Review: John Who – Toronto Fringe Festival

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A solid cast of character actors helps to pull along a script that is a bit stilted and often times, confused.

Preamble Productions’ John Who is written by and starring Ken Pak as John, a writer who either has terrible, strange writer’s block, or is suffering from some sort of mental illness or neurological disorder. I believe this point is meant to be a driving force in the show, but most often it felt as though the story didn’t know where it wanted to go, and I felt tossed between a comedy, and a drama, and something verging on absurd, and something a little preachy and questioning existence and god, and…there are moments in the story that were impactful, mostly by just being fun, but they were scattered throughout and whenever I felt like things were getting into a rhythm it was stunted again. I suspect this was at least partly done on purpose, trying to bring us into the mind of someone who is having trouble finding and maintaining his thoughts, but it just didn’t come across right.

The design was interesting, but I don’t know what the point of it was. We start off with several ghost chairs (those fun clear ones that are often shaped like antiques, but made of acrylic or some other plastic), which would have looked better on a cleaner stage with better lighting – not their fault given the limitations of the Fringe. Most of the characters were wearing or carrying some kind of translucent PVC – that pinkish purplish plastic that I most often see described as being “unicorn coloured”. The material looks cool. I have no idea what the point of it was here. And it was if anything a little under-used, making it somewhat distracting. I wonder if a larger budget would have led to a grander design or if this was just someone who liked the material.

The tech was painful. I mean that very literally. Super loud feedback at the start that continued for far too long (and I learned was not intentional) started me off with a headache, and a bright red light inexplicably pointed into the audience, and luckily for me, directly into my eyes, meant that I actually sat with my eyes closed for extended periods of time. I understand tech is often a challenge in festivals, but someone needs to speak to whomever is running their sound and show them where the volume control is, and I would strongly suggest they reconsider the direction of that light.

All this said, there were plenty of moments I enjoyed. I found the character writing to be lacking and clichéd, but the cast was clearly capable of more than what we saw. As the annoying younger brother, Kevin Forster was captivating, had excellent comedic timing, and filled up his frequent moments onstage with no lines by engaging in a series of goofy time-wasters that are recognizable and endearing to anyone who has spent any time at all with a child under 5. The chemistry with his know-it-all-sister, enthusiastically played by Blythe Haynes, was believable and fun, and both actors showed off their dramatic chops in the brief dramatic moment they have near the end of the play, while worryingly watching John the writer struggle with his thoughts. The parents played by Adrian Griffin and Julia Dyan similarly had some really good moments, but Griffin’s character quickly became repetitive and Dyan had fewer lines than I think the character deserved: I’d like to see both these actors in something else, I think they have much more to share.

Director Stefan Dzeparoski throws in a few interesting moments with his staging, using small pen lights as traffic lights outside a car, making use of the minimal set to create a variety of locations using only chairs, and generally keeping the actors – who are always onstage – doing something relevant while Pak delivers monologues or engages in smaller scenes. Overall though, it was lacking some polish, and could likely improve with some added rehearsal time.

Rating: 3/5 Stars

Venue: Tarragon Theatre mainstage, 30 Bridgman Ave.
Venue Info: Air conditioned, indoor, accessible, masks required
Remaining Shows:
14th July 5:45pm
16th July 2:45pm
17th July 4:00pm
Tickets Here
More Info Here

Review: 10,000 DIGITS OF PI – Toronto Fringe Festival

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If you had the ability to memorize thousands of numbers in sequence, what would you use that talent for? For Vinay Sagar, it’s to race the clock and face absurd punishments at every mistake – the perfect bit of ridiculousness to add to your Fringing experience.

Using a technique called the “memory palace” (Sherlock fans will recognize the term, and as he explains it in his show, I won’t go into detail here) Vinay Sagar has attempted to memorize 10,000 digits of PI, and has even programmed a device to track his progress and stats. Whether the premise catches your interest or not, you have to admit, you haven’t seen anything like it before, have you?

