Monday, January 11, 2016

Next Stage Festival Reviews

This past weekend I took in four shows at the Next Stage Theatre Festival, on now until January 17. Despite being an avid Fringe Festival attendee, this is the first time I have attended this curated festival which gives promising Fringe artists development opportunities beyond the summer festival. With ticket prices of no more than $15, I have to say, it is an excellent value! But here are the details of what I happened to see:

Up first,  
 Mockingbird.
Written and directed by Rob Kempson, Mockingbird examines the grey areas between absolute right and wrong. Using a high school teacher’s romantic relationship with a student as the jumping off point, it examines how this event is interpreted and dealt with by others in the school.
What ends up on stage is a fully engaging piece, smartly written, and cleanly executed.  While the play certainly builds to an emotional climax, the road to it is fully entertaining. The action takes place in the English department staff room of Toronto high school, and I often found myself thinking “I know these teachers! I’ve been taught by these teachers!” While I’m sure that not all of the dysfunction and mayhem in this particular staff room would have reasonably transpired all at the same time in the real world, I had no trouble believing it here.
Yes, there is much laughter in this play, and also much to consider. The performances were uniformly tight, and while I felt the final emotional release built a touch too quickly, it was still impactful.
Recommended

All Our Yesterdays
I have to admit, I passed on seeing this show when it played at the Fringe festival. The program description seemed over-ambitious for a 60-minute piece. I am tremendously grateful that I rethought my opinion to take it in at this festival.
Inspired by the events of April 2014, the show revolves around two sisters who are removed from their school in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Ladi (Chiamaka Umeh), the eldest has been claimed by one of her captures. Hasana (Amanda Weise), the younger, perhaps due to her autism, is less of interest to the captors. The action moves between their present captivity, and their previous history.
Umeh and Weise both give grounded and full performances. I was particularly impressed, however, by Weise’s portrayal of Hasana, which moved fluently through each moment, investing me in her story without playing in any way to sentiment or sympathy.
A well formed, and well performed two-hander.
Recommended

Agamemnon
This revisiting of The Agamemnon, first play of the Oresteia, a trilogy of Greek tragedies, set the time in Ancient Greece and the location firmly in the present day. The juxtaposition works, for the most part: I enjoy the idea of the fall of Troy being discovered over twitter.
Stylistically rich, and playing intelligently with its source material, my qualm with this show was that it played like prequel. These larger-than-life characters seemed to lack emotional depth. That said, Brigit Wilson as Clytemnestra delivers an excellent speech on how she has suffered though the war. Though the characters motivations are selfish, the passion and content raises some interesting questions.
Overall, there is a lot of style. A ghostly Iphigenia on stilts -- Zita Nyarady proving that you do not need lines to have stage presence – stand foremost in my mind. Though the imagery in the direction, and some of the text, point to a larger statement about war, on refection I feel it fell short of the mark.
The result: an engaging performance that feels like a first act rather than a whole statement.
For someone with an interest in the classics, passing or otherwise: recommended.

Heart of Steel

Heard of Steel narrates the experience of four women who apply for work at the Cape Breton steel mill as the men are shipped off to fight in WWII. Not to wave the flag too much, but it was refreshing to see a new Canadian musical telling a story taking place unabashedly in Canada. And it was good. Also, not to play up too much Toronto pride, the talent in this production demonstrates to me what a depth of raw musical theatre talent we have locally.
The script is snappy, and the music shows that Wesley J. Colford (writer and composer) has a lot of potential in this form. If the script and score are ever revisited, I would really like to see the music more fully developed. As it stands, I found myself wanting there to be more music. For example, at a few points in the evening, I felt like the scene work I was watching might have been more effective if sung. Script-wise, I felt that the stakes (emotional or otherwise) could have been higher. We are told often how dangerous the steel plant is, and indeed there is at least one death in the show. However, it landed a bit like the death of a red-suited ensign: it served remind the audience of the seriousness of the situation but didn’t carry enough weight to cause me to fear for the main characters.
These issues aside, the piece is still strong. In particular, the themes of family and friendship (and how those two areas of life can come into conflict with each other) are well explored. It certainly looks at its time period with more than a little nostalgia and plenty of lightness, but these are aspects that add charm.
Overall: recommended and I hope you will forgive my pun, but at $15/ticket, this is a “steel” of a show.

