Toronto Fringe Festival 2015: Highlights & Lowlights
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Toronto Fringe Festival 2015: Highlights & Lowlights

Sex T-Rex’s Kaitlin Morrow rides a dragon, flaming sword aloft, while Conor Bradbury leaps for a wing. Photo by Sharon Murray.

The weather cooperated, the buzz was shared by many shows, and the festival experience was as smooth as it’s ever been. The Toronto Fringe Festival smashed last year’s box office totals by more than $30,000, delivering $476,000 to participating artists and companies. Audiences were generous with regards to the Fringe, too; the festival’s volunteers and front of house managers collected over $40,000 in donations for the not-for-profit festival.

The festival dealt decisively with issues created by changing pass and ticket policies last year, adding an option to use passes to purchase tickets in advance. They also wisely moved the KidsFringe, which had outgrown the basement space at the Palmerston Library, to the much larger George Ignatieff Theatre, which was better able to handle the growing all-ages crowds and had ample space for extra programming like the Kid’s Club (see #9 below).

Besides the continuing success of the Fringe club behind Honest Ed’s (next year will likely be the last due to the store’s imminent closure at the end of 2016), we were also impressed with the festival’s new transportation option: rickshaw drivers who offered free rides to patrons from venue to venue. The bright neon-green rickshaws, with the festival logo on the back of their cab, were great advertising for the festival, even when they were travelling empty, though we saw that happen less and less as patrons caught on; some audacious Fringers even took a ride through a fast food drive-in. The festival should definitely consider bringing the rickshaws back next year.

Torontoist had seen more than one third of the festival’s shows by its end and, with our ears to the ground, we suspect we saw most of the “top” third; we disliked very few shows upon reflection. Here are 10 reasons we loved the best shows we saw—keep an eye peeled for opportunities to see them, and/or their performers, in the near future.

10: Vanessa Smythe’s Crowd Connection in In Case We Disappear
Vanessa Smythe is super charming in her solo show In Case We Disappear  Photo by Nancy Ribeiro

Vanessa Smythe is super charming in her solo show In Case We Disappear. Photo by Nancy Ribeiro.

Vanessa Smythe opened her solo show with a poem about the guy who made her fall in love with poetry (and with him, too). She fell hard, she explained afterwards, and it showed in In Case We Disappear, in which she performed her spoken-word poems with a very enchanting rhythm, sometimes turning them into half-songs. They were very funny, very sweet, and very romantic, if a little tenuously strung-together under the theme of “disappearing.” But the theme seemed to become less and less important the more we saw Smythe onstage; she’s so naturally charming, which was especially apparent in the moments between the poems. With a medium that can often feel pretentious, Smythe’s banter was a good mix of goofy, self-deprecating, and straight-up funny. We hope the audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe, where the show is headed next month with two other Fringe shows Morro and Jasp Do Puberty and Rebecca Perry’s Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl, appreciate her sense of humour as much as we did.

(Carly Maga)

9: The New & Improved KidsFringe

Image provided by Cow Over Moon.

If your kids ask you to take them back to the theatre the day after a show, the cast and crew did good by the young ones. FringeKids 2015 was a hit with the children we took: a three-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. While both may have been too young for Hamlet…A Puppet Epic!, slated for children ages six–12, the show was amusing to us and the other adults-sans-kids in the audience, but the younger ones started to get fidgety around the 20-minute mark. The challenge with making children’s entertainment is that it needs to amuse the kids first, with a couple of inside jokes for the adults—not the other way around. The plethora of pop culture references didn’t really impress the younger crowd, although tweens in the audience cracked a grin or two. But we were still very impressed by Hamlet‘s ensemble.

Hansel & Gretel fared better with its young audience, aimed at the four-to-eight-year-old set, even though the same issue with the youngest audience members cropped up. The interactive parts had the kids engaged, shouting out answers, but references to social media and technology were too complicated for the younger children. Nevertheless, the show was fun, if a little didactic. Faisal Butt stood out especially, playing the quirky dad—the actor is a new father himself. Also, the hour in between shows went by quickly at the brilliant Kids’ Club right next to the theatre, with activities like a bubble station (always a hit!) and a dress-up stall.

(Aparita Bhandari)

8: Most Valuable Performers
The cast of People Suck  Photo by Rob Whiteman

The cast of People Suck. Photo by Rob Whiteman.

Every year, a couple of Fringe performers somehow manage to perform in two shows, which is a feat of scheduling for their companies and the Fringe. Hilary McCormack starred in her own play, Hanger, as well as Twelfe Night, both at the St. Vladamir Theatre; she even had back-to-back shows on Thursday, July 9. We also noted Jeff Dingle in two Shakespeare shows: at the KidsFringe as an amusingly vainglorious Claudius in Hamlet…A Puppet Epic!, and in the Shakespeare Bash’d ensemble of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Victory Cafe.

