We've seen dozens of shows—here are the standouts so far.
We’re six days into the 26th annual Toronto Fringe Festival, and there are two words echoing around the festival hub at Bloor and Bathurst streets. No, they’re not “beer tent,” or “musical satire,” or even “Rob Ford” (thankfully). This year, Fringe-goers are finding that more and more shows are “sold out,” thanks to a new policy dictating that 100 per cent of tickets to any given performance be put up for sale in advance (whereas, in previous years, a number of tickets were reserved at the door for last-minute buyers). If you want to see the buzziest shows, it’s not enough to spend several hours in the rush line, as many did for 2011’s Kim’s Convenience. You’ve got to move fast, or in some cases, you had to have moved fast. Several of the shows reviewed below, like 52 Pick-Up and True, have already sold out their entire runs.
But those few sold-out shows are by no means the only solid offerings Torontoist discovered in the first half of the festival, which ends Sunday. Here are our favourites:
Great Battles in History
The stage is a mess, scattered with visual aids, wires, and household knickknacks—this is not the show that producer Jeff (played by the show’s creator Mark Shyzer) wanted to perform. In fact, he never wanted to perform at all, but circumstances have forced him to abandon his Excel spreadsheets and take the stage. The heart of the meta-play Great Battles in History lies in not what it is, but what it could have been. Shyzer stumbles through ad hoc technical cues and half-hearted ukelele songs, and eventually he reveals to the audience why his play is in such a shambolic state, suddenly putting the whole production in a new light. Shyzer imbues the Jeff character with a quiet dignity, and even though that causes the show to lag occasionally, he still manages to deliver a show that’s both hilarious and unexpectedly moving.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of the Bard’s lesser known romcoms, but it’s found a home at Victory Cafe, where perennial Fringe favourite Shakespeare BASH’d are performing for the third year in a row. Director James Wallis capitalizes on the alcohol-filled setting by portraying the play’s young, hormonal characters as lovesick frat boys and cheeky sorority girls, complete with garlands of red party cups and twinkly lights. There’s even a game of beer pong to open the play. The interpretation works delightfully—it’s clever, unpretentious, and most of all, it makes for one heck of a party.
An Evening in July
What we wouldn’t give for a chance to explore the crumbling mansion of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale of the cult documentary Grey Gardens. But we’ll happily make due with the Templeton Philharmonic’s An Evening in July, an immersive tale inspired by the Beales. Gwynne Phillips and Briana Templeton play deranged sisters May and June, who entertain themselves in their derelict estate, planning parties they’ll never throw and playing one-sided games of badminton. The lighthearted elements of the show—audience interaction, outdoor games, props placed carefully for the audience to find, the general absurdity of May and June—make its 90 minutes fly by. But Phillips and Templeton manage to create scenes of genuine heartache, particularly during the few moments they have to themselves. By joining May and June in their humble abode, the audience has the chance to experience their loneliness—but they’ll leave feeling elated.
Nobody’s Business Theatre returns to Fringe with an old favourite, Redheaded Stepchild. The one-man-show is performed by Johnnie Walker, who’s known almost as well for his bright red hair as for his onstage wit. Walker does triple-duty as Nicholas, a 12-year-old dealing with an identity crisis and middle-school bullies; Rufus, the suave, smoking-jacket wearing redhead of Nicholas’s imagination; and Mary-Ann, the boy’s golf pro stepmother. Walker is especially impressive as Mary-Ann, who’s as much of a misfit as Nicholas but is still responsible for protecting him.
