Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Fringe 2015 - Part 3 and Best of Fringe

The show that seemed to generate the most buzz at this year's Toronto Fringe Festival was "A Man Walks Into A Bar", which uses the telling of the universally common bar joke to provide a subtle yet scathing commentary on the dynamics and power-play struggles of male-female relationships. A woman stands on stage and starts to deliver the classic opening line of the bar joke, when her male companion stops her with the feedback that she is speaking too quickly.  She graciously accepts the advice and starts again, slower.  The man continues to interrupt her, asking for clarifications about the bar, the man in the joke and the waitress that he interacts with, to the point where the joke-teller starts to get a bit annoyed but tries not to show it.  She humours him and agrees to act out the scenario of the joke with him.  At this point, the lines start to blur between the role of the woman telling the joke versus the waitress, and the man listening to the joke versus the man in the joke who walked into the bar, until for all intensive purposes, each pair of roles meld into one.

As the joke proceeds, the relationship between the waitress and her customer goes from jovial and slightly flirty to a more ominous situation where the woman feels increasing uneasy and slightly fearful of the man.  The moral of the play seems to be that in certain male-female interactions, the woman needs to be always on her guard for the possibility that the situation could turn hostile or even violent.  The play is written by a woman and a self-proclaimed feminist.  If the intent was to generalize and indict the male population, then it seems a bit harsh, but there is no doubt that the circumstances conveyed in the play are ones that women could and possibly do encounter regularly.  The punchline of the joke is a red herring, since it soon becomes obvious that the woman is never going to be allowed to finish telling the joke.  This was an interesting play that made you think about it long after you left the theatre.

We found our final show, "She Said Yes", to be a bit lightweight and disappointing.  Dealing with dating in the internet age, it trotted out all the usual tropes in terms of plotline (girl looks for love via online dating, speed dating, etc.) and jokes (actors playing the roles of different stereotypical prospective dates, popping up with different wigs, costumes, accents and personas).  The play did not provide any new insights relative to what we've seen in shows from previous years on the same topic and there was not really enough storyline to make you care about the heroine.  The only thing that slightly peaked my interest was the fact that various suitors were played by identical twin brothers.

After this year's Fringe Festival was over, only one show from the Best of Fringe nominees appealed to us.  We watched the sarcastically witty and biting song-cycle musical called "People Suck", which ran through a series of different scenarios where people are found to be annoying, obnoxious or who otherwise "suck".  The first song was called "Disclaimer", warning of the obscenities and lewd topics to follow, and the next few songs in the play were hilarious.  A number called "Where the Hell is Darwin When You Need Him" listed off a variety of losers including ones who put on makeup or eat while driving, while "Of All The People Who I Hate" targeted abusers of English grammar.  As various skits portrayed annoying personality types at the office in the song "Office Drama", we all nodded knowingly in recognition.  My favourite song, which was reprised a couple of times, was called "The Man They Call The Flake", a man so unreliable that he lets down friends, family and coworkers alike.  The best comedic timing was exhibited by the actress who sang "People Suck ... but not when you want them to", lamenting about not being able to find anyone to perform oral sex on her.  The final few songs tried to get serious and the sudden change in tone felt jarring and out of place.  I didn't really understand what some of these songs were about, but they totally deflated the happy mood generated at the beginning of the show.  I think they should have stuck to the humorous songs, which I really enjoyed.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Fringe 2015 - Part 2

After our first set of shows, I was questioning the wisdom of picking musicals to watch at Fringe, since the sound quality is so often hit and miss, making it difficult to hear  the singing.  Today, after attending the stellar production of the musical Summerland, my faith has been restored and I have been reminded that the exuberant feeling which occurs when you strike gold at Fringe makes it worthwhile to sit through a few duds.  The adage "You can't win if you don't play" comes to mind.

The plot of Summerland starts off as a musical version of The Breakfast Club, when eight students ranging from cool kids to nerds are sent to the principal's office for various infractions including cheating on exams, pulling a fire alarm, posting a sex tape on the internet  and bullying a classmate.  Instead of detention, they are sent via bus to a week-long boot camp called Building Our Own Bridges (the acronym BOOB played for a joke) which is meant to rehabilitate them.  Surprisingly, the victimized student is also sent on the excursion as a means to find out why he is always getting picked upon. The camp is a mere plot device to get the kids on the bus, since they never arrive at it.  At a rest stop, the students highjack the bus and go cruising down the highway, leading to a crash.  The staging and choreography of the bus crash is reminiscent of the musical "Ride the Cyclone" which features  a rollercoaster accident.  As a result of the crash, the group is transported to a magical realm called "Summerland", a  Neverland-like refuge for runaways, full of nature and beauty, where the sun always shines and it is always summer.   Here, the students discover truths about themselves and each other, until an incident turns the utopia into a Lord of the Flies scenario of fear, mistrust and anarchy.

