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

The Toronto Independent Theatre Coalition (TITC)

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I first had the idea for the Toronto Independent Theatre Coalition (TITC) 5 or 6 years ago. I had recently started up Bygone Theatre, and was watching what other indie groups were up to in an effort to figure out a growth strategy (aka what the hell I was doing). The first thing that became glaringly obvious was that it’s nearly impossible to grow a successful theatre business on your own. Especially in a city as expensive as Toronto.

Don’t get me wrong, theatre is first and foremost an art, but if you ignore the business side, the part that helps you find sponsors, partners and audience members, then no matter how good your art is, you’re not going to be around long enough for anyone to see it.

It’s nearly impossible to grow a successful theatre business on your own…(and) if you ignore the business side…you’re not going to be around long.

As indie artists, we are often stuck in a Catch 22 kind of hell;

You need advertising to bring in audience members, but you need audience members to make the money you need for advertising.

You need experience to get sponsors & grants, but you can’t get experience because you don’t have sponsors or grants to help you get started.

…and so it goes.

The theatre community is so small, but when it comes to companies connecting and supporting each other, suddenly there was all this distance between us.

While it’s hard to say just how many indie theatre groups there are in Toronto, I heard once that there are approximately 350 in the city. That’s huge. Yet there didn’t seem to be any kind of network set up to help those artists connect and help each other grow. The theatre community is so small, but when it comes to companies connecting and supporting each other, suddenly there was all this distance between us.

Why is that?

One of my least favourite parts of the theatre community is this strange belief some seem to have that we are somehow in competition with one another. It’s seldom if ever said out loud, but you feel it when friends with their own companies don’t bother to share your show info, when people hesitate to do a program ad swap, or one someone comes up with the great hashtag #indieunite and yet it never seems to be used by companies actually trying to support each other.

I have always wanted to change that. So, here is my official attempt.

The goal of the TITC is to provide a space for artists and companies to come together and do what we all should have been doing from the beginning; supporting each other. This can be by sharing resources like access to rehearsal space, props or costumes, or by doing labour swaps when there’s multiple companies without the funds to pay artists properly. In addition to that, each member company must agree to share, via all their social media networks, each other company’s show and audition info. If a company isn’t living up to their end of the deal, they get booted out. Only team players here.

So why make this an official thing? Why insist on the membership survey, track social media numbers and hold groups accountable? Why not just continue to share and work with those you already know?

The answer — strength in numbers.

The goal of the TITC is to provide a space for artists and companies to come together and do what we all should have been doing from the beginning; supporting each other

This is where we as indie artists can start to grow our companies as businesses. When you contact a potential sponsor, say a car dealership, chances are you are trying to convince them that supporting you will be good exposure. You tell them to think of it as a marketing investment — give us some money for our show, we give you a shout-out on our social media, all our followers see how great you are! Only, as an indie company you likely don’t have a huge following.

Currently, we have 9 Company Members at the TITC; that’s after about a week of applications being open. And to give you an idea of how much of a difference that can make for members already, note that, on average, each company has 646 Twitter followers, but combined? That number jumps to 5818. And we’re just getting started. Plus, that doesn’t include the following the TITC itself is now starting to grow…

We are stronger together.

Together, we have access to some of the best indie talent in the city.
Together, we have social media numbers and followers large enough to get sponsor’s attention.
Together, we can pool our funds to advertise a central hub where all the indie shows can be promoted on a large scale.

…and so it goes.

There are no membership fees required to join the TITC, all we want is your willingness and commitment to grow this community with us. It takes about 3 minutes to apply, and you can do so here. If you want to know more about what membership entails, you can find that here. And if you want to know what we have planned next, you can learn that here.

If you like the sound of the TITC, please take a moment to check out our website at www.thetitc.ca, to follow us on Instagram or Twitter, and to like us on Facebook. Share this post! Send links to your theatre friends! The more of us there are the more we can do.

#indieunite

To keep the TITC free we need some help raising funds for start-up costs. Want to help support Toronto’s indie theatre scene? Please visit our GoFundMe page and give if you can.

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: Adult Entertainment

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Sex, violence and morality battle it out onstage in George F. Walker’s Adult Entertainment, produced by Triple ByPass Productions 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: 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.