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 décor, 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.


Fringe 2012 Review: Two Weird Ladies Bomb The Fringe

The Two Weird Ladies (Laura Salvas and Mandy Sellers) don’t lie in their show title. They do, in fact, bomb the Fringe. However, they do it because of explosive humour and energy, rather than bombing the less-fortunate way many shows do. The Ladies were sold-out popular by the time I got to see them, and I can see why.  They write intelligent sketches with an off-kilter sensibility, and unlike many sketch shows, they manage to tie things together cohesively, even if, technically, nothing has much to do with anything else.

The running theme in the show is the writers being “meta” – in “filler” sketches involving discussions of how they write, one of the two is hell-bent on ending every sketch with an explosion. The duo forms the classic boss/anarchist or smart/wacky comedy pair.  In this case, they have a severe difference of opinion as to the direction of their show. This creates some running tension in the show, as the Ladies haven’t just hung Chekhov’s gun on the wall; they’ve lit Chekhov’s bomb!

Highlights of the show include one-upping egg salesman, a few sketches ripping on terrible charities (particularly the ones that stop you on the street), a game of “secrets” gone wrong, and a recurring gag featuring the low-budget Ghost of Bad Roommates Past. Most sketches take a dark, unexpected twist, to their major advantage. The Ladies use the fact that they are both, well, ladies, to their advantage; they take tired tropes of humour about women and add a strange enough spin on them that they are suddenly fresh again. What could have been a cliché sketch about two women getting ready for blind dates becomes a fascinating statement about friendship, desperation and need as the women’s declarations of devotion to each other become more and more violent and disturbing.  A sketch involving two-faced “friends” of a bride is just crude enough to add some spice, but instead of being a traditional sketch involving the women just changing faces depending on who they’re talking to and having a “real” hatred and a “false” love of the bride, the two genuinely appear to feel both emotions. This turns the sketch into a comment on who we consider to be friends, who we keep in our lives and why, and our disappointment when we haven’t achieved what we wanted to. Of course, when you watch the sketch, you think less about how we deal with friends in the age of Facebook, and more “this is really fucking hilarious.”

The two comediennes are energetic and the pacing is sharp, lending amusement to even the weaker sketches, including the opening depressing serenade to a grandmother and some jokes about spina bifida that are trying to be edgy. There is the occasional recurring sketch, and the performers themselves, with their struggle for dominance, are a consistent theme. However, the particular genius near the end is an extended montage in which each of the sketches’ characters is allowed to respond to the main theme/danger that has been introduced. It reinforces and develops earlier jokes, along with reminding us of characters and sketches that we liked; a warm familiarity develops, along with admiration that the actors can slip in and out of each of the characters so rapidly. The show then concludes with one of the two funniest “curtain calls” I’ve seen this year at Fringe (Peter and Chris being the other one).

This bombing run is over, but make sure you see them next time; these are definitely Two Weird Ladies to watch.


Fringe 2012 Review: Camp Schecky

It’s amazing how easily certain things can regress us back to childhood. Getting on a bright yellow school bus is one of them. I was never sent to sleep-away camp as a child; arts and crafts camp was more my style. But Camp Schecky made up for that childhood experience I never knew I missed. Camp Schecky, “a play on a bus,” simulates a bus ride to summer camp. The bus is driven through the streets of Toronto by a bus driver who has probably had worse; this is a site-specific play that lives on its setting, which is a great deal of the fun. On the way to summer fun, you learn the secrets of the camp, find out about the relationships between the counsellors (and their secrets), sing camp songs, and get busted for various camp infractions. It’s extremely interactive. This is a show that’s made better if you go with a buddy; luckily, there was another lone camper on the bus who I made “BFFs” with, but getting on the bus alone does make you feel as nervous as walking into that new school. However, the counsellors are there to make everyone feel at home (if a little embarrassed).

There’s Duckie, camp second-in-command (Nicki Gallo, whose brainchild this insanity is), and shy, rules-oriented Scooter, the longest-serving employee and equipment manager (Steve Boleantu). Troy Blundell plays head of sports, and Allison Brennan head of all things nature. All actors radiate energy, likability, and presence, like the cool but strangely peppy older kids who seem to exist to become counsellors. They’re all “types” – the hippie chick, the nerd, the meathead, the sweetheart- but this isn’t a situation or play that calls for nuance or a complicated story.

The appeal of being on the bus is like sharing a little secret. It’s very entertaining to occasionally look outside at the amused or confused reactions of passerby, especially when the bus is boarded or exited. The new camp director, Lance, boards the bus partway through the tour, and this is where all the conflict begins; at first he seems like the perfect replacement boss, even with his popped collar, sweater tied around his neck and new, Gilbert-and-Sullivan flavoured camp song (okay, so I would have gone to G&S camp in a heartbeat), but soon his true colours are exposed and he is set to ruin everyone’s good time-for good. He’s basically the personification of all of the other counsellors’ bad attributes with none of the good qualities, a warning and lesson to them all.

The issue with Lance is that he becomes an absolutely cartoonish bad guy; I’m surprised he didn’t have some sort of mustache to twirl. He’s also self-contradictory in his villainy; his new camp motto is “safety first: victory second,” but he refuses to treat allergies and is turning the camp into three teams that must try to beat each other at everything, because anything less than victory is unacceptable. I’d like for him to have more of a sense of vision to his evil, rather than just anything awful at once. What is nice is that the “good guys” do have strong flaws, which initially makes Lance appear to make a few good rule changes, like coming out against theft. But, again, while it would be nice to have seen a more multidimensional portrait of Lance, rather than his fake charm immediately turning into “trying to have affairs with campers’ mothers,” this is a show that doesn’t need nuance when you’re sitting in a school bus seat. This play essentially turns us into children (preteens) again, and so we want to react like preteens, with an easy, black and white worldview, cheering our heroes and booing the villain like the audience of a melodrama. This is satisfying in itself.

A strong theme in the show is camp’s transformative properties: the chance to reinvent yourself and learn new things. By the end of our bus ride to Camp Schecky, all of the counsellors have learned a few new things about themselves, like who to trust, who they really are or might become, and how to overcome their issues to band together for success. By the end, we’ve had an awesome, largely analysis-free time, which is what summer camp is all about. And we also, apparently, can’t get the Camp Schecky theme song out of our heads, for days. No, really. I could sing every word for you right now.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: pomme is french for apple

Note: this review contains mature language appropriate to the discussion of the show.

pomme is french for apple, but it’s also very close to Jamaican slang for vagina, as the dynamic writer-actor duo of Liza Paul and Bahia Watson helpfully explain to their audience. Watson, playing feisty and free, and Paul, playing shy and reserved, share a sketch comedy show with us that gives us all different perspectives on vaginas and the women who own them – or vice versa, as the case may be. An insider’s perspective, if you will. The ladies are completely uninhibited, with wicked senses of humour and comic timing. Most of the sketches focus on what men do correctly and incorrectly in their treatment of women, and what women do correctly and incorrectly in the treatment of their vaginas.

