Troops into Afghanistan

If Canadians want to teach their neighbours down south a lesson on smart, successful foreign policy, Afghanistan presents a welcome opportunity. By increasing troops to combat al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s resurgence before the country teeters on the brink of collapse, as happened in Iraq in 2006, we can humble Americans with our willingness to adjust to environmental changes in a timely fashion. That such an underrated ability could be witnessed is a fundamental lesson to be taken from the near-tragic American occupation of Iraq.

In arguing for a “surge” in Afghanistan, we must provide some context. In 2006, Iraq was suffering from attacks on all fronts. Shiite and Sunni internecine warfare grew so prevalent that a civil war was predicted to be imminent. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was relentless in its inflammatory acts, dealing bloodshed to all Iraqi factions and heightening tensions in an already strained environment. By early 2007, with Baghdad lost to factions and insurgents, it was clear that the calls from various dissenting generals and Republican senators for a larger post-war force had been correct all along.

The premise of the surge was that counterinsurgency requires sustained security. When Robert Kagan and Jack Keane developed the policy at the American Enterprise Institute and argued for it in various publications, they made it clear that providing a safe environment was key: it is only when civilians feel safe that they are able to provide the information necessary to root out insurgent hideouts. Likewise, only when nascent police forces feel they have enough backup can they be willing to follow through on their duties to protect. The American mission in Iraq demonstrated that army forces could take out terrorist strongholds with ease, but the final two components of their “clear, hold, and build” strategy failed to materialize. “Holding and “building” were never ensured because the lack of total troop numbers meant that American forces had to move on to the next hot spot in the country before they could stay long enough to assuage the civilian population and build local facilities for reconstruction. Thus, in due time, once-pacified strongholds were re-infiltrated by al-Qaeda operatives or factional insurgents.

With the increase of 32,000 troops, American forces could follow through on the “hold” and “build” portions of their operations. Instead of leaving once enemy forces were rooted, the army placed enough troops to “hold” a given city for the long term. With the aid of the Americans, each pacified city was able to subsequently rebuild and restore normalcy. By now, the results have been positive. Sunni militants have turned on their al-Qaeda collaborators and violence has fallen to 2004 levels.

In Afghanistan, we have a similar problem on a much smaller scale. The issue is less about security breakdown, instead resting on a lack of military progress. As The Economist reported, the primary danger in Afghanistan is “that the war will settle into a stalemate, one in which the Taliban controls much of the countryside in the Pushtun belt and Mr. Karzai’s government runs the rest.”

More troops would allow the multinational mission in Afghanistan to focus on Operation Enduring Freedom’s task of hunting out al-Qaeda along the Pakistani border and the International Security Assistance Force’s efforts to attend to humanitarian and reconstruction needs. It would also increase the likelihood of sustained success, just as in Iraq, halting the downward spiral of public opinion regarding the war in most of the countries involved.

Some say that the most pressing issue is political stagnation. This is due to the lack of credibility that president Hamid Karzai commands. While more troops will not fix endemic corruption or a lack of will among politicians to make deals with Pushtuns, government credibility can be bolstered when security and stability are extended to all parts of the country. In Iraq, one overlooked aspect of the surge was its theoretical implication that without security, political power would shift from democratically elected leaders to factional and sectarian war leaders. Since the surge and the security that came with it, the White House has now reported that 15 of 18 benchmarks have been met, most concerned with political reconciliation. In the beginning, only 3 of 18 benchmarks had been achieved.

One has to wonder if the troop increases in Iraq came too late. Those who believe that the future security and stability of millions of Afghani civilians living in an infant democracy is worth fighting for should act quickly to prevent mistakes in Iraq from repeating themselves. Instead of drifting along the course of attrition and prolonged failure, Canada should revitalize its mission in Afghanistan and make an effort to increase the number of troops so that success can be attained.

Who says you have to be elected to be president?

In a controversial move, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union board of directors has recently hired and ratified Zuhair Syed as interim president until September 30. During SCSU elections earlier this year, the election committee disqualified Syed from the presidency after he received three strikes for election violations, and recommended Jenna Hossack be ratified as president. However the board chose to ratify only the committee’s recommendations for directors, leaving the presidential position temporarily vacant until the next by-election in the fall.

Or at least that was the plan.

Earlier this summer the SCSU board decided to hire an interim president rather than have the VP academics temporarily fulfill those duties. After a brief interview and hiring period, Syed was ratified as interim SCSU president and CEO at a board of directors meeting on June 20. Under the contract, Syed will be president for the rest of the summer until September 30.

In a telephone interview Syed expressed this as a correction of a faulty process. “It seems that by the actions of the election committee that they were definitely incompetent in terms of the presidential election.” He holds that he was unfairly disqualified by the elections committee, and the board recognized this.

