We were working hard this Toronto Fringe, taking in a total of 16 plays ranging from dance to drag to one-man displays or neurosis. There were companies of one, companies of ten, staged readings, fully-mounted musicals, lots of laughs, a couple of tears and grades ranging from A to D. Read on for our absolute favourite productions of this year's Fringe.
Living with Henry
This serious musical about living with HIV is rife with issues. The score is still a little raw, a couple characters a little under-developed and the actors far from flawless. The direction is a tad formulaic, some of the costumes unhelpful, a lot of the jokes pretty easy and the tone perhaps a little light. But there was literally nothing at Fringe this year that moved me more than Christopher Wilson's new work. There were plenty of single-performer shows or ensemble-developed pieces that I completely enjoyed as Fringe shows, but Living with Henry was the production I saw that I think will really go somewhere one day. It needs some tweaks- a slight rewrite, another staging, a couple new actors- but Living with Henry is a beautiful piece, a clever and unique concept and a worthy story (both on an issue level and on a character one). It will someday be the sort of piece that people call their favourite musical, one that changes lives and minds and all the other things that can be changed. I really think that's what it can be. As for this incarnation, leading man Ryan Kelly delivers a beautiful performance as the conflicted Michael. Some of the choices his character makes are hard to reconcile for the audience, but they're hard for the other characters to reconcile too, so the discomfort is clearly purposeful. I get it, the hero should be a little grey, but that's best portrayed in his outbursts, passive aggression and defensiveness; when he crosses into stupid and irresponsible it can be hard to sympathize. Luckily, there's Chrstian Bellsmith's Peter, the sympathetic but realistically not selfless long-suffering husband. It's a powerful play as a whole that can't help but make your stomach do flipflops, but it was Peter who made me cry. The other most heartbreaking performance comes from Mary Kelly as Michael's mom and Dr. Kenny. The weakest singer of the bunch, Kelly's tender (and distinct) performances were affecting despite her limitations. Lizzie Kurtz was the opposite as Michael's best friend Jenni. In what should have been my favourite role, Kurtz proved a phenomenal singer but a mediocre actress, Jenni's no-nonsense support coming off entirely more one-note than made sense. Vince Staltari had enough charm to sell the problematic role of Matthew and Dale Miller effectively used his sublime voice to lure the audience into Henry's orbit, a horrifying but spot-on performance (though that man-tank is easily the worst feature of the production). It's got issues (hence the - after the A) but take my word for it, Living with Henry is something special.
This ensemble-developed anthology piece was only the second production I saw this year. I stumbled on it because it fit easily into my schedule after seeing another show at the Factory Theatre; I was so glad that I did. The excitement began when I read the program. First I noticed that the ensemble featured not one but two of 2010's My Theatre Award nominees (Sochi Fried and "Performer of the Year" Jessica Moss). Then there was Jason Maghanoy's gorgeous director's note. It seemed as though Maghanoy had written it (and, it must follow then, developed the play itself) just for me and my schmoopy sensibilities about real world love stories. Even his syntax was my style: "It's a play about that rush. That moment of desire when the world stands still or changes. That moment where your heart decides to beat a little faster, or break, or better yet...grow". Isn't that just beautiful? How anyone could not be looking forward to the play after reading that is beyond me. In any case, Swoon! had some logistical issues, but from a story-telling perspective it was everything I could have hoped for. The Fringe booklet had a warning at the bottom of its Swoon! entry advertising "language, nudity and sexual situations"; I feared a silly "boundary-pushing" piece that confused exposure with openness and grit with realism *(oh indie theatre, sometimes you annoy me! For more, see my forthcoming review of Summerworks' "Shudder"). But my fears were quickly allayed when Swoon! proved to be a set of stories about, well, swooning: that generally innocent, giggle-inducing, can't-stop-smiling, desperately scary butterfly thing. The excellent cast was wonderfully engaging, though it got a little confusing when some would double their roles while others appeared in multiple scenes as the same character- with no major changes to differentiate which was which. And while the ensemble featured a couple really shaky singers, the acapella transitions were perfectly suited and very functional. In particular, Darrel Gamotin was incredibly charming as Mark and Sochi Fried proved a wonderfully awkward and unsure Lina. I loved Nicki Gallo's conflicted Belle, Adrienne Kress' excellently frank Alisa and Jajube Mandiela's hilarious Emma. Aimee Roy pulled double duty as Jody and Sarah, both of whom I remember liking but now couldn't tell you which was which. Andrew Church, similarly, played two confusable but likable roles while Chris Mitchell's contribution as one of the playwrights overshadowed his small but well-used amount of stage time. Paul Robinson (another of the excellent writers) made the potentially unlikable Danny just swoon-worthy enough that his story retained its reality perfectly. I know I sound like a broken record but once again, I was blown away by the wonderful Jessica Moss (the last actor to double as a writer). Her character Clara got perhaps the most fleshed-out arc in the somewhat disjointed piece and as such the actress' ability to affect the audience was althemore heightened. Perhaps it was the spot-on writing that should get the credit, but Clara was so heartbreakingly real that she wasn't just like a girl I know, she was like 50 girls I know. Her tentative but naive optimism, her single-mindedness, her self-deprecating glee at everything from eating a really good hot dog to being complimented on her girlish skirt- Clara was someone you couldn't help but care about, so when I saw in Danny's face that she was about to get her heart broken it was all I could do not to shout out to her in warning. The entire production was honest and funny and heartbreaking and simply very sweet. It was at once a chronicle of and an ode to the joy and pain of love, specifically the falling in part.
