Vol. 20 No. 47 • November 20 - 26, 2014 In Our 17th Year Serving Greater Hamilton


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Hamilton Fringe Festival 2014 Reviews



by Unknown Author
July 24 - 30, 2014
(Reviews by Channah Cohen, Rebecca Costie, Beverly Horton, Allison M. Jones, Tamara Kamermans, Tom Mackan, Rachel More, Katie Penrose)

Hamilton Theatre Inc.
(140 Macnab N.)


BLESS HER HEART
Production Company:
Islet Productions
    Bless Her Heart is a funny and surprisingly touching one–woman show created by Elizabeth McEachern. It is a story about a farm girl with life plans and big dreams and what happens and what it means when she finds herself in her mid–thirties, and the plans and dreams have failed to materialize.
    The writing and the story are somewhat predictable at times, but, for the most part, McEachern has crafted a script that is an interesting mix of humourous and thoughtful content.
    Young Liz is a particularly funny character –because of the writing and McEachern’s use of body language and an almost always flat (but oddly appropriate and effective) facial expression. Young Liz spends much of her time breathing heavily, slumping around and whining about farm life, escaping boredom and loneliness with the help of Threes Company and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and finding inspiration in Gone with the Wind and the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara.
    It is here that McEachern introduces an effective device: a Southern belle by the name of Belle (yes, this got a lot of laughs) who is best described as Liz’s imaginary friend and mentor. This character (and her many Southern expressions and advice) increases the show’s funny quotient works to make room for more weighty explorations.
    I think Bless Her Heart will resonate with audiences because Liz’s journey is a common one. It’s a journey that avoids all of the straight paths and tidy endings, that is marked by places of intense joy and by long stretches of fear and disappointment, and that is made bearable by humour and by the belief that it is right and necessary to carry on. (RC)

CHOOSE, BUT CHOOSE WISELY
Production Company:
Ausable Theatre (London, ON)
    Choose, But Choose Wisely is Jeff Culbert’s well–written play about a five people — all living along the Thames River in Upper Canada — and their reaction to and involvement in the War of 1812.
    The respect for both the details and nuances of history is one of the strengths of the play. Culbert manages to give the audience a thick collection of details about the War of 1812 and some of its real and known characters, including Daniel Springer, loyalist and militia captain; Andrew Westbrook, supporter of the Americans and despiser of all things British; and Tecumseh, the powerful Shawnee chief and vital ally of the British. Culbert also attempts to acknowledge the experiences of and the difficult choices made by the many, many unknown bit players in the War of 1812 and the history of Canada. They are people like Elizabeth and Joshua Applegarth, the first settlers of European origin in the Thames River Valley (an interesting fact I found while doing some digging), who struggle to choose between the dictates of their faith and their love for their new home.
    Other strengths include rich dialogue, imbued with a contemporary tone and rhythm, and a really strong cast that includes Marina Sheppard (Elizabeth Applegarth), Josh Cottrell (Joshua Applegarth), Johnny Bobesich (Andrew Westbrook), David Henry (Keezheekoni), and Chris Bancroft (Daniel Springer).
    In 2012, I went to see the Museum of Civilization’s War of 1812 exhibit: 1812: One War, Four Perspectives. It was series of poorly lit rooms that contained innocuous descriptions of a war that was anything but innocuous. Choose, But Choose Wisely does what the exhibit failed to do. It breathes life and complexity into an unknown or misunderstood chapter of the Canadian story. I think it is worth seeing for this reason alone. (RC)

DREAMS OF SUMMER’S END
Production Company:
The Dying Picture Productions (Montreal, QC)
    Dreams of Summer’s End, written by Tristan Rivé, is a challenging play that uses the pasts and presents of four interconnected people — Mark (Daniel Cristofori), Alex (Nisheeth Proshanti), Laura (Kate Maguire), and Stefan (Tristan Rivé) to explore modern sexuality and the ways in which it is expressed in and shapes people’s relationships, identities and lives.
    Rive wastes no time putting the audience in an awkward and distressing place as the play begins with an unexpected act of sexual violence. From here, the play moves sort of jarringly to a sometimes predictable but moving monologue by Mark, the perpetrator of the violence.
    And so it goes. The qualities of the early moments of the play are the qualities of the whole production: awkward, distressing, sometimes predictable, moving.
    Although this pattern and these seemingly incongruous elements can be perturbing, they also work to prevent the audience from grabbing at easy answers.
    Thankfully, these incongruities are balanced by the solid acting skills of the cast. Although each cast member contributed something unique to the production, the two stand–outs during this particular performance were Daniel Cristofori and Kate Maguire. Cristofori delivered an impressive performance that was a fine balance of intensity and fragility. His monologue and the flashback scene were two of the play’s most powerful moments. And Maguire showcased her talent for skillful shifting between different characters and moods.
    I didn’t leave the theatre with any new understandings of or feelings about sexuality, but I was and remain impressed by the courage of four young artists. (RC)

