From February 10 to 14, Hart House Theatre and the U of T Drama Coalition hosted the U of T Drama Festival. The festival, which celebrates its 24th anniversary this year, showcased original one-act plays written, directed, and performed by students.
The first night featured two plays. The Map, put on by the Trinity College Drama Society, was written by Nicole Lanthier-Rogers and directed by Angie Salomon. In Memorial, by the St. Michael’s College Troubadours, was written by Shak Haq and directed by David Carcasole.
This year’s festival adjudicator was Maev Beaty, an alumna of U of T and the U of T Drama Festival. When the curtains closed on the final act of the night, Beaty offered a brief public adjudication to the audience and participants of each play.
The Map was the first, and arguably the best, show of the night. The story follows siblings Jemma Lewis (Eileanor O’Halloran) and Archie Lewis (James Hyett) as they sail away from London in a small motorboat, equipped with nothing but a talking map they made as kids. As they follow the map’s cryptic directions, they encounter sheep herder Bernard Douglas (Nawi Moreno-Valverde) and with his help arrive at a remote island. Throughout the journey, Archie encourages Jemma to open up about their mother’s death and the bookshop she left behind.
While the play deals with serious subjects such as death and family relationships, the characters bring a comedic element through dialogue and actions—particularly Antong Xu’s depiction of Billy, in which he dresses as a goat and gallops around stage terrorizing the siblings. The Map is a unique, quirky play that seamlessly combines topics of family, love, humour, and magic.
In her adjudication, Beaty praised the performance as an excellent introduction to the Drama Festival. Beaty also complimented the believability of the play’s characters. She admired the authentic brother-sister dynamic between Jemma and Archie, the strong support given by Bernard, and the comedic relief in Billy’s character.
The second show of the evening was In Memorial. As a script in progress, this performance included finished scenes alongside monologues that narrate the unscripted scenes. Given this information beforehand, I was uncertain about what to expect with In Memorial. While the acting and direction were well executed, the storyline is definitely more convoluted than that of The Map. The opening scene begins “in media res” and it’s not until the middle of the play that things begin to make sense.
The story involves two people coming together at the death of their mutual companion, Jake (Ryan Falconer). However, Jake’s relationship with Kate (Rachel Hart) and RJ (Conrad McLaren) is complicated: Jake and RJ were a couple until Jake leaves RJ to honourably marry his friend Kate, whose fiancé abandoned her during her pregnancy. When Kate and RJ meet prior to Jake’s funeral, the performance switches in and out of scenes in the past to describe the present situation.
She praised the complexity of In Memorial’s themes and subject matter. She also remarked on how the bleak music at the start and finish of the play complements the atmosphere. Yet while Beaty commended the play for its intricate storyline, she noted that it might have been too much of an undertaking. Also, for a story involving so much passion and emotion, Beaty felt that there was distance between the characters. She advised the cast and creative to create more connections between actors, so as to make the emotions in the play more impactful.
Thursday brought three more plays, beginning with Our Cake to Eat, a production performed by Woodsworth Innis New Drama Society, written by Dennis Tuyishime and directed by Thierry Mubirigi. I can understand where the play wanted to go in terms of plot: a larger, more powerful kingdom is looking to expand their fortune at the cost of a smaller village.
The larger kingdom, Mukhasa, has a Queen (Sakshi Khanna) ruling the land, which is unheard of in the smaller village of Wangapi. Despite the Queen’s power, she is constantly challenged by those around her. In the end, the women in both villages find their voices and power over the men who think them too weak to rule. Too much of the play was implied, such as the sudden power of Zalika (Antonia Mappin-Kasirer). Throughout, she had been a quiet, abused girl in the village who had no voice. Then, all of a sudden, she had the courage to stand up for what she believed in, but the audience wasn’t shown this transition from a shy girl to a courageous one.
There were immediate line stumbles from the Queen, who also had the tendency to emphasize her lines with shouting. At times, though, she was far too quiet and I had trouble hearing her despite being in the third row. As for Mappin-Kasirer, despite her occasional stumbling, she was a fine performer in the role of her village’s heroine. Two of the best performances were Mama Zalika (Elizabeth Njambi) and Balozi (Yvon Ngabo), the king’s right-hand man, who were both rich characters.
