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

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).

Toronto Fringe Festival Review: Fastcar Man of Action

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Want to catch a show that completely encompasses the spirit of Fringe? Don’t let the prospect of a one-man show with audience participation scare you off;  Fastcar: Man of Action (produced by blind fool productions) is a delightful trip through the absurd, playing now at the Toronto Fringe Festival . Learn more via my Mooney on Theatre review.

 

REVIEW: Everything Else Is Sold Out

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I was thrilled to see such a full house at a late performance of last night’s Everything Else Is Sold Out, a Dame Judy Dench sketch show currently running as a part of the 2016 Toronto Fringe. The show is flawlessly directed by Paul Bates (Canadian Comedy Awards, Best Male Improvisor – NOW Magazine, 2013, director – Second City’s Click Bait & Switch,  actor – Dan for Mayor, Puppets Who Kill, The Ron James Show) and features the talents of Claire Farmer (Second City, Bad Dog), Jessica Greco (The Animal Project, TIFF 2013, Rookie Blue, Bomb Girls) Shannon Lahaie (Wait Until Dark – Bygone Theatre, Insane – best actress nomination, FilmQuest 2014), Chris Leveille (Second City, Bad Dog), and Gavin Pounds (Barrie North Improv Team).

What really makes Everything Else stand out is how seamlessly the sketches flow from one to another; dynamic transitions keep the energy up and give a place to mini sight gags and jokes that lesser companies would try to drag out into a whole sketch. The technical elements are well executed and everyone’s timing (stage manager included) is perfectly on-point; no one misses a beat. While there isn’t exactly a theme to the show overall, just enough references are made to call back to other scenes and each time this is done it is done so cleverly; lots of laughs, none of the groans you come to expect from most sketch acts.

NOTE: I feel awful that I don’t know the names of most of these people (no pictures in the program), so apologies as I mention some favourite moments without crediting the specific performers;

Some favourite moments include a “Troller’s Support Group” (featuring of course, a literal troll); a new type of app, “Uber Walks”; a rather extravagant hat; a doctor’s visit that reveals a young woman (Lahaie) is suffering from “Montages”; a date that gets side-tracked when the man discovers a room full of jars (I know, sounds odd, but trust me); a guy dancing to bossanova beats who is DEFINITELY not a vampire and the cleverly book-ended scenes that start and finish the show. There are no weak links in this cast. While the scenes I listed were the strongest, I had a grin on my face throughout – this is far better than any sketch show I’ve seen on a Second City stage.

There are only 2 shows left!!! Check out my Fringe Picks Post for show dates & times.

The Verdict: Do not miss it. Go see it now.
Rating: 5/5 Stars

REVIEW: Dan’s Inferno

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You may have seen versions of Dante’s Inferno before, but I doubt you’ve seen one with a talking toilet, and while we’ve all seen plays about the regrets we have at the end of life, chances are you haven’t seen one as strangely funny and sincerely touching as Dan’s Inferno, playing now as part of the 2016 Toronto Fringe.

The show comes from the minds of Toronto’s Fratwurst comedy troupe, and features the talents of Eric Miinch (Fratwurst), Josh Murray (Fratwurst, Second City Education Company), Evan Arppe (Fratwurst, Host of The Watchllist on CHCH), Natalie Metcalfe (2 Humans, CBC-True Dating Stories), Lance Byrd (The Weaker Vessels), Peyton LeBarr, (Twelfe Night- Ale House Theatre) and Chris Murray (Chaisse Gallerie- Red One Collective). It’s a story about Dan (Miinch), a young man who wasted his life on Earth but finds purpose in what comes after. Sound typical? A bit. But the twisted collection of characters (trolls, the aforementioned talking toilet, aptly named John) will keep you guessing and, frequently, laughing til it hurts.

The overall structure of the play is a little odd; at times it feels like sketch comedy, at times it’s a mini musical, and thrown together are cleverly crafted typical theatre moments (artistic transitions, moments of sweet sincerity) mixed in with absolutely absurd, almost improvised (sounding) comedy. As a whole it may require a little further polishing, but I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Highlights include some far-too-relatable songs by wannabe actress, Beatrice (Metcalfe); Purgatory babies soaring through the air and subsequently being torn limb-from-limb by Dan, desperate to go to Hell (Miinch); and a wonderfully timed lighting cue in which everything pauses so that a man and his dog can have a final goodbye before a second, sudden death (kudos to stage manager Maddox Campbell on the timing there).

I think this is the type of show best taken as-is and enjoyed. If I give it a lot of thought, I could pick out some issues, but the fact of it is I laughed through most of it and left with a smile on my face, something unfortunately difficult to do with many sketch shows, not to mention Fringe productions.

Verdict: Very weird, very fun – check it out.
Rating: 4/5 stars

Check out my Fringe Picks post for showtimes and more details.

REVIEW: Behold, The Barfly!

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Behold-the-Barfly-3-Credit-Laura-Dittmann-1

If you’re looking for nudity, strobe lights and God himself, check out Spoon Vs Hammer’s Behold, The Barfly! playing now at the Monarch Tavern as part of the 2016 Toronto Fringe. Written and directed by the very funny Justin Haigh, this laugh-out-loud sketch show features the talents of Elizabeth Anacleto (Mark Purvis Award winner, Toronto Festival of Clowns), Jeff Hanson (Edmund, Storefront Theatre), Steve Hobbs (writer for Second City, CBC Punchline), Marsha Mason (Second City National Touring Company), Kevin MacPherson (Sex T-Rex, Robin Hood: The Legendary Musical Comedy), Eric Miinch (sketch troupe Fratwurst, Bygone Theatre’s Wait Until Dark), Ned Petrie (CBC Radio, Second City, Teletoon’s Night Sweats) and Sarah Thorpe (HereticLove Is A Poverty You Can Sell); with a cast like that you know you’re in for a good time.

I won’t describe any of the scenes as I don’t want to give away punchlines, but I’ll say that highlights included a passionate but slightly misguided children’s face painter, a holy unicorn, probably the most terrifying comic you’ve ever seen, an unusual trip to the Science Centre and two news announcer types who very eagerly tell you all about things that “make no fucking sense”. Add to that some popular songs that will have you asking, “are those really the lyrics??” and Benedict Cumberbatch (really! well, sort of) and it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Plus, it’s in a tavern, so you can drink!

Verdict: Definitely worth seeing
Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Check out my Fringe Picks blog for show times & more details.

 

 

A Review of the LOT’s “Buddy Holly Story”

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Nigel Irwin as Buddy Holly, Thomas James Finn as the Big Bopper and Mike Buchanan as Richie Valens -photo Seanna Kennedy.

Nigel Irwin as Buddy Holly, Thomas James Finn as the Big Bopper and Mike Buchanan as Richie Valens – photo Seanna Kennedy.

The challenge of mounting any Jukebox Musical is that you are taking songs people know and love and putting them in the hands of performers who, regardless of how talented they are, are unlikely to live up to the image we have in our minds of what they should be. When you have the added challenge of working with performers who simply aren’t as talented as singers they’re portraying you end up with a show that is unfortunately lackluster. Sadly, this was the case for the majority of the performers in the Lower Ossington Theatre production of The Buddy Holly Story, however, a few standout moments were powerful enough to still make for an overall enjoyable evening.

…a show that is unfortunately lackluster…however, a few standout moments were powerful enough to still make for an overall enjoyable evening.

Alan Kinsella directed the show along with musical director Mike Ross. While I question some of the casting choices, the staging was effective and Mikael Kangas lighting and set design (Michael Galloro also worked on set) was simple but bold and engaging. They made excellent use of a small stage and stationary set, creating a series of unique scenes primarily through the use of lights. As always, I’m going to be critical of the design; I found the costumes sub-par especially the women’s, and was surprised to see such a big name (Mark Boots) listed as “Wig Consultant” when I thought the wigs looked cheap and inaccurate.

…excellent use of a small stage and stationary set, creating a series of unique scenes primarily through the use of lights.

Any performance that requires actors put on accents risks sounding cheesy or inauthentic; with the exception of Thomas Finn, whose Hi-Pockets & Big Bopper were spot on, this was a common issue for the show. As the title character, Nigel Irwin’s Buddy lacked the charm, charisma and authenticity the show required. In fact, the majority of the cast was lacking in energy, and moments like the fight scene between The Crickets and a music producer felt very forced. Similarly, numbers like “Party” that should have had the audience on their feet fell flat due to pitchy vocals and a dull performance.

