exactly what Jane needs as she moves into strange emotional territory. Her past is uncomfortably exposed at home and Ben provides a partial retreat.

Broken also attempts, with varying success, to present a sibling and mother as figures of betrayal. Scenes with Jane and her brother Jack (Lucas Lopez) lacked focus, so when things inevitably go sour, a genuine sense of betrayal doesn’t come across.

Lisa Ball is magnificently cast as Jack and Jane’s mother, and her agitated repentance toward her kids is immersing. In a great credit to Lopez’s portrayal of Jack, a young man coping with depression, the most natural moments of familial unrest come between Jack and his mom.

Crystal-clear musical interludes in the production did a good job of introducing the helpful metaphor-and practical plot device-of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon as Jane explores new emotional space, and ultimately ends up making a decision about life that is full of possibilities and yet eerily alienating.-AC

A Simple Solution (companytheatrecrisis)
Rating: VVV

The absurd comedy A Simple Solution was filled with high-caliber acting and featured sharp, dark, masterfully circuitous writing to good comedic effect. However, it lacked clarity near the end, which is a shame for a production that was like a bullet in full flight.

Beginning with the introductions of two thugs (Nicholas Carella, Aaron Forward), who made great use of the stage pacing, rolling around on chairs while delivering the details of each others’ identities like a seasoned comedy duo (in typical comic paradigm á la R2D2 and C3P0-a stocky fellow and a tall guy). They go on to accuse a young captive (Matt White) of ethical misconduct (buying porn and keeping a book of racist humor).
Small details stood out, such as the little touches of costume-the thugs in black and white and the captive Derek in jeans and hooded-sweatshirt-or props, such an empty can that was used to great effect to reinforce the sinister power dynamic as one thug crunched the can slowly before a word was spoken.

Although the play sparks interesting conjecture-perhaps this was a nightmare representing the lascivious, cruel will combating a repressive ego-the ambiguity at the end of Solution does it no good. But seeing as this was only a workshop presentation of the play, these are things that can be easily fixed before the company settles on a final version.-AC

JANUARY 29

The Contemptation (St. Michael’s College Drama Society)
Rating: v

The plot-or lack thereof-of St. Mike’s second entry to the festival can be summed up in four sentences.

Two people, dressed in black, nameless as far as the script is concerned, and yet inexplicably given names in the program (Morgen, played by Hanna Puley, and Abend, played by the writer of the piece, Matthew Ramolo), sit in chairs on a dark, close-to-empty stage.

They speak (when they are not staring at each other amidst long, tortured silences) in sentence fragments which are, surely, meant to be poetic, but actually make very little sense. They strike matches, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and light candles, which they proceed to blow out and then light again. They talk a lot about silence and suffering, but-for the audience at least-the former never begins and the latter never ends.

Sounds bad? Yeah, you didn’t have to sit through it for an hour that felt like it would never end. One gets the feeling that it was all meant to be symbolic and, quite possibly, deep, but between Puley’s over-the-top performance and Ramolo’s interminably pretentious script, it just… wasn’t.
The play actually deserved minus points in rating, except for the fact that I started snickering uncontrollably 15 minutes into it and didn’t stop until it had ended. Ah, what the heck-half a ‘V’ just for that. I haven’t had such a good laugh in quite a while.-YS

A Preposterous Watch (Victoria College Drama Society)
Rating: VVVv

The winner of the President’s Award for Best Production, Vic College’s A Preposterous Watch was a clever metatheatrical parody that mixed Oscar Wilde, Ionesco and a bit of modern soap opera together to create a fluffy brand of nonsense that would leave any theatre aficionado smiling wryly.

In a plot mirroring many of the conventions of a typical comedy of manners, Charles (Andrew Codispoti) and Richard (Joe Dunlop) are wealthy dandies who seem to spend their time throwing about witticisms and doing little else. Romantic complications enter their lives in the form of a ditzy French maid (Heloise Apesteguy-Reux) and a flighty actress (Diana Bentley), and in the midst of it all sits a bumbling Frenchman named-what else?-Foible (Joel Loughead).

