Monday, April 30, 2012

Rob Ford Mania

The last time Toronto had a mayor as controversial as Rob Ford was in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when Mel Lastman called in the army to remove our snow.  Rob Ford's "war on graffiti" has galvanized the local artists and resulted in a plethora of works that satirize both Ford's image as well as his stances on various divisive topics.  Not only can Rob Ford inspired graffiti be found scattered across Toronto, but recently there were not one but two art gallery exhibits devoted to our mayor.

The gallery Don't Tell Mama (great name!) at 108 Ossington St devoted an entire show to the graffiti artist Spud.   Spud has taken great joy in caricaturing Ford's face, drawing it on doors, street signs, plaques and posters.  Ford's features have been added to animate a variety of objects including paint cans, markers, octopus, clouds.  There was a single photo of Spud dressed incognito in shades and a hoodie.

After viewing this exhibit, we began to notice and recognize Spud's work on the streets.  I had an irrational feeling of "street cred" to know that I can identify the work of a graffiti artist's at twenty paces.

In Leslieville, the store Atomic Toybox held a show that they called "Ford Mania" and invited any interested artists to participate.  This led to a diverse range of contributions including paintings, drawings, cartoons, and even sculptures.  Topics ranged from Ford's deference to gas guzzling cars and antipathy towards public transit and bike lanes, to his search for gravy to cut, to his childish "My way or the highway" attitude.  Councillor Doug Ford was also a favoured target with references to his tiff with Margaret Atwood over libraries, and the monorail and Ferris wheel fiasco. 

Rob Ford was invited to visit both exhibits but did not accept the offers. Sense of humour has not been identified as one of his strong suits.   So far the Ford administration has led to some very interesting bursts of artistic expression.  We have 3 more years to go.. who knows what to expect next.

Art Battle Toronto

Every time we pass by The Great Hall at 1087 Queen St West, we remark on what a beautiful building this would have been in its prime, with its red brick, huge windows and gorgeous round turret. Now rather run down, I wish the money could be found to restore this building to its former glory.  This is currently one of the major locations for Toronto's version of  Art Battle (the Gladstone Hotel being another).

 Imagine all the elements of a bar scene including alcohol, music, mingling and social interaction.  Add in a set of talented artists speed-painting to produce works of art within 20 minutes while spectators traverse from easel to easel monitoring their progress.  At the end of each battle round, the audience votes on their favourite painting.  The top two vote-getters move onto the final battle where an overall winner is declared.  At the end of the night, all the art work is auctioned off.   The artists pre-selected for the battle had to send in a portfolio of their work in order to be chosen so these were not amateurs drawing stick figures.

Usually the artists paint as individuals but the week I attended, they featured the first doubles battle.  Pairs of painters worked on their creations in tandem while retro music like Blondie's Heart of Glass was played by a DJ spinning vinyl records.  The crowd moved in a circular counter-clockwise pattern to view each team at work.  It was fascinating to see the various painting styles and to watch each painting further evolve each time you passed by again.  Some teams sketched outlines of the final image and then filled in more details, tones and textures.  Others started with a colour base and then layered on more and more paint so that it took a while to recognize what their final image would be.

Art Battle is held on a Tuesday evening, so being a work night, I was only able to stay for the initial two battle rounds.  Overall I was really impressed by the artists and what they could accomplish in such a short period of time, with the pressure of a crowd of people surrounding them and literally breathing down their necks.  In the first round, one team tried to creatively make their painting three dimensional by punching a hole through the canvas.  I'm not sure how successful their result was judged to be, but it was amusing watching them go through the process.  They seemed to be in a real "battle" with the canvas itself.

On the second round, there were only 5 registered teams so two volunteers were randomly picked from the crowd to form a sixth team.   I thought this was extremely brave of the impromptu pair and that their result was actually a respectable effort.

This was a really fun night and a unique experience.   The next week, they were promoting an event called a "cage match" where the artists try to paint in an enclosed arena while also sabotaging each others works by knocking them down or painting over them.  Watching a video clip of the cage match  on their website, I don't think this is for me.  It seems more of a spectacle than an artistic endeavour and I prefer just to watch the artists paint.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

One Man, Two Guvnors at Cineplex

 One Man, Two Guvnors is a hilarious comedy that performed to rave reviews in the UK and has now traveled to Broadway.  It is a modern retelling of a 16th century Italian play called "Servant of Two Masters", which was written in the style of Commedia del Arte.  This is a type of theatre featuring masked archetypical characters who acted out a storyline that followed a preset formula.  Usually one or more sets of lovers are prevented from marrying by greedy or misguided elders, and turn to their cunning servants for help. 

