Sunday, June 29, 2014

Don't Just Stand There Toronto! Plan to See Some Fringe Theatre!

Well boys and girls, it's that time of year again.  The giant sign is up on the side of the Bathurst Street Theatre. A Fringe program sits on my desk full of tantalizing theatrical possibilities.

There are clean sheets and towels and late-night snacks laid in for my Fringe billet and me.  On Wednesday, the eleven-day extravaganza begins.

Of all the weeks in my theatre calendar, the ones with FRINGE written on them remain my favourites.

The anticipation, whether I'm mounting a production or just watching, is delicious. I love a three show day that ends in the beer tent on a warm night, chatting with friends, comparing notes on what we've seen and catching up with each other.

I won't get to as many shows as I'd like to.  I never do.

As the festival opens, here is a list of a few things ( in no particular order)  I plan to try and make it to and why I think they're work considering.

WHO KILLED GERTRUDE CRUMP?  West Coast-based Monster Theatre doesn't come east of Winnipeg very often. Tara Travis is a wonderful performer of great charm, skill and invention and she's brought puppets for grown-ups, which is one of her fortes.  This will be a treat.

SLUT:  I've seen parts of Erin Thompson's show in development and it was provocative, in all the best ways.  Thompson is a good actress  and I want to see where she goes with this material.

GOLD FEVER:  The last Keystone Theatre production I saw was a delight and I seldom get to see this kind of physical theatre.

FANTASTIC EXTRAVAGANCE:  Steady State did HATCH! which I really enjoyed and Clyde Whitham is in this, which is always a reason for me to put my bum in a seat.

JEM ROLLS:  ONE MAN TRAFFIC JAM:  Jem is Fringe royalty and the advance press from Ottawa on this show was very good.

PETER AND CHRIS at the SORT of OK CORRAL:  At some point, you're going to need a laugh.  These guys can deliver the comedy goods and they won't offend your mom.

ROLLER DERBY SAVED MY SOUL:  Nancy Kenny is a smart writer and this show had great buzz in Edmonton and Ottawa.

THE TROJAN WOMEN:  New theatre school grads take on Greeks.  This kind of thing always makes me nervous and excited.

NO CHANCE IN HELL:  It's a new musical.  I thought the plot sounded charming. Susan Wesson is in it and that woman can sing.  Besides, I like musicals.  Sue me.

RED HEADED STEPCHILD & AMUSEMENT:  Johnnie Walker reprises his hit.  I missed it the last time. Now's my chance.

PUNCH UP:  More high-octane dramedy from the prolific Kat Sandler and the Theatre Brouhaha crew.  I loved HELP YOURSELF and hope to check this out.

PARALLEL PLAY:  Well-known comedy writer Elvira Kurt teams up with Megan Falenbock in a sketch comedy about love, work and parenting.  A good bet for a night out with that exhausted mommy-blogger in your life.

THE DARK FANTASTIC:  Martin Dockerty consistently 5 stars and sells out across the country. Friends who saw this in Winnipeg last year loved it.

THE DEVIL'S CIRCUS:  A puppet company from Winnipeg adapts Orpheus and Eurydice using Bunraku puppets and 19th century trick marionettes.  I'm so there!

So this is my short-list before the festival starts.  I haven't covered any dance or site-specific here, but I do plan to see some of that work as well.  Oh yes, and my billet is here from Montreal with BARD FICTION described as "Shakespeare meets Tarantino".  Now that sounds like a Fringe adventure!

In case you were wondering: I've seen shows in the past two weeks, but near or at the end of their runs.

Dance goddess Louise Lecavalier gave a mesmerizing and bravura performance in her choreographic debut, SO BLUE at the end of LUMINATO, marred only by the fact that latecomers arrived 20 minutes into an 80 minute show of arresting intensity and tromped down to their seats near the front, in the middle of a row, with two flustered, flash-light wielding ushers in tow.

I won't have that problem next week.  The Fringe does not admit latecomers. LUMINATO might want to consider adopting the same policy, or at least making sure late patrons know they'll sit, quietly at the back, if there's room or watch the performance on television in the lobby.  Those two patrons certainly behaved as if they were watching TV at home, with nary a care for the performers or the hundreds of people they disturbed with their disruptive entrance.

I also saw a very solid independent production of JULIUS CAESAR by the ENDEAN Collective with a 15 member, all-female cast.  It was skillfully and intelligently directed by Jennifer Parr and well performed.  The tale of a state collapsing into civil unrest after the murder of a dictator felt ripped from the headlines. The Red Sandcastle Theatre was packed and that was heartening as the company got little press and had a very limited publicity budget.

I know that's the case for most Fringe performers.  Merde to all the staff, volunteers and performers as they prepare for the festival opening.  I look very forward to seeing what delights await.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

SHELTER:  Post Nuclear Opera

Do you ever go see a show and walk out thinking:  "that was really interesting and very well done, but I'm not sure what the hell just happened?"

