Sunday, July 16, 2017

Toronto Fringe 2017 Day #6

James & Jamesy In The Dark. Photo by Thaddeus Hink

It was Toronto Fringe Day 10, and my final day of fringing. I did a ton of not only walking but standing and my body hates me today for good reason.

The first two shows are Patron's Pick so you can still catch them. Click the title to get the link. The last one has closed but is going on to Winnipeg so I'm linking to that fringe (the website doesn't give me a direct link to the show). Pass along to your Winnipeg friends!

James & Jamesy in the Dark

I'm a huge fan of these guys and I thought I wouldn't get a chance to see this. If you've seen either of their previous shows, Tea for 2 or High Tea, be warned that this is a little different. Which is great because I love seeing artists stretch their wings and move out of their comfort zone.

The show revolves around two characters who have working lampshades on their heads and are thus restricted in what they see. There's a lot of comedy in it, engaging enough to capture the attention of the pre-teens in the audience. The first half, establishing the world, does feel slow. But just as you get to "is that all there is?', they discover the audience and what happens from there is pure delight.

If you like something that's off-beat, or something that is physical comedy-based in an intelligent way, then check this show out.

Magical Mystery Detour

My reaction to this show is an example of me being jaded in having seen too many fringe shows. (I've never counted but I know it falls in the hundreds.) I've heard about this artist for years as she's made the rounds of the fringe circuit but had never seen her. I walked out disappointed. I just couldn't help but make comparisons to Nicola Gunn's fringe shows which worked with similar themes and found it wanting.

Now that I've got that out of the way, let me tell you why everyone else raves about this show. :)

We meet a woman who is dealing with a lot of stuff - trying to write a tag line for Marmite, a break up, and her mother's death. When she gets a letter from beyond the grave, it sets her on an unforgettable road trip. Gemma Wilcox not only gives us all the people she meets along the way, but voices animals, coins, and my personal favourite, a car. You won't find any stereotypes in the characters, which given how quick a glance we get of most of them, could have been very easy to do. The show has a great mix of drama and comedy - it's a very enjoyable journey.

My friend who saw the show with me felt the audience interaction portions of the show unnecessary. After thinking on it, I tend to agree. It pulls us out of the narrative. However, that's the only problem I found with it.

It truly is a tour-de-force and an interesting story. If you love watching those things, this show is for you.

The Life Henri

The show that has already closed (although I won't be surprised if there's a Toronto remount at some point). It was the perfect way to end my fringe.

Ostensibly the show is about the life of Henri Rousseau but Adam Bailey uses it as a jumping off point to talk about being an outsider in other contexts. After the show I found out there's another layer I didn't even see which talked about the fringe circuit itself. I really wish I could go back and see it again with this knowledge. Maybe Winnipeg audiences will be more astute than I.

Doesn't really matter, I enjoyed it immensely. Adam is an engaging and funny storyteller and the life of Rousseau is a fascinating subject in its own right. Using slides to show us the work of Rousseau and his contemporaries, we get a rollicking tour of the Parisian art world of the late 19th and early 20th century. The time flies by as we hear about Rousseau artistic development, his naivety, and the most epic house party ever.

Want to have fun spending an hour hearing a story about an ordinary man who becomes an icon? You'll want to see this.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Toronto Fringe 2017 Day #5

Vanessa Quesnelle and Martin Dockery in Moonlight After Midnight. Photo by Will O’Hare

This was my day 5, officially the fringe's day 8. Saw two shows by friends who kindly made it possible for me to come. Happily, I loved them both.

As always, title links to the fringe box office.

Letters to Annabelle

From the moment you walk into the venue, a bar on Dundas St, you're immersed in the world of the show. You're welcomed into the space by a man dressed like a maitre d. Burlesque dancers mingle with the audience and with each other. You get to order drinks and food if you wish.

We're in a bar just after The War to End All Wars. A young soldier has returned, searching out the woman who gave him reason to survive. In the process of looking for her, he gets immersed in the protection racket of the owner of the bar and reconnects with a girl from his hometown working there.

What ensues is a story about illusion, loss, and the hope of love. It actually reminded me a lot of a show I worked on a lifetime ago, Andrew Woolner's Dearest Companion. The immersive experience brings a poignancy to the piece that I think a conventional staging would have lost. With the action all around us, we can feel the characters hopes, dreams, and pain. The letters that we hear have a beautiful poetry mixed in with the horrors of war, giving us a understanding of the nightmares our protagonist has on a nightly basis. From the get-go there's a strong sense of where the story will end up but I kept hoping for a happy ending anyway.

