TO Fringe Review: Fruitcake and The Dentist, June 30

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

Toronto – So what’s most important in a one-person show? You could say any number of things regarding the script or the acting or what have you. I think that above all, you have to be a great storyteller to really make a one-man or one-woman show work.

There’s no greater example of this than Rob Gee’s Fruitcake – Ten Commandments from the Psych Ward. There’s some other elements to Fruitcake: ostensibly there’s kind of a plot about a night shift in a psychiatric ward with a “voice of God” giving out ten commandments like “thou shalt laugh at each other” and “thou shalt not kill…thyself…on my shift” that sort of introduce each segment. Really, though, it’s just Rob Gee telling stories, and the “commandments” part is secondary. Possibly it’s just in there because “Fruitcake – Rob Gee Tells Stories About Back When he Used to Work as a Psychiatric Nurse” is a pretty terrible title.

Anyway, it works because Rob is a great storyteller. He’s funny and amiable and just looks like he’s having a terrific time throughout, and he also has that sort of John Cleese-like ability to flail his long limbs around in way that makes everybody smile. The stories he tells are engrossing. There’s the speed freak and the rehabbing alcoholic who, as Rob puts it, had a real commitment to their habits. There’s the prank he and a patient pulled on a nurse on his first night who was terrified of giving needles. There’s the paranoid schitzophrenic who thinks he’s the subject of a massive experiment. And there’s the horrifying story of the man who boiled his hand, then cut it off with a circular saw because a voice in his head told him it would save a friend half a world away.

Rob manages to tell these stories with a level of humanity and empathy that’s hard to balance in tales of mental illness. He doesn’t feel sorry for these people, nor does he make the audience feel sorry for them. They’re real people, not so very different than you or me, just with a few more chemical imbalances in the brain. As Rob tells stories of helping them with their tenuous grip on sanity, and in some cases just trying to keep them from killing themselves that very night, there’s a lot of laughs, and some uncomfortable squirms. They’re great stories, told by a master, and it makes a show worth seeing.

Unfortunately, as good as Fruitcake was, it started late, and as a result I missed the start of my next scheduled show. Let this be a lesson: if you have less than five minutes to get from a play at St. Vladimir’s to one at the Helen Gardiner Phelan playhouse, you’re probably not going to make it, unless you really pound the pavement.

After killing time for about 90 minutes, only about seven people joined me to see The Dentist. It’s a show about the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and her quest to learn exactly what it was he did when he was held at the camp at Auschwitz. This causes her to reflect on a dysfunctional relationship with a father prone to irrational rage and abuse.

I don’t know what it was exactly, but this show just didn’t click. I’ll grant that it might have been the lack of audience; it’s hard to get excited for a performance when there’s eight people in a room made for 112. Maybe it’s the translation; originally written in Hebrew, playwright and performer Razia Israely had the show translated and took English lessons to try and get it to work. In any case, on this night it wasn’t working: Ms. Israely’s performance was flat, she didn’t seem entirely comfortable giving the show in English, the music cues were occasionally off, and while the plot seemed like something you might enjoy if it were a short story, it didn’t make the transition from an ok story to a good stage show. This play has gotten good press at other festivals, like Edinburgh, so it’s possible that Wednesday was just a bad night and it’ll be better during the rest of the Fringe. A great storyteller could maybe get this one to work, and maybe Ms. Israely is that in Hebrew, or on other nights. But things were pretty rough on opening night, and I can’t recommend the show based on what I saw.

Toronto Fringe Preview: Fruitcake – Ten Commandments from the Psych Ward

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

A few years ago while trolling the Edmonton Fringe Festival solo for shows to see, I decided I would try something a different. At the time I was really into improv shows and sketch comedies and the bittersweet comedy/dramas of a few local playwrights, and not a whole lot else. I was pretty sure that I didn’t care much for poetry, and didn’t really know what performance poetry even was.

