Toronto Fringe Festival 2014: Highlights and Lowlights
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Toronto Fringe Festival 2014: Highlights and Lowlights

How the festival improved this year, where it can improve next year, and 10 ways that great shows stood out from the rest.

From Left to Right, Caitlin Driscoll, Colin Munch, and Tim Walker star in Theatre Brouhaha's production of Kat Sandler's Punch Up  Photo by Zaiden

Caitlin Driscoll, Colin Much, and Tim Walker starred in Theatre Brouhaha’s production of Kat Sandler’s Punch-Up. Photo by Zaiden.

This year’s Toronto Fringe Festival shattered box office records, and had greater than usual critical success, too. While there wasn’t one clear breakout hit that surpassed all others, by the festival’s end, more than a dozen shows had sold out their runs, and we were gratified to see five of the seven shows selected for Best of the Fringe extended runs were shows that Torontoist reviewers named top picks.

The big change this year that helped sell out all those buzzed-about shows was a new ticket policy, which made 100 per cent of tickets available in advance, when in previous years, 50 per cent of tickets were held at the door. The new policy resulted in Fringe handing over $438,000 to artists, making it a plus for producing companies—but it was not without its drawbacks. The value of passes for multiple tickets was severely compromised, as they were only good for at-the-door tickets—meaning they couldn’t be used for most of those sold-out shows. Fringe will undoubtedly keep the advance ticket policy in place next year, but they’ll need to adjust their approach to passes in order to prevent the development of a two-tiered patron system, which would be antithetical to the ideals of Fringe.

There were other areas of concern, too. The Fringe has a longstanding “no latecomers” policy, which was taken to extremes this year. Reviewers from Torontoist, Extra, and Mooney on Theatre, plus many others on social media, reported that they’d been refused entry to shows despite being present, tickets in hand, a minute before or at the time printed on their ticket. (And when some people are seeing half a dozen shows in a day, advising them to show up well in advance isn’t practical.) Someone who shows up a minute late has no right to expect entry under the policy, but front-of-house staff need to recognize that denying ticket holders entry can be an alienating practice—especially for patrons who arrive on time.

For the most part, however, interactions with the many dedicated volunteers and festival staff were cordial. The Fringe Club, behind Honest Ed’s, where patrons could often be heard heaping praise upon their favourite shows, was a popular nightly draw. Here now is our list of the top-10 things that separated the great shows from the good (and the not-so-good).

10: Play With Your Audience

This year audiences were more engaged than ever in the performance offerings at the Fringe Club. Of these, Flip the Fringe was an undisputed hit, in which participants paid for the opportunity to upend a table laid with different “menu” selections, including Lego, high tea, and a poker game. Large crowds gathered to watch customers act out scenes of rage, and many customers paid extra to smash items like shot glasses and (cheap) china in the specially reinforced booth.

9: Work Without a Wire

The Bad Dog Repertory Players. From left to right: Etan Muskat, Hannah Spear, Sean Tabares, Colin Munch, Kirsten Rasmussen, Kyle Dooley, Ashley Comeau, Liz Johnston and Anders Yates. Photo by Julie Osborne.

Fringe is all about taking risks, and sometimes, companies fail. Sketch troupe Fratwurst, for example, attempted an ambitious “choose your own adventure” format for their show You Detective, which allowed for more than 50 different permutations of the plot. Unfortunately, at the show we saw, performers went ahead with adventures the audience hadn’t chosen, and some scenes were borrowed from old sketches and didn’t work with the police mystery theme.

When shows took risks and succeeded, though, the rewards were ample. The Howland Company’s production of TJ Dawe’s 52 Pick-Up featured a first-rate rotating cast that performed scenes according to the order in which playing cards were drawn. Their run quickly sold out, and was selected for the Best of Fringe. As for Bad Dog Theatre, their roster of Repertory Players for the Fringe run of Toronto, I Love You was as strong as it’s ever been. Audiences thrilled to watch the performers improvise locally rooted stories, incorporating suggestions from the audience itself and slowly weaving everything together.

8: Create Clever Queer Content

The young stars of The Common Ground: a Musical Dissertation  Photo by Tessla Stuckey

The young stars of The Common Ground: a Musical Dissertation. Photo by Tessla Stuckey.

A number of shows impressed us with their storytelling approaches to exploring queer and LGBT issues. Some put a spin on the experience of coming out, like former Torontoist contributor Johnny Walker’s Redheaded Stepchild, whose teen protagonist daydreams of a debonair adult alter ego. Nancy Kenny’s Roller Derby Saved My Soul featured a 30-year-old protagonist, presumably already out, who found her groove as she became a star on the oval skating track. And Ray Jarvis Ruby’s Concrete Kid boasted a strong cast of emerging actors who employed beat poetry and quick changes to tell the story of a teenage lesbian’s night of firsts.

Our favourite, though, took a potentially dry topic—studies on children raised by LGBT parents—and made it accessible, as a “musical dissertation.” The Common Ground was earnest and playful; it featured plenty of facts and statistics but still had a warm heart, embodied by a talented young foursome of principal singer-actors.