Responding to the accusations of bias and unfair disqualification, Elections Committee chief recruiting officer Dawn Cattapan said that the entire committees for elections, hiring and elections’ appeals would also have to be biased for that argument to be valid. “I don’t think we’re biased and quite frankly during the director elections there were way too many [candidates]. We didn’t know anybody’s name. Until counting night we didn’t know half the candidates’ names.”

Cattapan admits that her favourite candidate was neither Syed nor Hossack. “I was actually hoping that Edward would win. He had some really cool ideas and really went in there and got to know people. He only got like 50 votes though.”

Cattapan thinks that aside from the results, the election went pretty smoothly. “I didn’t expect it to be thrown out – it was a great election that we ran. I would hope that future elections would be run very similar where they would have that sort of luck where things would stay so organized but without the controversy,” she said, pausing for a second on the phone. “But it’s student politics, controversy always seems to ensue.”

One thing is for sure, debate and controversy definitely have not deterred Syed’s aspirations in student politics. The well-known management student has already announced plans to run for president again during the SCSU’s October by-election.

The Battle of the Flip-Floppers

As the Democratic presidential primaries have finally winded down, and as senators Barack Obama and John McCain proceed with their general election campaigning, those of us who have followed this phenomenal race with exuberance and anticipation have witnessed the candidates take some serious political punches from the left and right. If it wasn’t a preacher’s conspiratorial remarks, it was some conservative network unleashing false rumours within the blogosphere. Every statement has been publicly scrutinized and carefully investigated under the media’s microscope. We’ve watched the contenders grace our television screens on a daily basis, at times delivering rousing speeches, and at others making one too many gaffes. It’s not unusual for politicians to backtrack on certain positions, or simply refine their policies to suit their audience. That’s the nature of politics, where upholding integrity is low on the list of priorities and political expediency reigns supreme. While both candidates are vastly different, in terms of ideology, policy, and personality, neither has proven his innocence. Accusations of flip-flopping have already begun their vicious circulation in the news.

Senator John Kerry was famously characterized as a flip-flopper during the 2004 presidential election, which proved to be disasterous for the candidate. Although Barack Obama and his campaign are confident that they will not repeat past mistakes, his recent change on issues like public campaign financing, the death penalty, gun control, and illegal federal wiretapping are driving the media haywire. Being labeled the most liberal senator by the opposition didn’t hurt Barack Obama in the primaries, but now he faces the challenge of breaking away from the liberal progressive wing of his party to reach out to independents, a key constituency that may hold the fate of both candidates. Some identify this as a flip-flop, others as a move to the centre, but either way it’s a move towards the right. With a campaign built on progressive ideals and a strong anti-Bush sentiment, this strategy appears disingenuous.

His Republican counterpart doesn’t fare any better. John McCain has flip-flopped on almost every significant issue: tax cuts, abortion, the Iraq War, torture, public campaign financing, offshore drilling, and the list goes on. The senator from Arizona paints himself as the maverick from the Straight Talk Express, not afraid to stand alone from the Republican establishment. However, this political chameleon has reversed any and all moderate positions he once supported as a senator, and now as a presumptive presidential candidate, he has taken a hard-line Republican approach to policy. He’s denied any allegation of inconsistency, but his gaffes and slip-ups can be easily accessed via YouTube. As a self-proclaimed straight-shooter (but more of a sweet talker than anything else), John McCain has always been the darling of the media, while Barack Obama’s treatment is indicative of serious media bias.

A politician who changes their mind does not merit unyielding persecution. We should expect our political figures to remain open-minded and watchful of the changing global climate, and make their judgments accordingly. But when politicians shift sides frequently and then have the audacity to deny any changes of heart, the public has a right to question their sincerity and the media has an obligation to examine their political motivations.

The Kids Are Alright

A hysterical Dilbert look-alike flies by College Park, clutching the side of a taxi in pursuit of a misplaced pen. The flashing Silver Dollar Room sign cues the start of the next Buddy Cole monologue. Two lackadaisical cops talk nonsense by the Leuty Lifeguard Station. The Kids in the Hall have a cult following that spans continents, but Torontonians have the distinct pleasure of seeing their neighbourhoods used as a backdrop on one of the funniest, most original and daring shows to ever air on mainstream television. In a way, the setting was the most shocking part of the routine—people that funny rarely stay here. Perhaps they shouldn’t have.

You could argue that the Kids in the Hall show existed in a bubble—the Kids would have sooner performed a sketch about sausages than made fun of Brian Mulroney’s jaw. The first Canadian show to utter the word ‘fuck’ on television, they were bizarre, unscrupulous and sexually uninhibited, inspiring American and British imitators like Mr. Show and Chris Morris’s next-level Jam. Here in Canada, staid issues like equalization still provide the inspiration for many a prime-time joke.

