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culture

Ten Things We Loved at The 2012 Toronto Fringe Festival

We look back at some highlights from this year's Fringe.

Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee (Morro and Jasp) triumphed at the Fringe Festival this year. Photo by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.

This was a banner year for The Toronto Fringe Festival, which ended on Sunday.

While final numbers are still rolling in, the festival looks to have nearly matched its previous sales record. The Visual Fringe, a daily art exhibition and interactive fair, increased its revenue by about 400 per cent over last year.

Not everything was great. After years of forwards by previous Toronto mayors in the Fringe’s official program, the absence of a welcome message from Mayor Rob Ford this year was conspicuous. Far more disruptive, though, were threats by the Palmerston Area Residents Association to block liquor licensing for the Fringe Club, after an increase in noise complaints last year. The association’s displeasure lead to the Fringe taking measures to placate its neighbors—measures many festival goers found excessive. As of 9 p.m., all Fringe Club patrons in the area behind Honest Ed’s had to be herded into the narrow Honest Ed’s alley, and a large noise barrier moved into position until the bar closed at 1 a.m. When the Patrons Pick and Best of the Fringe winners were publicly announced on Thursday July 12th, dozens of people missed it. They were stuck waiting in line at the north end of the Honest Ed’s alley, because of the decreased nighttime capacity. Hopefully, the Fringe and its neighbors can find a more accommodating solution next year.

But it’s the shows that had the greatest impact on us that we’ll remember most. And here they are: our top ten list of performances, trends, and experiences at this year’s Fringe.

Many of these shows are appearing at the Best of the Fringe holdover series at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, running from July 18 and until August 3. We hope many more will have a life beyond the festival; these are shows, creators, and performers that we’ll be keeping a close eye on in the future.

Ten: The mobile Camp Schecky experience.

The Camp Schecky counsellors' improv-honed shenanigans made for an eventful bus trip around the Annex. Photo by Chris Frampton.

“Site-specific” is a heavily overused word when it comes to theatre, and the Fringe in particular. A show may be performed in an unorthodox location, but it isn’t site-specific unless the location itself is integral to how the show is created. The best and truest site-specific show at the Fringe this year—and one of the most fun and crowd-pleasing—was Camp Schecky, which loaded audiences onto a big yellow school bus (complete with a bemused series of contract drivers) and took them for road trips with a motley crew of peppy and dysfunctional camp counselors. The counselors—played by sure-footed and quick-witted improvisers led by creator Nicky Gallo—fully familiarized us with what Camp Schecky is all about, and there were plenty of laughs along the way. (We just wish we could get that catchy camp song out of our head.)

(Steve Fisher)

Nine: Fringe’s giant dance party.

Emma Letki in Pluto's Revenge. Photo by Andrea de Keijzer.

It’s not that all of the dance shows at this year’s Fringe were great. Some of them were excellent, and some of them were kind of half-baked. Regardless, the sheer number and diversity of them was impressive. Ranging from belly-dance fairy tales to stories about anthropomorphic planets, to deep personal stories about family history, this was a good year for movement-based storytelling.

(Chris Dart)

Eight: The veteran actors in Antigone, Like a Dog, and With Love and a Major Organ.

Thomas Gough's Creon lambasts Cydney Penner's Antigone. Photo by Scarlet O'Neill.

Fringe is traditionally where many recent theatre-school graduates and beginning playwrights make their first big splashes. So it was gratifying to see so many established and experienced actors taking part in the festival this year, mixing it up with the younger Fringers—especially in roles that no early twenty-something could do justice to. Theatre Columbus co-founder Martha Ross made her very funny Fringe debut as an older single woman trying speed dating and internet therapy in Julia Lederer’s With Love and A Major Organ; Peter Wylde, a presence in Canadian theatre for more than 60 years, lent his unique presence and timbre to Matthew Gorman’s Like a Dog; and in one of the best performances in the festival, bar none, Thomas Gough anchored Soup Can Theatre’s Antigone with a forceful portrayal of the Ancient Greek autocrat Creon.