The ensemble kept up with the quick, bubbly pace of the script, and while the plot lagged when the production hit the half-hour mark, it picked up remarkably at the end.

Particularly amusing was the way the play managed to keep up its comedic structure while commenting on the nature of theatre itself. A Preposterous Watch was like a gleaming soap bubble blown from a wand on a summer day-fun, pretty to look at, but easily forgotten when popped.-YS

Living Arrangements (UTSC Drama Society)
Rating: VVV

Described by playwright Jessica de Bruyn as “a sex farce”, UTSC Drama Society’s Living Arrangements could be just as easily called The O.C. Goes University (With Less Violence).

In a house shared by four college students, relationships run amuck as Abby (Emily Breau) masterminds two bets that pit Chloe (Robin Sutherland) and Will (Andrew Gardner) against Emma (Stefania Indelicato) and Mark (Matt Flowitt) in a “will they or won’t they?” situation that guarantees that no matter what happens, she will emerge as the victor.

By sticking to subject matter that is close to home and avoiding the ponderous material that often bogs down student playwrights, de Bruyn kept her script funny without being over-the-top, and her actors played up to it by balancing moments of broad comedy with genuine chemistry and realistic relationships.

The production did suffer several technical mishaps, including missed lighting cues and actors appearing on stage while scene changes were occurring, but this did little to mar the overall effect. Living Arrangements, like a favourite sitcom, was an enjoyable romp through the mix-ups of lives that, in a funnier alternate universe, could be ours.

JANUARY 30

Losing Berlin (Hart House Drama Society)
Rating: VVVV

A childless German wife, guilt-ridden from witnessing the death of a young Jewish boy by the hand of her Nazi husband, is taken on an emotional degradation that forces her to choose between patriotism and humanity. In terms of plot, one would think that the excessively done “1930s Germany” theme is again resurrected for another chance to pull at audience heartstrings.

Admittedly, this is what I thought as the lights came up on a character (Kara Dymond) wearing a swastika on her right forearm, who began to tell her story in a German accent.

To my surprise, I was captivated and interested in what she had to say. This astonishment is mostly accredited to the beautifully written monologues (Dymond was also the playwright of the piece), which were interwoven out of chronological order, forcing the audience to engage in piecing her life story together. Another truly noteworthy feat that Dymond pulled off effortlessly was her ability to carry the show as the sole performer (aside from a lovely musical interlude featuring Tamara Vaughn and pianist).

Aside from a dragging pace at times and an occasionally questionable German accent, this piece was masterfully crafted from its musical choices to the haunting final scene. This play deserves an encore performance.-SH

Paul’s Gun (UTSC Drama Society)
Rating: VVVv

Paul’s Gun is a social commentary on the recklessness of gun control, but as a… comedy. Awkward nine-year-old Paul lives with his Uncle Lewis, finds his uncle’s gun, and in an effort to become “cool” decides to take it to school and show it to his friends. After this, Paul passes through the daily routine (school-home), where he occasionally shares a cute aside about putting the gun back.

Tom Nittoly achieved his Paul in a way that did not aggravate audience members, as his intonation was paralleled to that of a child and not the pitch of his voice. Most of the cast proved to be similarly up to the challenge, save Uncle Lewis, whose integral character was unfortunately diminished to a powerless oaf, which somewhat lowered the credibility of the play from its initial impressiveness.

The best part of this show was the unpredictability of the plot. Several occasions presented themselves where the outcomes would have been someone getting shot (which is what we were all waiting for), and yet playwright Andrew Tyler was determined to keep us in anticipation of the big shooting scene. By refining the ending and slight recasting, this play could be superb.-SH

The Atmosphere of Evil (Erindale Drama Club)
Rating: VVVV

Nine clowns on stage-a frightening thought to many, including myself. What madness could this bring?