It’s hard to give a detailed review to something that will change drastically each show, as much of the comedy comes from Sagar’s interactions with the audience and the bizarre “punishments” they come up with for him. The performance I saw really had a range – from drawing a “detailed picture of his grandmother”, to sharing his “biggest epic fail”, Sagar approaches each task with complete openness and sincerity, sometimes leading to really intimate, even sad moments onstage. Interestingly, this makes for a brilliant comedy show. The gags start off ridiculous, and the reciting of numbers may sound like it’s monotonous, but you quickly get behind him as you watch him share deep feelings and past secrets, struggle at times to find his way back to his “palace”, and approach each punishment with a complete lack of shame or hesitation: this guy will do anything (well, almost) for a laugh, and it works.

By the last 20 minutes audience members were cheering him on, telling him to skip past punishments eager to see just how far he could get. And while he didn’t get anywhere near his goal of 1250 for the night, he really did get incredibly far, and I challenge anyone who questions the point of this to try it for themselves – how much of art is just doing something different that no one has before?

If you’re someone who needs a strong narrative to pay attention then maybe this one isn’t for you, and relying so much on the audience is risky business, but I really think seeing the show with a terrible crowd would be fun in its own way as well. This show makes me think of the old Vaudeville acts in-between the larger sets – strange novelty bits that may not have a wide appeal or many places to perform, but are still thoroughly enjoyable and something you will remember for a long time. And what is Fringe if not a place to experiment?

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Venue: Tarragon Theatre solo room, 30 Bridgman Ave.
Venue Info: Air conditioned, indoor, accessible, masks required, each performance is considered “relaxed”, meaning there are minimal tech changes and audience members are free to come late, leave and reenter for any reason at any time.
Remaining Shows:
15th July 2:15pm
16th July 4:45pm
17th July 2:45pm
Tickets Here
More Info Here

Review: The Questing Beast – Toronto Fringe Festival

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Dirx Puppetry and Film show off their creature building talent in this co-pro with Sapling Productions.

I don’t often go to kids shows but being friends with creator Steven Dirckze and knowing the talent he and his partner Taylor Tofflemire have when it comes to building puppets, I knew I needed to check this one out. I’m going to try think back to my younger days and review this with a child’s interests in mind.

The Questing Beast is the story of King Pellinore (Anthony Botelho), an Arthurian-era hero whose life is dedicated to hunting “the beast”. Why? Because his father did it, and his father before – it’s what has always been done! The stage is set by his Fool, (Kristina Roberts), who asks the audience in a clear, loud voice (and to a round of adorable “yeahs!”) whether they want to hear a story – she pulled the children in, and as the unofficial narrator was the one who broke the fourth wall for exposition and jokes for the parents. Big and expressive, Roberts is clearly either an experienced children’s performer or is a natural.

As the “wench” to Grummore Grummersum (Christoph Ibrahim), Taylor Tofflemire likewise is a big presence onstage. After realizing she needs to don a moustache to sneak her way into the “boys club” of knights, she puts on a “manly” act and caused her fair share of giggles with her expressive eyebrows and larger-than-life characterization: the kids in the audience clearly loved her.

Writer/creator Steven Dirckze was the main puppeteer, playing both the ghost of the old King – Pellinore’s father – and, in what is likely what most kids will be raving about after the show, the 10′ tall giraffe puppet. The giraffe alone makes the show worth seeing, and if the kiddies hang around out front afterwards, they’ll get a chance to meet the beast up close.

And finally, leading man Anthony Botelho. Anyone who has seen him perform before will instantly recognize his booming voice and perfectly articulated movements, always big but never over-the-top, Botelho is one of the few performers I’ve seen excel in a children’s show as much as he does in a drama. His sharp tongue effortlessly spit out Dirckze’s many rhymes and riddles, and his even pacing made him very easy to understand (good for the kiddies) without falling into the trap of talking in slow, almost stilted sentences, something that often befalls children’s performers. He is the star of the show and rightfully so.

