Rhubarb’s Rebel Drama Returns

This article was originally published in The Varsity, page 19, on Feb 12, 1991.

by Ray Deonandan,
Varsity Staff

In the big pink building on George street, the Rhubarb Festival has returned. This spanking new home of the Buddies In Bad Times Theatre is also the home of the thirteenth installation of this annual festival dedicated to providing a showcase for “new and/or innovative theatre”. In a venue that specializes in gay and lesbian thespianism, Rhubarbdom claims to “push the intellectual, aesthetic and political grounds of what defines ‘art'”.

This year’s focus is on young performers who have never before experienced professional stage life in Toronto in the capacity of writers or directors. The opening week’s line-up features five exceptionally well-crafted offerings: Gilligan’s Thailand, Hulla Baloo, Chaos, Dead Man’s Penis and Blonde.

Gilligan’s Thailand was what Calvin Klein’s Obsession commercials should have been. With persistent references to safe intercourse, latex concertos (numbers one through four), and an earnest solicitation of condoms from the audience, this play takes on an undeniable sexual bent; there are investigations of interpersonal relationships, romance, all manner of pleasure and all extremes of sex, including rape. And there is, of course, lots of slick music.

Hulla Baloo is almost a one-woman performance by writer/ director Susan McLay. It is the story of a schlock television variety show, complete with the mandatory berating of the entertainment media and the egotists who compose it: “We don’t need money, we don’t need anybody, we’ve got talent!”

Hulla Baloo‘s crowning achievement is a compelling phone seduction scene ending with the buzzing line: “please hang up and try your call again”, driven relentlessly by excellent hypnotic music. A good sound system,it seems, goes a long way toward convincing an audience that there is great relevance to an otherwise shallow

By far the brightest star of this fine collection is Chaos, an unforgiving dissertation on disorder and upheaval. From suburban angst through homy housewives to grammar school politics and psychiatric therapy, all dimensions of personal chaos are shown to interweave. The shadows of rape, cruelty and insanity are projected powerfully, and always — of course — there is the recurring infatuation with sex. Heroic performances all around.

The remaining fare is light and meaningless comedy to help diffuse the dark power of Chaos. Dead Man’s Penis is the story of a bereaved scientist’s theory on how a “dismembered member” changed history. Supposedly, this penis has appeared at all events of great historical relevance, from the burning of ancient Rome to the Last

Blonde is a superficial laugh about how easy life can be for the blonde-haired woman. With a set displaying giant icons of Madonna, Marylin Monoe and Jean Harlow, Blonde is prefaced by the disclaimer: “There are women who have blonde hair, and then there are The Blondes. You know who you are. ”

Both comedies are good entertainment, but Blonde makes use of a strobe light which is always a questionable choice of techniques, especially three hours into a visually challenging drama festival.

The Rhubarb Festival runs until Feb. 17, with a different set of plays offered each week. It is an excellent opportunity to see inventive youthful theatre in a vibrant new venue.

Firearms abound in raucous Tape

This article first appeared in The Varsity, page 9, on Jan 17, 1991. 

by Ray Deonandan


Written by Daniel Brooks, Don McKellar, Tracy Wright. At the Poor Alex Theatre until January 27

It’s amazing the way loud raunchy music can make anything sound cool. If you insert a wailing electric guitar behind a drab monotone newscast, the effect is a convincing simulation of standard coolness.

Red Tape, the Augusta Company’s new play at the Poor Alex theatre, looks and sounds pretty darned cool— due mainly to loud raunchy music. This three-person show is, more or less, the story of a murder of passion. It’s about lust, love, adultery, work, bureaucracy and gun control.

Somewhere in this miasma and juggled chronology of space-time events, a woman has killed a man without apparent reason. Somewhere she has been romantically involved with him. And somewhere her weird husband has bought her a gun.

With simple though powerfully innovative sound and lighting effects. Red Tape is a solid hour of entertainment. Furniture, sex, yoga and general weirdness are abundant throughout; and always there is the peculiar spectre of the power and virulence of personal firearms.

The loud sounds and stage antics project the feel of a music video, which can be both a plus and a minus. It’s a minus for theatre as a whole because, frankly, if I wanted a music video I’d stay home and watch MuchMusic. It’s a plus for the audience because the format makes even the most ordinary and meaningless phrase interesting and strangely compelling.

