Thursday, May 21, 2020

Review: Desperately Seeking the Exit (Peter Michael Marino)

Over Magner’s cider and bong hits, writer Peter Michael Marino came up with one of those ideas that seemed perfect in the moment: a musical comedy based on the hit Madonna movie Desperately Seeking Susan, with a jukebox score from Debbie Harry’s back catalogue. Unlike most concepts formed under the influence, Marino’s dream didn’t go up in smoke. Instead, it came to fruition, with all the big names on board and a 2007 London tryout pre-Broadway. It seemed too good to be true…and, of course, it was.

To raise funds for the NYC Frigid Festival, Marino performs his hour-long solo show about his brush with theatrical disaster, Desperately Seeking the Exit, its title taken from one of the less-than-charitable reviews of the musical. He chronicles his project’s quick, meteoric rise and long, drawn-out death rattle of a rehearsal process. His excited Anglophilia and desire to own his own house with the riches that were sure to follow the musical's premiere became tempered by the sobering realization that each creative person seemed to have a different conception of what the show should be.

Marino speaks conversationally and animatedly, gesticulating with a can of Magner’s to punctuate his tirade. Mistakes happen, but as he says, this is live, and it just adds to the charm. He lets the audience watch unmuted if they desire to encourage real-time laughter and feedback, and with a limited audience, this didn’t lead to any disruption.

Some of the observations run toward the obvious – that the British like to drink tea, for example – but there are other moments of hilarity, including how many things New Yorkers take for granted that don’t translate between cultural contexts.

The show is at its best when it’s examining the heartbreak of seeing your creation twisted until you don’t recognize it anymore, and then being blamed for a result you never envisioned. It’s something akin to a parent no longer understanding their own child – who is currently being tried publicly as an adult.

It’s a powerful example of the importance of a unified vision, communication, and (dare I say) dramaturgy in this most collaborative of arts. The commentary runs like a dramaturg’s handbook, and one wonders where the dramaturg was in the room. Instead, as the set of creatives furthered their own individual artistic development, they seemed to forget the project itself, leaving the staging stagnant and draining the whimsy that was its main purpose. It’s a classic story of pride coming before a fall, implying that sometimes it’s okay to let a fun show just be fun, without looking for a greater importance.

The backstory also reminds potential reviewers and theatre patrons that a writer may not have complete control over what is presented in the end. However, the desire to blame doesn't only come from the audience, and it’s evident here in the text; as Marino airs grievances with the rest of the members of the creative team, I did find myself wondering what the choreographer or director’s take on the events and result might have been. 

Mostly, though, the take-away message is that everyone involved in a show is a human being with feelings, and that there’s a difference between constructive criticism and a gleeful takedown for page-views. On this human scale, Marino feels overly responsible for those who his show employed but also rapidly unemployed, showing the economic and personal impact of the gamble of show business. As we witness the current fallout from COVID-19's shutdown of all physical theatres, this observation gains a new, upsetting relevance.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. As recounted, the experience was clearly a learning experience of some value, and a twist later on lends the hour some positivity. While the memories are still painful, the wounds from the experience are less fresh, and are delivered more as comic cautionary tale than angst-ridden confessional. It’s certainly a diverting and breezy way to fill an hour; just remember to bring a bucket to catch all the dropped names.

If a show about failure can be a success, this is it.


Desperately Seeking the Exit will be performed May 31st and June 8th at 7:00PM, and June 4th at 9:00PM, as part of an online Cincy Fringe event.
Tickets are $10-15 with a $1 fee, and can be purchased online.
The show includes mature language and content. Marino also performs an online children’s show; details here.

Photo courtesy of

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Music Update

I have been shamefully bad at updating this blog, though my artistic activities have continued unabated! I had an amazing time on the Best of Fringe jury for the Fringe Festival of Toronto over the summer. I saw 44 shows in less than two weeks, and heartily enjoyed almost all of them. I've been performing with bells, Amadeus (we had an astounding concert for Remembrance Day that featured three CBC war correspondents telling their stories) and a new, small a cappella group. This week, Amadeus Choir's CD of Celtic music was released. Recording it at CBC's Glenn Gould studio was so much fun, and it sounds great.

Our CD! So exciting.

