Behold, easily the best of Fringe Toronto

BtB-Subway-Poster-For-Web

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.

Singer

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.

Valuable lessons in Legs Crossed Hands On Your Lap at Toronto Fringe

Teachers say the darndest things!

Teachers say the darndest things!

The first day of school can be a pretty scary time; learning all new rules, meeting so many kids, and finding out which teachers are the mean ones. And as Ms. X (Debra Hale) shows us in Legs Crossed Hands On Your Lap, it can be harder on the teachers than the kids. Her story opened its Toronto Fringe run today at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

Legs Crossed Hands On Your Lap follows a year in the life of new teacher Ms. X as she tries to figure out students and adults alike. The result is a heart-felt and often funny tribute to the second oldest profession. Or as playwright Yael Sirlin describes it, an open love letter to teachers.

Although Hale carries the bulk of the dialogue on stage, she is given amazing support by Jamillah Ross and Stevie Jay, who from my seat, seemed to be having the bulk of the fun on stage. Playing anything from teachers to students, principals to parents, Ross and Jay are a whirlwind of strange voices and oddball body language. And as cute as their child characters were, it was their portrayals of control-freak teachers that seemed to generate the most laughs from the audience.

Stevie Jay has some issues with teacher Debra Hale and fellow student Jamillah Ross

Stevie Jay has some issues with teacher Debra Hale and fellow student Jamillah Ross

The play isn’t simply Kids Say the Darndest Things Live, however. In a couple of places, the tone took a darker turn as the actors dealt with more serious issues like bullying. This was where the opportunity for a teacher to touch a student’s life took centre stage.

Those moments aside, as Fringe fare goes, Legs Crossed Hands On Your Lap felt pretty light. It likely won’t make you re-examine your life or challenge your thoughts on art.

But then I don’t think that was the intention of the piece. Instead, it is here to entertain and to celebrate teachers with all of their foibles. And in this, I felt it totally succeeded as a highly enjoyable hour of smiles and laughter.

[Review first published at Mooney on Theatre.]

The Women of Tu-Na House needs some massaging (a review)

Writer/performer Nancy Eng takes us inside a NYC massage parlor

Writer/performer Nancy Eng takes us inside a NYC massage parlor

I generally don’t like one-person shows. Because the onus is on one actor to relate a story, often without much more than narration, I find myself wishing I could just read the play. Thus, I headed to theSt. Vladimir Theatre to see the Toronto Fringe premier of The Women of Tu-Na House with some trepidation.

The one thing that gave me hope going in was that writer/actorNancy Eng had created a show in which she played a half-dozen characters. Thus, I hoped, there would likely be one or several characters I could latch onto. Sadly, it didn’t work out that way.

The Women of Tu-Na House practice a traditional Chinese massage technique at a New York massage parlour. As we learn through a series of vignettes, each woman ended up here under very different circumstances, and several of the women decided there was money to be made by offering additional services.

The tea server who was once a man

The tea server who was once a man

Interestingly, in the show’s program, Eng is quick to state that the women made their choices willingly and feel no shame in their actions. And yet, despite asserting that these women aren’t victims, at least half of the monologues tell stories of victimization, whether by husbands, home towns or customers.

But that aside, for me, the biggest challenge of the performance was Eng’s inability to inhabit the characters she portrayed. Although she told each character’s story—with some difficulty, as she routinely stumbled her lines—it never felt like she became those women. Try as she might, it was always Nancy Eng on stage and a bad French accent, for example, wasn’t about to change that.

The performance was also let down by a faulty sound system. Every time Eng changed character, the lights would go down and she would change costume. While this happened, the next character would explain her origin story in voice over. Unfortunately, the sound system kept garbling the voice over so that by the time the lights came up, I had no idea who Eng was portraying.

The host for happy endings

The host for happy endings

Seemingly recognizing the premiere’s challenges, she apologized to the audience during the curtain call for her rough voice and allergy issues. Even she, it seemed, felt that tonight’s performance wasn’t up to code.

The show has played to raves at other festivals; for example, it won Best of Solo at Hollywood Fringe. And I definitely thought there were some poignant and funny moments during the performance. I can only hope that the theatre and Eng manage to pull things together for the rest of the Toronto Fringe run.

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

OverTime finds truth under artifice (a review)

When all else is stripped away, only truth remains

When all else is stripped away, only truth remains

“Being naked and too honest makes you predictable and maudlin,” chided one of the characters early in OverTime, which premiered tonight at the Robert Gill Theatre for the Toronto Fringe Festival. And for the next 85 minutes or so, the cast proved the exact opposite was true.

In some ways, watching OverTime was like redecorating a home, peeling back the decades of paint one layer at a time. As each coat is removed, you uncover the laughter and tears of that moment in time. And once the last layer is gone and the history is revealed, all that’s left is the truth.

It is only as the play deepens that we learn that truth is what retired school teacher Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) feared most when she uttered that line to her protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier). As Carla mentored Darby to become the next great playwright, she argued that mystery must be maintained.

Truth was also the motivation behind the other plotline of the play as young blogger and photographer Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to pull her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy) out of the safe environs of the hockey rink. A successful coach on the outside, Linus is a wreck inside, and Jewel wants to ease that burden.

Mentor Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) advises protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier)

Mentor Carla (Elva Mai Hoover) advises protégé Darby (Timothy Eckmier)

OverTime playwright Romeo Ciolfi did an amazing job weaving these two story lines together. With each passing moment, it felt like another layer of paint was removed to reveal a bit more of the truth. And at least for me, the story was anything but predictable.

Sure, I felt Ciolfi could get a little heavy-handed with the metaphors. I would not have been surprised, on occasion to have seen a surtitle card reading “Metaphor here”, but I never felt they detracted from the increasingly tightly woven story.

What impressed me even more, however, was how the same layered revelations arose from each of the characters. With each passing moment, the characters became deeper and darker. Part of this richness was the writing, but I also credit the cast.

Daughter Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to help her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy)

Daughter Jewel (Andrea Brown) struggles to help her father Linus (Tufford Kennedy)

Rarely do I praise an entire cast of a production, but I could not find fault with any of the performances. And no single actor deserves loftier praise than any other. To me, this was an ensemble performance. Remove any one of these actors and I don’t think this play would have been as good.

As with the play, there were times when impassioned performance became overwrought melodrama, but I largely felt these moments were the exception. These actors and their descent into raw truth had me mesmerized for 90 minutes, and I found myself praying we would go into overtime.

Without hesitation, I would watch this performance again and again, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

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

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.]