JESTER’S INCOGNITO
(Critic’s Choice)
Production Company:
HAW! Production
    “One–man show. Two marvelous stories. ... Jesters Incognito is a mash–up of comedy, music and cartooning, a dramatically hilarious recovery story that unlocks the author’s key to mental wellness.” – Hamilton Fringe
    “Two marvelous stories”? You bet! “[A] mash–up of comedy, music and cartooning” ? And it works! “A dramatically hilarious recovery story... ”? Definitely!
    Harrison Wheeler’s creation, Jesters Incognito, is both the story of Wheeler’s struggle to learn how to survive and how to live with mental illness, and the story of a team of jesters he created to help him with this struggle — jesters he becomes in this hilarious, energizing, and thought–provoking one–man show.
    I was very impressed by the ways in which Wheeler weaves the two stories together. His weaving involves a near–perfect combination of just–right music, mesmerizing images, a slideshow of his brilliant sketches and key details of his personal narrative, and unforgettable characters — all members of Jesters Incognito, a secret society of rebel artists and entertainers.
    Over the course of sixty minutes, Wheeler skillfully brings to life four super funny jesters: Mr. Meister, a cabbie and the leader of Jesters Incognito, who dispenses such sound advice as “life is a game; celebrate the madness or die”; Hum Dinger, an ESL teacher by day and wacky entertainer by night; Dingleberry, a German hipster and “angry pacifist”; and Letitia Turnstyle, a soulful cross–dressing rapper with one heck of an afro.
    Wheeler’s imaginative approach to addressing something as personal and painful as mental illness makes for both an accessible and a powerful theatre experience — an experience that leaves audiences feeling happy and thinking about human resilience and the power of art. Jesters Incognito is an inspiring feast for our senses, funny bones, and souls. You don’t want to miss this show. (RC)

THE KALAMAZOO DIARIES
(Critic’s Choice)
Production Company:
Winterhut Productions
    The Kalamazoo Diaries is a super funny and super smart play about Natalie Fingerhut, a reluctant medieval studies editor at Scholars R’ Us Press, and her experiences (real and supernatural) at the International Conference on Medieval Studies in — you guessed it — Kalamazoo, Michigan.
    The laughs start right off the hop as the play opens with monks chanting about things like the names of Ontario and Michigan cities that mark the route between Toronto and Kalamazoo and the condition of Ontario (good) and Michigan (not so good) roads.
    The laughs continue as we meet the stellar cast and their well–developed characters. Ester Arbeid plays Natalie Fingerhut, a neurotic cynic, who believes that “anything that happened before 1914 is fiction.” Joy Castro stars as Christine, Natalie’s officious boss. Adrian Gorrissen moves skillfully between three characters: a geeky and short–stepping medieval studies fan, a monk/ “monk coffee” (read: Starbucks) seller, and the puffed up Harvard medievalist, Clive Horowitz. Eric Lehmann plays Lawrence J. Rose, the socially awkward medievalist groupie, and Lars von Ellenstein, a scholar who is a strange and funny mix of arrogance and gentleness. And then there is Merle Newell and her split–a–gut characters: Buffy Duberman, a shrill promoter of all things Kalamazoo (her Michigan accent is a riot), and Freya Hildegard, an energetic brainiac with a taste for early ‘80s fashion.
    However, this play is much more than a laugh generator. Natalie Fingerhut, a first–time playwright, tuses her character Natalie’s struggle to deal with the death of her best friend Doug (David Fournier) to guide the audience through a thoughtful exploration of the effects of loss and of the struggle to know and make meaning of the past.
    The Kalamazoo Diaries is a must–see for anyone who wants to laugh out loud and experience really impressive writing, directing, and acting. (RC)