(Steve Fisher)

Seven: Tara Grammy’s character work in Mahmoud.

Tara Grammy monologues as gay shopboy Emanuelos in Mahmoud. Detail of a photo by Nir Mareket.

In her solo show, Mahmoud, Tara Grammy played three totally distinct and vivid characters: Mahmoud, based on an ebullient Iranian-born taxi driver she once met; a gay Spaniard named Emanuelos, who is dating a closeted Iranian man; and a heritage-questioning Iranian-Canadian girl at two different ages, based on Grammy herself. Wonderfully realized without props or costume changes, Grammy used the three characters to make all sorts of commentary on the Iranian diaspora, and the conflicts between generations. While the ending didn’t seem fully realized, Grammy’s characters, and her own versatility, were crystal clear.

(Steve Fisher)

Six: The bleak comedic genius of Tony Ho’s Sad People.

Sketch trio Tony Ho (left to right: Adam Niebergall, Miguel Rivas, and Roger Bainbridge) and their many "Sad People" guests took us to dark, hilarious places. Photo courtesy of Timothy Moore.

Neither a play nor a traditional sketch comedy show, Tony Ho’s Sad People was undoubtedly one of the home runs at this year’s festival. A series of vaguely interlinked sketches, Sad People managed to be simultaneously hilarious, poignant, and unbelievably, stomach-churningly uncomfortable. Featuring sketches about everything from mothers who fantasize about their teenage daughters’ boyfriends, to grotesque art projects come to life, the three members of Tony Ho managed to find the darker-than-black humour that exists in even the weirdest situations.

(Chris Dart)

Five: Jack Grinhaus’ canny direction of Dirty Butterfly, and Release The Stars: The Ballad of Randy and Evi Quaid.

Lauren Brotman, Cherissa Richards, and Kaleb Alexander in Dirty Butterfly. Photo by Joe Nucci.

In a festival where many accomplished directors helped shepherd original scripts to success, Jack Grinhaus helmed not just one but two wildly different and challenging hits. For Dirty Butterfly, he coaxed career-best performances from a trio of actors interpreting disturbing and disjointed dialogue. He also came up with a brilliant staging trick: dividing the space with lines made of fine red dust, which were eventually broken, then swept up and used as a dry substitute for liquid stage blood.

Grinhaus also helped Daniel Krolik and Amanda Barker stage their site-specific celebrity-focused gallery creation Release the Stars: The Ballad of Randy and Evi Quaid—which ended up paying off for him in an interesting way. He watched the closing show with the Quaids in attendance, and heard their enthusiastic feedback afterward. (See our “double duty” blurb further down for more details.)

(Steve Fisher)

Four: The dynamic sketch duos of Pomme is French for Apple, and Two Weird Ladies Bomb The Fringe.

Liza Paul and Bahia Watson in Pomme is French for Apple. Photo by SIDDIQUI.

Sketch comedy success at the Fringe often goes to all-male troupes, so we relished two of the the strongest sketch offerings this year, which came from female duos. Mandy Sellers and Laura Salvas, together under the moniker Two Weird Ladies, wrote a rapid-fire assemblage of clever character bits. One of their most side-splitting one liners came when one Lady exhorted the other to act like “the proud black women we wish we were.” Those women were personified when we saw Pomme is French for Apple, and marveled at Liza Paul and Bahia Watson’s hilarious no-punches-pulled examination of women’s conflicted attitudes towards their vaginas—or “pums,” in West Indian patois. The crowd roared and stomped along with their musical numbers and globe-trotting character studies, in one of the most theatrically accomplished shows of the festival.

(Steve Fisher)

Three: The dazzling ambition of ZED.TO and ByoLogyc.

Byolgyc's marketing was second to none at this year's Fringe. Photo by Trevor Haldenby.