The Summer Spectacular
There were several children in attendance when we saw Small Wooden Shoe’s Summer Spectacular, which is to be expected at a puppet show taking place in a neighbourhood park on a beautiful afternoon. But while puppet shows often have all-ages appeal, Jacob Zimmer’s Summer Spectacular tackles some heady subjects. As groups of spectators are led around the park, a storyteller (Chris Stanton, Sochi Fried, or Georgina Beaty) tells three epic tales: one of Daedalus, the brilliant sculptor and craftsman who worked for King Minos and built a large labyrinth to capture the dangerous Minotaur; one of Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of Reddit who killed himself in 2013; and one of the cast’s own creation, a cautionary near-future tale of a scientist whose work is in natural resources. The stories address government control and betrayal, secrets and leaks, and information gatekeeping, but Zimmer and his crew manage to end the performance on a hopeful note, with the help of two beautiful puppets and a heartwarming sing-along. It may be the most ambitious production at this year’s Fringe, and when the kinks work themselves out it will really shine.
It’s Avenue Q meets Twelve Angry Men—puppeteer Adam Francis Proulx introduces the 12 jury members who will decide the fate of the Butcher, after his lover, the Baker, is found dead in the couple’s bathroom. But while the evidence seems to confirm the Butcher’s guilt, not everything as it seems. And though Proulx’s characters—such as the open-minded hillbilly and the empowered housewife—are entertaining in their own right, the show really takes an interesting turn when the homosexuality of the Butcher and the Baker is examined. The plot is conventionally structured, but includes some unexpectedly subversive twists.
The Art of Traditional Head-Tying
Fringe is packed with one-person shows—standing out from the crowd is a feat in itself. The Art of Traditional Head-Tying does just that. Kanika Ambrose takes the spotlight, performing a whole cast of characters. The most memorable is Rosemarie Jon-Charles Hicks, who after 20 years living in Canada returns to her homeland of Dominica to teach a six-week workshop in the lost art of head-tying (a skill passed down from her grandmother). But the art has become less popular and less relevant in the years she’s spent abroad—and much more besides has changed, as demonstrated by Rosemarie’s ungrateful nieces (and their boyfriends) and a past love interest. Ambrose and director Virgilia Griffith have created a very graceful, dignified story that, while funny, conveys frustration and heartbreak over lost traditions (something to which any theatre fan can relate).
Sex-T-Rex Presents… Watch Out, Wildcat! Yer Dealin’ With The Devil
Comedic theatre group Sex T-Rex has topped last year’s exceptional Callaghan with this Wild West tale of a young woman who will go to any lengths to avenge her father’s death. Once again, the company has scripted terrific action sequences and montages (plus a trademark cinema-inspired prologue), but this time around, the source material feels better grounded, as do the characters—especially Kaitlin Morrow’s tough-as-nails Wildcat and the roguish stranger played by Conor Bradbury. There are plenty of twists and turns, and the one-liners and sight gags come fast and furious. It’s an exceptional collaborative effort; we doubt there’s a cast in this year’s festival that’s working as smoothly (or having as much fun).
TJ Dawe and Rita Bozie’s script makes for the perfect Fringe show: 52 scenes performed in random order, encompassing all the pivotal and trivial moments that make up a relationship, with each scene taking about a minute or less, ensuring the actors finish before the one-hour mark. But to do it right the performers must have all 52 scenes ready to go in whatever order the cards are picked up. They have to be well prepared, ready to improvise from scene to scene, and attuned to each other. The duo we saw, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Kristen Zaza, were just so—they were playful, were quick to help out if their partner hesitated or stumbled, and displayed superb timing. With seating rows temporarily removed due to a recent safety inspection, the show is technically sold out for the rest of its run, though there may be a ticket or two released minutes before each show. If the other pairs are as on their game as the one we saw, it will be worth lining up for those faint-hope tickets.
If you can squeeze into Citizenry Cafe for this sold out run, you’ll see one of the most intriguing and thoughtful new dramas at this year’s Fringe. Playwright Rosa Laborde explores the impermanence of memory and the tragedy of Alzheimer’s, drawing inspiration from neighbourhood characters (and characters from King Lear) for this work in progress. There were still minor bugs in the production when we saw it, including a few mistimed lighting cues. But the intimate staging and exceptional cast, and especially the curious rapport between Layne Coleman’s befuddled patriarch and Scott McCord’s smooth-talking hipster, made this a show we’d love to see again, in whatever venue Criminal Theatre takes it to next.