OPIE COME HOME
Production Company:
Amethyst Rex Productions
(Hamilton, ON)
     “I have personally enjoyed hearing the multitude of paths each audience member took to connect the dots of what they had witnessed. Active brains and healthy minds.” — Ameythst Rex Productions/Facebook
    This description of the impact of Opie Come Home on audience members makes my Opie experience make sense. The playwright, Ian O’Brien, does not connect the dots for his audience. In fact, he doesn’t even give us all of the dots. And the encouraging part is that Opie Come Home still managed to intrigue and impact me.
    (I think) this play tells the story of a family struggling to survive in the small world of their home — a world that is infected with fear created by a nuclear disaster and by the inexplicable departure of the father, Robert or Opie (Dave Krock). Robert? Opie? Robert Oppenheimer. A dot.
    The characters’ language use, syntax, and strange cadence is like a new (and difficult to understand) English dialect. Communication breakdown. Theatre of the Absurd. Another dot. However, despite these oddities, the three main characters — Opie’s wife, Kitty (Rachel Faber) and Kitty and Opie’s son, Terra Firma (Rebecca Reid) and daughter, Pandora (Sam Burwell) — all manage create engaging and intense performances.
    The set design, costume and make–up, and sound effects are powerful and accessible elements. There is the dark and sparsely set stage. There is a handless analog wall clock with a bright white face. There are jarring and soothing pops of colour. There are the dark–circled eyes of Pandora, Terra Firma, and Kitty, and the bland grey jumpsuits. And there are menacing sounds of a taped and scratchy monotone voice recording, television static, and the clanking of machines or trains.
    This production generates confusion and frustration, but it also challenges the audience and provides us with opportunities to make “active brains and healthy minds.”
    *Thank you to Adrian Miller, a kind stranger who gave me the Oppenheimer dot and cast/character information. (RC)

THE TRIAL OF NAOMI VERNE
Production Company:
BANDLER CORPORATION (Hamilton, ON)
    The Trial of Naomi Verne is the third play in John Bandler’s dystopian trilogy. In this installment, Naomi Verne, the ruler of the Domain of Amercian Nations, has been captured by the Empire of God and is forced to stand trial for an a crime that is not defined. The play moves between present and past and ends with a shocking agreement.
    The fine staging of this play is a highlight that worked to attract and maintain my attention. The only props on the stage were two simple chairs and a small table; however, because of the precise positioning and thoughtful movement of the actors, the space felt full and alive with energy for all sixty minutes.
    Another highlight of this production is the cast’s intense performances. Steve O’Brien is a stand–out as The Inquisitor — a character who is frighteningly detached. Brenna Rae MacNaughton plays Naomi Verne, and she moves skillfully between different versions of Naomi and between past and present. Although Andrea Adcock (Rashida) and Genevieve Jack (Tamina Maxwell) delivered solid and consistent performances, I found their characters to be bit jarring. Rashida seemed out of place, like she was borrowed from early an early James Bond movie. And Tamina Maxwell’s sultriness felt awkward.
    This might be a good time to mention that I have not experienced the first two plays in the trilogy, 59 Minutes in the Maxwell Suite and That the Multitude May Live. So, I often felt like a person who managed to stumble into the middle of a deep discussion between two friends whose pasts are intimately connected. However, even as an outsider, I was still engaged. And this certainly says something about the quality of the final product. (RC)

Theatre Aquarius Studio Theatre
(190 King William)


911
(Critic’s Choice)
Production Company:
HUMANZOO (Toronto, ON)
    Coming in at around 90 minutes, long line–ups for tickets, this play has hit sort of written into its script. A couple of guys driving home late of a stormy (heavy rain) night somewhere in Hamilton are shocked when something lethal–like hits the windshield. Screeching (great sfx, btw, from playwright/director Ehman) to a halt, the occupants, contemporary Canadian millennials, Mick and Ari, do a search. A cell phone turns out to be the projectile. Essential to the plot, cool heads do not prevail. Played with frenetic expertise by Edward Charette (Mick) and G. Kyle Shields (Ari), the opposite of cool head is more rattled head than hot head. Turns out the last number dialed is... um... sorry, spoiler alert. Writer Ehman has a firm grasp of this crime–comedy genre and takes us on terrific man/lady hunt by the all incapable buddies, Mick and Ari. Suspense, tension, laughs, and sex are all here in the mix. A cast of well– seasoned cinematic talent includes Claire Burns as Floe and Charlotte, Justin Goodhand (great handle), a striking man–handsome Detective Maddox, and Brandon Crone as effectively lurking photographer Riley. Very worth seeing and reviewer–recommended. Two more performances scheduled. (TM)

