Big Love a big challenge at Toronto Fringe

Big Love

When you first walk into the Randolph Centre for the Performing Arts’ Annex Theatre, you are struck by a musty darkness. One deep breath and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d mistakenly walked into a derelict used-book store.

Tonight was a little different though. Although the smell was still there, the stage was not barren. Rather, it was populated by a half-naked DJ, pumping the jams in high heels and a gold lame mask, ready to celebrate Big Love. And that’s when the party started.

Big Love tells the story of 50 reluctant brides, who escape to Italy to avoid marriage to 50 cousins. As they try to talk their way into an estate, the cousins arrive to claim their women. The battle of wills–both within and between the camps–has begun.

As someone who likes a lot of story in my drama, this very much felt like a 20-minute play stretched out over 70 minutes. The other 50 minutes? Long-winded soliloquies about sex, gender and conflicting agendas for the hard-of-thinking.

50 brides for 50 cousins

50 brides for 50 cousins

There was a moment, however, when I thought the playwright (Charles L. Mee) might reach for something more than a steroidal rendition of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. A couple times, the speeches floated to the plight of refugees and women pushed to the edge, abandoned by their families, communities and countries.

For that fleeting moment, I wondered if the mass marriage was a metaphor for a larger message about slavery and subjugation. I walked away disappointed in this regard.

That being said, the actors’ performances were generally quite good. In particular, I tip my fedora to Matt Lacas (Piero) who I felt did a wonderful job as the perpetual salesman and host, stuck between the warring camps and knowing no one could ever be happy.

I also greatly enjoyed Rosie Callaghan (Olympia) who I felt gave a scintillating performance as a young woman struggling with a personal civil war of self-identification versus the need to be loved.

The choreography feels like a work in progress, however, the many numbers feeling slightly or grossly out of step. And although the women seemed to move smoothly enough, I saw little synchrony in the men’s numbers.

And then the unexplained flinging of bodies to the ground completely baffled me. I can only hope it was a metaphor for something, but goodness knows.

What I thought the actors lacked in coordination, however, I felt they more than made up for in vocal skills. Each of the handful of songs felt like a masterpiece in harmonies, most sung acapella. For me, these were the magical moments in the performance and left me wishing the entire play had been set to music.

Had Big Love been even a third shorter, I might have enjoyed it. But I didn’t feel my dissatisfaction was for lack of effort on the parts of the performers. This fell squarely on the shoulders of the playwright and director.

Case in point was the play’s ending, which felt like a complete cop-out.

Big disappointment

Big disappointment

[Adapted from a review that originally appeared in Mooney on Theatre.]

Hamlet…A Puppet Epic! at Toronto Fringe (a review)

Zip & Shakes make Hamlet approachable for kids

Zip & Shakes make Hamlet approachable for kids

Your dad just died. Your mom married your uncle, who stole your crown. Your girlfriend went bonkers. And your best friends are trying to kill you.

You thought being an 8-year-old was tough.

Who in their right minds would try to turn Shakespeare’s Hamlet into a puppet show for kids? Shakey-Shake and Friends would, offering  Hamlet…A Puppet Epic! at Toronto FringeKids! 2015.

Before you even step into the theatre, you know that the producers understand the challenge they’ve set for themselves.

“We’re doing the whole thing (deaths and all), but in a light-hearted way,” reads a sign outside the theatre. “Everyone who dies gets a very silly ghost sheet and continue to comment on the action! (It’s not too scary.)”

And as far as I’m concerned, they deliver on their promise. From the moment the lights come up to the second they finally drop, the puppeteers put everything they have into entertaining their audience.

Whether it’s one of the characters, or the erstwhile hosts Shakes and Zip (pictured above), somebody always steps forward to help the kids understand what’s going on. And they do it without ever coming across as teacher-y, or at least, not for very long without a heavy dose of silliness hard on its heels.

What does the “to be or not to be” speech mean? Why does Hamlet’s mom not clue in to what’s going on? It’s all explained, gently and sweetly, to the kids without ever being condescending.

And nicely, the cast knows that their audience extends well beyond the 6- to 10-year-olds. Throughout the play, there are jokes for all ages and references from popular events and news items from last week, last year and last century.

This appears to be a very good decision, because about 85% of the capacity premiere crowd was well beyond puberty.

Having spent some time as a puppeteer, I didn’t think the puppetry technique was particularly solid, but I’m pretty sure I was the only one who cared. It didn’t seem to stop the wall-to-wall smiles and laughter that held the audience from start to finish.

I thought all of the performances were quite strong, but the show was absolutely stolen—if laughter volume is any indication—by Shakes/Polonius. Even in death, this character managed laughs that literally stopped the show.

Hamlet…A Puppet Epic! is easily the most entertaining hour I have spent in years.

[Review first appeared in Mooney on Theatre.]