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2017 SummerWorks Picks: Nashville Stories

7 Aug

NashvilleStories-573x860Nashville Stories

One part concert, one part parable about fame, one part acid trip, David Bernstein and Jake Vanderham’s Nashville Stories is a gloriously wonky voyage through the world of 90s country music. Simply everyone is there; Garth, Trisha, Shania, grand dame Dolly, along with friends Ryan Seacrest and boy-toy Tony Robbins, a live band, and spandex-clad backup dancers. Interestingly, the soundtrack is filled with nostalgic 90s hits, but virtually no actual country music (call that a plus or minus according to taste).

The story (and the term is used loosely) centres on Garth Brook’s search for himself in the wake of his recent divorce. If you think you’re going to actually learn much about the real Garth Brooks or his life though, look elsewhere; the premise is a framework for alt-versions of pop figures that only tangentially correspond to their real-life counterparts to play in surreal and circus-esque scenes that are more dream-like than reality. This isn’t to say the production is nonsensical or pure chaos; there is a frenetic, albeit smart and highly calculated quality to the writing which is dotted with non-sequitors and whimsical details (who knew Shania had such a thing for houseboats and hot tubs?).

Similarly, Bernstein’s direction is a reflection of his and Vanderham’s writing – constantly in motion, but far from aimless. The cast are a talented bunch – both theatrically and vocally – and hold the Lynchian production together with the cohesion and uniformity of their performances.

Admittedly, Nashville Stories is almost certainly polarizing fare – you may love the ridiculous audacity of it, or you may dismiss it as an hour of sound and colour amounting to little, but a conventional theatrical experience it is not.

2017 Toronto Fringe Picks: Part 2

11 Jul

More highlights from this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival!

04-28-2017-032446-490732 Short Sketches About Bees

This goofy and brisk-paced sketch revue is a delightful mish-mash of high-concept dad humour and abstract comedic thinking. From an tight and talented ensemble comprised of members of past Fringe hit-makers, Dame Judy Dench and other notable faces from the Toronto sketch comedy scene, 32 Short Sketches About Bees includes everything from scenes about literal bees to more open interpretations of the subject, such as recurring bit about a Bea Arthur’s tenure as Shopper’s Drug Mart’s sexually-charged spokesperson or a concise but clever scene about mishearing the phrase “Her bees”. The self-imposed concept is stretched to its creative limits, but there is still a cohesive feel to the whole. Although perhaps a contradiction in terms, 32 Short Sketches about Bees is good dumb smart fun.

 

05-01-2017-223631-2688A Peter N’ Chris-tmas Carol

After last year’s meta-theatrical Peter Vs. Chris, this dynamic duo of comedy (Peter Carlone and Chris Wilson) return to classic form, taking on the tropes and familiar stories of the holiday season with zeal. Don’t let the title fool you; the Dickens classic is a jumping off point for the show, but there is nothing formulaic or predictable about the story they weave (other than the fact that – like all of their shows – it’s about two best friends). What always impresses is how equally adept they are at both verbal banter and physical comedy; their dissection of the lyrics of a familiar Christmas ditty and a brilliant bit involving a mug are only two of many examples. Peter N’ Chris have been one of the most reliably hilarious acts to grace the Fringe circuit, and this show only serves to cement that reputation.

 

06-08-2017-191938-6304About Time

This high-brow production from the Templeton Philharmonic (Briana Templeton and Gwynne Phillips) sits comfortably between the genres of sketch revue and theatrical vignette. In either case, it’s a smart and occasionally ribald take on the passage of time and human history. Templeton and Phillips have excellent chemistry which results in tight and calculated performances. Their writing is equally strong; some scenes, such as one in which two refined ladies share tea while speaking almost entire in double-entendres, blend silliness and propriety in a way that invites comparisons to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, while other scenes, such as one about two entertainment correspondents reporting on the lives and fashion trends of various historical monarchies, are surprisingly informative. Rather than rely on blackout music, the scenes are cleverly tied together by a sonorous narrator with a seemingly endless supply of ridiculous analogies about the nature of time that helps to elevate the concept.

 

06-12-2017-141758-7707Bendy Sign Tavern

Sex-T-Rex have established a well-deserved reputation for consistently producing must-see Fringe productions; their past theatro-cinematic takes on the action movie, the western, the swashbuckler, and the post-apocalyptic thriller have all been highly physical and imagination-driven epics. That is why their latest production, Bendy Sign Tavern – a self-aware puppet show about the staff and patrons of a downtown pub (set in the physically limited space of the Paddock at Queen and Bathurst), looks, on paper, like such a departure. In reality, this production is as richly detailed as, and lacks none of the ambition of their previous work. The sheer number of characters and puppets that emerge from every nook and cranny of the space is remarkable; there are people, animals, a literal barfly, talking food, and more. One of them even doubles as an actual server, delivering drinks and food to the audience during the show.

The story and writing feels like a CBC or TVO kid’s show from the 80s or 90s that has been elevated for adult audiences, albeit without the acid cynicism of obvious comparison, Avenue Q; there is no shortage of heart in this show. The behind-the-puppet performers are uniformly hilarious and attack the multitude of roles with zeal, and the jokes and gags, both visual and verbal are all top notch. Non-puppet piano player Elliott Loran contributes both a pleasant background music, as well as a handful of toe-tapping original spotlight numbers that will have you singing along.

Bendy Sign Tavern is a magical experience that will leave your inner child beaming.