Summerland is written by composers Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston, whose previous musical Blood Ties was featured on an episode of the Sci-Fi hit Orphan Black.  Along with singer/composer Suzy Wilde, they were commissioned to create an original work specifically for the students of Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts.  Perhaps as a way to provide roles for the entire arts program, the cast list is unusually large.  Between the twelve featured roles, most assigned to a principal actor and an understudy, and the huge ensemble, the cast includes over 100 young performers.  The musical was first performed by the Wexford students in 2014.  For Fringe 2015, a new cast was formed by amalgamating Wexford actors with members from three other arts schools, including Etobicoke School for the Arts, Randolph Academy of the Performing Arts, and Sheridan College.

Summerland is by far one of the most professionally polished and well executed musicals that has ever graced the Fringe Festival.  Sitting through it, you felt like you were watching a major Mirvish production.  Everything was top notch, from the beautiful score and songs, to the amazing singing, dancing and acting performances of the young actors, to the elaborate sets and gorgeous costumes, to the staging, sound quality and lighting.  There was even some aerial acrobatics on display when the mythical Summerland first appeared.

In order to accommodate the enormous cast and intricate staging, a new venue has been added to Fringe for the first time—the large auditorium of  Harbord Collegiate Institute.  The production takes advantage of all spare space in the venue to hold the numerous performers, including the large stage, centre and side aisles and upper balcony.  Setting the opening school scenes in an actual high school gave them an added sense of authenticity.  For me, it was extra surreal since Harbord Collegiate was my old high school and the last time I sat in that auditorium was 30 years ago.  Suddenly, the words to our old school fight song came flooding back to me—"Onward Harbord .. On to Victory!"

Every  year,  I consider which play might be good enough to attract the attention of and be swooped up by a professional theatre organization like Mirvish (e.g My Mother's Lesbian Jewish  Wiccan Wedding) or Soulpepper  (e.g. Kim's Convenience).  Summerland definitely qualifies in terms of quality and entertainment but its huge cast and staging would be too unwieldy and expensive to reproduce on a commercial basis.  With some cuts of peripheral cast members and a tightening of the storyline, this show would definitely be good to go.

The running time of the comedy Meet Cute is short at only 45 minutes and yet, the premise is so clever and so well executed that you leave thoroughly satisfied from having watched a good show.  The same scene and exact same dialogue is delivered three times consecutively by the same actors, with the only difference being point of view.  In each case, John and Jane encounter each other while waiting for bus and enter into a conversation with each other.  

In the first scenario, John has engineered the meeting by deliberately letting other buses go by while he waits for Jane to arrive.  As she distractedly sits down on the bench next to him, he places his palm down so that she accidentally sits on it, triggering their interaction.  They make small talk as they wait for the bus and Jane becomes more and more uncomfortable as John encroaches in her personal space and his words seem full of creepy subtext.   The scene ends with Jane calling out for a taxi to get away from John.

In the next scenario, it is Jane who manipulates the meeting and is the aggressor in the conversation.  It was fascinating to watch the exact same dialogue being spoken, but taking on an entire new meaning in this new context.  Occasionally, John and Jane swap lines to make the scenario play properly, but for the most part they carry on the same conversation.  This time, it is John who is made to feel uncomfortable and eventually tries to get away.

The final scenario involves a chance meeting where Jane and John are mutually attracted to each other.  Suddenly the icky come-on lines become awkward, endearing and even romantic.  All that has changed in each case are the mannerisms, facial expressions, body language and the tone of delivery of the words.  This time, the call for a taxi is mutual as the two go off together to get to know each other better.   The playwright Erin Norah Thompson, who also plays Jane, summed it up best in the programme notes when she muses that "the difference between romantic and creepy is consent".