Beaty applauded the play as being one that focused on the cost of privilege, calling the themes “simple political ideas with reverence”.
Second was Saltwater Forests, performed by the UC Follies. Written by Nawi Moreno-Valverde and directed by Isaac Lloyd, the play centres around two young girls who “try to recreate memories of their late mother with the help of a committed actress and a lost child”.
The first thing I took away from this play was how strong the acting was. Leads Joanna Decc and Dorcas Chiu were sublime. Each succeeded in delivering their characters’ quirks without overacting. Mansoor Elahi, who played the girl’s father, and Marium Raja, who played the “dedicated actress”, were also great additions. The company worked beautifully as an ensemble.
That said, the plot was confusing. Constant metaphors and chronological mismatch made it difficult to follow the plot. I was unsure if I was supposed to make my own conclusions or if I had simply missed the point of the play.
Beaty commented on the constant use of metaphors, applauding the layering of metaphorical exploration. She also complimented the actors on their ability to be subtle and delicate while performing.
The final play, What She Said, put on by UC Follies and Twenty-Two Troubles Theatre, was a collective piece curated and directed by Sophie Munden, Carmen Kruk, and Madeleine Heaven. Five very talented actresses (Aba Amuquandoh, Theresa Gerrow, Olivia Nicoloff, Claire Renaud, and Cassidy Sadler) had the task of performing verbatim theatre. Each actress donned a pair of headphones and delivered answers to questions given by five women. Topics ranged from threesomes and a hatred of one’s nose to sexual assault.
The play succeeded in playing with the audience’s emotions. One story focused on the role of the third person during a threesome and how they really have no place. The comic relief offered by this story was interwoven with heavier topics, which brought together each story on equal ground. What She Said was the only play of the evening to receive a standing ovation.
On Friday night, Hart House Theatre took on three more performances: Useless Superhero Support Group by the Victoria College Drama Society, Eternal Return by the St. Michael’s College Troubadours, and Letting Go by our very own UTM Drama Club.
My expectations were set high with the comedic potential that Useless Superhero Support Group implied. But the powers in the play weren’t funny. There was one joke involving a character who can see through paper being traumatized from not being able to play Roll Up the Rim. And then it was never brought up again.
The plot revolved around a group of people who gained superpowers from a secret experiment and their need to avoid using them. Contrary to the name of the play, some superpowers are not useless at all. Deacon (Aaron Philipp-Muller) for example, has the ability to switch bodies with other people.
The only part of the play that made me laugh was when Ultraman (Frederick Gietz)—a character hated by the entire group—entered the room in his red and gold costume. While the rest of the group wrestled with Valerie for a gun, Ultraman spoke about his accomplishments. He turned from his coffee and donuts to see the group hugging, which turned back to wrestling once Ultraman was occupied.
Despite the unfunny slapstick and the plotholes, the performance was technically well done. The situational irony from the scene with Ultraman redeemed the play as best it could. It ended with a shrug from Ultraman: my thoughts exactly.
The next play to take the stage was Eternal Return.
The play follows a group of U of T students as they do their best to fit into their social roles. Sidney (Cassandra Gosselin), Fred (Joanna Decc), and JP (Stephen Lubin) are invited to a frat party by Simon (Ezera Beyene). Sidney is convinced that Simon has his eyes on her, but things don’t go her way. The play culminates with JP and Simon kissing on the edge of the stage. Sidney is then whisked away to the library by Sean (Daniele Monticelli), Fred’s stoner roommate, with promises of Freudian teachings.
My only problems were with the set. The characters file into a frat party, but there’s no actual party, and the atmosphere takes a huge blow.
Eternal Return breaks conventional ideas of student stereotypes and provides subtle observation into how old thoughts still play a role in young minds.
Lastly, the UTM Drama Club performed Letting Go, a play that physically personifies an abandoned child’s insecurities about her father.
