We've seen a third of the Toronto Fringe Festival's nearly 150 shows. Here's what we loved so far.
This year’s Toronto Fringe Festival may have been somewhat overshadowed so far by Pride and Canada Day celebrations, but word of mouth has steadily grown, and some shows are already selling out. Torontoist‘s small but devoted reviewing team has seen about one-third of the festival’s nearly 150 shows.
Here are our favourites so far.
Elektra has been with us for a good, long time—that is, a few thousand years. So doubtless someone has said before that some particular staging of the tragedy was the most brilliant they have ever seen, and they will fight anyone who disagrees. That noted, Stichomythia Theatre Company’s Elektra is the most brilliant staging of the tragedy I have ever seen, and I will fight anyone who disagrees. It’s the least that can be done for a performance that infects the audience with the violent, desperate, emotional energy of a cursed and brutal family story. The actors use the material as blisteringly demanding pleas for vindication and sympathy over each other while blood cries for blood. The use of theatre of the round staging has the audience sit in a circle as witness and jury while events play out. The small space makes for an intense and intimate experience with a vivid impact.
Clown/comedy duos Morro and Jasp and Peter and Chris are superstars of the Canadian Fringe circuit, as is Theatre Brouhaha locally. So pooling the talents of all three for a Fringe show could have been a recipe for coasting. Instead, playwright Kat Sandler, who won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for her play Mustard two days before the Toronto Fringe opened, may have written her best show yet, with stellar performances from the ensemble. A support group for people who claim to have had alien abduction experiences is thrown into turmoil when a new attendee arrives. We’re loath to give you any more information than that, for fear of spoiling the twists; suffice to say that Sandler subtly explores much more current and urgent social issues than the existence of extraterrestrial life while maintaining a near constant flow of laugh-out-loud dialogue.
There are any number of shows at Fringe about the perfectly charming problems of perfectly charming 20-somethings. Cam Baby is a needed tonic for those of us neither perfect nor all that reliably charming. The show alternates between genuine hilarity and the sort of awkward interpersonal ugliness that feels true enough to life for a cringing wince. The story of a landlord secretly filming and exploiting their female tenants is used to explore issues of privacy, self image, and shame in the often-degrading murkiness of the internet age. The performances are strong enough to allow the audience to explore characters moving between being awful and understandable (and understandably awful) in varying measures. Cam Baby is also a helpful reminder that if Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother was real, he’d be a pretty solid mix of horrifying and pathetic in the midst of all the jokes.
Two years in a row, Sex T-Rex has earned full marks from Torontoist for its visually inventive comedic plays at the Fringe; Wasteland more than maintains that streak. This year, the five collaborators offer a madcap spin on apocalypse films. Mad Max: Fury Road is the obvious touchstone, but there are nods to films such as A Boy and His Dog and The Omega Man as well. Fists, bullets, blood, and guts fly via physical work aided solely by a few tubes (everything is tubes!) and some judicious shadow puppet work, and just about every trope of the genre is celebrated and spoofed.
Mind of a Snail are back at Fringe after last year’s well-received Caws and Effect. The shadow puppeteering duo bring the audience along the efforts of a unicorn land developer to build a donut shop over a forest, and the parallel journey of a pair of viruses looking to multiply inside him. The work of Jessica Gabriel and Chloe Ziner is absolutely joyful. Their show is a memorable and dream-like experience that is comedic, poignant, and mystifying. You will believe that you can feel for a corporate unicorn learning some meaningful life lessons. Light and shadow, layered projections, music, song, and physical performance are all elements of a whole that gives the sense of a delightful otherworld. Reviewing different Mind of a Snail productions can result in being at a bit of a loss to find new ways to say “unique magical wonderland,” but that’s only because the pair create one every single time.
True Blue offers improv as few have ever seen it before—a tense, dramatic, unsettling police procedural. The company, an exceptional collection of award-winning actor-improvisors, take no suggestions from the audience, but are clearly making the show up as they extemporize plot twists and clues, and rarely is the high wire act of improv so exposed. There will be occasional laughs and brief moments of levity as the tension ramps up, but the thrill of seeing the cast attempt to solve a tragic murder (and there’s no guarantee the case will be solved at every show) far outstrips most improv shows’ reliance on easy humour.
Peter vs Chris
Taking performances to a meta, self-referential, fourth-wall-breaking level seems pretty popular at Fringe this year, but comedy duo Peter Carlone and Chris Wilson really make it work for them. In fact, the pair makes most everything in the show work for them. Audience participation and Q and A? They make it work for them. Veering between scripted sketches and improvised riffing? They make it work for them. Ginning up an overall competition for which one of them is actually the funny one? They make it work for them. The occasional joke not exactly landing as well as they might hope? They even make that work for them, without missing a beat. Deeply hilarious and frenetically animated, Peter vs Chris is a worthy follow up to the duo’s previous shows at Fringe.
