2015 Toronto Fringe Festival Preview
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2015 Toronto Fringe Festival Preview

We've got 10 good reasons to consider seeing dozens of the short and scrappy shows at this year's Toronto Fringe Festival.

Vanessa Smythe's This Is How We Disappear reappears at this year's Toronto Fringe Festival  Photo By Nancy Ribeiro

Vanessa Smythe’s This Is How We Disappear reappears at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival. Photo By Nancy Ribeiro.

The Toronto Fringe Festival is bigger this year, up a dozen shows from last year with a greater variety of site-specific shows, a new (bigger) venue for the KidsFringe, and more than 1,200 artists by the festival’s count.

To help you get a grip on the sort of selection and pedigree the festival offerings include, we’ve previewed more than a quarter of the shows programmed, broken them down into categories, and given a brief explanation of why you should pick them over the show with the weirdest title in the massive program (though, by all means, spend one of your pass punches on that show, too).

The festival officially begins as of 4 p.m. today, with a kick-off ceremony at the Fringe Club behind Honest Ed’s. There’ll be music, special guests, and more.

Some general Fringe tips, familiar to readers of our previous Fringe guides:

Buy a pass. Most (though not all) Fringe shows are under an hour long, so it makes sense to see multiple shows per visit to get some variety in your viewing. Buying a pass knocks the price down to less than the $10 for rush or “at the door” ticket costs. New this year, for an additional $2 charge, you can book advance tickets to hot shows with your pass, saving you from the long line-ups that form as word of mouth spreads and shows sell out.

Plan your trip, but be spontaneous. Scheduling (which is easier with the free Fringe app) is important, but give yourself time to catch the Fringe Club’s daily free programming. Wear comfortable shoes, bring water, and check out both the food vendors on-site and those offering discounts to Fringe patrons.

– Give yourself plenty of travel time. Fringe shows always start on time, and there are NO latecomers admitted, for any reason. If you arrive AT 7 p.m. for a 7 p.m. show, you won’t get in. Trust us. Most of the venues are within walking distance, but travelling by bicycle is even better. Transit and driving are being affected by Pan Am / PANAMANIA, so take that into consideration, and parking from venue to venue ranges from challenging to impossible, so factor that in, too.

10: They’ve Done This Before

Seann Murray and Conor Bradbury duel in Swordplay: A Play of Swords  Photo by Cindy Lopez

Seann Murray and Conor Bradbury duel in Swordplay: A Play of Swords. Photo by Cindy Lopez.

When you’ve done the Fringe circuit more than just a few times, you learn what works and what doesn’t. There are a number of Fringe veterans returning with sequels or new spins on formats that’ve worked well for them in the past. Rebecca Perry is back with Adventures of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl, in which her spunky title character takes a new job at the Jane Goodall Institute; James and Jamesy are back with High Tea, a sequel to their physical comedy hit Two for Tea; Peter n’ Chris: Here Lies Chris takes the titular pair into the afterlife; and we’ve already seen (and thrilled at) Swordplay: A Play of Swords, which Sex T-Rex just won a brace of awards for at the Montreal Fringe.

The most veteran Fringe artist at the festival this year, however, is without a doubt Jem Rolls, whose show The Inventor of All Things is replacing For Better or Worse in the program; counting all city fringe festivals he’s been involved in, this Fringe will be Rolls’s 104th.

9: Spin a Yarn

Todd Houseman and Ben Gorodetsky employ Indigenous Canadian and Russian storytelling traditions in Folk Lordz  Photo by Andrew Paul

Todd Houseman and Ben Gorodetsky employ Indigenous Canadian and Russian storytelling traditions in Folk Lordz. Photo by Andrew Paul.

The Fringe is a great vehicle for storytellers, who need little more than an audience and a space to engage them in. There are a number of local performers doing solo shows, including Darryl Pring with OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Darryl, looking at his struggles with the disorder; Ryan G. Hinds with Starry Notions (the busy performer has four shows in four festivals this summer); and Gavin Crawford, looking at social media interaction with “Friend” “Like” #Me.

Itinerant storytellers rolling into town include Graham Clark and Sam Mullins, whose shows entertained Torontonians at the Next Stage Festival the past two winters, and Folk Lordz, who generated great buzz here back in May with their shows at the Combustion Festival.

8: Fun For All Ages

Zip and Shakes star in Hamlet...A Puppet Epic!  Detail of a photo by John Gundy

Zip and Shakes star in Hamlet…A Puppet Epic! Detail of a photo by John Gundy.

The KidsFringe often includes some of the most entertaining shows in the festival, and tend to sell quickly. They’ve moved to a new venue this year, the George Ignatieff Theatre, which can handle larger all ages crowds. Highlights this year include Hamlet…A Puppet Epic!!!, which is self explanatory; The Crazy Space Adventures of Princess Sparkly Butt & The Hot Dog Kid, which features Kimberly Persona (a performer we’re more familiar with from the adult shows produced by Ecce Homo); and Hansel & Gretel from veteran KidsFringe producers Cow Over Moon, whose performers this year include Asiansplotation’s Gene Abella and stand-up Faisal Butt, who impressed us at Luminato recently with his live onsscreen turn in My One Demand.

7: Local Ladies Who’ve Made Us Laugh

Zabrina Chevannes' one woman show is entitled A Nurse's Worst Nightmare  Image by Kurt Firla

Zabrina Chevannes’ one woman show is entitled A Nurse’s Worst Nightmare. Image by Kurt Firla.