 The setting has been transposed to Brighton, England in 1963.  At the engagement party of Pauline and Alan, it is learned that Pauline's father had previously arranged for her to marry a small time gangster named Roscoe who was recently killed.  Roscoe's minder (servant) Francis is sent to inform them that Roscoe is not dead and wants to claim his financee plus her accompanying dowry.  In reality, Roscoe was indeed accidentally killed by Stanley, the boyfriend of his twin sister Rachel, and it is Rachel impersonating her brother in order to get money to flee to Australia with Stanley.

The first act is driven by Francis' insatiable hunger and his quest for money to buy more food.  He achieves this by taking on a second job, coincidentally with Stanley.  Chaos ensues as the easily confused Francis tries to keep "Roscoe" and Stanley from knowing he is working for two "guvnors" and trying to keep straight which instructions came from which master, and whose money, mail or belongings he is currently handling.

 The misunderstandings culminate into the lengthy climatic scene of the first act.  Francis tries to serve dinner to his two bosses who are unknowingly staying in the same hotel while also hoarding away part of the meal for his own consumption.  With each course, Francis takes his cut - three chicken balls per plate turn into two chicken balls for you, one for me, and then one chicken ball for you and two for me.  He drinks part of the soup from the tureen, spilling half of it on himself.  He cuts off the bodies of the fish dish, leaving only the fish heads garnished with parsley, passing if off as exotic French cuisine.

 Adding to the hi-jinx is the newly hired 87 year old waiter Alfie, with the defective heart and trembling hands.  The first time Alfie carries a plate balancing a knife and fork across the stage, his shakes caused the cutlery to rattle so violently that it was a miracle they did not fall off.  Alfie is the cartoon character that takes a licking and keeps on ticking as he falls down the stairs, gets a door slammed into him and takes a hit in the face with a cricket bat (used as a "slap" stick in Commedia del Arte tradition, giving original to the term slapstick).

 Physical comedy is key in this play and the actor who plays Francis gives a tour de force performance.   He gets his tongue caught in a mousetrap trying to steal the cheese.  Not being able to afford a pint of beer, he finds leftover booze at the bar and mixes beer, wine, liquor and milk into a single mug.  You wince as he drinks the concoction and then laugh out loud when he spits out a cigarette butt.   In one scene were he is mulling over an issue, he ends up getting into a fight with himself, slapping his own face, choking himself with his tie and slamming a garbage bin lid into his face.   When asked to carry Stanley's luggage into the hotel, he finds it too heavy to lift but gives it a hilarious effort as he puts his whole body into trying to move the trunk.

Audience participation and breaking of the fourth wall was a big part of the show.  Unable to move the trunk on his own, Francis solicits help by dragging up two unsuspecting audience members onto the stage, having great fun with them in the process.   During the dinner scene, he asks a woman from the audience to to help him hold the soup tureen as he hides his share of the food in it.  As the scene gets more and more manic with the poor woman still on stage, you start to wonder whether she is actually part of the show.  By the time she gets splashed with wine and sprayed with a fire extinguisher, you know that she is a plant, but the scene was played out so realistically that it was fun to go along for the ride.  Improvisation was actively encouraged to keep the play fresh from show to show, but the actors are so skilled at it that it is difficult to tell which parts are scripted versus off the cuff.

The main characters are identifiable by the stock characters of Commedia del Arte.  Francis is "Harlequin", the cunning but buffonish servant.  His love interest Dolly plays the Smerldina role, the intelligent servant who is in control of the situation and understands everything that is happening.  The two sets of lovers each have interesting traits that add to the humour.  Pauline is a simple minded girl  described as "unspoiled by education" whose main line is "I don't understand".   Alan, who wants to be an actor, enunciates and postures as if he were Laurence Olivier.   Stanley looks the part of the leading man with the pearly white teeth and perfect hair but still comes across as goofy.   Although pretending to be the rough and tough Roscoe,  in moments of vulnerability, Rachel's true personality comes across.

 Scene changes were interestingly ushered in by musical interludes.  A 60s Beatles lookalike band named "The Craze" sang songs for the first few changes.  Then one by one, the main cast started to join into the musical numbers.  The Francis character played the banjo and xylophone.  The women sang dressed like the Andrew Sisters.  Stanley played with a set of horns like those that circus clowns used.  Most peculiar was the Alan character, who ripped open his shirt and played a beat on his bare chest.

