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University of Toronto’s Drama Festival 2020

COURTESY OF WILLIAM DAO |IMAGE HAS BEEN CROPPED

University of Toronto’s Drama Festival 2020

William Dao and company take home President’s Award for Best Production for the third year in a row

A tradition dating back to 1936, the U of T Drama Festival is back for the 18th time this year, presenting plays written solely by U of T students. For three nights in a row, various U of T theatre companies perform three 45-minute plays. At the end of the festival, at least six awards are announced, including Viewer’s Choice Awards.

The First and the Last Teen Mayor of Davenport Ontario ­— SHAKEN WALLS!

In the performance by SHAKEN WALLS!, 15-year-old Charlie Thomson (Davide Sallese) lamented being voted out as mayor a mere two months after he was elected. Though his love for the small, rural Ontario town is genuine, he has failed to reach both of his political goals of moving Christmas to the end of February and making the hills of Davenport bigger. At the same time he must admit that skipping school and hanging out with adults all day has not been as exciting as it first seemed, and he misses his friends.

The scenes are divided up by several monologues, with Charlie at the front of the stage speaking directly to the audience. While the contrast between monologue and interaction with other characters serves the play well, it’s unfortunate that Sallese doesn’t connect more with the audience — most of the monologues are delivered with his eyes closed or him looking down. When the only thing happening on stage is one character talking, and everything around them is dark, a detail like that matters.

The audience loved this performance — especially their fan club, seated near the front left of the theatre — and rewarded it with burst after burst of laughter. Still, there were plenty of jokes in the dialogues that passed by largely unnoticed. If the cast would have slowed down just a tad, I think that even more punchlines would have landed and paid off.

In his closing remarks, festival adjudicator Aaron Jan pointed out how impressed he was with the use of bikes on stage, which were set up on specially fitted stands that let the actors cycle without turning the wheels. This was a great part of the stage setup, one that would have been a worthy winner of an award for technical achievement at Saturday’s awards ceremony.

Further, the rest of the furniture on stage allowed for smooth transitions between scenes on various locations. However, I wish they had made more use of the stage’s background, which had a huge, white screen that for the most part just hung there — huge, white, and without meaning. Why not have backgrounds signal different locations, such as the fields during the bike ride, the place of the pie contest, or at least projecting different colours on the screen?

I also wish that the actors would have made more use of the stage. The first half of the play went back and forth between Charlie’s monologues, with him standing still, and dialogues with the characters sitting down. This lack of stage use made the play start to feel more like a read-through than acting. It was a relief when Brendan Rush entered and used his body and the space to portray meat pie enthusiast Tony Conigliaro. The same could also be said of incoming Mayor Lucy Laramie, played by Kenzie Tsang.

This was my least favourite of Thursday night’s performances, but SHAKEN WALLS! still presented an appealing and humorous play, with a closing dance that was wonderfully hilarious.

The 3rd Annual McGill Drama Festival — UofT Improv

UofT Improv let the audience choose three titles out of six suggestions, all framed as part of The Annual McGill Drama Festival. This year, the chosen plays were Captain of My Soul, Under Pressure, and Lifeboat.

The first improvised play turned into a story about early European explorers who set sail for the new world “with all the best intentions.” After having figured out how to cast loose, set sail, and make the ship go in the right direction, the vessel was visited by a siren who became the crew’s new captain. Once they arrived in Québec, they discovered the beauty of the land and all lay down to die. Aeden Taylor’s interpretation of Jeremy won her the Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance at the festival’s concluding awards ceremony.

The second play, Under Pressure, was about love and trust, as newlyweds Mary Jane and Jeremy struggled to figure out their relationship — all the while being both disrupted and cheered on by Mary Jane’s sister and Jeremy’s mother. In the end, love persevered, despite the discovery of Jeremy’s occupation in the eSports industry.

The final improvisation of the McGill Festival, Lifeboat, became a parody of incomprehensible modernist dramas with the words “birth,” “life,” “death,” and “boats” blurted out repeatedly as shoes were either thrown around or placed very carefully at the front of the stage.

Jan was greatly impressed with the improvised plays overall, but especially with the irony that Lifeboat offered, which led to his Award of Merit for Most Complete Play –– an award he just had to create for this occasion especially.

As someone who enjoys sitting in the dark in a theatre house and who would rather die than be forced into the spotlight without a clear plan of what to say or do, I have the utmost respect for all improvisational actors. Watching them figure out how to move forward together or try to push each other to reveal the next step of the play was pure joy.

