Review – “Teach Me”: Newborn Theatre, Toronto Fringe

This afternoon I had the pleasure of seeing Newborn Theatre’s “Teach Me” at the George Ignatieff Theatre. My fourth Fringe show this year, and by far my favourite.

The show stars Mara Zigler as Stacey, Jessica Brown as Lauren and Robert Rainville as Mr.P, and tells the perverse story of two high school girls who catch their teacher masturbating in his car after school. A risque topic to be sure, but one that playwright Rachel Ganz approached with humour and sincerity in a way that made the story not just entertaining, but very real.

The play started a little slowly, with the two actresses seeming to struggle somewhat with their lines. Minimal movement meant that the focus was all on the dialogue, which was funny and well written, but came out a little jumbled at the start. However, the actors quickly grew into their parts, and by the time Rainville entered, I was completely enthralled.

I have tried with other reviews to focus on the acting and staging above the script or story, but in this case I don’t think I can do the show justice without including a few spoilers. For those who don’t wish to have the story given away, stop reading here and just know this is one show you should definitely not miss!

***SPOILER ALERT***

The ambiguity in this story is what drives it. It is impossible to be certain from one moment to the next who holds the power and who really knows the truth. This may be a frustrating show for some, because so many questions were asked, but the end comes abruptly, answering very few of them. When I first read this script months ago, my biggest worry was that the humour in the text could leave some people feeling that the issues of rape and abuse were trivialized, however, the cast’s acting ability helped to support what I think was Ganz’s intention; to show the complexity of these issues, rather than to focus just on sympathizing with the victims, or crusading against the abusers.

It certainly isn’t a show for someone with a weak stomach. Stacey’s detailed description of her own encounters with sexual abuse is raw and disturbing, especially as it comes in such strong contrast to her earlier, funnier remarks about men and sex. Watching Mr. P. try every tactic in the book to convince the girls not to turn him in, is equally upsetting, because until the very end of the show, I found myself sympathizing with him most.

Things take a bizarre turn after Stacey finally makes a move and angrily gives Mr.P. a hand-job – while this moment could ring as untrue, her earlier comment should be remembered here; “Nothing like a blow job to make a rapist forget he was going to rape you”. Given, it was a hand job instead (this is still live theatre!), but remembering that line makes the moment seem much less like a Lolita-esq move and more like a frightened girl trying to put on a brave face. Certainly disturbing. As Mr. P. falls to the ground and watches the girls, we see him take on a sort of animalistic transformation; his back to the audience, I was curious as to what was really happening, and this is one moment where I felt things could have been a bit clearer. When he drags Lauren to the ground for the very brief but upsetting rape scene, it is difficult to imagine what is going on in the minds of the characters. Lauren initially smiles, then cries out in a somewhat insincere voice; I am unsure as to whether this was a choice or just a weak acting moment. Mr. P. does not seem human in this moment, but rather just the “dog” Stacey had earlier referred to him as. Again, this is a moment where I would have liked to understand his change a bit more. Stacey is who carries in the scene here, as she switches from badass teenager to frightened child, calling out in a voice that made me almost sick. It was a very bold choice for an ending, and personally I left feeling a little ill, but leaving a show about rape feeling anything else would probably be more disgusting than that.

Despite a few slow moments at the start, and somewhat dull blocking, the text and the actors made this show one of my all time favourites. You will leave shaken and likely disgusted, but certainly not without something to say. A show that will get people talking this way is one that needs to be seen, and I would highly recommend it to anyone (except maybe children!).

-E.

SHOW TIMES
Wednesday, July 3, 2013 – 8:45pm – 9:45pm
Saturday, July 6, 2013 – 1:45pm – 2:45pm
Sunday, July 7, 2013 – 3:00pm – 4:00pm
Monday, July 8, 2013 – 10:15pm – 11:15pm
Wednesday, July 10, 2013 – 5:45pm – 6:45pm
Saturday, July 13, 2013 – 12:30pm – 1:30pm
Sunday, July 14, 2013 – 7:30pm – 8:30pm

George Ignatieff Theatre

All Fringe tickets are $10.

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Review – “Evacuate”: Rhymes With Orange Productions, Toronto Fringe

I saw Rhymes With Orange Production’s “Evacuate” Saturday afternoon at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, a show written and directed by Katie Alguire. It starred Anne Shepherd (who played Sister Aloysius in Bygone’s production of “Doubt”) and Tom Bolton, with a brief appearance by Scott Cavalheiro. The show follows Iris and John, an elderly couple faced with the possibility of abandoning their home when a forest fire starts nearby. The show is on the whole very well written, and had a somewhat dark and unexpected ending.

