Highlights and Lowlights from the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival

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Highlights and Lowlights from the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival

Here's what our reviewers thought worked (and didn't) at this year's Fringe, and what could be improved upon.

Leo the Raccoon Chef, as played by Seann Murray, from Sex T-Rex's Bendy Sign Tavern. Photo by S.E. Grummet.

Leo the Raccoon Chef, as played by Seann Murray, from Sex T-Rex’s Bendy Sign Tavern. Photo by S.E. Grummett.

This year’s Toronto Fringe Festival was the largest to date, with 160 shows to see and daily programming (and partying) at the festival’s new club and headquarters at Scadding Court at Dundas and Bathurst streets. Navigating it all was exhilarating and exhausting, but nearly 70,000 patrons and artists did. Here’s what we observed.

The Toronto Fringe Festival is an ad hoc community of thousands over 11 days, incorporating patrons, local purveyors of theatre, comedy, clown and more, touring artists, and people who just like partying with theatre folk (even if they don’t intend to see many—or any—shows). So incorporating this community into as public a place as Scadding Court, which is already a nexus for people who frequent the recreation centre, skate park, and public park there, takes some careful planning. By most accounts, this was done quite successfully by the hard-working Fringe staff.

For the future, the chief (and minor) complaint about the Fringe Club that outgoing executive director Kelly Straughan will need to address is lighting, both leading to and from the “rink,” and inside, where the floodlights, which resulted in some squinting after dark, lead many to joke that they were entering the “Fringe Thunderdome.”

The ticketing, especially the paperless entry aspect of the festival, was even smoother than last year, and the festival returned nearly $520,000 in tickets sales (more than 68,000 tickets sold in all) to its participating artists—the first time the Toronto Fringe has broken $500,000 in ticket revenue.

While the festival itself seems to be in fine shape, another issue Straughan’s successor will have to sort out: the future of the Best of The Fringe, held in previous recent years at the Toronto Centre For the Arts. This year, due to their ongoing amalgamation process with the Sony Centre and St. Lawrence Centre, new CEO Clyde Wagner told Torontoist that they unfortunately didn’t have the time and resources to produce a 2017 program. While he assured us the new Civic Theatres Toronto organization hopes to resume the series in 2018, the Fringe’s new head honcho will have to decide if they want to partner with someone on the remount series, given the success of the Next Stage Festival. If they do (and we fervently hope so, as there are too many barriers to post-Fringe success as it is), they may consider pairing with a company such as Canadian Stage or Soulpepper, who’re moving New York critics to tears with their off-Broadway hit Kim’s Convenience.

Torontoist‘s reviewers saw more than a third of the festival’s 160 shows (even theatregoer extraordinaire Derrick Chua finished just shy of the 80-show half-festival mark), and here’s our thoughts on what worked, and what didn’t.


Subtle Dystopia VS. TEOTWAWKI

Ruth Goodwin and James Graham in Lemons Lemons Lemons. Photo by Dan Abramovici.

Ruth Goodwin and James Graham in Lemons Lemons Lemons. Photo by Dan Abramovici.

Apocalypse-themed shows usually do well at the festival, especially those that are also comedies, and this year had those, of course; Welcome To The Bunker, for instance, which sheltered patrons from the zombie hordes an hour at a time, and 13 Ways the World Ends, which was a Patron’s Pick show. But we were especially gratified to see more slow burn sci-fi cautionary tales at the festival. Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, the debut play by British writer Sam Steiner, was given an elegant and moving staging by The Howland Company. It’s a sobering look at a near future where civil liberties are gradually eroded to the point that citizens are forbidden from speaking more than 140 words a day.

Seven Siblings Theatre’s production of American playwright Eliza Clark’s Recall, where children with latent sociopathic traits are hunted down by government agents, had some clever world-building and charismatic performances, though we wish we could see a future (no pun intended) iteration that trimmed exposition and expanded on the titular program.

Both these shows played on societal unease about our institutions within intimate personal relationships, and eschewed any specific targeting of current political trends (read on for how we feel about that).

Steve Fisher

Trump Jokes Were This Year’s Low Hanging Fruit

Does this poster seem to have nothing to do with Donald Trump? That is about to be a theme. Poster Design, Arlo Filazek.