After the SHAKEN WALLS! performance, which sometimes lacked a connection with the audience, the interaction at the beginning of UofT Improv’s McGill Festival was both refreshing and engaging. It would have been even nicer if the audience had been involved more throughout the performances and was asked to offer names or characteristics, or choose directions for the plays in some other way.

I do wonder why they did not come up with a new framing concept? The idea of staging the McGill festival is funny and allowed them to play on the rivalry between the two universities, the neighbouring provinces, and the two language communities of Anglophones and Francophones. But after having done that two years in a row, was there really no other framing concept worth exploring? 

Boy Who Cried — UC Follies

The last performance of the night was the strongest. The actors — and this play had a lot of them, 26 in total — performed on a professional level. The casting of Eileanor O’Halloran as Kelsey Winslow, the assertive summer camp manager who was outfitted in suit, high heels, and a narrow mind, was particularly commendable.

In this great team of actors, the one who stood out the most was Margaret Rose as the main character, summer camp volunteer Soren. From the first opening, when she sat alone at the front of the stage, through scenes where she moved around the entire cast, she inhabited the stage with a presence so natural that I forgot that I was in a theatre, because it felt like I was there at that camp — even though I’ve never been to one in my entire life.

The play began when the summer camp opened, and Soren joined the team of volunteers, including her best friend Harper (Frosina Pejcinovska), who had just been promoted to lead volunteer. As you may have immediately suspected, this new power imbalance between the two caused tension. Even though the development of this part of the plot was more predictable than exciting, the escalation of the conflict was built nicely into the narrative and worked quite well.

The dramatic arc, however, was primarily built around one of the kids at camp: Soren’s favourite camper Jayce, a kid who started acting out and causing trouble and eventually ran away.

One major detail about how this play was constructed was that none of the children at the camp were actually on the stage. While the actors interacted and conversed with the kids — accompanied by extremely sparse props — the audience was made to imagine the children’s presence, speech, and actions. The fact that it’s easy to forget that we never actually see or hear the children only goes to show how strong both the script and the acting of UC Follies were.

Overall, a great round of applause was deserved, not just to the cast but also to playwright Brad Gira, director William Dao, and the entire production team. Unsurprisingly, the Follies were showered in awards at the end of the festival. The Boy Who Cried was the audience’s choice for Thursday night. Playwright Brad Gira, Director William Dao, and stage manager Beka Morrison each received awards for their respective fields, and the whole company won the President’s Award for Best Production. In fact, this is the third President’s Award that William Dao and company have won — having been awarded it in 2018 for The Rhythm Method and 2019 for Lone Island Lovers.

UC Follies were the only theatre company to appear twice during this year’s festival. Although their Friday performance was delivered by a completely different team, I couldn’t wait to see what more they have in store for us after their strong finish of the festival’s first day.

I Never Saw Another Butterfly ­— UTSC Drama Club

The second night of the Drama Festival opened with the UTSC Drama Club’s depiction of the Holocaust. Their play was set in the small northern Czechoslovak town Terezín in the years leading up to the May 1945 liberation by the Red Army. During World War II, this historic military fortress town became a stopping point for thousands of children, many of them on their way to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The script is based on photos, drawings, journals, letters, diaries, and poems documenting the stories of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezín. The script handles the serious subject matter respectfully.

Though the story is both engaging and heartrending, the acting is unfortunately a bit stilted. The great exception is Sam Nada’s interpretation of Honza Kosek. His presence is energetic and natural all the way through, and this was duly noted by Jan, who gave him an Acting Award of Merit.

Despite the traumatic setting, the love story between Raja and Honza is brilliant. The conditions for the children in the ghetto, of course, are horrifying, and the audience is aware that the children have little odds of a future. Therefore, the fleeting moments of love: when Raja and Honza exchange poems that they leave for each other, and when Honza gives Raja the flowers and butterflies he sees by the town tower — these moments spark true joy on stage because it is something that no one can take away from them.

The stage setup serves the various scenes well, yet instead of using all of the space that the stage offers, the play does have many of the actors stand stationary whilst delivering lines, and essential information is often delivered through the voiceover. The strongest scene of the play serves as an exception to this, seeing Honza and Raja speak to each other through a wall — a very real wall, though not visible to the audience — as Honza discovers that he has been ordered to leave the ghetto. They both realize that this is most likely a death sentence.

