SummerWorks Review: Impromptu Splendour [National Theatre of the World]

Posted on by Brian in Everything, Summerworks, Theatre | 2 Comments

Impromptu Splendor3

Improv theatre. I used to be really into it. Oh, back when I lived in Edmonton, we’d go to long-form improv shows every Monday night and sometimes on the weekend too. Edmonton has a great long-running improv troupe called Die Nasty that’s been running every Monday for nearly two decades, and I was such a fan.

Oh, the memories. The season whether they were in the Old West and had a talking mule. The one where they were in Rome. The one where they were in space and the funniest character was a puppet. Star improviser Mark Meer and his Dr. Doom costume that morphed into space villain to evil knight to any number of things. The 53 hour Soap-a-thon every fall that my roommate and I were crazy enough to spend all weekend at more than once. The guest stars they got from Dana Anderson’s connections with Second City: Mike Myers, Joe Flaherty, Nathan Fillion…

And a young cast member named Ron Pederson, always one of the best performers, who we, the regular audience, had to wave goodbye to after he was recruited by MADtv and went off into the world.

Impromptu Splendor, running now as part of the SummerWorks festival, is mostly a nostalgia trip for me and a chance to see Ron do improv again. Still, it’s a good show in it’s own right, and I suppose I should offer some kind of review instead of getting all starry-eyed and pining for the old Die Nasty days.

The National Theatre of the World is a Toronto improv group featuring Ron and Second City veterans Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus. The idea behind Impromptu Splendor is that they take a famous playwright and improvise a play in the style of that playwright during the hour they have on stage. Someone from the audience picks the name of the playwright out of a hat at the end of the previous show, so they do have a bit of time to prepare, but it’s mostly just to pick proper costumes and design a simple set.

Obviously this leads to a different show every night, and if there’s one thing I know from seeing many improv shows it’s that the quality can vary greatly from one show to the next, so reviewing is kind of a fruitless endeavour. But on the night we attended, the playwright they were doing was David Mamet, and based on words the audience yelled out at the beginning was called The Perverted Metronome, about an office that sold aluminium siding.

So, as you can imagine, there was intrigue, betrayal, terse dialogue, a romantic subplot, a subplot about pederasty, and very generous use of the word “fuck.” The thing you hear most often from people who haven’t seen this kind of improv before is disbelief that everything was made up on the spot. For myself, though, being very familiar with Ron Pederson, my expectations for a brilliant, funny show were very high. It’s a credit to the cast that they almost met them.

Impromptu Splendor has three shows left in their SummerWorks run: August 13 at 10:30, August 15 at 4:30, and August 16 at 6:30. The playwright for the show on the 13th is Tennessee Williams. Should be a good one. See the SummerWorks website for schedule and ticket info. National Theatre of the World, meanwhile, have a regular show in Kensington Market and a new show starting in October. See their site for info.

SummerWorks Review: Red Machine Pt. 2 [The Room] and La Señorita Mundo [Music Picnic]

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La Senorita Mundo High Res 4

It was a muggy Toronto afternoon as my companion and I entered The Theatre Centre for two shows as part of the SummerWorks Festival on Monday. The first show, Red Machine Part Two, the second part of an ensemble piece supposedly about one story from the perspective of different parts of a single character’s brain, had always promised to be kind of challenging, but though the second, La Señorita Mundo: An Operatic Allegory (promo picture above) started off much simpler, we left just as perplexed.

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SummerWorks Review: Toronto Noir [Cheeky Magpie]

Posted on by Brian in Everything, Summerworks, Theatre | 3 Comments

Toronto Noir1

Noir seems to be coming around in popularity again for some reason. I’m not really sure why. Film noir had it’s heyday in the 40’s and 50’s after all, and noir crime fiction 20 years before that. Applying noir cliches and stylings to different things seems to be gaining in popularity, though. I’ve even heard there’s a superhero comic book series out now called X-Men Noir. Go figure.

Toronto Noir, the play, is based on Toronto Noir, a collection of short stories that came out last year. It’s exactly what the title implies: noir stories, set in Toronto. I haven’t read the book, but after seeing the play, I think I might like to.

The play is based on three of the stories from the book that run concurrently: one about a stand-up bass player (Great Big Sea bassist Murray Foster) who has to dispose of a body ’cause of a dame; one about a bar owner (Jack Grinhaus) who has a run-in with a cop (Adrian Griffin) whose wife (Alicia Johnston) he’s having an affair with; and a failed actor (Sarah Mennell) who has an attack of jealousy when a much younger recent theatre grad (Emily Andrews) who idolizes her gets a part in a movie. And, of course, all are set around Toronto: respectively, in the Humber Loop, the Distillery District and the St. Lawrence Market.

