This year marks the 25th anniversary of the U of T Drama Festival. From February 9 to 11, Hart House Theatre and the U of T Drama Coalition hosted a series of one-act productions. The festival offered a platform for the UTM Drama Club and many St. George theatre collectives to share the plays they wrote, directed, and designed.
David Yee, a Toronto-based playwright and actor, adjudicated this year’s festival. At the end of each night, Yee offered a brief public adjudication to the audience. In his adjudication, he addressed the strengths and opportunities for each performance. He provided more extensive feedback to the teams after the show.
The first night consisted of three plays: Family Portrait by the St. Michael’s College Troubadours, Swipe Right by the Woodsworth Innis New Drama Society, and Just the Fax, Ma’am, Just the Fax by UC Follies.
The evening began with Family Portrait. Written and directed by Katerina Hatzinakos, Family Portrait depicts the relationships between members of an immigrant Greek family in Canada. At the centre of the family is Memos (Rachel Hart), a husband, father, and grandfather who wants nothing more than to spend time with his loved ones. However, ALS has confined Memos to a wheelchair, and he feels he is a burden on his family. Despite his feelings of doubt, Memos remains positive and loving towards his wife, children, and grandchildren.
Family Portrait expresses the idea that families do not act the way they appear in their photographs—there’s always a complication. All families have flaws, but feelings of love and kinship will ultimately prevail. That being said, Family Portrait delves into some seriously clichéd themes. Yet, I appreciate the unique perspective in this production, framing the story through the lens of Memos. Hart remained on stage throughout the entire play, sitting in the wheelchair at the kitchen table. The stage lights dimmed and then reappeared to signify the days passing. Family members moved in and out of the scenes, while Memos remained static.
In his adjudication, Yee praised Hart for her role as Memos. Hart skillfully adopted the persona of an elderly man, including a deep, masculine voice and grandfatherly mannerisms. Yet, Yee disagreed with the physical placement of Memos; Hart sits upstage, forcing the other performers to face away from the audience to speak to her.
The second production of the evening, Swipe Right, had the audience laughing from beginning to end. The production was written by Savana James and Mackenzie Stewart, and directed by Nicole Bell. Swipe Right tackles issues of political correctness through crude humour. The story follows the dating lives of two best friends, Aidan (Cy Macikunas) and Clementine (Khadijah Salawu). The pair both feel pressured to start a relationship, so they decide to test out the dating app “swipe right.” Yet, both their dates turn out to be intolerable stereotypes. Aidan’s date, Richard (Kenley Ferris Ku), is a flamboyant gay man who rudely interrogates Aidan about his transsexuality. And Clementine’s date, Susan (Rachel Bannerman), is a zealous feminist who insists on eating a fair trade diet.
Swipe Right brims with social commentary, executed with humour so offensive and vulgar that you can’t help but laugh. Beyond the humour component, Swipe Right expresses important values about identity and relationships.
Yee complimented the humour and relatability of this production. He commented on the likeability of the protagonists and the skill with which the performers brought their characters to life. In his critique, however, he explained that Richard and Susan appeared a little too despicable. He believed their negative attributes were overwhelming to the point where it was too easy to side with Aiden and Clementine. Yee suggested downplaying Richard and Susan to make it easier for the audience to sympathize with them.
The night concluded with Just the Fax, Ma’am, Just the Fax. Written by Lucas Loizou and directed by Denis Başar, this production consisted of only three characters, Chris (Leslie Durward), Jonah (Julia Balm), and Neve (Fateema Miller). The story was abstract, with no intention of following a cohesive storyline. Essentially, the protagonist, Neve, searches for love, companionship, and purpose in her life. She longs for the fax machine repairman, Jonah, who she shares several tap dances with. But when she learns that Jonah is actually a fax salesman, she feels betrayed and abandons her notion of love. The play ends with a scene that’s both clever and funny: the lights darken and a single spotlight shines down on the stage. Neve holds a microphone stand and, in a moment of comedic relief, struggles to place herself in the spotlight to deliver a monologue.
