fringe

Fringe Reviews: The Last Buffalo, [sic], Leacock Live!, Teaching Shakespeare

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

Fringe fatigue is setting in, and so I think this might be the last of my Fringing for the year. Here’s some brief reviews of the shows I saw on Wednesday. All these shows are on at Tarragon, and they all have one or two performances left.

Also, big congrats to Panic Manual friends PICK OF THE FRINGE! for being one of the Fringe patron’s picks.

The Last Buffalo

The brother and son of Jimmy Quinn (Don Berns) come together to mourn him after his death. This sort of “let’s reflect on the death of <blank>” plot is pretty familiar in dramatic theatre. The Last Buffalo tries for a father-to-son and brother-to-brother relationship/love angle as it’s emotional centre, but it never gets to the level of “tear-jerker,” try as it might. Berns is ok as the dead father/brother, who pops into memories the other two characters are having, and it’s funny to hear his voice on stage, as Berns is a pretty notable voice talent for commercials and TV shows (for fun, his demo reel from PNA Agency is in the mp3 attached to this post).

But the other two get most of the stage time, and what they say never really resonates. The brother (Greg Dunham) has a long monologue about a story where his uncle was mean to him that just doesn’t pop for me, while the son (Alex Fiddes) talks a lot about his up-and-down relationship with his dad but when the two are actually on stage together, it’s really not illustrated that well.

I felt bad that when I saw this play on Wednesday, it attrached only about ten people to the 200 seat Tarragon Mainspace, but I really can’t recommend it.

[sic]

Three struggling creatives who are neighbours and friends hang around their apartment building being strange and lusting after one another in [sic]. And that’s it, really.

The appeal comes from the oddness of the characters and the quirky dialogue. The plot, such as it is, is a bit nonsensical and not the easiest to follow; to whit, I think their landlady is killed during the show, possibly by one of the three, but no one seems especially concerned about it. Every so often everything on stage will stop and the characters all look up to listen closely to what I think is meant to be their upstairs neighbours bickering, though it’s pre-recorded and not always easy to hear.

Still, the plot’s pretty secondary. All the enjoyment from the play comes from the eccentric characters and their odd interactions, marked by the staccato, smart dialogue.

Leacock Live!

Leacock Live! company Act II Studio is a Ryerson drama school for people over 50, and they’ve mounted this sort of group reading, or “reader’s theatre” as I guess it’s called, of a couple of Stephen Leacock stories. The 15 or so people on stage in period garb, ranging in age from 50 to late 80’s, tell two tales from the fictional town of Mariposa, one about the local bar’s efforts to keep their liquor license, the other about a day trip on the town’s crappy old cruise ship.

I can’t deny it’s got a certain amount of charm, and it drew a sellout crowd the day I went. I guess lot of people really love Leacock or find the idea of a bunch of older actors onstage at once reading from black binders, occasionally messing up and stepping on each other’s lines, especially compelling. I’m not sure I get the appeal. It did get a patron’s pick from the Fringe, however, so it must be doing something right.

Teaching Shakespeare

A remount of a show that’s had great success in the past by experienced Canadian playwright/actor Keir Cutler, Teaching Shakespeare is a very funny one-man play that parodies a college class on Shakespeare. Cutler’s frantic college professor on the verge of a breakdown is a great parody and I imagine a lot of people will see an old teacher of theirs in his performance.

Shakespeare is totally infallible and unquestionable; if there’s anything we don’t like in his work, it’s because we don’t fully understand it, he insists. Rhyme schemes and monosyllabic word choices are examined in ridiculous detail. He brings out the class’s student evaluations, which are full of negative comments about how he goes off on odd tangents and can never finish the assigned scene for the day, and demands to know who’s written them. Of course, he doesn’t finish the assigned scene for this “class” either, mostly because he keeps going off on wild tangents.

The funniest bit occurs when he wants to demonstrate Shakespeare’s device of having the main character of his plays disappear from the action for a while. He does this by leaving the stage. When he comes back, he gets the class, i.e. the audience, to tell him what they were thinking when it happened, the correct answers being “where is he going?” and “is he coming back?”, and then acts as though something really profound has been discovered. Cutler’s expressiveness, particularly his slightly crazed, wide-eyed expression, adds a lot, and it’s for good reason that this show, which Cutler premiered in 1999, has been a hit wherever it’s gone.

TO Fringe Review: PUBLIC SPEAKING

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

You know, I told you people to go see this show. I told you before the Fringe even started. Judging by the very nearly sold out Helen Gardiner Phelan Theatre on Tuesday evening, it might just sell out the rest of the run, so unless you’ve got an advanced ticket it might already be too late.

And it should be sold out the rest of the way too, because this show is amazing. Chris Craddock’s new one man play starts out with him playing three seemingly unrelated characters: a heroin addict with gigantism, a young woman with a sex addiction, and a self-help guru who’s mantra is “it’s not my fault, and I don’t care anyway.” As the stories coalesce into a tale of crime, kidnapping, and the self-help guru’s seminar, you can almost forget that there’s only one person on stage. Craddock’s capacity for voices is incredible, and the sound design from Dave Clarke is amazing, even if, as Chris pointed out in the comments section of our preview, the tech for it isn’t the way they want it yet.

I’m hesitant to reveal much of the plot here for fear of giving too much away; it’s pretty intricate, and once I start writing about it I’ll probably spoil it for someone. Suffice it to say, the sex addict is the daughter of the self-help guru, and she’s the one who’s kidnapped by the addict with gigantism. There’s some ancillary characters that Craddock plays too, like the giant’s fast-talking, three-fingered boss and a police officer who gets called in to work on the kidnapping. The giant is really the hero of the story, but I thought the self-help guy was the most enjoyable. His determination to always apply his “me first” philosophy, even in the face of his daughter’s kidnapping, is so over-the-top it’s funny, and his whole method – described by the cop character as “how to be an asshole” – is hilarious. It’s also kind of discomfiting in it’s plausibility; I could actually see a self-help guru telling people that “compassion is an outdated evolutionary mechanism that has to be overcome.”

I overheard one woman leaving the theatre say she felt like she’d just seen a movie with plot twists and diverse characters. The show was a huge crowd pleaser on Tuesday night; people applauded every scene of the d√©nouement that showed where each character ended up, the last few uses of the “it’s not my fault, and I don’t care anyway” tagline had the audience roaring, and the standing ovation was long and loud. I still have “Bananenhaus” stuck in my head after last night’s Die Roten Punkte show, so I couldn’t say yet which show I like more. However, that show and this one are definitely my picks of the Fringe right now.

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

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

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.