TO Fringe Review: The Sparrow and the Mouse

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Toronto – Whatever else one might say about The Sparrow and the Mouse: Creating the Music of Edith Piaf, this much is true: performer Melanie Gall has a wonderful singing voice.

In the original French or in English translation, Gall does great things with Edith Piaf songs like “Je Ne Regrette Rien”and “La Vie en Rose.” An opera singer by trade who’s performed in countries all over the world, Gall’s singing is worth the price of admission. The play she’s written around the songs, however…well, it’s not as good.

Gall plays Simone Berteault, Piaf’s closest friend and half-sister, and describes Piaf’s life, from her humble beginnings to international stardom. The problem is, while Piaf’s life story is pretty amazing, Gall delivers it as if she’s reading Piaf’s Wikipedia article aloud. It’s just not compelling theatre. The only person on stage aside from pianist Erin Craig, Gall acts out different parts of Piaf’s life between songs, like holding a doll and acting like Piaf’s mom, pretending to be Piaf on the streets, miming a mother/doll scene again when Piaf gives birth. Sometimes while she does this, Gall’s recorded voice continues the life story narration while she does things silently. This seems unnecessary, since Gall doesn’t do that much during these scenes and could probably handle both duties at once, and it’s occasionally awkward when Gall’s live voice and recorded voice step on each other’s lines.

Gall’s singing saves it from being that bad, though. While Craig’s piano sounds a bit tinny in the big hall of Bathurst Street Theatre, Gall’s voice fills up the room, without amplification. If you have any fondness for Piaf or opera singing, it might be worth seeing, but otherwise this is probably a miss.

The Sparrow and the Mouse plays at Venue 3. Check your Fringe program or the online play listings for showtimes.

Preview: Toronto Fringe 2011

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Toronto – Fringe is here! Toronto’s annual summer theatre spectacular runs July 6 through 17 with something like a billion shows, with only about a quarter of them by local playwrights with perspectives on last summer’s G20! The problem with so many shows is, especially in the early going before the reviews come out (particularly ours, of course), how do you pick what to see? Fortunately, at the Panic Manual we have anticipated your every need. Here are some humble suggestions, based on nothing more than what sounds interesting from the three line show descriptions on the Fringe website. Our scientifically proven formula!

The Soaps – The Live Improvised Soap Opera (Venue 3, Bathurst St. Theatre)

National Theatre of the World’s Fringe show this year is a long-form improv soap opera, set behind the scenes at the “Shawford” Festival. Featuring NTOW regulars Ron Pederson, Matt Baram, Chris Gibbs and a host of others, including special guest stars, if I didn’t have to see and review a bunch of other shows I’d consider seeing this nightly.

Abra-Cadaver! (Venue 2, Tarragon Theatre Extra Space)

Ever heard of Dorothy Parker? She tried to kill herself a lot but never quite managed it. This play is inspired by her life. It’ll be dark, there’ll likely be a few laughs, Maya Rabinovitch directs it, it’ll be good.

Breaking News (Venue 7, St. Vladimir’s Theatre)

The first thing I noticed about Breaking News’ listing is that it has a HUGE cast. Like, 14 people. I don’t recognize any of the names in the cast. The second thing I noticed is that it’s about Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, featuring real reaction to this cultural phenomenon that had people convinced aliens had invaded. I’ll definitely be interested to see if there’s some insight into how people were so fooled.

The LOVE Octagon (Venue 10, Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace)

I expressed my adoration for shows involving Chris Craddock last year, when PUBLIC SPEAKING was one of my two favourites of the Fringe. The previous year he brought Moving Along to town, and it was also excellent. There’s little reason to think The LOVE Octagon won’t be great too, especially with NTOW’s Ron Pederson co-collaborating in an improv-heavy show.

The Last Rock N’ Roll Show (Venue 3, Bathurst St. Theatre)

Featuring original tunes by show creator Jeff Jones, it’s a rock show AND a solo performance drama AT THE SAME TIME (sort of). A music journalist wants to cap off her writing career with one last review, and decides to make it about the show that inspired her to write about music in the first place. Might it rekindle her love for writing about music? I don’t know! Last time I saw a rock-themed Fringe show at Bathurst Street Theatre it was my other favourite show of last year’s Fringe. Hopefully this one will be just as good. Check out preview clip on YouTube.

Bursting Into Flames (Venue 9, Robert Gill Theatre)

I don’t know much about Martin Dockery, but he’s doing the Canada-wide Fringe circuit this summer and has gotten excellent reviews of past shows, so he must be doing something right. Worth a look.

Trotsky & Hutch: On Patrol (Venue 2 Tarragon Theatre Extra Space)

Another improv show, Trotsky & Hutch is long-form improv about cops, as you might guess from the title. Performers Kevin Patrick Robbins and Sean Tabares are both accomplished improvisers, and cop shows are certainly fertile ground for comedy, so this could be very good.

Boyfriends (Venue 13, Factory Studio Theatre)

What better way to celebrate the recently deceased Peter Falk than seeing a fictionalized play about him? More specifically, this play is about Falk, John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara gettin’ all wild in New York City in the 60’s. Best of all, two of the three aren’t around to sue for libel anymore! (Too soon?)

When Harry Met Harry (Venue 2 Tarragon Theatre Extra Space)

Another Fringe veteran, Allan Girod has taken When Harry Met Harry across Canada and Australia with great success. His Harry character is a button-down type who’s life unravels on stage. This is definitely the kind of thing that makes for good solo comedy shows with insight.