A performance of One Man, Two Guvnors at the National Theatre in London was filmed and simulcast to a audience watching in real time in a park outside of the theatre.  This filming was recently shown at Cineplex movie theatres across North America.  At our screening, the audience was howling with laughter, especially during the first act.  It will be shown once again on May 5, 2012 and is definitely worth watching.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Silent Film Festival - The Italian Straw Hat

The success of the Oscar winning silent film "The Artist" had revived an interest in the art of the silent movie, just in time for the 3rd annual Toronto Silent Film Festival.  Over 6 days beginning at the end of March, the films were screened at various independent theatres such as the Carlton, Fox and Revue.

We selected the 1927 farce called "The Italian Straw Hat" by French director R√©ne Clair, based on a popular mid 19th century play.  It was shown in the exotic location of the grand hall of Casa Loma.  Professional silent film organist Clark Wilson composed a musical score especially for the screening and played live accompaniment on the castle's organ, "The Mighty Wurlitzer" for the full 105 minutes of the film.  Included in his score were excerpts from the 1812 Overture, and pieces by Gershwin and Chopin to name a few. 

Prior to the screening, Wilson gave a brief talk about the film and the importance of the organist in the silent film era.  In 1920s, there were over 20,000 organists and the top ones made $60,000 in Times Square and often had their name on the marquee ahead of the names of the movie stars.

The titular Italian straw hat belongs to a married woman having a secret tryst with a fiery military man in a field by the road.  An unfortunate groom enroute to his wedding is dragged into the affair when his horse chews up the woman's hat.   The beleaguered groom spends the rest of the film fending off the officer who insists he find a replacement for the hat in order to preserve the lady's honour, all the while trying to get married at the same time.   

Humorous and eccentric wedding guests add to the fun including a hard of hearing elderly uncle, the bride's father whose shoes are too tight, and a cousin who is constantly chastised by his bossy wife for having his tie undone.  One of the funniest scenes in the movie involves the cousin's wife trying to gesture to him to fix his tie during the ceremony.  While he is clueless to her meaning, all the other men in the room including the justice of the peace end up adjusting their ties.  

This movie sheds light on French manners and customs during the turn of the 19th century.  This is the first foreign silent film that I've ever seen.  Compared to the American films of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, this one seemed more focused on  human interaction and situational humour as opposed to physical comedy such as pratfalls and chase scenes.

While the concept of watching a film inside Casa Loma sounded like a unique experience, in reality, sitting in plastic folding chairs crammed closely together and staring upwards at a small pull-down screen was extremely uncomfortable.  However the movie itself and watching the live organist play was quite enjoyable.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Love Never Dies at Cineplex

It is with some unease that I went to watch the screening of the Australian performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequel to Phantom of the Opera. Love Never Dies played to extremely mixed reviews in London and was generally panned, causing the planned road shows to Broadway and Toronto to be indefinitely scrapped. However the Australian version had been tweaked and rewritten, so I hoped for the best.
While the show features some good songs and the sets and costumes are beautiful, the main issue is with the plot, which is silly and totally revisionary in relation to The Phantom of the Opera.  In the original, the Phantom was an obsessed, villainous murderer who kills several people before he kidnaps a terrified Christine, while Raoul is her soulmate and heroic rescuer.   In this sequel, we are supposed to forget all that and believe that the Phantom was actually the true love of Christine's life and that they were starcrossed lovers torn apart.  Meanwhile Christine married Raoul on the rebound and he has turned into a drunken lout who has gambled away all their money.

We learn in Love Never Dies that Christine and the Phantom fell deeply in love during their time together and had a tryst.  Feeling that he was too hideous for her, the Phantom fakes his death and flees to America with the help of Madame Giry and Meg (characters from the first show).  He builds a theme park called Phantasma on Coney Island where he produces a vaudevillian show with a bunch of other freaks and outcasts.  Ten years later, he yearns to reunite with Christine and lures her to come sing for a "mysterious benefactor".  Needing the money, she arrives with Raoul and their son Gustave in tow.  Problems ensue when old rivalries are rekindled between Raoul and the Phantom, as well as Christine and Meg, who rightfully fears that Christine will take over her place both in the Phantom's heart, and as the lead in his show.  Things come to a head when it is discovered that Gustave is actually the Phantom's son!    The finale is so maudlin and overwrought that some members of the audience actually burst out laughing at one point, not exactly the desired reaction.