 

05-26-2017-194513-1390MacBeth Muet

There are few shows that manage to elicit laughter and delight as well as genuine visceral cringing with equal efficacy, but Montreal-based company La Fille Du Laitier’s MacBeth Muet does exactly that. This wordless (save for a few helpful title cards) retelling of The Scottish Play is a highly imaginative and fast-paced delight that sees household objects imbued with symbolism and whimsically transformed into Shakespeare’s characters to great effect. Director and sound designer Jon Lachlan Stewart artfully blends traditional performance and puppetry, with an expertly curated soundtrack that sets the tone and pace for the bite-sized scenes. Performers Clara Prévost and Jérémie Francoeur are captivating to watch as they bridge the worlds of tragedy and comedy, human and object.

MacBeth Muet is a perfect example of the power of independent theatre and how so much can be done with so little.

 

04-27-2017-051849-3711The Seat Next to the King

This New Play Contest winner from Steven Elliott Jackson delivers an impactful punch, telling the story of two gay men – one white, one black – who meet in a public washroom in 1964 Washington DC. Jackson’s script is pointed and tender in equal measure and manages to address an impressive number of socio-political facets that speak to both the past and present. Director Tanisha Taitt smartly avoids an unnecessarily complicated staging, instead allowing the characters and their forthright dialogue to flourish. Kwaku Okyere and Conor Ling deliver powerful nuanced performances and navigate the emotionally wide reaching material with grace.

 

Brief Shout Out

06-05-2017-150645-2061 bThe Teeny Tiny Music Show: Vivacious and eccentric performer Hayley Pace’s site-specific tale of love and heartbreak is a charming and earnest entry in this year’s festival. It’s hard to say too much without spoiling the concept, but suffice to say that the title is more than a little misleading and anyone with an appetite for music would get their fill.

Summerworks 2016 Kudos

12 Aug

It has been our modus operandi for some time now to support and highlight what we feel are above-average festival productions with capsule reviews of said productions. Since we are only able to attend a handful of Summerworks productions this year, we are taking a slightly more informal approach, and highlighting whatever elements of those limited shows we feel deserves kudos:

Daughter-400x500Adam Lazarus’ Magnetic Misogyny: The co-creator and solo performer of the provocative and cringe-inducing Daughter, starts off sweet enough but gradually reveals the dark underbelly of his character. Theatre is often guilty of preaching to the choir, so a work like Daughter, which uses a seemingly innocent father-daughter relationship to explore the inner workings of the so-called woman-hating man from his sole perspective is a bold and distinct choice. His performance is so dedicated that one feels a genuine disgust for him by the end of the 60 minutes. Thanksfully a post-curtain call addendum makes it very clear that Lazarus himself does not share his character’s worldview – even if he is unsettlingly convincing.

DontTalktoMeLikeImYourWife-400x530Andrea Scott’s Two-Sided Argument: Writer Andrea Scott’s Don’t Talk to me Like I’m Your Wife is ostensibly about alleged WW1 spy and seductress Mata Hari, but it is Scott’s use of the iconic figure as a means to discuss historic and modern feminism, its evolution and definition, that stands out as her work’s greatest takeaway. This discussion plays out as a present-day conversation between a progressively-minded white male history professor (David Christo) and a female student of colour (Lisa Karen Cox); it’s dense and intellectual, and manages to present a remarkably well-rounded summary without betraying a strong bias towards any single argument or point of view. It’s the kind of artful and pointed ambiguity that practically demands post-show discussion among audience members.

412ignobletruths-400x500MyNightmaresWearWhite-400x267Thomas McKechnie and Grace Thompson’s Comedic Bravery: McKechnie and Thompson, the writer/performers of  4 1/2 (ig)noble truths and My Nightmares Wear White respectively, each put their raw personal battles front and centre; McKechnie shares the realities of living with depression, while Thompson evokes the challenges of surviving a debilitating auto-immune disease. Where they share common ground is in their use of humour to tell their stories; while each is essentially tragic at its core, their ability to lace their performances with comedic moments creates an artful balance that is demonstrative of the resilience of these two remarkable artists.

InUteroOut-400x267The Three-Dimensionality of IN UTERO OUT: From experimental shadow-puppet company, Drawing with Knives, IN UTERO OUT is a pensive docu-theatre examination of human birth. The piece itself is thoughtful and accomplished, but it is the multitude of creative ways in which the company add literal depth to what is often a very two-dimensional medium of story-telling that makes it stand out aesthetically.

 

SummerWorks Picks 2015: Part 2

15 Aug

SummerWorks is winding up this weekend but there are still chances to see some great shows! Here are more capsule reviews of our favourite fare at this year’s festival.

 

Stupidhead! (A Mucisal Cmoedy)

stupidheadThis confessional musical comedy spearheaded and performed by Katherine Cullen, co-written by Britta Johnson (one of the members of musical hit-machine Johnston, Johnson, and Wilde) and directed by Aaron Willis, is a hilarious and insightful window into Cullen’s real life struggle with dyslexia.

While many think of dyslexia as being an issue predominantly related to one’s ability to read or understand written language, Cullen dispels that misconception with a laundry list of personal quirks related to the condition and anecdotes from her often frustrating years in school. This show isn’t a pity party though; Cullen may be self-effacing (opening with an apology for having decided to write and perform a musical despite her complete lack of musical theatre training), but is a confident and eminently likeable performer and the content of the show reaches far beyond her learning disability, ultimately painting a lively and relatable portrait of the artist.

The wry musical numbers are definite highlights; one bit about a Tindr match’s listed passions of “Dobermans” and “Nutella” is transformed into a laugh-out-loud ditty that sticks with you long after the show lets out.

