2014 Next Stage Theatre Festival Review: Polar Opposites (TiltHAUS)

Two polar bears bring comedy to our recent struggle with the cold at Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival

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If you’re prone to hibernating during the harsh winter season, it’ll do you good to get out and experience some theatre. Polar Opposites is an absurd comedy playing at the Factory Theatre Ante-chamber as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival. It will not help you to forget the cold, but it will certainly enrich your experience of it.

Two polar bears are trapped on a melting iceberg. They play. They fight. They struggle to figure out how to live with each other in such a confined space with dwindling resources and limited time. Sound familiar? It should; it’s our life on this planet.

I expected this to be more gut-achingly funny. For the first third, I was waiting for hilarious antics. What I got was significantly deeper. While it is quite goofy and there are a few chuckles to be had, this piece isn’t concerned with cheap and easy laughs. It’s aiming at the dark corners of your mind where you try to hide those gnawing doubts about yourself, other people and the world we all share.

Stephanie Jung and Nicole Ratjen give fluid performances. Their presence is cartoonish yet evocative. With masterful ease, they invite us into their strange little world and it soon becomes familiar. Under the direction of and Ratjen and Rachel Blair, the very cramped space and artificial set (ladders and milk crates painted white) are transformed into a convincing arctic environment. That might sound like artsy reviewer drivel, but I swear: I could feel the cold and isolation.

Ratjen’s script clearly defines these two bears and gives us a sense of how differently they perceive their predicament and, ultimately, life itself. There was a brief moment when I found the dialogue a little too awkward in its attempt to capture my imagination by referring to it explicitly. The script works best when it ignites the imagination more cunningly by fixating on the nonsense calculations and games they invent to understand their situation… or, at least, make it more satisfying.

If you enjoy mild audience participation, you’ll like the moments when you get to throw ping-pong balls at the actors. It’s an inspired bit of stagecraft where the audience becomes a force of nature assaulting this wretched pair. It is fun and silly, but it also strikes a chord. After the recent ice storm, there is ample resonance in watching trapped creatures be pelted by the elements.

This is playful theatre that is poignant and insightful. If you have thirty minutes to spare, and the winter hasn’t numbed you into a coma, check out Polar Opposites. You may be surprised by how much of yourself you’ll find in these two trapped bears.

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Photo of Stephanie Jung and Nicole Ratjen by Lauren Vandenbrook

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