Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Buddies crammed with adventure at this year’s Rhubarb

Highlights of this year's festival, running from Feb 10-28 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

A MAGICAL CREATURE. Jess Dobkin's Everything I've Got runs Feb 24-28.

If you’ve been craving avant-garde drag, transgendered fabulousness, riveting solo performance and techno-based theatrical enterprise, then February in Toronto is shaping up to be very exciting. Thanks to the Rhubarb Festival, the month is filled with spectacles handpicked from the plethora of performance talent found in our fair city, province, country, performance art warehouses, what have you.

Take Canadian performer Jeremy Bailey’s cyber/futurist demonstration of innovative software, The Future of Theatre. It’s designed specifically for the performing arts industry and promises to enlighten as he brings “art and technology, techies and technophobes into tension.”

Heralded as a kind of Jeff Koons with Microsoft aspirations, Bailey asks his audience to “examine their acquiescence to the GUIs (Graphic User Interfaces) that provide the face of contemporary living” as he invites  “one and all to watch his unique brand of interface-off.” It’s typical of Rhubarb — quirky, self-aware and reflexive.

While Rhubarb isn’t all gay, all the time, it has always showcased the latest in theatre and performance with a decidedly non-mainstream edge.

Festival director Erika Hennebury sees this year’s incarnation as one marked by performance re-enactments, ranging from Beyoncé concerts to a cuddly version of the Texas chainsaw massacre. Hennebury is especially excited by the number of lesbian directors and transgendered performers who will be presenting over the three-week period of Feb 10–28.

Hennebury feels that the overall Rhubarb experience is  “completely unique in terms of other festivals,” many of which feature both theatre and performance. But, she says, “Rhubarb is different because it showcases primarily new work” and allows the artists to have a strong connection to their practice with the emphasis on experimentation and originality.

With no critics allowed — part of the festival’s original strategy — the emphasis is taken off reviews and competition and lies wholly on performance. Hennebury sees this non-competitive structure as a way of facilitating “artistic risk as a fundamental building block for the festival,” and adds that Rhubarb achieves this in a way that no other festival does.

She describes this year’s installment as a “wild eclectic mix,” complete with a headbanger show, an interpretation of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and an episode of the ever-popular Keith Cole Experience. Ultimately, the festival, as Hennebury joyfully concludes, is “really kind of celebratory, kind of ironic, kind of sincere, really anarchic and kind of wild.”

Here are some highlights.

The Rhubarb Festival runs Feb 10–28 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St.

Everything I’ve Got

Performance artist Jess Dobkin’s Everything I’ve Got will give audiences an exciting overview of the artistic ideas that have informed her work over the past several years. In her artist’s statement, she describes her body as her “primary tool” to explore her “physical and psychic abilities, limitations and attributes,” revealing personal narratives on love, work, parenthood, politics and sex. In her 2006 Nuit Blanche piece, Vagina Dentata (see YouTube), Dobkin used her genitalia as a pencil sharpener of sorts, while the title of another performance, Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar, speaks for itself and delighted a huge audience at the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2005.

The Neal Medlyn Experience

The New York Times has described Neal Medlyn as “a funny, earnest guy with a penchant for inhabiting the pop star personas of larger-than-life celebrities like Prince and Beyoncé.” The Neal Medlyn Experience (late night, February 12) is a re-enactment of Beyoncé’s concert DVD, The Beyoncé Experience. Medlyn deals in “theatrical miracles,” transforming a “celebrity-obsessed, media-saturated world into impossibly beautiful, absurdist happenings.” The one-hour piece, complete with backup dancers, will be presented for one night only during the first week of the festival.

Tragic Magic

According to the Portland Phoenix, transgendered artist Glenn Marla produces “performance art that pushes the envelope without pushing the audience away.” An acclaimed performer whose work has been seen in NYC public schools as well as churches in Harlem, where her performance identity provides “a role model who proves that duct taping your ass is a way to be beautiful.” Marla’s Rhubarb show, Tragic Magic, promises titillating elements as diverse as face masturbation and a bathtub striptease.


Exploring his journey from Pentecostal Calgary churches to national tours as a transgendered country singer, Rae Spoon brings stories to life through music. A YouTube video has Spoon doing a haunting cover of Beyoncé’s If I Were a Boy. His self-accompanied rendition takes on a poignant and powerful tone as he sings beautifully of heartfelt transgendered desire. In an interview with Calgary’s BeatRoute Magazine, Spoon politely explained to a somewhat trans-obsessed reporter that “It’s not a big deal that I’m transgender. I mean, that’s who I am, and that’s who I always was. It’s not that interesting to me. Really, I don’t find it that riveting.” What he does find riveting can be seen in Hunting!, where music, stories and animations trace his journey across the Canadian frontier.