Another noteworthy element is the lone but domineering set piece by Anahita Dehbonehie; the sizeable mobile depicting a papier-mâché brain surrounded by cartoonish lightning bolts that hangs over Cullen’s head is on point with the tone of the piece and makes for an apt visual metaphor.

 

Counting Sheep

Counting SheepThose already familiar with the Lemon Bucket Orkestra (Toronto’s brilliant answer to Gogol Bordello) know that anything associated with the self-described balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super-band is bound to be worth checking out – and their venture into the world of interactive theatre with Counting Sheep only reinforces that trend.

Counting Sheep (created by Mark and Marichka Marczyk) is billed as a Ukrainian Folk Opera that recounts the recent crises in Ukraine, starting with the political protests and clashes with police in Kiev in early 2014 and continuing right up to the present day war with Russia. It is the way in which the story is told that makes this production one of the most engaging, entertaining, and compelling in the SummerWorks line-up.

The cast – all wearing sheep masks – touchingly re-enact the key events of the revolution, chapter by chapter, using three massive projections screens as backdrops to display corresponding footage of the protests and riots from news reports and grass-roots sources. Eschewing dialogue in favour of music to set the tone of each chapter, the audience is treated to a smorgasbord of traditional Ukrainian songs than runs the gamut from melancholy hymnals to gregarious gypsy tunes. They are also treated to a smorgasbord of a different kind; an assortment of Ukrainian dishes are served throughout the performance making for a truly multi-sensory cultural experience.

The strongest elements of the performance are the immersive and interactive ones that have the audience dancing with the cast, building a barricade, and throwing “cobblestones” at riot police. Even those typically wary of audience participation will find themselves compelled to step into the beautiful and chaotic fray.

Counting Sheep is theatrical innovation at its best.

SummerWorks Picks 2015: Part 1

10 Aug

The 2015 edition of the SummerWorks Performance Festival is in full swing! Here are capsule reviews of the works that have stood out for us thus far:

the marquise of O-

marquiseDirector Ted Witzel and his company, Red Light District, are back with an adventurous and high-concept take on the early 19th century story by Heinrich von Kleist about a noblewoman who goes to extraordinarily public lengths to find the man responsible for her seemingly immaculate conception.

Co-written by Witzel and Lauren Gillis, the marquise of O- is a delightful blend of parody, anachronisms, and fourth-wall breaking that all serve to both skewer and enliven the stuffy conventions of the story’s era – but a superficial play, this is not. By the time the curtain falls, the audience is confronted by the realization of just how profound the Marquise’s story really is, and one almost feels guilty for having enjoyed the first half so heartily. Mix in some tidbits of Kantian philosophy, and you have a truly thought-provoking and layered piece of theatre.

Production-wise, Witzel’s trademark style and vision is on full display with a dynamic and mobile two-sided set that would make Brecht proud, a multitude of projection elements that support the artifice of the work and offer some wry meta-commentary, and some surreal touches that include the memorable use of a horse mask.

The cast (Kaleb Alexander, Rong Fu, Tyler Hagemann, Richard Partington, G. Kyle Shields, and Eve Wylden) make for a top notch ensemble, and while each performer is given time to shine, Shields is guilty of some serious scene stealing as the Marquise’s foppish and laissez-faire brother.

One side note: This play contains discussions of sexual assault. We mention this here because it was not listed as part of the audience warning at the venue, nor is there any audience warning information listed on the SummerWorks website.

 

This is Where We Live

This is Where We LiveVancouver-born, Australian playwright Vivienne Walshe’s This is Where We Live is a remarkable piece of writing; gritty yet poetic, lean yet lush. Walshe expertly paints small town Australia as an emotionally desolate locale; one thinks of the outback as an unforgiving landscape full of venomous creatures – an idea Walshe seems to draw on as metaphorical inspiration for this loose adaptation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

At the centre of her story is Chloe (Jenna Harris), a prickly teen who compensates for her learning disability and permanent limp with a tough-as-nails exterior and “fuck the world” attitude. It is Chris (Tim Welham), the quiet odd-ball of Chloe’s English class (and son of her unforgiving teacher), that manages to crack open her protective shell and ultimately forges an intimate bond with her. Together, the idea of escaping their mundane realities doesn’t seem so farfetched after all. It’s not a complex narrative, but one that touches on a great number of human truths.

Harris and Welham are both a treat to watch; Harris’ drawling Aussie accent and cynical demeanour is a perfect counterpoint to Welham’s comedic and youthful performance. Director Taryn Jorgenson and set designer Jenna McCutchen make effective use of the sometimes stifling Passe Muraille Backspace; the confined space adds an element of emotional claustrophobia while the use of ladders as a visual motif supports the theme of ascension and escape.

 

Seams

SeamsIn a festival that celebrates the blending and bending of art forms, Polly Phokeev’s Seams may be one of the more conventional theatrical presentations in this year’s line-up, but that makes it no less of a memorable or effective work.

Set in a theatre’s costume shop in 1939 Russia, Seams is a tender and nuanced ensemble piece about the women – and man – who spend their days tailoring costumes and dresses and dreaming of better lives, while the world outside their workshop succumbs to violence and political strife.

Laced with nostalgia and bittersweet moments, Phokeev’s story captures the humanity and resilience of the Russian people, as well the eventual paranoia and distrust fostered by the communist regime that permeates and corrupts their lives.

The youthful cast (Krystina Bojanowski, Clare Coulter, Sochi Fried, Jesse LaVercombe, Caitlin Robson, Elizabeth Stuart-Morris, and Ewa Wolniczek), under the artful direction of Mikaela Davies, deliver charming and heartfelt performances. A rich and vintage design from Shannon Lea Doyle makes the world of the piece that much more tangible.