The set-up, an almost anthropological explanation of the term, is very helpful and provides interesting cultural information, and also the knowledge that, if you don’t understand something in the various accents and patois the performers very successfully employ, you can assume they’re still talking about, well, that thing that sounds like pomme. It’s also very welcoming to a diverse audience, and lets us know that it’s okay if we feel moved to respond to anything on stage. This was both a freeing statement for the audience, and showed that the women know their audience was likely to include “responders” and wanted to make the rest of a more reserved audience comfortable with that.

The show might have called itself “The Vagina Dialogues,” because a huge part of it is made up of just that. Kudos to the costume designer or director for an amazingly simple concept, which works wonders for imagery and maximum humour impact: the women wear a scarf-like, unbroken strip of pink cloth attached in a circle (a Moebius vagina?)  around their necks. When the time is right, they pull it forward, stretch it out (in appropriately varied ways) and use their talking heads and hair in perfect placement for – okay, I’m getting a little embarrassed just writing this review. Suffice it to say that it’s a stunningly effective, simple visual that is funny every time, mostly because the actors imbue them with different personalities, whether they’re talking about the need for freedom from tight jeans and panties, or one is lording it over the other, who in contrast to her owner’s religious convictions, is very upset about the lack of oral attention she has received.

All of this sounds a bit puerile, and in some ways it is. You have to be “in the mood” for this type of humour, so to speak, and sometimes, as a reserved person who is easily embarrassed, I wanted to crawl under my chair and stay there. But the outspoken vaginas mostly feel provocative and bold, and if they won’t speak for themselves, who will?

Other sketches that score include “men’s habits on trial,” and the epidemic of “no-game-itis” sweeping the nation, alongside a song urging him to “take your hand off my head.” Songs are a major plus in the show; both women have lovely voices.

The audience was absolutely roaring with approval and delight the day I went; at noon, no less. Clearly, these fresh voices have struck a chord. Though the occasional “blackout sketch: is a little too quick to work (we’re expecting a full story) and the endings of sketches to land with a proper button more of the time is something to work on, there is so much fearless talent on stage that it doesn’t really matter. By the end, easily-embarrassed me was only disappointed that we didn’t get one last reappearance of the vagina dialogues.


Fringe 2012 Review: Porn Star

Porn Star is the story of two sisters from Elbow, Saskatchewan. One is leaving her tiny, judgmental town – and her large, judgmental mother – for the bright lights of San Francisco, thanks to an accidental amateur porn career. The other is trying to leave Hell for Heaven. So, basically, the same thing. Porn Star is a topical comedy (sometimes a little too topical) that deals with both raunch and heart, and is surprisingly philosophical for a show with such a title. Most importantly, it is funny. Very, very funny.

Esther (Amy Lee) finds out that she has been nominated for an amateur actress award – in porn. She (a generally repressed, but secretly sexy-librarian type) is completely bewildered until she remembers an old lover who used to tape them. It’s found its way to the Internet, and Esther’s shocked with what she sees, but also finds a new sense of self and liberation. Sweet and eager to please others, she is just happy to have been nominated for an award. She heads to San Francisco with hopes of seeing the guy again, wanting to retreat into a fantasy narrative. Meanwhile, sad Kate (Heather Marie Annis) an angelic-looking 14-year-old, seems very out of place as she speaks to us mournfully from Hell, where monkeys play banjos off-key and the Devil can shape-shift into whatever hilariously inappropriate thing he wants to. As her death stems from teen pregnancy and suicide, her fundamentalist mother Sharon (Lynne Griffin), the spiritual heir of the Tea Party, who heads the last committee of Sarah Palin devotees, mostly refuses to speak of her, focusing on “good” child Esther. She is in for a surprise. Rounding out the cast is Sarah Mennell as Clarice, a female Dan Savage-type sex columnist who takes it upon herself to be Esther’s Henry Higgins of the world of sex, porn, lesbianism, contracts and fame. Clarice is portrayed initially as what seems like a potential antagonist, sly and ready to pounce on Esther, so it’s refreshing to see this not come to pass.

It’s not surprising, but very nice, that Chris Craddock’s engaging script is relentlessly sex-positive. Sharon is treated significantly less charitably – for good reason, as she is a Bible-beating right-wing hypocrite – but she’s the weakest part of the show, character-wise. I found myself wishing for more nuance, a little more exploration of that sadness behind her eyes, rather than more Tea Party jokes. This isn’t to say that the jokes aren’t funny or deserved; they are both. Some shots just seem a bit cheap when you’re preaching to the choir.

Craddock gets tons of mileage out of awkward situations and a sweet-yet-salty sensibility. There’s also lots of great imagery, particularly in the sections describing Hell and Heaven in the afterlife. Initially, I was surprised to see Craddock embracing what seems to be a Christian afterlife theology; however, this is soon revealed to be a much more sophisticated and multifaceted sense of theology and spirituality, as we are left with the strong sense that our afterlife, or lack thereof, is tied very tightly to what we believe in life – it doesn’t matter what we do, as long as it’s not against our personal code of religion or ethics. We’re not led to believe that Esther will wind up in Hell for her budding porn career, for example.

The actors are uniformly excellent; Lee plays a credible naïf in the big city, and Annis radiates a damaged sweetness with an edge of purpose. Griffin is suitable pompous and flustered, and Mennell is particularly magnetic; she’s got a gleam in her eye that’s both kind and predatory, which is why I didn’t initially trust her character. It’s wonderful to see a play with all of its parts as strong roles for women. I’d say this play would be a boon to high school drama departments, but…uh…maybe universities.

Hopefully, nobody takes the moral from this that, if you tape your girlfriend having sex and put it on the Internet, she’s wind up rich, famous and happy. Rather, as the two main narratives connect particularly well in a thematic way, (though they also do in terms of a touching plot), I hope the audience takes away that Porn Star is all about answering the call. That life is what you make it, based on the path you decide to follow, and that it does get better if you find it within yourself to take charge of your destiny and escape.


Fringe 2012 Review: Help Yourself

The first time I went to see Help Yourself, winner of the Fringe’s 2012 New Play Contest, I obtained a ticket to Kat Sandler’s acidic and mischievous comedy about people behaving badly, and justifying it, but the venue oversold and, there being no seat, I had to leave. Getting so close to the buzzed-about experience was maddening. I’m very glad that I tried again and was successful, because Help Yourself is one of my favourite plays at this year’s Fringe, a professional production with a dark, fast-paced script that would not be out of place as part of one of this city’s major theatres’ seasons.

Donny (Daniel Pagett) is a “fixer,” a highly-paid personal consultant who solves his clients’ personal problems in an hour by giving them a little “push” in the direction they wish to go. He is, essentially, a professional justifier; he convinces people to convince themselves that their desires are okay to act on, even if those desires include murder, and sends them off to perform the act. Donny seems to have convinced himself of these notions, but less thrilled about the whole thing is his girlfriend Samantha (Tosha Doiron), who is trying to convince him to give it up. Donny’s 10am is Ted (Tim Walker), who wants to kill his wife for cheating on him. An intense discussion of and battle about morals ensues, interspersed with flashbacks through Donny and Samantha’s relationship.

The acting is uniformly excellent, the actors having perfected the banter. Walker is great as a man gradually becoming more and more unhinged, and Pagett charms as the guy who knows everything until he doesn’t. Pagett and Doiron have strong chemistry and their exchanges make them seem very well-matched, each giving as good as he or she gets, shifting the power balance between them.