As expected with an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, there are some very good songs in the mix, although there were some that I found dull as well.   My favourite song is called "Devil Takes the Hindmost", which is a confrontation between Raoul and the Phantom as they fight over Christine's love.  They make a bet over whom she will choose with Raoul agreeing to leave if Christine sings the Phantom's song, while the Phantom will pay off Raoul's debts and set them free if she refuses.   I did wonder at the time what the heck was a "hindmost".  Later on I learned that "Devil Takes the Hindmost" is a proverbial phrase meaning "let the strong be victorious and the others will be left behind".

Another clever song is "Dear Old Friend", which is a quartet between Meg, Christine, Madame Giry and Raoul. On the surface, the four are greeting each other benevolently and affectionately, but it is clear from their facial expressions and side conversations as they turn away that there is suspicion, resentment and animosity underneath.  Meg and Madame Giry are concerned about what Christine's presence will mean for Meg's role in the show, while Raoul finds out that the Phantom is the benefactor whom Meg and Madame Giry also work for.  It is amusing for the audience to hear the words being sung but to understand what is really going on.

The title song "Love Never Dies" is the eleven o'clock number of the show.  It has a lovely infectious melody that I still find myself subconsciously humming.  This is the aria which the Phantom wrote for Christine to sing, and the basis of the bet between Raoul and the Phantom.  Of course Christine chooses to sing the song and unknowingly seals her fate with the Phantom.  

 I usually don't like operatic soprano songs (which covers most of Christine's singing) but this one somehow got to me and Anna O'Bryne who plays Christine sings it beautifully without sounding shrill. 

The sets and costumes of this production are visually stunning.  When Christine first comes out to sing Love Never Dies, it appears that she has a huge peacock feather attached to her dress and the effect is amazing.  It turns out this is just the background of the set, made to match her gown perfectly. 

Meg has two big vaudeville numbers including one called Bathing Beauties where she does a mock striptease, removing each bathing suit layer to reveal an even skimpier one.  The other freaks in the show are dressed up like scary circus characters, led by the trio of a creepy clown, a strong man and a midget, who seem to act as the Phantom's "henchmen".  When the Phantom shows Gustave around Phantasma populated by all the freaks and creatures, it seems like they are in the Chamber of Horrors.  The fact that the musically inclined Gustave finds them all "so beautiful" leads the Phantom to guess that this is his son.  It therefore seemed illogical later, when Gustave shrieks in fright as the Phantom reveals his face to him, since he found all the other grotesque figures to be fascinating and beautiful.  Again, plot and storyline is the main problem with this show.

Regardless of its flaws, I did enjoy this production.  I probably would not have risked shelling out the big bucks to see it live, so watching it on screen at Cineplex for $18 is a great way to check out a dubious show that you're not that sure about.  In the end, I'm glad to have added this musical to my repetoire of shows that I've experienced.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Toronto Festivals 2012

Another year, another set of festivals and the list seems to grow each time.  This list is by no means exhaustive but is just a sample of the many up and coming events this year.

Entrance Fee
Jan-Feb 2012
Winter City

Toronto's WinterCity Festival hosts free entertainment at Nathan Phillips Square and different creative arts events including fun skating parties
Jan 27-Feb 9, 2011