2015 Fringe Picks: Part 5

12 Jul

Due to time constraints and the annoyingly inconvenient human need for sleep, we were unfortunately unable to cover all the shows that we thoroughly enjoyed. Even thought the 2015 Toronto Fringe Festival is nearly over (single tear), here are a few late nods to works that deserve recognition:

The Untitled Sam Mullins Project – Sam Mullins explores his younger self’s inhibitions and hang-ups through a collection of personal and insightful stories. One about his father’s unexpected run-in with a has-been baseball star is particularly profound. Between his artful sense of narrative and his trademark delivery, which has a hint of rhythmic staccato, Mullins proves he is more than just your average one-person storytelling act.

High Tea– James and Jamesy, two peculiar Englishmen, take the traditional tea party to extremes in this imaginative and surreal physical comedy that features many an audience member donning costumes and playing memorable parts.

The Philanderess – Sophia Fabiilli’s modern-day take on Shaw’s The Philanderer is one part bedroom farce and one part egalitarian treatise on 21st century love and sexuality. Smart and funny, Fabiilli’s work is well supported by genial cast – especially the energetic Jakob Ehman whose performance is turned up to eleven for the entire 60 minutes.

That’s Just 5 Kids in a Trench Coat! – Sketch troupe Dame Judy Dench and director Marty Adams hit this one out of the park. Their hilarious sketch revue is characterized by clever writing and skilful performances, but it is the gently demented and often unexpected touches that elevate it from good to great.

Me With You – The topic of mental health can be tricky artistic territory if not handled with care and respect. Fortunately Myrthin Stagg and Oliver Georgiou, the creative team behind this two-hander, have clearly done their homework and the simple story that opens with a brother unexpectedly showing up at his sister’s doorstep with all his belongings makes for a moving snapshot of mental illness. Innovative staging and choreography, effective lighting design, and a strong percussive soundtrack from composer Elliot Loran all contribute to the emotional and theatrical effectiveness of the work.

2015 Fringe Picks: Part 4

11 Jul

The last weekend of the 2015 Toronto Fringe Festival is upon us! Here are more capsule reviews of some excellent offerings:

 

pool (no water)

Credit: Samantha Hurley

Credit: Samantha Hurley

This provocative work from English playwright Mark Ravenhill is brought to live with a deft production from Toronto company Cue6. A recently famous artist invites a group of her still-struggling bohemian friends to visit her at her new abode (complete with outdoor pool), but the night takes a dark turn after the artist suffers a debilitating mishap. It is in the aftermath of the accident that her friends’ true natures and appetite for opportunism are tested and exposed.

The undercurrent of envy that defines the single-voice work is beautifully communicated by performers Chy Ryan Spain, Allison Price, Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman, and Daniel Roberts. Director Jill Harper elegantly marries the script with vigorous blocking and physical theatre elements that enhances the already alluring story.

 

Served

jill_welsh_ron_kelly_served_promo_shotPlaywright Graham Isador’s smart ensemble comedy about the behind-the-scenes world of restaurant servers is elevated beyond the typical “My Crazy Job Fringe Show” (of which there are many) by examining the existential questions that all of us with joe-jobs eventually confront.

Director Tom Arthur Davis makes remarkable use of the confined space in the Epicure Café; even a surreal dream sequence is accomplished with surprising success given the limitations of the venue. Performers Jillian Welsh, En Lai Mah, and Ron Kelly are all delightfully spot-on in their parts, but it is the chameleon-like Glyn Bowerman who steals the show as a series of difficult and eccentric customers.

 

Peter N Chris present: Here Lies Chris

pnc_-_here_lies_chris_program_photo_cmykThis dynamic duo are back with another hysterical offering, this time pushing the boundaries of their usual narrative and adventure-heavy shows by incorporating some unexpected and laugh-out-loud funny meta-theatre. The gist of the story is that when Chris dies in a banana peel-related accident, his best friend Peter must travel to parallel universes to find his replacement and bring him back home. It’s a clever concept on which they are able to hang a myriad of unique scenarios – and work through some personal (and very fourth wall-breaking) business.

These two are modern masters of character and physical comedy and should not be missed.

 

The Dinner Table

dt_poster_may_25This intimate little show from creators/curators Ali Richardson and Ben Hayward is site-specific theatre at its best and a wonderful departure from the buffet of comedy, musicals, and one-person shows that flavour the Fringe experience. Each night twelve lucky patrons are invited to sit down at the dinner table with a notable member of the theatre community to hear them tell a story about “home” – whatever that means to them. The storytelling is accompanied by food selected by the guest of honour and served up by Hayward and Richardson. It’s a dead-simple concept but one that makes for a rich and multi-sensory experience.

On the night this reviewer attended, it was Sky Gilbert, founding member of Buddies in Bad Times, that ambled through his memories of the sights and characters of Toronto’s Church Street, seasoned with a few pointed socio-political observations (he’s not a fan of the condo boom), while everyone nibbled on an assortment of cheeses and sipped on luscious red wine. The casual atmosphere led to conversation bubbling up amongst those at the table, and once the allotted runtime was over, at least two thirds of the audience stayed to continue to chat and linger.

Here’s hoping The Dinner Table becomes a regular event so that even more can experience its magic.

2015 Fringe Picks: Part 3

8 Jul

It’s been an incredible festival so far and we are only half-way there! Here are yet more reviews of some top notch shows at this year’s Toronto Fringe!