In the course of our Fringing, we saw Anika Johnson in two other shows—the Glee-ful talent showcase The Fence, and the more adult family cabaret Daughters of Feminists—but she stood out most in Life After. Written and composed by her sister Britta Johnson, Anika stars as Alice, whose father dies in an accident on the eve of her sixteenth birthday and who goes looking for a reason as part of her grieving process, viewing her friends and family’s often-absurd attempts to console her with acutely teenage disdain. Slowly, as she discovers how the people around her related to her father, she begins to reconcile her own feelings. Most of the show, which isn’t quite finished, is sung beautifully by a standout cast, including Alana Hibbert as the repressing widow. For anyone who’s lost a close relative, the show is guaranteed to induce pangs of remembrance and most likely a few tears.
Dance Animal: Toronto
A celebratory collection of group dance numbers and comedic animal character monologues, Dance Animal returns to the Toronto Fringe (after a six-year absence) with a whole new cast of comedians, who have been trained to move as well as they jape by Dance Tiger (Robin Henderson). The queer-positive message of embracing one’s own individuality and joining a “tribe” of like-minded individuals is emphasized repeatedly by the larger than life Animals, and, a PG striptease by a giant bunny notwithstanding, it’s a swell show for all ages and creeds.
Twelfth Night…A Puppet Epic!
The FringeKids puppet retelling of Twelfth Night has a lot to accomplish in 60 minutes: making a Shakespearean comedy funny to a modern audience of both children and adults, hitting all the notes of a moderately convoluted plot, and finding ways to deal with the fact that Shakespeare’s sensibilities are not always great for an audience of kids. The show is cute and clever in all the ways a Shakespeare-by-way-of-Muppets homage should be, but really comes into its own when tackling the questionable bits. The cast turn the truly excessive torment of Malvolio into a teachable moment for children about the Bard and about bullying in a way that feels natural and genuine. There is less a sense of a lecture than an honest response to events as they unfold, working with the flow of the performance instead of interrupting it. Finding that sort of development in the midst of some well aimed comedy is definitely epic.
There are a number of standout sketch shows in this year’s festival—the very funny Dame Judi Dench’s sophomore effort, Everything Else Is Sold Out, for example—but Tonight’s Cancelled is the best we’ve seen, a master class in self-skewering by Second City alum Jason DeRosse and Stacey McGunnigle, who are recognizable to Canadian audiences for their work in commercials. Standout sketches include an all-too-realistic seduction scene, a wife spying on her husband in a very poor disguise, and a woman who’s horrified to discover her Subway sandwich artist knows her better than anyone else. DeRosse and McGunnigle have a sublime shorthand and comfort with each other, and their wry humour (“We paid to do this show!” they repeat several times) is well showcased.
#MannequinGirl: The Musical
A clever and sweet comedy about a social media-obsessed girl who gets her 15 minutes of fame due to a humiliating accident, #MannequinGirl stands out from the crowd of bare-bones Fringe musicals by virtue of a steady stream of jokes by writer Eliza Blue Musselwhite and a fully committed performance by Alyssa Minichillo, who earns comparisons to Ellie Kemper. Slick and topical video integration helps make the show work, and a subtle undercurrent addressing the pitfalls of a life devoted to online connection (such as when Kelsie receives her first death threat) makes this another show we’d recommend for all ages.
Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre
There are a number of pop culture pastiche shows that work well at the Fringe this year, such as Women, which boasts a note-perfect aping of the HBO show Girls cast in the story of Little Women, and Kneel! Diamond Dogs‘ tribute to Bowie. But it’s Romeo and Juliet Chainsaw Massacre that has the most potential for a life past the Fringe, with clever costumes that manage the comedic gore of Evil Dead without the mess, and a strong ensemble, including Scott Garland’s Shatner-esque Paris and Sarite Harris’ plucky Nurse. It’s an undeniable pleasure to see characters butchered as soon as they’re no longer vital to the plot, and the show contains our favourite version of the balcony scene to date.
Blind to Happiness
Tim C. Murphy’s accomplished assemblage, featuring three employees at a restaurant who all grapple with various forms of mental illness, is the best solo show we’ve seen at the festival to date. Couk, a dim but seemingly happy-go-lucky dishwasher, is the nominal main character. But we also meet anxious line cook and poet Jamie, and depressed PhD candidate and server Mike, plus an assortment of characters the three address. Murphy doesn’t try for any easy answers in the show, though his characters glom onto a deceptive concept of happiness as a choice; he does, however, end on an optimistic note, suggesting that mental illness is best coped with collectively.