Artists I adore (and you should follow)

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Barnaby Dixon – puppetry

As many of you know, I am nutso for puppetry and have somehow managed to know some amazingly talented puppeteers. But as much as I adore my friends, one fellow blows me away not just for his skill as a puppeteer, but also as a puppet designer.

For a guy that looks like he’s 12—I’m over 50, so you all look 12 to me—Barnaby Dixon seems ancient in his craft and wisdom. From the very first YouTube video I watched, he has dazzled me with his love of the art form, his ability to bring the inanimate to life, and his presentation style that draws you in and makes you feel like this is a private conversation. Stellar!

Visit Barnaby’s web site, Facebook page and Twitter account

 

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Baram & Snieckus – comedy

I know, I know. I have to get past my addiction to these beautiful sketch and improv wunderkinds. But I can’t help myself.

Apart, Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus are wonderfully funny and vulnerable and endearing, but together, they rocket off the charts.

As I have reviewed previously (see below), Baram & Snieckus are to the modern era what Stiller & Meara and Nichols & May were to theirs, people who express the challenges and wonders of social awkwardness, allowing us to laugh at the things that frighten us in our daily lives.

No one is more neurotic than Matt…until Naomi erupts in her own mental mushroom cloud.

And that this husband-and-wife team are beautiful, friendly, giving, caring people is an absolute bonus.

You can follow Matt & Naomi on their web site, Facebook page or Twitter.

 

See also:

You and Me Both – A revue review

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

 

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Filippa Levemark – visual arts

As a photographer, I adore nature. As a writer, I adore bizarre or interesting juxtapositions. Thus, I had no choice but to fall in love with Filippa Levemark’s work.

With the seemingly simplest of compositions, Filippa combines nature and human infrastructure to powerfully demonstrate that the two worlds are one and the same. Try as it might, humanity cannot hold itself as distinct from the wildlife that surrounds us, nor should it.

Her work is beautifully approachable and yet is rife with meaning, offering depths that may be missed at first glance.

Based in Sweden, my greatest hope is to find a way for her to bring her works to Canada.

You can follow Filippa on her web site, Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

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Irene Carl Sankoff & David Hein – musical theatre

As a student at Toronto’s Second City Training Centre several years ago, I had the great fortune to meet and do improv with a gorgeous and talented actress named Irene Sankoff, a truly giving performer.

Years later, I heard that Irene and her husband David Hein had created the somewhat autobiographical stage musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which played to wonderful reviews in Toronto. What I didn’t realize was that the musical would explode in the theatre world both in Canada and abroad, setting these two up as a creative force of nature.

And just this past year, they have repeated (and likely surpassed) that success with a new musical Come From Away, based on events in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 when hundreds of air passengers found themselves suddenly grounded.

The musical just completed a spectacularly successful run in Toronto and begins Broadway previews on Feb 18 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, where it is sure to sell out quickly.

But like my Baram & Snieckus comment above, what makes these two particularly special is that they are genuinely wonderful people and have such love for their craft and for the people who come see the show.

Recently, on a frigid Toronto morning, the pair brought coffee and donuts to fans waiting for rush tickets to their final Toronto performance (Toronto Star article). The pair and performers from the show entertained the small crowd, singing songs and chatting with the chilled throng. That is simply beautiful.

Follow Irene & David’s adventures on their web site, Facebook and Twitter.

 

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

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If Elaine May and Mike Nichols were alive today that would be horrible, because Nichols was buried two years ago. (May is still alive.)

That said, I am sure they would be happy to know that the legacy they started in the 1950s is being continued quite ably by Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram, who previewed their latest revue tonight at the John Candy Box Theatre in Toronto.

Long-standing staples on the Toronto comedy scene, Snieckus and Baram are veterans of the Second City and both have had their turn at television (Mr. D and Seed, respectively). But this real-life husband and wife are at their strongest when they stand across the stage from each other and reveal their neuroses in a mass therapy session that other people pay $15 to see.

