Your Cheat Sheet to the 2010 Fringe Festival

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Your Cheat Sheet to the 2010 Fringe Festival

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Photo courtesy of the Toronto Fringe Festival.


Every summer, usually when the mercury really spikes, Toronto is overrun with theatre: new works, revivals, smaller plays by prominent authors, comedy, tragedy, history, parody, musicals, dance pieces, improv, and some shows that defy genre categories entirely. This is the exuberant, messy, rambunctious celebration known as Fringe.
Fringe is characterized by a mind-boggling array of shows (about one hundred and fifty this year), almost none of which you’ve heard of. The only sure bet at the festival is unpredictability: some shows will be great and some will be greatly disappointing, and you can never quite tell which will be which in advance. To help you navigate the daunting programme, we’ve run the gauntlet for you. Over the past six days, a team of Torontoist theatre buffs have braved the sheer immensity of the Fringe to help locate the gems that will make your festival experience a little smoother. Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy, Jamie Bradburn, Hamutal Dotan, Steve Fisher, Emily Landau, Peter Saltsman, and Suzannah Showler have taken in as many shows as they could get to, and have selected only the best for your consideration here.
If you’re Fringing this year (you are, aren’t you?), here are some shows you really shouldn’t miss…

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Dance Animal

Dance with a sense of humour.

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Cactus: The Seduction…

A physically captivating, intellectually stimulating, and totally hilarious solo show about love.

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The Whores


A gutsy, unnervingly raw docudrama about the world’s oldest profession.

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Love Is a Poverty You Can Sell

Ever wish you could visit a moody, atmospheric 1920s cabaret? Now’s your chance.

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2-Man No-Show-2

A madcap vaudevillian duo.

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The Carnegie Hall Show!

Improvisational wonders, possibly including the history of the lawnmower.

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Pick of the Fringe!

Three Second City alums with moxie.

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Die Roten Punkte—KUNST ROCK

Faux-German punkers get silly.

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The Making Of

The mockumentary on stage! (Cameos by Olivia Chow and Adam Giambrone.)

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Me, My Stuff and I

Learn about the importance of ashtrays to 1970s home life and why Southern backyards had giant garbage cans.

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Short Story Long

Two very clever women have their lives thrown into upheaval when a man commits suicide: he’s husband to one and ex to the other.

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[sic]

With neighbours like these, who needs frenemies?

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This Is About the Push

This playlet about a woman trying to impress at her husband’s boss’s annual summer party crackles with tension and mood changes.

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Raven for a Lark

A peek behind the curtain as two actors reflect on an opening night.

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The Silent City

Sunny power-pop opera, complete with gold lamé leggings.

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The Shakespeare Show

Shakespeare presented as a thick-as-a-brick horse handler more likely to be the writer of an Elizabethan version of Mr. Ed.

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Lucky 9

Self-deception, self-help, and healing: a riveting show about getting better at life.


Dance Animal

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Photo by Tristan Brand and courtesy of Dance Animal.

It’s rare indeed to see dance with a sense of humour done well. It’s also rare to see comics—who tend to be a fairly awkward lot—with movement skills honed as sharp as their wit. So, to see a full-length show of side-splittingly funny dance routines is nothing short of revolutionary. The sketch comes courtesy of Uncalled For members Anders Yates (Dance Salmon) and Dan Jeannotte (Dance Wolf); the clever choreography is the work of troupe founder Robin Henderson (Dance Tiger). Interspersed between the group routines, each member of this Montreal troupe gets his or her own brief, embellished semi-autobiographical monologue about how he or she became a Dance Animal, and there isn’t a weak link to be found. SF


Cactus: The Seduction…

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Photo courtesy of Jonno Katz/Epicworlds.

Jonno Katz first brought his solo show Cactus to Toronto in 2004, and what a difference six years makes. The show was very good then; now, fully fleshed out, it’s exceptional. Katz has clearly been studying the best work at subsequent Fringes, and astute audiences may recognize a few hallmarks of his noteworthy peers: Chris Gibbs’ interaction with the audience, Gemma Wilcox’s quick character changes and animal anthropomorphism, and T. J. Dawe’s autobiographical details, for example. Katz’s own forte—using movement to suggest detailed environments—is a little restrained here: his main character (or characters) are trekking through a featureless desert, but he still incorporates bravura pieces through dream sequences, as his characters think about the love they’ve sought and lost. Physically captivating, intellectually stimulating, and damn funny. SF


The Whores

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Joanne Williams as Mary. Photo Credit by Mike Fergusson and courtesy of Fishstick Productions.