 

God’s Beard! (The Only Sketch Show That Has Ever Happened)

Credit: Call Back Headshots

Credit: Call Back Headshots

Sketch troupe, Falcon Powder (comprised of Jim Annan, Scott Montgomery, and Kurt Smeaton), have been winning awards and wowing Toronto audiences for years – and now Fringe audiences finally have a chance to see what all the fuss is about. A sort of restructured ‘best-of’ of their material (I suspect the parenthetical in their title, ‘The Only Sketch Show That Has Ever Happened’, is an inside joke for their followers), God’s Beard is sketch at its best; tight writing, unique conceits, polished performances, palpable chemistry, clever blocking, smart and seamless transitions – it’s all there in spades. Unlike less seasoned troupes, Annan, Montgomery, and Smeaton all know and play off their hits well, making their characters particularly well-developed.

While Falcon Powder’s Second City origins are evident, there’s an edgier side to their material that is very much welcome. Their sketches range from chipper songs about the supernatural side-effect of having pals, to absurdist gems like a wordless bit about a trio of xylophonists and a theatre-of-the-mind scene about a plane waiting for take-off.

Those who have seen Falcon Powder before will have no problem thoroughly enjoying some material for the second time, and those who haven’t have an enormous comedic treat in store for them.

 

SwordPlay: A Play of Swords

julian_frid_seann_murray_julian_frid_kaitlin_morrow_conor_bradbury_josef_addlemanSketch/Theatre company extraordinaire, Sex-T-Rex, are back and adding to their canon of imaginative, inventive, visually arresting, and flat out hilarious homages to various tropes and genres. In past they’ve tackled sci-fi, action/adventure, and the western, and based on its title you’d be forgiven for assuming that their latest offering lampoons the blood-soaked world of Game of Thrones. There’s definitely some of that mixed in there, but in truth it is more of an ode to childhood fantasy and video games, with plenty of swashbuckling thrown in for good measure.

Performers Josef Addleman, Conor Bradbury, Julian Frid, Kaitlin Morrow, and Seann Murray each play a multitude of parts with grandiose aplomb, and director Alec Toller ensures that every gag and detail is communicated with precision and clarity.

Swordplay: A Play of Swords is a ripping yarn greatly enhanced by its creators’ almost supernatural ability to create vivid scenes in the mind’s eye using little more than some fabric and foam swords – and some poofy shirts. Not to be missed.

 

Capsule Reviews

We see a lot of excellent shows but don’t always have time to post full write-ups for everything worth catching. Here are some noteworthy Fringe offerings and our thoughts in brief:

 

Morro and Jasp do Puberty

Credit: Alex Nirta

Credit: Alex Nirta

These clown sisters played by Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee (along with director Byron Laviolette) are Fringe legends (this is their ninth year at the festival) and with good reason. Their trademark chemistry, spontaneity, audience interaction, and hilarious personae are on full display in this remount of one of their greatest hits (although who’s kidding – they’ve never put on a bad show) in which the motley duo tackle the topics of menstruation, boys, sex, and awkward slow dances. If you’ve never seen Morro and Jasp before, do yourself a favour and get yourself a ticket.

Also worth noting: The duo are taking their show to the Edinburgh Fringe (not an inexpensive venture) and are crowd funding to help pay their way. Check out their Indiegogo campaign here.

 

A Man Walks into a Bar

Credit: Jon Roberts

Credit: Jon Roberts

Playwright (and co-performer) Rachel Blair’s taught and clever play starts with the telling of a joke set in a bar, but quickly evolves into a nuanced and challenging dialogue about gender and stereotypes that is guaranteed to generate conversation long after the curtain comes down. Even something as simple as a costume change manages to speak volumes.

Blair and fellow cast member Blue Bigwood-Mallin navigate the script adeptly and give affecting performances; their forced smiles eventually giving way to the true tension at the heart of the piece.

 

Lockeye & Pond in Death Killing Machine

lockjawjpg2050This piece could use a bit of tightening and perhaps a stronger directorial hand, but it’s nevertheless a delightfully goofy and unique take on the spy genre – think James Bond meets The Odd Couple. The talented cast, led by Reid Brackenbury and Eric Miinch, are clearly having a good time on stage, and that atmosphere of fun and improvisation certainly augments the audience experience.

 

My Big Fat German Puppet Show

frank-meschkuleit-compilation-shayne-grayFrank Meschkuleit’s one-man show is a remarkable feat of showmanship and puppet artistry. Meschkuleit’s plays the part of a deceptively voluminous Teutonic emcee/ringleader who draws the audience in with kindness and quirky philosophical tidbits but also keeps them at arm’s length with gentle barbs. His quick wit and prodding demeanour make him an endearing host and his presence alone would make for a worthy hour of entertainment.

But he is hardly alone; puppets ranging from a zombie magician diva to a famous physicist all make memorable musical appearances. The sheer detail of his handcrafted companions is remarkable and a testament to both his mastery and love of the craft. Magical stuff.

2015 Fringe Picks: Part 2

5 Jul

More reviews of wonderful offerings to check out at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival!

The Orchid and the Crow

Credit: Andrew Wuttke

Credit: Andrew Wuttke

Those who have been regular attendees of the Toronto Fringe will undoubtedly light up at the mention of the three little words “Die Roten Punkte”. This Australia-based faux brother-sister comedy punk rock duo are Fringe legends – not only in Toronto, but around the world. One half of DRP is musician and performer Daniel Tobias who has abandoned his wig, makeup, and German accent to present a wry, touching, and song-laden story of his unusual upbringing as a member of a bacon-eating, Christmas-celebrating family of atheistic Jews, and of his own personal battle with cancer. It’s far from navel gazing though; interspersed with the personal details are astute satirical elements, like a catchy song about Yahweh’s peculiar obsession with foreskins.