Sandler excels in writing the push and pull of power in relationships, and examining how people build arguments. Though Donny appears to have the upper hand in his meeting with Ted, it is refreshing that Ted is not solely the naïve rube in the transaction; not as slow as he seems, he often effectively refutes Donny’s points and strategies. The play is very well-constructed, with all early allusions paying off in explosive and somewhat surprising ways (though nothing you can’t see coming if you think about it).  In a way, Donny is always trying to convince himself; it’s like Donny and Ted are two halves of the same person. They have much in common, like the fact that neither finished college and both are defensive about it. It’s like Donny is the person Ted wishes he were, too good (or bad) to be true – or that Ted is the person Donny really is, deep inside (conspiracy theory alert!) This is possibly why the banter works as well as it does.  The set is simple but sleek, which reflects the professionalism of the entire production.

I would not be surprised if Help Yourself helps itself to a slot in a regular theatre season. It’s funny, well-made and just transgressive enough in its theme to do so. And, despite what Donny might say, I’m not going to take revenge or assert my dominance over the volunteers who originally oversold me my seat. That, Donny, would be wrong.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: Pierrot and the Moon

Physical theatre is not this reviewer's forte. She’s a word girl. But every now and then it’s nice to watch an audience of all ages connect on a visceral level, laughing at a sweet little story. Such is the case with Pierrot and the Moon, a tiny jewel-box of a theatrical experience. The story barely fills out 40 minutes, and can be boiled down to “boy loses necklace, boy gets back necklace.” It’s a classic Commedia scenario, with hapless innocent Pierrot being thrown out of his Paris hotel, robbed, chased by a policeman while suffering several misunderstandings (partially because Pierrot speaks Italian, not French), encountering a damsel in distress, and being helped by a friendly and expressive rat puppet. Though all of the physical comedy is crisp and clearly rehearsed to function like clockwork, the highlight of the show is the little rat; the winning, detailed puppet is finely crafted so that it really appears to be able to run around, and it wins over the audience with its clear desire to make a friend in Pierrot, helping him create chaos from its main location, the garbage can. I almost wanted an entire show solely about the rat, which really did seem to be the one in charge, pulling the strings to make events happen.

Also impressive in the puppet department are a slightly disturbing, traditional moon mask, and the shadow puppet scenes over a beautiful sketched backdrop of Paris. The shadow puppets float and run across the scene, and, in an inventive addition, manage to gain whatever accessories or positions the main players have when they, in chase scenes, run behind the screen to be replaced by puppet versions of themselves, and then back out again.

The play almost entirely relies on the charmingly naïve excitement and physicality of Pierrot, contrasted with the comedy of the authoritarian but bumbling policeman. This makes for classic but not played-out conflict; there’s a reason it’s a traditional trope, because it’s funny.  The wailing, jilted bride is given less to do, but does it well. (Forgive the lack of actor names; I did not get a program and cannot find a specific credit list online, and don’t want to put the wrong names to the characters.) Everything is played, as fits Commedia, very broadly, and language is practically unnecessary, all being spoken in very simple French or Italian.  The children in the audience seemed to really enjoy it, talking back to the characters. There’s nothing particularly analytical to say about the show; it’s just a sweet little uncomplicated play with a nice soul.


Fringe 2012 Review: Mahmoud

Mahmoud is a show that brings up an interesting question in terms of radical tonal shifts within a play, how it is marketed, and how it is introduced to the audience. But first, the most important thing to mention about the play is the fantastic and fearless performance from solo actress Tara Grammy (who wrote the play with Tom Arthur Davis). The show also features a strong script in terms of character creation. The problem arises, though, when we become so engaged in a character’s story, we notice when that story is either dropped or does not achieve a satisfying resolution. Mahmoud is an amazing performance and concept in search of an ending.

Tara Grammy creates three strong and different characters in a discussion of her Iranian heritage, what that means differently to Iranian-Canadians and Iranians who moved here; a discussion of past and present Iran, and what old habits and traditions die hard. We have the extremely flamboyant, chirpy and snippy Spanish fiancé of Iranian Behnam (which, according to the character, means beautiful name). The promising gay relationship hits a snag when Behnam goes back to Iran to visit family in trouble and his fiancé believes it is time for him to tell his family about the two of them.  Character #2 is Mahmoud himself, a taxi driver who moved to Canada from Iran more than 25 years ago, where he was a celebrated engineer; he is now “the engineer of my taxi.” Mahmoud’s gentle humour, his cell phone ring, his obsession with praising Iran’s accomplishments despite his secret past, and his need to feed his audience, constantly calling us “my friend,” make him interesting, and charming. He’s slightly overbearing in a very real way. All characters personally address the audience, bringing us into their world (there’s even a small amount of audience participation, but nothing too embarrassing). 

The last character is Tara herself, or should I say the last two characters, because we get the middle-school-aged version of her, obsessed with removing her “gorilla-like” body hair and dying the hair on her head blond in an attempt to win a starring role in the school play, and a boy, from her rival. Amped-up, crazy for the Backstreet Boys, and full of hyper performance and choreography, this character is winning and fun, but she disappears into the very different, current Tara, who faces difficulty in the acting world, deciding if she wants to fit into the all-purpose “ethnic” actress box (and get most of her work playing a terrorist) or not. Unfortunately, because we don’t get introduced to the concept of present-day Tara in the beginning, to understand the concept of past Tara as an establishing or run-up character, and because we don’t really get to see one change into the other, it feels a bit jarring to drop young Tara’s story. Since we like her so much, it feels like we’ve lost a character instead of continued with her. I’d love to know more about who present-Tara really is.

All characters are engaging and real; the closest to stereotype is the flamboyant Spaniard, and even he gets humanized by the end. Grammy makes specific acting choices involving “putting on” the characters as she enters the “playing space” represented by a Persian rug. You can see the commitment as she enters each character’s world, and it’s very effective. 

Mahmoud is billed as a comedy, and the audience is primed for this due to how funny and engaging the characters are throughout most of the show. We’re clearly not dealing with the classic definition of comedy here, due to the ending or lack thereof. The play contains at least two extreme tonal shifts from comedy to abject sorrow, almost horror, particularly at the end. The issue is not that comedy can’t contain thoughtfulness, sorrow, or that it has to be funny all the time. In fact, the show’s poignant aspects, such as Mahmoud’s eventual acceptance that he will no longer be an engineer, are its great strength, and absolutely belong in a thoughtful comedy. The trouble is that there is a resolution this all seems to be building to, in terms of the characters affecting each others’ lives, but it doesn’t happen and instead the play ends abruptly in a disturbing way.  The main foreshadowing to this is a confusing interlude in the middle, which is also suddenly disturbing. It’s a gut punch to the audience, and if you prepare the audience for comedy and then deliver this punch, it needs to have both specific intention and a satisfying payoff, even if it’s not the one the audience was expecting. Returning the focus to Mahmoud and his important realization/decisions would lead to a greater sense of narrative resolution, or finding out where Tara’s character goes from here.

Narrative dissonance aside, this piece is smart and funny and asks some great questions, and the performance is really something that should be seen. The exciting thing about Fringe is that one can always find somewhere to grow, if the fundamentals are so sound; I can see Mahmoud being developed into a full-length show, where it could answer more of those fascinating questions it brings up.


