TO Fringe Reviews: Wedding Night in Canada, The Devil and Billy Markham, Underbelly Diaries Redux

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Some capsule reviews today, as I’m falling a little behind in my writing and have a hefty 5-show day scheduled tomorrow. Apologies to anyone who would’ve liked to see full reviews for these shows.

Wedding Night in Canada

I think that I’m just not the target audience for this show. I realize that I’m at the age and stage of my relationship that talking about getting married no longer sends me running from the room. I do sometimes lose interest pretty quickly when that talk comes around, though, and I have a healthy dislike for those wedding reality shows on TV starring horrible people that my girlfriend enjoys and likes to point to and say “see, aren’t you glad we’re not like that?”

In Wedding Night in Canada, half the play is spent with the bride monologuing about things like the dinner menu, how great her engagement was, and what it felt like to walk down that aisle. The rest is the groom and best man trying to convince the bride to come out of the room she’s hiding in for her wedding reception; she’s upset because the Leafs are in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals, and somebody has brought in some TVs so the reception guests can watch.

You can insert your favourite joke about the unlikeliness of the Leafs contending for the Stanley Cup anytime soon here. I might go with something like “Leafs in the Cup finals? If this play is set that far in the future, shouldn’t she have a little robot holding the train of her wedding dress off the floor?” But then, I’m not paid to write comedy. I just couldn’t get into this show; my natural defense mechanism for wedding talk is to go into “nodding and uh-huh-ing” mode, and there’s not really enough laughs or hockey talk here to hold my interest.

The Devil and Billy Markham

I have great memories of listening to Shel Silverstein read his poems from A Light in the Attic when I was a kid. I didn’t really know that he used to write for Playboy back in the day, or that he had a play based on something he wrote for that magazine in 1979, namely The Devil and Billy Markham.

It’s a series of short stories of Billy betting against the Devil and usually losing. The tales are entertaining enough, and Tom McGee tells them pretty well in the play’s only role, that of the storytelling janitor. It’s sort of in the style of those old Silverstein tapes that I loved as a kid in that it’s really just a recital in as entertaining a voice as the performer can make it.

But those Silverstein kid’s poems were, well, short, and you could turn them off when you wanted to. The Billy Markham stories are interesting, but with no visual aides for McGee aside from a mop, a bucket and an easel, I’m not sure they’re interesting for 60 minutes of straight recitation. It’s obvious that McGee has a real love for the material, and Shel Silverstein was nothing if not imaginitive, but the storytelling alone is not quite enough to distract when the hard chairs of the St. George’s Auditorium start to get uncomfortable.

Underbelly Diaries Redux

It’s possible that you’ve heard of Aaron Berg before; he’s a comedian who’s apparently toured fairly extensively. He also used to work as a male stripper. This show is mostly about his experiences in that line of work.

It’s also got some pretty interesting and seemingly heartfelt thoughts on being Jewish, and near the beginning there’s a very funny infomercial-style bit for steroids, which you can certainly believe Berg might have some experience with, being built like a truck as he is. But it’s mostly about how he came to take his clothes off for money by following the Al-Pacino-in-Scarface mantra of doing whatever you have to do to get to the top, how he learned the trade, as it were, and some of the sideline activities that come along with being a stripper.

There’s parts of this show that are funny enough that I was howling with laughter. It’s not for the faint of heart, or people who dislike off-colour humour. Berg gleefully delves into the gross and obscene sometimes, and it probably contains more than you ever wanted to know about things like guys being paid to masturbate in front of other guys. It could also stand to be 10-15 minutes shorter, but aside from the jokes about Jamaican dudes with 14-inch dicks and stories of building his rep as “the funny stripper” and bringing his gentile stripper girlfriend home to meet the parents, there’s a level of introspection here that makes the show work.

TO Fringe Review: Brothers and Arms

Posted on by Brian in Everything, Fringe, Reviews, Theatre | 4 Comments

I mentioned this in my preview article for this show, and I compulsively feel like I have to bring it up, even though it’s probably not strictly necessary: the Fringe play Brothers and Arms is written and directed by a friend of mine. Depending on how you feel about things like bias and objectivity in your bloggers, this may be worth keeping in mind while I rave about his show and tell everyone to go and see it…

Brothers And Arms is split into two parallel storylines: in the first, William (Jason Martorino) returns home from World War II missing an arm to his manipulative girlfriend Rebecca (Sara VanBuskirk) and comic artist brother Jazzy (Brad Emes), and has difficulty wrapping his mind around it when things back home aren’t the way they were supposed to be. In the second, Wayne (Emes), an Iraq war vet with some PTSD issues, drops in on his brother Chance (Martorino), a comic book cover artist, and Chance’s girlfriend Kristen, who used to be Wayne’s fiance.

In the first half, the problems come largely from the girlfriend, who has dated both men and tries to seduce Jazzy before William arrives on the scene, and the lack of respect that both the others have for Jazzy and his “doodles,” as they call them. Tension ramps up pretty quickly after William arrives, then has his idealized world view torn apart. In the second, the problems come from Wayne’s mental illness, which causes him to see conspiracies and sedition in Chance’s anti-war comic book cover work. He thinks his brother may be part of a terrorist plot, and when he tries to remove Kristen from their home, things get ugly.

