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Fringe Festival 2009 Reviews

Wickedly funny bouffon clown Red Bastard's show is one of my highest rated picks for this year's Toronto Fringe Festival so far.

Wickedly funny bouffon clown Red Bastard's show is one of my highest rated shows at this year's Toronto Fringe Festival.

(It became clear to me that it would be unfair to post more Fringe reviews so late after the festival ended, by late July.

I made a tactical error in my coverage of the Fringe this year; I spent the first half of the festival trying to finish the detailed preview posts I had planned, and I didn’t begin writing reviews until close to the end of the festival, when almost a week had passed since I’d started seeing them. I was playing catch-up on a huge backlog of work, and it wouldn’t have been fair to the shows to review them after so much time had lapsed.

Next year, I’ll ensure that any non-review coverage is finished by the time I start seeing shows; in the meantime, if anyone really wants to hear my impression of a particular show that wasn’t reviewed, email me directly at steve@gracingthestage.ca, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions. – Steve)

I haven’t posted to the website in the past few days, and it’s because I’ve been paralyzed by which post I should be focusing on in the few free hours I have when I’m not Fringing.  Should I focus on finishing the ridiculously overdue fourth and final “preview” of Fringe shows? The previous three took enormous amounts of work to write, because I found and hot-linked each show’s FB listing AND website (where possible), and also did enough research for each show (and there were 12 per post!) to zero in on its most salient attributes.

Should I focus on writing up the weekly update, and try and cram as much Fringe into it as possible? It’s slowly coming together, but those are pretty time intensive too. Besides, the only shows that aren’t Fringe related that are listed before Monday are the FREE outdoor concerts this weekend at the Harbourfront Centre’s Beats, Breaks, and Culture Festival:  Holy Fuck (9:30pm), Winter Gloves (8pm), and DD/MM/YYYY (11pm) on Friday, and Broken Social Scene (8pm) and Parallels (7:30pm) on Saturday. So I don’t feel too badly putting that off until Fringe wraps up Sunday evening.

Ultimately, the question people have asked the most is when the capsule reviews of the shows I’ve seen (24 and counting, 41 by the end of my schedule) will start going up. And truthfully, they’re the least labour intensive. Besides, many of the shows that were to be profiled in my final preview post (“Red Bastard“, “Bingo: The Show“, KidsFringe shows like “Rock Time 2009“, etc.), I’ve already seen, and will be reviewing (most quite positively).

So here’s what’s going to happen: I’ll update this post frequently over the next (and final) few days of Fringe with a handful of short reviews at a time. Keep checking back to see the new ones; I’ll be updating this post as often and as quickly as I can between Fringe shows, and late at night.

The cast of David Hein's (centre) "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish-Wiccan Wedding" have a big hit on their hands' the shows' been selected for the Best of Fringe since the second day of the Festival, and has had huge line-ups every day at Bread and Circus.

The cast of David Hein's (centre) "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish-Wiccan Wedding" have a big hit on their hands; the show's been selected for the Best of the Fringe since the second day of the Festival, and has had huge line-ups every day at Bread and Circus.

(For Fringe reviews, click on the “more”).

Here’s how it’ll work: a brief paragraph describing the show (what works, what doesn’t), followed by a rating out of 10 (I find 5 to be too inaccurate when you’re talking about 150 shows, of which I’ll be reviewing close to 1 in 3). I started out listing the shows in order seen, but since everyone wants to know what the top picks are (or wants to scroll to the bottom to read about the shows I’ve tried my best to give constructive criticism for) I’ve rearranged them from full marks to… well, somewhat lacking (I haven’t seen any truly terrible shows yet – thank heaven for all those weeks of research!). OK. Here we go…

-”Red Bastard“: Eric Davis‘ alter ego is a singularly slimy and self-centered “artiste” who proclaims in his pseudo-performance class that a performer must do something new and interesting “every ten seconds”, and damn me if “Red Bastard” doesn’t pretty much live up to this statement. RB plays his audience like the devil does a fiddle, and you’d best sit at the back and away from the aisle if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of interacting with this hypnotic megalomaniac; at the show I saw, RB climbed into the lap of an autistic man in a motorized wheelchair (who is probably still grinning from ear to ear and talking about it) , persuaded a woman stick her tongue in his mouth, and made several other people do things to him you’d be arrested for on the street. This is the most audacious and accomplished clown act I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen quite a lot.

10/10

- “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish-Wiccan Wedding“: Singer-songwriter (and now composer) David Hein has struck gold with his autobiographical musical. He has a phenomenal cast, headlined by two outstanding veteran actresses (Lisa Horner and Rosemary Doyle); he’s written a score brimming with catchy, memorable numbers like “You Don’t Need a Penis” and “Don’t Take Your Lesbian Moms to (I don’t want to give it away, but it’s great!)”, he and his wife / co-star / co-writer Irene Carl have penned a script that touches on a very timely topic in a way that has almost universal appeal; and the show has a stellar director in Andrew Lamb, who stages the show masterfully, using the relatively cozy stage of Bread and Circus to full effect. The show was selected for the Best of the Fringe by the second day of the festival, and I’ll go out on a limb here and say it’s the musical that has the best shot of following the trajectory of that OTHER phenomenally successful Fringe musical (you know the one) that I’ve seen in years.

10/10

- “A Singularity of Being“: Full disclosure: I was on the jury for the Fringe of Toronto’s New Play contest, and of the  plays I read over the winter holidays, this one was the clear (and eventual) winner, right from the start. Closely based on the events of Stephen Hawking’s life (renamed Roland Mathers), the script had plenty of great dialogue, and a fascinating story, but I worried that it might suffer in translation to the stage. Any trepidations I had that it might not live up to its potential were laid completely to rest when I saw it; a sterling cast (particularly Soo Garay, who plays the determined and self-sacrificing wife to Clinton Walker’s slowly deteriorating physicist) and a surehanded director (Ed Roy, showered with Dora Mavor Moore awards just two days before their opening) have confidently shepherded this smart and touching story onto the stage.  The ending is somewhat dissatisfactory, but it leaves it open for another chapter in Roland’ story, and the story of the women who supported him, and I am overeager to see a full production of this show.

9/10

- “Naughty Little Children“: Chelsea Manders, after putting in time with two different comedic folk duos, strikes out on her own with this story of a failed folk singer, Lucy, who’s ill-suited at her new job as a child care worker. Her delightfully bawdy songs are laugh out loud funny, and her treatment of the audience as children – who she knows next to nothing about except that they like dinosaurs and puppies – leads to some wickedly funny audience participation.

9/10

- “Moving Along“: Edmonton’s Chris Craddock, the man who co-created some of the most successful Fringe shows of recent years (“Boygroove”, “Bashed”), returns with a one man show that looks unlike anything you’ve seen. That’s because he sits for the entire show in the ominous looking and named “Electro-Chair”, a device of his own creation that allows him to produce myriad lighting effects that he times perfectly with his staccato semi-autobiographical flashback stories. It’s a tour de force performance, and one of the most unusual looking shows you’ll see at the Fringe this year.

9/10

- “Uncalled For Presents… Today Is All Your Birthdays!“: Fringe favourites Uncalled For are back this year with a smaller troupe (4 instead of last year’s 6), and not to slight any of the absent players, but it’s a tighter, smarter show for it. Last year, I made mention of the fact that their transitions were very smooth for a sketch show; this year,  you barely notice any transitions, as they’re very often sketches and jokes in themselves. Less zany and more cerebral than last year’s show, it plays brilliantly with the elastic nature of time and space (there’s sketches about the CERN Hadron Collider and a brilliant piece about the tropes of hard sci-fi films). This is my favourite Uncalled For show to date, and we’ve seen some really great stuff from these guys before. Highly recommended; this show makes for a great companion piece to “A Singularity of Being”.

9/10

- “The Accident“: Jonno Katz’s newest solo show has a terrific narrative about a shy dreamer who idolizes his overbearing brother, and plenty of the exuberant physicality he’s developed as a trademark in past Fringe productions; in this show, he’s particularly good at expressing his character’s inner emotions with short explosive dance sequences. I’ve a sneaking suspicion Katz has been studying capoeria lately… At any rate, the story is both moving and funny, and even at the late night show I saw, Katz had boundless amounts of energy, leaping across the stage in one moment, and using his wonderfully expressive face to show a character’s stomach dropping out from under them in the next. This is my favourite narrative solo piece of this year’s Fringe (which is almost certainly the largest category of shows).

9/10

-”Fish Face“: actor, improvisor, and playwright Ginette Mohr’s fairy tale story takes her to the depths of the sea, where she plays snakes, squids, sharks, and other fantastic creatures, using some creative fabrics and a few minimal props. Her physical and vocal work is top notch, and she’s cleverly built several breaks in the story to interact with the audience, who participate by blowing bubbles to help create the underwater atmosphere. Suitable for all ages, this show, had it been produced at the KidsFringe, would have easily been the best of the shows there; as it is, it’s still one of the top solo pieces at this years Fringe overall.

9/10

- “Peeler“:

9/10

- “Sara Hennessey Town“: Hennessey’s show last year was pretty much a straight stand-up set, and while I liked it quite a bit, my review suggested she explore the character work and attempt to make future shows more theatrical. Well, she’s taken my suggestion and ran with it; this new show features a spiffy set, video and Powerpoint integrated into her skits, and at least a dozen characters that aren’t Sara. The show is consequentially a huge leap forward for the comedienne; highlights include a live taping of a will, and a brilliant ghost story skit that allows Hennessey to exploit her elastic facial expressions to devastating comedic effect. This show could potentially get her foot in the door for her own sketch show, particularly if the Comedy Network’s brilliant new sketch show “Hotbox” opens the floodgates for new Canadian comedy programming. Strongly recommended.

8/10

- “2 Man No Show“:

8/10

- “Straight, From that Side of Town“: actress Catherine Montgomery gives a brave, ferocious performance in this stream of consciousness story, portraying troubled young women at various stages in their lives. Their emotional turmoil is fueled by feelings of lust, loneliness,and separation anxiety, and they spill out of her characters like dams bursting, in poetic, profane, mile a minute monologues. Dealing with death, despair, and abandonment, the show is nonetheless very funny, and Montgomery captivates, whether she’s playing a young girl describing how her mother calms her down by combing her hair for lice, or a nymphomaniac cocktail waitress brazenly offering herself to her customers.

8/10

- “36 Little Plays About Hopeless Girls“:

8/10

- “Like a Virgin:

8/10

- “I Will Not Hatch!

8/10

- “Rock Time 2009“: this rollicking puppet musical, about a timid rock band singer who learns the true meaning of rock, boasts great set pieces, a clever script (with humour the adults will enjoy, too), good looking puppets, and an enthusiastic cast (particularly co-writer Kristen MacGregor). While not all of the puppeteers are singers of the same calibre of Bryce Kulak, who delivers a terrific performance as a bald and blue skinned “Rock God”, they all gamely sing along to the appropriately punky (if somewhat unmemorable) score. This one is potentially the best show at the KidsFringe this year.

8/10

- “Like Father, Like Son. Sorry.“: Veteran Fringe performer Chris Gibbs (“The Power of Ignorance”, “Antoine Feval”) steps out from behind his characters and delivers a very personal monologue about how becoming a father has changed him, and several very funny anecdotes about the experience. This is obviously not the theatrical tour de force much of his past solo work has been, and this being a new show, it still lacks much polish; that said, Gibbs is one of those performers who could riff off the phone book and it would make for an entertaining show. This is an honest and heartfelt effort from a very funny man.

8/10

- “Just East of Broadway“:

8/10

- “The Williamson Playboys in: Brother, Can You Spare Some Pants?“: The reliably funny “oldest living father and son Cajun music duo” made it into the Fringe for the first time this year, and consequentially, they’ve kept a lot of their old chestnuts in this new revue, for the uninitiated (the old stuff remains very funny, despite the fact I personally have seen some of the songs dozens of times). There’s also some solid new material, mostly centered around the depression in the 30’s, and a pretty hilarious new cover. As always, the interview segments conducted by Sandy Jobin Bevans, who fields questions from the crowd, are hilarious as well; these two old codgers are sharp as tacks. Here’s hoping the Playboys start making the Fringe a regular stop (if their brittle bones can handle the festival schedule).