BOOTLEGGER’S WIFE
Production Company:
Savoury Entertainment (Toronto, ON)
    In a one woman show, Victoria Murdoch, captures the power of the interminable Hamiltonian, Bessie Starkman. Murdoch couldn’t have picked a better venue than Bessie’s hometown, and her performance is a must see. With elegance, she floats from scene, to costume, to scene and out again... never leaving us behind, never delaying the text. Costumes, props and design take us back to the era seamlessly and direction turns the most mundane of moves into silent heartbreak. As Murdoch shares the loss of her one possible child with Rocco, she slowly sweeps, and visually we see the spectre of a woman literally wiping away her child. This is good writing, supported by fine acting and artful directing. “Voice overs” are used effectively to conjure up scenes with Rocco, and in the end, and I won’t tell you what happens, I dare you to not want more. You’ll be googling Hamilton history. Love, betrayal, alcohol what more could you want? (TK)

I WANT TO BE
Production Company:
Sonshine and Broccoli (TORONTO, ON)
    Family Fringe actors have groupies. I encountered budding theatre lovers waiting after shows to greet the performers. This was particularly so with I Want To Be, a bold, boisterous three person (one puppet... and one guitar) show fronted by Sonshine & Broccoli. I loved seeing the performers so friendly, generous and genuine with their young fans. The awe the children had for the actors was touching, particularly the girls for the magnetic and warm Sonshine.
    The set is very spare, with only a guitar stand & large poster doubling as a screen when necessary to the action. The focus is singing, movement & music, with a very simple story guiding energetic dialogue. Each character is quite loveable: Bingo the Dog is capably brought to life, and the other half of the human duo, Broccoli, is dopey and fun (with an attachment, healthy or otherwise, to his beloved guitar).
    While other Fringe Festivals have well–established Kid Fringe programming, this is a new development area for the Hamilton Fringe. Its inclusion of family–friendly fare was coincidental in the past, but I Want To Be blazes a trail in a clearly needed direction. It’s an engaging spectacle that provides the youngest Fringers with quality entertainment.(AMJ)

LIFE THROUGH FIRE
Production Company:
Bee Right Back Productions (Hamilton, ON)
    Life Through Fire was written, directed and produced by Bryan Boodhoo and Bee Right Back Productions. As the first show of my Fringe 2014 experience, it set the bar really high. In the principal role of Camilla MacIntosh, Heather Baer is worth the price of admission all on her own. Baer is an award winning actress in local community theatre and easily weaves this romantic and tragic tale throughout an hour performance. She’s in total command. Dan Sanderson, as her lost husband Heinrich MacIntosh, supports in a successful minor role. Challenges in this production present themselves in the areas of blocking, sound, lighting and set design. With the smallest of innovations in these areas, the quality of this production would soar. If all set pieces remain on stage in a collage of their various encounters, for example, the need to move set in and out awkwardly is completely removed. Then, only space and lighting would define their memories, increasing production flow and mirroring Camilla’s collection of thought... everything is in the mind at once, past, present, hopes of the future. Boodhoo has written a clever and haunting play which cries out for a future presentation in film. Perhaps this can be its next incarnation: great performances, lovely story, and high quality. (TK)

LOVE WITH LEILA
(Critic’s Choice)
Production Company:
Unveiled Productions (Victoria, BC)
    You may recall Leila visiting the Fringe last year in Izad Etemadi’s production of Borderland. This year she has a whole show to herself and a lot to say. Leila is a command performance. If you miss it, you’ll regret it. What does Leila talk about? What could an “ugly” Persian woman from a protective and judgemental family offer as advice to our high tech millennial audience? It’s all in the minutia of life: the cleaning, the obsessing, the singing, the dancing and the accepting. As a performer, Etemadi, could weave a tale about a hang nail and keep his audience breathless. It’s clear his audiences adore him. When Leila asks the audience to dance, there isn’t a second delay and the house is on their feet willing to do her bidding. That is power. That is Leila. You’ll see her journey and strangely your own. Have you ever waited for a text? Waited to send a text? Wondered if you were good enough and who would love you? Leila will have you in stitches at the sight of your own ridiculous behaviour. When it’s all over, you’ll be happy for Leila and happy for yourself and you’ll accept that invitation to dance even if you do it alone in your cleaning gloves. All that in one hour! Next year: Leila runs for public office? Perhaps (TK)