Nigel Irwin’s Buddy lacked the charm, charisma and authenticity the show required.

Despite being too long and dragging much more than the first act (a fault of the writing, not performance), the second act was what made the show. Easily the biggest talent of the performance was Thomas Finn as The Big Bopper. Bursting onstage with all of the Bopper’s larger-than-life presence, Finn steals the show with on-the-spot vocals and contagious energy. You could feel the audience wake up during “Chantilly Lace”, and even less electric performances were given a much needed push with the help of Finn’s great stage presence.

Easily the biggest talent of the performance was Thomas Finn as The Big Bopper…Finn steals the show.

One number did stand out as a good Holly impersonation; “Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”. That song has always been one of my favourites and I was happy to hear Irwin find his voice and channel Buddy beautifully in that song. Maybe some more work will add some consistency to his performance.

All in all the production has a definite amateurish feel, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an enjoyable night out. Upbeat, lovable music and a few stand out moments make it a fun time for anyone with a love of the oldies. For tickets and more information, check out www.lowerossingtontheatre.com.

-E.

Review of “A Woman Is A Secret”

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TC15011_AWoman_slider_G1-page-001-800x302Friday night was the opening of the world premiere of the new John Patrick Shanley play, A Woman Is A Secret. The show is a joint production between The Storefront Theatre and Rip Jaw Productions, and is being presented at the Theatre Centre on Queen St. in Toronto.

The writing was brilliant – I wasn’t surprised. This is coming from the man who wrote Moonstruck and Doubt: A Parable among many, many others. Shanley is well known for his deeply complex, honest and often funny female characters, something that was in no short supply in this production. Skillfully played by some of Toronto’s top female talents, the play was well cast, but while story and actors were top-notch, confusing design and weak directing made for only an alright overall experience.

Skillfully played by some of Toronto’s top female talents…story and actors were top-notch.

I have been unable to find any photos of the set but the premise is basic; downstage centre is a vintage styled bar table and two bar chairs that are used in every scene. Generally they are just that – a bar set – but in the second act they are moved around and also act as a couch, maybe a bed. Despite the fact that 99% of the action occurs in a small area downstage, the entire stage was decorated with fake trees and an abundance of dead leaves on the ground. While the look was interesting and something we discussed before the show opened, there was absolutely no reference to it, no use made of it, and I was left feeling like it was a concept that the designer came up with before even reading the script. The costumes as well, were lacking. Singer Matthew Barber accompanied the show, playing guitar and singing beautiful renditions of some great 50s love songs. Unfortunately, the funky burgundy jacket he had been outfitted in was ill-fitting, and as someone who often does costumes, I found myself distracted by the tight shoulders and rolled up sleeves. I was disappointed by the dress the sexy and seductive Sparkles (Molly Flood) was wearing as well, but it was less ridiculous looking than the shoes that Blanche (Anna Hardwick) had to wear in the first scene; for a woman who was supposed to “walk slow”, glide across the stage in a sexy, sultry fashion, she was put in the wrong shoes. Her movements were unfortunately stilted in those heels, and while I initially thought that was part of the performance, I quickly realized it was just another poor costuming choice. All in all the look of the show reminded me of a college production. I think I would have preferred to see a work-shopped version where the focus was only on the actors and writing, as those elements were spot-on.

Confusing design and weak directing…the look of the show reminded me of a college production.

In a play about women, it’s no surprise that the female parts were the stand-out roles, and the casting of greats like Martha Burns, Anna Hardwick and Karen Knox made for a thoroughly enjoyable performance. Knox’s Kasia, (a sultry Polish woman looking to have an affair) was hilarious, with each line delivered with a practiced dry wit that got the audience every time. While her accent wavered on some lines, her performance was strong and in-keeping with what I’ve come to expect from this Toronto-staple. While costume issues weakened her performance in the first scene, Anna Hardwick was outstanding as the embittered newlywed in the second act. The chemistry between Hardwick and Anand Rajaram was electric, and made for a not only funny, but very touching scene. Rajaram is not an actor I am familiar with, but one I will certainly be seeking out in the future; he was the stand-out male performer in this show. Katie Swift was another notable performer; her comedic timing made-up for an unfortunately weak performance by Jade Hassouné, in one of the less interesting scenes in the play. Martha Burns was hilarious as the Banshee Genevieve, and Tony Nappo matched her performance in energy and sincerity. However, it was the scene between Sparkles (Molly Flood) and Hank (Trent Pardy) that had me on the floor. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for the old-school Noir dialogue, but even writing that good could have been wasted if not performed by actors who understood the style & could handle the delivery. Flood & Pardy made for a scene that was both funny and honestly, very sexy.