8/10

- “Dancing in My Unbirthday Suit“:

8/10

- “The Sicilian“:

8/10

- “Nebraska“:

8/10

- “Red Machine Part 1“: This show boasts an embarrassment of riches behind the scenes, featuring 6 different writers and directors, all bright lights in the local indie theatre scene. Impeccably staged and acted, the three different scenes, loosely structured around an amnesiac writer (James Cade), all examine how different areas of the brain, when damaged, effect different behaviour. The “Red Machine” story will continue at the Summerworks and LabCab festivals later this summer, and this is a promising start.

7/10

- “Bingo: The Show“:

7/10

- “Shadows In Bloom“: Gemma Wilcox remains a remarkably gifted solo performer, capably portraying everything on stage from a gruff musician to a smoky lounge singer to a preening houseplant to a just struck match, and her characters in this new show are eminently watchable. But while her physical characterizations have been buffed to a high sheen, the narrative structure of this new story needs a bit more polish. In particular, the good-hearted lug boyfriend of her main character gets short shrift towards the end of the show. Gemma’s work is still some of the best physical storytelling you’ll see at the Fringe, and I have no doubt she’ll work out the bumps in this new story after a few more runs. Perhaps we’ll see a revamped version next year?

7/10

- “Charles Manson & Timothy Leary at Folsom Prison: Based on a True Story“:

7/10

- “Scaredy Kat“:

7/10

- “Tim Buck 2“:

7/10

- “Toys“:

7/10

- “Chicken Licken“:

7/10

- “The Parker & Seville Show“:

7/10

- “How to Make a Mixtape“:

7/10

- “Puck Bunny“:

6/10

- “The Silver Stage (“Once More, With Feeling”)“:

6/10 OR 10/10

- “Things Base and Weill: Love Can Transpose!“: There’s always at least one show in the Fringe that uses Shakespeare as a jumping off point; this one also throws Kurt Weill in for good measure. Unfortunately, it’s hard enough to find accomplished triple threats, let alone actors who can wield a sword as well, and with the notable exceptions of David Kirby and Siobhan Richardson (who displays admirable dexterity in all 4 of the required disciplines), several of the cast members are lacking in at at least one respect, with cracked notes in songs, and wooden or hammy delivery in the scenes. It also doesn’t help that the format doesn’t allow any of the characters an arc; the whole thing comes across as an extended audition showcase, which doesn’t play to all of the actor’s strengths.

5/10

- “Joe, The Perfect Man“: clown Rachelle Elie’s bumbling and overconfident character Joe is amusing in small doses, but the structure of Joe attending an open audition for “MacBeth”, and being allowed to do whatever he wants on stage – for almost an hour – simply doesn’t fly. The show livened up when she pulled audience members up on stage, but even with a packed and obviously appreciative opening night crowd, none of the gags ever built up to a point that the audience was rolling in the aisles. Elie is an entertaining performer, and “Joe” still has potential as a character, but the “audition”, which would work as a short variety show piece, is too flimsy a premise to hang an hour long show on.

5/10

- “Because I Can“: You couldn’t ask for a cast and director with more comedic talent, which is why I was so disappointed with this show. It’s a poorly constructed farce / black comedy, chock full of ancient, stereotypical, 2-dimensional characters,  like a good-hearted janitor who speaks abominable English, and a supremely overconfident yet incompetent doctor. Just minutes into the show, I found myself wishing the cast would just ditch the script and improvise the rest of the show; alas, they fought their instincts and stuck with it to the bitter end. There were a few laughs here and there, mostly due to the performers’ comic timing; I’m quite confident they weren’t in the script.

4/10

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  1. dance junkie
    August 13th, 2009 at 09:56 | #1

    are you ever going to finish your fringe reviews?

  2. August 14th, 2009 at 14:50 | #2

    No, I’m afraid not.

    I was too burnt out by the end of the festival, and by the time I had recovered and had enough free time to consider writing more, too much time had passed; I didn’t feel it would be fair to write a “review” so long after seeing the show(s), as I don’t keep very detailed notes.

    I edited the post a few weeks back to indicate that i wouldn’t be posting any more reviews, though perhaps that wasn’t clear: I’ll put a note at the top of the post.

    That said, if anyone is looking for my impressions or input on a particular Fringe (or Summerworks) show, email me directly, and I’ll do my best to answer any questions you might have.

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