The Kids in the Hall was kind of a flukey show in a sense,” says Mark McKinney, the Kid behind some of the show’s most beloved characters (the Chicken Lady, the Headcrusher.) McKinney is on a smoke break from his latest show, Less than Kind, on which he’s producing, not performing. Even in a sweatshirt and shorts, he’s a living myth to me. I had talked to him years before, when I approached him outside the Labyrinth Lounge to say that his show had “played a big role in shaping my psyche.” He backed away slightly, arched an eyebrow and told me that he hoped I was healthy. “We really got— and this is unheard of —kind of a playground to do whatever kind of sketch comedy we wanted for five years. It’s sort of irreproducible,” he says. McKinney has worked extensively in both Canada and the United States since KitH ended. Some of his projects have been great (Slings and Arrows, the Saddest Music in the World), others just big (Saturday Night Live, Spice World.) His fellow Kids Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch and Scott Thompson have charted similar career paths, performing, writing, character acting and occasionally nabbing starring roles. But unlike the cast of SCTV before them, none of the five have become superstars. Their work doesn’t seem to have impacted mainstream TV the same way it’s affected their rabid fan base and the hoards of alternative comics who venerate them.

Toronto is a funny city, but it rarely retains its talent. Comedians like Norm Macdonald and Harland Williams take their dirty jokes south, and the ones who stay behind build their careers on a secure base of Canadian political satire. Things were no different in the 1980s, despite the high volume of local talent. “There was a time at Yuk Yuk’s when you had Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, Norm Macdonald and more, performing at the downtown club. And, in fact, the CBC’s casting office was across the street, and they never went and saw them,” says Andrew Clark, former EYE WEEKLY comedy columnist and author of Stand and Deliver: Inside Canadian Comedy.

Clark is also the Director of the Comedy Writing and Performance program at Humber College, the only such program in North America (and possibly the only field of study where using the word ‘cocksucker’ is part of the learning process). It says something about Toronto’s comedic aptitude, but more about how the city has finally come to embrace its character. Clark was the first comedy columnist in Canada; when he started writing in 1991, “comedy wasn’t really taken seriously as something that was worthy of comment or criticism,” he says. Yuk Yuk’s had been well-established as a haven for “edgy” stand-up comedy, but improv and alternative sketch had only recently emerged as viable genres, largely due to The Kids in the Hall show itself.

When the Kids in the Hall came together officially in 1984, Toronto comedy was a professional game; independent troupes like the Frantics were few and far between. “I remember the NOW Magazine comedy listings would be tiny, maybe five or six little events… now it can be half a page,” says Jane Luk, an actress and improv teacher with the Bad Dog Theatre Company. Like the Kids (and many others), Luk got her start at Theatresports Toronto in the early ‘80s. Held at Harbourfront and the Toronto Free Theatre, Theatresports was a game night in which improv teams competed for humour points. “Stand-up people didn’t associate with anyone in the improv community. Certainly the only game in town, as far as improv, was Theatresports,” says Luk.

In Calgary, where the events began, Theatresports’ star attractions were the Audience, a troupe featuring Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, and future KitH writers Garry Campbell and Frank Van Keeken. The troupe moved to Toronto to pursue acting careers and joined their big-city equivalents, the Kids in the Hall, a teenaged troupe featuring Kevin McDonald, Dave Foley and Luciano Casimiri. Foley, an alternative school dropout and aspiring stand-up, met McDonald, a Humber Theatre School dropout, at a Second City workshop. The two were paired at random for an exercise; by the end of the workshop, they had decided to form a troupe. The Audience subsumed the nascent Kids, and the supergroup became crowd favourites at Theatresports nights. “Back then, when you heard the Audience were playing, you wanted to be there on that night,” Luk says. “This was before they were doing anything else—you just knew they were a good team.”

“I think everyone in the troupe had a different thing they were drawing on,” McKinney says. “Me, I’ve always been a fan of really good actors and Scorsese movies and stuff. Bruce probably draws a lot of his inspiration from punk music and Iggy Pop, and Dave and Kevin were comedy historians, steeped in [tradition] all the way back to 1930s movies. But the ultimate influence is whether you can make the other four people laugh, and that determined what got into the show and what didn’t. Synergistic style, I guess.” Everyone I spoke to insisted that McDonald was always the funniest. “Everybody always wanted to work with Kevin, because you’d know it would be funny,” says Casimiri, who, along with Van Keeken and Campbell, left the troupe in the early days.