The new show is aptly titled as they truly are still figuring it out. A combination of sketches, Nichols & May-style audio pieces, some improv, and playful audience banter, the show, which runs about 60 minutes, is still a work-in-progress, some bits decidedly more solid than others. But in many respects, that is the charm of a Baram & Snieckus production; it never feels complete.

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This is a couple who consistently commit to their craft, who are willing to run with anything that comes up—including an audience suggestion of Dante’s cab ride, which turned into a motivational moment for an under-performing Satan with Daddy issues. But what makes this particularly charming is they are not afraid to let the audience know when they realize a bit isn’t working, and we all lean forward to see how they’ll extract themselves.

Their choice of venue facilitates this intimacy with the audience.

Although I have every confidence that Baram & Snieckus would have no trouble holding an audience in a large theatre, all of the revues that I have attended occurred in small venues, holding no more than 100 seats. The John Candy Box Theatre is no exception, and the audience sits so close to the stage that they become a tripping hazard for the performers.

Thus, when you see Baram & Snieckus perform, it is like you’re watching their lives from their living room.

[For the record, I have never been in their living room and this completely unnecessary ankle bracelet chafes.]

That intimacy, that vulnerability is the charm that bonds this team to the audience. These are your best friends and you are about to see them at their worst moment. Over and over and over again.

It’s schadenfreude for swingers. [The title of their next revue?]

One thing that was different from previous revues is the pair have started filming some of their classic sketches, and they projected two—from their previous revue You and Me Both—for tonight’s audience. This is part of a larger effort by the couple to make more of their material available online to audiences.

Still Figuring It Out, which runs until Friday, September 30, is practically sold out, so you’ll want to snatch the last few tickets soon, if you’re not already too late.

Alternatively, look for them on the web site of their company National Theatre of the World.

You will find laughs, and maybe a few insights as you too still figure it out.

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See also:

Toronto Star review of Still Figuring It Out by Carly Maga

My review of You & Me Both

Brian Henson talks to me (sorta)

Brian and me

It could’a happened

As many of you know, I am a massive puppetry fan and have even written comedy for puppets (nasty beggars). And one of my favourite puppet performances–only after my own SomeTV!–is Puppet Up! – Uncensored, produced by the Henson Company under the leadership of Brian Henson, son of Jim (sounds biblical, doesn’t it).

In preparation for their upcoming run in Las Vegas (July 21 – August 31 at the Venetian), Puppet Up! put out a call for people to submit questions to Brian…so you know I had to.

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Well, kudos for Brian’s bravery, as he just responded in a two-part video (unfortunately, cannot embed video from Twitter so please click on link).

Cheers to the entire group for taking the time to do this…it was fun (at least, for me).

And if you’re even thinking of heading to Vegas, be sure to check out Puppet Up! – Uncensored at the Venetian. I guarantee you will have a great evening.

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Hanging with the Puppet Up! cast and characters after the Toronto finale

See also:

Puppet Up! visits Toronto

SomeTV! spreads like herpes at Burning Man

Behold, easily the best of Fringe Toronto

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I may have to give up comedy writing. Based on the sold-out sketch comedy show I saw last night at Toronto’s Monarch Tavern—part of the annual Fringe Festival—I am a flailing hack or self-deluded pretender.

Brought to us by the disturbed mind of Justin Haigh under the umbrella of Spoon vs. Hammer, Behold, the Barfly is a delightful show that is possibly the most consistently funny sketch comedy performance I have seen in ages, and if its run is limited solely to Toronto Fringe, we all lose out.

Trying not to spoil any of the sketches, let me just say that they are all really solid…even the ones that opened weak only to demonstrate that this was done on purpose. As a comedy fan and writer, I often found myself anticipating the direction of a sketch only to be surprised by a solid twist that never felt manipulative or like a bad M. Night Shyamalan moment.

The casting was amazing, each performer bringing his or her unique absurdity to the performance, and presenting the sketches with such vitality that they almost felt improvised (in the good sense). These are performers comfortable with their material, which is critical for sketch comedy.

