Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fringe 2011 Reviews: One Good Marriage

“Everyone died,” Steph (Mel Marginet) blurts out to us within the first seconds of Theatre By the River’s production of Sean Rycraft’s One Good Marriage. “Everyone’s dead.” This clearly isn’t the introduction to their first anniversary that husband Stewart (Matthew TenBruggencate) is looking for, but he rolls with it. The two, celebrating their anniversary with a half-hung banner and only the audience for company, are trying to tell us the story of how their lives drastically changed in an instant. It’s a difficult process, which results in a lot of rewinding and rehashing of earlier events as the couple comes to terms with their new status in a small town.

One Good Marriage is billed as a comedy but it’s really not; an extremely black comedy, perhaps, but while the lightness of avoidance is a presence in the show, humour is less so, and when it is, it mostly doesn’t come directly from the sad absurdity of the tragic events that are required to create black comedy. The show is still compelling and worthwhile, but under no circumstances go in looking for a laugh riot.

The quick back-and-forth rhythms in dialogue built up by the couple make up much of the show; the actors have clearly put in a lot of work polishing their timing, and it pays off in a very smooth performance. These rhythms are impressive; however, they are also unceasing and too often unchanging, only altering when Stewart tries to calm Steph down by encouraging her to focus on banal household objects (which, in its own way, is a fascinating technique). This constant rhythm, while effective in producing tension, can also have a lulling effect on the audience, particularly in the stifling atmosphere of the theatre. This is counterproductive to a show with such an unsettling catalyst and core. Once the fatal event is actually described, the horror and shock can take your breath away, but there is a lot of banter designed to keep you guessing, and occasionally this wondering what happened is the only thing keeping you going.

One Good Marriage gets a lot of mileage out of the juxtaposition of the day-to-day realities of small-town life stacked up against the life-changing realities of dramatic death. Rhythmically, however, the show needs to decide whether the characters get a true arc, with which they can move on with their lives at the end of the play, or whether the “rhythm is gonna get you” and they are truly stuck in a Waiting For Godot-esque exploration of their lives, where they go, but do not move.


Fringe 2011 Reviews: Radioactive Drag Queens From the Year 3000

I must admit I was slightly confused when I noticed the team of actors wearing drag queen costumes to promote Radioactive Drag Queens From the Year 3000 was mostly comprised of women. However, within a few minutes, the play explains this odd choice well. You see, after more than a thousand years of drag queen culture, particularly once said queens became a high-status class, drag queens are still men but have perfected the female look incredibly well. In fact, they generally have a great time of it…except for their radioactive hairspray, that is. This is explained by the officious but warm Celeste (Nicole Fairbairn) and her drag robot Blip (Anne-Marie Krytiuk) to Doug (George Bertwell), aka Mademoiselle Betty Croquet, a wannabe performer who has owned a drag bar for many years without getting onstage. After the radioactive drag queens land in his bar after hours, Doug is informed that a first-time performer from his bar will have a show the next day that will be pivotal to drag queen history, and that Celeste and Blip have been sent to protect this performer from an evil saboteur. Doug is eventually joined in his incredulity by straight-but-disbelieved bartender Sean (Kevin Vidal), who tries continually and unsuccessfully to score with paranoid android and supremely literalist Blip. This choice of female actors playing two of the three drag queens is the first indication that this show does not deal with the topic in a stereotypical manner.

The play focuses on a dual message; the first, the importance sharing your true self, particularly when you don’t conform to any culture or genre’s stereotype, may be well-worn but is delivered with warmth and humour, particularly in Doug’s final monologue. The second, bolder message centres on bartender Sean’s story; it strongly rejects the notion that a straight man working in a drag bar should expect to have his sexuality questioned and mocked by the bar’s patrons, even if he secretly believes he could give a better drag queen performance than any of them. Sean is a character who is both maddening and sympathetic, and his message, with its unusual twist, is thought-provoking. While on one level one is reluctant to praise this “think of a straight person’s feelings” message to the gay community within a week of the mayor’s refusal to participate in Pride (and can totally understand if some took offense), there is a strong and valid point that, to eventually get to a truly enlightened society, everyone must be supportive of the innate being of everyone else, no matter what that does or does not conform to.

