Fringe Picks 2014!

It’s Fringe time again in Toronto! I’m late getting to my recommendations list this year – blame an incredibly packed schedule reporting on WorldPride and various elections for Xtra. But I picked up my Fringe program today, thumbed through it for my picks, and even saw my first show already. Heck, I’ve even dug up my first minor controversies already! So read on.

Also, this is the first year that the Fringe is committing to 100% advance ticket sales. This is a very good thing, which has led to vastly increased ticket sales in other festivals that moved to this type of system. My only quibble remains that advance tickets are still up to 40% more expensive than door tickets, which is absolutely the wrong way to do it. (If you’re going to order advance tickets, you’re best to put all your orders together in one order, so you only pay the $2 ordering fee once). Regardless, one Fringe staffer I spoke to today tells me ticket sales are already up 40% over this time last year. While the final number is unlikely to remain that high, let’s hope the trend line keeps it up (and that there’s no flash flooding this year). For patrons, this means that popular shows are bound to sell-out fast, so make sure you order your tickets early and be prepared to see other shows when your top picks sell out (and you see how this generates a virtuous circle for the artists and the festival?).

Just a note on my recommendations: I’m focusing on shows that don’t get tonnes of attention already, especially shows by touring artists, who often go overlooked by the regular coverage of the festival (understandably; there are a lot of local acts to cover). I’ve also thrown in a few locals who I think have interesting blurbs in the program. If I’ve left you off, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you.

Tarragon Mainspace

Elvis and I – I don’t know anyone involved, but the premise of a jukebox musical about Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon sounds ripe for a good time.

Everything is Fine… – Sketch comedy by a bunch of recent Second City grads. It’s directed by the hilarious Ken Hall (2-Man No Show), although the only cast member I recognize is Marshall Lorenzo, whose stand-up and character work is always funny.

Potosi – The New Play Contest winner sounds like a compelling drama, but then, I thought last year’s new play contest winner turned out to be middlebrow nonsense. Cautious recommend.

Tarragon Extra Space

Weird bit of theatre news, here. The Extra Space has been reduced from a 95-seat capacity to a 71-seat capacity, apparently on order of the fire marshal. I’m pretty sure the Tarragon recently renovated the Extra Space to add a few seats, which may have triggered a new inspection (I have recently donated all my old programs, so I can’t look up the information on their capital campaign. Drat.) Or perhaps it’s the Fringe who has tried a new seating plan in the space — the Tarragon still lists it as a 100-seat venue on its web site. The reduction makes it the smallest venue that doesn’t get extra shows, which really sucks for the artists. Put in perspective: They’ve lost 25 x 7 x $10 = $1750 box office potential. Tickets will sell out that much faster here, so be sure to get them early.

52 Pick-Up – I saw this TJ Dawe show performed years ago by Gemma Wilcox in Vancouver. It’s a brilliant script with a fun premise: 52 scenes from a relationship presented in random order generated by the shuffling and scattering of a deck of cards. In this version, it’s being performed by four different couples on different nights, none of whom I know. It has the potential to be great, but without the right chemistry, it could be a disaster. So, you’ll have to roll the dice on this one.

Jem Rolls – Jem Rolls is back with another performance poetry show. Apparently this one did really well for him in Montreal, which is a tough market for the Fringe. He’s always entertaining.

Parallel Play – Elvira Kurt doing sketch comedy? I’m in.

Roller Derby Saved My Soul – I’ve known Nancy Kenny for years, and saw this show in 2011 when it was still being developed at the Ottawa Fringe. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from the title, and it’s fun to see Nancy performing the show in roller blades. I understand that the show has grown a lot since 2011, and I’m curious where it’s at now. Also, Nancy is the subject of a documentary about touring the Fringe circuit which is filming this year. Maybe you’ll end up on the big screen if they catch footage of you in line!

Tarragon Solo Room 

Spilling Family Secrets – I met Vancouver storyteller Susan Freedman way back in 2008, when she was touring her autobiographical show Sixty-Four and No More Lies. This sounds like a similar sort of show. Freedman’s a very engaging performer and her honesty builds an instant rapport with audiences.

Randolph Theatre 

Fantastic Extravagance – This play was developed in the Steady State Playwright Unit that I was a part of last year, so I’ve seen chunks of the script already. There’s some great humour and the fun premise of a writer being stalked by the protagonist she killed off at the end of her best-selling novel.

Hugh and I – A new musical about the life of Hugh Hefner told through the women who loved (?) him. How could that not be worth your 90 mins?

Peter n’ Chris and the Kinda OK Corral – This is the show I saw today, and it’s a highly recommend from me. The masters of sketch comedy, mime, and cartoon violence are back for another great show. Go give them all your money.

rsz_peter_n_chris_kinda_ok_corral-2

Annex Theatre

Salvador – I know nothing about the people involved, but I feel like if I’m going to see just one drag performance at the Fringe, it should be a verbatim piece about a guy who goes to El Salvador to investigate the state of gay rights there. On the other hand, the show description bemusingly includes “We would like to acknowledge funding support from the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the government of Ontario,” which suggests a company that is not familiar with how these things work.

Slut – Dahlia Katz directed the fantastic Dying Hard, which toured the circuit and had a brief run in Toronto a few years ago. Now she’s back directing Erin Thompson in a one-woman show about wanting more than one Mr. Right.

SLUT Poster

Sperm Wars – My friend (and former publicity client) Jeff Leard is back with a new production of his first solo show, which was originally performed under the name Gametes & Gonads. Neither name really does the show justice (although the current one earned him a mention in Kelly Nestruck’s Fringe preview, under “shows with terrible titles”). It’s actually a bracingly funny and incredibly kinetic solo comedy, where Leard reveals that sperm and ova are in locked in a never-ending battle of cosmic proportions, which bears something of a resemblance to George Lucas’ famous original trilogy.