Exactly what possessed me to drop into a show called the Bold & Spiky Poetry show I’m not sure. You can probably tell where this is going, though: I was glad that I did, in the end, because it was fantastic. Two British guys on stage, alternately reciting/performing poetry of their own creation; it was riveting stuff. It’s been years since the show and I can still vividly recall many details. Particularly affecting was a Remembrance Day poem from one half of the duo, Rob Gee, a poem about the abandonment and loneliness many old soldiers face when they’ve returned from war, something he’d seen firsthand as a psychiatric nurse. “We should wear our poppies with shame, not pride,” Rob said. Every November I think about that poem.

Anyway, all this is a very roundabout way of saying that Rob Gee is very, very good, and that you should see his show that’s running this year at the Toronto Fringe, namely Fruitcake – Ten Commandments from the Psych Ward. From the press release:

“Comic, poet and reformed psychiatric nurse, Rob Gee presents a user-friendly guide to losing the plot. Fruitcake charts a night shift on an acute psychiatric ward, seen through the eyes of a nurse who hears the voice of God – a kindly Jamaican woman – who gives him ten benevolent commandments to help him through the shift; and life.”

Bet on a thoroughly entertaining show that is mostly hilarious, often touching, and will probably leave you with tears in your eyes by the end. Recommendation: go early in the run. This show totally owned the Winnipeg Fringe Festival last summer, winning Best of the Fest, it owned the Orlando Fringe in May, winning the Sold Out Award, and has gotten great reviews everywhere it’s been. The smart betting is that as soon as the Toronto reviews start coming out and word of mouth spreads, this show’s going to be sold out the rest of the way. And if you come on opening night, try to find me and say hello. I’ll give you one of my new Panic Manual business cards.

Fruitcake is at St. Vladimir’s Theatre, Venue 8 in your programs, just south of Harbord on Spadina. The schedule:

Wed June 30 – 7:00pm

Sun July 4 – 11:00pm

Mon July 5 – 4:45pm

Wed July 7 – 9:30pm

Thur July 8 – 12:00pm

Fri July 9 – 8:00pm

Sat July 10 – 1:45pm

Toronto Fringe Preview: The Carnegie Hall Show!

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

Last summer I wrote a review for a SummerWorks improv show called Impromptu Splendour. This review basically became a vehicle for me to express my man-crush on cast member Ron Pederson, and to pine for the days back when I used to live in Edmonton and he was one of my favourite local performers. The nostalgia!

This summer, Ron and his two co-stars from Impromptu Splendour, Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram, along with Chris Gibbs and Waylen Miki, are bringing their (apparently) regular improv show “The Carnegie Hall Show!” to the Fringe. I say apparently because I know little about it, but according to their website it’s every Wednesday in Kensington Market.

I think most people know what the schtick is with an improv show: you go there, the performers get some suggestions for what to do, usually revolving around setting and style and sometimes character, and they’ll make up a show on the spot. So without a script or director or those kind of things that normal actors rely on but improvisers scoff at, improv shows are always hit or miss. However, with a cast of talented performers, there’s a lot more hits than misses, and these guys are as talented as they come. From their press release:

“Matt Baram – ‘Second City’, ‘Impromptu Splendor’, ‘Monkey Toast’, ‘Ghost Jail Theatre’, and so many more! Throw a stone at any of Toronto’s best improv shows and you’ll probably hit Matt Baram. But why would you do that? What’s wrong with you?

“Ron Pederson – Ron Pederson has appeared across Canada with the country’s most distinguished theatres. He spent 8 seasons as a core member of the Improvisational troupe Die-Nasty, the improvised soap opera and 3 seasons in the cast of Fox’s MADTV. But don’t let his baby-face fool you, he’s a menace!

“Naomi Snieckus – Naomi Snieckus is one of the most accomplished comedy actors in Canada. From Second City to Canstage to the big silver screen she’s done it all. Even her TV commercials have a devoted cult following. But don’t let her talent distract you from the fact that she’s a real knockout!!