Dungeons & Dragons, (not) The Musical (Venue 17, Snakes & Lattes) & The Godot Cycle (Venue 19, Honest Ed’s Parking Lot)

Finally, I’m not sure I’ll actually get in to see either of these shows, but man, talk about ambitious. Dungeons has three performances of six hours each with people playing D&D while “live sound artists create a unique soundscape for each tournament.” Godot is “The Waiting for Godot performance that never ends,” with two performances of 30 and 54 (!) hours. Both shows allow you to enter and leave when you like, so check in late in the performances when sleep deprivation has set in for maximum fun!

Whatever you decide to see this year, enjoy the Fringe, and be sure to check back here for reviews once the fest gets rolling.

NSTF Review: At the Sans Hotel

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Toronto – How would you show a schizophrenic having a mental breakdown on stage? It’s hard to imagine what that would look like, but even if Nicola Gunn’s At the Sans Hotel doesn’t have it exactly right, I have to think it’s got to be pretty close.

Gunn, a Fringe veteran from Australia, took inspiration from the story of Cornelia Rau, a mentally ill German woman who was detained by Australian immigration authorities but turned out to be a permanent resident, in writing her new work. But At the Sans Hotel isn’t really about that story; it begins with a different character entirely talking directly to the audience about her life, drawing the “dramatic arc” on a chalkboard and discussing metaphors in playwrighting, and eventually revealing that the great artist Nicola Gunn isn’t here tonight because she had a breakdown writing her new masterpiece At the Sans Hotel.

It just gets weirder from there. “Sophie” says she has a questionnaire for the crowd, but only mimes handing it out (though she hands out real pencils), but then goes through the questions on stage like “How are you?”, “How are you enjoying the play so far?” and “What is hopelessness?” (“some of the questions are harder than others,” she says). There are several uncomfortable silences, during which Sophie stares straight ahead or sits behind the chalkboard. A light-up sign that says “Rescue Me” comes out at one point, and goes back and forth across the stage for a minute or so. She invites someone from the crowd on stage to play musical chairs with her to win a Nicola Gunn promo photo, then belittles him quite viciously when he loses.

“Sophie” also talks about how much she wishes we could see the great dramatic scene of Gunn’s masterwork, because it has a great sequence where Nicola sits at a table, all you can see is her legs, and asks herself questions. Then this sequence makes up the bulk of the second half of the show, with Gunn acting the part of both the mentally ill person and her interviewer, while the audience can’t see her face. Like Sophie said, it is very dramatic and haunting.

For a show so scattered and disjointed, At the Sans Hotel is surprisingly intimate. At several points it’s hard to tell if Gunn is talking about her schizophrenic inspiration or herself. You can’t help but think, at times, when “Sophie” talks about Gunn having a mental breakdown while writing this play that maybe she’s telling the truth. It’s an unsettling show, funny and creepy and personal and disconnected, all at once.

It’s so rambling and bizarre at times that it’s hard to get a grip on what you’re seeing at times. But Gunn is such a great performer that even when, by all rights, she should’ve lost the audience completely, she manages to bring us back in. Don’t go in expecting a tight narrative, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a “psychological detective story” like the Next Stage website does, but it’s an interesting show that’s well worth your time.

At the Sans Hotel runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday this week as part of Next Stage. See their website for schedule details and tix.

NSTF Review: The Apology

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Toronto – Apologizing isn’t a big part of The Apology, running now as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival at Factory Theatre. In fact, while the characters continually jump beds, make grand statements and have melodramatic arguments about politics and polyamory and parenthood, and leave each other, come back, then leave again, the only thing they really don’t do to each other is apologize.

The Apology is a quasi-historical, fictionalized sex drama featuring Mary Shelley, most famously the author of Frankenstein; her lover, and later her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley; her half-sister Claire Clairmont; and romantic poet Lord Byron. In this story, the four young idealists decide to leave behind the trappings of England and their high society parents and run away together to write, do drugs, wax poetic about their visions of utopian society and have lots of sex with each other.

Sure, it’s sexy. It’s occasionally rather funny. It’s tragic, and it’s melodramatically over-the-top like an episode of Gossip Girl. The four actors are very, very good, particularly David Beazely as the smoldering, bisexual Byron and Sascha Cole as the ditzy, sweet Clairmont.

It’s also quite dense. It’s occasionally a bit confusing. It’s heavy-handed, and the relentless tragedy to end it off gets a bit tiring. Darrah Teitel’s script feels almost like it’s too smart for it’s own good, particularly when the characters deliver lines comparing the creative process with having children and monsters. In a “playwright’s note” in the program it says that anarchy and feminism are the “twin pillars of this play,” but feminism seems to only really come through the sexual liberation of the two women, and anarchy doesn’t seem to fit in at all, unless having sex with multiple partners is anarchy. The clothes seem to indicate a modern setting for Shelley and her 19th century peers, as do talk of photos in the tabloid newspapers and book launch parties, but it’s hard for the show to work as a period piece when you remove the characters from their time period; in other words, running from the Victorian era-values of their home lives and only communicating with the outside world by letter makes a lot less sense if they’re not actually in the Victorian era.

Still, the acting is quite good, and the on-stage chemistry between the four is worth the price of admission. If you’re turned on by on-stage nudity and almost-sex, then you’ll definitely get your money’s worth. But as a piece of theatre, it’s just ok.

The Apology runs Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday this week as part of Next Stage. Check their site for details and ticket info.