It is a play that rests heavily on the spoken dialogue, along with voiceovers. Surprisingly, it makes almost no use of sound effects or music. While an overall engaging story, there was potential to evoke even more narrative and emotion through sound.

Northrop Frye has an Existential Crisis in McDonald’s ­— UC Follies

The most professional of Friday evening’s performances was, again, UC Follies’. On the festival’s second night, they gave us a play where Northy (Isobel McDonald) — also known as Northrop Frye — goes through an existential crisis like only a dead person can. Yes, this is the same McDonald that we saw on Thursday night as part of the UofT Improv company, performing in both Under Pressure and Lifeboat

A dead man, Northy finds himself in a rather deserted McDonald’s, and he turns to the audience for advice on how to make the place more popular even though he’s out of “hamburgers and fries and everything.” In swooshes energetic Bertolt Brecht (Molly Dunn) on a kick scooter, who tries — without success — to persuade Northy to lighten up. Northy seems lost now that he has abandoned both sentence structure and deadlines, and is unable to just accept things as they are, as Brecht does.

The play is wonderfully absurd and it brought many laughs. Funniest of all was Bennett Steinberg as a Jerzy Grotowski, who cannot stop dancing and even succeeds in making the stiff Northy try to follow his example.

While this was the strongest play of the evening, I still think it would have been improved with a stronger dramatic arc. Jan pointed out the importance of bringing out each character’s desires and allowing them to motor the play, and I also think this would have added an extra force that would have lifted this play to the next level.

UC Follies’ amazing performance of Boy Who Cried on Thursday night had heightened my expectations of the theatre company’s second play during the festival. While I was not as swept away by Northrop Frye has an Existential Crisis in McDonald’s, it was still a play that was both amusing and insightful, and Jan gave McDonald an Acting Award of Merit for her interpretation of Northy. Also, just giving me a reason to keep referring to Northrop Frye as Northy is worth something.

Lady Margaret ­— St. Michael’s Troubadours

Friday’s last performance was Lady Margaret by St. Michael’s Troubadours. The evening’s third play was based on a poem, and began with a romantic yet innocent encounter between Margaret (Hannah Spracklin) and William (Kasey Belding), though this was soon interrupted by Margaret’s grouchy, bullying father Joseph (Robert Fletcher).

Enraged by Margaret’s interest in William, Joseph locked her up in the attic for six years. William was unable to wait for her release, despite having promised Margaret that they would always be together and would one day marry. Eventually, William marries another woman, and on their wedding day, Margaret opens the attic window to get some air, and she falls out and dies. She visits William later in the night as a ghost.

William, not fully understanding the strange dream he’s had, goes to Margaret’s house and learns from her brothers what has happened. As he goes to see her body, which has been laid on the bed in the attic, Joseph arrives and they start fighting ­— a fight which ends with both William and Joseph also falling to their death out the window.

Though this was my least favourite of Friday’s performances, I enjoyed the stage setup, particularly the use of only a window and a few other set pieces to create different rooms in various houses. Another effective element of the stage design was the green background screen with a tree for the opening scene. It was a great choice to return to at the end, as it created a sense of closure — though the tree was not visible enough in the ending scene.

Though only a short play, there were many moving set pieces and props, and while the play would have needed fewer scenes for the narrative to work better, the stage setups and their changes could have worked if the transitions had been more practiced and ran more smoothly. Nevertheless, the judges were impressed enough to award the set designer and Tech Team Head Emelia Findlay the IATSE Local 58 Award for Technical Achievement.

Jan called this play “gothic,” which allowed me to see it in a new way. It would have been interesting to see if this idea could have influenced more of the colour, costumes, and stage setup, and how that would have enhanced the play as a whole. Overall, though, the main problem was that we were not getting to know the characters enough to really care enough when they die, one after the other.

However, most of the audience seemed to really enjoy this play, giving audible gasps during the performance and awarding the play Friday’s Audience Choice Award.

Father Figures ­— Victoria College Drama Society

The penultimate show of the festival was the Victoria College Drama Society’s Father Figures. It had an inventive, clever, and superb script — one of the strongest of the entire festival. It was also the only one of all the plays to begin with a lot of people moving around the stage, which threw us straight into the action.

