We've rounded up our top picks of this year's fest, so far.
A Man Walks Into a Bar
Mansplaining doesn’t get much uglier than in playwright-actress Rachel Blair’s unsettling new comedy, in which a woman (Blair) sets out to tell a joke with the aid of a male performer (a deceptively boyish Blue Bigwood-Mallin). At first, the guy just offers helpful suggestions, but soon he’s collaborating on, and then hijacking, her narrative. Blair (whose Wake won the Fringe new-play contest in 2008) artfully tantalizes us with what could be a cute romantic scenario, only to starkly expose the misunderstanding—to say nothing of the vicious misogyny—that still blights male-female relationships in the 21st century.
Gavin Crawford: “Friend” “Like” #Me
Gavin Crawford, star of This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Sky Gilbert plays, is an admitted online addict: YouTube, Facebook, Grindr, gay porn—you name it, he’s hooked on it. What happens when he tries to go cold turkey, unplugging from the virtual world and engaging with the real one, is the substance of this engaging monologue, co-written by partner Kyle Tingley and packed with funny voices and anecdotes. The appealing Crawford can not only charm the birds out of the trees, he could probably get them to follow him on Twitter, too; that said, his show needs to find a stronger ending, while he needs to ditch his annoying body mic, which over-amplifies his voice in the Annex Theatre’s small space.
Winner of this year’s Fringe new-play competition, Radha S. Menon’s sprawling comedy/drama deftly tracks the 20th-century South Asian diaspora through a series of episodes set at different train stations in India, the U.K., and Toronto, and linked by an elderly woman’s gold heirlooms. Touching on everything from racism and shadism to arranged marriages and workers’ rights, replete with a magic-realist framing story, Menon’s play is complex and captivating, if at times a bit confusing. The production by Menon’s Hamilton-based Red Betty Theatre sports delightful performances from a cast of seven—some in multiple roles—under the lively direction of Wes Berger.
The Inventor of All Things
Forget Tarantino’s fictional Inglourious Basterds, Jem Rolls says a real-life Jew gave the Nazis a beating. He’s near-forgotten Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd, the rogue genius whom Rolls credits with first realizing the destructive power of atomic fission and then making sure Hitler was kept in the dark about the U.S. development of the A-bomb. The latest quicksilver monologue by U.K. performance poet Rolls—who also claims to hold the world record for fringe-festival appearances—is a juicy slice of revisionist history that’s as passionate, funny, and eccentric as Szilárd himself.
Morro and Jasp do Puberty
Up your Nose and In your Toes (U.N.I.T.) Productions
Tarragon Theatre Mainspace (30 Bridgman Avenue)
They grow up so fast, don’t they? Toronto’s favourite clown sisters Morro and Jasp return to the Fringe for the ninth time, before taking this show to the famous Edinburgh Fringe next month, and it’s safe to say this is a version of the duo we hardly get to see: two girls with hormones blazing and tempers flaring. Aunt Flo has visited Morro for the first time, while she’s agonizingly late for Jasp. Morro is asked to the dance, and Jasp fantasizes about Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio. Morro treats her PMS with Cheetos and Jasp retreats to her diary. They’re as sweet and loveable as ever, but this time they’re not afraid to get dirty in all senses of the word, and tap into the darker, angrier, more sensual sides of clown performance. The result is delightful and empowering, with an amazing nostalgia-inducing soundtrack (Ace of Base’s “The Sign,” anyone?).
Comedian Rhiannon Archer makes a smooth transition into theatre with a show that tracks her major life moments through popular songs. Kicking off with a clever opening story that sets up the whole concept, meanwhile stunning everyone with details of a near-fatal car crash, Archer manages to make us laugh with her as she recalls some of her more sombre memories—so you can imagine how well she can pull off the truly funny ones. Finally, once you think she can’t get any more likable, she caps it off with one more surprising life event that gives the whole show a more joyful sheen. Archer is honest, and vulnerable, and sometimes a little wobbly on stage, which is rare and refreshing in the Fringe, which is usually full of slick, seasoned solo performers.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
By now, Fringe-goers know they can always find a solid Shakespeare show in the upstairs of the Victory Café, courtesy of Shakespeare BASH’d. This year is no different, though it does feature one of weaker plays from the Bard’s cannon. The Merry Wives of Windsor is full of the typical tropes of Shakespearean comedy—disguises, practical jokes, secret marriages, sexual innuendo, plus some soiled laundry and a neat and tidy ending—without a ton of interesting character building. Still, the young company pulls of a charming show, one that even flies when it comes to two of the cast members: seasoned actors Sean Sullivan as the lecherous Sir John Falstaff and Lynne Griffin as the opportunistic barmaid Mistress Quickly. The real-life married couple makes the comedy and the language sting in a script that can feel rather dull.
Caws and Effect
Combining live performance and puppetry performed in costumed character, Caws and Effect is shadow theatre as multi-layered as the vibrant overhead projections the play uses. As a journey through a world half-dreamed into being, Caws and Effect creates an outright ethereal, even magical feeling. Mind of a Snail’s first Fringe show enchants its audience, joining plays on words, plays on images, comedy and sorrow to create a fantastical, unique experience.