Tobias’s diverse and artfully composed music (co-written by Clare Bartholomew) is a highlight, with expertly produced backing tracks setting his work apart from the myriad of two and three piece combos that so frequently adorn Fringe stages. Another highlight: Tobias’ fearlessness and generosity as a performer. Although one should not expect it to be a regular part of the show, a wonderfully spontaneous moment occurred at the performance this reviewer attended in which the scientific merit of an analogy about the Brontosaurus was challenged by a member of the audience; rather than dismissing it, Tobias embraced the opportunity for an aside to the scripted show and made comedic hay.

Smart and entertaining stuff.

 

In Case We Disappear

Credit: Nancy Ribeiro

Credit: Nancy Ribeiro

Vanessa Smyth’s gentle one-woman show is a wonderful hybrid of song, story-telling, spoken word, and poetry. The work as a whole is structured as a series of short first-person pieces, each beautifully intimate and thoughtful, and often bittersweet. A simple bed-side table and lamp both set the mood and allude to the work’s origin as a bedtime game she and her brother used to play.

Smyth almost literally invites the audience into her mind and her heart, sharing stories of love that was and love that might have been; even comparatively funny bits like her staccato take on the experience of being a server at a sports bar end with unexpected aplomb. Smyth uses a microphone to artfully enhance the feeling of intimacy in the appropriately cozy Tarragon Extra Space, her sing-song voice becoming almost as much a character as she herself.

A soothing and magical little piece from an utterly charming artist.

 

Summerland

work14-oriThis is almost certainly the largest show in the history of the Toronto Fringe – and a mammoth production in any context. Written by Anika Johnson, Barbara Johnson, and Suzy Wilde, and featuring a cast of one hundred – yes, one hundred – truly talented young performers (many from the Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts) Summerland is a musical that stands heads and shoulders above all other offerings in terms of scale and ambition. Set in a real high school (Harbord Collegiate in this case), it opens with echoes of the Breakfast Club; a collection of divergent high school archetypes – all in trouble for various infractions – get sent away together to a special camp for alternative discipline. It is when their bus crashes on the way up to the camp that things take an unexpectedly magical turn.

Summerland’s music is bang-on, mixing Broadway ballads with epic rock opera (the use of atypical instruments like the electric organ is particularly effective). While the writing and dialogue could be more sophisticated at times, there are some very solid one-liners, and the youth-empowered story as a whole is imaginative and well-constructed. It’s very much like the musical version of a quality YA novel.

The cast is ripe with talent; there is something truly magical about hearing a chorus of 100 of young and finely tuned voices singing in perfect harmony. While there are too many to mention by name, Mercedes Morris in the part of ‘Queen Raven’, demonstrated particularly notable dramatic and vocal prowess. Director Ann Merriam and Choreographer Honey Frid also deserve special recognition for their powerful and dynamic staging – no doubt an intricate challenge that they made look deceptively easy.

One quick word of advice that many at the performance this reviewer attended did not heed: Arrive early and feel free to wander the halls before lining up to enter the auditorium; the performers are milling about in true site-specific fashion, and you can catch some great little scenes that set the mood before the main show begins.

2015 Fringe Picks: Part 1

2 Jul

Less than 24 hours into the 2015 Toronto Fringe Festival and there are already two shows that made our list of picks! Here are our reviews.

People Suck

peoplesuckcastphoto2This hilarious song cycle co-written by Peter Cavell and Megan Phillips pays homage, nay, celebrates the worst in all of us; through catchy tunes and deviously clever lyrics, the crappiest facets of humanity are dissected and put on display for all to enjoy. Cavell and Phillips’ songs each tackle one of many relatable archetypes – flakes, Darwin-defying idiots, religious zealots, annoying co-workers, etc. – but without ever coming off as distastefully cynical. Balancing out the comedy are two earnest and well-placed numbers that are as touching as the rest are funny.

Musically speaking, the show is wonderfully varied; there is a tonal through-line to it all, but each composition draws from a different genre or style. One particularly clever highlight is a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘A Little List’ in which those who butcher grammar and the English language are taken to task.

Performers Ashley Comeau, Allison Price, Connor Thompson, Arthur Wright, and Megan Phillips command the stage with ease and are a treat to watch. While some are vocally stronger than others, the quintet’s collective decades of comedy and improv expertise (most are alumni of the Second City program) is plainly obvious.

Director Kerry Griffin impressively turns a little into a lot, with sharp blocking and choreography (one bit involving a visual representation of evolution was particularly well done) defying the sparse stage with ease.

A little relatable schadenfreude and a lot of catchy music makes this show one not to miss.

 

Gavin Crawford: “Friend” “Like” #Me

gavin_selfieCanadian comedy heavyweight, Gavin Crawford (of ‘The Gavin Crawford Show’ and ‘This Hour has 22 Minutes’ fame) and director/co-creator Kyle Tingly deliver a sharp quasi-meta treatise on our relationship with social media. It’s not virgin territory, but through his unique lens, Crawford brings new insight and personal reflection to the issue. Oh, and it’s funny as hell too.

Framed as a story about an increasingly bad day in which Crawford, playing himself, attempts to finally sit down and write his Fringe show but is distracted by the bottomless pit that is social media, “Friend” “Like” #Me is laced with a plethora of delightful tangents and trademark character pieces, and more than a couple self-effacing jokes (his vocal critique of one-person shows is a particularly wonderful bit of irony).