Everything Is Fine
The format of Everything Is Fine will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a few Second City shows (which is unsurprising, given the players are all recent Second City Conservatory graduates). What’s unusual is the high number of sketches that hit their mark and the commitment displayed by these hungry young actors. There are some wonderfully charismatic performances, particularly by a high-kicking Nicky Nasrallah, a maniacally cackling Gillian Bartolucci, and Allana Reoch as an officious real estate agent. But under the direction of 2-Man No-Show’s Ken Hall, there’s little mugging to distract from the scenes. The show features some stellar collaborative work, including a question-and-answer period with an unusual prime minister, and a musical number that works where many of Second City’s songs fall short. The audience at the show we saw was the most boisterous we’d seen at the Tarragon Theatre in some time, and the cast fed off that energy. It’s doubtful there’s a better sketch show at Fringe this year.
The Assassination of Robert Ford: Dirty Little Coward
On the surface, this show presents the tale of the titular 19th-century outlaw’s murder—though Torontonians will understandably read more into lines such as “Rob Ford tells lies” and “the Ford brothers were dirty little cowards.” But beneath the carnival-barker emceeing of Tyler Sequin (who’s backed up by pianist and guileless foil Joel Lightman), there are some sobering ideas about the perils of conflating vengeance and justice, and how we can become what we hate when we are ruled by obsession. Geoff May plays Ed O’Kelly, the assassin who is coerced into recounting how he shot Ford, who himself shot ringleader Jesse James in the back. It’s a clever cautionary tale of the cyclical nature of hatred, which when acted on can turn inward—but attendees expecting an overblown condemnation of our current mayor will doubtless be disappointed.
Keystone Theatre’s style of wordless physical theatre, inspired by silent film (and even occasionally employing projected dialogue cards), takes a bit of getting used to. For this Fringe show, they cannily “prep” the audience with a short from partners Scarborough Fever, who tell the story of an early pioneer of their suburb. The main event, Gold Fever, is Keystone’s best show to date, with a cohesive story that shows the main characters travelling to Dawson City during the gold rush and establishing themselves in the boomtown. Both Phil Rickaby’s Gormless Joe and Stephen LaFrenie’s sinister villain return from previous shows, but the standout characters are the industrious frontierswomen (Dana Fradkin and Sarah Joy Bennett) who set up a saloon with talented live pianist David Atkinson; the women’s clever canoe ride sequence in particular delighted the audience. (Full disclosure: I’ve known both women since we studied drama as teens in Ottawa.)
Reimagining classic literature for the stage or screen is nothing new. But we’ll bet you haven’t seen many modern works turned into Shakespearean masterpieces. Enter ye olde Bard Fiction, a retelling of Quentin Tarantino’s momentous film Pulp Fiction. While we strongly suggest that you watch the movie before hitting the theatre, there is still enough physical comedy involved to entertain even the uninitiated. We can’t decide what’s more impressive—that Beyond the Mountain managed to recreate an entire film with a mere few chairs and tables, or that someone sat down and translated the original script, word for word, into Elizabethan English.
Roller Derby Saved My Soul
Nancy Kenny’s story of discovering roller derby may appear to be a simple one-woman show, but trust us—this thing has layers. Awkward, uninspired, and a little self-loathing, Kenny spends most of her time enveloped in the safety and comfort of her living room. That is, until she almost unintentionally winds up at a “fresh meat” derby team tryout. Grappling with balance, bruises, and fishnet-burn (look that one up) is nothing compared to the sibling rivalry, fears, and insecurities that get churned up by this seemingly small life change. Kenny is nothing short of captivating as she weaves pop culture references together with hero-villain archetypes and interesting facts about the sport. Watching someone skate in circles has never been so engaging!