The show has a few things that needs to be ironed out. I was never quite sure where we were. I thought we were in Quebec, as the story seemed to indicate that it was a last stop before shipping out and the Canadian forces trained at Valcartier, Quebec. Yet there's a reference in the show to doing a run to Albany, which is nowhere near there. That would place us in Kingston or Cornwall. Also, the scene changes were very slow. Live piano playing and burlesque were used to cover these and while they were entertaining diversions, it made things feel very dragged out. The voice-overs of the letters got lost quite a bit.

These are all minor things though. If you want to experience something different and dramatic, this is where you want to be.

Moonlight After Midnight

I've heard about this show for a long time as Martin and Vanessa have toured it to many fringes and will be taking it to Edinburgh next. So happy to have finally seen it. It has a twist ending that I saw coming only because of a comment Martin made to me before I saw it. The audience had no idea.

I hesitate to say any more beyond the initial set up of a man and a woman in a hotel room because the joy of this piece lies in the discovery, how it always keeps you guessing as to what is going on. Every time you have a handle on it, it shifts the ground under your feet.

It touches upon the ways we play roles in order to dance around our truths, especially around love. The writing is very strong and the performances actually play with levels of competence to help guide you along the way.

If you love an intriguing story and don't mind being challenged as an audience member, then make sure you catch this show.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ottawa Fringe 2017

Yesterday being #WorldFringeDay reminds me that I still have an outstanding review to write.

I went to the Ottawa Fringe last month to see Keith Brown's new show, which didn't get into Toronto. After I saw it, I promised to write up a review but things got crazy and I didn't get around to it. With the show now heading to Winnipeg and Edmonton, it's a good time to keep that promise. I'll even throw in the other show I saw there, which I really liked.

Hotter than Potter

(Winnipeg link Edmonton link)
I can't even pretend to be objective with this review as I worked with Keith on his last show and was a sounding board for this one. So I will tell you about the show through the eyes of my cousin and her daughter, who came with me.

My cousin was very concern about the age appropriateness of the show, since her daughter is 12. Never fear! Keith is all-ages friendly. He discovered magic as a boy and loves to share that wonder with children of all ages.

And wonder is the theme of this show. I know some people were disappointed because there wasn't more Harry Potter references, not knowing that the title of the show came from a preview piece the CBC did for his last show, Absolute Magic (the one I worked on). He liked it so much he was running off buttons at the end of our Toronto run and decided to use it for his show title this year. But why do people love the Harry Potter books so much? I'd suggest it's the idea of magic existing in the everyday mixed with a dash of adventure. And that's what you get with this show.

Halfway through the show, my cousin and her daughter were leaning forward in their chairs, hanging on every word and action. They were mystified by the magic and charmed by the man. Which is the quintessential Keith Brown experience.

So if you want a break from the everyday, a dash of wonder and charm in your life, you owe it to yourself to see Hotter Than Potter. You'll be glad you did.

AL Connors: DJ Detective

This was the local show I wanted to see and thanks to my plans falling through I was able to hightail it over and see it. I wanted insight into how a DJ works. I certainly got that. What surprised me was how polished the show was. His tales were engaging, he used the stage well, he led us through a journey which culminated in letting us experience what he does. I got to laugh, I got to dance, maybe I even cried a little. It was everything I had hoped for as a fringe experience..Glad I got stood up!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Toronto Fringe 2017 Day #4

Amo Gulinello in Fastcar: Man of Action. Photo by: Valerie Michele Graper

I saw 2 evening shows after getting some sleep. And more sleep afterwards, which is why this is late. (Again, the link in the title takes you to the show page so you can buy tickets.)

Fastcar: Man of Action

This was another show I didn't know much about going in. I already had it in my schedule when I ran into the artist, who was hanging out with someone I know from my vocal studio. They had worked together in Singapore. Small world.

It also turns out that this wasn't the first time I had seen him perform. I checked out his online bio and he was with De La Guarda. (I've spent the last couple of hours trying to retrieve the post I know I wrote about seeing that show in October 2001 and how I was moved by the scene about the tower falling. It's sadly trapped in WP backup hell.)  The man has solid physical theatre chops.

