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SummerWorks 2018 Pick: A Girl Lives Alone

14 Aug

A Girl Lives Alone

This auditorily-rich production from writer-director (and cast member) Jessica Moss artfully weaves elements of old and new like pre-television radio dramas and digital podcasts, Hitchcockian psychological thrillers and modern-day cop procedurals, as well as themes of solitude and self-imposed insulation into an intriguing and atmospheric spectacle.

After a Grace, a young actress (Tiffany Deobald), is gruesomely murdered in a low-rise apartment building, the diverse tenants all start eyeing each other with a little more suspicion. Marion (Samantha Madely), the newest tenant – and something of a loner – begins to suspect the building’s most eccentric resident, a professional foley artist (Andrew Musselman), of having been involved, leading her to strike up a bizarre friendship with the enigmatic sound-maker under the guise of “investigation”.

Not only does the foley artist play a part in the narrative, but also transparently provides ongoing sound effect accompaniment to the action on stage. It’s a quirky but effective choice that draws attention to itself in such a way that it invites one to briefly close one’s eyes and experience the story through sound alone – a sort of choose-your-own sensory experience. This is particularly true of the climax, which is unconventionally ambiguous for a whodunit, but still extremely effective at rattling the audience.

Innovative direction, charismatic performances, and a script rife with red herrings (and a few charming pop culture references), make for a memorable show.

SummerWorks 2018 Pick: Winners and Losers

11 Aug

Winners and Losers

Sometimes the simplest of concepts and presentations can also be the most impactful and effective. Such is the case with Chromatic Theatre’s presentation of Winners and Losers – a work originally devised by Marcus Yousseff and James Long, and adapted for this incarnation by Valerie Planche, Makambe K. Simamba, and director Jenna Rodgers.

In Winners and Losers, there is no set, no complex blocking, no elaborate lighting, no evocative sounds cues – just two performers (Planche and Simamba) at a table who toss out whatever subject – whether it be person, place, concept, or thing – that seemingly happens to come to mind and then debate if it’s a “Winner” or a “Loser”. If you think that alone can’t sustain a 75 minute show, you’d be sorely mistaken. The back and forth opens up the opportunity for creative and organic discourse on any and all topics at the forefront of today’s society; race, feminism, politics, history, celebrity culture – the list goes on. The fact that each subject has to be argued from both sides – no matter how obvious the answer might seem – means that Winners and Losers is a challenging work in the literal sense of the term and is effectively structurally incapable of preaching to the choir, which is a criticism often applied to theatre (and often with some degree of merit). There are certain motifs which are revisited, each time with more emotional depth. It is these heightened moments that takes what is already a dense and intriguing show, and elevates it to something even more special.

Because of its minimalist nature, much of Winners and Losers’ success rests on the shoulders of Planche and Simamba. The two are disparate in terms of age, race, and cultural upbringing, but they share a remarkable chemistry and kinship which gives any elements of antagonism a playful edge. They are both sharp performers who know how to manipulate the audience and each other, and who are able to blend the impromptu and scripted elements of the show seamlessly.

2018 Toronto Fringe Picks: Part 3

13 Jul

With the final weekend of the Toronto Fringe Festival upon us, here are a few more brief recommendations!

Dead for a Ducat: A deliciously clever and earnest film noir adaptation of Hamlet, with all the parts smartly performed by only two talented and hard working actors. It can be risky to mess with the classics, but Dead for a Ducat pulls it off with aplomb.

Harvey and the Extraordinary: This touching site-specific piece situated in a back-alley garage uses the premise of an eight year-old aspiring mime performing a show for her neighbours as the vehicle for a far more profound and moving story that is told almost exclusively in between the lines. Performer/creator Eliza Martin uses the intimacy of the space to great effect; her subtle twitches and the brief flashes of sadness in her eyes communicate so very much that would be lost in a larger venue.

Hooked: Looking for a bit of variety in your Fringe diet? Consider checking out one of the many worthy dance shows in this year’s festival. One excellent candidate is Kristen Pepper’s Hooked; it offers an emotionally effective premise, a clear narrative arc, and elegant choreography.

Life in a Box: Who would have expected a stoner buddy comedy to be so sharp, vibrant, and imaginatively staged? Not only does this dank time travel adventure feature palpably noteworthy chemistry between writer/performers Landon Doak and Matthew Finlan, but also some damn catchy musical interludes that invite comparisons to the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Police Cops in Space: Very much in the same vein as Sex-T-Rex, The Pretend Men are able to weave a tale of justice, revenge, and friendship – in space no less – that is in equal measure hilarious and cinematic using only goofy costumes, cheap props, and a whole lot of theatrical magic.

2018 Toronto Fringe Picks: Part 2

10 Jul

More excellent shows from this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival!

 

Anywhere

When Liz (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), a tourism conference attendee returns home to her Air B&B late one night, she finds Joy (Cass Van Wyck), her host is still up and in the mood to talk. What starts as a friendly conversation takes on more ominous tones and pits the two women against each other in a situation with far more than just a good Air B&B review at stake.

