In this fully-improvised, one-hour romp, Impatient Theatre Company Founders Kevin Patrick Robbins, and Sean Tabares play two beat-cops deciphering life. Each improviser gets a suggestion off the top of the show and uses that one thing to fuel his perspective for the next hour. What’s wonderful about Tabares and Robbins is their chemistry. They have worked together tightly for over 10 years, and it’s obvious because either one of them will suddenly transition into another character in another place and time and the other will follow without hesitation. It’s simple premise, it’s good improv, and it’s worth your time.
In this one-man show, Toronto writer, actor, and improviser James Gangl turns a years-old personal journal into 60 minutes of hilarious, honest, tightly-woven theatre. Gangl performs most his show with the familiar style of an improviser. While he never asks the audience for a suggestion, one feels like he might at any moment – that’ s how at-ease he makes his audience feel. In a five-minute period he goes from manic, unbridled flow to crisp, tight, rhythmic spoken-word poetry to one-man, two-person scenes and back again. Under the capable direction of Chris Gibbs (whose own one-man shows have won over audiences across the country) Gangl gets very personal with an underdog point that makes his message universal. Many people who’ve lived their lives under the hovering thumb of the Catholic Church end up with repressed fetishes and guilt-laden desires. Thanks to Gangl, his journal, and his guts, we end up with one of this year’s must-see Fringe shows.
Toronto – It’s interesting when a festival gives you the opportunity to see two shows in one night that, at the core of their stories, share a lot of similarities. Eating with Lola and Swan Song of Maria are both basically about people getting old, both told in a reminiscing sort of way as the stories hit various high or low points in the lives depicted. One play is a whole lot better than the other, though, and much more inventive in it’s telling, and it isn’t the one with the puppet.
Eating with Lola features the puppet as the title character. Lola’s had a stroke and is living with her granddaughter, a reluctant caregiver who can’t seem to make any kind of food that Lola will eat. Lola’s life story is told largely in vignettes revolving around food, with her either cooking it, eating it, serving it or stealing it. But the whole thing is just not very interesting. Even though Lola grew up with interesting events and people around her in World War II-era Manila, like the destruction of the city and her American spy husband, Eating with Lola‘s story isn’t that interested in the other characters and the setting. Lola marries a spy, he’s depressed, then he dies, but he has just a few minutes of stage time. She has a child, the granddaughter’s mother, but her name isn’t even mentioned. She lives in Manila during WWII, but the city’s devastation is only mentioned in passing. She’s handed American citizenship and moves to California, but her adjustment to life there gets one brief scene in which she doesn’t have a line.
The one-dimensional aspect of the other characters is only emphasized by their representation on stage by just a single prop, like a hat or sunglasses, and a different voice from solo performer Catherine Hernandez. For a show where the lead character is a puppet, the presentation is surprisingly bland. The staging goes too far with the feeling of a girl playing on-stage with dolls; instead of it feeling imaginative and personal, it feels detached and trite.
Swan Song for Maria, meanwhile, is packed with imagination, and feels plenty personal thanks to great performances by Lili Francks and John Blackwood. It also features ballet dancer Stephanie Hutchison and jazz pianist Hilario Duran, and deals with getting old, the revolution in Cuba, Alzheimer’s disease, Swan Lake, creative inspiration, and euthanasia, among other things
It’s told in vignettes from different points in Joe (Blackwood) and Lillian’s (Francks) lives together, with the largely happy scenes from their early marriage standing in contrast to later scenes where Lillian’s mental state is deteriorating. Hutchison appears both in flashbacks as a beautiful dancer Joe knew in Cuba named Maria, and also turns up on stage in a more poetic way as Joe’s creative writing muse. And Duran underscores things from the keyboard with songs from Swan Lake and other tunes.
It’s a bit of a tear-jerker. Francks and Blackwood show Joe and Lillian’s marriage with an impressive amount of passion and authenticity, from their first days as an interracial couple in the 70’s to arguing about what they each gave up to be together to Lillian’s Alzheimer’s disease, first her fear of it, then his denial of it, then their living with it.
But while Hutchison and Duran are also impressive, everything doesn’t quite mesh. Hutchison’s ballet looks cramped on the Factory Studio stage. Duran feels underused, and sounds oddly restrained as a Cuban jazz pianist mostly playing songs from Swan Lake. And Joe and Lillian’s story just has too many things going on, which makes it feel like a 2+ hour play stuffed into 90 minutes.
That said, the ambition to put all this on stage together is worth supporting, and Francks and Blackwood are worth the price of admission alone. The ballet and piano are more of a pleasing bonus.
Next Stage runs through this weekend at Factory Theatre. Check the website for schedule & ticket info.
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.