ROCKGARDEN PARTY!
Production Company:
Little Fingers Music (Toronto, ON)
    Far from a walk in the park, child–focused theatre is as challenging as grown–up theatre. Creating good stories that engage audiences is an achievement, no matter the demographic. Family Fringers, visit ROCKgarden.
    Ours was a smallish house with four little people ranging from outgoing to reserved. We found a story of perfect pacing & length. ‘Jack–in–the–Green’ is the worried tree guardian with a wonderfully resonant delivery. ‘Skaterdude’ is a self–absorbed city dweller who exudes a mellow vibe. ‘Earth Angel,’ a creature whose metamorphosis occurs onstage is energetic and sparkly without overdoing it. It’s grim when kid show actors are shrill or falsely enthusiastic. Not so here! Each is flawless. Skaterdude was exceptionally receptive when he distributed an instrument to Dad to avoid overwhelming the quietest child.
    Music and movement are central. Participation in the cleverly named ‘moss pit’ is encouraged without pressure. Each set item is useful to the eco–friendly plot. Veils to represent smog and a ribbed cylinder for the caterpillar’s body were charming; I saw elements that could be easily integrated into the children’s own play. And I had my own gleeful moment when Jack uttered the classic line, “Why don’t you make like a tree and leave?” Satisfying. (AMJ)

ROMEO & JULIET: AN ESCAPIST COMEDY
Production Company:
Make Art Theatre (Hamilton, ON)
    Several dozen Fringe goers all alike in dignity walk into a performance of Ryan M. Sero’s Romeo and Juliet. An hour later they emerge weak, faint, exhausted, barely able to walk unsupported, gasping from laughter, and head for the nearest bar. The Bartender says, “Don’t tell me. I know. It’s Romeo and Juliet at Aquarius, right?” Indeed it was. Bars and bistros in the Fringe area are staffing comedy recovery teams to give aid to the stricken. This kind of home–grown theatre of absurdity has been coming along well in our area, and in this production, it’s showing sturdy maturity. Since I last saw Sero, who wrote and stars in this show, a Fringe or so back in something called Bieber Fever, he’s taken the genre, tightened the format, drilled his company, and Romeo and Juliet shows it. This is A–list stuff and well deserves the buzz and the line–ups it’s getting. The company moves as one, the variety of their skills bottomless. Let me acknowledge them ... Laura Ellis, Esther Huh, Tyler Brent, Annalee Flint, and Sean Emberly... multi–tasking and multi talented all... but worth the parking alone is the amazing comedy genius of Ryan Sero. See this production. Do it. (TM)

Citadel Theatre
(28 Rebecca)


A HOME FOR MARGARET
Production Company:
Haywain Theatre (Hamilton, ON)
     A Home For Margaret shines a light on the Golden Years, and argues that they’re more gilt than gold. Angry about living out her days in a nursing home and bitter over her children’s neglect, Margaret spends her days bickering with her husband, berating her caseworker, and using the phone as a weapon to drive her distant children even further away.
    This isn’t new territory — A Home For Margaret evokes memories of The Stone Angel, The Gin Game, and On Golden Pond to name just a few. Margaret is increasingly lost in memory, and as she and her husband Robert, and later their daughter Evelyn, reminisce about the past and the family home that had to be sold, we learn more about what made Margaret the women we see. Unfortunately, we never get a glimpse of the Margaret her family must have known before tragedy and loss embittered her. Her unhappiness is so palpable and her manner so unpleasant that you’re left wondering why anyone would stay with Margaret, and why you should’ve spent the last hour getting to know her.
    A Home For Margaret also falls into the classic theatre trap of telling, not showing. Due to the limited mobility of the characters (itself a plot point) the play is very static, with the dialogue imparting virtually all the information. Despite the best efforts of the actors, A Home For Margaret doesn’t offer anything but clichés abut aging and doesn’t show enough facets to Margaret to make her worthy of our attention.(RM)

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
Production Company:
Red Pants Productions (Hamilton, ON)
    Behind Closed Doors has an important message and they’ve clearly gone to great lengths to make sure that they deliver it correctly — partnering with the Sexual Assault Centre for Hamilton Area (SACHA) to make sure that their story of a young woman struggling in an abusive relationship gives the right advice and brings attention to the support services available to people in similar situations. However, sometimes it feels less like a new musical than it does an after–school special about why to leave your jerk boyfriend.
    The best part of Behind Closed Doors is the music. The songs are lovely, and do an excellent job revealing the characters inner thoughts and motivations. The performances get stronger as the play goes along. Eliott Shams in particularly does an excellent job going from loveable ginger doofus in the first scene to terrifying abuser. Kelsi Hopkins is strong and consistent as Baby, and Megan Janssen is a highlight as frenemy Maddy (her song was my favourite as well). Michael Johnson and Gigi Inara round out the cast in smaller but still essential roles.
    There’s a lot of hard work, creativity, and passion on display in Behind Closed Doors, but the script never really rises above cliché. This is a story we’ve seen before, and Red Pants Productions has all the tools here to make something really relevant with a bit more work. (RM)

