Toronto Fringe 08: ‘Mr. Fox’, ‘Crude Love’, ‘Tricky Part’ and more

by Susan Down

The Tricky PartMore reviews from the 2008 Toronto Fringe Festival, running for just one more week until July 13. Reviews include: Mr. Fox, Totem Figures, Teaching the Fringe, Old Growth, Crude Love, Nursery School Musical, The Tricky Part, and Wake, with one production getting a perfect 10 out of 10.

Mr. Fox
Rated: 9 out of 10
Venue: Factory Studio

Vancouver actor Greg Landucci plays a young broadcast student yearning to be a rock radio DJ. Somehow, he ends up working as a rock radio mascot. Like the frantic mascots at sports events Landucci presents a high-energy ( “Never stand still,” is the advice of the mascot recruiter) performance populated with a cast of vivid characters. There is Kammy, the promotions director, the nasal-voiced academic with theories on mascots, and the mascot coach who delivers advice in the style of a boot camp marine drill sergeant.

This is laugh-’til-you-cry funny, a glimpse inside the suit for the challenging life of a furry icon. Under the direction of Fringe-meister TJ Dawe, this show is tight, well-paced and hysterical. Landucci has written some terrific material and he is a great physical comic. It rocks!

Totem Figures
Rated: 7.5 out of 10
Venue: Glen Morris Theatre

T.J. Dawe is a Fringe legend after 10 years on the circuit. This is a man whom pours all of himself into his monologues, so that every time I see him I wonder how he can function for the rest of the day and why he isn’t a pool of sweat afterwards. This one is his most personal show yet as he talks about his influences, from George Carlin to Robertson Davies, and his family. Not as tight and with a wider focus than in previous years (“I don’t do segues,” he says as he leaps from subject to subject), the show still contains plenty of Dawe’s sharp human insights. There was a hint of melancholy as he admits he’s at a crossroads in his life, but that’s what makes him so appealing, his experiences are imprinted indelibly for all to see. Go for the CBC deal, TJ. We know you can do it…

Teaching the Fringe
Rated: 4 out of 10
Venue: Glen Morris Theatre

This production is another example of why you, the theatre-goer, can’t just assume a play will be great based on the performer’s reputation. With a string of hits in his quiver, Keir Cutler, has missed the bull’s eye with a new work in his Teaching series. In fact, he really didn’t have a new idea at all this year, but he entered the Fringe anyway. After a pathetic video shot in the Montreal Metro excusing him from acting in his own play, actors Darla Biccum and Barry Smith gamely take over, doing a creditable job considering the flimsy material. Bait and switch they call it in the advertising industry, and that’s not a good thing.

Cutler doesn’t bother to alter the script in his absence, so that the first part includes a commentary on Cutler’s iconic blue blazer, which his stand-in isn’t wearing. Once a writer has to harp on odd audience members as the sole conflict in the production, it’s time to recharge creatively. One of these days, someone should write a play called “Watching the Fringe,” about enduring overheated theatre spaces to listen to overrated playwrights.

Old Growth
Rated: 4 out of 10
Venue: Glen Morris Theatre

Two modern-day druids visit the Queen Charlotte Islands to see the site of the Golden Spruce, a tree earlier cut down by an eco-terrorist. Based on a true story, the play features hauntingly beautiful original music played on the flute by Aura Giles and composed by playwright/actor Alex Eddington. The action centres on the ritual the couple come to present to the dead tree. It’s a wacky (“Tree to human, human to tree,” intones Eddington) but flawed attempt at insight into the heads of the tree-hugging musicians. At the end, the play turns into an uncomfortable indictment of the modern lifestyle, and the audience is lectured by Eddington’s character. The music, sleight of hand and full frontal nudity create a confused message. In order to create real satire, the play needs more perspective, and without another character to emphasize the extreme nature of their actions, well, you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Crude Love
Rated: 8 out of 10
Venue: Glen Morris Theatre

It’s a classic opposites-attract love story: eco-activist meets blue-collar tough girl on the Alberta tar sands. Smoothly directed (by Emelia Symington Fedy) and perfectly paced, Crude Love is by turns charming and heart-breaking. Vancouver actors and playwrights Russell and Gillian Bennett do a superb job of animating their fully realized characters in a way that makes us care about them right from the start. While the ending is a little too melodramatic, this play has the makings of a longer, more substantial production. First rate.

Nursery School Musical
Rated: 6 out of 10
Venue: Factory Theatre Mainspace

The cast is brimming with triple-threat Second City talent, but the script for this new musical is as unworkable as cold plasticine. The quality is as unbalanced as a teeter-totter. The stroller boys (Brett McCaig and Paul Constable) are hilarious with their toddler-centric observations, but others such as the yummy mummies (Elodie Gillett, Sarah Slywchuk and Racheal McCaig) don’t live up to the pre-Fringe hype.

This production is trying too hard to colour outside the lines. Unfortunately, edgy attempts, especially the repeated Zionist references (the teacher character is Jewish), are in very poor taste. Others, such as “Why are Disney Princesses all such Whores?” And “I Shit my Pants” seemed to be confused or aiming for the easy laughs, and as a result they ended up sagging like a full set of Pampers.

The Tricky Part
Rated: 10 out of 10
Venue: Factory Studio

Martin Moran‘s acclaimed memoir about a young Catholic boy’s shattering sexual abuse is wrenching for both the audience and performer, South African actor Peter Hayes. Leavened with humour and insights into school days with Catholic nuns, Moran’s story establishes the innocence of his childhood and makes the later abuse seem all the more devastating. Hayes is an emotional powerhouse, literally putting on Moran’s shoes at the beginning. He handles a range of characters with aplomb, capturing the body language and bright-eyed innocence of a 12-year-old boy, as well as the self-delusion of the aging abuser.

The final scenes of confrontation by the victim as an adult are the strongest of all, never slipping into black-and-white demonizing, but instead portraying the complex emotions surrounding the abuse. A superb production.

Rated: 8 out of 10
Venue: Factory Studio

Playwright Rachel Blair has created a sharp and explosive story about filial conflict as three brothers gather for their father’s funeral. Although the characters’ motivations seem a little forced, the flashbacks slightly muddled and the plot not quite pulled together in the end, the acting was superb from Christian Bellsmith and Derek Moran. A stand-out was Frank Cox O’Connell as the youngest brother, Shane. Exceptional stage direction by Kelly Straughan gives this prize-winning play a professional gleam.

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