July 15th, WRAP UP.  Like always, some good, some great, and unfortunately – some unworthy, but overall – the GOOD & the GREAT! This year there were two that the team felt are contenders for our TOP TEN list. “JEM ROLLS” & “NUMBERS”…read us in December and see if they’re included.

“SPYCHASERS” @ Tarragon Mainspace
This comedic spoof deals with John Buchan’s (39 Steps) counterespionage agent 006½ [Hannay; Richard Hannay] trying to find a Nazi spy among England’s upper class. Produced by Act II Studio, the cast-members are all middle-aged and thoroughly seem to enjoy performing – read ‘hamming’. The pace is brisk both in plot & on-stage activity. Sound effects and a myriad of suitcases add to the giggles, as do the elaborate but dated costumes. Rough in spots, and certainly not polished, it’s still an enjoyable piece of entertainment. The support roles are as much fun to watch as are the leads. The production company suffers from a dearth of males so the ladies contribute a yeoman effort in cross-gendered portrayals. Director Alexandra Rambusch, who also helped write Spychasers, wisely lets her protagonists; good guys & bad guys alike, incorporate many of their own personalities into their portrayals. Not a Fringe ‘Best’, but certainly a Fringe ‘BetterDG

“SO WE THOUGHT WE COULD ACT” @ Tarragon Extra Space
They thought wrong. Hamminess prevails and there is no focus or direction in this way-overlong production from Beast & Mon Amie. It’s a retelling of the ‘Damn Yankees’ Faustian legend of soul-selling for immediate gain. In this iteration, Rena Hundert & Helen Pranekas are two 89⅞ year-olds whose deal with the devil required them to succeed in the theatre before they turn 90 or else! Judging by their acting, & Lucifer’s too, it’s obvious why they fail. Both ladies handle the original musical numbers with aplomb and obviously trained voices, but their thespian skills are completely non-evident. The requisite ‘Lola’ role is played by Jennifer Walker in an overdone French accent and hyperbolic jiggle than quickly annoys.
All the male roles, Mephisto; Producer; Elvis etc. are portrayed by Dan Derkson who is visibly unprepared, missing cues and dialogue. Redeeming feature: – keyboardist Nicolas Hebert who arranged & performs the musical numbers. Overall, this is an amateurish offering and like Derkson actually says “about 42 minutes too long”. TG

“MUSICAL PAWNS” @ Tarragon, Main Space
‘Chassanis’ is the Yiddish term for cantorial liturgical music. This offering presented in dramatic reading format tells the story of the hiding & re-discovery of the compositional works of David Nowakowsky who was born in 1845 in a Ukrainian town fairly close to that of my own forbearers. Through the good/bad times of Catherine; the progroms, and the Holocaust,. His works were secreted. His children & grandchildren’s search to recover the compositions is retold by a talented cast assuming many roles and accents. Cantor Ron Graner is the creative force behind this and his single liturgical performance is worth the entry cost. This is obviously a ‘work in progress’ that needs some heavy tweaking & I’d recommend an objective re-director, but the talents of the actors is undeniable. Mark Rainey also serves as music director; George McLeary demonstrates textbook projection & timing; Danielle Ayow (previously seen & critiqued) gives full measure under abbreviated rehearsal time; and Ryan Stickney manages to bring sincerity to his difficult & uncomfortable portrayals. This is a worthwhile and challenging effort that allows this critic to honestly state “you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy,” DG

“NUMBERS” @ Factory Theatre
Kokus Productions & director Lukas Press have a definite contender for Best of Fringe in this large dance-oriented emotional story of the Holocaust. Seen through the eyes of a utterly loveable Ella Ballentine who is the epitome of W.C. Fields’ caveat about working with kids or animals. Everyone else pales. But not by very much, the dancers who also vocalize the deteriorating situation from anti-Jewish laws, to hunger; to Ghetto to tattooed NUMBERS & the ‘final solution’ are collectively marvellously talented. The choreographic team, has managed to capture the essence of diminishing youthful optimism, as well as the visual impact of degradation, fear & ultimate horror that embodied Germany’s philosophy under its Fuehrer. Costumes, makeup; lighting, sound and scene-setting all contribute to the overall impressions the creative team hoped to project and they have succeeded. Creator & coach Robyn Kay-Pilarski deserves much credit. This is an imaginative work that is professionally implemented and this is certainly a must-see effort. Bonus, artist Rhonda Nolan, interprets the on-stage progress and her impression thereof on canvas during the entire performance. The result is raffled off at the conclusion. TG