7: Show It With Puppets

Tara Travis (centre) manipulated 10 different puppets in Who Killed Gertrude Crump? Photo by Jim Travis, design by Kurt Firla

Tara Travis (centre), puppeteer of Who Killed Gertruse Crump? Photo by Jim Travis, design by Kurt Firla.

Our reviewers enjoyed a number of shows in which the “stars” were handcrafted. Oni featured shadow puppetry, some detailed and some crude—much like the stories they told—but always playful. Adam Proulx’s Baker’s Dozen was a treat, in part because of its clever puppet character changes. And veteran touring Fringe company Monster Theatre’s latest show, Who Killed Gertrude Crump?, featured a bravura performance by Tara Travis, who busily manipulated 10 puppets to tell the whodunnit.

6: Show It Without Words

Morgan Murray and Danielle Spilchen emoted wordlessly in Aiden Flynn Lost His Brother So He Made Another  Photo by Natlie Watson

Morgan Murray and Danielle Spilchen in Aiden Flynn Lost His Brother So He Made Another. Photo by Natalie Watson.

A good script needn’t be excessively wordy—in fact, sometimes performers needn’t say anything at all. Keystone Theatre, who perform physical theatre in a style inspired by silent film, had their best show yet in Gold Fever, a rollicking adventure set in 1890s Dawson City. And no words were needed for Aiden Flynn Lost His Brother So He Makes Another, a Frankenstein-inspired story that saw performers Morgan Murray and Danielle Spilchen used occasionally as shadow puppets.

5: Say It in Song

The cast of Elly's Emotions  Photo by Walter Korynkiewicz

The cast of Elly’s Emotions. Photo by Walter Korynkiewicz.

At the KidsFringe venue, children and adults alike leapt to their feet at the end of Elly’s Emotions, our favourite musical of the festival. It was a hit with patrons of all ages—adults enjoyed the clever lyrics, kids loved the exaggerated characters, and everyone appreciated the enthusiastic ensemble.

4: Say It With Song

Katie Hartman as the singing spirit Anna Morgan Faber in Legend of White Woman Creek  Photo by Mark Ryan

Katie Hartman in The Legend of White Woman Creek. Photo by Mark Ryan.

We expected to hear great voices from the powerhouse women of Hugh & I, and by Alexis Taylor in her Shania Twain biography show No One Needs to Know Shania—but it was a particular thrill to hear great singing where we didn’t expect it. The cast of Three Men in a Boat harmonized wonderfully (in addition to all the clever physical comedy in their show). Rebecca Parry’s Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl would have been good even without her singing; with it, the sold-out show was one of the biggest hits of the Fringe. And our favourite discovery of the festival was New York City’s The Coldharts, whose show The Legend of White Woman Creek was anchored by Katie Hartman’s singing and strumming as a ghost with a tragic tale to tell.

3: Move the Stage

Some of the best shows we saw moved the action offstage. Karenin’s Anna was staged at St. Vladamir’s Theatre, a regular Fringe venue, but director Luke Marty put his actors (Theatre Brouhaha’s Danny Pagett and new-to-Toronto Caitlin Robson, who were both sublime) in the round, with the audience surrounding them. Rosa Laborde’s fascinating new play True came to life at the Queen West coffee shop Citizenry, and felt as if it were woven into the fabric of the neighbourhood. And An Evening in July was fully engrossing, as duo Templeton Philharmonic ranged indoors and outdoors at St. George the Martyr’s Anglican Church in a comedy inspired by The Grey Gardens.

2: Most Valuable Performers

Lindsey Clark. Photo by Scott Murdoch.

Every Fringe features a handful of performers who acquit themselves admirably wearing multiple hats, and this year’s was no different. Colin Munch was the comedy MVP of the festival, as an acerbic kidnapped comedian in Punch-Up, and as a member of the freewheeling collective in Toronto, I Love You. We also loved the concept and execution of Mark Shyzer’s solo show, Great Battles in History, and his sketch work in Only Human wasn’t bad, either.

But we also noted actors who shone both on and off the stage. Men’s slacks-wearing Jeni Walls stole scenes in Hugh & I as the title character’s horndog best pal, and also produced festival hits Baker’s Dozen and Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl. And Fringe veteran Lindsey Clark, who had her best role to date as a neurotic and self-absorbed author in Fantastic Extravagance, kept things running smoothly at the Fringe Club when she was offstage, both behind the bar and around the lot.

1: Funny, Well Written, Well Directed

The cast of Everything Is Fine. Photo by Liz Beddall.

The best sketch comedy shows at this year’s Fringe had an outside eye to help them shape their production. All in the Timing had two directors, Jonathan Dufour and Michael Melnikoff, who helped their cast bring short comedy playlets by David Ives to life. And the best sketch show of the festival, Everything Is Fine, featured a large group of emerging comedians ably guided by director Ken Hall, who kept things snappy on the huge Tarragon Mainspace stage.

This was also a banner year for comedic plays, which are underrepresented throughout the rest of the year on Toronto theatre stages. Kat Sandler’s brilliant Punch-Up tackled the tropes of comedy directly, running through different joke styles at a breakneck pace. And Sex T-Rex’s Watch Out Wildcat! Yer Dealin’ With the Devil, a hyperkinetic Western, featured a laconic female gunslinger tussling with a crazy cast of characters.