This past week saw the 2016 instalment of the Youth Infringement Festival. The festival, now in its 18th year, is an opportunity for young theatre artists to practice and put to work their passions in a way that generally isn’t open to them. Every play presented is written, directed, and performed entirely by artists aged 15-25 (under the mentorship of local professionals) and the festival itself is produced by young adults in that same age bracket. Some of the artists are enrolled in post secondary theatre studies or already have various stage credits to their names, but many have only their high school drama experiences behind them.
Like the upcoming Ottawa Fringe Festival coming up in just about a month, Youth Infringement is a theatre buffet of different shows and styles. Of the six plays presented this year, three of them impressed me quite a bit so let’s start with them:
30:2 introduces us to a squad of life guards on an open water beach. We’re introduced to their personalities, their relationships, their training, and how they’re dealing with a recent drowning on their watch.
I would see this show again, as presented, without hesitation. It was well-written, with a clean narrative and tight dialogue. Add to that the skillfully gradual release of key information – withholding enough to fuel your continued interest while giving enough to keep you from losing interest – and a level of research and attention to detail that shine to the point where it would surprise me to find out that playwright Tamsin Andrews was not a life guard at some point.
Directed by Kevin DaPonte, 30:2 also benefitted from clear direction and polished performances that allowed the six distinct personalities to come across cleanly and made for a riveting show from beginning to end.
I have nothing but praise for this show.
Next in my top three is Boxed In, about a young singer in a small town with an overwhelming drive to branch out and have her voice heard in bigger ponds at the same time as being tethered to the familiarity, the loose comfort, and the never having to face the prospect of failing that staying put offers.
I’ve spoken pretty highly about Charlotte Weeks on two occasions already (here and here) and so it was a delight to see her here in what was generally a pretty fantastic one woman show. Weeks has the emotional depth and talent to convey a wide variety of emotional circumstances and many of them were on display here. Plus, she can play guitar and sing. Theatre crush reinforced nicely.
The show did take a turn for the melodramatic towards the end with an operatic lack of dramatic information and some of the dialogue, especially in the opening, could stand for some tightening, but fleshing out the character (with aims to a longer show) and further working the text are things for playwright Madison Bateman to work on going forward rather than things that took away any enjoyment from this version of the show.
When I ask: Why do I care? Either about the story being told, or the characters telling it, Boxed In answers.
Third on the list of impressive offerings from this year’s festival is the delightful movement-based piece, My Psychosis, about a young woman’s learning to live with her brilliantly unique perceptions of the world. She’s committed to a mental institution only to flee at the first opportunity granted by getting voluntary status, eventually deciding that the hospital and its medications are a reasonable price for a warm bed and stability.
As a play that takes place inside the head of the main character, the script for Boxed In relishes its originality of voice. It isn’t a play about mental illness or the ills of treatment as you might get from my description. It doesn’t play the main character as a victim, or even as broken, just as somebody with a very different view of the world.
The beauty of My Psychosis comes from the text’s pairing with movement inspired choreography and Brittany Johnson’s strong directorial vision. Emma Hickey takes on the primary role of the main character and is supported in dance and in drama by Madison Bateman and Virginia Chartrand as other pieces of her psyche. Together, the actors and movement support the words to create an almost dream-like feel that is entirely engaging.
Onto the first of the two shows sitting in the middle of the pack. The shows that I wouldn’t say were bad but that I also wouldn’t go out of my way to see again.
Misery is one of those shows where it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. It starts with the fourth-wall breaking of an audience plant interrupting a staged reading of a short story by a man who takes great offence to the subject matter being presented. Including necrophilia.
Then it just gets weird as characters like Genghis Khan, King Leonidas of Sparta, Mother Theresa, and a necrophiliac condemned to hell join the stage to debate the nature of creator and created, the validity of art, and the role of the audience as a participant.
The debate about art itself isn’t anything new but it presents itself in a balanced way that worked into the narrative naturally and comes to a satisfying conclusion. Plus, both the cast and the script had an undeniable charm in their weirdness that, when paired with Misery’s unpredictability, managed to keep your interest throughout.
If I had one thing to offer as constructive criticism, it would be to avoid the clams (obvious/overused jokes). Several times in the script, the jokes came with expected and tired outcomes. Wanting someone to do, for example, didn’t need any followup. Better to have left it hang on the audience. Interestingly, the story does succeed at this, managing to circumvent the obvious by having the conjured characters act differently than the conjurers expected.
And one nitpick: A reading of a short story would not constitute a “show” the way that Misery tries to set it up. Not even if JK Rowling was reading. That isn’t to say it wouldn’t draw a crowd, but it wouldn’t be considered a show in the sense that the main character here claimed that he was entitled.
PUT MY ENTIRE FIST IN YOUR MOUTH; A LOVE (?) STORY
This is a play that was born in a strange mind. To be honest, it’s pretty difficult to describe it in any way that would be meaningful to you. Perhaps call it an existential pseudo-philosophical drama set in an elevator?
Let’s call attention first to the weird philosophical tangents that the characters engage in repeatedly in the script. These are the kind of things that you rant about to friends (often when drunk or stoned or strange) thinking you’ve come up with something clever when they’re closer to the philosophical equivalent of groaners – especially in the frequency they’re used here. It’s the kind of stuff that a sitcom character would tell his friends only to be met with blank looks while the laugh track ran in the background.
Now, the strangely deadpan Ian Gillies. I wish that in the two shows he was in, I’d gotten to see something different from him instead of the same melodramatically deadpan delivery. That said, it worked better here than it did in Guy’s Night (which I talk about below) and carried some odd charm because the oddness of the character suited the oddness of the script.
And the story? There is a line to draw between spelling things out for an audience as though they’re grade schoolers and leaving so much ambiguity about what’s happening that audiences are left to simply throw up their shoulders at the end and admit that that was a thing that happened. This falls on the latter side of the line and definitely needed a bit more to go on than was available.
No sugar coating it at this point. I did not like Guy’s Night. Guy’s Night was (reductively) about a trio of twelve year olds in the bodies of twenty year old men and their fantasy of spending time with real live girls. Bros being bros, aping the behaviour of men they see on screen in stoner comedies.
Perhaps it was intended to be parodying, some writing and stylistic choices seemed to imply so, but the tone and style were all over the place (like the rare instance where characters seemingly read stage directions) which made it hard to settle into. Was the character of Jordan (played here again by Ian Gillies) meant to be straight man to the funny children, or was he the equally goofy sitcom dad? Plus, more than a few scenes didn’t serve any dramatic (or comedic) purpose in the overall story. Like the homoerotic wrestling scene with the men stripped down to their boxers.
To its credit, there were a few laugh-worthy moments, mainly in those parody-seeming elements and the neat bit of staging of a man in a black unitard (head to toe) serving as a sort of stage hand, bringing characters props and moving (or being) set pieces.
And that was the 18th Youth Infringement Festival. If you missed it this year, mark it on your calendar for next. A chance to see some fun original theatre and support wonderful up and coming artists. Kudos to everybody involved both visibly and behind the scenes, putting the shows up and producing the festival as a whole.
But that’s just my opinion and I’d love to know what you think. Which play did you love most? What stood out? Join the discussion and let me know in the comments below.
More information: http://www.youthinfringement.ca/index.html
All included photos by Allan Mackey/Valley Wind Productions.