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah, and I recently wrote my first SATB choral composition in honour of the holiday. Writing music is like learning another, strangely familiar language; I really enjoyed finally composing, having played and sang so much music for so long. I couldn't record it with voices, but you can listen to it here. Happy Chanukah/Hanukkah!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Happy Birthday, Sondheim!

Rhymes With Dramaturg is coming out of its unintentional hiatus today. In posts to come, I'll be sharing my experiences with bells, theatre and choir (including an exciting CD recording at Glenn Gould Studio) that I should have been sharing in a timely fashion, but life (including bells, theatre and choir) got in the way.

This week marks the birthdays of some music and theatre greats: JS Bach, Phyllis Newman, and Stephen Sondheim, and all of them are part of this post.  I am performing Bach's Mass In B-Minor with Amadeus Choir, the Elmer Iseler Singers, orchestra and soloists tomorrow (Saturday March 23rd) night, in Toronto, at Metropolitan United Church, at 7:30pm. It will be an amazing concert; so much work has been poured into it. I'm even attending all rehearsals with an elbow that was broken badly enough to need surgery, so you can see the dedication this inspires! To top it off, CBC will be recording the performance and will broadcast it on Easter Sunday, so even if you can't come you can tune in and hear me on the radio.

Last month, I was interviewed for an article about Stephen Sondheim's increasing mainstream popularity by Popbreak's Brent Johnson and John Elliott, partially due to my MFA in dramaturgy and partially because I worked for Phyllis, a good friend of Mr. Sondheim, for some time and so had a very tiny bit of insider knowledge. Most of what I said didn't get used (I said a lot) and I got permission to post the interview here, so without further ado, happy birthday Stephen!