But the clear MVP this year was Second City alumni Allison Price, who was a member of two of the best ensembles of the festival. She sang about people’s worst behaviour in People Suck, and spoke and danced the fascinatingly complex tale of people’s worst impulses in Pool(No Water). Both shows were selected for the Best of Fringe showcase at the Toronto Centre For the Arts, with three performances for each show over the next two weeks, so you still have a chance to see her and her castmates’ thrilling work.

(Steve Fisher)

7: Stand-up Storytellers

Rhiannon Archer. Photo by Torontoist/Corbin Smith.

Some of the city’s best stand-ups made their theatrical debuts at this Fringe, with varying results. Zabrina Chevannes’s A Nurse’s Worst Nightmare had the craziest material to work with (her husband joined a cult and began accusing her of witchcraft), but the staging and flow didn’t properly exploit her story and natural charisma; we hope to see it revamped and re-staged in the future. Rhiannon Archer’s Life Records, on the other hand, was a Fringe knockout, using her easy charm and storytelling style honed over the past year, with subtle and sure direction by Lara Johnston. (Johnston herself headlined an exceptional cast reading of the 24-hour play contest winner, Kat Sandler’s Late Night, on the closing night of the festival—it was the best contest winner reading we’ve seen in a decade.)

The flip side of these stand-ups-cum-storytellers was The Untitled Sam Mullins Project, where the now-accomplished storyteller, who’s honed his craft on successive Fringe tours, used the framing device of four “truths” he wrote down at an “introduction to stand-up” class to tell a quartet of greatest hits from his repertoire. Mullins is already en route to the Winnipeg Fringe this week to debut a new, non-storyteller show, Grandma’s Dead; here’s hoping Toronto audiences get a chance to see that soon, too.

(Steve Fisher)

6: The Epic Scale of Summerland

There were plenty of entertaining musicals this year at the Fringe: the aforementioned comedic song cycle People Suck, the conventional but surprisingly entertaining Deadmouse: The Musical, the Spinal Tap–esque Stalkyard Hurts. But right from the start of the festival, word spread like wildfire about the experience of seeing Summerland. Starting on the front lawn of Harbord Collegiate, with students/actors performing immersive short scenes directed by Aaron Willis, the audience (and students) then filtered inside to the auditorium, where we where eventually transported to a magic realm (the stage show directed by Ann Merriam). More than 100 performers were listed in the program, not to mention a sizable supporting creative team, all unheard of for a Fringe show. Some issues with the book aside, it was another collaborative hit for the musical duo of Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston, with Suzy Wilde.

(Steve Fisher)

5: Addressing Mental Illness in Me With You
Oliver Georgiou and Myrthin Stagg played siblings grappling with mental illness in Me with You  Photo by Janneke Tenbroek

Oliver Georgiou and Myrthin Stagg played siblings grappling with mental illness in Me with You. Photo by Janneke Tenbroek.

The offerings at this year’s Fringe were diverse as always in subject matter and tone, but there did seem to be a discernible theme to many of the new shows we saw: coping with mental illness. Not all of them tackled the subject sensitively; dance show Touch of Psycho, for instance, was athletically impressive, but featured confused and problematic scenes involving women on leashes and a man choking a woman to death.

The best show we saw about mental illness was Loose Leaf Theatre’s Me With You. Written and performed by Oliver Georgiou and Myrthin Stagg, the two interviewed volunteers with mental illnesses (and their siblings) to write their show, using a number of cardboard boxes onstage to create the apartment (and baggage) the brother and sister they play must deal with in close quarters over a week. The show was aided by live music by Elliot Loran, and the company donated all profits to CAMH. We were willing to forgive some stilted dialogue and a repetitive plot in light of the company’s inventive physical staging and careful treatment of the show’s subject matter.

(Steve Fisher)

4: Clever (Award-Winning) Comedy
The creative team of The Philanderess won Second City Toronto's new Outstanding New Comedy  award  Photo by Vikki Velenosi

The creative team of The Philanderess won Second City Toronto’s new Outstanding New Comedy award. Photo by Vikki Velenosi.

It was another bumper crop for comedy at the Toronto Fringe, from many companies and performers known to Fringe audiences, but two shows in particular made big debut splashes. Sketch troupe Falcon Powder, known for their award-winning sketch sets in Toronto comedy circles, put together their first full length stage show God’s Beard (The Only sketch Show That Has Ever Happened), and it was a ludicrously funny premiere. And Sophia Fabiilli’s The Philanderess, a farcical adaptation of a Shaw classic (and her first play), enchanted audiences and won the inaugural Second City Outstanding New Comedy Award, which means the show is guaranteed a remount later this fall.

