Wondering what that long lineup you saw at some point last week was for? Well, another July brings yet another successful Fringe Festival in Toronto. The 17th annual theatre extravangaza took place July 6 to 17 and boasted 134 independent theatre companies performing at over a dozen venues (including some on campus).

The Fringe enjoyed a dramatic increase in attendance this year, with full houses for several hot plays, including Hip-Hop 4 Dummiez, The Slip-Knot, and The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged). Our reviewers caught those shows and many more.

Between Takeoff & Landing
Written and performed by Michael J. Walsh
Royal St. George Theatre
Rating: VVV

Michael Walsh does a fine job of showing you what happened in Newfoundland on September 11th. Though interesting, it isn’t exactly the most significant story ever told.

Stranded in Gander, Nfld. during his flight from Dublin to New York, Walsh plays himself and his many co-passengers in his one-man show. His acting technique is refined as he moves between his characters, who are mystified by the tiny town and its quaint hospitality. We hear from his characters, but not enough from Michael himself who feels lost in the world and his acting career.

However, after the drama of getting settled in and finding a place to sleep in Gander, the rest of the plot is very much in need of conflict-the characters tend to have a Newfoundland vacation instead of dealing with the global disaster in progress.

By the end, it feels more like an elaborate introduction for Americans to Newfoundland tourism than the story it’s billed as. Nonetheless, there’s no denying a man running around jumping between well-done Irish, Newfoundland, Brooklyn, and London accents is at least really cute.-JS

The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)
Written by Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor
Tarragon Theatre Mainspace
Rating: VV

Although The Bible was one of the best-publicized and most buzzed-about shows of the festival, it proved to be less inspiring than last Sunday’s sermon from Father Joe Windbag.

The three-person show was written by the same team who created The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (which this show is dubiously reminiscent of). Again, it employs the same fourth-wall breaking and ‘Great Works of Western Civilization: Lite’ techniques as the synopsized plays of the Bard. However, where everyone likes to see the Hamlet death scene shredded with wit, there was something so basic about this production’s hilarification of the scripture that one was left wondering why the packed theatre was erupting in knee-slapping appreciation.

The problem may have been that, ironically enough, Shakespeare abridged could have more depth to its humour since audiences are more familiar with his plays than the word of God. The Bible stories highlighted in this show were essentially the ‘greatest hits’ of the Old and New Testament, and the script was able to only make one-dimensional shots at the tales.

So, was this attributable to the writers (who hitched onto the “abridged” train without much knowledge of the Bible), or was it merely dumbed down a shade for ignorant audiences? Either way, the show seemed like it could have been written by a group of drunken first-years rifling through an illustrated Bible stories book in their parents’ basement.

The cast of Tim Bolen, Elan Farbiarz, and Dave Lapsley were enthusiastic and limber, but their lack of focus was evident in transient accents and flubbed lines. So, although the show was mildly amusing, and the actors did live up to their advertised “breakneck speed,” its curious success at the festival leaves one to consider taking up the Hare Krishnas on their free lunch campaign.-BG

The Book of Liz
Written by David and Amy Sedaris
Factory Studio Theatre
Rating: VVVV

For fans of the biting story collection Me Talk Pretty One Day, The Book of Liz stands as a testament to the talent of the Sedaris family. Written by siblings David and Amy Sedaris, this show poking fun at the Amish and their cheeseballs features the grotesque and off-beat wit characteristic of the family’s other endeavours.

Set in the “Squeamish” (a.k.a. Amish) community of Clusterhaven in modern-day United States, the play details the escape of Elizabeth from the community’s tyrannical ways. Although Elizabeth has a rather disgusting glandular disorder causing her to sweat profusely, she manages to pick up jobs as a roadside Mr. Peanut, and waitressing at a restaurant staffed exclusively by recovering alcoholics.

As Elizabeth learns the ways of the outside world living with a Ukrainian immigrant family (who curiously have cockney accents, since they were taught English by a “retarded chimneysweep”) and in the workplace, she finds that even in a world of freedom she is still sometimes constrained from being herself. When the family is deported back to “Ukrainia,” Liz returns to the Squeamish village with her sassy new ways, her sense of self-worth, and the crucial ingredient to perpetuating the village’s cheeseball industry-her sweat.