“I worked in a bakery once. That was worse,” deadpans Carnie, one of the title characters in The Whores. In fishnets, knee-high boots, and a purple mesh top, Carnie certainly looks the part, but the five women in Fringe’s gutsy docudrama are anything but stereotypes. They range from Mary, a high-class escort providing a full GFE (girlfriend experience) to Cherry, a cynical university student looking for a quick way to pay her bills. Often funny but unnervingly raw, the play—which writer Charles Crosby based on real interviews with Halifax sex workers—looks at everything from fees and advertising to abuse (“bad dates”) to (of course) the sex acts themselves. Despite somewhat static direction, the riveting performances bring the play to life. Skittish and pale, Clare Blackwood stands out as self-loathing heroin addict Sam, while the wonderful Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman is both guarded and vulnerable as Cherry, struggling to distance her emotions and intellect from the physicality of prostitution. EL


Love Is a Poverty You Can Sell

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Photo by Scarlet O’Neill and courtesy of Soup Can Theatre.

Love is a Poverty You Can Sell is a wholly immersive experience. Bread & Circus’s small performance space is even more intimate with an eight-piece band on the floor, and you can almost see wisps of cigarette smoke rise as the talented ensemble croon through their set, clad in silken bustiers, little black dresses, and three-piece suits. The show, set in a 1920s cabaret, features music by Kurt Weill (The Threepenny Opera), selections inspired by musicals, and even some Tom Waits tunes that were inspired by Weill’s compositions. The result is a mix of moody, atmospheric torch songs and tongue-in-cheek censures of capitalist greed. Despite the band’s tendency to occasionally drown out the singers, the performances are top-drawer. Of special note are Arthur Wright and Michael-David Blostein, whose rich, deep voices are particularly evocative of times long past. Meanwhile, some of the show’s most memorable moments come from Hans and Jodel (Ryan Anning and Scott Dermody), the cabaret’s bickering emcees, whose perfectly executed one-liners are simply delightful. EL


2-Man No-Show-2

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Photo by Gautam Narang and courtesy of ZeekTech Productions.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way: since their show 2-Man No-Show became the toast of the Fringe last year, Ken Hall and Isaac Kessler have become bona fide Fringe rock stars. So, the almost-capacity crowd at the current version‘s opening show overwhelmed the already faltering A/C, and audience members wilted in the stifling heat. (The A/C has since been repaired.) Also, the opening was a bit shaky: tech cues were off, some sketches ran overlong, and the pair could have been more precise with mimed set pieces, like where a window or bar were created. Here’s the good news, though: the oddly matched duo have lost none of the madcap energy and absurd wit that made their first show a smash success, and have also stepped it up a notch with their writing. Aware that they’ll be judged much more critically this time around, they’ve put more work into their collaborative scenes (though some solo work, like Hall’s follow-up to last year’s chair romance, remain highlights). We’ve heard reports that the tech issues were resolved, and some scenes trimmed back as of their second show; with that in mind, we’re confident Hall and Kessler have another hit on their hands. SF


The Carnegie Hall Show!

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Photo by Skye Regan and courtesy of the National Theatre of the World.

We saw the Fringe version of this popular weekly improv and vaudeville cabaret immediately after Monday’s brownout: the troupe and their guests had been allowed into the theatre fifteen minutes before curtain, and their lighting pre-sets had all been erased. But making it up as they go, brilliantly, is a hallmark of The National Theatre of the World, and they and their technicians coped just fine. Sandy Jobin-Bevans joined the cast for their opening improvised set, recapping the greatest scenes in the history of lawnmowers and the improvised radio play. Musical accompanist Waylen Miki’s four-year-old son sat with him just to the side of stage for the show, prompting the cast to couch much of their scenes in veiled sexual innuendo, which probably made the show their dirtiest of the run. This show is in a class above—and we’re not just referring to the tuxedos and ballroom gowns. SF


Pick of the Fringe!

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Leslie Seiler, Ashley Botting, and Karen Parker. Photo courtesy of Punch In the Box Productions.