FAST FOOD LOVE: THE MUSICAL
Production Company:
Big Bang & Company (Hamilton, ON)
    It’s difficult to tell who’s having more fun at Fast Food Love: The Musical, the audience or the cast. Fast Food Love is raunchy, over–the–top, and full of topical references that will make no sense in 10 years. And yet, it’s got clever and catchy songs and a cast who are so committed and so obviously enjoying themselves that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the fun.
    Fast Food Love: The Musical chronicles the last days at Chicken’s Hit Wings, an independent fast food restaurant about to be closed down in favor of corporate competitor Juicy Fried Chicken (JFC). The staff are all misfits, but they band together to try and save their restaurant through a series of wacky theme promotions and celebrity appearances. Along the way there’s lots of time for absurdist jokes, physical comedy, and even a tender moment or two. Each and every cast member is given a moment to shine and none disappoint. The characters are consistent, and while they might be stock types (The stoner, the pervert, the feminist, etc) they’re all given enough personality that they never become one–note.
    The laughs came freely at the performance I attended and if the show had been longer and had allowed for some of the songs to be reprised then I’m sure we would have been singing along. Fast Food Love: The Musical follows such shows as Urinetown or Spamalot in the tradition of broad musical comedy, and lives up to its predecessors.(RM)

MOMMY'S MASK
Production Company:
Renurg Productions (Oakville, ON)
    There is a fascinating play inside Mommy’s Mask — all about grief, the power of art, and how relationships can fracture in the face of tragedy. Unfortunately this is undercut by the implication of the supernatural that leaves you wondering what exactly Peter Gruner is trying to say with this play.
    Tom and Kathy are an average working–class couple dealing with an unthinkable tragedy: the abduction of their daughter Lizzie. Mommy’s Mask depicts the year following Lizzie’s disappearance as Tom and Kathy struggle with the death of hope, the pain of loss, the judgments of their friends and neighbours, and ultimately each other. Kathy is convinced to take a Mask Theatre class in order to get her mind off her missing daughter and as she becomes more and more obsessed with her mask, which she believes allows her to channel Lizzie, she alienates Tom further and further.
    A.J. Haygarth as Tom and Julie Pierias as Kathy are quite good — I believed that they were a loving couple and I felt their grief. Haygarth is particularly good at conveying Tom’s conflicting feelings about his wife. Pierias does an excellent job as a grieving wife and mother, and her transformation into 7–year old Lizzie when she puts on the mask is heartbreaking. The rest of the cast round out the show by playing virtually everyone else, and acquit themselves admirably, but it’s Haygarth and Pierias who get the most to do and they make the most of it.
    But in the end Mommy’s Mask left me confused. There are a lot of ideas here and I think more workshopping would make the playwrights intentions clearer. (RM)

OUT TO LUNCH
Production Company:
Half Second Echo Dance Collective (Toronto, ON)
     Out To Lunch is an anthology of three contemporary dance pieces conceived, choreographed, and danced by the Half Second Echo Dance Collective. It opens with Dance Dance Evolution, a Richard Attenborough–meets–Star Trek fantasia about a stranded “astronaut/explorer/dance historian” observing an alien species on a mysterious journey. Dancers Justine Comfort, Irvin Chow, & Denise Solleza fully inhabit the odd shapes and strange movements of the “Muffala” and they are able to give each of their alien characters a distinct identity and personality. The narration is humorous and does an excellent job of setting the stage, but I found myself wishing that it had been pared down, letting the dance tell more of the story.
    The second piece, Half A Dozen Dreams, is a more traditional contemporary dance, but it provides Half Second Echo with a chance to show off their technique and versatility. Highlighting each dancer individually within the group, it is full of striking and vulnerable moments.
    The last piece, Misfits, is similar to Half A Dozen Dreams in that it gives each dancer a chance to shine on their own within the larger company, but that’s where the similarities end. Half Second Echo are clearly all strong dancers and it’s in this piece that we see that they are strong actors as well, each creating a unique character who still seems to fit with the rest.
    Out to Lunch feels like a tasting menu of what Half Second Echo is capable of; I’d love to see more..(RM)