Toronto Fringe 2012: Dina the Burlapped Crusader, Promo 2

So, did you all get to see Dina, the Burlapped Crusade yet? There's one more chance, tomorrow at 11:30pm. To entice you, here's the last promo video, where Dina gets her delicious revenge on us all! (Looks like my back is fortuitously in the screengrab.)

Have some fun with Dina at the Fringe!


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: How I Lost One Pound: The Musical

The first thing to think about when reviewing Fringe is that theatre is made by people with hopes and dreams, and try to weigh that against the vitriol that often emerges when you have an less than enjoyable theatre experience. How I Lost One Pound: The Musical has the very best of intentions of celebrating the bodies and “rock star” qualities of all women (men, this show does not really mention you, except a brief acknowledgment that you may be feeling left out when we’re all asked to look down at our breasts). My heart goes out to everyone involved; it feels like we should be friends, and they all seem like lovely people. I desperately don't want to hurt their feelings. But I will probably wind up doing so, because those feelings just don’t excuse an hour of cliché writing, highly variable performance quality, and three separate composers for five unmemorable songs, two of which are thinly disguised “don’t sue” parodies. It reminds one of how amateurish Fringe can be.

This show is a cabaret, instead of the “one woman’s journey” I was sort of expecting, featuring several performers telling stories about their weight-loss struggles, or generic people’s weight loss struggles. They wear large poufy crinoline-type skirts and scales are tied to their wrists with measuring tape, except for the older woman in the cast who is instead named Scale (Barbara Weigelt). This makes sense later, because her story is about breaking her obsession with the scale, but it looks very strange when they all try to coordinate movements, like it was something the actress was just incapable of doing. The sight gag is cute and inventive, but wears out its welcome as the scales clunk and scrape across the stage (here’s hoping Passe Muraille’s stage doesn’t get scratched up). They remain on wrists for narrative purpose (the women will later triumphantly shed them) but they cause problems with already awkward movement – could they be put on wheels, perhaps?

The material, by Lesley Carlberg, is at its best when there is some specificity to it. In particular, the stories “Diet” (Chiamaka Ugwu) tells about her mother’s crazy invented diets such as the Bikini Diet and the Butter Diet draw laughs, entertaining because her mother is a character with a specific voice, and I don’t just mean in terms of accent. Meagan O’Kelly, “Restaurant,” debases herself amusingly as she talks about eating out of the garbage like a Golden Retriever. Lauren Wolkowski does a nice tough-girl act towards a man she asks not to give back her chocolate, no matter how much abuse she heaps on him, and Michelle Paré and Kate Abrams deliver their moderately amusing clichés with style (though I will admit to laughing at the Fuck-It, rather than Bucket, List).  It is absolutely refreshing to see larger actresses on stage, although I dream of a day that a larger actress can be on stage without the point of her character being that she is large. There is, inexplicably, a “word of the day,” by audience suggestion, that each actor incorporates into her vignette; we are supposed to cheer at each mention of the word to keep ourselves engaged (a bad sign; the material should keep us engaged).

The problems with the show, however, are legion. Like shows such as Menopause: The Musical, it belongs squarely in a community Mississauga dinner theatre having a Monday night “Girls Night Out” special. When it’s not developing specific characters and instead resting on stereotype and “dieting sucks, ladies, am I right?” it falls totally flat. I don’t mean to imply that there is no value in trying to generally connect to an audience, but if I’ve learned anything from theatre, you get better connections with specificity, even specificity that is not exactly like your viewers’ experience, than you do with general cliché because specificity is more human. That’s where the connection actually happens, the humanity, not the knowing wink. It doesn’t help that the musical aspect adds very little to the show; though a couple of parodies are cute, it’s still very soulless. I don’t want to overly malign anyone, though I feel for these women; they’re giving it their all in spite of a tenuous script. But some are really just not natural performers, and there’s some painful line forgetting and fake line readings and some off-key singing. Sometimes I just felt terrible and terribly awkward for a performer. I want them to succeed, but I also don’t want to be put in that position as an audience member.

I skipped out on the ending of a Fringe Club tent “alley play,” The Enchanted Crackhouse, to see this show. Coincidentally, its composer is also one of the composers of this show. Missing the ending and the very informal conditions prevent me from reviewing that show, but it’s a lot more inventive in its silliness, it has better acting and singing, fun puppets and design concepts, and an actual small band with a theremin, unlike the pre-recorded music these actresses sing to.  This is a valiant effort, but it’s not audience-ready yet, though I have a feeling it will have a nice life in dinner theatre.


Fringe 2012 Review: Release the Stars: The Ballad of Randy and Evi Quaid

Release the Stars: The Ballad of Randy and Evi Quaid, is a harder show to describe than you’d think. It’s not just a voyeuristic look into the crazy Quaid couple, who sought refugee status in Canada after forming a belief that their lawyers and accountants were embezzling their money and would eventually have them killed. Instead, writer-performers Amanda Barker and Daniel Krolik explore the notion of what happens when someone creates their own reality show, only to have the world stop watching, and how hard it is to let go of a person when you feel united against a common enemy and the world. Barker and Krolik are not just playing Randy and Evi Quaid; they play a brother and sister putting on a Fringe show and playing Randy and Evi Quaid. You might be getting the impression that there are several levels of story here, and that things get rather meta, and you would be right. This is a delightful piece of layered theatre that is more moving and interesting than it has any right to be (and, though my prejudice is showing, I think this is partially due to it being one of the few shows that actually employs a dramaturg, in this case Megan Mooney of Mooney on Theatre, the site that impressively actually reviews every single Fringe show).

The site-specific piece is at SIX20SEVEN Gallery on Queen St. West, and we are told that the 14 paintings around us represent parts of the Quaid’s story, which we will come to understand and be “implicated” in as the evening goes on. Some of them are explained, some of them are made reference to, and many of them are left a mystery; all of them, however, are for sale. It’s an interesting concept, but it’s hard to tell if that inspiration resulted in the choice of the gallery, or the choice of the gallery resulted in the inspiration.  I kind of wanted the paintings to factor more heavily into the story, and to have the audience really be taken through all the “stations of the cross” or not be used at all. Perhaps it would be a little too pat and easy to have all paintings explained to us, particularly by a couple who is having a hard enough time explaining themselves.

Barker and Krolik are extremely engaging and sympathetic performers, always in the moment and utterly believable at whatever they’re doing; performance-wise, I think this is my favourite of Fringe so far. They have smartly decided not just to play at being Randy and Evi, because that would lead to cliché impressions or something much more self-conscious. By not going the impression route, and not just presenting the Quaids but adding another intertwining layer with the brother/sister dynamic, they wind up with something that feels more accurate and human. This show could have so easily just been actors making fun of two mentally ill people, which would have been awful to watch. (Having actors play siblings playing a couple is a little creepy, but the mood of the show very deliberately walks the line between creepy and sweet, and would probably not do proper justice to the Quaids’ odd but touching story anyway.) The crazy is acknowledged, but all characters get to explain themselves.