“THE TEMPEST”  @ Palmerston Library
We’re big fans of the Broadway musical – “AVENUE Q”, so a puppet version of a Shakespeare drama looked like an opportunity. It was…and IS. Produced by Shakey Shake & Friends, the concept is geared towards a younger audience but is also a vehicle for the adult sector. Some plot liberties are taken and the editorializing is very today.Utilizing large hand puppets with their manipulators totally visible, the idea is for the audience to watch said puppets as the tale unfolds. As with Avenue ‘Q’, the puppeteers are not automatons. Each one also acts out the role of their individual puppets with movement, facial expressions and body language. They are so good that we found ourselves focused on them rather than their manifestations. Merritt Crews as Caliban utilizes her highly mobile & expressive face to make her bad-guy character a fascinating scene-stealer. Director Sarah Bruckschwaiger & Laura Moniz who stage-manages this offering both deserve credit for this delightful, entertaining ‘bit o’ the bard!’  DG

 “LIFE IN THE RAW”  @ George Ignatieff
 Montreal in the dirty-30’s is familiar to me… I WAS THERE! It was the depression and many of the details that Barbara Larose & Rick Jones have included in this musical memoir reverberated. The frequent hunger pangs; scavenging coal; and landlord avoidance was endemic to both the poor Jewish & deprived French Catholics of our St. Urbain ‘hood. This play showed me that the English/Gentile-community was NOT unaffected by the period. Kaitlin Lane, Rielle Braid & Brianne Tucker are three siblings with differing dreams, ambitions and philosophies that are presented through dramatic solo arias composed by Jones. The focal personality is Denise Norman as the mater familias and she is a powerhouse, in both portrayal and characterization. She subtly exudes the strength that holds her group together as a unit despite the challenges and deprivation of that era. Her Kathleen epitomizes both my Grandmothers! Director Larose wisely includes a post-tragedy denouement of later success and happiness that reflects female indomitability; thus ending this effort on an optimistic note.  LIFE IN THE RAW is a very professional and obviously exceedingly dedicated effort by the creative team as well as the talented cast and crew. DG

My favourite Fringe play thus far. Sam Mullins turns in an empathy generating performance as himself, as he’s forced to deal with the rigors of relationship, moving to Vancouver, apartment hunting, acting school, and the requisite waiting on tables. This autobiographic account rings true, and drips with genuine, heart-felt emotion. Sam isn’t a great actor, as he’s quick to inform us. As a story-teller however, he is top drawer, and I much prefer him to T.J. Dawe. In an anxiety driven monologue, Sam draws us into the world of the fledgling actor who discovers he’s not up to scratch. The paradox is; he convinces us of this sad fact while he turns in a stellar performance as a raconteur playing an actor. For those who study personality, the play is a gem. Sam is the classic Enneagram type 6. His anxiety is exceeded only by his self-doubt and relentless but ultimately pointless self-analysis. As a character, he brings a deep humanity to the stage, and ultimately reminds us of what’s important. Run to see this play. If you don’t connect with the character of Sam playing himself, you are beyond redemption. – H. P.

Deon Denton wrote & directs this modern & abbreviated take on “Charley’s Aunt” (musical version – Where’s Charley?). In this iteration, two financially struggling roommates – Patricia McPherson & Ruth Goodwin concoct the idea of Charlie pretending to be preggers, with her roomie posing as her (male) husband to fool Gramma who is portrayed by the writer/director herself.  All three are dynamic actors with professional backgrounds and there is obvious chemistry with each other. Their interactions ring sincere and the by-plays are credible. However, the squeaking bed that is the major prop muffles some of the dialogue, and McPherson’s calmer moments of discourse with Goodwin suffers from weak projection. Many of her more poignant observations about Goodwin’s lifestyle & lack of ambition were, unfortunately, audibly missed.   ***  We’ve mentioned it before. When a director is also an on-stage participant, their overall observations can be too closely focussed. A dramaturge witnessing a dress rehearsal will oftimes contribute that final polish to any stage effort.  TG

“A SLIGHT ACHE” @ Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace
An usual offering from the fertile mind of Harold Pinter. Edward is a dried-up and blithering husband who is apparently free of any sort of personality. He and his frustrated wife, Flora, live a fairly vacuous and jejune life centred on their home and lush garden. When Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year arrives, everything is plunged into turmoil with the arrival of an un-named, silent, and somewhat ominous match seller, who lurks at the end of their property. Edward’s determination to effect a confrontation with the silent, elderly watcher, leads to the culmination of the play. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone, but it was a bit odd, to say the least. I found it to be a bit difficult to follow, with Edward’s over-the-top, and rather bombastic speech and Flora’s occasionally too quiet responses. If you enjoy the work of Pinter, you’ll probably like this play, but I’m ambivalent about it. It neither grabbed me, nor put me off. Personal irritation: – George Brown College’s ludicrous determination to deny us access to two perfectly good parking lots (replete with fascistic warning signs) that Fringe-goers could have used. M.M.