Our annual Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh (LLWMUL) feature has cited some very funny movers and shakers in Toronto in the past five years, and a number of them are participating in the Fringe this year. 2011 Ladies Amy Lee and Heather Marie Annis are remounting Morro And Jasp Does Puberty, a past Fringe hit (the duo are playing the gargantuan Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this summer); 2012 Ladies Rhiannon Archer and Zabrina Chevannes are making their Fringe debuts with Life Records and A Nurse’s Worst Nightmare, respectively; and 2014 Lady Allana Reoch and some of her Sunday Night Live castmates are in the cast of Everyone Loves Sealand, a new musical helmed by ace director Shari Hollett. (See category 5 for an explanation of their recent name change.)

6: Already Rave Reviews

Chloe Ziner and Jessica Gabriel's shadow puppets tell the story of Caws & Effect  Photo by Chloe Ziner

Chloe Ziner and Jessica Gabriel’s shadow puppets tell the story of Caws & Effect. Photo by Chloe Ziner.

Smart Fringers know to look at how shows have done at other festivals, and what sort of awards they’ve racked up, to figure out what’ll be a hot ticket once word-of-mouth gains momentum. 2 Ruby Knockers, 1 Jaded Dick: A Dirk Darrow Investigation has racked up best of fest awards already at the Victoria, Winnipeg, and London Fringes; My Big Fat German Puppet Show won the Just For Laughs award at last year’s Montreal Fringe, as did Let’s Start a Country at the 2012 Montreal Fringe; and Caws & Effect won two awards last month at the London Fringe (we loved their last shadow puppet show, Against Gravity).

And while “Best in Venue” is a fairly common award, Aspergers: A Tale of A Social Misfit (which won that award at the Winnipeg Fringe) comes highly recommended to us by recent LLWMUL honouree Aisha Alfa.

5: Say It In Song

The stranded students of Summerland  photo by Grace Glowicki

The stranded students of Summerland. photo by Grace Glowicki.

The Toronto Fringe has become a testing ground for musicals that have gone on to appear on and off-Broadway, like The Drowsy Chaperone and My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. And before this festival’s even opened, it’s become the most scandalous type of show, with two shows having been served recent cease & desist orders. Deadmouse: the Musical, a parody of the EDM music scene, was almost derailed earlier this month by a litigious DJ; and just this week, Everyone Loves Marineland became Everyone Loves Sealand: A Disco Musical Parody, in order to skirt a legal battle with the water park.

Musicals not (yet) facing legal hurdles include I’m Right Here – A Song Cycle, directed by Fringe vet Steven Gallagher, and Summerland, a collaboration between the Wexford Performing Arts Institute and the musical powerhouses Johnston and Johnston, whose Brantwood won the Audience Choice Award at the Doras this year.

4: Where’s This Show Again?

Tricia Black is gonna rock The Dance Cave in Stalkyard Hurts  Photo by Tim Porter

Tricia Black is gonna rock The Dance Cave in Stalkyard Hurts. Photo by Tim Porter.

Some of the Toronto Fringe’s most popular offerings every year are shows in strange and unusual locations. Audiences have become accustomed to bar-set experiences like Shakespeare BASH’d, whose Merry Wives of Windsor is probably almost sold out already. But odder locations this year include a kitchen (The Dinner Table, featuring stories by Judith Thompson, Sky Gilbert, Nina Lee Aquino, and others); a boxing gym (Bout); Lee’s Palace (Stalkyard Hurts); a rehab clinic (The Doctor Will See You Now); and a church choir hall (The Hollow Square, featuring local indie music personalities like Isla Craig and Ivy Mairi).

3: The Rhythm Will Move You

From left to right, Ruckus, Pastel, and Revel, from Becoming Burlesque  Photo by Chris Hutcheson

From left to right, Ruckus, Pastel, and Revel, from Becoming Burlesque. Photo by Chris Hutcheson.

Dance shows have become an integral feature in Fringe programming. The best usually feature limber performers in a framework of a story, so we’re intrigued this year by Becoming Burlesque, a cabaret experience; Pool (No Water), a physical theatre piece with a cast of five choreographed by Patricia Allison; and Urban Legends, which features performances by more than a half dozen troupes, plus a dramaturge (Andrew Markowiak), a credit we wish more shows (dance, and in general) had.

2: Funny Ha-Ha (Maybe Funny Weird)

From left to right, Kurt smeaton, Jim Annan, and Scott Montgomery together are Falcon Powder, in God's Beard!  Detail of a photo by Dan Abramovici

From left to right, Kurt smeaton, Jim Annan, and Scott Montgomery together are Falcon Powder, in God’s Beard! Detail of a photo by Dan Abramovici.

Comedy shows at the Fringe can be our favourite thing, as comics and troupes that often give one night only performances get a longer run (and more than typical rehearsal time) to showcase their creativity. One of the city’s best troupes, Falcon Powder, is at the festival with God’s Beard! (The Only Sketch Show That Has Ever Happened). We also think That’s Just 5 Kids in a Coat!, directed by Second City alumnus Marty Adams, looks promising. And current Second City Mainstage revue director Kerry Griffin is helming two shows packed with Second City alum and Conservatory grads, comedic musical People Suck and sketch revue Regicide.

1: #FringeFemmeTO Plays

Mrythin Stagg & Oliver Georgiou. Photo by Tim Leyes.

It’s been noted on social media recently that fully half of this year’s Fringe offerings are written or co-written by women, thanks to a lottery selection system that holds none of the gender bias that still pervades established theatres. Some new plays in the fest include A Man Walks Into a Bar, by past New Play contest winner Rachel Blair; Hanger, starring Hilary McCormack and Tennile Read (and written by McCormack); and Me With You, co-written & performed by Myrthin Stagg and Oliver Georgiou, with music by Eliott Loran. (The company is donating 100 per cent of their profits to CAMH.) And while it’s not new to Torontonians who did the East End Arts Crawl, Vanessa Smythe’s poetic In Case We Disappear will be getting its first full run at the Fringe.