The story is filtered through all sorts of interesting devices, such as interviews, “scripts” the characters have written, the Illuminati interview tactic “how do you kill,” and even audience-led Google searches. It’s all a fascinating comment on the way we filter and create stories and characters out of the lives of real people, and what some will do for attention.

I don’t want to give any more of this complex piece away, though I’m not sure if I really could. It’s something that has to be seen to be understood and believed, and it really should be seen. It’s the kind of show that Fringe is for; it both makes us ask, “what were these people ON?” and “where can I get some?”


Fringe 2012 Review: Mum and the Big C

Mum and the Big C, by Lynne Kamm, is a show ostensibly about cancer, but the themes it’s really interested in tackling are relationships (mother/daughter and romantic) and how defensiveness and a lack of self-esteem can ruin them. Ripley (Elvira Kurt), a young marine biologist who can only find work as a barista, moves to the dreaded suburbs of Mississauga to take care of her mother after her breast cancer diagnosis. Ripley’s mother Donna (Janet Laine-Green), a psychologist, is too busy telling Ripley she needs to find a woman to settle down with in order to keep the right of marriage equality to focus on what’s missing in her own life; a relationship that’s not with married co-worker James (Trevor Hayes, tasked with playing all the male roles, an indication that the play is really about the women). Ripley and her mother has a relationship that could be charitably described as tempestuous, and “caring for her mother” may be taking it a bit far in terms of what actually goes on; “tries not to kill her mother” is perhaps more accurate. But when commitment-averse Ripley sleeps with her mother’s oncologist Maddie (Megan Fahlenbock) under false pretenses, everything gets a lot more complicated.

The play is entertaining and has a professional feel, and the acting is generally good, particularly in some scenes from Laine-Green as Ripley’s mother, whether she is bellowing for childhood Ripley to get over an accident, insulting others in an acid manner, or stoned on anaesthetic.  The actors make good use of the space and often leave the stage for the front of the house, which is an entertaining choice. The play’s pat, easy, sitcom style is both its strength (it’s fun and breezy) and its weakness (we could use deeper connections with the characters). As well, each scene feels the need for a cute jokey button that doesn’t necessarily serve the scene well, or robs us of emotion because it forces one character to insult another. The buttons are often delivered in darkness because we don’t even actually get the “beat” due to tech jumping the gun (which is not really tech’s fault, but it emphasizes the strange endings). The buttons actually make the endings of the scenes more awkward, taking me out of the play briefly.

One of the problems with Mum and the Big C is that, while the characters are appealingly funny, none of them are as likeable as the script insinuates they should be. We have to be told that Ripley is kind, caring, determined and good, rather than see it in her behaviour. The playwright is good at barbs, and is clearly having a lot of fun with them, but humanity needs to be developed in balance with the sniping. This is not to say that characters can’t be flawed (some of the most interesting parts of the play deal with the characters’ flaws), or “bad people,” it’s the sudden juxtaposition between the yelling and meanness and deliberate pain-causing and the audience being told to believe these are good characters who deserve everything; there’s a transition between these two states that’s not really there. Some scenes, particularly the one where the mother tries to feed her “pervert” Italian neighbour’s food gift to raccoons, are much meaner than they are funny. This scene is, after all, a reflection of  the mother’s defensive neuroses rather than any actual perverted action on the part of her neighbour (or I can only assume, because we never see any); the tension comes from the idea that we are supposed to laugh rather than feel badly that these neuroses exist, particularly because it instantly ruins the tentatively warm connection the two make immediately before, which was hinting at emotional truth. Similarly, there are other moments of seriousness in the play, particularly when the mother reveals her fear of death, but they’re not capitalized on the way they could be.

The show plays with people’s perceptions of each other, and how those perceptions shape our interactions. Some of the most entertaining scenes involve one character telling a second character what a third character has said (with the third character speaking the words), while the second character judges whether that actually sounds like something the third character would say. This lets actors take on each other’s voices in a fun way, and lets us into the psychology of the first character by showing how she chooses to portray others. Interestingly, Maddie the oncologist is really the only character to show accurate reporting; she is also, refreshingly for a character who is there to be a love interest, lacking in stereotype. In terms of language, the show enlightens us as to how many synonyms for breasts there are, and how they are all used as insults. This is something I wish the playwright had dealt with more deeply or commented on, rather than just slinging the insults.

Mum and the Big C is a play that shows promise, if the playwright would follow the road her characters are starting to go down, getting rid of some of the writerly defensive humour for more emotional truth.


Monday, July 9, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: Neighbours

Sitting through Neighbours (by Allie Bell) is like sitting through the interrogation that Bell writes so effectively: frustrating, punishing, and seemingly endless. Rayyan (Mirian Katrib) is a “Classified Foreign Learner” living in the fictional parliament of Micarae; during the night, she is taken by government agents to a secret location to be questioned under suspicion of being an agent for foreign terror cell The Plums.

This play is a 24-Hour Play Contest winner, and I can see why, along with perceiving the less-successful hallmarks of a typical 24-hour play. Winning qualities include an inventive concept, an interesting made-up world, and an accurate-seeming recreation of an interrogation in a totalitarian regime where the accused seems to have no rights. Negatives include padded dialogue that goes in circles without going anywhere, seemingly a leftover from an assignment to write as much in as little time possible. Yes, we are in an interrogation simulation, but you have to ask yourself whether you want to equally disorient and torture your audience?  Theatre as a simulation of pain and discomfort is a philosophy that many subscribe to. I am perhaps not avant-garde in my tastes, as I feel this is appropriate only to a point.

Give us something that moves, at least; for example, The Pillowman had a similar conceit of an interrogation, but moved from the questions that go nowhere or in circles to telling a fascinating story about the person seated in the interrogation chair, and his disturbing writing. Neighbours just seems to go on with the circular establishing dialogue, with some breaks for new props and devices like stilts. There is the occasional change in pacing, new idea, or change in time, but there is still that stagnant feeling as Murphy (Robert Fulton) and Kantz (James R. Woods) go over the good-cop, bad-cop routine.  The issue is that, for a show to truly succeed, there needs to be either plot or character development, or for the show to be a comedy with successful uproarious humour as its goal, and this show does not really focus on any of these things.

Performances, despite a couple of stumbles with the dense and circular dialogue, are nice and snappy.  I’m not sure, however, that the concept of “absurdism” is served as well as it could be with some strange props and the giving of alternate names, whether by a system of complex synonyms or just oddly-fitting sounds, to household terms and objects. The young man who flung himself down next to me smelling and complaining of drunkenness did laugh loudly at all the silly-sounding words, and several other people occasionally chuckled, but the comedy, when present, is very dark.

If you like a show that is claustrophobic, goes around in absurd circles, and really simulates an endless, confusing and tormenting interrogation, this show is for you, because it is rather good creating this atmosphere; I think it does what it’s striving to do. For me, mercifully, the show was 75 instead of the promised 85 minutes, because it is not my type of show.


Fringe 2012 Review: Tick

“It’s a little too much ‘kids being kids,’ formless and playing around on stage,” my show-watching companion said, quietly, upon leaving Tick (by Matthew MacKenzie). He wasn’t entirely right, but he wasn't entirely wrong either. Tick is a very entertaining show, and MacKenzie captures the voices of kids admirably and accurately, which is difficult to do. This means, however, that Tick reminds us of both the best and worst of kids; they are hilarious, ever-surprising, idealistic, inventive and full of boundless creative energy, but they also tend to whine, be overly loud, catastrophize, and have no idea when to stop (or stop repeating a joke).

