Megan Phillips and Peter Cavell mince no words with the name of their new Fringe Fest show, People Suck. The title is a rather broad insult, but let’s face it — we all had it coming.
Phillips and Cavell knew the scope of their project would be large when they joined forces to craft a series of musical numbers that poke fun at the many shortcomings of everyday people. In People Suck, no stone is left unturned, from flakes, to selfish lovers, to revolutionaries on the subway, everyone gets their comeuppance. On opening night last Wednesday, the show earned a standing ovation from its sold-out audience, and it is clear why. People Suck is gutsy, entertaining, and meaningful; it is independent theatre at its best.
A few hours before the show, I met Phillips and Cavell for light drinks at the Victory Café on Markham Street. As soon as we begin chatting, the pair’s rapport, which has been in the making since they began doing improv together at the University of Western Ontario a decade ago, became clear immediately in the way each builds upon the other’s ideas.
“At this point, I’ve worked with a bunch of people, and I know what I’m looking for in a [writing] partner,” says Phillips. “I think it’s really nice to set some ground rules… of where we want to go [creatively]. It’s kind of like a marriage.” Turning to Cavell, she adds, “Like, you could be my creative husband.”
Cavell picks right up on the joke: “You’re totally my comedy wife.”
Their artistic marriage seems healthy, especially given the story of how People Suck first began. About a year ago, the two of them were brainstorming at Cavell’s Toronto studio when Phillips brought up an idea for a new show. She laughs, remembering how instantly the idea clicked with Cavell. “It was literally, ‘Let’s write a song cycle!’ ‘What’s it called?’ ‘People Suck.’ ‘I’m in.’”
Adding to their momentum was the fact that each of them had already mounted successful shows at Fringe Festivals in the past. Phillips made waves in 2013 and 2014 with her all-female sketch show, Strapless Comedy, which was a hit at Fringes across Canada. Cavell, who is also a Musical Director at the Second City Training Centre, brought his musical improv chops to the Toronto Fringe with The Soaps, an improvised soap opera that had consecutive successes in 2012 and 2013.
For People Suck, Phillips and Cavell recruited some of the most beloved performers on the Toronto comedy scene, all of whom have performed at Second City and knew Cavell personally. According to Phillips, because the cast members were already friends, “[The] trust… was already there, so we could just get straight to work.”
That said, Cavell points out that with People Suck, he and Phillips were trying to do something different than the type of current-events-inspired comedy revues that populate the Second City main stage. With many of those shows, Cavell notes, “It’s good [material], but six months later it’s not topical anymore.” While Cavell has no problem with such productions, when it came to People Suck “[Megan and I] thought, ‘We want to write something that has legs to it, something that can stand on its own and be funny, but reveal something at the same time.’”
In that respect, People Suck delivers. At the heart of the show’s humour is a mismatch between form and content: the show hijacks the broadway musical style we associate with peppiness and optimism to instead convey dark truths about human behaviour. The result is sardonic showtunes like “People Suck (Except When You Want Them To)” — Allison Price’s unforgettable, Chicago-esque solo number about her inability to find a partner of any gender who is willing to go down on her.
Phillips and Cavell could have settled for stacking their show with sure-fire winners like Price’s protest song, but instead they go further, pushing the concept into experimental territory. Reviewers who describe the show as non-linear should think again, since it actually charts a clear trajectory in tone, from dark comedy through to downright tragedy. Simultaneously, we watch as the complainant of each successive number becomes increasingly aware that it is, after all, not the failures of other people we really need to worry about.
This kind of experimentation from theatre artists at the top of their game is rare, and the Fringe Fest is one of your best bets for finding it. So don’t be a flake: get out and see this show — and any others that interest you — while you still have a chance.
People Suck plays at the Randolph Theatre as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival until July 11.