Fyodor (Sanjay Pavone) grew up with his mother while his father was away fighting in the Cold War in the Soviet Union. Why, yes, history is somewhat rewritten in this play — it’s one of its quirky benefits. While his father was gone, Fyodor missed him terribly. When his mother Emily (Alyson Doyle) received news of her husband’s death, she didn’t have the heart to tell her son the truth, and instead, she started acting as the father in the form of a hand-held puppet.

His puppet skin is blue, but he told Fyodor it was because it was so cold in the Cold War. His puppet nose is purple, but he explained this by saying that the military had run out of Purple Hearts, so he received a purple nose instead. Did I mention that this play is quirky? Jokes were built in on multiple levels and you just have to go along with it.

The puppet-father reunited with the mother and Fyodor and they lived happily for many years — until one day Fyodor discovered his father seemingly dead under the bed when his mother was out, having left the puppet there.

Pavone forgot his lines a few times, but this didn’t really matter because his energy and connection to the audience was always present. The true star of this performance, however, was Tuhi Sen as Ova. She played the girl Fyodor fell for, who helps him realize that having a puppet dad is not an entirely bad thing. She herself happens to have a mom who’s a sailor’s hat filled with beans.

Sen’s interpretation of the character is certainly funny ­— but it is the kind of funny that is still able to keep a seriousness underneath. Having beans in a sailor’s hat as a mom is certainly meant to crack us up, but a human being longing to connect with a parent is something real. At the awards, Sen received an Acting Award of Merit, and Jan pointed out the way that her performance especially enhanced the play as a whole.

This was the play with the most ambitious use of set design. On stage were three white screens, which they used to display shadows — sometimes by moving behind them, and sometimes through the use of overhead projectors with toys and cut-out figures. Yes, overhead projectors. Who even remembers those? What a magnificent idea for a set. That idea alone should have earned them an award!

However, sometimes the amount of creative set pieces pulled the audience’s attention in different directions and not always toward the direction of the play as a whole. Sometimes, a little less is more — even in an absurdist play.

The possible overload in design creativity, however, was a minor detail, and the audience really enjoyed this show, and chose it as their favourite for Saturday night.

TWEP ­— Trinity College Drama Society

Last, but certainly not least, the Trinity College Drama Society gave us TWEP, which was a series of semi-connected monologues used as dialogues that centred around different shades of racism.

The Keeper (Katherine Delay) spoke with a coworker and the Initiate (Elizabeth So) with friends at school. The Confidante (Ben Liao Gormley) talked to his mother who came to his house unannounced, while the Soldier (Kenley Ferris-Ku) spoke with their dead brother.

The Advocate (Megan Campbell) talked to a prisoner on death row, and the President (Jean Kim) spoke with a new member of their Vietnamese organization. It was unclear who the Surveyor (Isabella Gillard) and right-wing extremist the Candidate (Reece Gerhardt) spoke with, but nevertheless each character performed their dialogue facing the audience as if we were that other character who they were speaking with.

In other words, each part of this play consisted of one character performing a dialogue where we only got to hear the lines of the character on stage. It was never hard to follow the dialogue, though, because the lines of the speaking characters on stage made sure to repeat anything essential — “Oh, so you’re asking ‘X’?” or “You’re saying ‘Y’?” In fact, the script could have even pulled back on this and had faith that the audience would have been able to follow anyway; the dialogue would have also felt more natural without some of the repetitive language.

The acting in this play was good overall, and the unique structure of a series of monologues as dialogues was intriguing, something that the well-chosen sparse set design supported.

In his comments at the end, however, Jan pointed out that, despite of the engaging subject matter, it was not until toward the end that he was really drawn into the play because it was in the last two scenes — the Candidate and the President — that the characters’ wants and desires clearly came out, thereby making those scenes particularly engaging.

While Trinity did not receive the Robertson Davies Playwriting Award, playwright Nam Nguyen did receive the adjudicator’s Award of Merit for Playwriting.

And the awards go to…

IATSE Local 58 Award for Technical Achievement: Emilia Findley — Lady Margaret

Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance: Aeden Taylor — Jeremey in Under Pressure

Robert Gill Award for Best Direction: William Dao — Boy Who Cried

Robertson Davies Award Playwriting Award: Brad Gira — Boy Who Cried

President’s Award for Best Production: the company of Boy Who Cried

Janet Bessey Award for Excellence in Stage Management: Beka Morrison — Boy Who Cried

Editor’s Note (February 15, 2:53 pm): This article has been updated to correct Jean Kim’s name.