Ten-year-old Tickailia Summers, or “Tick” (the captivating Jessica Moss), is a young dynamo hell-bent on getting under your skin. She is also asthmatic, and allergic to 67 different known things, living life on the edge every day. She’s incensed that her mother’s boyfriend, city councilor Murray (Nathan Barrett), is getting rid of the books in her library, replacing them with chained E-Readers with 15-minute reading time limits.  Tick plans a children’s revolution for the not-yet-enfranchised age group, attempting to unite the kids from the wrong side of the tracks with her friends; solar eclipse-obsessed Rudeger (Tony Ofori), hockey-loving Dawn (Jenna Harris), and general dance fiend and space case Chelsea (also Barrett), all of which are refreshingly non-gender-or-racially-stereotyped. Also on Tick’s side are some spiritual revolutionary allies whose identities I won’t specify. Trying to get Tick to see the “grown-up” side of the issue are the supercilious Murray, Tick’s mother (Harris, appealingly stern but loving), and elderly neighbour Mr. Emeline (Ofori), who traps squirrels, teaches Tick knitting to her chagrin, and believes society takes too much for granted.

Precocious Tick is very funny, chock-full of references and language beyond her years and her friends’ comprehension, tantrums, pouting, dance moves and war councils and rhetoric. The author does a decent job of showing us the “other side” of the issue, though there is a clear “wrong” side. It’s nice to see Tick as a flawed hero, so that the issue doesn’t become too preachy; very much a child, she blows everything up to the most straw-filled of straw man proportions, refuses any attempt to see eye-to-eye, abuses her friends, and throws tantrums equally at the destruction of the library and being forced to eat the same thing for dinner two days in a row. Though she has a strong point (and a relevant one, based on recent attempts in this city to “take on” libraries), we also understand why it is extremely difficult to let children be part of the democratic process.

Tick is about children, and so it is perhaps necessarily loud and brash, but overall there is really too much mugging from the actors; this is especially true when the play’s strong suit is the part where we actually feel for and listen to the characters, in the moments of quiet, whether found in happiness or disappointment.  This could be a comment on our current political discourse; nothing gets done when everyone is screaming and divisive. However, it is also a patience-thinner when most moments are played for MAXIMUM LOUDNESS AND INTENSITY; though we need the loud moments to appreciate the quiet ones, we need something in between to appreciate the loudness.

Tick should probably be an hour-long show; at 75 minutes, it feels padded, particularly as one of the Fringe’s few hour-plus-long slots. A particular endless celebratory dance sequence is eerily reminiscent of the ending of various Dreamworks movies, such as Shrek: The Shrekiest, where instead of a real ending, fairy-tale creatures drop whatever they’re doing and dance to a modern pop song for desperate added cool cred and ironic relevance. Of course, this doesn’t entirely describe Tick, as it’s not calculated; it’s guileless and joyful and sweet. But, as the character of Tick slowly comes to learn over the course of the piece, seemingly as part of its point, and as a mother might say to her screaming ten-year-old (as stuffy and stifling as it might make this reviewer sound): “Indoor voice, honey. If they have to strain to hear you sometimes, they’ll listen harder.”


Fringe 2012 Review: Peter 'n' Chris and the Mystery of the Hungry Heart Motel

Peter ‘n’ Chris and the Mystery of the Hungry Heart Motel functions as a satire of the genre that brought us The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Scooby-Doo. The show doesn’t want depth, interesting framing/ending device that gives us a twist (and an interesting curtain call) notwithstanding. It doesn’t really want mystery; the identity of the murderer is revealed both in their Fringe Guide blurb and in the opening “creepy” monologue. The show honestly just wants us to have a good time, and I must say that I did, mostly due to the spot-on physicality of the two comedians.

To spend a lot of time on plot in this review would be silly, because it’s not like the playwrights do. Peter (Peter Carlone) and Chris (Chris Wilson) are on a road trip to some location “irrelevant to the plot.” The radio keeps going dead, when it’s not playing “Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart,” and, once they inevitably crash their car, Peter insists they check out the creepy motel, because it is probably home to some kind of mystery. The innkeeper has a hard-to-kick habit of murdering his guests, and mayhem ensues.

The jokes rely on the usual subverted expectation, the “that didn’t go as well as I planned,” and the usual “isn’t it funny that boys are touching in a manner that could be interpreted as sexual.” Occasionally, the banter seems a little ad-libbed in delivery; I couldn’t tell if it was a sign of actors keeping lines sounding fresh and unscripted or making it up as they went along.

The best stuff relies on self-awareness, mining the duo’s friendship and comfort with each other, and making fun of traditional horror tropes (and irony), along with a couple of surprisingly sweet moments. Audience participation is minimal but used to hilarious effect with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” moment that can only lead to blame. But the reason to see Peter ‘n’ Chris is their assured and riotous physical humour. Whether mimicking a car crash, a shower, things that go bump in the night more and more elaborately, slow motion, or, my favourite, fast motion (seriously, I could watch them speed up time for quite a while with continued delight), these two are completely synchronized and assertive in their movements. A chase gag where Chris becomes either himself or the creepy murderer depending on which side of Peter he’s running on goes on for some time but never stops being funny.

This show won’t change your world, and the humour isn’t particularly amazing, new, or groundbreaking. But it will make you laugh - genuinely, not out of awkwardness – for an hour, and I think, particularly for a Fringe show, that’s plenty.


Fringe 2012 Review: snug harbor

Tracey Erin Smith’s The Burning Bush is one of my favourite Fringe shows of all time; the woman knows how to tell a story, or, more specifically, her story. She’s skilled enough that she has fashioned a business out of working the stories out of others, and crafting them into something engaging. I can see why. She’s warm, funny, honest and not afraid of looking a little silly or strange in service of her tale. It was with this level of expectation that I went into her latest offering, snug harbor, though I did not quite realize how personal this story was going to be.

The play is performed at The Centre, which is short for “The Centre For Training in Psychotherapy.” It is a BYOV, or “Bring Your Own Venue,” that is selected by the performer rather than the Festival. Smith has clearly selected her venue (and her “group facilitators”) to match her storytelling device: theatre as group therapy session. The Centre’s room has a curious feel- warm and cozy, but, thanks to two rows of bright globe lights in two wooden tracks traversing the centre of the room, also very “Broadway” or Honest Ed’s-esque. The lights look like a Broadway marquee, an effect I found fascinating. A friend of mine, (who is also reviewing this show, so I won’t step on his toes too much) and I were having a discussion after the performance about therapy as theatre and vice versa. Where is the line, and does one automatically work as the other?

Many of the plays we think of as “great” have come out of someone asking “What is your childhood trauma?” as Cordelia Chase would put it, and all the better if that someone is Eugene O’Neill. Often, however, therapeutic playwriting really does feel like something the playwright should have used to work out his or her issues and then put aside, really feeling like, to paraphrase how one writer put it, painting with strips of one’s skin, only it’s the audience’s skin that winds up crawling. Tracey Erin Smith does plenty of painting with pieces of herself; her show (SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT) explores her father’s suicide. But she has wrapped it in a neat theatrical package that ultimately makes for an experience that is both moving and educational.