God’s Beard (The Only Sketch Show That Has Ever Happened)
The performers of God’s Beard get as much comedy out of a few minutes of a silent, extended dance sequence as other shows might get out of an hour’s worth of bits. The sketch show is relentlessly hysterical in the Anchorman sort of absurd and goofy style. The biggest problem in God’s Beard came from its moment of highest audience praise: it was hard to hear some of the jokes over the regular riotous laughing and clapping coming from spectators. Other sketch shows could only wish for problems like that (fortunately, this is the only sketch show that has ever happened).
A presentation to an ESL class serves as the vehicle for a powerful one-woman show that explores the immigrant experience in Canada and the horrors of the Bosnian War. Candice Fiorentino’s strength as a performer is as much in her gaze as her words, as her eyes shine with hope, blaze with rage, grow downcast in sorrow, and always keep the audience transfixed on her. The play succeeds brilliantly in creating a personal, moving experience out of a tragedy that could have otherwise felt too difficult to approach.
The Dinner Table
A great dinner party is made up of great food and great stories. You’ll find both at The Dinner Table, an immersive theatre experience where you literally get some food for thought. Ali Richardson plays hostess. Ben Hayward cooks up the meals. And, after dinner, the guest storyteller offers up his/her take on home—the running theme. It’s a different story each night, as you get up close and personal with people who make theatre in this city. Upcoming guests include Judith Thompson and Sky Gilbert. Shows are sold out, but two tickets are available at the door.
In Case We Disappear
For her opening show, Vanessa Smythe eased the audience in with a “soft open”, bantering about the weather and the festival before beginning one of her evocative spoken word poems. Smythe is incredibly present while performing; her poems are bursting with sense memories (both real and imagined), and it’s a fluid transition between her self-deprecating set-up banter and her recitations, on topics as diverse as a war memorial, bar interactions, and relationships as they begin and end. The low lit stage has only her, a mic stand, and a small table with a shaded lamp and a few small props, which we won’t spoil here, except to say there’s an element of stage-created music—all of which help Smythe deliver the most intimate experience (save perhaps for one-on-one shows) we can recall seeing at the festival.
The Orchid and The Crow
Australian Daniel Tobias is a veteran Fringer, who’s been here in Toronto many times as one half of the duo Die Roten Punkte. But for this show, Tobias is makeup-free and telling his own solo stories, starting with a poppy opening rock number about how his ethnic Jewish parents met, and smoothly segueing from humourous anecdotes into his cancer diagnosis. Even when delving into the serious aspects of his life-altering cancer battle, Tobias is always enchanting, using a hospital gown burlesque number (a pity he isn’t cameo-ing with the Becoming Burlesque show, also in the Al Green Theatre), an Italian aria, a torch song as a foreskin-greedy Old Testament God and more to keep the audience locked in. You’ll never look at an orchid in quite the same way, but so long as some agnostic and touch-and-go sacrilegious jokes don’t bother you, you’ll enjoy watching this self-described “shit disturber” make his own unique connections between Santa, identity, and an honest outlook at the vagaries of life.
Pool (No Water)
Comedies don’t come much darker or incisive than this group confessional by British playwright Mark Ravenhill, given a fascinatingly kinetic production by local company Cue6. As much dance as theatre, choreographer Patricia Allison and the cast’s precise physical inscriptions bring to mind the work of Theatre Smith Gilmour (cast member Daniel Roberts appeared in that company’s Take me Back to Jefferson), while Ravenhill’s engrossing script, which brought to mind the funny and profane language of local playwright Cliff Cardinal’s Stitch, lays bare the dark impulses that bind together a group of artists who’re resentful and envious of a former member of their collective’s recent fame and fortune. When a a tragicomic accident binds them together, they find themselves swinging back and forth between taking advantage of their former friend’s situation, and trying to find their way out of the guilt and shame to happier, more positive mental outlooks.
It’s rare indeed to see a musical at the Fringe Festival on par with the sort of production one might see on Mirvish’s stages, but given the resources of Wexford Performing Arts School, star musical composers Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston, along with Suzy Wilde, have come up with a show that features more than 70 dancers and singers onstage at a time. Reminiscent of both youth in exile stories like Peter Pan and more recent properties like Spring Awakening, a group of disparate high school students, brought together Breakfast Club–style, leave the mundane world for that of the magical Summerland, but their arrival precipitates upheaval in the static idyllic paradise. There’s some muddled narrative and a multitude of individual storylines jettisoned (arrive a half hour early to see the students act out prologue scenes on the lawn before proceeding inside) in favour of a theme of leaving childhood fantasy behind, but it’s no more cliched than most musicals, and there’s a number of rising stars in the enthusiastic and massive cast.
In High Tea, multi-award-winners James and Jamesy use physical humour and audience participation to transform the theatre’s performance space into whatever they choose. While the play appears, on the surface, to be about a couple that spills tea all over the world, it’s really an ode to the idea that anything is possible. The performers’ irresistible hijinks leave the audience wanting more complimentary tea, and more of James and Jamesy.