 “ROCKGARDEN PARTY”  @ Palmerston Library
Another ‘Charlie’; but something entirely different. Charlie Kert is a successful children’s entertainer/teacher whose ability to bond with the pre-teen generation is visibly obvious in ‘Rockgarden Party’; his three-member musical message about not hurting the environment. Using a thin plot about a skateboarder (another talent of the creator’s) who is misdirected from a Rock concert to said rock garden learns to appreciate nature.  Kert is a dynamo of energy who never patronizes his young audience. Rather, he focuses on their innate curiosity and lack of inhibition to draw them into a participatory involvement. This aptitude soon takes any adult’s attention away from the performing trio to the hands-on engrossment and contribution by the kids drawn on to the stage. Supporting Kert is Justin Ross who possesses a highly mobile face with a constantly smiling demeanor and whose tree-role, while absurd to an adult, seemed totally plausible to his young fans. Megan Nadain is a fabulous dancer who emulates the light-footed butterfly that is her character; to the nth degree.  Attending a Fringe Festival can be fatiguing; especially with young’uns in tow. Take them to a ROCKGARDEN PARTY and miraculously, watch their rejuvenation and awe.  TG

There are performances that are so innovative, so clever, and delivered with such meticulous timing, that one can overlook the sophomoric and crude content. Sadly, this was not one of those performances. Imagine an act designed around various forms of scatological and ejaculatory humour, delivered by a mumbling, giggling, bearded man, and you’ll get the idea. I am somewhat of a progressive; certainly no prude, but I felt like I needed a shower after the onslaught I endured with Dylan Gott. I was determined to only write positive reviews this year, and simply ignore the Fringe plays I didn’t like, but in this case I’m making a notable exception. I honestly didn’t chuckle even once in fifty minutes, which would certainly not be considered de rigueur for a comedy act. This is an unfortunate example of the Fringe lottery system failing us. Sophisticated readers of Ontario Arts Review —spend your 50 minutes doing anything else! MM

 “ANTIGONE”   @ Randolph Theatre
2450 years ago, Sophocles, a Greek general & philosopher wrote a play that dealt with 4 major points of disagreement; traditions, throne pretense, punishment & a rush to judgment. Drawing analogies between the original & the events at Toronto’s G-20 fiasco, ‘Soup Can’ brings a rather accurate rendering of the tale. Dramatic; well-acted, exquisitely detailed directing by Scott Dermody, and a precise & dedicated production team, – this is a more suitable effort for Stratford than a Fringe entry. It’s too good, too meticulous and too tragic a subject to be in competition with clowns, magicians and sitcom entries. The cast, especially Thomas Gough’s Harperesque  Creon; Michael McLeister’s Teiresias & Cydney Penner in the title role; are amazing in their role interpretations.  The play is certainly worth seeing, but only if one is familiar with the plot, its message and thespian demands.  DG

 “A FUNERAL FOR CLOWNS”  @ Annex Theatre
An unusual play; perfect for a rather strange-looking  Annex Theatre; decorated to resemble a macabre funeral home. The production began somberly with the ultra-serious funeral director, bedecked with a red clown nose, ushering attendees to their seats. From this point, the fourth wall was broken, and we assumed the role of friends of a deceased clown; an interesting metaphor.  The Fool is both a tarot card, and a Jungian archetype that surfaces and resurfaces through much mythology, including Loki, Rigoletto and The Joker. But the clown persona shelters a real person, and we therefore celebrate a real life, and death. The play goes on to address issues of aging, familial turmoil, and the concerns of the afterlife. But despite the unconscious resonance of the jester symbolism, and well-acted retrospectives, I never really connected with the characters. The actors were skilled, especially the gruff father figure, and the production was well-paced. But frankly, clowns freak me out a bit, ever since a traumatizing experience with the Laughing Lady, on the Magic Carpet, at the CNE – age five. Perhaps that’s why the play didn’t really reach me.  MM

 “ONE IN A MILLION” @ Randolph Theatre
Writer Ron Fromstein must have a vivid imagination. This energetic musical deals with two major protagonists…the million – regiments of determined SEAL-type soldiers swimming towards the enemy…a vertebrate ovum primed & ready to reproduce, and her two handmaiden servant eggs. Yup, the army is spermatozoa! With original music by Samuel Sholdice and creatively directed by Steven Morel who also choreographed the swimming & fighting interaction. This writer is unable to name the most notable portrayals so a character description will have to suffice. The shorter of the handmaiden eggs is a dynamo of energy; the high-voiced & nervous sperm is a perfect Ron James-ist, and David Lopez can be on my sports-team anytime. Morel’s little shticks like the flagman (flag-girl? Flag ova?) bit controlling traffic in the fallopian is a continual giggle! Will they make it?? Who’ll be first through the condom rip??? How many will survive with one head & tail intact?  Will it be quads or quints…an enquiring public wants to know. See the show & find out! TG