Aiden Flynn Lost His Brother So He Makes Another
Although the death of a child is central to its plot, Aiden Flynn manages to be humorous, endearing, and at times, downright joyful. A completely wordless piece, it rides on the strength of solid acting, and the ingenious use of fabric flip-chart set pieces, projector screens, shadows, and a few simple props. Rather than beat us over the head with the sadness that accompanies loss, the play focuses on Aiden’s passionate effort to replace his brother using a Frankenstein-like experiment. Though what results is an adorable hybrid of baby and puppy, monster stories have taught us that these things are not meant to last. Keep the tissues handy.
Confessions of a Redheaded Coffee Shop Girl
Paper Plaid Productions
Annex Theatre (730 Bathurst Street)
If you graduated from University at some point in the last 10 years, this one will likely hit close to home. Educated, talented, and ambitious, aspiring anthropologist Joanie Little (Rebecca Perry) has landed the oh-so-coveted position of coffee shop barista. She makes the best of it by studying the humans in her midst, astutely painting us a picture of each one, from her weirdo boss to the perpetual jogger, with the help of some nifty sound effects. Bubbly, cute as a button, and packing a surprisingly powerful singing voice, Perry captivates. Her impressions are so palpable, it’s easy to forget she’s the only actor on stage.
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson Avenue)
Given that rubbernecking is something we’ve all been guilty of doing, Emergency Monologues is almost guaranteed to be well attended. But there’s a difference between a stage presentation and that nurse/cop/paramedic you meet at parties who always has the craziest stories. Luckily, Toronto EMS veteran Morgan Jones Phillips is an engaging storyteller with the gifts of comedic timing, stage presence, and a decent singing voice. And boy, has he seen some things—as illustrated by the giant wheel of stories he spins to determine the show’s script. While mostly hilarious and oftentimes gross, some sobering details sneak their way in, reminding us that not everything about this line of work is a laughing matter.
Potosí follows two mining company employees embedded in a remote country, where their business has been accused of terrible crimes. They debate the finer points of guilt, colonialism, and human nature as the country begins to fall apart around them and turns their abstract discussions into something frighteningly real. Alexander Offord’s script is an excellent blend of blunt truthfulness and wheedling rhetoric, and it makes no effort to dance around delicate concepts. Sean Sullivan is perfectly pitiful as the company director trying to salvage his crumbling operation, while Nicole Wilson sneers as the contemptuous lawyer sent to assess him. Craig Thomas bristles with colonial fury as a local militia member, and the constant question of who has power over whom plays out like a violent ballet.
Hugh and I
A biographical musical on the life and times of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner sounds like it could be a minefield of dudebro propaganda at worst, or a sex-comedy satire at best. Hugh and I surprisingly sidesteps most of these dangers to deliver an insightful and sometimes touching look at the early years of the world’s most esteemed pornographer. Daniel Abraham brings a touching awkwardness and, later, a smarmy swagger to the titular role, and he’s backed by an excellent cast of tights-clad ‘bunnies’ who shine in various supporting roles. If a catchy song like ‘Only for the Articles’ doesn’t get your toe tapping, nothing will.
Theatre Brouhaha returns to the Fringe in full force with Punch Up, a rapid-fire black comedy from the always brilliant Kat Sandler. The writer-director’s newest dialogue-driven piece of hilarity tells the story of an embittered stand-up comic (Colin Munch) who finds himself kidnapped by a lovesick fan (Tim Walker) intent on using his captive’s comedy to win the heart of the Saddest Girl in the World (Caitlin Driscoll). Munch and Walker channel vaudevillian greats Abbott and Costello with their whirlwind banter—although we can’t recall Costello ever chaining Abbott to a table in his basement.