The physicality and comedic timing of the actors have to be perfect in order for this premise to play out properly and the two performers accomplish this in spades.  As an additional visual cue, the bench that John and Jane sit on is skewed towards him in the first scene, then moved to angle towards her in the second scene.  In the final scene where they come as equals, the bench is straightened to be parallel with the stage.   The use of Radiohead's "Creep" is the perfect song choice for the brief interludes between each scene.

By contrast to Meet Cute, the 50 minute long song cycle I'm Right Here felt too short and inconsequential, probably because there was no real plot or story arc.  The series of songs share the common theme of the dehumanizing dangers of the Internet and the need to renew personal contact and interactions.  The songs were pleasant enough with a few containing nuggets of wisdom to take to heart, and the actors all had excellent voices.  But there were not enough of them and we left the show feeling unsatisfied.  The best singer, Lana Carillo, befittingly had the best number.  Belting out "Guess What?  We have a Problem!", she goes on to lament how she can't understand what the kids are saying and that we are losing our grasp of the English language with all the Tweeting and Facebooking.  That she had such a powerhouse voice was amusing when compared to her diminutive stature.  Even in heels, she seemed a good foot shorter than the three other cast members, including the other female lead who wore flats.  I enjoyed what there was of this musical.  I just wish there had been more.

 We originally intended to watch the comedy "A Man Walks Into A Bar" tonight but we did not realize that the Fringe no longer keeps half the tickets for each show to sell at the door one hour before the show.  They actually changed this rule last year, but because we missed the festival, we were not aware of this.  So our intent to use our value pass to purchase two tickets at the door was thwarted when the show sold out the day before.  Luckily we were able to get tickets for another performance of the show, but we will have to rethink how we use our value pass in the future.  Starting this year, you can pay an extra $2 per ticket in conjunction with the value pass make advance ticket purchases for popular shows.  We will keep this in mind for next year.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Fringe 2015 - Part 1

Unlike last year, we are actually in town for this season's Toronto Fringe Festival.  We plan to watch eight shows plus maybe a couple of "Best of Fringe" winners, assuming that we haven't already picked them as part of our festival selections.  The chance of this is almost nil, since it is so difficult to guess which of the hundreds of choices will be the good shows based on brief descriptions.  Also, due to differing tastes, the shows we find entertaining may not coincide with the ones chosen by the Fringe jury.  In fact, last year we only attended Best of Fringe shows and only liked half of them.  So far this year, we are 1 for 3 in terms of choosing shows that we thoroughly enjoyed and would wholeheartedly endorse. The other two had their merits but each were lacking in some way.

We were delighted by the musical comedy deadmouse: The Musical, a parody based on Canadian house music (electronic dance music) producer/disc jockey Joel Zimmerman (a.k.a. Deadmau5) whose trademark image includes appearing on stage wearing a mouse head helmet.  In the musical, an actual mouse named Joel Zimmermouse dreams of becoming a house music DJ using the stage name "Live Human".  He is supported by his friend, the goofy, sex-obssessed David Gouda (a play on French DJ David Guetta) and his love interest Cat, an attractive female mouse (obviously named after Deadmau5's former financee Kat Von D).  They live in a fantastical  world where mice and humans can talk to each other, setting up the underlying themes of prejudice and racism (or speciesism - which I didn't realize until now is a real word!) when Joel is discriminated against since "mice can't be house DJs".   When the famous human DJ Avi-cheese (spoof on Swedish DJ Avcii) kills Joel in order to steal his hit song, the mouse convinces St. Peter (also a mouse) to send him back to earth as a human DJ named deadmouse.

The premise is wacky but fun and the performances are excellent.  Funny dialogue, great songs, good acting and well-choreographed dancing make this a very entertaining show to watch.  The costumes are simple but effective—the characters are dressed in casual street clothes, but if they sport mouse ears, they are mice; otherwise they are a human.  There was only one technical glitch on the first ensemble song where insufficient miking made some singers' voices difficult to hear, but this was quickly resolved for the rest of the show.  We were also impressed with the professionalism of the actors, who had great comedic timing and good singing voices, especially the actress who played Cat.  During the big finale group number, one of the actresses dropped a large earring, but carried on with the dance routine without letting on.  I only noticed because I was sitting right in front of her in the first row.  The way these minor issues were handled was all the more telling when compared to similar situations in the other shows.