pop-break: What do you do for a living? What is your title/expertise? 
RWD: I am a sessional faculty member in the English Department at Centennial College (in Toronto). I studied English and Theatre at Princeton University and hold an MFA in Dramaturgy from Columbia.At Columbia, I was fortunate enough to take a musical theatre class with Andy Hammerstein. I also spent a year as Phyllis Newman’s personal archivist; Ms. Newman is the widow of Adolph Green (of Comden and Green) and a long-time friend of Stephen Sondheim, so I was able to see some exceptional correspondence and photos, and send the occasional photo to James Lapine for Sondheim on Sondheim. It seems like her Playbill blog has been deleted, but here’s an archived copy of some of the things we were finding:
 I am also a lifelong lover of musical theatre!
pop-break: What was your earliest exposure to Sondheim?
RWD: I have to admit that I don’t remember what show I was introduced to first. My grandparents were huge supporters of the arts; they would go to theatre festivals and see everything, and when I was about seven or eight, I was allowed to come to some of the shows, which meant I was the only eight-year-old ever to select Yum Yum from The Mikado as a Halloween costume. I started to enjoy Sondheim around that time as well, though I’m sure some nuances were lost on me. My best friend growing up was a big Sondheim fan, and so we shared our enjoyment through elementary, middle and high school (where we used to practice our rendition of “It Takes Two” whenever we had time). In my (arts) high school’s grade nine vocal class, they showed the DVD of Into The Woods, and by that time the deal was sealed with most of my theatrically-inclined friends.
pop-break: What is his biggest contribution to the American musical theater canon?
RWD: Sondheim, though not by himself, helped take us into a different era of musical theatre; an era of “serious” or “thoughtful” musical theatre. Many people stereotype musical theatre as “fluff,” with silly, contrived plots, chorus girls, and romance driving a light entertainment. Obviously, there was “serious” musical theatre before Sondheim (Rodgers and Hammerstein, particularly Hammerstein as his mentor, clearly influenced him in that department), but very few pieces were challenging structurally, thematically, linguistically AND musically. With Sondheim’s pieces, you couldn’t just stand there and sing; you had to be an accomplished actor, and an intelligent one, at that.
pop-break: What qualities do you think have kept his work from achieving widespread mainstream success - a la Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz? (I guess I should also mention that it's ALW's birthday...)
RWD: Sondheim is a challenging writer, in a very good way. His vocabulary, his rhyme schemes (can’t forget those lovely internal rhymes!) and his musical lines are often unpredictable, difficult, and fascinating. He’s not afraid to focus on the strange or unappealing, and his characters are complex, very human, and therefore not always likable (look at Fosca from Passion – if I remember correctly, preview audiences cheered when she was in trouble, and someone even yelled “Die, Fosca, Die!”). Sondheim isn’t afraid to take us backward in time or uproot us completely, sending us decades forward in the second act to comment on the themes in the first. Sondheim refuses to focus on the lowest common denominator, asks big questions, often projects a “New York” sensibility, and occasionally descends into vicious satire. Moreover, he doesn’t rely on familiar stories, for the most part, and when he does use something popular such as fairy tales, they’re not your Disney fairy tales. He pulls the rug out from under you. In fact, with certain shows, I wonder if Sondheim would be a much more “populist” composer if he just presented the first act of many of his shows, where things often seem to work out in a deceptively simple way (Into the Woods, Sunday In the Park With George).  Webber has a tendency to be simple, repetitive, romantic and big, and while there are elements of repetition, romance and “big” gestures in Sondheim, that’s not what he’s about; mostly, they tend to be tempered and carefully considered. Sondheim also has a tendency to go for pastiche numbers (Pacific Overtures, Follies) and those numbers only work if you have some historical or theatrical background to get the reference. I loved “Please Hello” so much more because of my deeply-rooted, eight-year-old’s obsession with Gilbert and Sullivan. We have to remember that much of Broadway tourism, particularly recently, has been from countries where English is not a first language, and if tourists are coming to see a show and they don’t necessarily have a strong grasp of the language, Sondheim might be difficult to fully appreciate. Challenging subjects (for example, Assassins) are also a factor. However, remember that this is a Sondheim stereotype, and that if you go back, he was part of the teams for some of the most popular musicals of all time.
pop-break: What do you like most about his work? What do you find most challenging about it? 
RWD: Sondheim’s words and wit never fail to dazzle me, though I think people actually have a tendency to focus on the intricacy of the words and not give him proper credit for the engaging music. Sometimes I find the structure of Sondheim’s works to be challenging; they are occasionally overly ambitious, and my dramaturg instinct is both to celebrate that while making it clearer to the audience. I would say that, particularly with some of Sondheim’s pricklier characters, there is a danger of not being able to emotionally connect. That is a stereotype of his work, but I do occasionally find it to be true (again, why he might be less “popular.”)
pop-break: What are the important qualities to remember when teaching Sondheim?
RWD: Context is very important, as many of his pieces deal with historical reference and cultural or social factors that make much more sense once contextualized. A study of narrative structure is important, if only to see how he subverts it. An exploration of theme is important, as the shows are often much more than just the sum of their parts. It’s important to think about how the shows work on stage, not just on the page, particularly with a show like Follies with its big showpieces, dancers reflected with their younger selves, etc. Here I think it’s important to talk about Sondheim’s relationship with Hal Prince and the designer Boris Aronson, among others (remembering that a show is affected by everyone on the team). Obviously, it’s important to deal with rhythm and rhyme, and to see how the musical lines correspond with emotional or thematic elements in the songs. I thought the way I studied a Sondheim show in one of my dramaturgy classes was quite effective; along with contextual research, we made a “casebook” that dealt with music, character, theme, language, etc…all that Aristotle-y goodness.
pop-break: Why do you think his work has now entered the mainstream over the last decade -- with Glee, Tim Burton, etc.? What do you think has changed? 
RWD: I’m honestly not sure that his work has “entered the mainstream” over the last decade, or that it was not at all part of the mainstream before. The man worked on West Side Story and Gypsy – those were hugely popular shows! I don’t know about this narrative. All I can say is that it’s more okay to be someone who enjoys a niche than ever; there’s geek pride, “freak” pride, fandom pride, musical theatre pride. Because of the Internet, among other social forces, small communities actually found out that they’re larger than they thought. What the rise of technology means is that it’s easier to share the theatre experience than ever, if not truly the experience of live theatre. So many recordings and videos are being shared; though there have always been touring companies, Broadway has of late been able  to become a larger experience than just New York. People can find others like them. People who were younger and musical theatre geeks got older and found themselves with entertainment power, so they could do what they wanted to. Glee, horrible as it has become, I believe both made it more okay to like to sing, more acceptable in this ironic age to burst out into song, and became a gateway drug for younger audiences less familiar with Sondheim. Maybe someone tuned in for “No Air” and left singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” It’s all about shifts in social conception. Musical theatre was silly, then serious, then silly again, then perhaps silly, serious and socially acceptable.
pop-break: Do you feel he is the Broadway composer who has the most crossover appeal to people who like classical or opera or rock music? Why is that?
RWD: That’s a bit of a leading question, but it’s probably accurate. He’s the most well-known artist with the largest body of work with that kind of crossover appeal. He’s thought of as smart and cultured, which attracts the classical/opera crowd, and he’s edgy enough to appeal to rock sensibilities. However, there are many other artists who would have that sort of appeal, particularly some younger artists; the “Broadway musical” doesn’t have one sound anymore. For example, Adam Guettel’s The Light In The Piazza skews classical and Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal skews rock, to say nothing of artists like Michael John LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown. These artists, I would say, all have Sondheim to thank, in some way, for this changing and malleable sound, and for this heightened potential for crossover appeal. Maybe, with Sondheim as a compelling background, accompanied by the next generation(s) of artists, we’ll have more people coming in for Piazza and staying for Normal, and vice versa.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review: Mr. Marmalade (Outside the March, site specific)