This taught two-hander drama from playwright Michael Ross Albert is not only a shining example of the art of dramatic escalation, but is elevated by the fact that it relies and comments on larger ideas about class and the realities of our socio-economic system to work. His dialogue walks the fine line between precision and naturalism, making for a seamless but punchy back and forth.

Lancaster and Van Wyck are both superb in their respective roles as the slightly uptight Liz, and the deceptively unsophisticated Joy. Casting is not often critically recognized as a part of the creative process, but in this case it is worth highlighting given just how well the two performers play off of and contrast each other while still finding ample common ground.

Director David Lafontaine guides the piece with a deft hand; the pacing, blocking, and emotional progression are all calculated but organic, never drawing the audience out of what is an engaging experience.

 

The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel (Act 1)

Disregard the whimsically alliterative title if you think you’re in for a Fringe Kids show; Kevin Wong (music and lyrics), Julie Tepperman (book), and Aaron Willis’ (director) highly polished musical does indeed have Polly Peel (rising star Hannah Levinson), a confident and precocious child-scientist as its protagonist, but the the themes of loss and grief the production dissects are done so with nuance and sensitivity.

While audience members should be aware that due to the time constraints of the Fringe Festival, only act one of the full-length musical is being presented, it is still a thoroughly fulfilling experience and only leaves one that much hungry for more (fingers crossed there are some savvy producers and ADs in the audience).

Wong’s music and lyrics are plucky, sophisticated and gentle, and truly serve to support, communicate, and enhance Tepperman’s narrative – which cannot be said about lesser musical works. Willis’ direction is imaginative and imbues the production with just the right amount of Broadway bravado to be fun, without overshadowing the touching human story at the core of the production.

The cast are all a treat to watch; Levinson is charming in the titular role, and Jessica Sherman and Troy Adams both endear as Polly’s parents.

 

Shadow Kingdom

This imaginative shadow puppet show from the Mochinosha Puppet Company (Daniel Wishes and Seri Yanai) is a treat for children and adults alike. Wishes and Yanai have elevated shadow puppetry to a truly cinematic art form that offers no end of charming and innovative surprises.

In Shadow Kingdom they weave the tale of Minerva, a young girl who doesn’t want to go to sleep but rather stay up and play on her phone all night. When she and her phone are magically transported to the Shadow Kingdom – the realm of sleep – she finds herself caught up in an adventure that invites comparisons to the empowered-child stories at the heart of Hayao Miyazaki’s and Roald Dahl’s work.

Goofy humour, motley and memorable characters, and impressive technical artistry are just three of the reasons not to miss this show. Equally worthy of note are the touching original songs written for the show by composer Elliott Loran.

Also worth mentioning is that the company has a second show in the Fringe; Space Hippo. This reviewer saw it performed in late 2017 and it is just as delightful and fun as Shadow Kingdom. #LizarrrdMaaaaaaan

 

The Merkin Sisters

Creators/performers Ingrid Hansen and Stephanie Morin-Robert are a couple of weirdos, wonderful fearless weirdos. Thank god we have festivals like the Fringe to give them the platform they deserve – because you sure as hell aren’t going to see this delightfully wacky shit as part of any Mirvish season.

The Merkin Sisters is structured as a series of loosely interconnected abstract vignettes featuring the titular characters; a pair of rivalrous oddball siblings clad in 80s print bathing suits and, for lack of a better term, hair muumuus. Sweater vaginas, a cannibalistic wig, and miniature doppelganger puppets are just some of the physical comedy setpieces making up the show.

It’s not strangeness for strangeness’ sake though; motherhood, the nature of art, and body image – among other ideas – are all fodder for their completely unpredictable theatrical whims. In the hands of lesser talent, the concepts could fall flat as awkward head scratchers, but Hansen and Morin-Robert have impeccable comedic instincts and timing.

Beautifully bawdy, gleefully grotesque, and scintillatingly surreal, The Merkin Sisters is a welcome departure from reality.

 

Morro and Jasp: Save the Date

If there is such a thing as Fringe royalty, Morro and Jasp (Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee) are it. This marks their (along with director/dramaturg Byron Laviolette) tenth Toronto Fringe, and they haven’t laid an egg yet.

In this iteration, the beloved clown sisters are preparing themselves for Jasp’s fast-approaching nuptials – and by extension the first time the two siblings will be living apart. It’s new emotional territory that they are forced to confront in the midst of all the other brouhaha that comes with planning a wedding. It is that brouhaha in which they mine the brilliant comedy they are known for; in this case dress fittings, cake tastings, and a superb visual gag involving a longer-than-average veil all illicit howls of delight from the audience.

Annis and Lee have always elevated their productions above mere entertainment (as entertaining as they are) by placing their loving and well-defined relationship at the centre of their stories, and this one might just be the most touching yet.