The script is light and funny even with its considerable message; unfortunately, it has several cheesy jokes, but most punchlines hit their marks. Laughed perhaps a little too hard at an extended Settlers of Catan joke, which proves drag queens can enjoy a good board game as much as the rest of us. The joke, again, is an example of how the show shies away from the stereotypical to find humour in the slightly unexpected and fresh, even if many plot twists do seem either contrived or obvious. All actors are ultimately likeable, though there is the occasional line flub and some actors are less natural and stiffer than others (yes, that’s what she said), and that’s not counting the robot. Contrary to most of its advertising, the show has made a deliberate decision to focus on soul rather than flash, which is welcome. It’s not great theatre, but it’s not completely a trifle, either. Radioactive Drag Queens From the Year 3000 isn’t what I expected it to be, but that’s okay. In a way, it’s better.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fringe 2011 Reviews: Padre X

Padre X, a solo show by Marc Moir, is the story of the only Candian army chaplain to earn the Victoria Cross (and some fame), for his almost insane devotion to the men of his company during the Second World War. Declaring “England has too many chaplains already,” John Weir Foote refused to be transported back home after the attack on Dieppe, jumping off the boat to be captured by German forces and spend years comforting soldiers as a POW. Moir’s characterization strikes the right balance between folksy humility and tearful reverence. He speaks directly to the audience, telling his story to pass the time while waiting for a delayed Canadian train (some things, it appears, never change).

Moir recounts the events of Dieppe lyrically while never romanticizing death or war. He inhabits the character of Foote with ease and assurance. The writing is crisp and efficient, a piece of excellent craftsmanship. Moir shows clear love for his story, telling the audience post-show about a new archival find that he had the privilege of studying that caused a script change; as she is also an archivist, this warmed the reviewer’s heart. Props are used sparingly and judiciously; mostly realistic save an umbrella standing in for a gun. The choice speaks to the production’s eventual choice of a slightly removed warmth over a feeling of immediate danger. This is a production one can easily see the CBC turning into a Saturday night film; 80 Heritage Minutes long. The aesthetic is both the production’s strength and its weakness; as well-made as it is, the show can never escape the feeling that its story has already been told, even if its central figure is of interest.

It is almost too well-made; it hits predictable notes and it’s not hard to tell where the next joke or section of story is going. This is comforting and reassuring, but in an entertainment world that in many ways has World War Two fatigue, it might be nice to be occasionally thrown off-guard by a story that has a real sense of terror and loss at its core. When those emotions are emphasized, particularly during the recount of the Dieppe invasion and the show’s final moments, Padre X shows its real heart, and is entirely captivating.


Fringe 2011 Reviews: Kim's Convenience

I saw 25 plays in this year's Fringe, which is a pretty decent number considering I worked a full-time job and missed five days of the festival. I of course won't review my own show, Mute, but 24 reviews are coming up, particularly now that I'm not constantly at shows or at work! It was a very good festival for me this year; I enjoyed everything at least to some extent, and though I saw some seriously flawed pieces, I saw no true duds that I regretted. Onward to Review #1!

A combination of aggressive buzz and a particularly polished advertising campaign convinced me to check out Kim’s Convenience, by Ins Choi, as soon as possible. This proved to be a good decision, as the line for its inaugural Toronto Fringe show, at 6:30 on a Wednesday, stretched down the block; almost a sellout of the fest’s largest venue on the first day. The buzz is justified. Kim’s Convenience is one of those rare fringe shows that feels finished and professional. It would not be out of place treading the boards of Passe Muraille or Tarragon during their fall seasons (if this makes any sense, it feels like it’s a Passe Muraille-themed show with Tarragon writing).

This is not to say that it is a perfect show. But it is a show with a very clear purpose, an excellent cast, and writing so crackling and witty that you hardly notice the sadness at the core of the play; that is, until it sneaks up on you with its full emotional weight, just in time for a satisfying resolution. Mr. Kim (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), a street-smart, wisecracking man fiercely proud of his Korean heritage, has run a convenience store in Regent Park for more than thirty years. But condos are going up, and so is a Wal-Mart, and the sense that the area’s character will soon be forever changed fuels the play’s urgency. Faced with a tempting offer to sell by his “black friend with a Korean last name,” Mr. Lee, Kim faces the possibility of retirement coming with the trade-off of losing his presence in the neighbourhood, and therefore “his story.”