And that's what you get with this show - tons of physical comedy in a mime style. And it's done very well. Like any good clown, he takes the mundane and raises the stakes ever higher, pushing it in the realm of the absurd. I'm finding it really difficult to describe what happens in the show, which may very well be the point. The artist in his synopsis talks about three sections - the phone call, the date, the mission - but that really doesn't do justice to what you see. This show is really accessible, a product of his years of being a lead clown for Cirque du Soleil. He told me the final bit is directly lifted from his work there. 

This show is a lot of fun but be prepared, members of the audience will be involved in the antics. Having said that, he got my friend Heather onstage and she never does audience participation. He's that good. So if you want a shorter show (it runs 45 minutes) where you'll be doing a ton of laughing performed by a master of physical comedy, this is the show you'll want to see. He's an out-of-towner who doesn't have a large network of contacts here and needs all the support he can get.

Odd One Out

This show is very different from everything else I've seen. It's the one pure drama on my list. 

It concerns two women who fall in love while in university in the 50s. Setting it in the 50's gave it a power and resonance that separated it out from most stories I've seen about lesbian romance. While the romance is the center of the plot, the play is really about shattered dreams and the long arm of guilt. The play shifts two time frames - the time when the women and the "steady" of one of them were together, and 8 years later when two of them come together to discover the story of what happened to the third, who had disappeared.

The acting is stellar and the script is lush (helps having a character who loves writing that kind of prose). The relationships are very well drawn and we have a strong sense of who each character is. It's a simple set that uses 3 flats on wheels to define spaces and I found that the moving of the panels was distracting instead of enlightening. But that's the only quibble I have with this production. It moves at a good pace and is fully engrossing.

I do have to give a shout out to Siobhan Richardson's intimacy direction. She learned the craft from the Intimacy on Stage workshop that I wrote about last year  (she was the one who made it happen) and you can see the difference on the stage. I felt the attraction between the two female characters from the moment they met in a way I can't remember experiencing ever before in a show. There was such a comfort level between that actors that has to have been Siobhan's work.

The description sells it as a mystery but I'd consider that a little misleading because it's never solved. Instead, we get a powerful story that is told well by engaging actors. If that's your thing, you need to see this show.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Toronto Fringe 2017 Day #3

 Joylyn Secunda in The Moaning Yoni. Photo by Emily Cooper

Got gloriously wet in the fringe tent and did a little dancing. My one day of having serious hangout time - thanks rain! (The links in the titles takes you to their fringe page.)

The Moaning Yoni

This show is about a subject near and dear to my heart - women's sexuality.

It opens and closes with a chant to mother earth, creating a space for the sacred feminine. From there we're taken to a tantra class to connect women with their yonis, not unlike a class I watched online last week. The teacher talks to Zoe, and it's her Yoni that is the title of the show. And the Yoni talks like a Jewish mother.

Throughout the next hour, we meet a parade of men that have passed through Zoe's life (the live-person Tinder is a highlight of the show), discover all the awful ways that men kiss, and get a window into how hard it is to express your sexuality as a young woman. (I'll spare you the rant about how internet porn has ruined sex. I'll just say I'm glad my sexual initiations were done by men who were interested in making me feel good instead of copying moves they've seen in porn.)

However, this show is not a downer by any means. It's really funny. It mocks all the various ways that we tell women to connect to their sexuality and how we pressure them to be sexual, even if they're not interested. The movement in the show is gorgeous and the writing is really good. While this show speaks to the feminine experience, it's not exclusive. There was only one man in the audience and he was enjoying it almost as much as the rest of us. It was a beautiful hour of communion between the performer and the audience.

I wish everyone under 30 could see this show. There'd be hope for better sex for everyone.

Pineapple Club

I had no idea walking into it what this show was about. I didn't know that the creator of Dance Animal (which I sadly missed in both its incarnations) was involved. I didn't know that I would have so much fun. I loved the soundtrack, music from artists we've lost since the beginning of 2016. I loved the dance - oh, how I loved the dance. (I've been feeling very stuck in my dancing right now and have decided that I need some Jazz in my life.)

I wasn't sold on the blackouts between scenes, prefering a movement-based transition, but the use of the blackout becomes really important in a scene later on - a beautiful set of tableaus lit only by flashlight. What ties the scenes together is the theme of loss. (The program states that it's loosely based on the five stages of grief.) At times it's hilarious, poignant, and absurd.

