Electing to mercifully skip my year-old diatribe about how wonderful theatre festivals are, I will begin with a message to those of you who only recently starting reading me: I love theatre festivals. They are concentrated awesome.
They are where theatre begins; the hits of tomorrow, today. They are rugged, simple, and stripped down, which in the world of the relentless commoditisation of art, is a welcome change. This year’s Toronto Fringe Festival consisted of 150 shows spread over nearly two dozen venues, some fixed and some roving. Box office grosses go directly to the individual artists involved, a very rare and refreshing concept in the industry. In essence, it is theatre at its absolute bare-bones, and there is something to be said for the immediacy of that notion.
Of course with so many shows, and most in the hour-long one-act neighbourhood, there can be only so many good’uns. Think of it like a classroom: 5 kids are smart, 5 are dumb, and the rest are in the middle. So I ventured out one scorching summer day for a veritable marathon of theatre: 7 shows in twelve hours and four venues to separate the wheat from the chafe. And by chafe I mean crap.
NEW TALENT by Brian Morton
My first stop of the day was a stirring piece about a young Hamiltonian woman pushed by circumstance into the seedy "Escort" profession. Capably written and generally well-performed, the piece succeeded in bringing a level of detail to the Escort industry of which the general public is rarely afforded a glimpse. An extremely awkward first encounter between the protagonist and her john is a convincing piece of theatre, the audience sucked right into the tension between them. A clunky and unnecessary vocal narration succeeded in disrupting key expository scenes, however, and the overall effect of the piece is sabotaged by the slightly didactic ending.
Third overall in ranking of pieces I saw that day.
METRO by Linette Doherty
I’m not a dance critic, but I can tell when a dance show is bad. This one was bad. Claiming to explore the relationships people share on public transit in a major city, this show instead felt like a dance recital, featuring no clear narrative or thematic structure. Instead, dance numbers were separated by several minutes of blue-bathed stage and set changes before the lights would come up again and a dance would begin, very much like the one that had come before. The three featured dancers were quite good, with plenty of ‘hey-look-at-me’ moments, but all those acrobatics meant nothing in the face of a vacuous show. They even trucked out two little kids in tutus at one moment, causing the audience to ‘awww...’ and forget the shit they were watching for a moment. Most confusing, however, was a two-song-long dance sequence in honour of Barack Obama. And here I’d forgotten the impact that he had on the TTC.
Dead last in ranking of pieces I saw that day.
BARFLY ON THE WALL by James Gangl & Carmine Lucarelli
Described as ‘Play-Comedy’ in the Fringe Guide, I was surprised to find an improv show waiting for me in the cozy Passe Muraille backspace. Improv is one tetchy beast: catch the wrong show and you think they suck. I caught a maudlin’ show, but I thought the guys were really quite funny. The Passe Muraille back is not air-conditioned, and 40-degree temps were cooking all twelve of us in the tiny space. The feedback they got from the audience upon which to base their performance was awfully uninteresting, and the guys were having a hard time not melting on stage. Still, they brought a frenetic energy to the space and delivered which such Canadian-ness that I was that annoying ‘only-guy-in-the-room-laughing’ for most of the 50 minutes. What? I thought they were pretty funny.
Sixth but could have been higher in ranking of the pieces I saw that day.
THE NAKED BALLERINA by Sarah Murphy-Dyson
There’s a lot of craft that goes into making a one-person show. It’s hard to entertain a group of people for an hour with no one on stage but yourself. Murphy-Dyson really managed to pull it off. The story of the pain that goes on behind the scenes in a dancer’s life, this show was touching, moving, heart wrenching, hilarious and thought-provoking all at the same time. Murphy-Dyson’s writing was fantastic, seamlessly switching from the allegorical to the literal without losing moment. Her performance was strong, through variety in her left-handed tactics would have been appreciated; her default was just to break down crying. There are lots of kinds of hurt, you know. Much credit is due to her director and Romeo, Wes Berger; it felt like he imposed a good deal of restraint on the writing and helped to shape the piece into the effective beast that it was.
Certainly the second-best in ranking of the pieces I saw that day.
GOODNIGHT, AMHERST by James Fanizza
Based on one of my fave tunes (being "38 Years Old" by the Tragically Hip), this one-act-er centres around a family torn apart by murder and faced with the return of their escaped-convict oldest son. It didn’t quite accomplish in an hour what the song took three minutes to accomplish, but there were flashes of great writing and great performances here. Biggest problems involved falling into the trap of being a stereotypically Canadian "kitchen-sink" drama, all action taking place in the kitchen; this is something that our theatre really needs to get past, as there are other interesting rooms in people’s houses. The direction lacked focus and failed to find a characters through which to tell the story, only presenting the events with seeming disconnect and ambiguity. Lots of potential here, needs more workshopping.
The ‘missed-the-podium-by-that-much’ fourth in ranking of the pieces I saw that day.
A RUSH OF BLOOD TO THE HEAD by Spencer Smith
From the Hip to Coldplay, this retrospective tells the story of a young man’s short and ordinary life as a fatal bullet makes its way through his head. The retrospective thing didn’t really make sense, as the play was not presented as a flashback until the end, but some solid performances (especially portrayal of age of the protagonist’s younger brother) and an effective colour pallet made the show engaging enough to watch in spite of an odd sense of amateurism. Having a brother myself, I especially appreciated the sibling rivalry present in the piece, and the overwhelming regret at past mistakes that can tear a relationship apart.
An appreciative fifth in ranking of the pieces I saw that day.
TRUDEAUTOPIA by Glyn Bowerman
“Save the best for last” they say, and so do I. Bowerman’s script is one of the most engaging pieces of theatre writing I have witnessed in some time. Telling parallel narratives surrounding the events of the October Crisis and the days of the FLQ, the piece was also a reflection on power and those who wield it. It was also a reflection on the state of arts in Canada. It was also a reflection on a playwright’s right to sway his audience’s opinion with hyperbolized narratives regarding historical events. Each layer, as it was peeled back and interwoven with the others, turned out to be as provocative and well-executed as the last. The sparse design only served to heighten the tension onstage, allowing the generously-sized cast freedom of movement and preventing bunching and crowding, even with a full stage. The one weak link in this chain was (VERY unfortunately) the performance of the protagonist. Unlike the convincing portrayals provided by the other various cast members, the main character was inaudible, inexpressive and unconvincing. That certainly did not ruin the brilliance of the show, however, and it was the perfect way to end my marathon day of theatre.
Very obviously best and first in ranking of the pieces I saw that day.
My day was a microcosm of what theatre festivals represent: the good, the bad, and the ugly of what Canadian art has to offer. Not every show can be a winner, but cheap ticket prices (to the tune of $10/ticket) and an environment of accessibility keep throngs of people returning to the city year after year. Some of these shows could go on to success. And next year it will happen all over again. Gotta love those odds.