Every Fringe brings a few shows that go above and beyond the boundaries of your average stage play to attempt something more ambitious, but this year, The Mission Business left both above and beyond in their dust. Their high-concept project Zed.TO is set to weave an interactive, ongoing narrative over the next eight months, blending viral content and social media with multiple interactive performances. It’s no surprise whatsoever that their opening shot, ByoLogyc, took home the Tosho Knife Arts Performance Innovation Award, as chosen by audience members who cast votes with the hashtag #ToshoCuttingEdge on Twitter. Just skim through the voting tweets for a deluge of glowing praise for ByoLogyc‘s immersive, interactive experience. The next chapter is happening at September’s Nuit Blanche. (That is, if our fair city hasn’t been wiped out by a bioengineered designer drug gone rogue in the interim.)

(Ryan West)

Two: Double-duty players Daniel Krolik, Heather Marie Annis, and Amy Lee.

Daniel Krolik (pictured here with Amanda Barker) played a paranoid Hollywood refugee in Release the Stars: The Ballad of Randy and Evi Quaid, and a depraved rabbit/man hybrid in The Enchanted Crackhouse. Photo by Marco Timpano.

It’s quite the accomplishment to stand out as a performer amongst the hundreds participating in the Fringe Festival. When a performer manages to do so in multiple productions, it’s truly worthy of mention.

Daniel Krolik manipulated puppets (and played a dastardly version of himself, “The Kralk”) in the sweltering heat once a day at the Fringe Club’s Alley Tent, where he performed in the wicked little musical The Enchanted Crackhouse. He also brought gravitas and grounding to a potentially unhinged semi-documentary take on troubled actor Randy Quaid in Release the Stars: The Ballad of Randy and Evi Quaid, which he co-created with co-star Amanda Barker. The two received the unlikeliest of praise when the reclusive celebrity couple attended their closing show. The Quaids loved it so much, they accompanied the cast and crew to the Fringe Club for drinks and chats post-performance.

Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee delivered their strongest performances yet as their clown alter-egos, Morro and Jasp. The show, Of Mice and Morro and Jasp, was a brilliant take on the John Steinbeck novel. The two created Morro and Jasp in theatre school, debuted them at the Kids Fringe, and have gradually aged their characters on stage, which made their most recent show all the more hilarious and poignant. Lee and Annis also co-starred in the Toronto debut of Chris Craddock’s comic fable PornStar, where Lee in particular got to stretch herself as a naive librarian who becomes an accidental sex-film celebrity.

(Steve Fisher)

One: The clever dialogue in With Love and a Major Organ and Help Yourself.

Julia Lederer and Robin Archer waxed poetic in Lederer's With Love and a Major Organ. Detail of a photo by Amanda Kennedy.

Two scripts in particular stood out for us at the festival.

In Help Yourself, Kat Sandler wrote razor-sharp dialogue for her leads Donny (Daniel Pagett) and Ted (Tim Walker), who debated a question of ethics to a tragic conclusion. “I throw a bunch of suggestions at you until one sticks,” promises the smooth talking (a)moral consultant Donny to his initially dubious client Ted, but nothing about Sandler’s dialogue was random or ineffectual.

In With Love and a Major Organ, Lederer filled our hearts and heads with unabashedly emotional lyricism. At one point, an emotionally stunted George (Robin Archer) admits via tape message to the lovelorn and heart-deprived Anabel (Lederer), “I don’t know if I love you, but I have come to care deeply for your heart.” It’s poignant lines like these—and hilarious ones like “I want to follow you like my grandmother follows The Young and The Restless“—that made us love this show.

These young playwrights possess outstanding ears for phrasing, and comic chops to spare. We’re looking forward to seeing much more on stage from them both.

(Steve Fisher)

CORRECTION: July 17, 4:50 PM Daniel Krolik’s character in The Enchanted Crackhouse was named “The Kralk,” not the “The Krolik” as previously stated. Also, the show was only performed once each day. The corrections have been made above.

CORRECTION: July 18, 11:45 AM Mandy Sellers’s name was originally misspelled. It has now been corrected.

CORRECTION: July 18, 2:30 PM Liza Paul’s name was originally misspelled. It has now been corrected.

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