Fixed price 3 course meals in noted restaurants around the city
Mar 16-25, 2012
Home Show
Canada Blooms
Mar 28-Apr 1, 2012
One of a Kind Spring Show
“One of a kind” handcrafted arts, crafts, clothing, etc.
Mar 29-Apr 3, 2012
Silent Film Fest
Apr 1-30
Toronto Reading Festival
Libraries across Toronto
Apr 26-May 6, 2012
Hot Docs
Ticketed $10
Canadian International Documentary Festival
May 5-6, 2012
Jane Walk
Walking tours in neighbourhoods across Toronto, celebrating the legacy and ideas of urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs
May 1-31, 2012
Exhibition of digital and analog photography
May 26-27, 2012
Doors Open Toronto
Buildings around Toronto not usually open to the public will be made available for public visits or tours
June 1-3, 2012
Waterfront Blues
Blues festival at Woodbine Park (Lakeshore Blvd & Coxwell)
Jun 5-12, 2012
Short Film Fest
Canadian Film Centre (CFC) World Wide Short Film Festival
June 8-17, 2012
Free + ticketed shows
Toronto festival of arts & creativity featuring celebrations in dance, music, film, literature, theatre, visual arts and designs.
June  9, 2012
Yonge-Lawrence Village Day
Village-long sidewalk sale, quality entertainment ,kids zones play areas
June 10 2012
Festival on Bloor
Bloor St. from Spadina St. to Bathurst St.
Live music, craft vendors, kids activities, theatre
June 2012
Taste of Little Italy
Tastings of Italian cuisine, live entertainment, crafts, music
June 14-16, 2012
Wine & Spirit Festival
Sugar Beach
June 11-17 2012
NXNE Music Festival
North by Northeast Music Festival of emerging and indie bands
June 22 – July1, 2012
Pride Week
Free + ticketed shows
One of the biggest Pride celebrations in North America.
June 22-July 1, 2012
Toronto Jazz Festival
Ticketed Shows
Jazz concerts scheduled  downtown core at different clubs and venues.
June 23-24, 2012
Dragon Boat Race Festival
Toronto Centre Island
Next available 2013
Toronto Island Garden Tour
Visit the cottage homes on Ward's Island and tour the beautiful gardens.
Every other year.
July 2012
CHIN International Picnic
Picnic celebrating cultural diversity - Bikini pageants, cycling races, music, food, circus, kids zone
July 4-15, 2012
Toronto Fringe Festival
Ticketed Shows
Eclectic, avant garde productions to choose from including dramas, comedies, musicals and more
July 2012
Corso Italian Fiesta
Free + food for sale
Free outdoor festival of italian food, music, live performance, shopping
July 6-8, 2012
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition
Free + art for sale
Paintings, portraits, sculptures, art of various medium for sale and judging
July 6-8 2012
Honda Indy Toronto
Ticketed event
Open-wheel racing of the IZOD Indy Car Series,2010 Honda Indy Toronto 
July 6-22 2012
Fixed price 3 course lunches and dinners
Try Toronto's finest restaurants for a 3 course meal with slow, surly service  for $15-20 lunches and $25-35 dinners
Aug 2-6, 2012
Free +
Ticketed shows
Festival of Caribbean cuisine, music, dance, and the Caribana parade.
July 20-29, 2012
Beaches Jazz Festival
Free concerts +
Ticketed shows
Free outdoor jazz concerts in a variety of settings such as Kew Beach, Distillery District, etc. Free and fee-based jazz workshops. Ticketed jazz events and shows.
Aug, 2012

Taste of the Danforth
Free + food for purchase
Outdoor kiosks selling food tastings (mostly Greek but also other ethnicities) from the numerous restaurants along the Danforth. Live entertainment.
Aug 20-22, 2012
Hot and Spicy Food Festival
Free + food for purchase
Aug 17-Sep 3, 2012
Canadian National Exhibition
Adults $14, Children/Seniors $10
Largest national fair in Canada - rides, games, shows and more
Aug  2012
Fake Prom
Dance, drinks, fun @ Palace Royale – annual dress up party that recreates a high school prom
Sep 7-9, 2012
Cabbagetown Festival
Neighbourhood festival with shopping, food, entertainment, mini zoo, historic walking tour.
Sep 7-9, 2012
Vegetarian Food  Festival
Free + food for purchase
Harbourfront – speakers, exhibitors, cooking demos
Sept 6-16, 2012
Toronto International Film Festival
Tickets starting from $16
One of the most prestigous international film festivals in the world and often a good predictor of upcoming Oscar nominations.
TBD 2012
Beer Week
Food and drink purchase
Craft beer and food events across Toronto
Sep 23, 2012
Word on the Street
A booklover’s paradise with a marketplace of more than 250 book, magazine and literacy exhibits, readings by more than 170 Canadian authors, poets, storytellers, and performers, and a myriad of workshops for aspiring writers.
Oct 14, 2012
Toronto Waterfront Marathon
Entry fee
The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon & Half are part of the Canada Running Series—A Selection of Canada's Best Runs
Sept 29, 2012 - 7pm to sunrise
Nuit Blanche
From dusk til dawn, exhibitions of still and performance art in traditional and unusual spaces including free access to all art galleries and museums
TBD 2012
International Festival of Authors
Ticketed events
Renown authors give readings, interviews, lectures, roundtable discussions and book signinings.
Oct 2012
Zombie Walk
Trinity Bellwoods Park – Makeup provided
Oct  2012
Night of the Dead
Assemble in the park at 4pm, Parade departs at 6pm; PWYC, $10/suggested donation
An evening of pageantry, music and masquerade including towering puppets, stilt dancers, fire twirlers and fearful masks in a daring exploration of dread.
Nov 2-11, 2012
Royal Agricultural Winter Fair
World’s largest indoor agricultural and international equestrian competition
Nov-Dec 2012
One of a Kind Christmas show

“One of a kind” handcrafted arts, crafts, clothing, etc.
Nov 17, 2012
Cavalcade of Lights

First Lighting Celebration at Nathan Phillips Square