The four-person cast morphed seamlessly from one role to the next, flaunting accents and mannerisms with mere moments between character changes. Though the sets were minimal and amateurish, and the conclusion was didactic (what conclusion isn’t?), the rock-solid acting made this show stand out as a definite Fringe favourite.-BG

BoyGroove
Written by Chris Craddock, with music by Aaron Macri
Tarragon Theatre Extra Space
Rating: VVVVV

Every year, the Fringe brings us at least one play that seems destined to rise above its humble beginnings. We’ve seen it before-Job: The Hip-Hop Musical went on to a successful run at the Tarragon and spawned a successful sequel; One-Man Star Wars went to Hollywood, was performed for George Lucas, and paved the way for One-Man Lord of the Rings.

This year, the festival’s undisputed smash hit was BoyGroove, a musical documenting the rise of the “world’s biggest boy band.” The show follows Kevin, the sexy one (Matt Alden, who looks like the Backstreet Boys’ Brian Littrell and has Justin Timberlake’s mannerisms down to a T), Andrew, the sensitive one (Andrew Bursey), John, the angry one (Jon Paterson), and Lance (Scott Walters), the, um, gay one, from the day they were handpicked by a shrewd manager to the day the band disbands, capturing the ups and downs of their road to stardom with bitingly satirical hilarity.

Bits of real life creep into the parody as Eminem shows up in ‘Hypetastic,’ the rapper who has a beef with BoyGroove, and Britney Spears turns into ‘Chelsea,’ Kevin’s on-again, off-again flame.

It’s all held together by song and dance numbers that are funny enough to make your sides ache, yet accurate enough to get stuck in your head the way any good boy band number is supposed to. As a bonus, all four actors can actually sing and dance-which is more than you can say for the Backstreet Boys or N*Sync. Awesome.-YS

The Dispute
Written by Marivaux
Robert Gill Theatre
Rating: VVVV

Lovers quarreling in an Eden-like setting, discovering the elation and treachery of courting-been there, done that, you say? Not this way.

For the Fringe, director Kate Lynch (who also moonlights as a U of T drama prof) revived a long-buried short comedy from 18th-century dramatist Marivaux. The text gives everyone involved a lot to work with, as two men and two women are raised in isolation and then released to see how they interact.

This poses wonderful challenges for the actors as we see the fully grown adult characters encounter their world with baby eyes. The cast was fabulously entertaining, using shrill voices and wild movement to portray their discovery of their sexuality amidst a sheltered innocence. One couldn’t help but smile while the characters fell in love with themselves and each other.

However, there are two stains left over on the script from the 18th century: sexism and racism. As funny as the women are in the play, Marivaux characterizes them as innately evil: vain, self-centered, and jealous. The white lovers also make a few jarring connections between whiteness and beauty.-JS

Hip-Hop 4 Dummeez
Written and performed by Jerome Sable and Eli Batalion
Poor Alex Cabaret
Rating: VVVV

Yo, let’s get down to bidness, y’all. Jerome Sable and Eli Batalion, formerly known as MC Cain and MC Abel as they rapped their way through stories both Biblical and philosophical in Fringe hits Job: The Hip-Hop Musical and its sequel, Job II: The Demon of the Eternal Recurrence, are back in da T-Dot, and in five simple lessons, they can show you how to go from wanksta to gangsta.

Hip-Hop 4 Dummeez, a slightly shortened remount of the show they brought to the Tarragon this spring, follows rap duo the Grafenberg All-Stars-straight-man Vowel Movement (Batalion) and his sidekick Bushman (Sable)-as they take audiences through a two-part “DVD” that aims to initiate newbies into the complex world of hip-hop. Using a simple PowerPoint presentation on a large screen as their main prop and set piece, the two performers riff on everything from dubious rhymes to hip-hop pronunciation with impeccable comedic timing, playing off each other like the old pros they are.

The show benefits from its intimate venue-while it sometimes felt sprawling and sloppy on a larger stage at the Tarragon, the tiny Poor Alex cabaret space, with its immediate access to the audience, made it easier to play into the DVD-watching premise.

With material like this, Sable and Batalion will never need bling-bling or pimped rides to remain perennial Fringe favourites-and dat’s fo’ real.-YS

The Magnificent Robertsons
Written by Lisa Brooke and Alex Kane
Robert Gill Theatre
Rating: VV

I cannot deny that I am bored with plays that tell the story of how a struggling theatre company tries their darndest to put on a show. If a company does choose to follow this well-trodden path, there really has to be a bigger twist than the old geometric love triangle.