Mr. Marmalade (by Noah Haidle) is a play about children. But it is not a play for children, kindergarten classroom setting and free juice boxes notwithstanding.

Lucy has an imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade, with whom she plays an increasingly disturbing game of house- when he can fit her in to his schedule, that is. Lucy’s world is one of loneliness and loss, and this is channeled into the neglect, insult and injury she imagines Mr. Marmalade perpetrating. Mr. Marmalade justifies its seemingly wanton abuse of a four-year-old when it grounds itself in reality, making us understand that the imaginary friends are rooted in twisted recreations of scenes from the world that Lucy has experienced and continues to experience at the hands of her irresponsible mother and absentee father.

The most important aspect of this production by Outside the March theatre is its site-specific nature; the audience is led back and forth between two sides of a large kindergarten classroom at Holy Family Catholic school. There are all sorts of Easter eggs in the d├ęcor, so make sure you read everything on the walls, as there’s no way some of the vocabulary words and pictures are from a Catholic kindergarten! Most of what we see turns out to be relevant to plot or theme, amazing when the place is as busy as an actual kindergarten. The direction by Mitchell Cushman is full of wonderful surprises; actors pop out from where you least expect them to, the action sometimes continues outside. (An actor managed to pop out from right behind me and I had no idea how he got there.) The whole thing is stuffed with wonderful visual treats. Kindergarten things are used to stand in for adult objects in hilarious ways, and the temptation to play is strong (and largely encouraged, if it’s not disruptive). The audience finds new and interesting ways to settle itself as the actors perform scenes around and through it. If you sit down, you may find yourself next to a scene or have to move out of the middle of it. Scenes are introduced via storybook by our guide, Julie Tepperman, who helps us follow the action.

Lucy isn’t the only one having a bad time. When her mother leaves her to wait for the babysitter, the vacant teen’s boyfriend brings his brother, a suicidal toddler. The more experienced beyond their years and disconnected these children are, the less they seem to want to live in a world full of pain and loneliness. For children, historically and throughout literature, the only escape available is the imagination, but even that seems to be out to get them.

This isn’t to say that Mr. Marmalade is a miserable play. It’s funny and adorable; it just happens to be immensely disturbing. The humour comes with the juxtaposition between childhood innocence and the adult world of an imaginary friend who has not only a personal assistant, but a taste for alcohol and drugs. As the encounters get more and more harsh, the giggles give way to a much more difficult time, more so when Lucy’s emotional trauma becomes manifestly clear. We go from being engaged, to becoming more distant when things get truly appalling, to coming back again for the very human ending.

Mr. Marmalade is full of twists and turns, and has an ending much like the end of the last Lord of the Rings movie: there are at least three of them. You find yourself tricked by yet another conclusion. While this can be frustrating, it’s obvious from the message of the play that Lucy needs to free herself from all the trappings of adult life to really heal; she must get rid of all of her layers of playing doctor and house (though not Dr. House) so she can be a kid again.

 Amy Keating, as Lucy, and Ishai Buchbinder, as fellow pre-grade-schooler Larry, do some excellent, believable work as small children at varying degrees of precociousness. They never stray into preciousness, but instead capture the amorphous, loose and slightly dangerous feeling of being a child.

Katherine Cullen does triple duty as mother, babysitter and imaginary friend, but does her best work as the bored teen. She manages to completely remove the giveaway light of thought behind her eyes, and is pitch-perfect in distraction and vocal inflection, particularly when she reluctantly pulls out a make-believe game from her past. Philip Riccio as Mr. Marmalade is a perfectly charming psychopath, a proto Patrick Bateman, and Sebastian Heins as his personal assistant Bradley gives us an “adult” we can actually root for, with a mix of damaged and effusive warmth. In a way, Bradley (and in particular his entrances and exits) reminds me very much of Angels In America’s Mr. Lies.

Costumes are particularly effective in accentuating character. Mr. Marmalade’s reformation from black suit to white becomes a white wifebeater – showing that costume colour isn’t everything; the change must come underneath, and it hasn’t. Lucy and Larry wear hilariously oversized “adult” clothes when “house” is played, emphasizing how young they are. Lucy wears too-big high heels and a “little black dress,” but leaves her pink poufy dress poking through; not only does it resemble a cottontail rabbit, but it shows how ill-fitting the role is (as do Larry’s clothes, which keep falling off). It also solves the problem of the dress suddenly revealing the actress as the woman she actually is. Sound design helps, too, by mostly using “instruments” found in a kindergarten classroom.

The room itself is not air-conditioned and is likely to get stifling hot. But, as the juice boxes come out and humour and sadness do a captivating square dance, you’re not likely to mind too much.


Friday, July 20, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: With Love and A Major Organ

With Love and A Major Organ is a play that’s all about imbalance of heart; a romantic comedy with a decidedly large twist. George’s mom Mona (Martha Ross) has a broken heart. To protect him, she changed his heart to paper. Anabel (playwright Julia Lederer) has a wild and full heart. After meeting George (Robin Archer) on the subway she pursues him, day after day. Angry at the lack of response from the paper-hearted love interest, she literally takes her heart out of her chest and sends it to him. When nothing returns, she must look for them both.

First, the great stuff: all the actors are excellent and fully engaged with the material.  The show’s greatest strength is its world-building; it creates the sort of magical realism world that is one of the best reasons to go to the theatre. It’s challenging and fun and fascinating. People live with paper hearts, or without hearts at all, with the main side effects being numbness and emotional/brain fog, rather than immediate death. I want to spend time in this world; I want to explore every nook and cranny of it and see what else is different. I want to read a book series set here. The show is very inventive when it focuses on what a heart is, what it does, and who needs one.  The show’s other main strength is its humour, and the flights of fancy, lyrical emotions and increasingly glorious similes deliriously delivered by Lederer.

The show’s discussion of communication is very modern, which contrasts nicely with the fairy-tale feel of paper hearts and exchanging organs. Anabel is caught between times; she loves the feeling of carrying a tape player and exchanging tapes, which seems almost as quaint as an actual letter, but she also vlogs, tweets, Facebooks, Foursquares, creates tracking apps, and uses all sorts of social media, which, tellingly, don’t really help her make a connection; only the heart does. I’m not surprised Anabel uses Instagram; her tapes are the hipster aural equivalent of that photo app (they’re a little precious, but they ultimately work).

Meanwhile, Mona uses Google Shrink, which replaces a human psychiatrist with algorithms. She feels more comfortable there, and, judging by audience reaction, it seemed a lot of us wish this actually existed, or are surprised it doesn’t. As much as she tries to hide behind her Internet therapist, all of Google Shrink’s suggestions for her involve getting out into the real world and meeting people, through (initially hilariously unsuccessful) speed dating, and recreational leisure activities. She makes her first real connection through the mention of a book. Anabel, on the other hand, calls the newspaper yet another way to hide from human connection; when she says “the paper,” it has the double meaning of also unconsciously referencing the paper heart inside his chest.

It seems unkind to pick at some inconsistencies or flaws in an exciting piece, but there is some dramaturgy to deal with. First, the quirk is strong with this one. Mostly, it’s welcome, but when there are inconsistencies with the text it sticks out as added quirk for the sake of quirk. For example, there are several references to George’s mother having a hard time accepting his steadfast vegetarianism and devotion to dodgeball. However, if George’s character doesn’t know what he cares about, and is apparently unable to feel emotion, then the dodgeball and vegetarian references actually detract from our understanding. George claims dodgeball is a “release” – from what, if his problem is lack of emotion?  His passion for vegetarianism also seems misplaced. 