A couple of things really struck me. I loved seeing a male dancer who looks like someone you'd run into in a biker bar - and boy can he sing! I also need to shout out Paul Barnes' accent work - he had me convinced he was Canadian-born with a really good English accent.

If you like a mix of dance, comedy, and a soupçon of angst, this is the show for you.

A personal note: in the program there's a thank you to Tom King. Wonder if that's the same Tom King I used to swing dance with?

Real Actors, Not People

Or, real life cleverly disguised as a play.

I saw this with a friend and before the play she asked me if I knew what it was about. I didn't really. But early on in the play I saw spaces being mentioned that I knew about. Turns out the performers are the proprietors of Brick and Mortar, a company I found out about when the Attic and The Box merged last year and asked Keith Brown to perform at their launch party. In fact, if you go to the online program after the show, they answer which parts of the show actually happened and which ones were the product of their imagination.

The two meet at an audition, eventually discover they both run an art space, and decide to join forces. In a series of vignettes we see the trials and tribulations of being an arts administrator who runs a physical space. I was reminded of my first outing as a producer. I plunged toilets and had lighting short out my board. There's no glamour in it, just a desire to serve the theatre community.

And it's exhausting. The show does a very good job showing what the cost is to providing the spaces we use with barely a second thought. This is not a downer show, though. It's done in a breezy way, with a funny set piece that runs throughout the show tracking the development of one space they're working on jointly while they're trying to carve out time to be artists.

The bit that really hit home for me is the discussion around compensating administrators. It's done in a very humourous way in the show but it highlights a real problem in the arts - acknowledging that our work should be financially compensated.

(I'll hop on my soap box here and point out that we do ourselves no favours if we force people to work extra jobs so as to keep costs to productions low. That extra $5/hr for a rental space means that the person who made that space happen and is taking care of it can buy groceries and pay rent. We need to become better at creating money for all of us as a whole rather than insist that we keep ourselves in sustenance living for the sake of our art. And the first step is compensating everyone involved in our productions in some way that makes their day to day lives easier, whether that's money or transit or bartering services. We can be more proactive in helping our sponsors find clients so that they'll want to invest more in our art. Collectively, we have the ability to figure out ways to raise the financial situation of the entire community. We just need the commitment to do it.)

If you're involved in theatre in any capacity, this is a must see. If you're a theatre goer, this is more than the usual "the trials and tribulations of an actor" that crops up at fringe. It's a door into a world that isn't much talked about but needs more light shine on it. The end reaffirms faith in theatre and why we do it. And you'll have had a good time along the way.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Toronto Fringe 2017 Day #2

Martin Dockery, photo by Bill Kennedy

(Link takes you to their fringe page to buy tickets.

Weirder Thou Art

I walked out of this show thinking, "what the hell did I just see?" 

Which I suspect is not a bad thing when watching bouffon.

We start out by meeting the witches from Macbeth, who have written a first draft of the play and have kidnapped William Shakespeare to polish it up and bring it to our world. Turns out they're on God's bad side and they hope by showing God that they now understand humanity things will get better for them.

From there, the show goes into sexual innuendo, fart jokes, repeated mentions of a desire for gore (grateful that we didn't have to see it) and a lot of pawing over young William - who shows he has acting chops when they actually leave him alone to do a scene. We run through the story while they witches fight amongst each other, Will tries to escape, and the audience laughs - a lot. 

Two of the witches are performed by men and the woman is portraying the crone. I'm sure there's a solid liturgical reason for that and it does add a bit of power when a man dressed with prominent boobs and ass talks about how women are viewed for their attractiveness but it did bother me that this show centering female characters has only one woman in the cast.  

This show was a ton of fun. I just would have liked a little more cohesion. The program talks about how bouffons like "themes that involve the very essence of society in its social complexity." I experienced very little of that. I do know that this show had to do some drastic cuts the last couple of days for time so I bet the stuff I was looking for is on the cutting room floor.

If you like bouffon, this show's for you. If you like bizarre takes on Shakespeare, this show is also for you. If you like raunchy weirdness, this show is definitely for you.


I have to state up front that I'm extremely biased when it comes to Martin Dockery. When Martin first did the Toronto Fringe with his show Wanderlust (2009!), I was smitten. I have memories of a late night discussion outside Central Tech, lending an ear walking him to his billet in London, having lunch with him and his lovely (now) wife on a long gone restaurant on Baldwin St, and many nights in the beer tent. 

I unashamedly love this man.

