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: 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

Toronto Fringe Festival Review: Anywhere

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Anywhere - 2018 Toronto Fringe - Photo by Emily Dix

Cass Van Wyck and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster in Anywhere at the 2018 Toronto Fringe.

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing the latest by Dora-nominated playwright Michael Ross Albert (Tough Jews, The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome): the 141 Collective’s production of Anywhere. In this timely new thriller, Liz (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), a young business woman away at a conference, returns home to her AirBnB to find her host, Joy (Cass Van Wyck), has been waiting up for her. What starts as a cordial and relatively typical conversation quickly unravels as we learn of their drunken encounter the previous night, one that leaves the two women fighting in a dark and increasingly frightening battle for control.

The show has a stellar cast – Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster epitomizes the uptight, bland businesswoman, one whose life has become so mundane that a bus tour conference and night partying with a stranger, her single-mom AirBnB host Joy, is clearly the most thrilling thing to happen to her in months. As the night wears on drinks are poured and secrets are revealed, leading to the unnerving realization that all the patience and polite conversation is a front, and the audience meets the real Liz, one who is cutting, competitive, and fiercely cynical. As Joy, the single-mother to a terminally ill 8-year-old, Cass Van Wyck elicits both sympathy and disgust, as her lifestyle choices make us question her suitability as a parent, and her motives in revealing herself to her guest make us question her morality. The clever writing combined with the subtle acting choices of both woman leave us wondering who the real victim is in this bizarre game of cat and mouse.

While I was impressed by the acting and writing, the directing by David Lafontaine unfortunately left something to be desired. Staging was too stationary, and often I felt as though the actors had been told to move just for something to do. We lost the full potential of some well-charged moments that were oddly staged upstage, obscured by the large and, I think, unnecessary dining table. Too often the actors, as well as the majority of the set pieces, were playing in the same plane, making it so that the movement was noticeably less dynamic than the words and emotion being presented onstage. I hope this show continues to have a life after Fringe, and that some changes are made to staging to allow it to see its full potential.

Cass Van Wyck Cass Van Wyck and Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster in "Anywhere" at the 2018 Toronto Fringe.

Photo by Emily Dix

**SPOILER ALERT**

Aside from the unimpressive staging, the only issue I found with this play was in the last minute and a half, where the sudden change in in momentum left me confused, rather than shaken, as I think was intended. After a fight between Liz and Joy becomes physical, Liz whacks Joy over the head with a large, heavy chessboard, knocking her to the ground and leaving her seemingly, for a moment, unconscious. This is how I expected the play to end; Joy, now seriously injured if not dead, is left lying in a pool of blood on the floor, while Liz, realizing there is no turning back from the culmination of strange events in what should have been the most mundane of weeks, takes the place she held at the start of the play. I imagined Liz would sit down and wait, knowing that what led them to this place didn’t matter, because regardless of who was right and who had “won” the battle, she had been the one to call “checkmate” and end the war. She had sealed her own fate. Instead, Joy suddenly leaps from the ground, now covered in blood, and stumbles forward confused, shrieking that she can’t see. The lights dim as Liz cradles Joy’s bleeding head her in her hands, telling her not to worry because her son Ethan is “right there”. I’m not sure what we’re meant to take away here – is Joy’s confusion the result of a head injury? Of the night’s drinking? Both? Is Liz’s sudden compassion out of fear? Guilt? Is Joy dying? After an hour of well-scripted, naturally building tension I found these last few moments questioned all of the night’s events, but not in a way that left me intrigued so much as just confused.

**END OF SPOILERS**

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this production. In a digital age where we can learn intimate details about a person before even meeting them, Anywhere is a necessary examination of the difference between intimacy and knowledge, and with a knock-out cast of rising indie stars Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Cass Van Wyck, this is surely one to add to your “must see” list.

E.

Toronto Fringe Festival Review: The Joy of Sax

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What makes the Fringe Festival so fun is that you really never know what you’re going to get when you shuffle into the theatre at some odd time of day: I certainly wasn’t expecting what I saw this afternoon at The Joy of Sax, Flash in the Deadpan’s Toronto Fringe production. Described by the company as fitting into the “new genre of saxploitation comedy”, The Joy of Sax is a bizarre tale of a young man named Luke (Cam Parkes) who inherits his father’s saxophone and finds that he has a special gift – no, not a musical talent (much to my dismay, the only sounds to come out of the horn were loud, blasting screeches), but the inexplicable ability to arouse and lead to orgasm any who are within earshot of his “music”. Can’t say that it’s not original! Continue reading

REVIEW: The LOT’s “Dreamgirls”

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There’s no denying Dreamgirls is a tough musical to pull off; large cast, flashy sets, tons of costume changes and vocal scores meant to mimic the great Diana Ross & the Supremes, make for a show that is difficult at best. The production currently playing at the Lower Ossington Theatre does an adequate job, but as I have found with all the shows I’ve seen at the LOT, it’s inconsistent, and while they have some top-notch talent, there are others that leave more than a little to be desired.

Bobby Daniels shines as Curtis Taylor Jr., the car salesman turned agent. His smooth voice is the strongest of the male cast, and for the most part, his acting was solid as well. I did question his intention in some of the more serious scenes where he came across more melodramatic than sincere, but overall I think his casting was a wise choice.