Fringe Festival favourites Nobody’s Business Theatre are reprising their former Edmonton Fringe hit Amusement. The story follows two estranged friends and theatre studies grads who hightail it out of Toronto. They’re bound for adventure (and jobs) at Disneyworld, where they find themselves caught up in amusement park politics, communal underpants, smell-generating robots that sing, secret societies, and an unsettling amount of cat scabies. This off-kilter musical about friendship is thoroughly entertaining, and exactly what we’ve come to expect from consummate performers like Morgan Norwich and Johnnie Walker.
Mr. and Mrs. Alexander: Sideshows & Psychics
David Ladderman is a roguish magician from Australia. Lizzie Tollemache is an alluring psychic from New Zealand. Together the sideshow savants have travelled the world amazing audiences with their impossible tricks—but now they’re doing so in the guise of their turn-of-the-century forerunners Mr. and Mrs. Alexander. Ladderman and Tollemache weave the story of a daring con pulled off by the notorious couple in Auckland in 1888, offering a fascinating glimpse of the behind-the-curtains world of mystics and mind readers—without giving away a single secret. Even the hardest of skeptics will be charmed by the charismatic performances, and will likely be stumped by a trick or two.
Toronto, I Love You
There’s no telling precisely what will be on offer at any given performance of Toronto, I Love You, but you can count on the talented cast of improvisers to string together hilarious scenes that manage somehow to form a cohesive story. At the opening-night show we attended, the Bad Dog Repertory Players took a couple of audience members’ favourite spots in Toronto—Wychwood Barns and the Downsview airport—and used them as settings for a consistently amusing tale involving a runaway bride, a well-meaning homeless woman, and the mines of Sudbury. Possessing an unfaltering energy as they bound in and out of the action portraying multiple characters, the cast earned consistent laughs, but never lost sight of the overarching narrative.
Rulers of the Universe: A Love Story
If finding chemistry often proves a major hurdle for sketch comedy troupes to overcome, then how do Rulers of the Universe make it look so damn easy? With every member given plenty of opportunities to shine, their sketches meet at the intersection of wit and the sublime silliness. The cast makes good use of the stage in skits that see Guy Bradford’s old geezer struggle to master the controls of a video game, and Jeremy Woodcock improvise a family-friendly dub of a gangster film. The offsetting of the longer skits with shorter pieces establishes an enjoyable off-kilter rhythm, and a simple but charming framing device holds it all together.
All in the Timing
Three monkeys at typewriters forced to reproduce Hamlet as part of an experiment. A man trying to teach a universal language. Leon Trotsky living a day with a climber’s axe lodged in his skull. A delightfully irreverent collection of one-act plays from the mind of David Ives (Venus In Fur), All in the Timing revels in wordplay and finds a suitably heightened tone to match the subject matter. Nicholas Porteous is a stand-out by virtue of having the showier roles, but the entire cast holds its own. The final piece, in which a man and woman have the chance to redo every misstep taken in their first meeting, is a funny and memorable bit of wish fulfillment.
Three Men in a Boat
Three Men in a Boat assures its audience at the outset that they will not be improved, instructed, or elevated by the performance to come—which is great, as that would get in the way of the hilarity. The humour is impeccably timed and the occasional burst of song perfectly polished throughout the play, which follows the drama-queen adventures of the titular upper-middle-class English gentlemen. The comedic influence of Monty Python and P.G. Wodehouse are evident in this adaptation of a classic comedic travelogue.
It’s important to remember that Oni is a skillful, intricate display of Japanese shadow puppetry and magic lantern show techniques—it’s important to remember this, because in the face of the filthy, filthy hilarity of Oni, it’s easy to lose track of the artistry behind the production. An adult remake of an ancient folk tale, Oni’s vulgarity is more playful than shocking. The narrator half translates and half croons the story in a smooth and silky lounge-singer drawl. The shadows and light show the audience everything from Lady GaGa style dancing to magical journeys inside genitalia. The show has rough edges, but the good-natured atmosphere and quick wit of the performers blends them right into the comedy.