An android who dances for watching stars, fragile man podcasters on psychedelics, and a slapstick comedy set in a college dorm — these were the eclectic variety of plays that won this year’s annual Hart House Drama Festival, a competitive showcase for student theatre since 1936. 

On the historic Hart House stage, students from all three campuses compete over the course of five days to gain feedback and awards from professional artists. Comprising 15 one-act plays in five days, this year’s Dramafest from February 27 to March 2 centred on thought-provoking blends of social critique and innovative staging. Each night, the theatre was a riot of students and professionals from U of T’s drama scene, and rife with conversation and greetings at each intermission. Here, I was lucky to see all the winning shows and meet many of the enthusiastic student casts and crews.

At the final ceremony, three plays won the top honours for their excellence. First was the UTSC Drama Society’s Lemons and Ginger, a college dorm comedy which received the Janet Bessey Award for Stage Management and the President’s Award for Best Production. 

The play follows seven spirited friends — including two exes, a secret admirer, and a suspicious girlfriend — who share a college dorm. And when their new British roommate arrives preceding a house party, things turn hysterical. 

The writing was wacky and effective. The play moved with the assurance of a Seinfeld episode over a classic Greek comedy plot. Writer Yvette Chester wrought age-old plot devices of mistaken identity, eavesdropping, and secret love into funny, original lines. Although these jokes sometimes pandered to college students, the actors’ vigour widened the appeal of the show. A defining moment was the character Kian giving a passionate two-minute opening monologue, only to be guffawed at by his new roommate: “You’re British!”

The acting was excellent in places. Even through the slapstick comedy, the characters Liam, Kian, and David still felt believable. Clara, Jake, and Isabella, however, were showy at times, playing brashly to the audience and lacking the specificity to be funny. The set and lighting were also solid, and made the play feel as comfortable as a sitcom episode. 

At the awards ceremony, an entire section of the audience, rooting for the UTSC drama society, rose to their feet in triumph.

The second winner was the UC Follies’ Average Male Conversation (AMC), a comedy-drama which received the Robert Gill Award for Best Direction and the Robertson Davies Playwriting Award. Written by Luis Sanchez, the play centers on three 20-something army friends — Mitchell, Berto, and Peters — catching up to record a podcast for men. Enter tirades, tank-tops, and testosterone. The catch — Mitchell just got engaged, and the gummies Berto brought are psychedelics. 

The writing for AMC was explosively over-the-top, sampling from pop culture like a raccoon let wild in a sweetshop. This is not a play above absurdity. There was, for example, a trip sequence where Janet turns into a slice of pizza to counsel the boys about emotional intelligence. Sanchez’s script is raucous, imaginative, and guaranteed laughs. 

However, echoing the curse of tragicomedy, it frequently sacrificed depth for humour. Though deeply memed, the problems of male relations are an ocean of social dynamics that deserves exploring. In his sixty minutes, Sanchez often got close, but always changed course at the last second to make his audience laugh. This created a strange lack of resolution where the group’s loser, Peters, was left still broken and unchanged at the end.

Nonetheless, the acting was excellent. Neve Chamberlain expertly cast and directed the four stars, embodying their characters with a conviction I rarely saw in the rest of Dramafest. Special praise goes to Yael Sher and James Goldman, who threw their bodies around the stage for comedy’s sake but still achieved depth. This is a promising play that deserves development.

The last winner, Stellar Parallax, was an independent sci-fi story which took both the IATSE Local 58 award for technical achievement and the Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance. This play was different, and chiefly a vehicle for the star, exceptional dancer Mikaël Toblo Bennett. Opening on a starlit stage, the play includes a still, androgynous figure in the center. As time passes, the android begins to mirror the stars in dance. While frustrated scientists try to make it talk for an upcoming convention, the android is wordless in its struggle to express its existence, and this is the journey of the play. 

This is achieved through precise technicality, such as the android writing on the fourth wall which appeared synchronized on the theatre screen. Technical director Linnea Sander created a delicate bath of light and sound for the android to dance within, creating a deeply immersive aesthetic. 

In terms of writing, the scientists’ lines could often have been more serious. Though there is a contrast between human pettiness and disarming humanity in the play, the actors should have been more deliberate in portraying this. Overall, Stellar Parallax was exquisite, even just as a showcase of Bennet’s dancing. The technical aspects were new and imaginative, and Stellar Parallax deserved both of its awards.

Many plays won merit awards and also received feedback from well-spoken adjudicator Kevin Matthew Wong. Among the best were Bluelight, whose technical worldbuilding award was given to Shunsho Heng and Maggie Tavares; Cassandra Marcus Davey’s work Helen/Klytemnestra, or Maneater, which fully deserved the “radical reimagining” award for its faithful reworking of the story of Helen; and Three Plays and a Conversation by Nina Katz, joyful and imaginative, which won the ‘Continue the Conversation’ award.

When I left the theatre on Saturday, the buzz had not yet died down. Arguments over who deserved which award persisted long after the curtain call, as the University of Toronto theatre world returned to its usual frenetic rhythm. 

There’s still plenty of student theatre to see on campus — the Victoria College Drama Society’s Young Frankenstein premieres at Isabel Bader Theatre on March 14, as does Trinity College Drama Society’s A Streetcar Named Desire at Father Madden Hall. Still, the Hart House Dramafest is a special vehicle for aspiring writers, actors, and stage managers to test their talents. All that’s left is to ask: what will they come up with next year?