He's a master storyteller who has always done great work but this piece tops them all. The writing is stronger, something I didn't even know was possible. He's always been good at the large stories but this time he throws in a couple short offshoots that change the rhythm and allows the audience to catch their breath. 

Martin's trademark is fast-talking performance and that hasn't changed. However, this a calmer, more grounded, more open performer. I really noticed him making direct eye contact with as much of the audience as he can see and coming down to the audience level a few times, creating an intimacy I haven't seen from him before. This suits the stories he tells, two of which are intensely personal while the third gives perspective. The third story gave me particular resonance, especially considering my personal history with the venue.

If the rest of this run doesn't sell out, it will be a crime. It's not often you get to see someone at the top of his game the way this show showcases Martin. I don't want to say much more because I would like you to discover the stories on their own terms, so I'll leave you with the program description:
Dockery tells the true story of looking for meaning in the mysterious connection between love and death. Equally comical and heartbreaking, Delirium takes us from a Toronto airport to the Nevada desert, and from a Brooklyn apartment to the Mexican redoubt of the Monarch Butterfly, telling a story of both falling in love and falling apart.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Toronto Fringe 2017 Day #1

From left to right: Kira Renee, Catherine Wylee, Grace Thompson and Isabel Kanaan in Nourishment. Photo by Hashmita Alimchandani 

So here I am back at blogging. I had every intention of blogging through the fringe last year but I just ended up utter exhausted. I haven't done anything theatre related since then. Until now.

This year, I put out an open call for word of mouth (WOM) tickets. The way they work is that you get a ticket to a performance early in the run (usually a performance they anticipate may be slower selling tickets) in the hopes that you'll spread the word to your social circles to get them excited enough to go. Family circumstances mean that my fringing will have to be limited so writing reviews of them on the blog seems a good way for me to hold up my end of the bargain.

So on day #1, I saw two shows (link takes you to their fringe page where you can buy tickets):


I loved this show. It presents us with various aspects of being a woman in 2017, told through four women in one family - Gram, her daughter-in-law Ginger, and her grand-daughters Brie and Olive. (The scenes with Ginger taking care of Gram particularly hit home.)

The central conceit is that the kitchen, at times used as a tool of oppression for women, can also be a sacred space where women can gather. From there the women, all with very different perspectives, share stories and incidents of their lives.

Near the end, one of the characters asks, "why do we lie to our daughters and tell them they can be anything they want to be?"

It's a damn good question. I'd never thought about it until the show posed it to me. I saw how so many of the stories had to do with societal expectations of women. It was a very engaging way of addressing so many of the issues we face going about the world as women.

For women, this show will be full of familiarity. I found myself nodding quite a bit as the various characters talked about issues that affect them. Men will find some scenes unrecognizable but I hope they will be willing to take a look into the lives of women. Only in truly understanding how our roles have been laid out by society, how we're all battling with those expectations, will we be able to free.

Magic to the future

One of the hardest things to do well in theatre is a show about being unprepared to do the show. It's a fine line between authenticity and appearing professional. Unfortunately, this show doesn't walk it. Which is a shame as the performer is engaging and the show is very strong on the comedy side. The magic is simple, and is meant to be. (I'll cop to being a tough audience on the magic front as I've recently seen most of those tricks at Tricks in the Six and the other one has been a higher-stakes staple of Keith Brown's shows for years.)

It's not like our host doesn't have it in him. The pre-show is a projection of his showreel, the material sent to bookers to show why they should be hired. So here lies my problem. I spent most of the show feeling bad for him, wondering if he missed his tech rehearsal, instead of fully engaging with the show. He told me after the show that it was all intentional so it's possible that's the reaction he wanted. (And maybe that's why he's showing us his showreel pre-show.) But that's not why I go to theatre. I wanted to revel in the absurd parallels to Back to the Future and be amazed by feats of magic. I wanted to walk out being impressed by how the show was put together.

I fully admit that my experience is born from my background as a theatre professional and that other audience members will have a very different experience. However, there's a high bar for quality in Toronto and I suspect regular fringe goers will have a similar response to mine.

I really wanted to be able to recommend this show unreservedly since not only is Tim Hoffman an out-of-town performer (and I like to support those) but his stage manager Lindsay Taylor produced Absolute Magic last year. And I'll repeat, the show is fun if you're able to give yourself over to it. I hope it finds its audience.

ETA: Wayne Leung also saw the show last night and had a different impression. So maybe it is just me.