Overall I genuinely enjoyed myself, and the kids in the audience seemed to as well, but this is likely not the show for all children. The story is fairly complex, and with a lot of big words (especially when used in soliloquy and so without any action to help give them context) it likely went over the heads of many of the smaller children there. Were they still excited to see a big giraffe puppet? Yes. But this may be best saved for slightly older children or for those with very good attention spans.

Likewise, the show takes place in a very traditional theatre setting – raised stage, audience in darkness – which may be new to some children and could feel distracting. If they are used to more of a, sit-in-a-circle-for-library-time type performance, this may require some effort to keep them focused. The same goes for the scene changes which were a little lengthy, and caused at least one child to yell out, “what’s happening??” – personally I would have embraced the lack of fourth wall and used some of the players to move things in the light, as near constant action is needed to keep the youngest of the crowd entertained.

One other small quibble, which may not be something that stands out to many but for some reason did to me – parts of the story feel a little old-fashioned. And when I say that, I mean “old” as in from my youth – early 90s type tropes. The girls and the boys are not treated equally. Do the girls notice this? Absolutely, and they complain and one goes so far as to disguise herself as a man, but there is no “lesson” to this. In the end, the Fool and the King do seem to treat each other more as equals, and it’s hinted that the same may happen for Grummersum and the Wench, but it comes a bit out of nowhere, and in the day of books like “Baby Feminist”, something that was so common in what I read as a child suddenly stood out to me, and not exactly in a good way. Also, there is a brief moment in the middle of the play where the beast is given some backstory, done beautifully through shadow puppet silhouette in a way that reminded me of some 18th century cuttings I’ve seen. However, the story was bizarrely dark, with a queen being tricked, impregnated by the devil, and eventually causing the death of her beloved. Yeah. Gets dark. Having been a big Grimm fan by the age of 8 myself, I’m not saying I necessarily think this is inappropriate for all kids, but I was surprised by it in what was up until then very much a child friendly show. So if you’re very particular about the stories you let your little ones consume, maybe check in with the creators for some details beforehand, but honestly, I think the kids are likely to just leave thinking about that big giraffe.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Venue: St. Vladimir Theatre, 620 Spadina Ave.
Venue Info: Air conditioned, indoor, accessible, masks required
Remaining Shows:
14th July 2:00pm
17th July 11pm
Tickets: Here
More Info: Here

Review: Carson & Taylor Promise To Do A Bunch of Flips – Toronto Fringe Festival

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Carson Pinch and Taylor Davis do indeed do a bunch of flips in this side-achingly funny sketch show directed by Paul Bates.

When I saw Paul Bates was directing another Fringe show, I knew it would be top of my list. Having seen him direct what may be my all-time favourite sketch show several years back (32 Short Sketches About Bees) I went in with high expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The premise is simple: comedians Carson Pinch and Taylor Davis do flips. Like, a lot of flips. And each sketch in some way ties into them. Like any good sketch show, there is a general theme throughout that keeps things flowing, but the range of sketches is wildly varied and shows off the actors’ comedic talents. From the annoying wasp we’ve all met at the park to a figure skating pair having an emotional moment, the sketches somehow make the most ridiculous premise feel relatable and I literally laughed at each one (not something I can say for many comedy shows I’ve seen). Normally I’d go into more detail on a few favourite moments but I can’t really do that without risking giving away a punch line and they’re too good to risk that, so I’ll just say go see it for yourself, you will definitely leave with a few lines stuck in your head (and may just learn something important about wasps).

Special mentions go out to stage manager Andrea Miller – I don’t know how many cues those SFX and music bits were broken into, but the tech was flawless as was the timing, so kudos to whoever contributed to that – and my buddy Caleb who turned out to be a helper as well – see the show and you’ll see what I mean.

Rating: 5/5 Stars

Venue: Ada Slaight Hall, 585 Dundas St. E., Daniels Spectrum Building
Venue Info: Air conditioned, indoor, accessible, masks required
Remaining Shows:
12th July 3:45pm
14th July 8:30pm
15th July 1:15pm
16th July 1pm
Tickets Here.
More Info Here