Just as the group was dwindling down to a foursome, a young gay punk named Scott Thompson began vying for the troupe’s attention. Fresh out of theatre school and up for anything, Thompson had been performing sketch and playing in a punk band called Mouth Congress. “Scott kind of bullied his way in,” says Paul Bellini, a former writer for the show and Thompson’s former band and dorm mate at York University. Thompson’s brash personality was precisely the troupe’s missing element, and the five men began to provide each other with fierce competition to be funnier than everyone else. “Scott and Mark used to fight over wigs to the point where things would be thrown across the room,” Bellini says. “I’ll never forget, one time Scott kicked in a filing cabinet. I said why, and he goes, ‘Mark’s stealing my wig for that character!’ [I said], ‘Well, you know, you kicked in a filing cabinet.’ ‘Well it means a lot to me!’ I thought, wow, he’s crazy, but he’s sincere.”

After a while, Theatresports became a little too amateurish; the troupe developed a reputation for showing up audience participants who shouldn’t have bothered to take part. “Theatresports became like community theatre,” Casimiri tells me. “There weren’t a lot of rooms to play in like there is now.” By 1985, the troupe had begun performing weekly shows at the Rivoli, then the centre of the Queen West art scene. At the time, the notion of an alternative comedy scene was vague at best. A connection with the band Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, old friends of McCulloch’s, made the Kids honorary members of the city’s alternative music community. “We did shows where Scott [Thompson] as Buddy Cole, long before they had a TV show, was a guest vocalist for us. Kevin McDonald did a magic show,” says Don Pyle, former drummer for Shadowy Men and a long-time veteran of the Toronto indie-rock scene. “I think for a lot of people, it was a very natural thing. Partly because the Kids in the Hall were very much acting like an independent rock band—I think they were accepted by a lot of people within the music scene.”

Shadowy Men, who were releasing records and playing alongside the likes of Fifth Column and Beat Happening, had a steady following. At the very beginning, the Kids did not. The alliance helped draw neighbourhood scenesters to the Kids’ performances, although they struggled to build an audience. “I think that we drew on whatever the Queen Street scene was back then. I mean, we did play, for years, to nobody—we had audiences of nine, 17,” says McKinney. “We tried lowering our price from three to two dollars—didn’t work. And then it just kind of caught on, we became the thing.” The Kids’ earliest superfan was Bellini, who made posters and worked the door every week. “When it came time to do the TV show, it was like, ‘Why don’t we take Bellini with us?’ It was like—you take the dog on a family trip. You just do!”

Whatever the door count, the Rivoli performances began to draw the right people. Word channelled back to Lorne Michaels, who had been looking for a Gen X-oriented show to follow up Saturday Night Live. Out of all the off-beat comedy troupes in North America, he chose five guys from Canada to fill the role. “You can’t underestimate the degree to which what the Kids in the Hall were doing was really new, and kind of edgy,” Clark says. Michaels whisked off McCulloch and McKinney to serve as apprentice writers on Saturday Night Live. When the Kids reunited in 1986, they played a sold-out run at the Factory Theatre. Michaels himself was in attendance, and he was impressed. He flew the Kids down for a year of comedy training in New York. “I remember when Kevin left, he was overweight. And when he came back, I didn’t recognize him,” Luk says. “He said to me, ‘Basically, I didn’t have any money to eat!’” When the Kids returned to Toronto, Michaels sent up talent from SNL to help the troupe make a pilot. Using his connections with Ivan Fecan, a former NBC executive and then Director of Television Programming at the CBC, Michaels secured the pilot a slot on Canadian television. Using his many connections in the States, he did the same with HBO. “When it aired on HBO, John J. O’Connor of the New York Times wrote a four-star review. And that four-star review bought us our first season,” Bellini says.

The Kids were on TV, but Los Angeles remained a different universe. They stayed in their ratty downtown apartments, drank beer on the Queen Street strip, and continued to make fun of its denizens. Despite the high-profile professionals backing the show, the Kids chose a low-key, sketch-centered approach to television, ensuring that their combined talents remained the show’s primary appeal. “The Kids in the Hall were very strong people, and very uncompromising little bastards,” Bellini says. “Even in their early 20’s, they thought they were the cat’s pajamas. And they had a very unshakeable vision. They went into that show—and would have done this with any producer—[with] certain things in mind…you had to accept their terms. And that’s probably one thing that makes them great, but it also prevented them from becoming more than successful cult comedians.” Plenty of characters were simply lifted from the stage show, including the Headcrusher and the mincing, smart-assed Buddy Cole, who had sprung from Thompson and Bellini’s handheld camera improvisations years before. Other characters, like the Chicken Lady, were hatched out of the show’s unusually high budget—at the Rivoli, the only costumes had been “a sweater and a wig,” Bellini says.

