FRINGE TORONTO: 36 Little Plays About Hopeless Girls, Review by Evan Webber

36 Little Plays About Hopeless Girls

Written and Directed by Aurora Stewart de Peña
Presented by Birdtown and Swanville

Featuring: Rebecca Applebaum, Lauren Bride, Jolene De Voe, Sochi Fried, Cara Gee, Julia Lederer, Donna Maloney, Laura McCoy, Nika Mistruzzi, Monique Moses, Liz Peterson, Aurora Stewart de Peña, and Nicole Stamp.

Presented at Bread and Circus. 299 August Avenue


Wednesday July 15th midnight
Friday July 17th at 6:30pm

Writer/director Aurora Stewart de Peña's 36 Little Plays About Hopeless Girls is about additive sadness and small choices that appear hardly to be choices at all. If you’re a person, you’ll probably like it. Instead of landing on the planet of sadness, 36 Little Plays stays in orbit above its thematic centre. It keeps lightly to the clouds, but its endless flight, while not exposing the interior, surveys much of the dark territory below.

At times the writing is biting and familiar, at other times it sounds like bad TV and in rare (quite rare) moments it actually is really, really bad. Like most popular satire, it only ever fails when it betrays how it secretly endorses or even craves the power it means to ridicule. Stewart de Peña deserves real credit for both noticing and trying to resolve this problem. Her solution: applying the principle of excess. Like most principles it would work better if it were more rigorously upheld in the quality of the performance – the changing state of the performer’s bodies, for instance – but it’s still a sound conceptual solution.

So the show is piled on methodically: a voice-over is followed by a scene, followed by a dance which is followed by another voice-over and in every situation the performers (almost too many to keep track of) seem to have been left to determine the style of the show entirely on their own. The clash of their idiomatic verdicts, which range from the melodramatic to the fearful, the trembling, the all-to-real, and the awkward, are what deliver the essential conflict of the show: not only do the people in this play not know how to solve their problems, they don’t even know how to be in their problems.

In the final moments, the hopeless girls are sleeping like abused domestics in some Dickensian hell, and one dreams of a creature entirely unlike her who comes from another world. It just so happens to be the same person as the only multi-cast performer in the show who’s also played the singing orphan, the bisexual, the pretentious artist, the one who smells bad, the one who is perpetually abused and excluded from the world the rest of the characters inhabit . It’s a gesture towards a possible reconciliation of difference, maybe even the emergence of self-awareness. It seems unlikely though, that the girls will be able to escape the crushing gravity of their own girlhood.

Is it worth mentioning the many similarities between this play and the text of Rainer Fassbinder’s 1971 play Blood On The Cat’s Neck in which a beautiful extraterrestrial woman-creature, (a blonde model look-alike) appears in the midst of a group of grimy, post-war West Germans? (I wasn’t born in time to see Blood On The Cat’s Neck, but this only makes the similarities even more eerie.) Needless to say, when Fassbinder’s hopeless girls and boys end their evening together, they really end it. His English translator Denis Calandra paraphrases Fassbinder’s preliminary notes from a film of the same period thus: ‘Fassbinder said he wanted to allow his audience, without any help from him, to make the choice between a short, fulfilled life, or a longer existence, which would for the most part be “alienated” and “lived outside a fully conscious state.’

Given the rest of the work, the sudden, ambiguous optimism at the end of 36 Little Plays rings uncomfortably like something written as if reassure the people whose lives it’s just been so methodically dissecting, namely: us; the performers; the playwright. This can be diagnosed as a structural problem: the play trades on a classical form but it cuts off at the climax. True to itself, the play offers anything but an obvious ending. But for ourselves, and of the creator, we can’t help wonder: if not a classical conclusion, what, exactly, happens next?
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FRINGE TORONTO: The Particulars, Review by Evan Webber

The Particulars

Written by Matthew Mackenzie
Directed by Vahid Rahbani
Presented by Second Body Productions

Featuring Alex McCooeye

Presented at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Avenue

Alex McCooeye plays the narrator of Matthew Mackenzie’s one-man The Particulars, as might the refugee a bio-mechanics class, who, having escaped from Stalin’s tentacles finds himself in a differently brutal world of church basements, home-repair, and restless loneliness. Vahid Rahbani directs for clarity while committing to the frenetic style. Some moments are balanced just right, and achieve an ominous poetry (a rolling up carpet is a bed and the absence of a bed, and something else) though the production sometimes plays too many notes at the same time in an effort to make up for lack.