All of these shows run until Jan 17 in repetory at the Factory Theatre. Check the festival website (http://fringetoronto.com/next-stage-festival/) for exact dates and times.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Day one

Three shows to open my Fringe with tonight. First, Interrogation, a play by Karry Yano and Even Andrew Mackay.
The show attempts to explore questions of national identity, loyalty, and survival. Matrha and Kanao (played by Loretta Yu and Benaldo Yeung) are two twenty-something Japanese-Canadians living in BC in 1936. When Kanao leaves to work at his grandfather's company in Japan, the two stay in touch through a set of letter, the recitation of which makes up almost the entirety of this performance. As WWII comes and passes, Martha and her family are moved to an internment camp and Kanao is drafted into the Japanese army.

This show takes on more than it can chew for 60 minutes of stage time, and the writing is unfocused. The monologues lacked thoughtful shape, and there were often emotions without clear reason.

Specificity was missing in much of the show. By example, the program indicates that Kanao proved his Japanese loyalty by acting as a POW interrogator; this is not clear in the text and action of the performance however. Yu and Yeung do a decent enough job, but at opening still had some points of shakiness with the text, and were not aided by the non-existant direction from Mackay.

It is disappointing that the story of Kano in particular has a lot of dramatic and emotional potential, and the ideas in this production are worth further development. At this stage, however, it still comes across as early draft.

Recommendation: You will not miss anything by missing this show.

Next up was Rukmini's Gold, by Radha S. Menon.
Rukmini's Gold won the 2015 Toronto Fringe new Play Contest, and it is not hard to see why. The script was tight, the scenes well formed, and the plot and theme paired well.
As the play opens, Rukmini, played by Dia Frid, sits waiting for a train in Samsara in 1960, reflecing on her life. She is about to make a journey, the nature of which becomes quickly apparent. Acting as a pivot for the whole show, we see how her life an experience connect directly and indirectly with her predecessors and successors as scenes from 1911 to 2008 play out at train stations in India, Canada, and the U.K.

While not a perfect piece, (the time jumps are double-casting made the relationships between scenes very hard to follow, and some elements of magical realism seemed to have been abandoned in a rewrite but not excised everywhere) there is a lot to like about this show. The dialog is witty and engaging, and the characters are well formed. A personal highlight was a monologue of a woman who had, for various reasons, watched as the lives of her sister and niece fall slowly apart; a powerful moment indeed.

Recommendation: Worth taking the time to check out.

Finally, Fruit Fruit Mouth Mouth, by the Illume Collective
I almost want to call this production, something like "The Goblin Variations." The production bills itself as "An exploration of Rossetti's Goblin Market" but gets seriously derailed leaving me at many moments to ask "what the frack? No really, what the veritable frack?"

Opening with a dramatic recitation of the poem, the performance starts by oddly combining a sort of melodrama parody in the sisters with a strange commedia-ish lazzi performance from the goblin men. Then it gets weird.

The initial recition over, one of the performers then starts asking us "get you thinking question" that felt to me as if they came from a less-than-engaging first year college English lecture.

What if the poem weren't as written? What if it were gender reversed? What if we look at this and read it as explicitly sexual? What if we read it as a coming of age? What if I told you something I head once about how Victorian norms were different from moden? What if? What if? What if? (I head the goblins calling the question now).

These what if questions are useful tools for exmploration when working through the creative process, but they are not in and of themselves enough ot make a performance satisfying.

I commend the performers for committing themselves fully to this production. They have, all of them, skill on display and commitment to their work. The material, however, is a rather awkward mish-mash: arguments in search of a thesis.

Recommendation: As much as I really wanted to like this show, I can't really recommend seeing it.

Friday, June 12, 2015

First Time Last Time - Enjoyable time

Note: This review is based on a preview performance of the show.

First Time Last Time, written and directed by Scott Sharplin, tells the story of Ben and Airlea, and their 15 or so years together (the math, we are told, is fuzzy.)

