Hart House Theatre and the U of T Drama Coalition presented the 23rd annual U of T Drama Festival last week. The festival ran for three nights with three plays being performed each night and festival adjudicator Banuta Rubess critiquing each play.

The first show of the night was Dream, as you like put on by the St. Michael’s College Troubadours, directed and adapted from the original Shakespeare by Shak Haq. The play stars four young women who go through the reordering of Shakespeare’s original text in an attempt to give it new meaning. The play was hard to follow, something Rubess also brought up. She commended the play for its risk-taking and imagery but told the crew to look back and ask why it was written and what story it’s trying to tell.

Next was Let My Mind Run Dry by the Hart House Players and was easily the best of the night, arguably of the festival. Written and directed by Cassidy Sadler, the play tells the story of Lorraine (Remi Long), Warren (Stephen MacDonald), and a young girl, Jane (Charlotte Denis), trying to accept and understand Eddie’s mental illness. Eddie, the son of Lorraine and Warren, constantly sees two people (Elizabeth Der, Jack Galligan) who continue to bother him and tell him that he’s nothing.

What made this play so impressive and beautiful was that Eddie was an off-stage character, which really allowed every actor a chance to show off their acting chops. There wasn’t one weak character or performance; each actor was heartbreakingly convincing.

Rubess addressed the fact that the play was bleak yet gripping, giving special attention to the complex characters, unusual story, and difficulty for the actors. She also praised them for including an off-stage character. She drew attention to how the bar may have been set too high for such a unique play. Sadler should also have tried to explore the question of why Eddie sees these people, said Rubess, though some critics might have enjoyed the ambiguity.

Third of the night was the first comedy of the festival by the Victoria College Drama Society, Chase Williams and the Case of the Missing Fixture, written and directed by Frederick Gietz. The play started out very strong with a hilarious story filled with ridiculous and wonderfully performed characters, namely Chase Williams (Caleb Shoihet), Skip Parker (Fateema Miller) and Dr. Connor (Bennett Steinburg).

But as the play progressed, the story dragged on and was decreasingly funny. The plot seemed rushed and yet took too long to wrap up. The reach for laughs was also too far with characters like the Chief (Angela Sun), who just seemed to shout lines and engage in “funny” handshakes with Williams. Also, Matt Bobkin (Amy Kalburn) was a character who could do everything and came off as tiring rather than humorous.

Rubess commended the play for its comedy and energetic, unafraid characters, but she said she noticed that the genre seemed to change mid-play and suggested that Gietz consider cutting some of the play to make it neater.

The first play of the second night was also by the St. Michael’s College Troubadours. Ond was written by Michael S. Marshall and directed by Trevor Barette. One of the standout plays of the evening, Ond follows married couple Frida and Harald Rank (Liz McLoughlin, John Shubat) and their daughter Silje (Madeleine Heaven) as they welcome a wanderer, Andar Linaker (Louis-Alexandre Boulet), into their home so he can escape a storm. Throughout his stay, Linaker is exposed to the crumbling marriage and the tension in the household.

The story was beautiful, focusing on the outsider-looking-in mentality. The entire cast was incredible, something Rubess also said in her adjudication. She also gave praise to the dreamlike atmosphere, inventive design, good lighting and set design, great direction, and cast. The only note she had was to touch on the idea of whether or not Linaker was a metaphor.

Next was one of my absolute favourites, Guillotin, produced by the Trinity College Drama Society and written and directed by Ilan Tzitrin. The play tells the story of Joseph Guillotin (Anthony Botelho), a man arrested during the Reign of Terror. His name becomes associated with the guillotine and the man himself soon becomes a symbol for the abuse and torture he wanted to abolish. While in prison he meets a young girl, Lucie (Allison Spiegel), who is being sentenced to death for murdering a guard who tried to rape her. The two soon share stories of their lives with each other and eventually befriend and learn more about their prison guard, Arsene (Louis-Alexandre Boulet).