Toronto was, in many ways, a kind of sixth Kid in the Hall. Bumper videos showed the Kids goofing around downtown. Toronto sports teams were namedropped (“took me to a Leafs game” became a euphemism for gay sex), and one of Thompson’s characters read a magazine called Xcrete (an embittered take-off on Xtra). Even Bellini’s trademark character was borne out of a Toronto landmark: the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, a police target during the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids. Bellini had described his bathhouse routine to McKinney, who “laughed for about 20 minutes.” When the show organized its first contest, he suggested Bellini in a towel as the prize. “The Kids fought to stay in Toronto,” Bellini says. “The stardom never got to you, because there were no limos, there were no groupies, there were no parties with cocaine on the table.” Once, Thompson demanded Madonna tickets; an assistant bought them and pretended they were free. McKinney agrees that the show’s location was a blessing. “I think if we’d been in Los Angeles, by year three, somebody would have got an offer and split… I personally came out of Kids in the Hall incredibly naïve about how the business ran, and I probably paid the price. Because I just thought, well, you do whatever you want, right? And people give you money? No. I mean, that’s kind of what was unique about the show—we were allowed to stay business naïve for a long, long time.”

Michaels took a laissez-faire approach to the show, but his name (and the support of American networks) made all the difference. The show had “so little censorship it’s ridiculous,” McKinney says. There were coke binges, cold-blooded murders, naked asses galore and sex scenes complete with very believable sex faces. A scene in which Thompson (after declaring himself “not gay”) received a blowjob from Casimiri was cut —but only in the States, Casimiri says. The hardest jokes to get past the censors were questionable due to social taboo—abortion, religious jokes—ironic, considering the Kids’ steadfast rejection of topical material. Canadian content was also deemed inappropriate for American audiences. In one skit, McDonald and Foley make reference to Canadian cities—“Regina, Saskatoon, just really goony Canadian names. Medicine Hat! And they said we couldn’t do that—there has to be an American version,” Bellini reports. A sketch called “Screw You Taxpayer,” a riff on the CBC’s public funding, was cut in the States for being “too Canadian” —but not due to either McCulloch’s risqué portrayal of a Chinese rickshaw driver or the skit’s allusions to necrophilia.

As Bellini points out, the show’s ending was far from glorious. The movie Brain Candy was meant to be a grand exit; it was a belly flop instead. Foley was offered a starring role on News Radio right before production started, and several of his parts had to be re-shot. The script was rewritten multiple times, McDonald’s wife left him, and almost every member longed to desert the project. McKinney was the only one who wanted to soldier on. He had reason to; Kids in the Hall quickly proved to have been one-of-a-kind. “We had a vote at the end of the fifth season, who wants to do another year, and I was the only one with my hand up because I really liked doing sketch comedy. So I went on to SNL, but I found that sort of a different experience—it was harder to do my stuff there.”

You might compare the Kids in the Hall to the Velvet Underground—as the old adage goes, not many bought their records, but everyone who did started a band. The Kids’ ingenuity meant that they were nowhere near as big as they could have been. But everyone who watched the show was inspired by it—from the fans riffing on its lines to the alternative comics, in Toronto and elsewhere, who have sprung up in its wake. “Someone said our audience is narrow but deep. In other words, our fans are real fans, but there’s not tens of millions of them,” McKinney says. The troupe’s latest tour (and the two tours that preceded it) provided ample proof that the show still has a steady base of admirers, not to mention posthumous momentum thanks to syndication and DVD. “They all thought they’d go to the next level and become big stars, and it never really happened. No one hit that Adam Sandler level, like a hundred million dollar opening for a comedy. It just didn’t happen, and it’s kind of sad, but what are you going to do?” Bellini says. “They’re still together, they can still perform, they can still write. You’re still interested. It’s been 20 years, you know? So it worked out okay. I just wish we were all richer.”

Fringe Benefits

Through rain, heat and more rain, the 20th Annual Toronto Fringe Festival threw down a mixed bag of theatre, dance, and comedy this year. The annual juried fest is bound to offer up its hits (and misses), but this round saw a remarkable variety of talent from here and abroad. Some say that the growing selection of performances makes it harder to solidify one’s fringe-ing addendum—nevertheless, we here at The Varsity had fun and plenty of it! Even though there were some skip-its, nothing beats a good find—and that’s all part of the hunt.