It takes some real moxie to call your sketch show the best of the fest before it opens. These three Second City alumni have that in spades, plus the talent to make the title a reality. Ashley Botting, Karen Parker, and Leslie Seiler bust out all sorts of turned-on-their-ear female stereotypes, and tackle hot button subjects like Facebook, dating Conservative women, and why working actresses need babysitters, too. It’d be disingenuous to say that the show is more uncensored than any of their stellar contributions to the Second City’s revues over the last few years, but it is accurate to say this is a show they’ve written solely for themselves—which, paired with a canny director (in this case, Paul Constable), often results in a performer’s best work. These three ladies have given themselves ample opportunity to shine. SF


Die Roten Punkte—KUNST ROCK

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Photo courtesy of Die Roten Punkte/Toronto Fringe.

Otto and Astrid Rot are moving up in the world, and their venue seems to reflect that; if you squint, you can almost imagine that the Bathurst Street Theatre is Massey Hall. This time around, the bickering brother and sister have a brand new album—Kunst Rock, complete with a lead single and video—influenced by avant garde pioneer Brian Eno. This gives the faux-German punkers license to get very silly (particularly with one song involving multiple looping pedals). The songs are rock solid, and the two have the comic timing in their between-song banter down pat. This is one Fringe act that keeps getting better and better. SF


The Making Of

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Photo by Radey Barrack and courtesy of Modern Underground.

While the genre’s made a name for itself on both the silver and small screens, the mockumentary hadn’t been given much of a chance on stage until The Making Of. Working from a collaborative script he created with the cast, director Michael Murphy stays true to the form, lampooning a documentary team intent on making a feature about Toronto’s urban poor. At the helm is director Rick (Rick Jon Egan), whose brazen insensitivity and obliviousness make him one of those buffoons we love to laugh at—not with—in the tradition of The Office’s Michael Scott or Waiting for Guffman’s Corky St. Clair. Melding mediums by using film projection along with the live theatre, the play intersperses the crew’s quibbles with interviews featuring municipal celebs Olivia Chow, Adam Giambrone, and the always-cheeky Keith Cole. While the dramas of the individual crew members get tidied up a bit quickly at the end of the hour, what lingers after the applause is the uncomfortable realization that the audience has more in common with the faux–bleeding heart film team than the downtrodden they claim to fight for. The joke may be on us after all, but I’m still laughing. WBM


Me, My Stuff and I

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Photo by Derek Skalko.

Based on the framing device of Me, My Stuff and I, babies born in Mississippi in the 1960s were presented with a book intended to document their entire lives. While Barry Smith’s mother lost interest in filling it out after a year or two, her son made up for it by saving every detail of his existence in a manner worthy of an episode of Hoarders. Via montages of photos and childhood home movies, Smith relates how his life didn’t follow the path laid out in that baby book. His relaxed, easygoing delivery helps prevent some stretches from taking a turn toward the maudlin, and keeps the audience engaged as his story unfolds with relatable events. You will also learn about the importance of ashtrays to 1970s home life and why Southern backyards had giant garbage cans. JB


Short Story Long

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Photo by Geordan Saunders.

This year’s winner of the Fringe 2010 New Play contest (full disclosure: we were on the jury, and championed it) is a riveting script for two by Joel Fishbane. Its subject? Two very clever women whose lives are thrown into upheaval by the suicide of a celebrated author who was husband to one, and long-estranged ex to the other. Actors Jacklyn Francis and Kaitlyn Riordan take full advantage of the richly developed characters Fishbane has written, and the story’s twists and turns will keep you wondering whether the two women, who end up forming a tenuous bond, will end as friends or enemies when all their secrets are revealed. There’s plenty of lightening humour in the script, too—Fishbane has a deft touch with dialogue. It’s a testament to his writing acumen that there are are two performers but three characters on stage for most of the play: the dead author’s presence is almost always felt. SF


[sic]

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Photo by Michael Dauda and courtesy of Theatre Best.

[sic] is one of those plays that never entirely makes sense, yet you never seem to care. A zany cacophony with astute verbal twists that are always sharp and rarely precious, [sic] tells the story of three friends who have apartments in the same building. As they hear echoes of conversations from a neighbouring apartment, Babette, Theo, and Frank sort out their various crushes on each other, their professional dreams, and explore the threads from their past that brought them all together. “When you share a landlord with people, you have, of course, a built-in common enemy, and there’s just about nothing more bond-inducing than sharply focused ill will,” explains one of the three, wisely. With crackling wit, an impeccable sense of timing, and actors who fully inhabit their characters, this show is one of the most polished we’ve ever seen at Fringe. HD


This Is About the Push

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Photo by Michelle Bailey and courtesy of Seventh Stage Productions.