To quote Yee, this production was “like Beckett on acid in a car with Wes Andersen, who is also on acid.” Overall, Yee admired UC Follies’ ambition for undertaking a production that veered from a naturalistic style. As an opportunity, he advised the team to remain consistent with this abstract strategy and try to avoid dipping into naturalistic moments, as the production often did.
Friday evening marked the second night of Drama Fest, with another three shows: Mama, by the UTM Drama Club, A Lullaby and an Apology by the Woodsworth Innis New Drama Society, and Suzanne by the Trinity College Drama Society.
Mama, written by Shaquille Pottinger and directed by Fuschia Boston, began the night. The play follows two sisters, Vera (Jahnelle Jones-Williams) and Augusta (Richelle Nelson), who meet again after their mother’s funeral 10 years ago. The sisters catch up in Vera’s living room, and their conversation eventually culminates with a shocking reveal from Augusta: prior to visiting Vera, Augusta worked as a nanny for the son of a man who raped her years earlier. She was fired from her position and secretly suffocated the baby to death in a moment of fury. The play ends with this surprising news.
Such a disquieting close to the production was an effective way to leave a lasting impression on the audience. I spent the 15-minute intermission contemplating all the information that was revealed in the last moments of the show. My problem with this, however, was the lack of turbulence that existed prior to the momentous end. Augusta’s arrival at Vera’s house, for example, could have been more moving, given that the sisters hadn’t seen each other in so long. Nevertheless, the play was successful in eliciting shock in the end.
The second show of the night was A Lullaby and an Apology, written by Cy Macikunas and directed by Maher Sinno. The play revolves around a group of four friends—Trevor (Ezera Beyene), Danny (Asad Jamal), Carola (Carling Wong), and Morgan (Rachel Bannerman)—who go on a camping trip in an attempt to reconnect with one another after some years apart. But instead, the trip becomes an opportunity for arguments and confrontations among the friends.
If there was a main point to take away from this play, I didn’t catch it. I thought the focus was supposed to be the revival of the group of four friends. Rather, the play showcased the individual struggles of each character to a greater extent. Additionally, their struggles, although relatable, weren’t well-developed. The character tropes became tiresome.
However, what was commendable were the flashback scenes of a young Trevor (Jess Camarda), a young Danny (Armon Ghaeinizadeh), and a young Carola (Nicole Bell), who were filled with such enthusiasm that a smile instantly lit up on my face. It was wonderful to be reminded of the purity and curiosity of young minds.
The third and final show of the night was Suzanne, written and directed by Jonathan Dick. The play focuses on the unexpected arrival of Sophie (Katerina Hatzinakos) at the home of Emma (Jocelyn Kraynyk). Sophie received a heart transplant from Emma’s love, Alex (Ryan Falconer), who died in a car accident a year ago.
This play was easily my favourite of the night. Yes, the organ-receiver-meets-loved-one-of-organ-donor plotline isn’t original, but the play’s profound effect on me lied in the convincing acting. I easily felt Emma’s anger when she found Sophie peering through Alex’s belongings, or her sadness as she recalled memories of Alex. I was particularly moved by Emma’s regret for not driving Alex the night of his death, as she worked on her dissertation instead.
In the end, the use of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne to close the play with Emma and Sophie in an embrace brought me to tears. The song choice was certainly an effective way to leave a lasting memory of the play.
Yee’s adjudication of all three plays ended the night. He provided general comments about the importance of projection and enunciation in a space like Hart House Theatre, in addition to the value of finding your light when on stage. He concluded by saying that the crucial questions of all three plays were “Why today? Why now?” The answers to these questions were the driving forces behind each play.
The final night brought three more plays: A Perfect Bowl of Pho by the Victoria College Drama Society, Touch by UC Follies, and Monsters by UTM Drama Club.