George Ignatieff

Punch Up – As if I need to tell you to go see a Kat Sandler play.

Sex T-Rex – See above.

St Vladimir’s

Myth of the Ostrich – Parents confront each other over their teenagers’ love affair in a play directed by Steve Gallagher (Stealing Sam) and starring Astrid van Wieren (The Way Back to Thursday).

Helen Gardinder

Kitt & Jane: An Interactive Survival Guide to the Near-Post-Apocalyptic Future – From the company that brought the hit show Little Orange Man (which I admit I never saw), comes this show, which my friends are already raving about from earlier stops on the tour.

Komunka – A slice of life piece set in Moscow, examining homophobia and gay life in the wake of Sochi, Putin, and Ukraine. Written by Yury Ruzhyev (best know for his incredible drag revue, Viva Cabaret) and directed by Sky Gilbert.

No Chance in Hell – I know nothing of these people, but it has possibly the best hook in a program blurb this year: “When John arrives at the Pearly Gates, he is informed that his file is missing and he won’t be getting access to Heaven. He is sent to hell, where he meets the love of his afterlife. Then John is told his file has been found…”

Pardon Me Cow – I have a soft spot for the gay-themed shows (obviously). This is a one-man comedy about growing up gay on a farm.

Amusement/Redheaded Stepchild – Nobody’s Business is doing these two shows in rep in their Fringe slot. I saw Redheaded Stepchild years ago and recommend it if you haven’t. I’ll be trying to squeeze in Amusement.

Robert Gill

Ancient History – I usually avoid published plays at the Fringe, but when else do you get to see a David Ives play that’s not Venus in Fur in Toronto? You can also catch All In The Timing at St. Vlad’s.

Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace

The Assassination of Robert Ford: Dirty Little Coward – This is not, in fact, about our current mayor. It’s a play about the historical Robert Ford who murdered Jesse James and then went on to be the star of a vaudeville act about the murder until he himself was murdered. It was also developed in the Steady State Playwright Unit, so I’ve seen the show develop over time, and think it could be a powerful examination of the public’s need to alternately praise and scorn its heroes.

The Emergency Monologues – This played at Summerworks in 2008 where it got great reviews (but I missed it because I was in Edmonton). Oddly, the program doesn’t list any of them.

Who Killed Gertrude Grump – Monster Theatre (The Shakespeare Show) from Vancouver can do no wrong in my books – Ryan Gladstone is a sharp and savvy writer and Tara Travis is a gifted comic performer. I don’t need to know anything else.

TPM Backspace

Great Battles in History – Mark Shyzer is back, after the incredible Fringe success he had with his show Fishbowl in 2012. Somehow, Shyzer is portraying entire armies all by himself as he traces human history in 60 minutes. If anyone can do it, he can.

Al Green Theatre

The Al Green was hastily added as an official venue after the Fringe learned in January that the Factory would be unavailable due to renovations. While it’s ideally situated, the venue has reportedly had difficult technical/administrative issues that kept it out of consideration in previous years. I’m told (but haven’t been inside to check) that in an effort to reduce the total seating in the enormous theatre, techs were told to rope off 50 seats, and decided to rope off the front several rows of seats instead of the back. This is the worst possible thing you can do to performers who are trying to build a connection with the audience — can anyone confirm that this is what’s going on at the venue or give a sense of what that does to your enjoyment of a show as an audience member?

Another thing I’m hearing is the Al Green techs are also joining the UofT techs in demanding that all companies provide a stage manager, even when one isn’t strictly necessary for the show (because you’ve been touring for years and it seems to work fine without one everywhere else). This is, I understand, beyond the Fringe’s control, and is common in some of the other venues, but the festival is not very good about communicating the requirement to artists, who arrive at tech without one, and then spend the first hour of their three-hour tech time arguing with the technician about it. It happened to me in 2012 with RAW, and was the first of a series of unpleasant interactions with my tech that year.

Unfortunately, due to various difficulties of the space’s layout which were not understood when coming to Toronto and the difficulty of finding an SM on short notice, one show has dropped out. Chase Padgett and Stacey Hallal decided to pack it in after their tech rather than try to fit their sketch comedy Joyride into the odd space. I’m not sure there’s anything the festival could have done to fix the problems, but it’s a darn shame. I’d only just met Stacey, but Chase is the performance genius behind 6 Guitars, which I’ve written about in this space previously. I was really looking forward to his new show, and to Toronto getting its first look at him. (BTW, Chase has not asked me to write any of the above; I’m drawing on my own experiences dealing with inflexible tech personnel and poor communication. He has generally been very positive on the Toronto Fringe when explaining why he decided to drop out.)

I hope that the Fringe can make the Al Green work as a venue, because it really is a great space in an ideal location. Hopefully other artists are not having trouble, and any kinks can be worked out quickly over the course of the festival. In the long run, the Fringe can come up with a better way to communicate with the artists about the technical capabilities and requirements of all of its venues in the future.

The only other show at the Al Green I’m giving a recommend to is The Dark Fantastic by New York based performer Martin Dockery, who Torontonians probably recall best from his hits Wanderlust and The Bike Trip.

The Al Green is also hosting Happy Foods, which all else aside contains the warning “Insufficient Nudity,” which, uh….

Site-Specific

Centre of the Universe – David James Brock is back with a new show. He’s best known in Toronto as the writer of Toasting the Snow Bride and WET, but has been touring the world writing plays and operas. This one deals with four people stuck in a bar in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on Toronto, and takes place at the Labyrinth Lounge.

That’s my list! Say hi if you see me at the Fringe tent, and be sure to share the shows you loved in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #FringeTO.

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