PLACES
Production Company:
Broken Soil Theatre (Hamilton, ON)
     I really liked Places. It’s funny, heartfelt, creative, and speaking as someone who dropped out of theatre school twice (while still loving theatre) I can tell you it’s very true.
    Places is about being lost — about knowing what you want but not how to get it and not being sure you deserve it. Alex (Evan Mulrooney), Jason (Michael Pearson) and Rebecca (Rachel Estok) are all in their first year of university and experiencing dissatisfaction in different ways. They have parental pressure to cope with, personal tragedy, self–esteem issues. They reminded me of myself, of my friends, but they are fully–realized characters who stand on their own feet. The actors are all very fine, and I genuinely believed that these people had history, that they cared about each other. Their motivations are clear, as are their demons. There are no false moments.
    I would like to particularly mention Michael Pearson as Jason. All three actors do excellent work, but Pearson stands out. He veers between jollity, anger, pain, and love seamlessly, and his drunk acting never rings false.
    The choice to stage Places a vista is a wise one. The meta–theatrical elements enrich the play and offer a deeper understanding of the characters. Places is unique and clever, and well worth seeing. (RM)

STORM AND SILENCE
(Critic’s Choice)
Production Company:
Form Contemporary Dance Theatre (Burlington, ON)
    Storm & Silence by Form Contemporary Dance Theatre is beautiful, lyrical, sophisticated, and a pleasure to watch. Form have created an utterly unique piece about myth, memory, and history that combines dance, spoken word, live and recorded music, and creative lighting design and staging that plunges the viewer into a magical and sinister dreamworld.
    Taking inspiration from the life of a dancer in WWII and GDR era Germany, Storm & Silence offers commentary on life in the maelstrom of world events. The entire company is fantastic, and all the different elements come together in a holistic way. This is a very mature work that would not look out of place next to the best of contemporary dance theatre.
    Storm & Silence is preceeded by a short piece called I:Solo. Performed by Lisa Emmons, choreographer of the longer Storm & Silence, it’s full of striking imagery and does a good job of setting the mood for the main program.
    Often times the joy of Fringe is seeing diamonds in the rough. Storm & Silence is no diamond in the rough, but instead a polished gem of flawless quality. Form Contemporary Dance Theatre is a force to be reckoned with and Storm & Silence is an exquisite introduction to their work. (RM)

Citadel Theatre Extra
(28 Rebecca)


A LANGUAGE FOR DOGS
Production Company:
Outrun The Mill (Toronto, ON)
    It’s easy to admire Outrun the Mill, the young company responsible for A Language for Dogs. They’ve crafted an ambitious and fascinating piece about gentrification, poverty, the relationship between Hamilton and Toronto, and Hamilton’s relationship to itself. Using the techniques of devised theatre to tell a non–realistic story, A Language for Dogs is unlike anything else I saw at the Fringe Festival.
    Commencing with a walking tour under the auspices of Relic Reality, the audience is led from the Citadel theatre to the real location — an empty storefront on James Street North. There three cutthroat (literally) real estate agents do battle with each other and with a previous resident over the space they are physically in, and by extension the psychic and spiritual space we all occupy.
    The issue of gentrification in Hamilton’s downtown and the influx of Torontonians and what that means for the city is an extremely complex one, and one that people in this city feel passionately about. As a lifelong resident of downtown Hamilton I know that there is more to the story than is presented in A Language for Dogs. But Outrun the Mill are young artists tackling big questions and they’ve done so thoughtfully and with passion. The conversation I had leaving A Language for Dogs was a great one, just like the play that inspired it. (RM)

MILLS HARDWARE
(95 King E.)


CARBON COPIES
Production Company:
Little Black Afro Productions (Hamilton, ON)
    After the brilliant work Little Afro Theatre presented at last year’s Hamilton Fringe, my expectations for this year’s production were quite high. I was not disappointed. The players in Carbon Copies deliver performances that are intense and committed.
    As the play opens, a young man says, “If I met a 4–year–old version of myself and told him about my life, I would terrify him. I want to go back.” In a sense he gets his wish, but not really. He goes back but not to his life. In the present, there’s another character, a troubled young woman debilitated by anxiety and self–loathing. “I’m trying to like me” but there’s “nothing I can see worth saving.”
    While developing rolls of film for a photography project, Aaron is sucked into an elsewhere world where people are trapped in a Groundhog Day–like existence. There is a young woman who reads the same paper again and again. Another who drives around, never getting to where she wants to go, and another sits staring at an image floating on the water. There’s a young man who tries to catch a baseball but fails every time and another young man trying without success to teach people in his neighbourhood to shoot fireworks up not sideways.
    Aaron’s presence disrupts the pattern, at first just slightly. But when he unsheathes his sword called the present everything changes. The people are liberated from the pictures in which they have been stuck.
    The characters freedom songs are sung as spoken word poems delivered from the top of black boxes. The players speak their words with power and focus. (Charles and Kano are so focused that not even the sounds of a protest outside the theatre doors are able to push them out of their rhyme and rhythm. Very impressive).
    These young actors are amazing. They speak and move with an authority and maturity beyond their years. (BH)

