Friday, July 6, 2012

Day 2 at the Toronto Fringe: Thought provoking clowns and an entertaining history lesson at the TARRAGON

My first Fringe show last night was poignant and bitter-sweet for many reasons.  The wonderful clown duo of Morro and Jasp opened  their adaptation Of Mice and Men last night: OF MICE AND MORRO AND JASP.

The lights come up on the duo with their battered touring suitcases.  At Jasp's prompting,  Morro takes out her pink ukelele and sings "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" with a hat in front of them.  Our beloved clowns are flat broke and down on their luck:  the costs of mounting their last production have left them impecunious.  They are busking, sleeping in bushes and forced to abandon their own creative endeavors to join a carnival and be with scary, not nice people doing scary, not nice things.

They dream of owning a clown farm:  a happy place of creative freedom and bucolic bliss but that dream  is going to take some serious cash and they are down to their last loonie.

This latest offering is the duo's take not only on Steinbeck's classic tale but also on the touring performer's nightmare:  you take an artistic risk, end up broke with no place to live and are forced to back-burner your dreams and take whatever work you can get. It's happened to almost everyone I know at some point, including me.

I am not going to tell you what happens in the end but I will say that their observations about touring tragedy and people's desire for a happy ending certainly resonated for me on several levels. It's a brilliant show: risky high-stakes work from two fine performers at the top of their game.  The ending moved me to tears and laughter as these two so often do.  I'm glad I went when I did because this show is certain to sell out. 

The second show I saw last night was PIECING TOGETHER PAULINE.   Chris Coculuzzi and Roxanne Deans have collaborated on a play about the life and times of opera singer and performer Pauline Viaradot.  Intellectual, accomplished and ambitious, Viradot knew many of 19th century Europe's greatest talents including Berlioz, Chopin, Clara Schumann, Georges Sand, Liszt and Gounod who all figure into the story.

The play is a thoughtful and well-researched exploration not only of the life of Viradot herself, but of the lives of women artists in the 19th century.  It was amazing to me how many of the same issues continue in the 21st century.  One reason so few women over 30 tour on the Fringe circuit is childcare, which was a problem in the 19th century.  Apparently some things don't change.

There was great and palpable stage chemistry between Kirsten Zaza as the younger Viradot and her husband, her lovers, her friends and  her admirers. Elva Mae Hoover does a great job of making the older Viradot sympathetic and compelling.  The natural chemistry between all of the actors really added to the enjoyment of the show and made the characters feel real and human. The staging is simple, clean and effective.

With a cast of 14 in a period drama spanning several decades, this is certainly one of the most ambitious productions staged this Toronto Fringe season.  There's some fine acting work both comic and tragic. A number of the actors do double duty as two characters. It's a tribute to the production that everything and everyone in the complex story was clear.

This is a 90 minute show. I know there are always concerns with running time in situations like these but there were a few moments last night I felt could have been allowed to breathe a bit more, especially the dropping of the curtains for the death scenes. Some of the musical bridges could have run a little longer. Also, if we are to have the leading lady change onstage, she needs a period slip under her period costume.

These are minor quibbles with an engaging production that gave me an entertaining history lesson, something I always enjoy.  It's well worth checking out.

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