But there’s one thing in particular that concerns me. Why are local drama-types so obsessed with the yuppie experience? This vision of shooting clubs, office parties and extra-marital affairs is something we see weekly on ThirtySomething. It’s an experience that does not speak to the average individual, and certainly not to the typical audience one would find in the Poor Alex. To tell the truth, it’s starting to get a little boring. For sure, there is something to be found in observing the doings of standard cardboard television characters, but it’s been done so many times that it has ceased to be interesting. If I see another play in which an extramarital affair figures prominently I’ll probably run off to get married just so I can be unfaithful.

Yuppies aside. Red Tape’s most powerful moment is the eventual production of real handguns on stage. It’s an Eerie and nervous moment. The classical “suspension of disbelief is shattered as dangerous looking weapons are brandished before our eyes, reminding us that all of the violence and glorification of guns that we see regularly on television are mere shadows of the power and lethality of the real thing.

Had the guns been wielded by policemen or even trained soldiers, 1 would have felt a lot safer. But somehow seeing real handguns being shown off by stage actors who’ve probably just recently completed a mandatory crash course on firearm safety just didn’t make me feel as safe or as comfortable as I’d have preferred.

But as far as the intrinsics go. Red Tape benefits from strong performances and a good script. It’s difficult to glean an overall message from the affair; and the relevance of certain segments is definitely in question. However, bent comedy, audiovisual power and general coolness make Red Tape an entertaining experience.


Performace Art Mad For Lucid Journalism

First published in The Varsity on Sep 11, 1989, page 14

Mad For Bliss
Performance Art by Vera Frenkel
The Music Gallery
September 6 — 9


“Cargo cult: any of the religious movements chiefly, but not solely, in Melanesia that exhibit belief in blessing to be initiated by the arrival of special ‘cargo’ of goods from supernatural sources…”

-small sample of very large inscription on inside cover of programme for Vera Frenkel’ s very strange MAD FOR BLISS

What kind of people strive to achieve a state of bliss? Men, women, heterosexuals, homosexuals, safari ‘bwanas’, yuppies, house-husbands, Messiahs and Melanesian cargo cults — all wearing funky grey pajamas and interchanging hats and roles like inmates of a — a mental ward, perhaps?

And maybe the true attainment of bliss is the synthesis and fitting of artificial limbs, or playing nursery rhymes on touch-tone phones. But, golly, what is bliss? It’s “the teddy bear, but not the stuffing”.

Or so we are told by Vera Frenkel’s gaggle of lunatic performers, as we desperately try to conform to her declaration of ‘the audience as bartender’. That’s right: life begins in a piano bar, baby, and ends only after the apocalypse.

And so what if your pianist (NOT penis) is part aviator and part ballerina — as long as he plays the tunes and keeps plenty of gauze handy. Life (and Mad For Bliss) begins in a piano bar with everyone talking at once, exchanging hats and roles, and singing really really well.

And Act II of Life begins in an Asylum, where three very crazy men vie for sole possession of the title of Christ, and where romance, lunacy and religion get together to dance the tango with cardboard palm trees and fresh copies of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

Then we’re in Melanesia, where The White Man shoots a black man to show him that ‘his life is worth nothing other than to carry our cargo.’ Funny-looking natives (still in funky grey pajamas) build a shrine to the coming cargo plane, adorning it with ghetto blasters, candelabras, bowling trophies and more gauze. O what’s a poor bartender to think?

But the cargo plane doesn’t arrive from Heaven, and the Messiah (aka ‘the Lover’) doesn’t sprinkle the land with shiny new cargo. Instead, we’re back in the piano bar, with everybody talking our ear off while we try to pour drinks in peace. “Sex was just a preamble,” we’re told. “It was my radio he wanted all along.” And we hear about someone’s friend who had writer’s block so he arranged for his desk to be set up in the elevator of an art gallery, so that he could always be moving (as if motion helps one overcome writer’s block).

Meanwhile, the metronomes and the blabbering German television persist. Where did the gauze go?

But while we search for bliss in trivial things, the apocalypse is approaching. The voice in the shopping mall says, ‘You must shop around for the right Messiah with the proper credentials. Shop, or someone will shop for you.’ And a surtitle, almost lost among the maze of further visual stimuli, tells us ‘You have been misled by the title.’ And it’s true, dammit.

And as the cast dances offstage chanting ‘Total Abandon’ with proper primal cadence, a grey cloak of depression settles over this many-headed bartender, until it’s suddenly realized: hey, it’s just a performance. And a darn good one at that.