At the beginning of the play, we are treated to what appears to be a typical “meet-cute,” and it is very cute. This scene is adorable, charming and very entertaining, and makes you root for the two crazy kids, but is also confusing in light of what is developed in terms of George’s character. On one hand, it’s important for us to see why Anabel likes George, otherwise her stalker-type behaviour is even harder to understand. But introducing us to a George who seems happy and flirty and fun seems incongruous with a man who has to look up “pleasure” in the dictionary. The subway behaviour that follows this initial interaction backs up the later interpretation of George’s character; it’s just the introduction of his character. The first impression does shape our expectations, for better or worse.

Though Anabel is likable, it’s a little uncomfortable seeing stalker-type behaviour be lauded by the play (particularly in a speech by George’s mother), as what people are “supposed” to feel. Emotions are necessary, yes, and her spirit is wonderful; it’s the actions that are problematic. Think about what the impression would be if the genders were reversed; Anabel’s behaviour would suddenly be creepy and frightening. Getting over the initial reaction, however, it’s important to realize that none of these characters are fully “reliable,” and some of what the show appears to be commenting on is that each one of them has trouble with heart; Anabel has too much heart, George has far too little – a false heart - and Mona has a broken one that doesn’t work correctly. It is up to them to communicate with each other and find a sense of balance; Anabel and George with their new connection, and Mona with her date.

In terms of the progression, some characters’ reversals of heart (or lack thereof) seem quick and unexplained, the rationale building to them somewhat muddled. This is something that could be developed, particularly because Lederer’s characters are so generally good at sharing their thoughts and feelings with us; it’s a matter of connecting the arc and smoothing the transitions.

As the characters have issues connecting with each other, sometimes we do too. The show is very committed to staying firmly in its created world, which is great, but it makes it more difficult for the audience to find an “in.” George’s self-discovery is where we finally start to connect, penetrating the somewhat difficult characters and quirk with emotional truth.

There is a great deal of raw potential in this play; it understands that, even if it’s a little messy, the most important thing about a piece of theatre is its beating heart.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: Then He Wakes Up

Then He Wakes Up is a surreal little play with one main idea: the nature and trap of the recurring dream. The play asks: can something change in a this kind of dream dream, and if it does, how can we do it?  Can we stop the dream, or its negative events, from happening?

Henry (Jordan Mechano) shows up to wait for the bus, and meets Felix (playwright Matthew Sarookanian, impressively and perfectly awkward), a strange stranger who stands up straight without moving, even to scratch his nose, asks bizarre questions in an attempt to be friends, and seems to know everything about Henry’s life, and what will happen over the course of his day.  The one thing that Felix knows is that his involvement in Henry’s day will end with Henry killing him, because it happens every time Felix has this dream.

The play, in its own unique way, has a bit of a Stranger Than Fiction vibe: a character who lives a mundane, boring, routine existence, gradually finds out that he is not the protagonist in his own story; that someone else has created him, is dictating and running his life. Seeing someone’s worldview gradually shatter can make for intriguing theatre. The play is not content just to tell this particular story, but also explores other issues. To add to the mystery, Henry encounters a woman from his past (Perrie Olthuis) and deals with his relationship with the father of his youth (Alex Sims), which alters the tone of the play, as Henry regresses toward childhood. (This is also, perhaps, a sly nod to the common complaint at Fringe that it’s all young theatre students playing older characters; the choice sidesteps it strangely but neatly.)

By the end, there are major questions as to whose dream it is; Felix knows the score and claims the dream, but all of it seems to function under Henry’s psychology (see: the regression) and experiences he must work through. Henry is also the audience’s “in” to the story, the character with whom we most identify, so it’s difficult not to see him as the protagonist. Does this mean that Henry is a part of Felix, through which Felix is working out his own issues, or does that mean that there is more to this dream sequence than meets the eye? What does Henry represent to Felix? Are they in each others’ dreams? Or, is it actually the dream of the final character left on stage? And what happens when he wakes up? The play is stretched a little thin by its end, and so it may bring up more of these questions than it can justify, but they are certainly interesting to think about. Much like a dream, as well, the characters are also thin and a little amorphous; the script is largely focused on developing its main conceit, which is understandable. The piece at the same time feels like it couldn’t be any longer with the ideas it has, and that it could benefit from getting to know the characters better; building a concrete sense of character and worldview makes shattering that sense much more powerful.