Tom Bolton as John is a delight. He was at once a cranky, crotchety old man and a worried, loveable human being. He very much reminded me of my Mother’s Father, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him onstage. Anne Shepherd as Iris was funny and playful, though at times worked a little too hard at seeming old. Overall, both actors did a good job with a text that had a very natural sound, but relatively little action.

The script itself was good, but could use a few revisions. Some of the more interesting moments, like the discovery of the photograph (I won’t go into more detail so as not to spoil it) were not developed to the extent one would hope. This is something that could maybe be addressed in a later incarnation of the show, perhaps one that was lengthened just slightly. The end of the play was also a little disturbing, and possibly not in the way it should have been. A sudden raising of the stakes leaves the audience feeling shocked, but not at all satisfied, and was another moment that could have been developed further.

The play’s biggest fault was its staging. The arrangement of the set made it difficult for the actors to have much movement, and while the chairs and floating window created some nice symmetry for the pre-show, it was not the best design for a play of that length, especially when a lack of depth to the stage meant lots of pacing back and forth. The lighting design was a little surreal at the end, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I haven’t made up my mind as to whether or not I liked the choice, but it was certainly memorable.

Despite an overall melancholy tone, “Evacuate” was a funny and enjoyable play. Very natural characters and dialogue made it easy to watch, and so this is one I would add to my recommended list.

Review: Excuse You! – Theatre On A Thought, Toronto Fringe

Last night I went to see the opening of Theatre On A Thought’s “Excuse You!”, written and directed by Bryce Alexander Dudley and performed at the George Ignatieff Theatre as part of the Toronto Fringe. The play is a collection of customer service horror stories, loosely linked together through an over-arching plot about a bunch of theatre employees; it runs about 90 minutes.

“Excuse You” was a fairly typical Fringe experience for me; the script needed some work, and the show felt a little under-rehearsed, but the actors were funny, enthusiastic, and seemed thrilled to be performing.

The structure of the play was a little odd; the concept of an over-arching story to link various anecdotes about customer service in general was good in theory, but wasn’t executed as smoothly as one would hope. There were however, a few stand-out moments.

Matt McGrath as Stephen was hilarious. His monologue about the horrors of cleaning the woman’s bathroom was one of the highlights of the show. McGrath had excellent comedic timing and a great stage presence. He also played some of the stronger roles in my favourite part of the show; the bar scene.

One of the play’s strongest scenes was where the actors swept around the stage in a flurry of different characters, each appearing with a one or two-line joke before switching out and reappearing as someone new. This was where their actor abilities shone brightest; each character, despite very minor changes in costume, was distinct and amusing. Kudos goes to Peter Nicol who had some of the funniest parts, and skillfully played both young and old characters.

Erynn Brook was unfortunately given a rather unlikable character, Deborah, the typical “bitch” staff member, who in this play lacked the redeeming qualities such a role usually relies on. Despite this, Brook was funny, had strong comedic instincts, and wowed the audience with several perfect accents, something that is rarely seen in amateur theatre.

In stark contrast was the character Michelle, aptly played by the bubbly Heather Sande. While the part of Michelle was two-dimensional and a little dull, Sande stood out in the smaller roles, especially as the aloof drunk-girl dragged to the theatre by her irritating mother. Her energy onstage was contagious, and helped to push along some of the slower moving scenes.

Rhonda, played by Sarah Cervinka was the most believable of the main-plot characters. As the jaded, tired, wannabe-writer, Cervinka best captured the dry humour and sarcasm the role required. Her part as the overweight restaurant patron who demanded to know the ingredients in every item, was also a highlight.

Finally there was Chai Lavie as Tony. While Tony was more of a caricature than most of the other main-plot characters, Lavie’s physicality made him a joy to watch.

Overall the show’s greatest weakness came from a general sort of “messiness”. Actors bumped into the set, took a little too long setting props, exited too slowly, and the lights were poorly aimed, making it difficult to see a lot of the action clearly. However, Dudley has clearly assembled a talented cast, as each actor had moments of brilliant comedy and I did find myself laughing at much of the show.

If you’ve ever worked in customer service, or if you’re just looking for a good laugh this Fringe, this is one I’d recommend.

-E.

Check out their website at ExcuseYouToronto.com

SHOW DATES:
July 4, 8:15pm
July 5, 3:00pm
July 7, 10:00pm
July 9, 10:30pm
July 10, 12:00pm
July 11, 7:30pm
July 14, 5:15pm

George Ignatieff Theatre.