Those who saw his previous stage work, Sh**ting Rainbows, will be pleased to know Crawford is still in fine form – and those who only know him from his work on television may find delight in seeing a grittier and more earnest version of the affable performer than they might expect.

Review: An Enemy of the People

27 Sep

An Enemy of the People,Tarragon TheaterTalk about starting with a bang. Artistic Director Richard Rose has opted to present an English translation of a German adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as the Tarragon Theatre’s 2014/2015 season opener. It sounds like the kind of project that could have easily and almost literally gotten lost in translation but Rose’s bold choice as AD of the company and equally bold choices director of the production pay off in no uncertain terms.

At the heart of Enemy is a modern moral dilemma; When Thomas Stockmann (Joe Cobden), a small town’s well-meaning doctor discovers that the town’s spa’s waters are contaminated with waste and bacteria from factories upstream from the source, he sees the problem as having a simple solution – move the spa’s water intake further upstream. But with the spa being the town’s primary source of income and his solution representing a serious threat to its financial viability, others around him, including his brother Peter (Rick Roberts) – a business-friendly town councillor – and his friend Hovstad (Matthew Edison) – the anti-establishment leaning editor of the town’s paper – react to his findings far less pragmatically, leaving him trapped in the middle of an ideological battle. Soon, Stockmann’s simple determination puts him at odds with the rest of the townsfolk – whose motivations are not all as noble – and he ultimately finds himself in the surreal position of having to defend what seemed like solid moral high ground as well as his own good standing in the community.

Although Florian Borchmeyer’s adaptation may not have been penned with Canada or Toronto in mind, the parallels are hard to miss. Our contradictory economic dependence on the oil sands and distaste for its ecological consequences is the most obvious, but the less honourable side of City Hall politics, which we have become all too familiar with, also permeates the dramatic proceedings. This is most wonderfully obvious when, during a scene taking place at a town meeting, the boundaries of the production are busted wide open in glorious fashion. If there is one weakness to note, it is the occasional stylistic inconsistency of dialogue; while the production is fully modern in most respects, some lines still have the musty air of an age of didactic theatre gone-by and clash with those that have been more artfully updated.

While the ensemble cast – which also includes Tom Barnett, Brandon McGibbon, Richard McMillan, and Tamara Podemski – and their performances are all very strong (Roberts is at times particularly fun to watch romp around in hysterics), it is Rose’s unconventional staging that steals the show. Making no attempt to create a sense of visual realism, Rose imbues the production with imagery scrawled in chalk on the slate walls of the set (designed by Michelle Tracey), using the idea of “black and white” both a stylistic and thematic statement. Recognizable pop covers performed by the musically adept cast add extra layers of meaning while reinforcing the mood of artifice. Even the no-brainer concept of actors playing to the audience is tested, with Cobden at times delivering lines to the walls, effectively enhancing his sense of isolation.

The whole thing is a wonderfully slow and thought provoking burn that eventually builds to a delightful state of mania. Here’s hoping the entire season is this good.

 

Summerworks Picks: Part 4

16 Aug

Due to time constraints, these productions aren’t getting the word-count they deserve, but are all strong entries in this year’s festival, which sadly winds down this weekend. Catch a few more shows while you can!

disappear_0113-copy-620x426How to Disappear Completely

Israeli lighting designer Itai Erdal’s utterly moving piece is best defined as a theatrical conversation, and the unfettered directness of the communication between performer and audience is only one of the many reasons that one may find oneself tearful by the curtain call. Erdal’s piece revolves around the story of his strong-willed mother, her losing battle with cancer, and his attempt to document via video the events and conversations leading up to her death. Fortunately Erdal is a natural and confident storyteller and he affords the heavy material the right amount of levity to make for a surprisingly entertaining – if ultimately bittersweet – 60 minutes. Erdal’s integration and dissection of his craft, in the form of lights and lighting cues he controls and discusses from the stage, doesn’t run completely parallel to the personal narrative, but this second facet to the show is fascinating enough (at least from a layman’s perspective) that it still adds considerably more to the experience than it distracts.

Enough-Rope-Photo1-620x500Enough Rope

This non-narrative performance-based piece manages to both parody and pay homage to its chosen genre with great aplomb – an apt combination for such a notoriously love-it or hate-it format. A physically confined tent-like setting breeds intimacy and circus-esque aesthetic choices hint at the tone of the show which is both tongue-in-cheek and earnest in equal measure. Rather than try to confront the audience, the quartet of dedicated performers engage with them, the spontaneous back-and-forth impressively quick. Charming and inventive stuff.

ADAM041-620x500The Art of Building a Bunker or Paddling the Canoe of my Self down the River of Inclusivity and into the Ass of the World

This incredibly politically-uncorrect comedy about a mid-level government employee forced to attend sensitivity training comes courtesy of Toronto clown community notable, Adam Lazarus, and director Guillermo Verdecchia. Bunker keeps one in stiches for the first half, but eventually the meat of the piece emerges which Lazarus, as the sole actor, supports with a fiery yet calculated performance. One may never agree with the protagonist or his views, but his journey does give one unexpected insight into the concepts of human fear and vulnerability.

to-myself-at-28-smTo Myself at 28

Queer theatre legend/pioneer/still-kicking-ass-and-taking-names-er Sky Gilbert takes to the stage with protégé Spencer Charles Smith in a piece that – in the hands of a lesser artist – could have come off as self-indulgent. Fortunately, Gilbert’s self-effacing, fourth-wall breaking, and reflective style, makes this sometimes contentious conversation with a younger version of himself (as embodied by Smith) an honest and refreshing work. Smith deserves special credit for mirroring Gilbert so effectively while still adding his own cheeky touch.

