Friday, July 15, 2011

Toronto Fringe Festival 2011 - First Week

The Toronto Fringe Festival presents over 100 offerings of live theatre, performed at small venues, featuring plays that are avant garde, non-mainstream, innovative and sometimes just plain weird. With such a large number of eclectic shows to choose from, its always a crap shoot what you end up watching.  We've seen some amazing, extremely entertaining  plays, and some that leave us scratching our heads, wondering what that was all about.

This year, I've picked 7 plays, and after watching the first 4 this weekend, I am currently 50% in my selections.  I've seen two excellent plays, one that had a great premise, but came across as amateurish and not well scripted, and one that I wish I could go back in time and reclaim the lost hour of my life.

Austen for the Attention Impaired is a comedy that compresses all of Jane Austen's novels into one hour.  We thought it would be like "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" which was hilarious.  Instead the acting was stilted and many of the jokes fell flat.   It started out promising with a funny rap but went downhill from there. 

Bursting into Flames was an even worse experience for us.  Reviewed as a high energy "blisteringly funny" comedy by a master story teller, and winner of the best of Fringe in  other festivals, this sounded like a slam dunk.  Unfortunately, the manic style of this comic did not appeal to us.  We found he just rambled on and on and was not funny at all.  Luckily it was just a 60 minute show and only $10 so the investment was not huge.

These are the chances you take with the Fringe, but when you pick a gem of a show, it makes it all worthwhile.

My first great pick was a musical drama called "Living With Henry" about a gay man named Michael who deals with contracting HIV/AIDS.   In the past, AIDS was an automatic death sentence as depicted by movies like Streets of Philadelphia and musicals like Rent.  This play deals with the issues of having to live out your life with the fears, complications and stigma of this disease that is now controllable with medicine.

What makes this show unique is the early reveal that Henry is actually "Henry Ignactius Virus", the personification of HIV.  Henry is played to perfection by an actor dressed all in black who gives off just the right mix of creepy dread and menace.  Henry clings to Michael and acts both physically and emotionally as roadblock in some of his interactions as he reveals his illness to his lesbian best friend, his mother and his lover.  Eventually when Michael finally comes to terms with his life with the disease, Henry softens and becomes more like a companion than an enemy.

Being a musical about such a serious topic, there were the expected and dramatic songs about fear and pain and acceptance.  But there were also humorous numbers including a dance by the two main ingredients of AIDS medication, and a hilarious bathhouse ballet that featured the gawkiest "Swan Lake"-like lifts ever choreographed.

The dialogue is raw and poignant and has an air of authenticity since the author of the play is also HIV positive.  Some of the action is a bit risqué, but this powerful play is a perfect example of what you can see at Fringe that is less accessible in mainstream theatre.

Kim's Convenience has been heavily hyped and is likely this year's version of "The Drowsy Chaperone" which is now famous for being picked up by David Mirvish for a professional run in Toronto and then went on to Broadway.

50% of tickets to each show are sold in advance and the rest reserved for sale 1 hour before the show.  We knew we were in for something special when the advanced tickets to our show sold out days in advance and when we arrived at the theatre over 1.5 hours early, there was already a lineup for tickets.  We got ours just in time as all tickets sold out shortly after.

Kim's Convenience is about a Korean family that runs a convenience store in Regent Park, Toronto. The familiar story of a father trying to leave his legacy to children with  dreams of their own, is brought to life with a stellar script and excellent acting.  A huge decision needs to be made when the patriarch is given a substantial offer to sell the store.

This play won the 2011 Toronto Fringe New Play Contest and is extremely funny for the most part but has some touching moments.  The immigrant Korean father with the heavy accent, stern demeanour, wearing white socks and open toed rubber sandals, is played to perfection by actor Paul Lee.

His witty repartee with various customers and his feisty daughter made the audience roar with laughter.  We still discuss in amusement the conversation where the father tries to teach his daughter how to detect shoplifters by describing different demographics and genders as "Steal or No Steal or Cancel Combo".  And when the father rebuts every word the daughter says by throwing it back at her ("Stop" - "You Stop";  "Please" - "You Please"), the daughter tricks him into saying things like ("Calyptus" - "Eucalyptus").

Brief dialogue with his wife, spoken totally in Korean, gave the play a feel of authenticity.  Although you had no idea what words were spoken between them, it was obvious exactly what they were talking about.  Scenes with the wayward son, played by the playwright Ins Choi, tear at the heart strings and made more than a few eyes moist including mine.

This play deserves a professional run in mainstream theatre so let's hope David Mirvish or his people have gone to see it.

Four shows down and three to go.  Keeping my fingers crossed that my last few selections will be as good.

No comments: