By Chaya Cooperberg
The glossy, larger than life billboards draw you in. The snappy commercials can also get you. By the time the city-wide publicity assault is through, you’ve been to see Les Mis three times, bought the original soundtrack and own the t-shirt. We’re all saps for big-time productions. But more and more theatre-goers are searching for that elusive, and exclusive, things called culture. Look no further than the Rhubarb! Festival.
Most, if not all, of the people who write for, direct or perform in Buddies in Bad Times’ productions are Canadian. Publicist Jonathan DaSilva estimates the Canadian content at “ninety-nine per cent, if not more.” At a time when the American-anthemic Ragtime is number one on Toronto’s must-see list, and the Canadian Stage Company’s headliner is Angels in America, a visit to Buddies comes close to being an act of patriotism. “It’s a festival that celebrates the mediocre,” Chris says in a play called The Best Play in the Rhubarb! Festival Ever. The opening night audience made up mainly of theatre people laugh conspiratorially. At the 19th annual Rhubarb! Festival, people come to laugh at themselves and each other. Held from February 5-23 at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, it promises to be “three weeks of theatrical mayhem.” With 175 seats and a separate cabaret, Buddies is known as the best mid-sized theatre in Toronto. In its mission statement the theatre describes itself as an “artist-run, non-profit, queer theatre company committed to the development and production of radical new Canadian work.” The theatre started producing works in 1979, and has been in its new building on Alexander Street, just south of Wellesley, for three years. Toronto is a city filled with suffering independent theatre companies due to drastic Ontario arts grants cuts, but a few lucky ones, like Buddies, are surviving and thriving in the wake of turmoil. Their strong base, and secure $90,000 art grant, give it the leverage and ability to host a solid, talented cast and play lineup.
Rhubarb! presents 19 plays, six new ones each week, all six performed nightly, Wednesday to Sunday. Showtime begins at eight p.m., and each play lasts about half an hour, sitcom length without having the distracting commercials. Like a sitcom, each play introduces characters and plot quickly, delivers a message and neatly wraps up. While short on character and plot development, the plays are long on wit, pithy one-liners and the occasional insight. It is the company’s mission to “challenge the professional theatre experience by blurring and reinventing boundaries between artistic disciplines, performer and audience, gay and lesbian, queer and straight, male and female, good and bad.” Don’t go expecting to be shocked, though. There are only so many taboos and boundaries to break down and, if you’re a regular purveyor of daytime talk shows, you’ve seen and heard it all before.
What is interesting about the theatre and the festival is the normalcy, frankness and artistry in which controversial social and cultural issues are addressed. Many of the plays deal with the dynamics of different relationships, gender lines, mortality and AIDS. As a theatre in the heart of Toronto’s gay district, Buddies serves as a creative outlet for community issues. However, the theatre is not limited in focus. Only a third of the plays have gay and/or lesbian content, according to publicist DaSilva. “Plays are selected for their innovative staging and writing,” he says.
This year’s Rhubarb! presents plays by some “veteran experimenters” such as Glenn Christie, Stephen Seabrook and Sarah Stanley. Some newcomers are also included in the mix because, as recently-resigned founder and artistic director Skye Gilbert puts it, “That’s the only way artists get discovered — theatres have to put out plays by PEOPLE YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF!” Upcoming plays include Kitchen, written and directed by Glenn Christie, about the burning of a Southern Ontario farmhouse, and the strange deaths of a brother and sister who lived there. Thalambu is a play that incorporates dance, yoga and martial arts, to explore issues of colour, caste and class within a south Asian community. Then there are plays like Sam Hancock’s Involuntary Contraction, which describes itself only as, “Two men. Nine scenes. No answers…”
For a relatively painless, entertaining evening or two, show your colours, raise the flag and try out Rhubarb! — it’s better than it tastes.