That was me last night at SHELTER, the latest production from TAPESTRY NEW OPERA in co-production with EDMONTON OPERA.

The show is gorgeous and fascinating to look at, thanks to a dream design team of  Sue LePage (scenery and costumes) Robert Thomson (lighting) and Ben Chaisson with Beth Kates (video).  A huge round screen fills the sky above the stage, floating a series of thought-provoking and beautiful images above the playing area which is surrounded by a tiny fence comprised of drawings of bungalows.

We are in post-nuclear America somewhere and a geeky, repressed guy Thomas (well-sung and well-performed by Andrew Love)  meets meets the out-going Claire, (Christine Duncan whose acting is as good as her fine singing)  and they quickly marry and have a little girl, Hope (the beautifully voiced and emotionally compelling Teiya Kasahara).  Hope is born damaged, emanating a eerie glow.  Her parents keep her inside and home school her.

At the same time as this disturbed domestic enclave is being established, physicist, Lise Meitner (an excellent Andrea Ludwig) is fleeing Germany (the real Meitner was Jewish but spent the war in exile in Sweden) and avoiding being signed up for the Manhattan Project which was responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb.

SHELTER plays fast and loose with historic time-lines and history.  It's OK:  you can suspend your disbelief.  Meitner ends up as Hope's governess in America.

One day, a handsome pilot appears out of the sky with a Geiger counter (Keith Klassen who plays the role with great bravado) that leads him to Hope.  Does he love her?  Or does he want to take her away for some more nefarious military purpose?

The six-piece orchestra does a fine job with the score. The staging by director Keith Turnbull and movement coach, Jo Leslie is very well-done. I found the piece beautiful to look and listen to. The performances were all fine.

Librettist Julie Salverson says in her program notes that the show was developed in part using red-nose clown.  I could certainly see that, especially in the characters of Claire, Thomas and Hope.

In spite of its many virtues, SHELTER struggles due to an uneven tone textually and in performance, which, coupled with a certain amount of narrative murkiness, pulled me out of the story intermittently and kept me from liking this as much as I would have liked to. A few more clean decisions would have taken this from good to great.

SHELTER is certainly interesting and well worth seeing.  Expect a great looking and sounding show with very good performances.  Just don't expect great narrative clarity.

Shelter plays at Berkely Street Theatre Downstairs, 26 Berkeley Street until June 14th.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Who's in There?: Queer Bathroom Stories at BUDDIES IN BAD TIMES THEATRE

You are where (and how) you pee.  Or are you?

This week, a commercial independent remount QUEER BATHROOM STORIES, the 2011 Audience-Pick Award winner at the Toronto Fringe opened in Buddies' Mainspace.

The script is an adaptation by sociology professor Shelia Cavanagh of  her book, "Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality and the Hygienic Imagination."  The book is based on over 100 interviews with LGBTQ and Two-Spirited people about their experiences in public washrooms. This is Cavanagh's  first stab at writing a play.

It's one thing to concoct a sociology thesis from 100 disparate tales, but quite another to make a play out of them. There is plenty of dramatic material here. The stories selected are by turns, disturbing, funny, sexy, terrifying and achingly sad.

The terrific cast of Tyson James, Chy Ryan Spain and Haille Burt are a great boon to the production, shifting effortlessly though the dozens of people they play through the evening. A few of those characters, especially the kids, stayed with me long after I left the theatre.

The show features a set by Cory Sincennes that is a marvel of simplicity and sophistication, consisting of a series of panels with demarcated "tile"  that can be made transparent or largely opaque with a shift of lighting.   Sincennes created  a  men's and women's space on opposite sides with a liminal space in between that the characters occupy and drift through as they are forced to or refuse to choose  the "side" society forced them into. The toilets positioned on either side of the stage and covered with mounds of tp are there simply to define parameters.

Coupled with Megan Watson's intelligent and clear direction, the storytelling is well-supported and enhanced by the visual elements.

However, there is no story arc that a play requires. The design and direction give the show a good form and the performers make the material compelling. This is a set of stories constructed to support a thesis that the writer hammers unsubtly home at the end.

The bench mark for transforming this kind of found narrative from a wide range of sources into coherent drama probably remains George Luscombe's adaptation ( with Cedric Smith and others) of Barry Broadfoot's  non-fiction book, 10 LOST YEARS. As we sat in Luscombe's former theatre, I wondered what dramaturgical notes he would have given Ms. Cavanagh on transforming an academic book into a night of theatre.

This is a wonderful evening of storytelling, well shaped and well-performed. It's a topic well-worth discussing as a community as we head towards World Pride here in Toronto. Certainly Cavanagh and her talented crew furnish the audience with plenty to discuss after the show.  If you take QUEER BATHROOM STORIES on its own merits, it is well worth a look.

It runs until June 15th at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.