TO Fringe Review: Hushabye

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Toronto – It’s probably Inception’s fault that there seems to be an increase in creative works about dreams lately. I think there’s four or five at this year’s Fringe anyway, if you include Hypnogogic Logic. The nature of dreams is certainly fertile ground for ambitious, imaginative stories, and Inception was definitely that. Such a good movie.

Hushabye would like to be a story like that. It is ambitious and imaginative, but its big idea dwarves all the others, making the actual plot seem small and trite by comparison.

Staged with just a screen and an overhead projector on top of a filing cabinet, Hushabye has a very big idea indeed. Apparently there exists a Ministry of Dreams that not only delivers dreams to people as though they were letters (they’re even kept in envelopes), but it also employs people while they’re sleeping to work in delivery and sorting and such. One department exclusively deals with dreams that offer glimpses of the future, often warnings of some future. However, they have a backlog of dreams to sort through, so the head of the department, Adel (Darwin Lyons), employs JT (Ron Kelly) to help them, and also solicits volunteers to view other people’s dreams and see if they’re still relevant, which interests the insomniac Mary (Jennifer Fraser).

However, this isn’t actually the story Hushabye wants to tell. The plot is about Mary falling in love with JT, her bumbling, sweater vest-wearing calculus professor who moonlights for the Ministry. Mary is also haunted by something that happened when she was a child, so JT uses his job at the ministry to help Mary try to find someone from her past through the dream broadcasting system, but this runs afoul of Adel for some reason, who is really worried about her department and keeps making these weird dream public announcements, but then JT does something bad, which he was warned about in a dream, then a couple of dream selves get shot, but it’s ok ‘cause they’re not dead in real life, but then Adel’s got a secret too…

To say it’s convoluted would be an understatement. The “Ministry of Dreams” idea isn’t bad, but the magnitude of it dwarves the three-character plot, and makes you wonder if an hour long Fringe show is really the best vehicle for this. I applaud the show for its ambition, but unlike Inception, where the big ideas and the human stories were able to co-exist, it just can’t all fit on stage in a one hour time slot.

Hushabye plays at Venue 13. Check your Fringe program or the online play listings for showtimes.

TO Fringe Review: The Last Rock N’ Roll Show

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Toronto – Occasionally it crosses my mind that being a music reviewer might be essentially futile. I mean, they say writing is the first draft of history, but are people in the future really going to wonder how good or bad Melody Gardot’s Toronto show was back in 2009?

The lead character in The Last Rock N’ Roll Show, Alana (Dayna Chernoff), is asking herself similar questions. She tells the story of how she went from passionate independent music blogger to slightly bored professional critic to hyper-critical bitchy columnist and declares that she’s had enough. She questions the urge to write itself, the notion of criticizing things we wish we could do ourselves, and muses that while the past may be the prologue to the present, the only reason we know of it is because somebody with nothing better to do at the time wrote it down.

Needless to say, I felt a certain resonance with this.

Rather than being a lengthy monologue, however, The Last Rock Show is actually Chernoff’s performance plus, well, a rock show, as this solo debate is framed within the memory of Alana’s first rock show. Playwright/songwriter/guitarist/singer Jeff Jones and drummer Bram Cayne, bassist Daniel MacEachern, and keyboardists Amelia Pipher and Danielle Kolenko alternate songs with Alana’s monologue. They are the kind of band you could imagine seeing in a small bar someplace, and they hit on a lot of rock n’ roll clichés as necessitated by the plot: the “one, two, three, FOUR!”, the solos, the lyrics, the ballad, etc. I could’ve used a bit less of the band and a bit more of Alana’s story. Their eight songs is probably two too many, and they might not inspire me to a lifetime of music writing if I saw them today, but if I was 15 and had snuck into a bar to see them like in the plot, hey, it’s possible.

They’re not a bad band, but Alana’s dialogue and story make the show.

The Last Rock N’ Roll Show plays at Venue 3. Check your Fringe program or the online play listings for showtimes.

TO Fringe Review: Mister Baxter

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Toronto – Mister Baxter, the character, has got problems. He’s a lonely man, though a driven high school teacher, but his biggest problem is that he’s having a nervous breakdown and he thinks he’s going to lose his job because of inappropriate contact with a student.

Mister Baxter, the play, has also got problems. It’s just an ok play, though well-staged, but its biggest problem is that the scenes without the title character aren’t nearly as strong as the ones with him.

Mister Baxter has three settings: a subway platform where Mister Baxter speaks to a high school student, a bedroom where a married couple argue about the course of their lives, and the inside of a subway car where one of Mr. Baxter’s students travels with his girlfriend. Each gets about the same amount of “screen time,” and as the three stories move along, the audience gradually discovers how they’re interconnected. You can see the climax coming well in advance, but find yourself hoping that it doesn’t happen.

It’s a good show, but when the spotlight shifts from Mr. Baxter, the quality dips noticeably. The married couple are ok, but rely a little too much on TV drama clichés about adultery and miscarriages rather than feeling like fleshed-out characters. Still, their part of the story dovetails well with Mr. Baxter’s and comes to a satisfying conclusion. The two high school kids in the subway car, on the other hand, seem like they’re largely there just to describe prior events in Mr. Baxter’s story, rather than having a story of their own. The characters are paper-thin, and the play would probably be better if their parts were just eliminated entirely.

It is staged pretty effectively and the dramatic tension builds nicely. The potential is there for a great show, but it needs some work.

Mister Baxter plays at Venue 10. Check your Fringe program or the online play listings for showtimes.

TO Fringe Review: One Good Marriage

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Toronto – Steph (Mel Marginet) and Stewart (Matthew TenBruggencate) are a recently married couple. They dated, they got married, they went on their honeymoon, and when they came back, they found out that everyone who came to their wedding reception was dead.

Oddly enough, this is actually a very funny show.

As you can imagine, Steph and Stewart are not particularly happy people. They tell the story of their relationship, their engagement, and wedding while dancing around what happened at the reception, occasionally pausing when Steph gets too worked up. To prevent her from having an anxiety attack, Stewart has her close her eyes and think of household objects (“think of a pencil. A blue pencil. Think of a clothespin, but the wooden kind, not the plastic ones,” etc.). Eventually they reveal what happened, how they were totally out of touch when the story hit the news, and missed all the funerals by the time they got back from the honeymoon.

Their pain and guilt is heartbreaking, but somehow Marginet and especially TenBruggencate manage to keep it light throughout most of the show. They’re funny and charming, really a couple you’d be happy to know, even as they talk about how they represent death. It doesn’t sound funny, but somehow they manage it. The dialogue is very good, the plot really does a nice job answering the question of what it would be like if all your friends and family suddenly died at the same time, the simple staging works well, but the interplay between the two actors is what really makes it work. Very nice piece from Winnipeg’s Theatre by the River.

One Good Marriage plays at Venue 3. Check your Fringe program or the online play listings for showtimes.