The Swearing Jar

Tarragon Theatre Mainspace

With a completely loveable cast and witty dialogue, Kate Hewlett’s latest offering is sweet but ultimately unsatisfying. The script only begins to mine interesting questions surrounding truth and intimacy between a married couple—Simon and Carey—without getting closer to the difficult aspects. Instead, Hewlett provides a lot of banter and character details that make for a warm but uncommitted play. Particularly compelling is the performance of Chris Stanton, whose portrayal of Carey’s romantic interest, the bookstore clerk Owen, reaches new heights of appealing awkwardness. —NS

Rating: VVV


Tarragon Extra Space

It’s difficult to explain writer/performer Andrew Bailey’s strange charisma. It has something to do with the incredible vulnerability he shares with the audience in this hour-long one-man performance. Under the strong hand of director (and, um, “artist”) Jacob Richmond, Putz tells the stirring and hilarious story of Bailey’s journey from boyish naiveté to a more mature state of mind. Particularly effective are the scenes where Bailey recounts events by saying something inappropriate (“If I only had the man juice…”), or his interpretation of God blowing his own mind after having only been alive for one minute. A few moments feel almost stifling in their intimacy, but Bailey’s risks pay off because he never leaves the spectator stranded within his own world. —NS

Rating: VVVV

The Exploding Breakfast

Factory Studio

Sometimes you haphazardly stumble upon an unexpected gem. At 11:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, Perth, Australia’s Ingle Knight seemed surprised to see a very small gathering at the Factory Studio. Nevertheless, his lively storytelling of a true-life stint at a playwright’s unit in Johannesburg was part Tom Robbins, part Samuel Beckett—as Knight expertly portrayed a cast of characters so vivacious and intriguing you never wanted him to stop. —CL

Rating: VVVV

Gameshow: The Musical

Royal St. George’s Auditorium

For sheer fun, Gameshow takes the cake. It may not feature the greatest vocalists, but the cast is uniformly energetic, maintaining a keen sense of irony throughout the performance. Following the rise of Bobby, a small-town gameshow enthusiast, the musical scrolls through a bunch of comical situations including a memorable trip to the library. The set and costumes are fantastic, with all the characters dressed to the nines in primary colours. Gameshow’s good acting and tight writing more than make up for the fact that three-quarters of the cast don’t have strong singing chops. The co-dependent relationship of the Spiker twins is the play’s definite highlight, as their one-liners keep the audience in the palm of their hands. Gameshow: The Musical has been selected for NOW Magazine’s “Best of the Fringe Festival” series going on at the Diesel Playhouse, which means there will be two more performances on July 20th and 27th at 5:30pm. —NS

Rating: VVVV

Jew for a Day

Royal St. George’s Auditorium

Oy gevalt—I don’t even know where to begin. A charming idea is marred here by some of the most patently heavy-handed writing in combination with surprisingly bad acting. The play itself is about a 13 year-old boy named Fred who decides he wants to be Jewish due to his outsider attitude. The problem with the script is not its premise, but the earnest and reductive way in which the whole topic of religion and identity is treated. If there’s one bright spot in the production, it’s when Rabbi Jacobs (played by writer and director Mark Farmer) relates to Fred his desire to be a Mountie, complete with red serge jacket and felt hat. Other than that, skip this play unless you have an unshakable desire to hear the worst Yiddish accent of all time. —NS

Rating: Vv

Rum and Vodka

Tarragon Extra Space

Ever had one of those weekends where you drink too much, do some unbelievably stupid things, then drink a little more? Believe me, it won’t hold a candle to the anti-protagonist in Conor McPherson’s gritty diatribe. Tightly directed by Shaun McComb, Rum and Vodka unspools three drunken days in the life of a young Irishman, sick of his petty office job and domestic life. Funny and darkly honest, it is Matthew Gorman’s violently controlled performance that gives the play its urgency and pace, rather than simply relying on the frenetic tone of the text. This production lives up to the reputation of its titular drink that, as one character suggests, has the ability to revive the dead. —NS

Rating: VVVV

Lupe: Undone

Honest Ed’s Alley

Tucked away in a garbage scented alleyway behind Honest Ed’s, Lupe, a spicy Ticket King salesgirl and part-time mattress stuffer, waits for her “boyfriend” David Mirvish with a saucy surprise. Instead, she’s greeted by 40 dumbfounded Fringe-goers shielding themselves from the rain. But when life gives you lemons, you apparently give the audience chips and salsa. While veteran actress Melissa D’Augustino was a charming and able-bodied character actor, it’s hard to relate to a plot where literally nothing happens. Too much of Lupe was spent on set pieces—shimmying to Gloria Estefan, asking the audience for feedback on her self-esteem (“Should I learn to love myself? Ole!”), Charo-esque displays of othered culture. A unique Fringe experience, but not a great one, these writers need to learn that when your show rests on one titular character, it’s good to have some development. —CL