While Sharplin's notes indicate this is a play about "non-traditional relationships" what strikes me is just how traditional their relationship is. Which is not to say it is without interest.

The story is a twist on a standard: boy-with-goals Ben meets goth-chick LARPer Airlea. The twist comes in that neither one (they protest) is looking for a relationship, so they agree to a one night stand. That turns into two, three, and then years of nights. So long as it stays fresh, they state, each time counts as the first.

Ben is played with earnest eagerness by co-producer Wesley J. Colford. Meanwhile, Jenna Lahey gives Airlea some surprising turns of emotional depth.

The preview performance began a bit stilted, not helped by a slightly awkward frame narrative that lands well but doesn't have a strong take off. However, the two actors, and the script itself, find their sea-legs in the second act when the lies begin and the subject turns (as it must inevitably do) to babies. This includes a delicious moment in which Airlea speaks to us about Ben's growing obsession with babies, while being pelted by an increasingly dense shower of baby toys. It is in this act, as well, that the set, a pile of storage boxes, (designer uncredited in the program) earns its keep.

I left this production feeling like the script could be tighter. Each scene contained good moments, and the characters invited me to care. However, my efforts were regularly blocked as forward thrust of the scenes would stall and circle before moving onward. This was not helped by repeated references in the script to how the middle of a story is full of blur. I would suggest that this script could be pulled in to a single act to keep the scenes fresh and showcase better the story and relationship arc.

Wesley J. Colford and Jenna Lahey as Ben and Airlea
Photo Credit: Chris Walzak

This is, as the poster might suggest, a comedy, and the jokes are certainly there. They did not land as strongly as they could have done at the preview I attended, but I suspect that both Colford and Lahey will hit the comic marks more easily after opening and during the run. A Toronto crowd on a Wednesday night is a tough room.

Recommendation: An enjoyable night.

First Time Last Time runs to June 21st, 2015 At Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson Ave
General Admission: $20
Student/Youth/Artworker Price: $15
Sundays: PWYC
Tickets can be purchase online at http://passemuraille.ca
Or by phone at: (416) 504-7529

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Fringe plan 2015

As usual, here is my fringe plans for 2015. Hope to see you out and about. I'll once again be blogging most of my days.


Show Date and Time
Interrogation Wednesday, Jul 1 - 06:30 PM
Rukmini's gold Wednesday, Jul 1 - 08:15 PM
Fruit Fruit Mouth Mouth Wednesday, Jul 1 - 10:30 PM
Zach Zultana Thursday, Jul 2 - 06:30 PM
Pool (No Water) Thursday, Jul 2 - 08:15 PM
Shevil Thursday, Jul 2 - 10:30 PM
10/10/10 Friday, Jul 3 - 07:00 PM
The Untitled Sam Mullins Project Friday, Jul 3 - 08:45 PM
Caws and Effect Friday, Jul 3 - 10:30 PM
Becoming Burlesque Saturday, Jul 4 - 12:00 PM
Starry Notions Saturday, Jul 4 - 01:45 PM
Grade 8 Saturday, Jul 4 - 03:15 PM
A lesson in Gabby Saturday, Jul 4 - 05:15 PM
Waiting for Alonzo Saturday, Jul 4 - 08:00 PM
Mad Life Imagined Saturday, Jul 4 - 09:45 PM
A Drop of water Saturday, Jul 4 - 11:30 PM
Nantucket Sunday, Jul 5 - 01:15 PM
Twelfth Night Sunday, Jul 5 - 03:30 PM
Anatolia Speaks Sunday, Jul 5 - 05:45 PM
The Women of Tu Na House Sunday, Jul 5 - 07:30 PM
Buckle My Shoe Sunday, Jul 5 - 09:15 PM
Debris Monday, Jul 6 - 07:00 PM
Redefining Wonder Monday, Jul 6 - 08:45 PM
Yeats: A Ceremony of Innocence Monday, Jul 6 - 10:30 PM
The King's Castle Tuesday, Jul 7 - 01:15 PM
The Most Honest Man Tuesday, Jul 7 - 03:00 PM
Two Girls, One Corpse Tuesday, Jul 7 - 06:30 PM
Kojira Tuesday, Jul 7 - 09:00 PM
Touch of Psycho Wednesday, Jul 8 - 01:45 PM
In Right Here Wednesday, Jul 8 - 03:30 PM
You Know I Know Wednesday, Jul 8 - 05:15 PM
The Man Who Loved Beer Wednesday, Jul 8 - 06:30 PM
2 ruby knockers Wednesday, Jul 8 - 09:15 PM
Waiting in Line Wednesday, Jul 8 - 11:00 PM
Stinkweed Thursday, Jul 9 - 12:00 PM
People Suck Thursday, Jul 9 - 05:15 PM
Merry Wives Thursday, Jul 9 - 07:00 PM
Everyday Oppression Thursday, Jul 9 - 09:15 PM
My Big Fat German Puppet Show Thursday, Jul 9 - 11:00 PM
In Case We Disappear Friday, Jul 10 - 12:00 PM
At Home Friday, Jul 10 - 01:45 PM
Urban Legends Friday, Jul 10 - 03:30 PM
Fool's Gold Friday, Jul 10 - 05:15 PM
Duotang Chesterfield Friday, Jul 10 - 07:30 PM
High Tea Friday, Jul 10 - 09:15 PM
For Body and Light Friday, Jul 10 - 11:00 PM
Carrie's little lambs Saturday, Jul 11 - 12:30 PM
A Man Walks into a bar Saturday, Jul 11 - 05:15 PM
The Philandress Sunday, Jul 12 - 04:00 PM
Adventures of a Redheaded Coffeshop Girl Sunday, Jul 12 - 05:45 PM
Big Love Sunday, Jul 12 - 07:30 PM