(Steve Fisher)

3: The Marketing Savvy of Caws and Effect and Everybody Loves M̶a̶r̶i̶n̶e̶l̶a̶n̶d̶ Sealand

It’s a difficult thing standing out at the Toronto Fringe—especially if you’re not a local company, with friends and family who’ll show up to your first few shows. Smart producers start hustling well before the festival begins, contacting media outlets with press releases, and ensuring they have good marketing material—postcard flyers, an eye-catching poster, and an assortment of quality pictures of your cast and/or show (maybe even a video trailer). Once the festival begins, the promotion shouldn’t stop until the festival is done, with online social media promotion, and IRL socializing with (and flyering of) Fringe patrons at festival venues and the Fringe club.

Chloé Ziner and Jessica Gabriel of Mind of A Snail, a shadow-puppet company from Vancouver, did all this and more, devising a portable shadow-puppet box and giving Fringe patrons in lineups a sample of their creative work. It was the duo’s first time at the Toronto Fringe (they’d been in Toronto before with the SummerWorks festival), so they knew they’d have to hit the ground running to get people interested in their delightfully eccentric and mostly wordless show Caws and Effect. They also were very good with their cold pitch, even without their mobile installation, striking up conversations with patrons and sometimes not producing their flyers until the patron asked for one. We heard grumblings at the festival from out of town performers at how difficult it is to get noticed in Toronto, but Mind of A Snail, who we saw at virtually every venue over the course of the Fringe, proved that you can start here without a fanbase and quickly pack your houses, provided you have a great show.

And what if you don’t have a great show? It’s less of a problem than one might think. The musical Everyone Loves Sealand, which we previewed prominently after they had to change their name the day before the festival opened due to a cease and desist threat from Marineland, was savaged by critics early in the festival, racking up multiple one star reviews. So the company quickly adjusted their strategy and released a new promotional picture of an unimpressed audience and a tag line boasting, “A Five Star Show!… In Total…”. Their sense of humour about the critical reception helped them continue to sell tickets to curious Fringe goers who wanted to see just what a one-star musical was like.

(Steve Fisher)

2: Gut Punch Reveals in Here Lies Chris, Starry Notions, and A Man Walks Into a Bar

Ryan G. Hinds. Photo by Greg Wong.

Many of the best shows at this year’s Fringe had a late-act reveal that, rather than completely contort the shows’ M. Night Shyamalyan style, helped underscore their throughlines and themes. (We’ll step lightly here, so as not to spoil any potential remounts.) In Peter (Carlone) and Chris (Wilson)’s Here Lies Chris, the veteran Fringe duo’s best show yet, the tensions between the creative pair, now living in different cities, spilled out into the show and made for a surprisingly moving climax to a typically silly series. In Ryan G. Hind’s Starry Notions, the accomplished cabaret performer, vamping it up while backed by a trio of dapper musicians, told a touching and ultimately tragic story late in the show about a chance encounter that reinforced his determination to keep performing. And in Rachel Blair’s A Man Walks Into A Bar, a secret one of the two amiable joke-tellers was keeping gave the show an emotional heft that brought the show’s inherent feminism surging up from beneath its charming veneer.

Blair’s play is in the Best of Fringe showcase; Hinds is already in rehearsals for his August SummerWorks show, MacArthur Park Suite: a Disco Ballet; and Wilson’s sketch troupe Get Some is on the bill for the JFL42 comedy festival in September, so there’s plenty of upcoming opportunities to discover them, if not their show’s secret.

(Steve Fisher)

1: A Sense of Play in High Tea, Folk Lordz, and Swordplay: A Play of Swords

Aaron Malkin and Alastair Knowles as James and Jamesy. Photo by Kathy Knowles.

It seems deceptively simple: to make a great Fringe show, you want your audience to have a lot of fun watching you—and maybe, be a part of it themselves. But it’s a fine line to walk. Many companies lose their audience, overindulging on stage, or can turn them off with sub-par crowd work.

The best shows we saw at the festival made the fun contagious, sometimes getting audience members directly involved. Sex T-Rex’s Swordplay: A Play of Swords was the most exhilarating show yet from the hyper-kinetic company, whose work is inspired by arcade games and adventure films; we thrilled to see chase scenes and fights on chandeliers—and dragon back. Folk Lordz‘ clever improv got the audience involved indirectly, weaving multiple audience suggestions into their series of long-form storytelling scenes. And James and Jamsey (and to a lesser extent, Peter n’ Chris) did away with the fourth wall entirely for long stretches of their shows, getting the audience directly involved in their flights of imagination.

(Steve Fisher)