There wasn’t anything all that wrong with The Magnificent Robertsons (helmed by and starring local Second City vets), which employed the tried and true first-person narrative, this time from the point of view of the director’s wife and stage manager, Marsha Robertson (Lisa Brooke). Using actors coming in and out of tableaux, she tells the story of how her son became involved with a struggling community theatre in Oshawa.

The characters were true to certain actor/director stereotypes, but eventually I really just stopped caring about what was going on. A highlight was a little bit of edge courtesy of the character Alan Sabian, continually typecast by the color of his skin.

For those who have been involved in community theatre, this show certainly resonates. But just because it looks likes fun to perform doesn’t mean it’s fun to watch.-JS

The Making of Jurassic Park: The Musical
Written by Scott Andrews, Scott Sykes, Darryl Hinds
Rating: VVVV
Tarragon Theatre Mainspace

Although the title may misleadingly suggest a full-blown hour of song and dance, prehistoric style, what the three-man production does present is equally as entertaining. Sketch comedy troupe Electric Boogaloo recreates the experience of watching a pre-production featurette for the titular fictional musical.

Solipsistic director Patrick’s interaction with musical director Andrew and head raptor Timmy is delightfully one-dimensional. However, the way sensitive Andrew and Timmy react with the temperamental Patrick is really where the fun starts.

Timmy, having known Andrew and Patrick from a previous production in which he was cast as a dancing spoon, is the most effeminate and untalented prancing velociraptor to ever grace the stage. The first ten minutes in which we encounter Timmy are hilarious and encourages inappropriately loud laughter, but the momentum isn’t quite maintained throughout (although the remainder of the show is still cute and clever).

More actual music and dancing would have kept up the pace, but maybe that’s too much to expect from three dudes in a Fringe play. Regardless, it’s clear these guys had an awesome time putting together the show, and that carries over to the audience experience.

Clearly, any collaborators who work in both bathroom humour (Patrick threatens to eat Andrew’s fingers and excrete them, so he will play with poopy fingers) and a full-cast song and dance preview (featuring a dinosaur aria) isn’t in it for the glory so much as the unabashed fun.-BR

The Slip-Knot
Written and performed by TJ Dawe
Robert Gill Theatre
Rating: VVVV

Over the past few years, TJ Dawe has become better known for directing friend Charles Ross’ brilliant Fringe hits One-Man Star Wars and One-Man Lord of the Rings than he has for his own work. Back with his own show, Dawe proves why he was a festival veteran long before Luke Skywalker and Frodo took the stage.

In the The Slip-Knot, he tells the stories of three dead-end jobs from his past (truck driver, Canada Post mail tracker, Shoppers Drug Mart stock boy) with honesty and wit, intertwining the tales in a fast-talking, high-energy saga that doesn’t let up for a second throughout its 90-minute run.

Amidst musings on suburban drivers, postal regulations, and drugstore euphemisms, the show finds its heart in side plots-a teenaged long-distance relationship, a quest to sell a used van, and an attempt to find a place to live in pre-condo-mania Toronto-that manage to capture the moments of humanity amongst days of meaningless labour.

With nothing but his voice, body, and a few great stories, Dawe holds his audience captive, giving a performance that is a testament to just how effective great acting, backed by a sparkling script, can be-even without Jedis or hobbits.-YS

Soap Opera
Written by Ralph Pape
The Poor Alex Theatre
Rating: V

Ralph Pape, Samuel Beckett is on the phone, and he’s pissed. Not only did you rip off his existential masterpiece Play, you effectively turned his grand slam into a strikeout.

Soap Opera, which gives no credit (official or otherwise) to Beckett’s conceptually identical 1964 work, presents the audience with the disconnected confessions of a shattered love triangle. Lucy, Johnny, and Sharon pronounce their woes to an omnipresent interlocutor through a series of monologues which in time reveals their lame, overly simplistic, and idiotically emotional circumstances which led them all to be stuck in their current state.

Of the three actors on stage, only Carolyn Goff (Sharon) looked liked she was talented enough to deserve something better. Sui Ta (Lucy) seemed to just be blandly reciting lines and Teza Lwin (Johnny) came off as way too gay to be a believable heterosexual threat.

