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

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