Friday, July 11, 2014

2014 Fringe Festival Day Six


Circular

Circular, by Artichoke Heart, is a whimsical puppet show presenting an aesthetic the reminded me of a mix between Early Pixar and Tim Burton. The storyline, though endearing, was a little unclear. Though a background story was presented through shadow display and recapped at the end, there were still too many questions remaining for me about the logic of the universe in which the show takes place. In particular, there was a clear division between “organic” and “mechanical” puppets, but the significance of the division remained illusive. one criticism in presentation, a significant amount of time is spent pupating on the floor of the space, which can be somewhat hard to see from anything but the first two rows.

Overall, however, a weird and enjoyable production. With lovely and endearing moments.

Recommendation: for a dose of weird and wonderful, check it out.

The legend of white woman creek

A story through song, this show quite literally summons the ghost of a Virginia woman who “goes west” after the civil war, falls I'm love with a leader of the Cheyenne tribe, is "rescued“ by the cavalry and who ultimately dies is despair. Performer Katie Hartman is engaging as the white woman of the title, who sings her tale of love and loss.

A love story engagingly performed.

Recommended.

Myth of the ostrich

This show has already been getting a lot of buzz and I am happy to report that it is well deserved. A three hander farce, well written, directed, and acted. What starts as a “meeting the neighbours” storyline quirky moves into hilarity fuelled by secrets, large and small. The pace sags slightly midway through this 90 minute piece but quickly recovers, and though the ending is perhaps a little too neat, the resolution is heartfelt and
honest.

Recommendation: Loved it! See it! 

Ancient history

An interesting script from David Ives about two people hi are so perfect for each other that they are “the same person” except they are not.
Unfortunately this production felt flat and unengaging, as if two people were reading lines to each other for ninety minutes.

Recommendation: give it a pass

Mr. And Mrs. Alexander: Sideshow Phychics.

David Ladder, and Lizzie Tollemache bring to life the final performance of notorious New Zealand stage couple of the title. Ladder and Tolerate handle the crowd and material with alacrity, recreating the entertainment of the 1880s while at the same time providing context and good story narration.
I had seen Mr. Ladder at a previous fringe and thoroughly enjoyed his performance then. I enjoyed it even more this time around.

Recommendation: take a trip back in time! Recommended.

She's Black, He's Jewish, They're Married, Oy Vey!

