TO Fringe Review: Under the Mango Tree

Posted on by Brian in Fringe, Reviews, Theatre | 2 Comments

Toronto – Under the Mango Tree won Pick of the Fringe last year in Vancouver with a sellout run. This is a little surprising to me after seeing the show last night at the Toronto Fringe. Not to say it’s a poor show or anything, it just didn’t resonate with me the way I’d expect a “Best of Fringe” sort of show would.

It is entirely possible, I suppose, that as a second-generation Canadian, the story just didn’t strike a chord with me. Under the Mango Tree is, after all, an immigrant family’s tale: a single father in a poor village leaves the country seeking a better life, leaving behind his daughter, Timal, with her grandparents, promising to one day return and bring her back with him to Canada to live in prosperity. Set in Fiji, it’s semi-autobiographical, as the playwright and performer, Veenesh Dubois, emigrated from Fiji to Canada as a child, but not before being separated from her family for four years.

The growing disconnection between the character Timal and her father as they correspond by mail is interesting. Her father writes of selling popcorn to tourists on the streets, not wanting to be one of the stereotypical immigrants who drives too cautiously, and living in a flat. Timal, who lives in a small village and knows of little beyond it’s boundaries, doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, and asks whether the villages in Canada have sugar cane fields too. The show is solo-acted by Dubois; along with Timal, who ages from 10 to 16 during the course of the show, Dubois voices a few other characters as well, most often her grandmother, who she brings to life by wrapping a scarf around her head and holding her back as if it’s aching.

It’s a pretty good story, and it has a bittersweet ending after the rather saccharine-sweet beginning, when young Timal’s world was near-perfect. I didn’t feel a particular connection in any of this, though, and to me the narrative just sort of ground along to it’s inevitable conclusion. It’s ably acted by Dubois, who clearly put a great deal of herself into the show, and the characters are fairly well-written. It may just be a little too far outside my personal frame of reference as a white kid from small town Alberta to feel the kind of emotional resonance I would’ve needed to feel to give it a higher rating.

*Note that Under the Mango Tree is not the 90 minutes that your program indicates. It clocks in at a little under 60.

TO Fringe Review: Dance Animal

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Dance Animal is a troupe of eight from Montreal, where, from glancing at their press clippings, they appear to be the darlings of the dance theatre scene. It’s not too hard to see why: their show is pretty inventive, the choreography is all right, and there’s numerous references to and in-jokes about different areas of Montreal.

So if I was a dance-loving Montrealer, you’re probably looking at a four or five star review. Alas, I’ve never set foot in Montreal, and I’m less of a dance aficionado than I am a dance cynic. Pie-in-the-sky references to “expressing oneself through dance” and “dance uniting the world” and the like, which are peppered throughout Dance Animal’s Toronto Fringe show, tend to turn me off.

Still, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy much of Dance Animal’s show. At the risk of appearing slightly less masculine in front of my blog cohorts, it’s a cute show, light-hearted and with a few laughs. The choreography in it seems pretty good to my untrained eye, though the first few numbers look more like a coordinated, high-energy aerobics class. Between dances each member of the group comes out to introduce themselves (there’s Dance Salmon, Dance Chicken, Dance Ladybug, etc.) and tell a little tale of how Dance Tiger – aka group founder, choreographer and director Robin Henderson (in the middle, holding the ball in the photo above) – recruited them for the group.

A lot of the references to Montreal in these monologues are quite possibly lost on a Toronto crowd. And the show has a couple of downright bizarre dance numbers in it, none stranger than the one in which a troupe member comes out in a furry rabbit suit with a whip wearing a corset and panties and proceeds to do a rather sleazy striptease. Yeah. It’s the stuff a furries’ dreams and/or nightmares are made of.

But some of the monologues have some real laughs, and some of the dance numbers are really good, the best probably being the cops & robbers & Spiderman dance done to a jazzy version of the 60’s Spidey cartoon show theme. I feel obligated to say something about the music, writing for an indie blog as I do: the obligatory Gwen Stefani and Beyonce tracks are balanced out somewhat with Boney M’s “Rasputin,” the aforementioned Spiderman swing tune, and, oddly enough, a Coldplay song.

If you like choreographed dance numbers more than I do (and judging by the energy of the crowd, there’s quite a number of people that do) you’ll probably really like this show. If you don’t, and you’re still taken to see this show by, say, a girlfriend or other enthusiastic fan, you’ll probably be just fine.

TO Fringe Review: Fruitcake and The Dentist, June 30

Posted on by Brian in Fringe, Reviews, Theatre | Leave a comment

Toronto – So what’s most important in a one-person show? You could say any number of things regarding the script or the acting or what have you. I think that above all, you have to be a great storyteller to really make a one-man or one-woman show work.

There’s no greater example of this than Rob Gee’s Fruitcake – Ten Commandments from the Psych Ward. There’s some other elements to Fruitcake: ostensibly there’s kind of a plot about a night shift in a psychiatric ward with a “voice of God” giving out ten commandments like “thou shalt laugh at each other” and “thou shalt not kill…thyself…on my shift” that sort of introduce each segment. Really, though, it’s just Rob Gee telling stories, and the “commandments” part is secondary. Possibly it’s just in there because “Fruitcake – Rob Gee Tells Stories About Back When he Used to Work as a Psychiatric Nurse” is a pretty terrible title.

