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

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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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.