 “PETER N’ CHRIS & THE MYSTERY… etc”. @ George Ignatieff Theatre
Imagine two friends, trapped in a motel where they know the manager is attempting to murder them. As they do their best to survive, they experience most of the requisite horror and slasher film clichés. This is a wonderfully entertaining play, delivered by real-life Peter and Chris from Vancouver BC. The performers bring multiple talents to the stage, including mime and physical comedy, effortlessly shifting character before our eyes. There is a hilarious moment when Chris actually chases himself, playing both murderer and victim in a seamless transition. The performers provided a laugh out loud production, as evidenced by the appreciative guffaws from the sold-out audience. Well-written, wonderfully acted and cleverly staged, this play should not be missed. In one brilliantly bizarre comedic moment in which both characters are forced to share a tiny and filthy bed, Peter taps Chris on the shoulder and informs him he’s “not wearing a condom”. The peculiarly creative dialogue that follows had me choking with laughter. See it!  MM

 “The WAKOWSKI BROS.” @ St. Vladimir’s Theatre
A 90-minute play at the always freezing cold St. Vlad’s can be challenging for an audience member in shorts. Nevertheless, I hung in there for the duration, and am mostly glad that I did. The story chronicles the onstage and offstage lives of vaudevillians- the Wakowski brothers, and their rise from small-time Maritime performers to Canada-wide sensations. The production runs through the usual vaudeville gags, songs, dances and pratfalls, without missing a beat, and I was astounded at how hard the actors worked. The show started at a good pace, but really picked up when the young female actor appeared onstage. It’s a shame that the Fringe program doesn’t list her name, or the name of the young actor who played the younger Wakowski, mentioning only Derek Scott as Jim. In any case, she certainly has a bright future onstage, possessing real presence and a lovely voice. All three actors delivered their lines with impeccable timing, despite the reams of dialogue they had to learn. If the show has any weakness, I think it was about 15 minutes too long, and faded out a bit toward the end but well worth seeing!  MM.

“TRANSIT DIARIES”   @ Theatre Passe Muraille
The famous (or infamous) ‘Red Rocket! Covering the TOR-FRINGE mandated that we utilize public transportation, and overall…actually found it to be mostly fun. Two trips on the newest subway car system was truly a joy and the experiences gave us some insight to the vagaries of its habitués. Earbuds are epidemic; texting is ubiquitous; cellphone users are oblivious to the fact that we are listening to their (usually boring) half of a personal conversation. TRANSIT DIARIES uses the vehicle (pun intended) of vignettes to sing & talk about life; relationships and eavesdropping on the stereotypes that ride with us. The M.C.’ing ‘Transit God’ (Goddess) is an amazing Alexandra Barberena who is a standout.  Candy Pryce’s ‘Mom’ perfectly evokes maternalism at its best, while bus driver ‘Bill’, is given a powerful portrayal by Robert Rainville.  Michelle Nash & David Simor are the soon-engaged ‘Girl’ & ‘Boy’ who are both totally plausible in their roles. Direction by Victoria Urquhart is meticulous but occasionally disjointed. Overall the impression is of being a fly-on-the-wall observer. Utilizing folding chairs to show diverse seating situations, there’s a rather tiring expenditure of movement, but otherwise is an effective focal change. 90-minutes are a little long; but certainly worth spending the time. TG

Jem Rolls:TEN STARTS AND AN END   @ George Ignatieff Theatre
I have seen British wordsmith JEM ROLLS in several of his productions and he nails it every time. If you are unaccustomed to spoken word performances- Jem is the best place to start; if it’s something you already know & enjoy, Jem is the best Fringe act with which to end. Nihilistic, bombastic, insightful and profound, Rolls is the most creative, energetic of the Fringe poets. When you combine brilliant writing with flawless delivery, all clearly annunciated and projected in a manner that seems peculiar to the English performers, you get Jem Rolls. Covering every topic imaginable in a jam-packed, never lagging hour of glorious rants, Rolls is both insightful poet and charismatic entertainer. His ability to hold an audience is first-rate, and many of his trenchant observations are laugh-out-loud funny. A modern day Beat poet, Rolls still manages to sound spontaneous while delivering his perfectly crafted pieces. I remember thinking that Allen Ginsberg would love Jem Rolls. My pick of the Fringe! – MM


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