Does this poster seem to have nothing to do with Donald Trump? That is about to be a theme. Poster Design, Arlo Filazek.

Look, we get it. You cast your eyes south of the border these days and behold an incomprehensible mix of fury, horror, and despair. It can feel better to laugh in response instead of letting out one long sobbing scream. But there are limits, and there is a matter of relevance. All too often, shows at the Fringe went for what started to feel like cheap, easy, random one-off laughs via Trump joke, or even just idly invoking his name for some kind of comedic potential. Once is fine, twice is fine, three times is not the worst thing in the world, but as it rolls on through play after play, it can start to feel wearying, or at least repetitive. This was not helped by any number of these jokes having nothing really to do with the show they appeared in; be it a Trump punchline for a skit amidst songs sourced from Canadiana in True North Mixtape, or as some casual insulting snark in Six Quick Dick Tricks a show otherwise riffing on detective noir and a crowd pleasing magic show. Monsters By Nature just threw the name in to some chanting of monsters and weird people that included Lady Gaga. At some point it just started to feel like creators not having enough confidence in their own material to avoid throwing in some off topic pandering. You might say this is just us being humourless or not appreciating satire, and that’s fair enough. But consider that the first step to normalizing something that you feel should infuriate, horrify, or sadden is to trivialize it, to reduce the concern to little more than a cheap joke.

An honourable exception to this goes to the dance performance of Lipstique. The “F*** Donald Trump” dance sequence had a catchy rhythm and beat that is still stuck in our heads (and sometimes still unconsciously grooved to—in fact right now, danged earworm). The song fuelled the ongoing skilled moves of the show and got genuine laughs, all while having an entirely relevant place in a show exploring the current state of the feminine identity.

Mark Kay

Live Up To Your Title!

The cast of 32 Short Sketches About Bees. Photo by Connor Low.

The cast of 32 Short Sketches About Bees. Photo by Connor Low.

Word of mouth spreads quickly at the Fringe, both good and bad. If you’re going to promise something in your show’s title or description—nudity, for instance—you’d better follow through, even if it’s in a cheeky manner (we were mooned several times this festival). Shows that promise something and deliver on it are usually rewarded with Patron’s Pick honours, or better. This year’s top example, 32 Short Sketches About Bees, delivered exactly what their title promised, in a crowd-pleasing manner, and earned both Patron’s Pick and the Second City Outstanding New Comedy Award—which means it’ll be back again soon at the John Candy Box studio space at Second City Toronto for a short run remount.

Steve Fisher

Short People Got No Reason to Fringe

Connor Bradbury and Kaitlin Morrow of Bendy Sign Tavern. Photo by Connor Low.

Connor Bradbury and Kaitlin Morrow of Bendy Sign Tavern. Photo by Connor Low.

Yes, this was a gripe about site-specific shows from last year, but it continues to be a concern, so consider this an unwelcome sequel (The Short People Strike Back maybe). Obstructed sightlines continue to be a problem for shows at nonstandard venues, shows who continue to trade being able to more clearly tell what’s going on for clever staging. Taverns and pubs on the smaller side aren’t intended or structured as theatres, for all that they make sense as a venue for a show like Sex T-Rex’s Bendy Sign Tavern. For a guest that doesn’t arrive early enough to claim a very close up seat to the action, and is also the sort of person that needs to look up, look wayyyy up while the Friendly Giant calls Rusty, well, there are going to be problems. This was a particular issue at Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party, set at the Monarch Tavern, if you wanted to see something like the lyrics to the original songs being projected on the screen.

The burlesque dancers of Lysistrata put in an effort to get around the problem by having some of their dancing occur on top of the bar itself, but there were still places from which even that view was obstructed. It’s theatre, and certainly not always being able to see is always going to be an issue of live performance, but there are degrees all the same. The site specific shows are often the most creative or intriguing of the festival, making a struggle to actually be able to experience them fully stand out as a disappointment.

The honourable exception here goes to Hexen. Their use of staging was both clever, effective, and inclusive for the audience. Their use of an outdoor patio and a single line of seating arranged in a semicircle of sorts allowed for a full experience of their performance. The tight squeeze, small space, and night air enhanced the intimate and primal feeling of the heady and wrathful presence of nature’s avatars.