A raunchy, though kind-hearted mix of standup and sketch from Epstein and Hassen. A routine best described by the acronym TMI. Despite an uneven pace, the audience enjoyed the show, and there were certainly laughs to be had. What the act really needs is more polish and shape.

Recommendation: take it or leave it. Nothing against the show, but there are more rewarding selections.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Fringe Toronto 2014 - Days 4 and 5

Lots to get through as I was lax in my posting yesterday. Here we go:

I Was Born White


I believe this is an autobiographical dance piece. Inspired by the life of a woman who was adopted, in a private adoption, by parents who expected her to be white, the piece explores themes of identity and culture when you must find your own way, or perhaps assemble it from what is around you.
Falling solidly on the art side of the art-therapy divide, I recommend this for those following dance at the Fringe.

Three Men in a Boat

Based on the novel Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, this tells of a boating trip up the Thames taken by three young upper-class men in the late 1880s. I believe most of the narration (and it is on of those shows where the characters narrate the action) is lifted more or less directly from the source material, and done with such a deft touch, that you could easily imagine it written for theatre.
The direction is slick but simple, and the humour delightful, and never cruel.

Recommendation: Strongly recommended.

The Devil's Circus

Puppets in Hell. This show uses the myth of Orpheus and Euridice as a very very weak foil for what is generally puppet vaudeville. Despite its flawed construction, the jokes and humour were delivered in such a simple and guileless way, that smiling is inevitable. The show as a whole could use some sharpening, and the featured "trick puppet" moments, such as a marionette trapeze artist, went on to bit too long, leaving you with the clear idea that youd' seen each puppet do all it could, instead of all it wanted. Still, it was a fun hour that I would not normally see. The puppeteers here show a lot of promise.

Recommendation: Light fare, worth seeing.

Prisoners and Criminals

This is a mixed bag set of monologues about, as the title suggests, prisoners and criminals. The good here is very good: a monologue about a developmentally handicapped child who kills a classmate in revenge for a brutal bullying; a comedic piece about a man murdering his landlord as retribution for the death of his gold fish; and a moving last testament from an American solider who had been part of the forces that liberated Auschwitz stand out as particularly good. Unfortunately, the bad was particularly bad: a gangster with an inconsistent speech impediment kidnapping the local paperboy for not delivering the paper failed to connect, and a man shooting a bartender for not having cold beer fell flat.

Recommendation: Hard to say. I wouldn't recommend against it, but wouldn't push people to it either.

Dr. Frightful Presents Dead Air


This is a send-up of the b-horror weeklies of the golden age of Radio. In it, we watch four 1950s actors putting on the radio show giving the play its title. The show had its moments (and I especially liked the idea of a man who only ever talked when on the air), but the pace was uneven, and the show-within-the-show had a script that wasn't serious enough to take seriously, but not campy enough to embrace for its cheese.

Recommendation: You can safely give this a pass

50 times around the sun


Billed as a Cabaret Journal telling stories of loss, love, and loss, it really just presented a song list with no through line or thematic development. A strange trio of pieces about Joan of Arc finish off a set that left me scratching my head.
The voices are strong for the most part, and the music isn't bad so much as forgettable.

Recommendation: Not recommended.

The Art of Traditional Head Tying




Shows like this are what I go to the Fringe for as much as for anything else. A well presented, well crafted story with a widely applicable theme, told through a specific experience, and likely on a subject matter that I would not see in my usual theatre-going habits.

Kanika Ambrose plays Rosmarie Jon-Charles Hicks, who, after 20 years of living in Canada, returns to her home island of Dominica, to teach a series of head-tie workshops. Ambrose plays not just the character of Rosemarie, but of all characters in the piece, embodying them with aplomb. The resonant theme of how you can never really go home again come through brilliantly.

Recommendation: Recommended

Arabian Nights


Sisters of Salome understand dance for theatre-people as very few companies at Fringe do. I last saw them two years ago when they presented a dance interpretation of The Little Mermaid. Their fare this time around is selections from the slightly more adult 1001 Nights.

Their show provides skillful traditional dance as well as modern flare, offering off a wholly accessible dance experience for people who may be interested in seeing a dance piece, but unsure of the genre. I was particularly impressed with how the company brought to life a sea teaming with serpents.