All fringe tickets are $10 and are available in advance at the fringe tent or at the door, while supplies last.

Toronto Fringe 2013 – Bygone’s Fringe Picks

942567_509117382482644_14951962_nThere are so many shows in the Fringe each year and it really is impossible to see them all. When you work in the arts, chances are you know at least a dozen people involved in the fringe, and for me that’s what determines which shows I go to see. So here are my (admittedly slightly biased) picks for this year’s Toronto Fringe:

1. “Teach Me” – Newborn Theatre: George Ignatieff Theatre
Written by my friend Rachel Ganz, I am stoked to see this show. I read the very first draft months ago when she started, and it was great then; I’m sure by now it’s evolved into something even better. Rachel has been accepted to National Theatre School for Playwrighting in the fall, so you know she’s one to watch out for. I was lucky enough to direct her one-woman-show “Plasterface” back in November, and I know her work always leaves a mark. If you’re looking for a bizarre, compelling story with hilarious and unbelieveably natural dialogue, I recommend this one.

2. “Excuse You!” – Theatre On A Thought: George Ignatieff Theatre
Bygone’s Producer, Matt McGrath is performing in this piece by Bryce Alexander Dudley. This show has already ended up on lots of “Fringe Picks” lists, and with good cause – a collection of stories about the hilarious world of customer service in the arts. Certainly something all of us can relate to, and sure to be a laugh!

3. SQUAT: A Super-Secret Back-Alley Musical – Watch The Elbow Productions: Site-Specific, CineCycle, 401 Richmond St. W
I’m psyched to see this site-specific musical because it’s got some amazing performers in it: Elizabeth Rose Morriss was one of our lovely performers in Retro Radio Hour, and Victoria McEwan and Colin Asuncion were in the production of “Hairspray” I did a couple years ago, as Tracy Turnblad and Seaweed. Plus what’s not to love about a site-specific musical? I’m interested to see how they tackle this one.

4. “Monstrous Regiment” – Socratic Theatre: Site-Specific, Paupers Pub, 539 Bloor St. W
Another site-specific show, this one features two of our “Dial M For Murder” actors, Jason and Rebekah Manella. A lot of what you see at Fringe is original works, which is great, but sometimes it’s just as fun to see a published show like this one, especially when it’s been adapted for a site-specific location, and shortened to fit the time slot. I’m excited to see them pull it off!

So these are the first ones on my list – I’m hoping I’ll get to see a lot more as well. See one you like? Let us know in the comments. And stay tuned for reviews on these and maybe more!

-E.

Review: The Unseen Hand – Theatre Brouhaha, The Playwright Project

ImageI had the pleasure of seeing Theatre Brouhaha’s “The Unseen Hand” last night at the Magic Oven.The show was directed by Kat Sandler and starred Scott Clarkson as Blue Morphan, Rick Jon Egan as Cisco Morphan, Tom Darcy McGee as Sicamore Morphan, G. Kyle Shields as the Kid, Kevin Ritchie as Willie, and Alexis Budd on guitar. The play was a part of the Playwright Project, this year focused on works by Sam Shephard.

I’ve gotta say, I’m usually a pretty harsh critic, but I’d give this piece a 8/10. While it was a little slow to get going, all the actors had great chemistry, amazing energy, and near perfect comedic timing. The costumes were well thought out (something I tend to be extra critical of as I do costuming myself), and the set was great considering the space restrictions and the changing venues.

Sandler did a good job of working with a very small space and a technically limited venue. While the actors were practically in the audience’s lap, there were very few points when it was difficult to see (some of the moments with actors lying on the ground were missed by those of us sitting further back, but such is the nature of theatre in found spaces). The movement was stylized, posed, and very well suited to Shepard’s bizarre script.

Kudos goes to Kevin Ritchie for what looked like an absolutely exhausting performance: his raving speech early in the piece was especially impressive (though disturbing!).

All the actors had great comedic moments, but what punctuated the humour best was the musical score provided by Alexis Budd. Perfectly timed strummed chords and great Western tunes helped to define a show that had to work within a lot of restraints. The very catchy mashup of Rawhide & Ghost Riders In The Sky that they used for their curtain call was especially fun.

I won’t spoil what was the most bizarre and visually interesting point in the play, but I will say, I loved the ping pong balls 🙂
The Unseen Hand is playing until Tuesday May 7th at various locations across Toronto. For more info, check out this.