Kyle Brown stole the show as the soulful Jimmy Early. His voice wasn’t quite strong enough to hit some of the harder notes, but what he may have lacked in vocal strength he more than made up for with his electric stage presence. He had enviable dance skills, and made a thoroughly believable character, especially in his second-act solo piece; Jimmy does indeed “got soul”.

I was surprised by the casting of Krystle Chance as Effie White, since much is made of the character being grossly overweight, and yet Chance was a fit, curvy beauty in her sparkled gowns. Personally, I would have padded her out some, as it changes the story to have her being switched out of the lead role over her weight when the actress is barely any bigger than her co-stars. Still, the attitude and vocal range made her a good match, and she wowed in numbers like “One Night Only”.

Other notable mentions go to Amanda Mattar as Michelle, Effie’s replacement in the Dreams, who had a lovely voice and a really magnetic stage presence, and to Alinka Angelova as Lorrell, who really found her voice in the second act. My favourite number of the whole show? Stepping To The Bad Side, beautifully sung and choreographed; I got chills.

Overall, the directing by Saccha Dennis was simple but effective. The stage movements were slick and well choreographed to move through the rapidly changing scenes. However, it seemed as though not enough time was spent on the character work, something painfully obvious in scenes like “You Are My Dream”, where there was a total lack of chemistry.

Costuming a show of this size is quite a feat, but I would have liked to see some more authentic and better fitting costumes; the sparkling gowns were lovely, but didn’t seem to fit the actresses. Kudos to lighting designer Mikael Kangas for his beautiful work, he really effectively changed the look of each scene and moved things effortlessly from “stage lights” to “real lights”, without anything ever looking cheesy or fake; really well done. Sound designer Curtis Whittaker might want to re-check some of his levels, as I found much of the dialogue difficult to hear.

In the end, I’d recommend the show. It has its faults, but it’s a big musical with a lot of fun songs that will have you dancing in your seat. Great for a fun night out.

-E.

Toronto Fringe Festival Review: 32 Short Sketches About Bees

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Clear Glass Productions’s performance of 32 Short Sketches About Bees is a fast-paced mash-up of ridiculous scenes all tied together through the incredibly simple (but surprisingly diverse) theme of “bees” (or “Bea”, “B”, “be”… you get the idea). Playing now at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Check out another one of my 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival reviews via Mooney on Theatre.

Toronto Fringe Festival Review: Caitlin & Eric Are Broken Up

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“You can’t be that attractive and funny” — well, not unless you’re Caitlin Robson and Eric Miinch. Catch the comedic duo in Caitlin & Eric Are Broken Up, produced by Squeaky Wheel, and playing now at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Check out another one of my 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival reviews via Mooney on Theatre.

Toronto Fringe Festival Review: Murder In The Cottonwoods

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When leaving the theatre after seeing Murder In The Cottonwoods, I had stuck in my head a line from Rocky Horror that I think perfectly summed up my experience of the show; “a mental mind-f*ck can be nice.” A bizarre tale of murder set in a town that could be 1950s middle America if it weren’t for the Seinfeld references, Murder In The Cottonwoods may be the strangest show you’ll see at this year’s Fringe Festival. If you are a fan of David Lynch, then this show is for you: it’s Twin Peaks meets Pleasantville in this surreal “romantic nightmare.” Check out another one of my 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival reviews via Mooney on Theatre.

White Wedding (Port Albert Productions) 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival Review

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White Wedding - 2017 Toronto Fringe

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing a new site-specific piece at Artscape Youngplace; Port Albert Production’s White Wedding. The show was staged in an upper hallway of the building, which nicely fit the plot, but did make it rather difficult to see; if you’re planning on going to this show, arrive early. I was 3 rows back and missed some key moments, you’re going to want to be right up front for the best experience.

Playwright/director/producer Taylor Marie Graham’s story was strong, and the majority of the writing felt sincere, though lead character Lisa (Kayla Whelan) seemed to often be off the mark, something which may have partially had to do with the writing of her scenes. While Lisa was the main protagonist, she seemed to be the only character to not have any real growth or development, and I found her to be unfortunately unlikable. I was confused by many of her moments of “emotion”, because they were meant to pop up suddenly, uncontrollably, but that was not what I saw from the actor. Hearing shouted, “oh no! I can’t cry again” when I see no tears made it feel cheesy and took me out of the moment.

The rest of the cast was strong, and two actors stood out for me in this performance; Cass Van Wyck as Heather, and Lauren Wolanski as Michelle. As a pair of old high school friends/ ex-lovers, the pair had unquestionable chemistry. Van Wyck excelled as the brash, fun-loving Heather, trying to play it cool despite still being desperately in love with her old high school fling. As Michelle, the now-married mother of a young son, Wolanksi effortlessly flipped back and forth between being the ideal (if not a little cold and repressed) wife, and the passionate, youthful girl that still lusts for her friend. Their relationship is by far the most compelling in the play, and I was happy to see it played honestly, rather than relying on caricatures or stereotypes. Special mention goes to Dave Martin as Dave, who did not have an especially complex character to play, but who was thoroughly enjoyable to watch. He also has a beautiful singing voice and accompanied much of the show on guitar.

The Verdict: Worth a watch, but show up early to get a good seat.
Rating: 4/5 Stars

Performance Times:

Sunday July 9th 6:00pm
Sunday July 9th 9:00pm
Thursday July 13th 9:00pm
Friday July 14th 9:00pm
Saturday July 15th 2:00pm
Saturday July 15th 6:00pm
Saturday July 15th 9:00pm

Tickets available online or at the door (while supplies last).