Mackenzie is a skilled writer with an sharp eye for the details that make up the bulk of the play. Moments of the text give his Oakville, or Evansville, or anywhere-in-Canada-ville the labyrinthine alienation of Kafka’s Prague, and the grimy, cheery mechanistics of Saramago’s Lisbon. The best moments, like the morning walk in the valley, make (as the refugee above might say) the familiar, strange – and haunting too. It’s extra sad then when the writing flags and slips into sentamentalism and mockery. Someone more charitable than me can write off these little ticks as the minor symptoms that appear following an innoculation against Fringe-itis. No doubt this shot gives the play better odds of thriving in this environment. I wish it had taken itself more seriously.
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FRINGE TORONTO: Red Machine-Part One, Review by Evan Webber

Red Machine

Written by Brendan Gall, Michael Rubenfeld, and Erin Shields
Directed by Chris Hanratty, Geoffrey Pounsett, and Christopher Stanton
Presented by The Room

Featuring James Cade, John Gilbert, Paula Jean-Prudat, and Tova Smith

Presented at the Lower Ossington Theatre, 100 Ossington Avenue


Sunday July 12th 7:00pm

Notes of brave intentionality rescue this uneven, first performance by hydra-headed theatre company, The Room. The work’s collaborative origins are pushed to the foreground as the monumentally clichéd story of the-writer-alone-in-his-room gets dynamited as if by flaming-haired, cartoon miners. It's pretty slick, but the slickness sometimes masks a lack of substance, and the mashed-up, David Lynch-y text struggles against the strengths of the performers.

I saw this work with a group of friends who all hated it, and while I often sighed in sympathy with them, I was heartened by the moments of honesty in this attempt. At heart this is a simple story about art and the questions one has creating art, told in a way that's both internally resonant and humourously self-effacing. In itself this is nothing new, but the way that the company’s unmistakable commitment to this story gets blocked and obfuscated by the pressures of the cliché itself certainly says something pointed about the way our brains make sense of the things we see. And the plays succeeds in reanimating a conventional style by playing the drama of the story's own limitations.

Red Machine would benefit from a period of serious reflection and sharpening, but it’s good to see The Fringe used not just as a factory farm for stand-up and musicals; it may also be a place to experiment and it’s exciting to watch early ideas take shape. Hopefully, Part One refers to an incomplete process. Red Machine (and the people who watch it) will be rewarded when the creators apply the energy of their craftsmanship to the clarity of conception. Here’s hoping.
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FRINGE TORONTO: Like Father, Like Son? Sorry, Review by Katherine Sanders

Like Father, Like Son? Sorry.

Written and performed by Chris Gibbs

Presented at Factory Theatre Mainspace, 125 Bathurst Street


Friday July 10th 4:00 pm
Saturday July 11 5:45 pm

I have watched Chris Gibbs' career for 10 years now - from his wildly successful street performance duo Hoopal, through sold-out solo shows on the Fringe Festival circuit, to steal-the-show type roles in local hits such as An Inconvenient Musical and as a member of the elite "Carnegie Hall" and "Impromptu Splendour" crowd. I've even seen his recent turn starring in the Indie film Run Robot Run. But never have I seen as much of Chris Gibbs as I did in his latest one-man show, Like Father, Like Son? Sorry.

Gibbs became a father 2 years ago, with the birth of his son Beckett (the name choice is one of the early stand-out jokes in the show). This show is a collection of anecdotes about fatherhood, strung together with the most minimal of props and costumes. Gibbs speeds through stories of his son's caesarean birth, his first efforts at speech and movement, stories you'd expect to hear in a play like this, peppered with bizarre musings from Gibbs' pre-Beckett life. It's a laugh-a-minute romp and Gibbs is a charming performer.

That said, in the performance I saw on Tuesday, Gibbs didn't seem quite as confident and in-control as he's been in the past. He threw some jokes away and sped through some anecdotes so quickly that I missed a few things. It's almost as if he doesn't trust that we'll go along with him on this journey. Often in his solo work he is disguised (however thinly) behind character and comedy. Even though all his characters are basically him, this show is really about HIM. We see him exposed as never before - and I think that's exactly the point. Becoming a father has given him that vulnerability, so talking about it onstage in front of an audience, he can't help but reveal that.

But unlike so many one-man tell-all shows that you see on the Fringe, this one has the weight of Gibbs' experience and craftsmanship behind it. After so many wickedly funny years, he has earned the right to take a few moments to be himself. We'll go along with him because we trust that he's taking us somewhere worthwhile. So it was odd to see him being almost apologetic for taking up our time with such personal material. But the most intimate moments which he zoomed past were what made this show distinct from all his other work, and I would have liked to have seen more of that. If he were to ask me I'd give him the same advice about this show as I would about being a dad: slow down, breath deeply, trust your instincts and it will all turn out fine.
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FRINGE TORONTO: Toys, Review by Katherine Sanders


Created by Winston Spear

Presented by Dancycle

Featuring Winston Spear, Freddie Rivas, Andrew Chapman

Presented at Factory Theatre Mainspace, 125 Bathurst Street


Wednesday July 8th 9:15pm
Friday July 10th 5:45pm
Saturday July 11th 11:30pm

Toys delivers what it promises. Toys. Lots of them. In fact watching this show is a lot like watching kids play - and I mean that in a good way. It is, as the program states, unlike anything you have ever seen (on a stage, anyway).