It was the scene between Sparkles and Hank…that had me on the floor…Flood & Pardy made for a scene that was both funny and honestly, very sexy.

When I first learned that the world premiere of a show by such an established playwright was not only being produced here in Toronto, but by a couple indie companies (rather than a large force like Factory, or Mirvish) I was surprised and excited. Unfortunately, despite having an exceptionally strong cast, the show felt lacking, and I wish that it had been put in the hands of a stronger director and design team. Despite its flaws, it really is an enjoyable show. You’ll spend much of it laughing, and if you’re like me, may find a few moments bring you close to tears. Definitely worth the trip.

A Woman Is A Secret runs March 19 – April 5, 2015 at
The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto.
Tickets are $20-$30 and can be purchased at 416-538-0988 or online.

A Review of Tarragon Theatre’s “Abyss”

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It’s not often that I go into a play having no idea what it’s about, but that’s what happened last night when a friend and I spontaneously went to see Maria Milisavljevic’s Abyss at the Tarragon Extraspace. I was in for a pleasant surprise as I found the show (aptly described on their site as a “lyrical thriller”) to be one of the most intriguing and moving pieces of theatre I have seen in a long time.

Admittedly, the show didn’t catch me right away; the first 15 minutes or so felt a little stale as actress Cara Pifko recited lines in a style that felt dated and forced. Like the sort of thing you see in a sketch comedy making fun of actors. However, once the pace picked up and she was required to show real emotional intensity, the choice in casting Pifko was clear; her raw performance was chilling, especially during the climatic moments (I won’t ruin the story with more details) and by the end I was on the verge of tears. Her chemistry with fellow actor Gord Rand was also dead-on, and the scenes in which the two were lovers were especially poignant.

Rand’s performance was captivating throughout and I was impressed by his ability to seamlessly transition from the cold and distant Vlado into the quirky and loveable Jan. The depth of emotion shown on his face was startling and I often found it difficult to look away.

The quiet star of the performance was undoubtedly Sarah Sherman, who, while playing secondary characters stole the show with her electric energy and range. She was equally compelling and convincing playing concerned sister Sophia as she was as a frightened young Russian mother, or the drunken derelict Göran. Sherman’s ability to create such distinct characters and flow through them effortlessly was refreshing and impressive.

Artistic Director Richard Rose staged the show and did justice to Milisavljevic’s beautifully composed piece. Rose chose to have the performers linking hands though nearly the entire play, a choice that may sound bizarre on paper but was really startlingly effective. Designer Jason Hand created a simplistic set that was transformed dramatically scene to scene with his brilliant lighting design (props to stage manager Nicola Benidickson for keeping on top of all those cues!). While at the top of the show I found the sound design to be a little overbearing, by the halfway mark Thomas Ryder Payne succeeded in creating a moving and often beautiful soundscape. I am unsure of what exactly should be credited to choreographer Nova Bhattacharya versus director Richard Rose, as the entire show was stylized and almost dance-like, but however the two created the piece they did an excellent job, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a simulated sex scene that was neither uncomfortable or laughable!

Finally, credited must be given to playwright Maria Milisavljevic who composed this dark and unique story, first in her native German and now in a wonderfully translated English form (this was the English language premiere of the show). Milisavljevic skillfully juxtaposes a beautiful and heroic poem, Nis Randers (1901) by Otto Ernst with an honest and modern story of love, lust and loss. Each character is compelling and complete, and the chemistry between them should be equally credited to playwright and performers. The interjection of a disturbing “how-to” on skinning rabbits breaks up the fluid movement of the dialogue and is surprisingly effective. Overall, I found the play poetic and utterly captivating, and am thrilled to see such a well-written work by a young female artist.

Abyss opened Wednesday February 11, 2015 in the Tarragon Extraspace and plays until March 15. For show dates and ticket information see their event page.