Mark Kay

Step It Up, Local Artists!

Jeremie Francoeur in Macbeth Muet. Photo by Stephanie Godin.

Jeremie Francoeur in Macbeth Muet. Photo by Stephanie Godin.

The Fringe is many things to different people, and the arguments of what it should be—a proving ground for new ideas, a workshop series for new plays, a launching pad for emerging artists, a career boost for established ones—won’t ever be resolved. The stakes are different in Toronto compared to other Fringe festivals in Canada, too, given that Toronto is one of the largest theatre markets in North America (after New York and Chicago). There’s so many local companies and artists (with local connections) vying for attention that touring artists find success here challenging. And that’s a damn shame, because the best shows we saw this year weren’t local. New York City’s Concrete Drops Theatre earned 5 N reviews from NOW Magazine for both their shows; the sultry lovers in a hotel room mystery Moonlight After Midnight, which took audiences through a series of possible realities, Inception-style, and Delirium, Martin Dockery’s storytelling tour de force. Denver-based solo artist Gemma Wilcox, last at this festival with shows in 2007 and 2008, finally returned (after being rejected nine years in a row in the lottery) with Magical Mystery Detour, a satisfying update to her series about her “everywoman” Sandra character. And the only standing ovation we gave this year went to Montreal company La Fille Du Laiter’s Macbeth Muet, an inexplicably dazzling wordless Shakespearian adaptation that told the story of the Scotsman and his grimly determined wife using props—paper plates, cups, towels, and eggs—that could seemingly be obtained via the express aisle at Wal-Mart.

What these shows had in common was intent—that is, they were expressly designed to succeed within the limitations of the Fringe, with its hour long slots, limited tech time, and quick set-up and tear down. (Despite Macbeth Muet‘s liberal use of fake blood, eggs, and more, the company for the most part cleaned as they went.) Contrast this with many Toronto companies who present the first act of an intended longer show, or who chop work down to fit. We hope we might be spontaneously moved to our feet again next year by local companies, but we suspect that’ll only happen if they build a show from the ground up to succeed at Fringe, and worry about how to transition post-festival only after succeeding in it.

Steve Fisher

The Scottish Play

L-R: Gabriel DiFabio, Adrienne Kress, Roselyn Kelada-Sedra. Center: Kyle McDonald. Photo by Alexandra Augustine.

L-R: Gabriel DiFabio, Adrienne Kress, Roselyn Kelada-Sedra. Center: Kyle McDonald. Photo by Alexandra Augustine.

The nature of the Fringe Festival’s lottery selection can lead to trends both interesting and unintentional. In this case, there was the mini trend of several plays riffing on Shakespeare’s Macbeth in one form or another. The immediate question then becomes, which show was the tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing, and which Macbeth was Macbest (yes, that was an atrocious pun, no, we do not apologize for it)? Truthfully they all went in fairly different directions. Weirder Thou Art aimed for the work as a vehicle for straight up buffoonery and clowning around, Macbeth Muet was as much about the experimental technique of retelling the story via props and silent acting as the play itself, and Macbeth’s went somewhere between gonzo, comedic, and poignant with the tale of a prop head brought to life seeking revenge on the original playwright himself. It does lead to wondering what about the play makes it such fertile ground to work from. Kyle McDonald, director and the titular head of Macbeth’s Head, points to its ease of use as one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, its ubiquity from being regularly taught in schools, and the lure of having its own supposed real life curse.

As for personal preference? While the techniques in Muet were brilliant, and Weirder appropriately absurd, who can argue with Macbeth redone as a telekinetic living severed head by way of grandiose comic book style megalomaniac, complete with on point supervillain laugh and deep stentorian voice? Seriously, don’t argue with Macbeth’s Head, he’ll use the force on you.

Mark Kay

New Dramas, Ably Directed

Cast members of Grey. Photo by Tim Cadeny.

Cast members of Grey. Photo by Tim Cadeny.