On entering the theatre, we are first greeted by a robot dog and a remote controlled tank doing a minimalist ballet together. These are the sole occupants of the stage, apart from the set which consists of three large styrofoam icebergs - at least, they look like icebergs to me. Their presence throughout the show suggests a barren cold world, which when combined with the various lighted spaceships and flying movements suggests outer space, perhaps an ice planet far from our own. The lights dim, the tank rolls offstage and the dog is carried away, still barking and flapping his ears. That's the last we'll see of him. There is not much repetition in this show, nor is there any narrative structure to grasp onto. It is more a series of vignettes, all involving manipulation of various objects by a cast of three - Winston Spear (the creator), Freddie Rivas, and Andrew Chapman.

All performers are extremely expressive, with their bodies and faces. Although their interactions with the toys are never explained, the importance with which each movement and object is invested makes the show enjoyable. Their overcommitment to each action (I particularly enjoyed Rivas' careful measuring of the space and the audience), is what keeps this show interesting.

The concept is introduced by bringing the first toy out in its original, battered cardboard box. A model airplane is carefully assembled onstage for us by Spear, who then begins to fly the plane around the stage. His movements fluid, his sock feet gliding along the floor, his facial expression wrapped up in the fate of the plane in his hands, we understand that he is not a person, he is the plane. From that moment on, we are taken on a bizarre journey, with flashing lights, miniature houses, and of course it's all set with precision to thumping house music. The expression through movement of each detail of the music is the main source of comedy, as with Spears' solo work (search for it on youtube).

The most successful work in this show is done with light manipulation, and there's lots of it. I longed for some arc, some through-line to tie it all together, but was nevertheless entertained for most of the 45 minute show. An hour would have been pushing it. See this show if you want a taste of the most weird and gleeful that the Fringe has to offer.
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FRINGE TORONTO: Icarus Redux, Review by Aurora de Pena

Icarus Redux

Written By Sean O'Neill

Directed by Sean O'Neill
Presented by Open Season Theatre

Featuring Jonathan Whittaker and Alex Fiddes

Presented at St. Vladimir's Theatre, 620 Spadina


Monday July 6th 3:15pm
Wednesday July 8th 8:00pm
Thursday July 9th 3:30pm
Friday July 10th 11:30pm
Sunday July 12th 12:45pm

Nika, Lauren, Laura, Sarah and I were watching the first instalment of Anne of Green Gables, splayed out on the sofa like exhausted cats. We all had tears in our eyes because of the scene in which Matthew gives Anne the ice-blue dress with exquisitely puffed sleeves and the two share a moment of deep here-to unexperienced father and daughter tenderness.

Every one our age knows this CBC mini-series front to back. It is part of language, and we all have crushes on Gilbert Blythe. Anne of Green Gables is embedded in our collective Canadian consciousness. It makes us all feel good about ourselves.

Nika and I, unable to tear our eyes away from the T.V., found ourselves running to St. Vladimir's Theatre with 5 minutes to spare (partially because I managed to convince her that the venue was definitely, definitely North of Harbord) on our way to Icarus Redux, which, as you might imagine, shares critical plot points with another story that has become embedded in our collective psyche, the story of Icarus, the boy with the waxen wings.

What is it about these myths that continue to fascinate? Icarus in particular is sad, morbid and hopeless. Icarus escapes Crete, the land to which he has been exiled, flying like an eagle on the aforementioned wings of his father's construct. His first taste of freedom makes him giddy, and he flies too close to the sun, which melts the wax that the wings are made of, sending him crashing into the ocean, ineffectively flapping his arms in an attempt to escape drowning.

It seems to suggest that an excess of freedom and lightheartedness will ultimately result in one's untimely and tragic demise. Better to stay captive.

It is not a democratic story.

Sean O'Neill's contemporary retelling gives us an Icarus whose imprisoning Crete is mental illness, and whose waxen wings are a relinquishing of the attempt to cure himself. The arc drifts back and forth between the son's reality and the father's, and at times it's difficult to tell whose world we are experiencing when. In my personal experiences with loving someone who is struggling with what their brain tells them and what everybody else tells them, this seamless drifting is pretty accurate, both for the lover and the lovee.

