2017 Toronto Fringe Picks: Part 1

8 Jul

Here are some of our highlights from the first few days of this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival!

05-24-2017-221616-6721In Search of Cruise Control

Affable solo performer James Gangl returns to the Toronto Fringe with what can aptly called a follow-up to his previous fringe hit Sex, Religion, & Other Hang-Ups. In this work, Gangl uses the the anecdote of him being roped into giving his teenage nephew “the talk”, and his determination to make it the best “talk” ever, as a point of departure for stories and insights into his own complicated family history and equally complicated relationship with sex. While this show stands on its own, those who were fortunate enough to see Sex, Religion, and Other Hang-Ups will undoubtedly find themselves coming out of the theatre with even more profound and nuanced insight into Gangl’s personal journey.

It may sound like heavy material (and there are a handful of very sober moments) but Gangl is a natural comedic talent whose blend of energetic confidence and self-effacing humour draw the audience in. Gangl is quick to insert ad-libs, break the fourth wall without compromising the flow of his performance, and, despite his assertion otherwise, engages with the audience to great effect.

With minimalistic solo shows such as these, it can be difficult to discern where to divide credit between performer and director, but in this case director/dramaturge (and former Fringe regular audience favourite) Chris Gibbs has clearly helped hone the work into a finely tuned yet organic presentation.

Funny and bold, In Search of Cruise Control is a meaningful and highly entertaining entry in this year’s festival.

 

04-28-2017-040948-1297Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons

No, it’s not a typo; it’s the newest production from The Howland Company (in conjunction with Slow Blue Lions), the same company behind the previous Fringe smash hit, 52 Pickup. It’s no surprise that this young but immensely talented ensemble of artists would successfully deliver another high-grade and high-concept offering.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, by playwright Sam Steiner, gives the initial impression of being a familiar relationship two-hander, but artfully evolves into a deeper examination of communication in the digital age, censorship, and power structures – all without ever being sanctimonious or losing sight of the story of the couple at the heart of the piece.

Performers Ruth Goodwin and James Graham both deliver strong performances and make the frequent tonal, contextual, and physical transitions look effortless. Director Harveen Sandhu deserves equal praise; there is a distinct “before and after” element to the work which she slowly unwraps to great effect. Jareth Li supports the concept with his subtle yet beautiful lighting design – no small feat when dealing with the technical constraints of a Fringe venue.

Smart, thought-provoking, and highly polished, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is well worth seeing.

 

04-26-2017-202111-2338The Miserable Worm

Adapted by Justine Christensen, this quasi-contemporary and gender-bending take on Chekov’s first play, Platonov, will perhaps not be to every Fringe-goers taste but is nevertheless a lively success. The story is set in and around the birthday party of the young and attractive university lecturer, Platonov (also played by Christensen); as her guests succumb to the power of vodka, complicated love quadrangles are revealed, and pleasant philosophical banter quickly devolves into a cynical mess of sex, jealousy, and rage.

Christensen has done a remarkable job of distilling Chekov’s elephantine work into a tight and manageable package. While the script maintains the essence of its 19th century Russian roots, it is also refreshingly modern with words like “fuck” and “asshole” being tossed in organically and offsetting the stuffy source material. Christensen’s wisest choice is to inject the work with self-awareness; most of the characters are insufferable pricks – and demonstrate that self-pitying navel gazing was popular among young intellectuals long before the Millennials came along – but the cheeky expositional narration largely delivered by Platonov’s brother Triletsky (played with whimsy by Michael Ruderman), creates an emotional distance between the audience and characters, that, in this case, is very welcome. Also, anyone familiar with the concept of Chekov’s gun will find themselves chuckling more than once.

Director Patrick Horan continually keeps the energy high, the pacing brisk, and the staging in motion. His choice to break up scenes by including live musical elements performed by the cast is not only a great bit of thematic underscoring, but also enhances the theatrical self-awareness already established in the script. The ensemble cast, largely composed of recent graduates of the George Brown theatre program, are uniformly strong and cohesive.

 
Brief Shout Outs

05-01-2017-111522-2380Special Constables: This 2013 production from Circle Snake is brought back to life with some returning cast members and some fresh faces. It’s a smart satire of the transit system we all know and love/loathe that admirably avoids most of the obvious jokes we have all heard before. Those familiar with director Alec Toller’s work with Sex-T-Rex will appreciate the similarly physical and imagination-driven storytelling. Conor Bradbury and Mikaela Dyke steal their scenes in their respective roles as a brutish punch-happy constable and a child-like henchman.

06-08-2017-153628-1484Caitlin and Eric are Broken Up: Performers Caitlin Robson and Eric Miinch draw from their own real-life dating pasts to create an engaging and hilarious series of scenes painting an uncomfortably relatable warts-and-all picture of young love. Robson and Miinch play off each other beautifully; it is particularly rewarding to see the typically frenetically funnyman Miinch have a chance to chew on some more emotionally substantial material.

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