Racial tension underscored two of the best new dramas at this year’s festival. Steven Elliott Jackson’s The Seat Next To The King, the winner of the Fringe’s New Play contest, imagined a pair of furtive encounters between gay men connected to civil rights leaders. And Grey, by Chantal Forde, looked at the aftermath of a tragic high school incident that destroyed two families. Both productions benefitted from astute direction (by Tanisha Taitt and Mandy Roveda, respectively) that efficiently transitioned between scenes, making them part of the action; we also were impressed by both show’s performers, most of whom are emerging in Toronto theatre, and now have exceptional credits for their CVs.

Steve Fisher

Fringe 2017 Went All City TV Baby Blue Movie

St. Stella in Lysistrata. Photo by Sly Maria.

St. Stella in Lysistrata. Photo by Sly Maria.

Nudity and adult content are no strangers to the Toronto Fringe Festival of course, but somehow this year had an especially risqué feeling. From being able to fill a variety show with explicit songs about the quest for orgasm from one play to another, to a flashing sea of bared breasts, bums, and other sensitive anatomy, it felt like the festival was considerably more unabashed in that direction. There’s nothing wrong with more adult fare really, we’re not prudes over here at Torontoist or any such thing, but it was notable. In fact, there were times where any other sort of imagery would have felt outright wrong. How.dare.collective’s choice to stage the Lysistrata as a full out burlesque show was so brilliantly appropriate to the source material that we’ll have a hard time picturing it any other way from now on. Even Mind of a Snail’s shadow puppeteers went in a far less family friendly direction with their show, Multiple Organism. The results made for successful reviews and audiences highly entertained by the use of the entire human body as canvas and projection screen.

“Once we knew it would need to be an adult show because of the nudity, it opened our process up to subjects we wouldn’t have been able to address with a more family friendly show. It’s nice to have the freedom to try something a bit more risky! Gender, sexuality, and weird stuff around the body—everyone has strong experiences around these things—but there are also lots of taboos around talking about them. I think it can be relieving to see this stuff out in the open, shown in a playful way,” said Chloe Ziner of Mind of a Snail, commenting on the appeal of that shift in direction.

Mark Kay

Pop Hits!

Lesley Robertson and Matt Shaw of The Diddiling Bibbles. Photo by Michelle Langille.

Lesley Robertson and Matt Shaw of The Diddiling Bibbles. Photo by Michelle Langille.

Sure, it’s a great idea to incorporate music into your Fringe show, but it’s easier said then done—especially if you don’t want to run afoul of copyright infringement (no pun intended) by riffing on existing songs. Creating catchy, original music for your Fringe show definitely impresses audiences, and we were impressed in particular with several such composers. The Diddling Bibbles were a surprise hit at St. Vladimir’s, where the raunchy duo, who played some of the same chords as Flight of the Harpsichords, proved adept at musical comedy and clever local references. Ditto for touring artist Shirley Gnome, whose Taking It Up The Notch was a tawdry hit that also referenced “butt stuff” and used her exceptional singing voice. And we remain amazed at the pop chops of Barbara Johnston and Suzy Wilde, who ported several songs from last year’s Summerland into this year’s True North Mixtape (which boasted great re-workngs of Canadian classics as well as their own tunes) and also wrote a whole show’s worth of credible top 40 tunes for the drunken revellers of Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party.

Steve Fisher

We Saw The Blue SPD Power Ranger’s Ass

Christopher S. Violette and Elaine Aubrey in Bad Date. Photo by Samantha Spatari.

Christopher S. Violette and Erin Aubrey in Bad Date. Photo by Samantha Spatari.

“You just talked about the Fringe being risqué!” you might say. To which we would reply, “SPD! Emergency!” There is something specifically and indelibly bizarre about seeing a kid’s show performer in wayyyy more adult material. It’s like seeing your elementary school teacher outside of school, doing grown up things, but multiplied 10,000-fold. It’s like trying to wrap your head around Gordon from Sesame Street as a 70s Blaxploitation pimp. And yet, that happened, and we saw it happen. To be fair to Christopher S. Violette, his performance as a drunk, coked up, stoned, sometimes naked, oral sex providing enthusiast was hilarious and, ahem, energetic. While Sky the Blue Ranger is somewhat after our time of morphing teenage superheroes, he’s still some generation’s blue (and then red later on—we looked it up) ranger. Picturing their grown up reaction to Christopher’s grown up reactions is worth the Fringe alone. If nothing else, we have a spectacular conversation starter for next year’s Power Morphicon.