The lights come up on a pair of red-nosed clowns acting as excessively perky anchors on a morning talk show. The other seven clowns are frozen in silhouette, who awake one by one to the sounds of the television set. Each clown, a caricature of a common archetype (housewife, boss, student, little girl, etc.), goes through a morning routine in typical clown slapstick.

There was no real plot to this play other than the persistent theme of the media as a manipulative entity. The anchors on the morning show eventually run out of news and begin to formulate “breaking news” to hike ratings. Just short of having the seven ‘viewers’ jump through hoops, they are manipulated to turn against one another in various sidesplitting scenarios.

With a sparse script, perfect for this show, the production relied heavily on physical comedy, which was delivered with grace and ease. Even the annoying nasal and brassy clown voices that were sporadically heard were crowd-pleasing. All in all, an extremely comedic performance with substance.-SH

JANUARY 31

wreck’d – companytheatrecrisis
Rating: VVVv

Natasha Mytnowych’s wreck’d was a dark, magical-realist style tale of sex, abandonment, and poultry. Framed with a meditation on infanticide, the odd and disturbing tale of a small town party girl unfolded through a series of flashbacks and absurdist dialogues, while a mutilated chicken suspended above the stage provided an eerie focal point for the disjointed narrative.

The plot centered on Eli (Michelle Morgan), a troubled outsider looking for affection in the wrong places. Offering sexual favors in exchange for homework help, Eli ends up pregnant with nobody to turn to.
Skipping back and forth between her life with her loser boyfriend and the symbol-drenched tale of the fictional town of Wreck, the play delved into themes of abandonment, isolation, violence, and the difference between love and sex.

While the production boasted snappy, engaging dialogue and flowed smoothly between scenes, innumerable symbols and meandering, bookish monologues bogged down the piece, obscuring any unifying message. With so many bizarre comparisons between chickens and humans, it became difficult to discern what all the symbolism actually amounted to. Despite this occasional lack of clarity, wreck’d is an artistic and entertaining work-in-progress.-TS

La Belle Artiste – Erindale Drama Club
Rating: VV

Sketching the personality of a historical figure is never an easy task, and writer/actress Erin Frey certainly deserves a great deal of credit for attempting to adapt the fervid romance of sculptors Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel for the stage. However, the result is a somewhat cartoonish look at the lives of two of the late 19th century’s greatest artists.

La Belle Artiste chronicles the story of Claudel (Erin Frey) and Rodin (Kevin Dowse) from their first encounter as master and student to Claudel’s eventual descent into madness and untimely demise. An intriguing and original aspect of the play is the use of masked actors as sculptures who are physically manipulated to simulate the act of sculpting.
However, despite the visual creativity of the play, very little character development is evident. This is especially true in the case of Rodin. When we first meet him, Rodin comes across as a bohemian ancestor of Pepé le Pew, overflowing with honeyed compliments for his “sweet Camille”.

Unfortunately, both Rodin and Claudel from suffer the same consistent lack of depth in that they only appear capable of two emotional states: intense passion and total outrage. Perhaps this can be chalked up to in infamous ‘artistic temperament’, but it results in somewhat stereotypical characters and often clichéd dialogue.-TS

AWARDS:
President’s Award for Best Production: A Preposterous Watch
Robert Gill Award for Best Direction: Natasha Mytnowych for wreck’d
I.A.T.S.E. Award for Technical Achievement: Angela-Jean Laflamme for The Atmosphere of Evil
Hart House Theater Award for Best Performance: Kara Dymond for Losing Berlin
Robertson Davies Playwriting Award: Kara Dymond for Losing Berlin
[Awards of Merit]
Direction: Jesse Calvert for Losing Berlin
Cast/Crew Ensemble Work: Living Arrangements
Best Work in Progress: Andrew Tyler for Paul’s Gun
Most Challenging Character Portrayal: Efraim Klamph for Broken Moon
Whole Creation Ensemble: The Atmosphere of Evil
Artistic Achievement: La Belle Artiste

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