It’s a good plot, and empathy and recognition of how tough it is to be a soldier returning from war is certainly worth talking about. Martorino steals both scenes with his two characters, while Emes does a good job with Wayne’s mental unbalance, though he looked a bit stiff as Jazzy at times. VanBuskirk plays both her roles well, but I find that both female characters are a little underdeveloped here; Rebecca, from the first half, is flat-out unlikeable, and doesn’t seem to have a lot of redeeming qualities that would draw these two guys to her, while Kristen just seems like a victim in all this. I found the second half worked better for me than the first; the pace seemed quicker and the dialogue felt a little more natural.

That said, it’s a strong play where the tension builds towards a believable climax in both halves. Having a soft spot for comic books (just as I know writer/director Stephen Jackson does) there’s a few references in here that I enjoyed, and if you know a bit about the history of comics as propaganda pieces the contrast between the relentlessly anti-fascist, pro-America and unrealistic comics of the 40’s and the left-leaning, anti-George W. Bush comics that were frequently made last decade is interesting. It’s a play worth seeing, even if you don’t know the playwright. If you do get a chance to know the playwright though, you should. He’s a nice guy.

TO Fringe Review: Die Roten Punkte – KUNST ROCK

Posted on by Brian in Everything, Fringe, Reviews, Theatre | 3 Comments

This show is my unabashed favourite of the Fringe so far. There’s so many things to like about Die Roten Punkte’s KUNST ROCK! that I’m not entirely sure where to begin. If you’re a music fan and are irritated that your favourite Toronto indie blog (this one, naturally) has been taken over by theatre reviews, you should do two things: the first is to calm down, things will be back to normal soon, and the second is to go see this show.

Die Roten Punkte is a two-piece band from Berlin made up of siblings Astrid and Otto Rot. She plays drums, he plays guitar, and they sing songs about things like bananas.

It’s all a terrific parody, of course, as Astrid and Otto strut around making a complete mockery of all kinds of stuffy, pretentious rock. There’s a pretty clear White Stripes caricature here, but it’s all such good-natured fun it’s fruitless to list everyone Astrid and Otto might remind us of on stage. The two of them flirt with members of the audience, dance, run all around the theatre, speak with artsy German accents, load their sampler with sounds from whatever they can find, and actually happen to be pretty good musicians, too. Their stage banter is terrific, and they speak just loudly enough when they’re away from their microphones so you can hear them bicker on stage. Their “mini-rock opera” is about the death of their parents, and their subsequent escape from an evil aunt and uncle; Astrid sings that they were killed by a train, while Otto is convinced their parents were eaten by a lion. They claim that to write their new album they spent three months in a bunker for “creative development,” and for days listened only to the sounds of things like water dripping into a cup and a brush rubbing against a pineapple.

It’s absurd, it’s silly, it’s loud, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Don’t wait until the weekend to see it; Astrid and Otto only have Thursday and Friday shows left in Toronto during the Fringe. After that, you can catch them at festivals in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Vancouver. Check out their website for the full tour schedule.

TO Fringe Review: Poison the Well

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

First, if you’re doing the Fringe this year, try to see something in the Annex Theatre. Monday was the first time I’d seen anything in this venue before, and it’s just a really gorgeous space.

Should the show you see at the Annex be Poison the Well? That’s a tough one.

Poison the Well is about a fictional terrorist hostage-taking in Russia by Chechen rebels. For dramatic reasons that I’m not entirely sure that I buy, the Russians send a single lawyer from an oil company, which has interests in the region and employees among the hostages, to negotiate the release of an arena full of people with a journalist that the terrorists regularly use as their mouthpiece. As if that weren’t enough, the journalist and oil company lawyer were childhood friends; they were separated by the Chechan war, when the lawyer, James (Andrew Connor, also the playwright and director), went back to live in America and the journalist, Maya (Elison Zasko), stayed behind, not knowing whether or not James was alive or dead. They negotiate for the release of the hostages, they renew acquaintances, and try to reconcile how glad they are to see each other with being adversaries in the negotiation. Demands from both sides get personal, the tension builds, and then it’s over.

Does it work that well? Well…no, to be honest. The plot is certainly interesting in broad strokes, and it’s well-paced and builds nicely to a climax. There’s some little twists in it that you’ll enjoy if you’re a thriller novel junkie or a conspiracy theorist who believes strongly in corporate evil and greed. One of the conditions the oil company asks for is if they can add a dozen people to the hostages so that the terrorists can dispose of them, for instance. I rather like the idea of high-stakes hostage negotiation as theatre; I think there is a solid, dramatic idea in here.

Some of the plot elements don’t really hold up to close scrutiny, however, and rely too much on coincidence, like the big reveal that Maya’s brother is mixed up in all this too, a fact James from the oil company is all too aware of. The fact that the rebels are Chechen feels a bit tacked on; there’s not much in the play about the larger geopolitical context, and the Chechen-Russian tensions feels like it could be anything, like Colombia vs. FARQ or Basque separatists vs. Spain or what have you. This causes some problems when, after the show’s climax, a video projector shows images of what I can only guess is devastation in Chechnya on the far wall. After making the terrorism a bit generic, except for a quick aside about how all the hostage-takers are women because all the men in their region were killed, now there’s a statement about the plight of Chechnya at the very end? And why do the two characters come back to slow dance on the table in the dark while these images are playing after they’d ended the penultimate scene with one of them leaving the stage?

It’s an unsatisfying ending that’s a bit strange. There’s a good script in here somewhere, and the acting is fine, but the execution leaves something to be desired.