Then He Wakes Up is a thoughtful piece that is just different enough to set itself apart from the Fringe pack. It’s worthwhile viewing, though you may want to pinch yourself a couple of times to make sure you’re awake.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: Of Mice and Morro and Jasp

Morro (Heather Anne Annis) and Jasp (Amy Lee), two clowns down on their luck, are looking for their next audience participant.

“Where’s our strongman?”

A cell phone rings in the audience. It’s not a sound cue. (I think.)

“Looks like you’ve nominated yourself, sir,” declares the bossy Jasp. The audience roars in approval.

Lesson One, to everyone: never leave your phone on in a Fringe show, particularly one requiring periodic victims; uh, audience participants.

Morro and Jasp have a long and popular history in Toronto theatre, but I had never caught their performances until now; I was convinced I was uninterested in clowns. I’ll definitely have them high on my list from now on, however; they manage to be funny and moving, with a healthy dose of social commentary behind the red noses.

Playing on the current economic crisis (and its impact on the arts), the sweet but dim Morro and the mastermind, exasperated Jasp, plot to give the audience what they believe is popular these days: something deep, a tragedy, where “tragical” things happen, according to Morro. They are performing a riff on Of Mice and Men, with the two easily sliding into the roles of leader George and kind but “doesn’t know his own strength” Lennie, though they keep their own names and identities. (It’s interesting to see these roles played by women, particularly in the scene where Lennie/Morro encounters the woman he’s not supposed to interact with; for better or for worse as a social comment, it removes a layer of menace. Also removing a layer of menace is that the woman is played by a blow-up doll with a beard, but I digress.) Morro, in what is probably best for her sake, hasn’t read past the book’s first chapter. (Jasp is annoyed about this, but I’m surprised Jasp wasn’t actually trying to keep the ending from Morro, all things considered.)

In a wonderful twist on the Depression-era novella, the “demeaning” jobs the two are forced to take are those of sad, traditional birthday party or circus clowns with squeaky shoes (Morro, disbelievingly looking at a stupid costume piece, realizes “That’s the joke?!”), rather than the more sophisticated performers they would like to be, interpretive dancing to minimalist music.  It’s a wonderful comment on several things; not only does it puncture our expectations of clowns, and reminds us of the jobs artists must take to pay the bills, but in a larger sense, it’s about the jobs we’re all having to take in this current economic climate that aren’t what we want to do, or where we want to be. In its own way, it’s a perfect metaphor for the new EI rules going into effect, a vicious spiral where (in a very simplified description), after a certain number of fruitless weeks, the applicant has to take a job paying 70% of their last paycheque, no matter what that job is, and then this new job becomes their “last job” and their “field” for EI purposes, so next time it’s 70% of and jobs related to that last-minute job, no matter what it is.

Morro and Jasp don’t enjoy being circus clowns, but Jasp is mostly interested in making sure Morro stays out of trouble, something the latter is patently incapable of doing, whether it involves carrying dead rats around, eating ketchup packets with relish (rimshot), participating in a truly surreal sing-along, or inadvertent murder from loving too much.

Props and set are effectively low-budget, from a washtub pond to the robo-puppy, to the malaprops on the hand-drawn title cards, to even using the audience as set. Audience participation, though always a crapshoot, is coached and handled well, and makes for some entertaining interludes.

The simple story forming Of Mice and Men works well as a framework for the pair to riff on, and it really does lend the story a tragic air. This isn’t just limited to when Jasp does to Morro what George does to Lennie, but is felt even more keenly when Morro’s finally experiences disillusionment with the dreams and promises that are never going to become real. It doesn’t matter how silly the set-up has been; everyone in the audience can relate to this feeling. But there is one final piece of audience participation left, and, without revealing the ending, it brings a smile to everyone’s face and a tear to this reviewer’s eye. With performers like Morro and Jasp around, maybe life isn’t so tragical, after all.