Anyway, it works because Rob is a great storyteller. He’s funny and amiable and just looks like he’s having a terrific time throughout, and he also has that sort of John Cleese-like ability to flail his long limbs around in way that makes everybody smile. The stories he tells are engrossing. There’s the speed freak and the rehabbing alcoholic who, as Rob puts it, had a real commitment to their habits. There’s the prank he and a patient pulled on a nurse on his first night who was terrified of giving needles. There’s the paranoid schitzophrenic who thinks he’s the subject of a massive experiment. And there’s the horrifying story of the man who boiled his hand, then cut it off with a circular saw because a voice in his head told him it would save a friend half a world away.

Rob manages to tell these stories with a level of humanity and empathy that’s hard to balance in tales of mental illness. He doesn’t feel sorry for these people, nor does he make the audience feel sorry for them. They’re real people, not so very different than you or me, just with a few more chemical imbalances in the brain. As Rob tells stories of helping them with their tenuous grip on sanity, and in some cases just trying to keep them from killing themselves that very night, there’s a lot of laughs, and some uncomfortable squirms. They’re great stories, told by a master, and it makes a show worth seeing.

Unfortunately, as good as Fruitcake was, it started late, and as a result I missed the start of my next scheduled show. Let this be a lesson: if you have less than five minutes to get from a play at St. Vladimir’s to one at the Helen Gardiner Phelan playhouse, you’re probably not going to make it, unless you really pound the pavement.

After killing time for about 90 minutes, only about seven people joined me to see The Dentist. It’s a show about the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and her quest to learn exactly what it was he did when he was held at the camp at Auschwitz. This causes her to reflect on a dysfunctional relationship with a father prone to irrational rage and abuse.

I don’t know what it was exactly, but this show just didn’t click. I’ll grant that it might have been the lack of audience; it’s hard to get excited for a performance when there’s eight people in a room made for 112. Maybe it’s the translation; originally written in Hebrew, playwright and performer Razia Israely had the show translated and took English lessons to try and get it to work. In any case, on this night it wasn’t working: Ms. Israely’s performance was flat, she didn’t seem entirely comfortable giving the show in English, the music cues were occasionally off, and while the plot seemed like something you might enjoy if it were a short story, it didn’t make the transition from an ok story to a good stage show. This play has gotten good press at other festivals, like Edinburgh, so it’s possible that Wednesday was just a bad night and it’ll be better during the rest of the Fringe. A great storyteller could maybe get this one to work, and maybe Ms. Israely is that in Hebrew, or on other nights. But things were pretty rough on opening night, and I can’t recommend the show based on what I saw.

Toronto Fringe Preview: Fruitcake – Ten Commandments from the Psych Ward

Posted on by Brian in Fringe, Reviews, Theatre | Leave a comment

A few years ago while trolling the Edmonton Fringe Festival solo for shows to see, I decided I would try something a different. At the time I was really into improv shows and sketch comedies and the bittersweet comedy/dramas of a few local playwrights, and not a whole lot else. I was pretty sure that I didn’t care much for poetry, and didn’t really know what performance poetry even was.

Exactly what possessed me to drop into a show called the Bold & Spiky Poetry show I’m not sure. You can probably tell where this is going, though: I was glad that I did, in the end, because it was fantastic. Two British guys on stage, alternately reciting/performing poetry of their own creation; it was riveting stuff. It’s been years since the show and I can still vividly recall many details. Particularly affecting was a Remembrance Day poem from one half of the duo, Rob Gee, a poem about the abandonment and loneliness many old soldiers face when they’ve returned from war, something he’d seen firsthand as a psychiatric nurse. “We should wear our poppies with shame, not pride,” Rob said. Every November I think about that poem.

Anyway, all this is a very roundabout way of saying that Rob Gee is very, very good, and that you should see his show that’s running this year at the Toronto Fringe, namely Fruitcake – Ten Commandments from the Psych Ward. From the press release:

“Comic, poet and reformed psychiatric nurse, Rob Gee presents a user-friendly guide to losing the plot. Fruitcake charts a night shift on an acute psychiatric ward, seen through the eyes of a nurse who hears the voice of God – a kindly Jamaican woman – who gives him ten benevolent commandments to help him through the shift; and life.”

Bet on a thoroughly entertaining show that is mostly hilarious, often touching, and will probably leave you with tears in your eyes by the end. Recommendation: go early in the run. This show totally owned the Winnipeg Fringe Festival last summer, winning Best of the Fest, it owned the Orlando Fringe in May, winning the Sold Out Award, and has gotten great reviews everywhere it’s been. The smart betting is that as soon as the Toronto reviews start coming out and word of mouth spreads, this show’s going to be sold out the rest of the way. And if you come on opening night, try to find me and say hello. I’ll give you one of my new Panic Manual business cards.

Fruitcake is at St. Vladimir’s Theatre, Venue 8 in your programs, just south of Harbord on Spadina. The schedule:

Wed June 30 – 7:00pm

Sun July 4 – 11:00pm

Mon July 5 – 4:45pm

Wed July 7 – 9:30pm

Thur July 8 – 12:00pm

Fri July 9 – 8:00pm

Sat July 10 – 1:45pm