Directorial choices were boring as well. Where Beckett trapped his dead souls inside giant urns, director Bernadette Jones had her trio perched on stools. Costumes were especially unexciting considering two of the three were supposed to have died violently. Why not make them actually look dead, complete with gaping gunshot wounds and tons of blood? Jones misses multiple opportunities to make this flawed theatrical fraud visually interesting.

The last and largest problem with this miserable misappropriation is that Lucy isn’t actually dead. She survives the violent implosion-but how, or better yet, why is she imprisoned in another plane of existence with Johnny and Lucy? At least Beckett’s absurdity was consistent.-JB

Thirteen Over Seven
Written By Jes Watson
The Poor Alex Theatre
Rating: VVVVV

What do you do when the play you’ve written for the Fringe isn’t quite ready? Well, if you’re playwright Jes Watson, the answer is: burn the sucker and go the improv route.

The rules of Thirteen Over Seven are simple: upon entering the theatre, audience members complete a survey detailing what they would like to see on stage. Comic duo Watson and Mark Andrada are bound to fulfill as many of these requests as time permits; they can never shirk, and they can never decline.

With help from the lighting and sound tech, a smoke machine and half a dozen bottles of cheap champagne (distributed to the crowd freely throughout the course of the performance), the brave and ridiculously talented duo plunge headlong into the strange and downright disturbing imaginations of their audience.

The result is a dark collage of short improved pieces tied together by a casual, off-the-cuff dialogue with the audience that was part AA meeting and part parlour game. All of it succeeds at being incredibly entertaining and funny, and some of it actually borders on sheer genius.

Over the course of two performances (it’s never the same twice), I was treated to an interpretive dance piece depicting the rise and fall of the British Empire, partial nudity (male and female), something being thrown incredibly hard, a spontaneous break-out into The Price is Right (complete with audience members being called to “Come on down!”), a backflip, a hilariously moving clown piece set to “On My Own” from Les Miserables, a swift kick to the shins, a reviewer from the National Post being forced to write his review on stage, an actual spiritual breakthrough, a Tony Danza impression, and multiple glasses of free bubbly.

Call it an open-format stage play, user-based improv-or better yet, a theatrical anomaly-either way Thirteen Over Seven succeeds in ways it likely never even intended to. Bravo-easily the best play I saw at the 2005 Fringe Festival.-JB

Wonkytalky
Written and directed by Jimmy Hogg
Tarragon Extra Space
Rating: VVVv

Wonkytalky is a cute, and funny clown piece about three children who exist in their own universe. Self-sufficient between their fridge, TV, and shared bed, they communicate with each other in a strange childish version of English, which has been nicely constructed to seem foreign yet understandable at the same time.

The three children, played by Emily Wurts, Mark Andrada, and Tricia Braun are hilarious as they jockey for control of the television (“division”) remote control (“sponge”) and argue over whether to have vegetables (“veges”) or hamburgers (“burgers”) for dinner.

Their innocent paradise is shattered one day when the television inexplicably and unexpectedly breaks down, and a stranger, played by writer/director Jimmy Hogg, is called in to try to help them. What follows is a hilarious interaction between the clowns and the visitor which concludes with an awesome nod to Gulliver’s Travels.

Although Hogg’s script is nearly airtight, his acting left much to be desired. His rushed lines and poor delivery missed the bar which had been set pretty high by the other three. However, the brilliant score written and performed live onstage by Mark Vogelsang was a splendid distraction from this minor flaw.-JB

The Zookeeper’s Lovesong
Written and directed by Johnnie Walker
Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse
Rating: VVVv

U of T Drama student Johnnie Walker’s play is comprised of whimsical and quirky characters: an imaginary hippie zookeeper who sings witty and melodious songs, a Hollywood b-actor who has lost the limelight, and a lovesick literate teen. These are the cornerstones of the play and they’re certainly loveable.

The problem is that not much happens with them. We learn little tidbits about all the characters that seem rather disparate and wonder how they are all going to coalesce. When they finally do, it comes as a disappointment that there wasn’t some grand purpose for it all.

Plot notwithstanding, the humor and acting is right on the mark. The mockery of the mother/daughter relationship is particularly amusing-the mother’s nagging whine is blood-curdling. The Zookeeper himself is charming as he strolls around the stage narrating, singing, and charming the teen. And he’s got a nice voice.-JS

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