Late-Company-photo-credit-Erin-Brubacher-620x500Late Company

Playwright Jordan Tannahill impresses again with a nuanced and mainstage-worthy piece about the consequences of bullying and the extent to which those consequences reach far beyond the victim. Given the premise it would be easy to slip into preachy territory, but Tannahill artfully avoids it, instead giving some breathing room to every side of the argument – even those than come off as archaic. Director Peter Pasyk and the top-notch cast work together to present a taught yet natural performance; the always captivating Rosemary Dunsmore delivers a particularly strong turn as a mother in mourning.

 

Summerworks Picks: Part 3

12 Aug

salomes-clothes9528-copy-620x500Salome’s Clothes

This tender and nuanced work about, Queen, a caring and level-headed single mom raising her two whip-smart daughters is unfettered by overwrought drama or unnecessarily complicated staging, and as such is able to deliver tremendous emotional impact. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s subtle yet powerful script leaves one wanting to shout in protest from one’s seat as the remarkable mother wilfully blinds herself in the name of stability and comfort. Even more impactful is the play’s conclusion, expertly staged by director Clare Preuss, in which the condensed passage time is used to great effect to punctuate the consequences of Queen’s singular misstep.

The cast of three, helmed by Karen Robinson as Queen, deserve much kudos. Their ability to communicate profound emotional truths through remarkably natural performances – and without having to resort to wailing matches or vitriolic breakdowns – is akin to a breath of fresh air.

Summerworks Picks: Part 2

11 Aug

More treats from the Summerworks theatre lineup!

 

Holy Mothers

This translated import from Austrian playwright Werner Schwab is most definitely not for those with sensitive constitutions, but it is nevertheless a strangely charming piece of theatre blanketed with delightfully dark humour. At the centre of it are three aging cleaning women (Vickie Papavs, Astrid Van Wieren, and Lorna Wilson) who spend their downtime regaling each other with unpleasant and exaggerated tales about shit, vomit, and their troubled children, as well as simple and hopeful fantasies about better lives filled with romance and goulash. Didactic philosophical statements about the nature of life interspersed in the script feel clunky, but do break up the scatological content and give the characters some depth. Schwab’s greatest choice is to have his piece literally parody itself, giving one the sense that it’s all part of a grand and well-crafted joke.

Director Elizabeth Saunders and set/costume designer Anna Treusch’s aesthetic choices enhance the piece greatly; the kitsch-adorned set and the characters’ personalized costumes communicate just as much as the dialogue. All three performers are commendable, but Vickie Papavs deserves special mention for her quirky and sympathetic portrayal of Mariedl, the pious and off-kilter member of the trio.

 

Delicacy

Yet another splendid offering from one of Toronto’s most reliable independent companies, Theatre Brouhaha, helmed by playwright and human spitfire, Kat Sandler. Delicacy is set in an upscale condo owned by Mark (Andy Trithardt), a pompous writer and Tonya (Tennille Read), his uptight interior designer wife as they entertain Colby (Kelly McCormack) and Len (Kaleb Alexander), a free-wheeling fauxhemian suburbanite couple they met at a swingers club. While the plan is for an experimental evening of spouse swapping, the socially-obligatory socializing that precedes it goes awry and produces more tension and cathartic soul-baring than arousal.

Sandler manages to comment on the urban lifestyle and its superficialities, contemporary racial perceptions, class relations, sexual politics, and the fallibility of love and marriage – all while still giving priority to her story, characters, and sharp and witty dialogue. The performances do the script justice with strong turns from the entire cast; each actor embracing their character’s archetype while still giving them palpable depth and humanity.

 

The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw

This toe-tapping musical, billed as a “bluegrass opera” is a quaint piece of storytelling from playwright Peter Anderson, supported by a talented and energetic cast and an outstanding soundtrack. Perfect summer fare.

Using the familiar trope of the southern farm boy who makes a deal with a devil at the crossroads in exchange for musical prowess (or in this case, a supernatural banjo), The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw is a treat to sit through. While the cast are clearly having a ball on stage, and director Jennifer Brewin manages to evoke mood, location, and folksy charm with impressively few resources, it is John Millard’s music that is the true star of the show. Staying true to both the style of bluegrass and the expositional conventions of musical theatre, Millard’s score for banjo, bass, fiddle, and guitar is tuneful, moving, and far more interesting than the cookie-cutter ballads that have come to define the Broadway musical (I’m looking at you ‘Wicked’). His use of choral harmony is a particularly haunting treat.

 

Summerworks Picks: Part 1

9 Aug

One day in and we already have a gem of a show to tell you about!

Tender Napalm

Philip Ridley’s not-at-all-straightforward piece (the contrast in the title is appropriate) may be about two young people stranded on a tropical island, it may be about two people falling in love at a bittersweet party, it may be about both. There are few structural barriers to the reality presented, making for a delightfully fluid and vibrant experience. Ridley’s script is rich with overlapping themes; love, lust, violence, and loss all permeate the story without it ever feeling contradictory or overwhelming.

Director Cynthia Ashperger keeps her cast in constant physical and emotional motion, making the transitions between scenes (and the term is used loosely) impressively seamless. She, along with her talented cast (Kyle Purcell and Amelia Sargisson) capture the spirit of children playing make-believe while offsetting it with some very adolescent and adult moments.

Purcell and Sargisson both impress, each walking a fine line between aggression and remorse, reality and imagination. Sound designer David Mesiha also deserves a nod for his work.