Wearing a shirt that half-transforms into a black mourning shawl, Smith presents the stages of mourning, not in terms of Elisabeth Köbler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief, but in terms of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. It’s a surprisingly apt metaphor, and a more active one. Each stage is presented on a screen and explained. Also explained are warning signs for suicide, in case we want to start eying the other audience members with suspicion. This is not to say that the show is just a lecture – far from it. It’s sensitively acted and sometimes almost filmic in occasional powerful musical moments. We live through memories that are hysterically funny (many involving “the family that gets stoned together”) and the horrifying ones after the incident as Smith and her sister try to pull their lives together and slay the foes of grief, loss, and depression.

Smith is a champion at slipping into other people’s voices, taking things just seriously enough, and finding the humour in difficult and human situations, breaking the tension when things threaten to get too “heavy.” Only once in a while does the audience’s laughter take on an uncomfortable tinge, when the tension breaking is slightly too acidic or we’re not sure how to react. By the end, Smith has truly proved herself the hero of her own story, showing us touching pieces from her personal scrapbook, and we’ve gotten to know both her and the father who she’s calling out to.  Smith’s therapy is the type that gets – and deserves – a standing ovation.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Playwriting Contests and Movie Shoots

On Wednesday through Thursday, I participated in the Toronto Fringe Festival’s 24-Hour Playwriting Competition. Sixty playwrights were given four items/ideas at the Fringe Club that they had to incorporate in their up-to-45 minute works (a lemur ball, the deepest trench in the ocean, a zeitgeist, and “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”) and then we were sent off to write, write, write! (The running of the playwrights; it’s a bit dangerous, really.)

Even with having to teach a class in the middle (8:30am on Thursday) I managed to pull together what might be one of my favourite scripts that I’ve written. I’m not going to tell you about it, because they are in the middle of judging and it has to be anonymous.

I don’t write enough creatively lately; it’s all either academic or personal essay format. I was always known as a playwright but my output these years has not been what I’ve wanted it to be. I love playwriting contests with a time constraint in the way I love academic papers with deadlines; I write best when I’m forced to write with a defined endpoint. That’s when things get done. To be fair, I’m less good at writing at 5am than I used to be if I try to do it more than one day in a row. I wound up writing a piece that was almost 8,000 words long, and I like most of those words. After, I went to bells rehearsal, and then had some celebratory drinks with two of my other successful 24-hours playwrights. Which is a great thing in itself, when you consider that not all playwrights even finish. They’re judging them this week; there are three cash prizes, but the winner gets a staged reading directed by and starring some real theatre luminaries. I highly doubt I will win any of these things, but it is nice to dream and it was great to participate.

Saturday, I shot a short part in a short film that is being submitted to the Toronto After Dark festival.  I don’t do a ton of acting these days, so it was a lot of fun.  The movie, Zombies: A Silent Massacre, is a comedic mockumentary about the Zombie Sympathizer movement, who is trying to get the public to understand that zombies are people, too! (Particularly in light of a recent unfortunate incident.) No, I don’t play a zombie. For better or for worse, lately I’ve been typecast as a doctor; a friend’s stock footage for his website a few months ago, and now this. People just seem to want to see me with a lab coat on, and a stethoscope around my neck. In undergrad, I was constantly cast as a principal or headmistress, and now this; I don’t know whether I’m moving up in the world, or not, though the “principal” designation is closer to my current professor profession.

The shoot was a couple of hours, and featured me being interviewed about the origins of the zombie phenomenon, why they grunt, and what I think about them. I remembered my lines, delivered them to the director’s approval, and tried not to be unnerved by the camera in my face. In many ways, I miss acting. It’s definitely the role with the most direct connection to the audience, and it’s exciting. Being behind the scenes as a playwright or dramaturg is great, but it’s nice to be out there, as well.


Promo: Dina, The Burlapped Crusader

My wonderful friend Jenny's show, Dina, The Burlapped Crusader, is bringing joy to this year's Fringe. Dina is trying to fight against boredom and drudgery, and invites you to leave your cellphones on during the performance, and to use them by tweeting and texting her. The show is designed to stand on its own but be improved by audience interaction and play.  Fringe theatre, I find, even more than any other kind of theatre, is all about connection with an audience; the small houses and collegial atmosphere really contribute to interaction between performer and spectator. Dina's really looking forward to making these connections with you!

Remaining performances are July 8th at 7:30, July 9th at 5:15, July 11th at 9:30, July 12th at 7, and July 13th at 11:30. I am working the July 9th show, so if you happen to be the one reader of my blog who isn't among my friends and family already and would like to meet me, that's where I'll be.

I'll leave you with a promo video for Dina; I'm the bored redhead in the coat.

Off to see more Fringe! If you're in Toronto and not doing the same, you're very silly!


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: The Other Three Sisters

Johnnie Walker’s life has diverged somewhat from mine since we were two of six young, impressionable writers together in Tarragon Theatre’s Young Playwrights Unit.  Even in high school, I was impressed by his easy handling of dialogue and remembered always wanting to know what was going to happen next in the show he brought in every week. If you had asked me (and nobody did), I probably would have predicted his success. (That class of six also featured Natasha Mytnowych, so I really do feel like a Toronto theatre underachiever.)  Now, he’s of late responsible for last years’ Fringe’s acclaimed A Maude-Lynne Evening and the wildly successful Redheaded Stepchild (both involving main “sister” Morgan Norwich) and is on this week’s cover of NOW. I do some freelance dramaturgy and literary management, my “big” play won an award but never got a full production, and…I write a small theatre blog. So, as I fully disclose my slight jealousy, I must say that The Other Three Sisters is very good, and a lot of fun.

Based (loosely) on Chekhov’s play of a similar name, Walker’s sisters don’t want to move to Moscow from a small provincial Russian town; they merely want to get back across the Humber River and leave Etobicoke. Abandon hope, ye who cross the Humber! Jordana (Norwich), the motherly “Olga” of the piece, tries and fails to keep things together (with ice cream cone cupcakes) in the household for “Masha” sister Gillian, (Jamie Arfin) the artist, not a pianist but the surgically-enhanced star of a Vancouver-filmed sci-fi series; and childish and ennui-filled “Irina” sister Kris (Alexandra Parravano, of my high school graduating class), whose life can be over at the end of a movie.  A deceased father, absent mother and charming but "drifting" (to say the least) brother, Rowan (Julian De Zotti), who may be a boy in a plaid shirt or a subway, depending on when you ask him, round out the sisters’ family baggage. 

The show is arch without being artificial, occasionally subverting theatrical convention with narrative sense. As things spiral into chaos and back again, supernatural and magical elements gradually insert themselves into the plot in a way the audience is more than willing to go with. This is one of the few Fringe plays with necessarily (comparatively) elaborate costumes and props that add to our enjoyment of the evening.  The show is occasionally aggressively wacky; it says something that the audience’s “entry”  into the show, in character terms, might not even really be there.  Each character grounds and then throws the show off in turn, alternately sympathetic and crazed, with an emphasis on crazed. Like Chekhov, while plot is necessary, it is the characters who are indelible.