It’s quite a cast; as a whole they’ve got a number of TV and movie roles to the credit along with a mess of big theatre roles across Canada, the US and the UK. Oddly enough, though, it’s Foster, who’s best known for being a member of Moxy Fruvous and has been the bass player with Great Big Sea since 2002, who steals the show. His segment is the best, and he uses his double bass to great prop effect, mostly as a stand-in for the body he’s dragging around, and he deftly throws in a few tunes to boot.

The problem is, the other two stories just aren’t as good. Grinhaus spends most of his time showing the cop around the unlicensed bar and boxing ring he has; there’s a brief sparring match between the two, but no real tension. Mennell’s story has a few laughs, many of them from Marilla Wex playing Mennell’s boss at the “Honey Hut,” but Mennell’s character mostly comes across as a terrible person who can’t cope with her jealousy of Andrews’ character. Noir protagonists are frequently flawed and only occasionally redeemed in the end, but are still usually likable. Mennell’s character really isn’t (maybe you have to be an actor to really get the insane jealousy, I don’t know), and while Grinhaus’s character is likable enough, his story just isn’t that interesting and the climactic “twist,” if you can call it that, is pretty weak.

The on-stage DJ is a nice touch, however, and the way the scene changes between the three stories is quite good; none of the actors really leave the stage, they just freeze in the background and one of three photos, like the one above of Foster, on a big wheeled placard is shown to indicate which story is up. It’s rather skillfully done, and it’s never confusing which story is going on, nor is it particularly jarring switching between them, a nice accomplishment.

Still, if this play were re-imagined as a vehicle for Foster to star as his Plunk Henry character, I’d have liked it a whole lot more.

Toronto Noir runs on August 11th and 13th at 4:00 and August 15th at noon, all at The Theatre Centre, as part of SummerWorks. Check their site for schedule and ticket info.

SummerWorks Review: The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa [Ecce Homo]

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The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa1

Toronto – The title of The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa or Agnes Bojaxhui Superstar is pretty apt in a lot of ways: the show comes across as though it’s trying to be two different shows, one that works a whole lot better than the other.

The first, the “Ecstasy” part, is a harsh look at Mother Teresa, formerly Agnes Bojaxhui, the Catholic Church, and the nature of sainthood. In one of the first scenes, an angel and devil take up station on either end of the stage, and a series of actors come to one or the other relating what I assume are real life quotes either praising or criticizing Mother Teresa and her hopsice and missionary work in India with the very poor.

It sounds like it’s going to be heavy, powerful stuff for the evening, but in the next moment the “Superstar” part of the show turns up, and the scene becomes a big song and dance number with the angel and devil taking off their robes to reveal stockings and flashy underwear and high heels (both are guys, by the way) and grinding against each other, while the rest of the cast on stage sings a chorus.

And it’s good. The “Superstar” part of the show is great; the songs are clever, the guy playing the keyboard is very good, and the singers are terrific. The music is not only a funny send-up of the weighty matters of sainthood and Catholicism in general, but also make for a pretty excellent parody of a big Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

But the “Ecstasy” part lets the musical material down. Despite the opening that intimates the show will take a serious look at Mother Teresa, that never really happens until the tail end of the show. The parts in between are largely incomprehensible, full of strange imagery with random bouts of plot, sometimes losing the plot entirely to take pot shots at the Catholic Church. As an agnostic I don’t have a problem with this per se, but I do think that it’s a pretty easy target. If you’re going to take shots at the Church, you should be saying something new or offering some kind of insight. This doesn’t. The show culminates in a disjointed criticism of Mother Teresa’s rant on abortion in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech and her tepid reaction to the Bhopal Disaster of 1984, and a strange man in a black and white suit muses on the rightness of making humans, who are frail, insecure, and make mistakes, into saints at all.

But if that was the play’s point, that Mother Teresa was human like anyone else, it’s a line that should’ve been uttered a whole lot sooner, rather than making the show hastily philosophical at the end. The songs are terrific, but The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa or Agnes Bojaxhui Superstar never really decides if it’s a funny parody of the church and Webber musicals, or a serious look at sainthood, Mother Teresa, and human frailty. If it had solely been the former, the “Superstar” part, it would’ve been a whole lot better.

The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa or Agnes Bojaxhui Superstar runs August 11th at 8, August 13 at 8 and August 14 at 6 at Theatre Centre as part of the SummerWorks Festival.