With such a small cast there was really no room for error. They did a marvellous job of drawing the audience into the wonderful story. Rubess drew attention to the sincere acting and added that the makeup was good (I seriously thought Botelho was an old man and I was sitting in the third row) and that she liked the set, costumes, and wordplay. But she questioned what the play was about, why it was a play, and where the reversal was.

Last of the evening was Bacchae put on by the Woodsworth Performing Arts Collective, written by Kate Uniacke and directed by Emma Keil-Vine. I won’t lie, to take on the project of modernizing a Greek tragedy is quite a task and this play didn’t really do it for me. Of the entire cast, the best acting was that of Pentheus (Katarina Prystay) and Dionysus (Shak Haq), although the latter’s voice wasn’t projected enough to reach the back rows.

Rubess commended the very strong, committed characters, Pentheus, Dionysus, and the lighting and staging. However, she did note that the lighting was inconsistent and pointed out that it’s very difficult to make an audience believe in madness.

The first of the last night was Fanny, Fluff, and Dandruff, produced by the UTM Drama Club. It was written by Jaime Lujan (who starred as Fanny) and directed by Laura McCallum. The play follows the lives of some pretty entertaining characters as they are forced to come to terms with their irrational fears. Froggie (Emily Thorne), the balding hair stylist, and Fanny, the failing stripper, live together and take on uncomfortable jobs to make ends meet. The colourful married couple Jupiter (Roberto Esteves) and Milagros (Hannah Ehman) also star.

However, Rubess wasn’t a fan. Commending only Ehman on her performance, she admitted it was hard to find something she liked. She commented on the fact that it’s hard to joke about things like sickness, amputees, and accidental death when so many people have gone through such tragedies. She added that the characters were unsympathetic in an unrealistic world and decried the poor lighting and confusing set objects. She concluded by saying the play had poor direction and a lot of things needed work.

The second of the night was Swim to the Moon by the UC Follies, written by Deborah Lim and directed by Jane A. Smythe. The impressive one-woman show (Margarita Valderrama) was meant to be a ritualistic journey through space and time. Despite Valderrama’s courage, this play was one of my least favourites of the festival. The plot was unbelievably confusing, the set made no sense, and I had trouble figuring out what the purpose was.

Rubess also mentioned how challenging the play was to read and how audiences only like confusion at times. She commended Valderrama for her bravery as well as the lighting, projection, and sound. But she argued that there was no conflict or catharsis in the piece and mentioned the lack of music and sound.

Finishing the festival was Evening of the Dead, another by the UC Follies, written by Zack Standing and directed by Joey Condello. One of the best plays of the festival, the plot centred on a small group of young adults living in a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic Toronto. There were wonderful performances by the entire cast and some great humour. It also had actors scattered in the audience to bring the story to life off-stage. My favourite part was when one of the characters was only supposed to pretend to bite one of the others but proceeded to “actually” do so to make it seem as though he were breaking script and actually infected.

Rubess commended the play on its believable characters, script, lighting, video, and sound, and said the play was more than a spoof of a zombie apocalypse.

To conclude the festival, awards were given out, the Viewers’ Choice Award being the first. The top three were Let My Mind Run Dry, Guillotin, and Evening of the Dead.

Guillotin also took home the award of merit for Best Wordplay. Let My Mind Run Dry also cleaned up with the Hedda Gabler Award for Complex Character and Remi Long took home the Donald Sutherland Award for Best Performance. Evening of the Dead also took home the President’s Award for Best Production and the Robertson Davies Playwriting Award.

Ond went home with “the Best Ond-semble” award of merit and the Robert Gill Award for Best Direction, while Swim to the Moon also went home with two awards: the IATSE Award for Technical Achievement and the Heart on Your Sleeve Award. The final two awards of merit were Shak Haq’s for “the best Greek god” and the Canadian Theatre Heritage Award for Best Tableau that went to Chase Williams and the Case of the Missing Fixture.