A Perfect Bowl of Pho, written by Nam Nguyen and directed by Abby Palmer, was a brilliantly written postcolonial musical—they had their own band—that explored political and socioeconomic questions through music and comedy. The play turns the bowl of pho into a platform to discuss cultural imperialism by focusing on the mispronunciation of “pho” by English speakers. The Vietnamese pronunciation sounds a lot like “fuck,” and the play makes use of the pun over and over again, in addition to other linguistic Vietnamese puns. The play was meta-theatrical, as it broke the fourth wall to directly address the audience.
There were many hilarious and clever scenes. It’s impossible to mention everything, but one of my favourites was “Pho is the new Ramen,” in which Americans discover pho as a new invention—a “new trendy food” from San Francisco—and they interview a white chef at a restaurant for a pho commercial. The chef gives some advice on how to eat it, as well as how to use chopsticks.
Yee praised the performance for being charming and compelling. He also complimented the great music. However, he believed the design lacked uniformity. Another comment he made was that the actors continued with the performance when there was a lot of laughter and applause, causing the audience to miss parts of the conversation. Yee praised Nguyen, the playwright for having great talent, and being “too clever.”
The second play, Touch, was written and assistant directed by Marium Raja and directed by Melissa Anne Fearson. This production depicts the lives of U of T students. The protagonist, Florence (Khadijah Salawu), struggles with social interactions. The play opens with a monologue by her, which led me to believe the play would be about mental health. It remained unclear to me whether she suffered from social anxiety or whether she was just an introvert; not much information was given on this matter, other than her being nervous about being at a party for the first time. At first she’s awkward and uncomfortable, but then she’s able to make friends.
While the play is probably meant to be about Florence, for me it was about the individual and collective experiences of university and living in the city. We’re all going through similar things, but we’re completely isolated. We cross each other’s paths without fully acknowledging the existence of other people. We forget that in the end, we all have stories, and we’re more similar than we think we are.
Yee complimented the stage and lighting design in this production. However, he critiqued the depiction of Florence; while we’re told that she’s awkward, she comes across as glamorous and articulate. The audience is being told about her character, rather than being shown.
The final play of the night was the most poignant and the most triggering, with several disturbing scenes thrown into the mix. Written by Mackenzie Burton and directed by Kaitlyn White, Monsters explores rape and rape culture. The play begins with Julia (Holly Rees-May) being touched all over her body by three monsters that live under her bed. She wrestles with the monsters as they whisper things to her. But as long as she’s awake, she cannot defeat them.
The play traces Julia’s story from grade three, where she’s poked and touched by a boy, and always told that “boys will be boys”—the famous sentence that is the root of rape culture. When Julia goes to her first homecoming, this same boy gives her a drink, walks her home, and rapes her. The monsters in Julia’s head tell her to blame herself, her clothes, and her drinking, presenting the consequences of victim blaming.
Yee praised UTM Drama Club’s creation of theatrical space, but he critiqued their use of narrative style and interplay on stage. He also commended the acting.
Yee concluded the evening with an announcement of the awards. First, he presented the Audience Choice awards, in which one play was selected for each night of the festival. The winners included Swipe Right for Thursday, A Lullaby and an Apology for Friday, and A Perfect Bowl of Pho for Saturday.
He then announced the Awards of Merit. The winning plays were Swipe Right, Just the Fax, Ma’am, Just the Fax, and Monsters. The winning individuals were Cy Macikunas and Carling Wong.
Finally, Yee announced the winners of the remaining award categories: the I.A.T.S.E. Award for Technical Achievement went to Monsters, the Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance to Katerina Hatzinakos, the Robert Gill Award for Best Direction to Kaitlyn White, the Robertson Davies Playwriting Award to Jonathan Dick, and the President’s Award for Best Production to A Perfect Bowl of Pho.