Jordana is a 27-year-old community college teacher struggling to get enough courses to make enough money to live on her own, instead of at home. Let’s just say it would be tough for this character not to resonate with this reviewer, because check, check, check, check and also check. Norwich is appealingly twitchy as a woman who can’t seem to choose between fending off the madness and giving into it. Arfin is great as the gradually-plasticizing Gillian who describes certain situations as “totally siblings.” Parravano throws herself into a robust characterization of a twentysomething who isn’t quite not a teenager yet, and De Zotti is an appealing and magnetic break from the estrogen who makes you believe in his centrality to the lives of the others.

Though tonally, the sisters can sometimes gets a little over-pitched, shouty and shrill, and it does bother me a bit that, like so many other shows, the larger actress’ body is dressed and played for laughs, the dialogue is smart and funny and revelations intrigue. Watching the show, you get the feeling that, just like Chekhov’s sisters, Walker’s will end up in the end of a Beckett play: “They do not move.”


Fringe 2012 Review: The Shape of Things

As a rule, I don’t go in much for seeing Fringe shows that aren’t original to Fringe; it doesn’t seem to be completely in the spirit of the festival, in my mind, to put on, say, one of Tennessee Williams’ short pieces, unless it’s quite obscure or you’ve put some sort of very new twist on it. With that thought in mind, I hesitated before purchasing my ticket to the Toronto Fringe incarnation of Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things. While perhaps not Williams-level canonical, LaBute’s work has reached a definite level of notoriety, and I’d likely have a chance to see the show at some point. On the other hand, I hadn’t seen the show and, besides reading “Bash,” hadn’t really overly-familiarized myself with the playwright. So in I went, standing behind a size-two young woman complaining about how she felt like a sausage in her dress and kind of wishing we were about to see LaBute’s Fat Pig instead, so she could experience irony. I leave the question to you: what role does well-known work being remounted have in the Fringe experience? In your Fringe experience? What role should it have?

LaBute has a reputation of controversial topics and harsh truths. The Shape of Things centres around questions of where art crosses the line, and hinges on the manipulative relationship between Adam (Christian Smith), a nebbishy undergrad studying English, and Evelyn (Jennifer Neales), the MFA art student he meets at the campus art gallery. It’s a unique and suitably charming meet-cute, featuring Evelyn’s graffiti-based crusade against a fig-leafed god statue meeting the very passive resistance of Adam’s campus security guard, who just doesn’t want to fill out any paperwork.

Evelyn is the love child of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Machiavelli.  The first thing Adam has to say to her is “you’ve stepped over the line,” which neatly telegraphs the rest of her action.  She seems to be the outsider in this “small-town college town” environment, which appears to have a surprisingly radical MFA arts program (though it may just be her). Adam’s other friends, the engaged Phillip (Brendan O’Reilley) and Jenny (Adrianna Prosser, whose character Phillip “stole” from Adam years ago), are more “salt-of-the-earth” than artsy types (with the exception of a quirky wedding choice that doesn’t seem to fit the rest of their personalities), though Phillip even feels the need to win arguments about art. Phillip and Jenny treat Adam’s “improvement” under Evelyn’s watchful eye (weight loss, clothing changes, more drastic surprises) with suspicion and renewed interest, respectively; The Shape of Things We Do For Love.

Though the ending twist of the play is telegraphed (at least to me) early on, the ending scene is still powerful, probably because the cast is so uniformly good. Smith manages to imbue Adam with an easy shy charm and has a very appealing natural delivery. The actor and production also has to contend with having to portray a real physical change over the course of the hour, which was a largely successful endeavour. He has plenty of chemistry with Neale’s Evelyn, who balances fire and ice adroitly, so that one can understand why Adam is “owned,” in his words, and at the same time never really trust her.  O’Reilly is great as the bro you outgrow but think of fondly, and Prosser gets one of the show’s standout moments (not to mention the best outfits) with her apology for not being “artistic” or “cool” enough, which is a message all of us navel-gazing Fringe diehards need to hear every once in a while; we need more Jennies at the Fringe.

LaBute’s dialogue is often sparkly and very entertaining, and even managed to overcome my initial “dear Lord, save us from the musings of English undergrads and MFA grad students” reservations, from my oh-so-worldly platform of having been both of these things five and two years ago, respectively. I was expecting far more offense than was delivered, but the playwright excels in mapping out both the platonic and romantic relationship games played between people.

The original productions of The Shape of Things featured oppressively loud music between the scenes, a soundscape designed, LaBute said, to prevent the audience from comparing notes, and, presumably, ruining the plot twist. (According to The New York Times’ Ben Brantley, Harold Pinter, another canonical writer with a show in this year’s Fringe, reportedly fled from the music before the show could even start.)  The sound design here, presumably from able director Alex Fields, is quite the opposite, with appealingly pretty, blue-tinged indie tunes bookending the show, and silences (maybe too silent) during scene changes to encourage a contemplative mood. I’m not sure The Shape of Things completely succeeds in its discussion of the intersection between provocation and art, but in this production, it’s a worthwhile contemplation.


Fringe 2012 Review: BAD CONNECTIONS?

BAD CONNECTIONS? (a title which is, inexplicably, in all-caps) is a play written by Michael Levesque for Paul Cosentino, a one-man show featuring nine characters whose lives come together via various connections and conversations, culminating in a visit to a guru, in 1997 New York City (the setting, it seemed, mostly to avoid the post 9/11 feeling and to justify the presence of a payphone).  I am a terrible theatre student, because when I heard the play being described as being about “oneness,” my reaction was one of eye-rolling rather than eager nodding and snapping. Luckily, the strength of both script and performer proved lacking in pretension, instead full of sharply-observed “dialogue” and character moments.

Cosentino adroitly fills the shoes of all characters, from a pregnant black teenager to a hospitalized Italian great-grandfather, to a 56-year-old typical Upper West Side Jewish wife-type. He snaps from one character to the next, sometimes in monologue, sometimes in dialogue, occasionally literally tumbling into his next character. His physicality is captivating and his voice work is very good. Though some characterizations verge a bit on caricature (occasionally slightly offensively so), this does serve the purpose of keeping his characters distinct, particularly later on, when they begin to come together and interact at a more and more furious pace. The script, also, makes each character interesting and sympathetic enough that we can forgive some cliché and archetype. To emphasize the connection between characters, the scenes turn on a word, going from the mouth of one character to another. It’s a nice touch, though very “writerly.”

The connections begin to come together in a satisfying way; the writer’s repetition of there being “no coincidence” seems a little like an excuse, but it’s engaging enough not to really matter. One ending vignette gave us a dramatic note that felt unearned and off-kilter with the rest of the piece; the rest of the script is so good at implying actions and connections (one of its great strengths is mostly avoiding any of the clunkiness of introductory exposition in scenes) that I was left wishing that note had been equally well-implied (as it was, in fact, with the last line before the discovery) rather than melodramatically focused on. Some of the characters’ relationships could have stood some further development, (which may have contributed to the unearned feeling of that one vignette), but the play might have gone on forever in that case. These are actually small quibbles with the play, which is very good and skillfully woven.

Make a connection with BAD CONNECTIONS? It’s an intriguing story, told by nine intriguing voices.