Mark Kay

Bad Baby Saved the Meta-Narrative

Janelle Hanna in Bad Baby Presents: Rules Control the Fun. Photo by Scott Murdoch.

Janelle Hanna in Bad Baby Presents: Rules Control the Fun. Photo by Scott Murdoch.

This was going to be another revisit to the ghosts of Fringe gripes past. Fringe certainly loved the meta narrative again this year, maybe even more than last year, with another round of plays within plays, plays about plays, in jokes, community call outs, and even plays specifically about performing in the Fringe. The fourth wall was not so much broken as pulverized into dust. We were set to go on a tear about insularity, the serpent eating its own tail, issues of broad reach to a wider community, so forth. But then there was Bad Baby Presents: Rules Control the Fun. The show seemed like it would slot neatly into the aforementioned categories, the tale of an extremely awkward, funny voiced clown’s comedically stumbling attempts to stage a Fringe show, Mary Katherine Gallagher from SNL style. But near the end the entire context of the show shifted, turning into a very real window into the very real performer behind that character, confronting us with how we consume female solo shows compared to male ones, the allowances we’ll make for male performers over female ones. The line we draw between “annoyingly crazy and self-indulgent” to “loveable and hilarious.” The audience shared in dealing with the isolation and vulnerability that goes into putting oneself out there to a crowd, completely by oneself. That might feel like a bait and switch, but as Janelle Hanna notes with a pained, empathetic conviction, the message of the last 15 minutes would never have hit as hard without reacting to the first 45. There was a genuine insight offered through Bad Baby, a perspective on reality we couldn’t have reached without going through meta-reality first.

Mark Kay

Such a Nasty Woman: Post Trump Feminism at the Fringe

Heath V. Salazar as Hades in Nasty. Photo courtesy of fringetoronto.com

Heath V. Salazar as Hades in Nasty. Photo courtesy of fringetoronto.com

It was the phrase that launched a thousand T-shirt designs, and several Fringe plays. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, there was reflection on identity on a considerable scale. Women who might not have previously devoted much thought or action to the notion of their social or political place in the world, to the nature of their personal identity and gender, were now faced with an unavoidable cultural shift. Responses to that shift have been mixed of course, but a spirit of defiance and self exploration has gathered strength behind it. Plays like Nasty, Nasty Woman and Nourish examined the current state of the feminine identity. The first through a lens of infamous women from history and myth, the second through the life story of its solo show performer and the last in a generational tale of reactions to domesticity. The shows shared between them an unwillingness to be defined on any terms but their own and offering an empathetic strength to be shared by their audience. Especially welcome was Nasty and the dance performance of Lipstique giving space in their perspectives to transgender and genderfluid identities.

Mark Kay

Raccoon Nation Pandering

Sex T-Rex know which side their bread is buttered on. The Raccoon Nation side. Seann Murray playing Leo the Raccoon Chef, photo by S.E. Grummett.

Sex T-Rex know which side their bread is buttered on. The Raccoon Nation side. Seann Murray playing Leo the Raccoon Chef, photo by S.E. Grummett.

Toronto’s unofficial mascot had a few prominent appearances at the Fringe this year. Bendy Sign Tavern’s Leo the Raccoon chef was a viciously adorable scene stealer (like unto an actual raccoon), and High Park Noir centered their entire narrative around the adventures of a raccoon detective. Clearly these choices reflect the growing influence and importance of Torontoist’s raccoon nation in the city’s artistic communities. We welcome this blatant and incredibly necessary play for our favour and promise not to let it go to our heads (we are lying). We’re not saying that raccoons are the reason Bendy Sign’s jokes landed or why they garnered the favourable reviews they did, but we’re not not saying that either. Fringe 2018: All Raccoon Revue is a glorious inevitability (buy some merch now to fit in, be ahead of the trend!).

Mark Kay


 

Correction: Kim’s Convenience did not receive a New York Times “Critic’s Pick.” Of Human Bondage and Spoon River did. Torontoist regrets the error.


Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Toronto writer Eliza Clark as the author of Recall, a play by the American playwright of the same name. Torontoist regrets the error.

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