Improviser James Gangl and comedy troupe Sex T-Rex, both known better in comedy circles, are remounting scripted stage shows, and both will surprise theatre-goers.
There’s a lot of serious drama on Toronto stages this month, tackling dementia in You Will Remember Me; India’s caste system in Pyaasa; feminist icons in Gertrude and Alice; and terrorism in The Just, to name just a few. These shows have all been at least moderately well reviewed, but perhaps you crave something a bit more… silly. The ludicrously named troupe Sex T-Rex goes all out with a double bill of their physical comedy plays popularized at the Fringe Festival, while James Gangl’s new solo show, in which he finds himself asked to have “the talk” with his teenage nephew, is hilariously frank—though there’s a deep reveal that necessitates a trigger warning for sexual assault.
Gangl previously tackled the complicated relationship between sex and shame, especially of the religious nature, in his show Sex, Religion, and Other Hang-Ups. For this follow up, In Search of Cruise Control, he tells a story of when he was more sexually experienced, but not especially closer to understanding those hang-ups. Gangl dealt with these issues years before he began writing this show, confirming this in a post-show Q & A, but his on-stage character, as he relates how he became entangled in an ill-considered relationship in close quarters aboard a cruise ship, has a lot to go through before he can impart any wisdom to his nephew.
Gangl works as an instructor at Second City, and is a busy improviser, and the show, as directed by Chris Gibbs, plays to those strengths. He was well attuned to the packed crowd at his first preview, occasionally asking questions of audience members, and frequently ‘checking in’. That rapport proves essential when he drops a bombshell revelation late in the show, which we’re loath to spoil, but do feel obligated to give a trigger warning for. Gangl has processed the experience, and speaks candidly about it, but sex assault survivors might feel blindsided. That said, the show is funny indeed, both before and after said reveal, and Gangl’s respectful handling of a subject rarely discussed on stage—certainly not in any comedy we’ve seen before—felt cathartic.
Sex T-Rex’s swashbuckling Swordplay: A Play of Swords was one of our favourite shows at last summer‘s Fringe, but their collective creations, which are madcap video-game inspired comedic romps, haven’t had runs outside of the festival circuit. Their current “Sex T-Rep” double bill remounts their latest two shows—Swordplay, and the Western Watch Out, Wildcat! Yer Dealin’ with The Devil.
The jokes come fast and furious, and the physical style, utilizing simple cut-out props and puppets sparingly, riffs on film and video game conventions to display action sequences of a sort rarely seen on stage. But these are most definitely plays, not sketch comedy shows, even if there is the odd aside to the audience.
In Wildcat, the crack shot and stone-faced young Wildcat McReady (Kaitlin Morrow) will face off against the devil himself (a hilariously ineffective Conor Bradbury) in her pursuit of the man who killed her father (Danny Pagett). Her vendetta eventually brings her into the orbit of the nefarious Spider (Seann Murray) and numerous henchmen, played by Julian Frid (who’s also a laconic narrator) and the rest of the ensemble. As directed by Alec Toller, Wildcat and the Devil cross the American West in a series of montages and action set pieces that could be dizzying, but are always crisp and clear, including train and riverboat sequences where the actors briefly become finger puppets.
In Swordplay, Bradbury and Murray play a pair of musketeer archetypes brought back together by the capture of their princess (Morrow) by a scheming rival prince (Frid). There’s a framing device that’s an homage to The Princess Bride, that also sets up a clever twist on the swashbuckling trope, but in the main story, (foam) swords are swung with great frequency.
In order to fit the two shows together—each about 70 minutes long, with a 15 minute break between them—there’s been a few cuts, especially to the narrator framings. Wildcat was even better than the first time we saw it, all piss and vinegar and glee, and Swordplay seemed just a touch shakier by comparison. That might also be because the performers, giving their all, were slightly slower in the second show. Sex T-Rex’s shows move at the pace of a slamming door farce, with as much choreography as many musicals; they’re physically demanding. We felt a bit fatigued by the end of the second show, just watching, and perhaps we were starting to take their endlessly clever exploits for granted. Both shows are definitely delightful; it’s possible one might enjoy them even more, spread out over two visits.