Even before Fringe started, deadmouse: The Musical was in the news when Deadmau5 issued a cease and desist order and threatened to sue for copyright infringement.  The matter was swiftly settled when Deadmau5 indicated he was satisfied after the show "put up a disclaimer and called it a parody".  That seems so ridiculous since the show was so obviously a parody, with or without a disclaimer.  This feels like a marketing ploy to get some publicity for the DJ, but I guess it works both ways since the musical benefited as well and the performance that we attended was packed.  It also feels hypocritical that Deadmau5 would sue for copyright infringement when he himself was sued by Disney for imitating Mickey Mouse with his big-eared mouse headgear and logo.   One of the funniest lines in the musical even made a meta-reference to the "frivolous lawsuit".

We went to The Women of Tu-na House with high expectations based on its past credentials—a seasoned actress performing a show that was previously a Best Solo winner in Hollywood Fringe 2012, and received glowing reviews from San Francisco Fringe (2013) and New York City Fringe (2011).  The one-woman show features actress and playwright Nancy Eng performing a myriad of Asian women working in an New York City massage parlour in what appears to be the 1950-60s even though the program specifies the time as "Now".   Considering some of the characters make reference to living through the Japanese invasion and the China's Cultural Revolution, this would make for very old hookers.  Through quick costume changes, accents, speech patterns, posture and actions, various characters come to life including the aging Madame who owns and runs the shop, a series of prostitutes, and an actual licensed masseuse who refers any sexual requests to the other girls who are willing to provide "more services".  One by one, we learn of their back stories, including how many of them, originally from China or Hong Kong, ended up in America.   Some of the stories  are poignant and even engrossing, but I did not consider any of them to be particularly funny considering this was billed as a comedy.  What does come through is the playwright's intent to show that the women who provide sexual services do so willingly and are not forced into these acts.  The women are sassy, defiant and sometimes irritated by their profession, but never seem victimized or abused.

There is a lot of potential in this material but unfortunately the execution was not up to snuff, at least for this first opening night performance.  Either because she did not feel well, as she apologized for at the end of the show, or was nervous since many of her family members were in the audience, the actress flubbed or forgot her lines multiple times throughout the show and did not make a graceful recovery when this happened.  This breaks the trance for the audience and makes it aware that she is playing a character, rather than embodying that character.  This was really too bad and I hope she rebounds and does better on future performances, now that the opening night jitters are out of the way.  I also was not enamoured by the heavily accented but muffled voice-overs that preceded each character change.  I couldn't hear what most of them were saying and therefore did not realize until half way through the show that they were giving background on the next character. 

Finally, Quarter Life Crisis could have been a decent musical, abet a bit too melodramatic for my taste, had the sound quality not been so dismal.  It was held in the same venue (Al Green Theatre) as deadmouse: The Musical, so I don't think it was a matter of acoustics but rather a poor staging choice.  They placed the musician/piano/guitar player up front while much of the action happened further back on the stage.  The result was that the music drowned out the voices and it was impossible to hear much of what was being sung.  This was not even the first showing, so you would have thought that they could work out the kinks by now.  Part way through the show, they tried to fix the sound by possibly amping up the microphones of the performers, but just resulted in loud squawking sounds of feedback.  As much as I love musicals, I am starting to have second thoughts about watching semi-pro musical productions.  It is difficult enough to hear the lyrics in musicals for the most part, but paired with amateur or sub-standard stagecraft and production qualities, the chances are even further reduced.

The story deals with Lenora, who comes from an upper middle class family, has graduated from University but now is lost and depressed at the thought of entering the real world, finding a job and getting on with her life.  She has an internet addiction, an adversity to working, moved back in with her parents and is seeing two psychiatrists, all on Daddy's dime.  I'm not sure if I was supposed to feel sorry for her, but I just wanted to kick her in the butt.  The actors had pretty good singing voices when we could hear them.  I cringed a bit at the cheesy dance moves in some scenes.  The only song and dance combination that really stood out for me was a number that involved Lenore reluctantly taking part in a corporate job interview that Daddy had pulled strings to get for her.  Sitting in a chair and dressed in bright red, she stood out in contrast to the prim and proper dark suits of the interviewers.  They paraded around her chair, peppering her with questions that she totally failed at answering.  The song and choreography reminded me of ones from Evita or one of Bob Fosse's creations. 

So, we are not off to a great start in terms of selecting Fringe shows that we enjoyed, but there's still five to go so we hope for the best.