“Chris Gibbs – Perpetual Special Guest – Street-acrobat turned overweight comedian Chris Gibbs is British! His one-man shows are mainstays on Canada’s fringe festival circuit, where he’s well known for his improvisational approach, turning poorly-written pap into comedy gold!

“Waylen Miki – Musical accompaniment – Two-time Dora Award winner Waylen Miki has won two Doras and communicates almost entirely through music. You should hear him order a sandwich! But the point is… TWO DORAS!”

See? They even write funny press releases. Also, they have credentials. Their show will be good. You could even go to all their shows and they’d be different every night. You would miss a lot of other stuff at the Fringe if you did that, though. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, I just think that you might want to consider it a little longer before you commit to it.

Want passes or advance tix? Check the Fringe website. The Carnegie Hall Show! is at the Factory Theatre Mainspace, on or about Bathurst and Adelaide. Tix are $10 at the door, $11 in advance. Their schedule looks like this:

Fri, July 2 – 7:00

Sat, July 3 – Noon

Mon, July 5 – 6:45

Wed, July 7 – 11pm

Thu, July 8 – 9:15

Sat, July 10 – 5:45

Sun, July 11 – 1:45pm

Toronto Fringe Preview: PUBLIC SPEAKING

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

Last year I only managed to catch a handful of Fringe plays, none of which I reviewed here, but I was lucky enough to catch a fantastic little one-man show called Moving Along that I really enjoyed. The one man in it was Chris Craddock, a wonderful actor based in Edmonton, and featured a chair with several lights strapped to it that he’d switch on and off as he ricocheted through the performance. Moving Along was an older show he’d dusted off to tour Fringes last summer, and I hope a lot of people saw it because it was excellent.

The picture above is a promo shot for Moving Along because I couldn’t find one of suitable size/quality for Craddock’s new one-man gig that’s going to run at this year’s Fringe, which is called PUBLIC SPEAKING. This show is so new that it’s Toronto showing is apparently a “fully realized workshop presentation,” and won’t actually have an official premiere until next season at Theatre Network in Edmonton. Just to take a potshot at the city I used to live in, this means that there is something to look forward to this upcoming winter in Edmonton, which is a refreshing change from the norm.

From the show’s press release: “Celebrated playwright and performer Chris Craddock returns as a one-man tour-de-force. Characters from opposing sides of the tracks collide when Johnny Three Fingers and his assistant, Brian, kidnap the rich and famous Diana. But when Brian, a homeless man with gigantism, is put in charge of guarding the girl, a closet sex-addict and daughter of Canada’s “King of Self-Help,” he has to fight not to fall in love with her. Meanwhile, Diana’s father tries not to betray his principles now that they’ve been put to the ultimate test. As Craddock weaves this intricate multi-character tale, he manipulates sound to awesome effect—much as he had manipulated lighting in his hit play, Moving Along.”

You might remember Craddock as the writer of previous hit shows Boy Groove and BASH’d, which was actually performed off Broadway in 2008. I remember him from a handful of shows around Edmonton when I was around that theatre scene a lot, but mostly I remember him as the writer of Summer of My Amazing Luck, a stage adaptation of the Miriam Toews novel, which was stupendous and made both my mother and my sister cry when I took them to see it.

So basically if you want to see a playwright and actor who’s been at the top of his game for years now without any sign of slowing down perform his new work, and you probably should want to do that, see PUBLIC SPEAKING.

PUBLIC SPEAKING runs at venue 9 in your Fringe program, the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, which is north of College on St. George Street. As usual, a ticket will cost you $10 at the door, $11 in advance, and you can get all info on passes and advance tix at the Fringe website. The schedule for the show looks like this:

Friday July 2, 10:30 pm

Sunday July 4, 7:15 pm

Tuesday July 6, 6:30 pm

Wednesday July 7, 4:00 pm

Thursday July 8, 11:15 pm

Friday July, 9, Noon

Sunday July 11, 5:45 pm