O'Neill's writing flips between T.S. Elliot style poetic and ferocious realism, which steeps the script in mystery, and Jonathan Whittaker and Alex Feddes as Dedalus and Son interact tenderly, viciously and hopelessly, shifting beat to beat.

I was caught off guard more than once by a hidden joke; what I like about O'Neill's writing, and his direction, is that he's not afraid to make the sad parts funny, even though they can be bitter. It's a survival tactic that we humans have to resort to every now and then, and humour is a key ingredient in any affecting tragedy, as tragedy is in any successful comedy, like Anne of Green Gables.

Though we live in a society that tells us we have control over our fate, and that we have the ability to rise above our circumstances, not all of us are capable. Many of us are still morbid, and many of us are still doomed. O'Neill's Son certainly is. The play starts with him dead, a figment of his father's imagination and, after an exploration of the events leading up to the circumstance, ends with him deader. The son is given a set of burlap and feather Icarus wings in the first half of the play. Designed by Brendon O'Neill, they are a grisly and ominous presence that for tell the fate of the character. Nobody strapped into those things is going to survive.

I have always been a little suspicious of any sort of contemporary "Redux" of a classic story. I have been subjected to too many hip-hoperas in my short life. These things run the risk of appearing more dated than their classical predecessors. O'Neill, however, must have, as his program notes suggested, begun with his own story and found parallels in the myth. He just does so in a way that is real and resonant with today's audiences. Skimming over the fancy parts and going straight to the broken heart of the story.

The reason that Icarus, and other dark tales from the Age of the Heroes have kept reappearing over the millenia has more to do with what we are sure of than what we hope for. We hope that we will find love, we hope that we will find joy, we hope that we will succeed. That's what a story like Anne of Green Gables shows us might be possible. It's possible that you may rise above your bitter circumstances and be loved by all who meet you.

It's possible, but you can't be sure.

The Greeks were much more fatalistic, and I believe, realistic. Even in love stories, like Helen's or Andromeda's, it's no gentle dream; people get raped, see their hometowns destroyed in flames, and are nearly ripped apart by vengeful sea monsters. The one thing they're sure of, beyond a doubt, is that we will cry. We come out of the womb crying and as we leave this world, with it's green trees and dark earth and drowning blue oceans, we leave cryers behind. We die, that's what we know. We knew it then and we know it now.

That is how the classical keeps popping up in the current, and that is what Sean O'Neill illustrates in Icarus Redux.
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FRINGE TORONTO: A Singularity of Being, Review by Chris Dupuis

A Singularity of Being

Written By T.Berto

Directed by Ed Roy
Presented by the Quantum Co-op and Keith Fernandes

Featuring John Blackwood, Soo Garay, Elizabeth Saunders, David Tripp, and Clinton Walker

Presented at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Avenue


Monday July 6th 8:00pm
Tuesday July 7th 3:00pm
Thursday July 9th 12:00pm
Friday July 10th 8:45pm
Sunday July 12th 5:15pm

A Singularity of Being isn't a show that would normally be my thing. T. Berto's straight ahead narrative drama, loosely based on the life of handicapped physicist extraordinaire Stephen Hawking, follows the life of a cosmologist named Roland (Clinton Walker) from his days as a rebellious undergrad through his career as an accomplished member of his field.

Shortly into the play we learn that Roland is suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS for short. Also knows as Lou Gehrig's Disease, the syndrome is a degenerative neurological disorder which slowly robs its victims of muscle control until they end up paralyzed in a wheelchair and unable to speak. Obviously this takes a toll not just on the person suffering from the disease but those around them and Berto is primarily interested in exploring what happens to the members of Roland's family as his condition degenerates.

Walker is flawless in the lead, bringing the perfect combination of sensitivity and humour to the role. Soo Garay is magical as Sally, Roland's wife who sticks by him through it all, despite the stress his suffering puts on her and joyfully helps him through his daily exercises and tops up his glass of whiskey. Elizabeth Saunders gets great laughs as Roland's stern but loving mother and she and Garay play perfectly together as the two women who have looked after Roland through different stages in his life.

Director Ed Roy has staged the show very simply, with a couple of chairs and hand props, focusing on developing the relationships between the characters rather than a big, flashy production. The press kit says that the company hopes the play will make the leap from the Fringe to a Toronto mainstage, and I'm sure with bigger chunk of change behind the production Roy will flesh it out in his characteristic style.

Though A Singularity of Being is very conventional script (at times even predictable) the combination of the superb cast and Roy's direction make it worth sitting through. The show doesn't challenge anything about the state of contemporary performance, or ask very much of its audience, but it's still a satisfying ninety minutes of theatre.
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