One Good Marriage
I got really lucky this Fringe in stumbling into a lot of the shows I ended up liking best. I didn't mean to see One Good Marriage but the construction on King St. made me 3 minutes late for Hushabye so I went to whatever was playing in the adjoining theatre 15 minutes later. What that was was a fast-paced, whip-smart dark comedy about newlyweds left alone in the world after an explosion kills everyone in their wedding reception hall minutes after they left for their honeymoon. Sean Rycraft's superb script is a rare gem that's both intimate and touching without being at all cheesy. It's blunt, it's awkward, it's tragic, it's absurd, it's everything that that story should be. A veteran writer of numerous fantastic TV shows (Slings & Arrows, Being Erica, etc...), Rycraft created characters who seem perfectly nestled into that particular place in their lives and relationship. They have the familiarity of a couple but none of the routine of people who've been married much time at all. They overlap each other, bicker, shut down and coax each other back from the edge, because it is, now, after all, literally just them against the world; they've got nobody else left. The situation is bizarre and impossible and rife with that sort of "you can't possibly understand" guilt that makes you squirm in your seat when you laugh at one of Steph or Stewart's jokes. But their jokes are funny, so you laugh. Then you squirm. And so it continues. Mel Marginet and Matthew Tenbruggencate gave wonderful life to the characters who are both thankful and ashamed to be living. Their chemistry and rhythms were perfect and they managed the thin line of tragi-comedy gracefully. Thanks mostly to Sean Rycraft's glittering script, One Good Marriage was the surprise of the Fringe for me, one that I'm ever so thankful to have gotten to experience.
The Progressive Polygamists
Emmelia Gordon and Pippa Mackie's satire was a brilliantly crafted, perfectly performed take on the polygamy trials in British Columbia. An interesting investigation of religious fanaticism, The Progressive Polygamists didn't get trapped in tricky liberal territory but weren't shy about sharp jabs at their subject matter either. Theirs wasn't a tirade against polygamy or a preachy lecture on being an informed citizen, it was a funny play wherein their subjects were the butts of the joke, not the targets of a critical expose. In fact, all sociological messages aside, The Progressive Polygamists were funny. Very funny. Wonderfully, memorably funny. It also can't be ignored that the world of Mormon plural marriage is utterly interesting. Cult mentalities, group isolation, community living, an honest-to-god earnest belief in their religious path- polygamists are a fascinating subculture of modern Christianity. Gordon and Mackie took that fascination and explored it in the context of events happening in their province's backyard, crawling into the skin of well-intentioned members of the controversial tribe- mining the issue's comic potential from the inside out. Without condemnation but with an eye to criticism, Gordon and Mackie used a little bit of the crazy in this world to make us laugh. And they did it very well.
Mickey and Judy
Mickey and Judy was another one that contained a lovely personnel surprise long after I'd selected it as a must-see. Alongside the production's star/main character/mastermind Michael Hughes was my good friend Chris Tsujiuchi, the music director pounding out tricky piano accompaniments as if they were variations on "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". But with or without him, Mickey and Judy would have been my favourite thing at the Fringe. The clever song-integrated show was nothing more or less than the remarkably charming Hughes with a microphone telling his story of growing up an interesting person. The uproariously funny and affecting tale was told with the sort of melancholy hindsight of someone who can truly recognize their own mistakes. Mickey's accounts of how he tortured his family to the point of being "loved but not liked very much" were as honest and engaging as his tales of childhood bullying, running away from home and finding the strength to hold his head up high from a Judy Garland song. Perhaps the most revealing thing about Mickey's story was the way it was framed by his time with a childhood psychologist. The extraordinary child that he was at six years old was studied and reported to be odd for his tendency towards theatricality and barbie dolls. So as Mickey grew older- perhaps for acceptance, perhaps for survival, perhaps for every reason in the book- he made himself more normal, less strange, less interesting. When the psychologist re-entered his life with the promise of letting him read his childhood files, Mickey's journey of self-discovery reached it's most enlightening. When he read those files he lamented losing that kid. That kid was fun, and creative and talented and self-assured. There isn't a grownup in the world who wouldn't kill to be as happy as that kid. The freedom that came with that realization was the coolest revelation of this year's Fringe. And when Mickey told of his symbolic return to who he was at six years old, I wept openly and didn't stop until well after he'd closed the show with a beautiful tenor rendition of "Over the Rainbow".