Next Stage Theatre Festival reviews: ‘Black in Canada,’ ‘Guildwood,’ ‘Bremen Town’

Curated fest’s first in-person iteration since 2020 runs until Oct. 29

As the second week of the Next Stage Theatre Festival — Toronto Fringe’s smaller, curated sister fest, running until Sun., Oct. 29 — kicks off at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, NEXT is bringing you reviews of every show.

This particular roundup includes a short but intense dance-theatre piece, a somewhat impenetrable actor-musician musical and a meaty play.

What: Black in Canada
When: Sun., Oct. 22 at 6:30 pm.; Mon., Oct. 23 at 5 pm and Sun., Oct. 29 at 2 pm
Highlight: Choreographer Shameka Blake’s rich, multi-layered stage pictures
Rating: NNNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: Short, intentional dance-theatre piece about Black people in Canada demands active engagement.

At 40 minutes, this episodic dance-theatre piece would be hard to justify commuting to on its own. As part of a festival, though, it’s a worthwhile companion to any of the longer shows on offer.

Choreographed by Shameka Blake and produced by Artists in Motion, Black in Canada stars four dancers: Onija Bennett, Diane Jean-Louis, Marquisha Sparkes-Whonder and Kayla-Renée Wilson. The show’s topic is the impact Black people have had on the social and cultural fabric of Canada. It also grapples with the country’s history (and present) of racial oppression, pushing back against Canadians who pretend racism is an American problem.

Blake’s key device is the use of archival audio recordings that relate to the subject. As they play, the dancers usually move with them, implying that the words are coming from their bodies. Sometimes, though, they stand still and listen, almost becoming part of the audience. There’s also a fair amount of text in the form of both spoken word and down-to-earth narration.

The performers are grounded and connected to their bodies. Blake manoeuvres the group beautifully, creating rich, multi-layered stage pictures. When they speak, they do it directly to the audience; sitting in the front row, I had many lines shot right at me. This was, at times, uncomfortable, which is a good thing: Black in Canada demands active engagement.

Writer and Director Braeden Soltys(Photo by Tricia Soltys)

Guildwood writer and director Braeden Soltys
(Photo by Tricia Soltys)

What: Guildwood
When: Wed., Oct. 25 at 9:15 pm; Fri., Oct. 27 at 5 pm.; and Sun., Oct. 29 at 6:45 pm
Highlight: Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta’s pop-star vocal stylings
Rating: NNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: Ambitious actor-musician musical has a unique sound.

This new musical, written and directed by Braeden Soltys, aims to land somewhere between Come from Away and Hair (a large range, granted) but doesn’t quite have the zing of either.

An 11-person cast populates Guildwood, a lively artists’ commune that’s about to be shut down by the military for use in a war across the sea. The story is inspired by historical events that took place in 1930s Scarborough, but the specifics of time and place have been blurred, leaving only a general impression of times gone by.

Garner Theatre Productions’ mandate is to produce works featuring actor-musicians; likewise, the cast plays a bevy of acoustic instruments and music director-pianist Jake Schindler is incorporated into the action as an ensemble member. The score’s sound, which tends towards folk, is unique for musical theatre — the chords are lush and full, rather than tense and thin. It’s hard not to think of New York theatre director John Doyle, who’s well known for actor-musician versions of classic musicals; his Classic Stage Company staging of the obscure Rodgers and Hammerstein show Allegro has a particularly similar tone.

Instead of focusing on one or two specific characters, Soltys tries a mosaic. This is ambitious and likely the right call for the material; but, as it stands, the show spreads itself too thin and most of the characters border on impenetrable. Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta’s Violet is the exception — her pop-star vocal stylings capture the soul of the commune, giving us a look at what the show Guildwood could be.

Nancy Palk in <i>Bremen Town</i> (Photo by Dahlia Katz)

Nancy Palk in Bremen Town (Photo by Dahlia Katz)

What: Bremen Town
When: Mon., Oct. 23 at 7 pm.; Thurs., Oct. 26 at 9:15 pm.; Fri., Oct. 27 at 7:30 pm.; and Sun., Oct. 29 at 4 pm
Highlight: Logan Raju Cracknell’s spellbinding lighting
Rating: NNNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: Anyone interested in a loving production of a play clearly aiming for a transfer to a larger theatre need look no further than this.

Walking out of Bremen Town, written and directed by Gregory Prest, I had one thought: why is there a Soulpepper show at Next Stage?

I’m joking, of course, but there’s some truth to it. Leading the production’s eight-person cast is Nancy Palk, one of Soulpepper’s founding members — and Oliver Dennis, who’s done around 100 shows with the company, features prominently.

Palk plays Frau Esel, a German housekeeper who’s been fired after 45 years of working for the same family. Rageful, she sets out on a winding journey to Bremen in search of her estranged son. It’s a dangerous and whimsical road, filled with highly stylized characters inspired by the early-19th-century stories of the Brothers Grimm.

The show considers the joys, horrors and melancholia of old age, so Prest offers a marvellous dramaturgical conceit: each of the older actors plays one character while the youngsters rotate through several. (Outside of this casting framework, composer Tatjana Cornij plays an accordion-bearing narrator.) This makes the play’s rendering of youth quicksilver and impossible to grasp — it’s like we’re seeing the world through Frau Esel’s eyes and everything’s moving too fast for comfort.

Prest’s production is sumptuous and tactile, Logan Raju Cracknell’s lighting spellbinding and the performances bursting with life. Those who come to festivals in search of the edgy and experimental should consider seeing something else (perhaps Something in the Water, which opted out of reviews but features puppets and projections); but anyone interested in a loving production of a play clearly aiming for a transfer to a larger theatre need look no further than Bremen Town.