Mr. Kim’s daughter (Esther Jun), 30 and “single and ready to mingle” according to her parents, is more interested in photography than taking over the family business; her interest is piqued less by her father’s offer than by the appearance of Alex (Andre Sills, who also effectively plays the rest of the bit parts of Mr. Lee and several customers), a childhood friend of her estranged older brother (Choi), who shows up with a new sense of responsibility on his shoulders. Mother (Jean Yoon), is upset about the loss of the last downtown Korean church and holds clandestine meetings with her son, who has a new child of his own and feels trapped in a terrible job thanks to some bad choices in his past.

Kim’s commanding presence centres the show; a man who has clear love for his family buried under a gruff, violent, sometimes hilariously racist and blustering exterior. All the actors are excellent; even Yoon, who is given the least to do verbally, silently speaks volumes about her story and her pain. Family relationships are made instantly clear and recognizable, particularly in the sparring matches between father and daughter. This is a fun, incisive exploration of culture clash and the difficult time different generations have of seeing eye-to-eye, particularly immigrants and their Canadian-born children. It’s a testament to the strength of the acting that even sizable stretches of dialogue in Korean need absolutely no translation.

Dramaturgically, the play is tight, and every moment is there for a very specific reason. However, the arc of the son’s story feels too short. Though it is powerful to initially have his absence keenly felt by the other characters, his story is so important to the play and its resolution that it seems rushed when we find out who he really is two-thirds of the way through. To experience his presence and his story (as he tells it) earlier would lend extra power to his interactions with other characters. He’s a rich character already, and this would make his progression more complete. The play particularly cries out for brother and sister to have a conversation, which is also absent. Kim’s Convenience could transfer easily to a theatre as-is, but it’s also a piece that I’d be interested in seeing in an expanded, two-act incarnation, which Ins Choi’s world could easily support.

I’d tell you to go see Kim’s Convenience, but I have no idea how you’re going to get a ticket (come very early, is my advice). If you can’t make it, don’t worry; I have a sneaking suspicion that Kim’s story is going to have a future elsewhere.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mute opens at the Fringe!

Mute opened last night at the Annex Theatre within the Randolph Centre for the Arts (736 Bathurst Street). It's been a pleasure working on this play, though I wish the rehearsal schedule had given me time to be in the room more. It's always wonderful to be a part of a show where everyone (playwright, director, actors, designers) is incredibly smart and essentially in sync with each other. My job has mainly entailed some talks with Wren Handman, our playwright, to tighten the script a little and make some further sense of the transitions and text, to preserve her intention in the rehearsal room. I've been in the room for some table reading, introducing the ideas, and then a couple of times down the road to see what was getting across and what wasn't. Also, I did a little bit of research on PTSD and what that entails for both the sufferer and the social worker involved (thankfully, one of the places where I work has that kind of information handy). I am very proud of everyone involved, and it looks like people are intrigued by the show and we're generating some buzz. Hopefully we'll generate even more after this very nice review from Mooney on Theatre.

We also did a video interview, which will likely be up soonish. In lieu of the playwright being there (she's in BC), I talked too much, which is probably why the reviewer mentioned me in her piece. One of the things that I feel very honoured about, working on this show, is that there is very little ego and people are extremely open to listening to everyone else. Michael Bergmann, our director, in particular has always let me speak my mind in the rehearsal room (and, apparently, to interviewers), which isn't always how it is; sometimes there's more of a boundary between a dramaturg's notes and the actors, going through a director. I think the openness and respect in the room has been good for everyone. In any case, I'm perhaps singled out a bit much in the review, because I feel that everyone in the show has worked harder than me. Our actors, especially, are doing such an amazing job with material that is emotionally taxing.

Anyway, I plan to respond to Bruce DeMara's anti-dramaturg piece about the Fringe in more detail later (and write some of my own Fringe reviews!), but right now I just want to point out:

"The dramaturge, Ilana Lucas, did a great job of maintaining the essence of the play and also of researching post-traumatic stress disorder."

Dramaturgy, it appears, does not always equal turgid drama, sir. (And I don't even mind the extra "e" this time.)