Recommendation: Recommended

Tickva's Orchestra

This piece of dance/circus/movement/physical theatre was highly moving, though at some times inscrutable. Presenting the narrative of a Jewish cellist attempting to save the players of her orchestra during the attacks of Kristallnacht, this is likely the first time I have been emotionally moved to feelings other than happiness and awe by circus style skills.

With a strong sense of moment and mood, performers Alisa Walton and Thomas Morgan Jones, under the direction of Ginette Mohr, create an engaging and moving piece of physical theatre.

Potosi

From one challenging piece to another. Potosi, winner of the Fringe new play content, looks at questions of guilt, greed, and responsibility that arise when the "developed" world exerts is influence "developing" and unstable nations.




Structured primarily as a dialectic in two acts, we first meet Beamish (Sean Sullivan), the regional executive of a silver mining operation in an unnamed and unstable African nation, and LeBlanc (Nicole Wilson), the young lawyer sent to smooth things over after an unnamed number of women are raped by the security forces guarding the silver mine. The event, however, is tinder to a spark that sets of revolution and which, in act two, sees both Beamish and LeBlanc held at gunpoint by a soldier (Craig Thomas) who used to work in the mine.

Though billed in the program as a satire and as darkly funny, it is no such beast. Rather, it is a gripping examination of issues, first in the abstract, and later, in the specific. Engaging first the mind, and then the gut, this production overcomes what I felt were some character inconsistencies in the first ten minutes, to hit first its stride and the a dramatic intensity that I do not often see at the Fringe.

The performances are universally strong, but Nicole Wilson gives a fearless and intense turn as the woman with two devils in her shoulders, and who speaks the world as it is, in its cold, uncaring, and unfairness only to have the tables turn and experience its unfairness first hand.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended - do not expect a comedy

Aiden Flynn List His Brother So He Makes Another


What a gem! What an absolute gem!

This simple and innocent take on the Frankenstein's Monster narrative is by turns heartwarming and touching. Beautifully told without words, and solely through music, movement, and shadow puppets, this show is the show that, for me, makes my Fringe!

Nathan Howe's direction keeps the pace and tone just right, and the original score by Howe and Derek Desroches provides a strong base to build a strong story of disappointment, filial love, loss, and acceptance.
Morgan Murray and Danielle Spilchen bring such a beautiful chemistry to the roles of creator and creation that you cannot help but fall in love with both of them. I left totally satisfied and moved by both the whimsy and completeness of the piece.

Recommendation: Top Recommendation. See this play! See it now!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

2014 Fringe - Day three



Only two shows today.

Radical

Radical is a historical bio play looking at the Canadian Oncologist Vera Peters, and particularly her leading role in introducing the use of the lumpectomy procedure into the treatment of Stage 1 breast cancer. The subject matter was very interesting, but the show itself lacking in dramatic shape and tension. There also seem to have been liberties taken with the flow of events as the show implied to me a death decades earlier than a quick web search has drawn up. 

Recommendation: Worth seeing for a bit of exposure to Canadian Medical history. Otherwise, safe to pass on.

52-Pickup

52-Pickup, written by Fringe stalwart TJ Dawe in partnership with Rita Bozi, is an experiment and an experience! 52 short scenes, windows into the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship. But presented in a random order each time. Not only that, but presented each night with one of four possible casts, including two same-sex, and two opposite-sex pairings. 

The performance I saw, the roles were performed Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster (who is also one of the directors) and Kristen Zaza. They brought a sweet sense of innocent and budding romance to the lighter moments of the show, and the right darkness and hurt to the scenes depicting the relationships disintegration.
The show was an absolute delight! I would love to see it again with another case and another order of shows, but I have the suspicion it will be sold out soon.

Special recognition must be paid to the SM and technical team, Justis Danto-Clancy and Sam Hale. I cannot imagine what the booth must be like on a show where any one of 52 scenes could be coming up at a moment’s notice. Yes, the light and music cues always came smoothly
.
Recommendation: Fantastic Fringe Moment. See if it you can.