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Ned Petrie is the classical Everyman who just wants to be loved (Credit: Laura Dittman)

Ned Petrie is clearly the anchor for this show. He does one delicious take after another on the Everyman, a stoic witness to the world gone mad. Eric Miinch is the clown, doing his damnedest to break up his scene partners with ad libs that enhance rather than disrupt the scenes in which he finds himself.

Elizabeth Anacleto is the shape-shifter, becoming whatever her role requires with mercurial fluidity even when required to shift smoothly within a single sketch. Marsha Mason—whom I should note I know personally—is a talent who can say more with a single facial expression than with the best written dialogue.

Jeff Hanson and Steve Hobbs are mesmerizing on stage, each one bringing an intensity to their performances that cannot be ignored, especially in one particularly disturbing turn by Hobbs. Kevin MacPherson and Sarah Thorpe, meanwhile, ably glue the entire construction together, the former largely coming in from left field at every turn.

If I have one criticism of the show, it is that it completely under-utilizes the amazingly talented women in the cast, the male performers generally taking the most significant roles.

As a male comedy writer, I completely understand the challenge of consciously writing female roles without looking like you’re writing female roles. It is not sufficient to simply lop the penis off a male character.

If Haigh and his team are given the opportunity to remount this show—dear comedy gods, let this be so—I would hope he takes time to tap more deeply the talents of these wonderful women.

In the meantime, if I want to keep writing comedy—because it’s all about me—I am seriously going to have to up my game.

Behold, the Barfly Cast

Seamless casting: (L to R) Hobbs, Thorpe, MacPherson, Miinch, Petrie, Mason, Anacleto, Hanson (Credit: Laura Dittman)

Behold, the Barfly continues at Monarch Tavern until July 10. After that, we can only hope.

NeoHuman podcast, starring me

Willis NeoHuman

My friend Agah Bahari is interested in everything, which is one of the things that I love about him.

Not that long ago, he decided to indulge his interests by starting something he calls the NeoHuman podcast (which matches nicely with his NeoHuman blog), inviting many of the interesting people he knows to discuss pretty much anything that comes up.

Well, seems he ran out of interesting people and so he invited me to participate…and we talked about anything: biotechnology, pharma, global healthcare, designer babies, creativity, writing, screenwriting, 9/11, marketing, and the novel he and I are writing about his life.

But my favourite part is the question he asks all his guest, which is roughly:

If you met an intelligent alien life-form, what would you describe as the greatest human accomplishment and as the worst human accomplishment?

Never boring, my friend Agah.

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(Photo stolen with love from Kelly Brienz Showker)

You and Me Both – a revue review

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As a disclaimer, I should tell you that I am in love with Toronto comedian Naomi Snieckus. What keeps this from getting too awkward—for me, at least—is the fact that I am also in love with her comedic partner and husband Matt Baram.

There. I said it. It is out in the open. Let the restraining order chips land where they may.

Last night was the preview of Baram and Snieckus’ latest stage revue You and Me Both, playing at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille – Backspace. And short of attending the show in the performers’ living room, a more intimate setting could not be found.

Minimalist is too long a word to convey how intimate the Backspace is. As the sell-out crowd of about 40 patrons stirred on their Obus-form cushions, we were faced with an almost barren stage but for a handful of stools and chairs, the furnishings hearkening back to Baram & Snieckus’ days as performers at Toronto’s Second City. And the stage itself was little more than a black box that Schrödinger’s cat wouldn’t be caught dead in (or not).

The reason I go on about the environment is because this is the setting in which Baram & Snieckus work best. When you see these two perform, it is less a classical theatre experience where the actors remain in a distinct world, separated from the audience. Instead, the audience is embraced by the performers—not literally, more’s the shame—and shy of being brought on stage, are used by the performers to heighten and inform the performance. As an audience member, you feel special in their presence (see earlier disclaimer).

But onto the comedy.

Unlike most Baram & Snieckus performances where improvisational scenes take the day—you will be hard-pressed to find two better improv performers—You and Me Both is a scripted show, a combination of sketch and musical revue, most of which worked really well.