Rating: VV

Totem Figures

Glen Morris Theatre

TJ Dawe’s most recent autobiographical monologue is fashioned around what Dawe describes as his own personal mythology and the characters that exist as a motif within his life. An interesting, although painfully derivative piece, it’s not exactly impressive that the most compelling parts of his story are anecdotes about the likes of Charles Bukowski and John Fahey—two of his personal “totem figures.” Dawe is a friendly and charismatic performer that strikes upon moments of real poignancy, but the subject of retrospective self-monologuing comes off as unsatisfying. Dawe wants us to think about ourselves and our own totem figures, to try and piece together the people and things in our lives that would go on our own personal Sgt. Pepper album cover, as he so charmingly called it. —NS

Rating: VVVv

The Pharmaceutical Affair

Robert Gill Theatre

While there was much to appreciate in this innovative approach to the classic Tintin model, the young company of The Pharmaceutical Affair, comprised of students from King’s College, had difficulty moving beyond an immature approach to the canon. Concerned with stopping the evil Hanz Von Sanchez (Tim Butters) from launching a dodgy new drug called Gagex, the story bordered on cheesy, but not excessively so. Although some of the acting felt a bit belabored, an excellent touch was Peter Gorman as DJ Peter Mozza Sticks, providing music and occasional French narration. While The Pharmaceutical Affair never lacked in imagination and energy, it would have benefited from a stronger satirical hand in both the script and staging. —NS

Rating: VVV

One-Woman Show

Robert Gill Theatre

Playing with the conventions of oh, 30 per cent of the current Fringe lineup, was the Shehori Brothers’ (Swiss Family Robinson) satire of the old theatre standby: the empowered female actress’ realization that self-acceptance is the greatest gift of all. Playing 37 year-old Eileen Louise Kennedy was Marco Timpano, clad in Mark’s Work Warehouse and noonday scruff, with a flutter of the wrists and a lithe gait. While the jokes about PMS and reducing the number of men you’ve slept with (apparently it has to do with carrying the one and making a threesome divisible by pi) were standard fare, Timpano’s delivery and the whip-smart writing did Gloria Steinem proud. Full marks! —CL

Rating: VVVV

Nuclear energy for the scholastic masses

* How did you get interested in environmental issues?*

It was by accident! Well, not really by accident. I grew up in this rocky coastland in the west of Ireland known for its karst, a barren limestone landscape encompassed by underground rivers, caves and sinkholes. The historical richness of this barren area, such as the presence of man-made structures aging approximately 5,000 years, and the occupation of the British in the area gave me the introduction to nature.

Tell us about your current projects.

What I am working on right now is a book on the politics of nuclear energy called Inheriting the Nuclear Genii. You can read all the books you want on how the atom splits to produce energy, and that is great! But I wanted to write about the political side of it as well. So, what I have done is really an attempt to not be objective. All that people read about nuclear energy is some guy trying to make a nuclear bomb and that they cannot do it because they are not friends of ours. This whole issue of friends and enemies, like this one, confuses kids. So in my book, I present politics, such as nuclear management and studying the consequences of nuclear reactors, through studying the radiation they produce. This is something that our students are not well exposed to or educated about. I am attempting to address more of the educational aspect of the potential risks of nuclear energy, and understanding the place we live at and how it could be seriously affected by radiation.

One other thing I am currently involved with is producing a documentary, done by students and my leadership. The Ontario Power Generation has been very helpful. I should stress the point that this is not intended to be scary, but rather an educational documentary that deals with real world issues. Also, we have tried to look into the history of nuclear energy and the scientists, particularly Canadians, involved in these projects around the world. However, I also have attempted to have a glance at the scary world for the next generation in the book concerning nuclear energy issues. But this is not the main purpose.

Do you have any advice for students who may be interested in environmental issues?

I would suggest that the students who are interested in environmental issues step out a bit and get involved in the local politics. This is a necessity. As one of the opportunities for students to get involved, I would like to be able to receive some help from students who are doing physics, chemistry and nuclear physics to give me a hand on some of the chapters of my book.

Interested students can contact Tony O’Donohue at

NASA satellite captures landmark supernova images

What’s so ‘super’ about a supernova—a naturally occurring stellar explosion equivalent to the detonation of a few octillion nuclear warheads? Recent news indicates that this occurrence is nothing short of super and definitely far from ordinary. On January 9, 2008, the Burst Alert Telescope, a device built into NASA’s Swift satellite, recorded an exciting supernova observation seen by team leader Alicia Soderberg of Princeton University. The star SN 2008D exploded, creating a supernova 100 billion times brighter and 20 times larger than the size of the Sun.

Soderberg reveals that, “the probability of that happening is about one in 10,000. It was really exciting. We caught the whole thing on tape, basically.” Astronomers usually catch the after-effects of stellar explosions, but this is the first time that a star has been caught in the act. “For years we have dreamed of seeing a star just as it was exploding, but actually finding one is a once in a lifetime event,” says Soderberg.