 

Entrances and Exits

The Howland Company (52 Pickup, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, Punk Rock) in partnership with Bad Dog Theatre is trying something a little different this time around – improv comedy. With an innovative premise, a talented cast, and some stellar guest performers (including the much beloved Colin Mochrie) the results are no less impressive than their previous offerings.

Entrances and Exits parodies the classic British living room farces of the 60s with a clever two-act structure that sees the same story played out twice, but each time showing what is happening in different adjacent rooms. It would be ambitious enough for a scripted show, but is even more so when the pieces are fit together on the fly.

 

We’ll Be Better Tomorrow

This bold, honest (and dare I say it, brave) two-hander sketch revue from performers Stacey McGunnigle and Jason DeRosse, and director Rob Baker is just as hilarious, contemporary, painfully truthful, and surprisingly heartfelt as their 2016 hit Tonight’s Cancelled.

Although on paper the two Second City veterans tackle material that has been the subject of countless sketches before (relationships, parenthood, sex, etc), they do so in a way that is both insightful and captures the zeitgeist, making the hour-long show feel fresh and topical. Their writing is strong and their characters are admirably well-defined and three-dimensional; not always the case in lesser sketch revues.

2018 Toronto Fringe Picks: Part 1

7 Jul

Here are some of the shows from the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival we’ve loved so far!

Inescapable

You’re going to have to forgive the vagaries of this write up; I would rather be obtuse about Fringe staple Martin Dockery’s deceptively simple and intensely clever two-hander than to give too much away.

What we can say is that what is ostensibly a conversation between two old friends who have stepped away from the hubbub of a holiday party and discover a cryptic object in a closet, is the framework for a high-concept bit of theatrical fun that is testament to Dockery’s talent as both a writer and performer. Those who enjoyed last year’s Moonlight after Midnight will appreciate the same one-two punch of human story and meta-structure that also defines Inescapable.

Dockery’s stagemate Jon Paterson is equally impressive to watch; the work’s concept and brisk pacing demand effortless performances to pull off, which Dockery and Paterson both deliver.

Because of the relatively simple staging, it would be easy to overlook Director Vanessa Quesnelle’s contribution, but she especially deserves credit for giving the performance a well defined arc – which is more of a challenge than one might assume.

Inescapable is a fast-paced slow burn, and an early highlight of this year’s festival.

Also worth noting: Martin Dockery has a second surprise show in this year’s fringe, The Bike Trip, which is also excellent. A one man storytelling show about Dockery’s trip to Basel, Switzerland to recreate the first literal LSD trip, laced (pun very much intended) with his philosophical reflections on love and life.

 

D&D Live!

Fringe regulars will know Sex-T-Rex for their hilarious and cinematic takes on various tropes and genres (Swordplay: A Play of Swords, Wasteland, among others), and while that also serves to describe D&D Live! (Dungeons and Dragons for the uninitiated), the difference this year is that there’s no script – it’s completely improvised with the assistance of the audience. Using a satirical version of Toronto by way of JRR Tolkien as the backdrop for the story, the players weave a tale that is both true to the Dungeons and Dragons experience and comedically accessible to the local audience.

The results, while not surprisingly less polished than their scripted shows (it wouldn’t be improv otherwise), are no less hilarious and imaginative. Sean Murray acts as the Dungeon Master, giving structure and guidance to the motley core group of mythical heroes (Chris Wilson, Kyah Green, Sean Tabares, and Conor Bradbury) who, like in a true game of Dungeons and Dragons, must on occasion roll a soccer ball-sized 20-sided die to determine the outcome of their quest.

Each performance features a special guest performer; at the performance this reviewer attended, it was the always top-notch Mark Little who played a mystical curator with a propensity for mischievously challenging the conventions of the format to great comedic effect.

Sex-T-Rex have earned their reputation as Fringe greats, and D&D Live! Is only further proof.

 

Featherweight

Tom McGee should be familiar to Fringe audiences as a key member of Theatre Brouhaha and the dramaturg of many if not all of Kat Sandler’s numerous fringe hits, as well as the creative force behind Shakey-Shake, the equally successful series of child-friendly Shakespearean adaptations performed by puppets. Featherweight, which McGee wrote and directed, is a departure from both those previous projects – although it is no less smart and entertaining.

Set in the Paddock Tavern (host to previous Fringe hits, We Are the Bomb and Bendy Sign Tavern), Featherweight gives the audience a glimpse into the afterlife – well, the administrative part right before the afterlife that is. Jeff (Michael Musi) a beige 30-something, finds himself in the hall of judgement, which looks suspiciously like his favourite bar, where he encounters Egyptian god Anubis (Amanda Cordner) and his/her assistant, Toth (Kat Letwin) who are tasked with processing his soul by weighing the deeds of his life against a feather. It being a well-stocked bar though, the liquor doth flow and the procedure takes a few left turns.

McGee’s writing is often delightfully nerdy, but never sacrifices the truth of the characters or story for the sake of a reference or joke. The dialogue is quick, the arguments nuanced, and the cast all do a fantastic job of bringing it all to life – although Kat Letwin does often steal the show as the oft-hapless servant.

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.