toronto fringe

TO Fringe Review: The LOVE Octagon

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Toronto – I will now use this space to express my unending adoration for pretty much everything Ron Pederson and Chris Craddock produce, much like I usually do.

<gushing and fawning praise goes here>

Ok, with that out of the way, their new show The LOVE Octagon, really is very good improv. Pederson and Craddock, with Waylen Miki providing atmosphere music on the keyboard, start the same way many an improv show begins: by getting suggestions from the audience. Only here, instead of getting names of settings and occupations, they take audience stories about love. Breakups, heartbreak, even stories of people who are happy and in love.

With the character names and setups they get from these stories, Craddock and Pederson spin four stories about love that interweave, go in bizarre directions, and are just generally hilarious. The two will drop a scene when it gets stale, move to one of the other three storylines, then come back to the characters again later on without missing a beat. Watching these two improv masters keep all four stories going with little more than a few cues written on a whiteboard and the occasional out-of-character conference to the side of the stage that’s often as funny as the in-story action is amazing.

In the show I saw, the audience provided plenty of inspiration, particularly one guy in the front row who said that he and his girlfriend broke up because he felt that they were going to grow apart, a phrase the two came back to in some variation repeatedly. Like a lot of improv shows, LOVE Octagon occasionally goes off the rails a little, with the occasional mimed blowjob gag and Jesus turning up in one scene with an English accent and trying to have a threesome with two young Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Mostly, though, it’s just great improv from two masters, and one of the best bets for laughs at the Fringe.

The LOVE Octagon plays at Venue 10. Check your Fringe program or the online play listings for showtimes.

TO Fringe Review: Boyfriends

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Toronto – I suppose if I hadn’t read the play description for Boyfriends on the Fringe website before gonig to the show, I probably wouldn’t have got that the three male leads in the show are supposed to be Peter Falk, John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara in the 1960’s.

I mean, I probably would’ve gotten the 1960’s part. And I might’ve gotten that the one actor was doing a young Peter Falk (I don’t know the actor’s name, as there was no program that I could see and the company ahs no website). Of course, I couldn’t pick the real John Cassavetes or Ben Gazarra out of a lineup, but I digress.

Anyway, Boyfriends would probablybe enjoyable even if you didn’t know who the three male characters were supposed to be, thanks to how good the three actors are, their dialogue, and their chemistry and charm. In the story, the three have a contest to see if any of them, in turn, can get a call girl they invite over to fall in love with them.

It’s not a very nice game to play, of course, and it’s destined to end badly, but there’s more than a few laughs along the way, especially from Cassavetes’ motormouth, and a few tender moments, particularly with Falk’s vulnerability. A cynical Gazzara just comes across as mean-spirited, however, and as the plot grinds to it’s inevitable conclusion, with the escort getting upset at being the subject of this game and storming out, the play kind of limps to its conclusion and never does find a strong note to end on.

Still, the three male leads are quite good, the dialogue is snappy, and it’s probably even better if you know who these people are in real life.

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

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.