Supernova SN 2008D lasted only seven minutes but during that time it illuminated the galaxy with blinding light. Researchers concluded that this star was most likely 20 times the size of the Sun and expanded at 70 per cent the speed of light. This occurrence strengthens many theorists’ current astrophysical models of supernovae which hypothesize that when a massive star burns all of its nuclear fuel, its iron core collapses under its own gravity causing an implosion. As a result, a forceful shockwave manifests, detonating the star and releasing numerous flashes of x-rays into interstellar space. “Seeing the shock break out in x-rays can give a direct view of the exploding star in the last minutes of its life and also provide a signpost to which astronomers can quickly point their telescopes to watch the explosion unfold,” reported Edo Berger of Princeton University.

This rare celestial phenomenon occurs approximately once every 50 years and is the ultimate outer space explosion. Supernovae have the potential to radiate the same amount of energy the sun emits in its lifetime, and emit a shockwave of gas and dust up to a tenth the speed of light into the abyss of interstellar space. And they don’t just put on a spectacular light show. Their explosions also generate elements heavier than iron which ultimately create other stars and planets.

“Novae are ordinary stars that increase in brightness, while supernovae are even brighter. They are explosions of white stars that can be eight times the mass of the sun,” says Chris Matzner, Assistant Professor in the Astronomy Department at the University of Toronto. He distinguishes between the two main types of supernovae: type I and type II. Generally speaking, type I supernovae result from white dwarf stars rich in carbon and oxygen. In most situations, white dwarf stars accumulate a large amount of matter, becoming increasingly dense and, as a result, the carbon and oxygen fuse causing the star’s explosion. Type II supernovae usually occur when a considerably large star is near death. When its nuclear fuel is depleted, it no longer has a supply of energy to support it. The star’s iron core then collapses giving rise to a supernova.

Ultimately, the really super aspect of supernovae may be their ability to teach us about the cosmos. As Soderberg puts it, “This newly born supernova is going to be the Rosetta stone of supernova studies for years to come.”

Dinosaurs invade Toronto

Dinosaurs are still alive. At least, they were for about 90 minutes at the Air Canada Centre on June 18. For a week in mid-June the BBC, in collaboration with The Creature Production Company, presented a life-sized version of their 1999 television documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs.

The show opened with Liliensternus, a small, raptor-like creature from the Triassic Period, stalking hatching Plateosaurus eggs. The dinosaur’s bumpy gait and extra (although well disguised) set of legs were the only clues that there was a human involved in its movement. The audience sat captivated, waiting to see whether the hunter would capture its vulnerable prey.

Huxley, the paleontologist host, gave geological context to the scene, revealing that the Earth’s land was concentrated in the single supercontinent Pangaea.

Before the show, I had wondered if, like in the movie Jurassic Park, scientific integrity would be sacrificed for dramatic impact. Fortunately, the BBC did an excellent job of weaving scientific facts into the show while maintaining the roaring horror that the young audience members expected.

The dinosaurs were introduced chronologically: first the Triassic Period, followed by the Jurassic and Cretaceous Period dinosaurs. During the introduction of each period, Huxley would remind the audience of the continental circumstances and their effect on weather patterns and plant and animal life.

After the Triassic Period the continents were separated and ocean currents diverted, shifting rain and storm patterns. Changing weather conditions forced the evolution of all kinds of species, from plants to mighty dinosaurs. Huxley didn’t forget about the importance of insects during these massive changes. Insects and plants dramatically affected each other’s evolution; plants provided food for insects while insects acted as crucial pollinators. Plant evolution also changed the food and camouflage available for the dinosaurs, guiding their evolution.

Even though the science was accurate, there was something missing from the dinosaurs’ interactions. In the opening sequence, the Plateosaurus hatchling was rescued by its mother. Afterwards, every herbivore being hunted by its coeval carnivore managed to escape. I kept waiting for the carnivore to win; after all, they have to eat too. Although one scene featured some Utahraptors feasting on fresh meat, the writers avoided onstage kills, probably to prevent too many young tears.

Only one non-terrestrial dinosaur, the flying Ornithocheirus, made an appearance that night. Aquatic dinosaurs were sadly missed. The deep-diving Icthyosaurs would have made a splashing hit.

Overall, the show put the story of dinosaurs in perspective. Instead of learning about individual species, the audience learned how geology, weather and species interaction guided global evolution. This kind of comprehensive thinking is vital when considering the process of evolution; considering any problem without context is futile. Current concerns, like the sudden disappearance of bees or the serious decline in shark populations, will affect humans even if it’s not intuitive how.

Walking with Dinosaurs accomplished the difficult feat of knitting an awesome, breathtaking performance with realistic and relevant science. Well done.

Rating: VVVVv