The opening musical number was a bit uneven, Snieckus seeming more comfortable with the music and routine than Baram. Astaire and Rogers these two aren’t, but Snieckus sold it for everything she was worth. Baram musically redeemed himself later in the show, however, in a number that played to his strength as a performer: frustrated under-achiever.

The sketches, however, were classic Baram & Snieckus as the two latched onto characters of all stripes. After a decade of performing together, the two are perfect foils for each other. If screwball comedies ever became vogue again, these two are Rock Hudson and Doris Day (with Snieckus as Hudson).

Screwball

As scene transitioned to scene, Baram & Snieckus chameleoned into their roles, the muscle memory of improv turning them into the characters rather than simply performing them. That being said, the only bit that really fell flat last night was ironically the lone improv piece.

Watching these two perform is tantamount to witnessing a comedic kaleidoscope, every twist and turn bringing something new to dazzle the eyes and ears. You and Me Both is just the latest twist and more than lives up to expectations.

The intermission-free show, which was listed as 80 minutes but has been cut to 65, runs until November 1 with shows at 7:30 pm and weekend matinees at 2 pm. Knowing these two, each performance will offer something new, so consider seeing the show more than once. For $20, you’re unlikely to spend a more entertaining hour.

Related:

Baram and Snieckus are the city’s most laughable couple (Toronto Star)

National Theatre of the World

On shaky Groundlings (a review)

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Just got back from seeing a preview of The Groundlings latest improv show entitled Slippery When Groundlings and really have only one response: Watch for the names Jill Sachoff-Matson and Alex Staggs. I don’t know when these two artists will hit it big, but I guarantee you they will.

Unlike the standard Second City shows I am used to watching, this one didn’t seem to have much of a theme beyond irritating people…but then, all sketch and improv comedy seems to be reduced to irritating people. And given the reputation of The Groundlings, I was surprised at how many sketches seemed to be one joke spread over 3 or 4 minutes. I expect that from student shows, but I expect more from main stage casts.

The first third of the show was evenly bad with the exception of a piece called “Carl’s Jr.”, where Sachoff-Matson first caught my attention as a dweeby woman who has been run down and then backed over by life.

Jill Sachoff-Matson

Jill Sachoff-Matson

The second third picked up somewhat, starting with “Church Camping Trip”, but a solid premise was completely let down by a lack of where to go with it. It’s a good sketch, it just needs more brainstorming. This was followed by Sachoff-Matson’s “Kindergarten”, which actually caused me to laugh out loud. Sachoff-Matson is mesmerizing both physically and in how her mind works, particularly as she portrayed yet another train-wreck character.

But just when I thought I had seen the best part of the show, Alex Staggs shows up with “Giving Up”, a lounge act in which he gets the audience involved with hilarious results. I would be willing to see where Staggs goes with this every night because he exudes comedic range with this.

Alex Staggs

Alex Staggs

Following the short intermission, Ariane Price gave us her send up of sad-sack informercials with “Emulsion”, another audience participation bit that was incredibly tight because of the character Price portrayed. You felt so sorry for her Eastern European refugee glam-girl wannabe that your heart melted and you wanted to give her a hug.

Ariane Price

Ariane Price

The problem was, the crew then wasted all that good will with “Sub”, a throwaway bit about an aged substitute teacher who has trouble reading fine print on an attendance sheet. That’s it. That’s the bit.

But the show was rescued by the big musical dance finale “Brittany” where again Sachoff-Matson showed what she can do with a woman completely at odds with her world and her own body.

If I have one complaint about Sachoff-Matson’s overall performance, it is that her three best pieces all largely portrayed the same character. But where this would normally kill it for me, she managed to do so in such unique ways that it wasn’t the mortal sin it might have been.

I don’t know what other sketches they have in the hopper, but there is a definite need to replace several from tonight before this show will be solid from front to back. And while good, the other cast members are going to be challenged to shine as brightly as Sachoff-Matson and Staggs.

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