The play focuses on Kyle Prowler (Emily Clarke) and his vivid hallucinations of his absent father, Mike Prowler (Jake Settle). Kyle attempts to control his anxiety by writing in a journal. But an apparition of Mike appears in a black turtleneck to whisper insecurities into Kyle’s ears. From then on, Mike’s ghost causes Kyle to rip pages from his journal, insult his mom, and isolate himself. Luckily, Kyle’s friend Natalie (Lucy Morgan) helps Kyle understand the importance of being who he is.
I more than once found myself entranced in the emotional performance of the dialogue. There were moments when the characters all turned or spoke at exactly the same time, which was highly effective and absolutely flawless. The minimalist set consists of two boxes. These boxes were multi-purpose, used to portray a bedroom and a park and were transported around during Kyle’s hallucinations for effect.
The play drags on a little near the end. Instead of immediately being banished, Mike is carried and choreographically transported around the stage until he is finally removed after a monologue from Kyle. Regardless, it was an empowering performance.
The final night wrapped up with two plays by the Woodsworth Innis New Drama Society. Both shows varied greatly in terms of subject matter and execution.
Pan’s Theatre, written by Naseem Reesha and directed by Melissa Anne Fearon, followed the supernatural Pan (Veronika Ressina), who in explicit meta-theatrical style “directs” the narrative of the play. Inside of Pan’s orchestrations, the play is about a young man who is sitting in a restaurant with a female friend. They are waiting for his girlfriend and another mutual friend (also male) to show up. The two missing friends are late because they are together having an enthusiastic make-out session. Then, Pan interrupts the actors to explain that because the cheating comes to light too early, the play is now over. Pan opens the curtains and exposes that the narrative was not a part of the characters’ lives. Since the plot has reached its climax, they should each leave through the curtain and, implicitly, die.
I have a few problems with this show. The first is that I don’t know anybody’s name except for Pan. It’s not that the characters’ and actors’ names aren’t listed in the program—they are—but since the characters don’t use each other’s names when they speak, there is no way to put the two together. The second is that the writing has an old-English-gentleman style that feels out of place in a contemporary play. This does absolutely no favours to the actors, who already have a pretty thin plot to work with.
Before the characters go through the curtain, they each, one by one, have a breakdown where suddenly everyone questions the meaning of life, finds nothing… and exits upstage. Now don’t get me wrong—you can have a breakdown. But you have to earn it. No one in this play earned their breakdown because there was no cause for it. However, I commend the actors on working with what they were given.
Nonetheless, the one thing that really stood out to me was Ressina’s performance. She is completely innocent, yet holds a great deal of responsibility. Her character is deep and complex.
Transitions is about a university student (Noa Katz) who arrives in Toronto as Victoria and, over the next two years, starts to transition into Victor. He returns home and has to deal with his family’s coming to terms with their daughter’s changing identity.
I felt that this production was a little pressed for time. Transitions deserves to be expanded to show the whole story and not be obliged to tell it. Katz did a remarkable job handling the confessional monologue style of the piece, but with 90 minutes of performance time, these monologues could be developed into scenes that really let the audience into the meat of the issue.
Beaty had high praise for both shows. Beaty said that Transitions found her “continually surprised, delighted, and impressed”, and she complimented Katz’s “generosity of spirit”. She also noted that there was room for more depth in the parents’ characters, that instead of each one taking a side for or against Victor’s transition, they share a mixture of both opinions.
Beaty said that Pan’s Theatre successfully established another world and that each actor gave a “unique and personal” performance. She added, “I really appreciated the make-out. It was nice to see some heat”, using the point to discuss how the theatre cannot be afraid of anything.
Beaty then announced the winners of the Audience Choice awards, with one play for each night of the festival. The winners were The Map, What She Said, Letting Go, and Transitions.
Then Beaty announced the other award categories and their winners: the award for Technical Achievement went to What She Said; Best Performance to Joanna Decc; Best Director to Dorcas Chiu; Playwriting to Saltwater Forests; and Best Production to What She Said.