Brevity is the soul of wit, and this playlet (clocking in at less than forty-five minutes) may be the most cleverly constructed work you’re likely to see at this year’s Fringe. Rachel Blair’s script, about a woman trying to impress her husband’s co-workers and their spouses at the boss’s annual summer party, crackles with tension and mood changes. Inevitably, the housewife runs afoul of the strict status rankings and societal nuances of mid–twentieth century America. (Mad Men fans will adore this one.) Naomi Wright and Jennifer Villaverde give inspired turns as the party guests, particularly Wright as the men Kimwun Perehinec’s protagonist interacts with. And Perehinec is nothing short of sensational: she’s been wearing a producer’s hat with theatre company Studio 180 of late, but her time away from the stage has in no way dulled her performing edge. Her character’s shifts from giddy abandon to abject fear come in slow burns and quicksilver changes, and there isn’t a moment when we aren’t caught up in her emotional state. SF


Raven for a Lark

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Photo by Elise Newman and courtesy of Toronto Fringe.

A pair of intersecting monologues makes up the bulk of writer-director Elise Newman’s sardonic, unsettling Raven For a Lark, as two actors reflect on an opening night. Charlie is playing Chiron and his girlfriend Nina is playing Lavinia in a production of Titus Andronicus. (It helps to know that in Titus, Chiron rapes Lavinia, cutting off her hands and tongue to ensure her silence.) In Newman’s skilled hands, Raven begins on a light note, mocking the absurd violence of Shakespeare’s goriest play. (“Every day and twice on Saturdays, I rape her,” Charlie boasts with a grin.) But its true brilliance lies in a profound tone change, one so insidious that the audience only becomes aware of it as the lights go off. The actors’ approaches to these difficult characters are to be commended—Shelley Liebembuk plays the effervescent Nina as both clueless and unconsciously wise, while Adam Bradley is charming, coy, and ultimately chilling as Charlie. Raven is, at its core, a seductive, sinister, and entirely riveting reflection on method acting. EL


The Silent City

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Photo by Ashlea Wessel and courtesy of Stagehands.

Fans of Rent, Glee, and other sunny power-pop operas will love The Silent City, the new musical from local “Broadway-rock” band Stagehands, in which the actors are also the musicians. The plot—a young musician battling a dystopian town where all artists are forced sacrifice their identities by wearing masks—is flimsy and inconsequential. Instead, see it for the shimmering pop hooks (“I Was Alone” and “Now or Never” are particular highlights); the performers’ euphoric energy; and the surprisingly high production values. Geoff Stevens shines (literally, at one point, in gold lamé leggings) as the idealistic hero, but the real showstopper is Justine Moritz’s luminous, jazzy voice. The show looks great, too: steampunk-inspired costumes, resourceful use of lighting and silhouette, and even little gimmicks (like plastic masks on each seat) go a long way. EL


The Shakespeare Show

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Ryan Gladstone as Will Shakespeare and Tara Travis as Oxford. Photo courtesy of Monster Theatre/Toronto Fringe.

Academics and crackpots have long debated whether William Shakespeare truly penned his immortal works or if the literary output was the work of somebody else. The Shakespeare Show has fun with one of the leading alternate theories: that the Earl of Oxford really deserves the credit, and not some schlep from Stratford-upon-Avon. What follows is a gleefully silly run through the career of Shakespeare, presented here as a thick-as-a-brick horse handler more likely to be the writer of an Elizabethan version of Mr. Ed. Ryan Gladstone and Tara Travis maintain a high level of energy as they jump into different characters and display Monty Python-esque mannerisms. Underneath the goofiness, a love for the Bard comes through. JB


Lucky 9

T. J. Dawe, the Canadian Fringe circuit’s favourite son, is back with his most autobiographical show yet, examining how a book on personality typing, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, recently made him aware of his more self-destructive traits, and helped him settle down, become part of a community, and forge closer ties with his family. Of course, this being Dawe, the narrative is peppered with all sorts of fascinating tangents, and while there aren’t as many humourous anecdotes as previous storytelling shows, the flow of fascinating information that Dawe imparts will keep you glued to the edge of your seat. SF

Fringe showtimes, ticket and pass information, venue maps, and more are all on the Fringe’s website.

CORRECTION: 8:36 p.m. We originally referred to the author of Short Story Long as Joel Fishburne; in fact, it is Joel Fishbane. Also, the photo for Love Is a Poverty You Can Sell was attributed to Lindsie Grey when it was taken by Scarlet O’Neill. We have corrected the post above and send our apologies to Mr. Fishbane and Ms. O’Neill.

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