Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Toronto Fringe: Process, Plot Problems and Perfection

The Toronto Fringe is heading into its final, usually frantic weekend.  The weather has held, most of the reviews are in.  There's now a stereo playing very quietly in the performers' bar.

The Fringe is a week to see theatre but it is also a social week for me.  I've had great times late night hanging out with old friends and meeting new ones in ticket line-ups and at the beer tent before biking home under the stars.

I've managed to see one or two shows a day most days.  Last Friday night, it was TEMPLE OF KHAOS. Saturday, I saw PORN STAR.  Sunday, I saw THE FIRST CANADIAN PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. Monday, I saw Soup Can Theatre's production of Sophocles' ANTIGONE.

The Fringe is a place for people to develop new plays and new ways of working. It is one of the truly exciting things about the festival.  The above list is an interesting sample of some of the kinds of work on offer this week.  I would describe all of the above shows as work in process, for a range of reasons.

Do people bring fully polished work to the festival?  Of course:  there are many seasoned performers who make their living preparing and then touring a polished gem of a show to an audience who comes to see them, knowing their standard of work is consistently high. I'll speak more about some of those people later.

Other people come to the Fringe to experiment:  to develop a large cast musical that is a few workshops away from being in a bigger theatre.  I saw DROWSY CHAPERONE for the first time at the Toronto Fringe and I preferred that version to the Mirvish hit.

I see people trying out styles and ideas and developing as groups years before they hit mainstream theatres. This is true of many improv comedy troupes.  New writers present first plays here.  More seasoned writers try riskier ideas here.  Theatre practitioners who want to try new methods of working or work in a different medium or create more experimental work  using clown or hybrids of dance and theatre or dance and poetry or site-specific work or a radical take on a classic text they are not able to do in the constraints of the season of a traditional theatre come to the Fringe to develop their shows.

Some experiments work better than others. I saw four shows this week that come out of this tradition of using the Fringe to experiment with  style, technique and process. None were perfect but they all held my interest.

TEMPLE OF KHAOS is a four-person show, mixing clown and commedia techniques to tell a tale about the folly of war.  The performers are changing the show as they go along each day, refining physical business and altering the script.  I loved the premise and I enjoyed much of it. There's some sharp social commentary here and some very funny character work and physical business.  Be warned: this is absolutely work in progress and it has that messy feel, not inappropriately for a show with KHAOS in the title.  Worth seeing, as long as you are OK with things on the loose side.

THE FIRST PRESIDENT....features a very smart, very dark, social satire in the form of an address to a university graduating class in the future (2084 to be exact) delivered by the hot, but not too sharp future President of a United NA, a certain Ms. White-White.  Priscilla Yakielashek gives a very nuanced and beautifully detailed rendering of a woman whose ambition, good looks and lack of critical faculty has allowed her to be manipulated into running the free world according to certain elite (male) interests.  Jem Rolls wrote the script, which is wickedly droll and blackly well-observed, although there may be more thoughts on the table than an audience can absorb in the time allowed.  I enjoyed it, but I wanted more space between ideas. Worth seeing, especially when you're done with brain candy and dumb comedy and want some smart laughs and food for thought. At Venue #7, St. Vladimir's.

Soup Can 's production of Sophocles' ANTIGONE is set during some unnamed G20 riot. Sadly, this badly conceived update lowered the stakes in one of the great tragedies ever written in any language.  The game cast displayed acting skills ranging from barely amateur to Stratford-worthy fabulous.  The young ladies and some of the young men were not well seated in their voices and were tough to understand, especially in the first third of the play.  The chorus looked menacing in gas masks in a great visual, but we never got to experience their vocal power to great effect. The director piled on unnecessary stage business, taking off Antigone's boots during another character's speech, for instance, simply undermining the great text and splitting focus in a way that hurt, not helped the play.

I found myself waiting for Creon and his son to reappear for more debates after what proved to be the most galvanizing scene of the play. Both their performances were terrific.

I have no problem with updating a classical text and repositioning it in a contemporary environment.  Palestine, Afghanistan, Egypt's Tahir Square, Syria would all have worked better than this "First World problem" G20 take.  I'd like to see this again in a better version, but it is worth a look for a chance to see a rarely produced great play. At Venue #4, The Randolph Academy (the former Bathurst Street Theatre).

Chris Craddock, a very witty, political and talented writer had a massive hit here at the Fringe a few years back with BASHED, THE MUSICAL which was brilliant.  PORN STAR predates it and it is not as strong a piece of writing.  There are too many plot digressions and far too many issues presented for any one, strong narrative to carry the day. Moreover, the weakest and least credible story is the one that drives the plot.

I'd previously seen PORN STAR in Edmonton as one-woman show and the weaknesses of the script were less evident when one person was doing it.  Here, four terrific actresses including Amy Lee and Heather Marie Annis of "Morro and Jasp" fame have taken it on and their uniformly fantastic work  underlined every problem with the script.

The stuff that works is great. The gay love story ( I don't want to give away too much plot here), the naughty librarian's imaginary sex life, our time with a dead angel in Hell are all fabulous: moving, hilarious, human. The stuff that doesn't work:  the hash of religion and politics that lead to a climax that feels forced and tacked on, equating freedom to watch porn and reproductive choice as issues of equal weight (no, absolutely not) stick out like sore thumbs.

Audiences are loving it and it is 100% worth seeing for the acting alone. Try and ignore the convoluted and unfocussed plot and dodgy sexual politics and go for the laughs, the warmth and the feel-good ending. Whether or not I agree with his every thought, Chris Craddock is always damn funny and this crew delivers the play's heart and humour. At Venue #1, The Tarragon Theatre.

Then yesterday, I had tried and true Fringe nirvana:  Jem Rolls doing 10 STARTS AND AN ENDING and TJ Dawe in MEDICINE.  Polished, meticulously rehearsed performances and elegantly constructed, intelligent, heartfelt and witty writing came together in two very different shows that reminded me why I do this:  to try and hit that bar and make work at the level I saw yesterday.

Jem is a performance poet from the UK.  He's been touring the circuit since 2001.  He is an energy force field onstage, hitting the audience with wave after wave of words,visions, ideas, controversies and a full range of human emotions.  I ended my time with him holding a mental picture of being in an all you can eat ice cream bar in Thailand.  I went many other places in that hour, including across Canada in one minute, revisiting many of the places I have been to in my own summers of Fringe touring.  It was for me, as it always is with Jem, a wonderful trip. He wasn't sold out yesterday:  he should be. At Venue #6, The George Ignatieff Theatre.

Then on to TJ Dawe, who took me on a trip of a different kind: a psychotropic one.  TJ goes to the heart of a B.C. forest  with Dr. Gabor Mate and a couple of shamans on a quest to heal a traumatic psychic wound. The journey he takes us on is both intensely personal and profoundly universal. Last night, I plummeted, as if in a dream, to the bottom of the performer's unconscious and the depths of his all-too human soul. The writing was beautifully observed, sensitive and resonant and the elliptical structure of the story was masterful. Much of the audience was moved to tears. This MEDICINE is truly cathartic. Line up well ahead of the curtain time or you won't get a seat. At Venue #8, The Helen Gardiner Phelan Theatre.

I'm going to have an early night in preparation for a weekend of more theatre and socializing.  I'll see those of you who are here in a line-up or at the beer tent.  Have fun!  I know I will, as I have all week.

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