THE GREAT CANADIAN TIRE MONEY CAPER
Production Company:
Local Rascal Productions
(Toronto, ON)
    It requires some fancy tale–twisting to convince anyone that financing an album with Canadian Tire money is anything but fiction. The artist must be born; “work” must be redefined; money––what it means and what it does—reimagined, and a community formed to bind all this together. But Corin Raymond is a captivating storyteller. Not so much in that fairy dusted “transport–you–to–another place” way, but in that relaxed “sharing–a–beer–with–Buddy” way. It didn’t take long for me to believe he could conjure up all these things.
    As he tells stories about selling his Super Pickle comic books door–to–door and performing his machete juggling act, I witnessed the birth of the artist. Passersby pitch coins into his hat, showing their love for the “work.” Busking–earned coins in a guitar case become doubloons, a pirate’s trove. While counting and stacking loonies, toonies, one– and two–dollar bills at a kitchen table, the “n’er–do–well” grandson morphs into a wage–earning worker and the judgemental, old Presbyterian woman becomes a little girl again. Magical money does exist.
    There’s no huge leap from here to finding a recording studio where one can pay with Canada’s unofficial, second currency. There’s nothing strange about thousands of Canadians wrapping their stories, pieces of their lives, around rolls of 5–, 10–, and 50–cent Canadian Tire bills and sending them to some random guy who wants to make a record.
    On my way out of the theatre, I reached into my wallet for the five, 5–cent Canadian Tire bills I’ve been carrying around for God knows how long. I wonder if... (BH)

ON THE ROCKS
Production Company: Windmills Theatre (Hamilton/Burlington, ON)
    In near–darkness, a heavy–set, unkempt man, sits at one end of a table and a cadaverously–white woman sits at the other end, a frighteningly cold expression on her face. A wild–haired woman bounds into the room, greets the man at the table and takes a seat next to him. The man recounts the story of his tussle with the Green Tiger, the story too–liberally seasoned with profanity.
    We soon learn that the three assembled are Supervillains: the crass, foul–mouthed man is Pumpkinhead; the hypermanic woman, Scarlet Harlequin, and the woman in white with the icy stare and icier disposition, Captain Blizzard. The three are waiting, not so patiently, for someone else to arrive. A loud pop signals the entrance of their friend and esteemed colleague, Dr. Hornet. With the broad gestures and exaggerated vocal intonation befitting a Supervillain, Dr. Hornet announces that he has a scheme, a solo scheme for which he needs their approval. Dr. Hornet is getting married. Unfortunately, he says, “There are... .complications with the union,” and those complications that have to do with “her profession that stands at odds with our own.” His betrothed is a... Superhero, a member of “The Force.”
    But there’s no superhero sound effect. The story shifts out of the comic book realm of fiendish plots and into a very human realm where perceived betrayal causes sadness, hurt, and disappointment.
    There’s great dramatic potential here, but that potential is not realized. The energy evaporates. By the time Captain Blizzard offers her blessing to her friend, there’s no air in the room.
    As playwright, Gregory Cruishank tells us in his notes, “villains are people too.” Unfortunately, introspection and neediness can make mere mortals incredibly boring. (BH)

PRINCE CHARMING: MISSING PERSON
Production Company:
Green with Envy Productions (Toronto, ON)
    Prince Charming: Missing Person takes us on (yet another) trip to the land of “once upon a time... “ and “happily–ever–after.” The stock characters are there: the Princess, the maid, the Prince. As the play opens, Prince Charming of Ikea calls out to his Princess and draws near to declare something to her. We know –– more importantly, the Princess knows –– what comes next. The Prince will declare his undying love for Princess, and Princess will reach her “happily–ever–after” without a single dragon or rival suitor slain. That can’t happen, so fast–forward six months. Princess is on a bender, drowning her sorrows in a dimly–lit bar. (Too dimly–lit, actually. Frank, the bartender is barely visible). Princess and bartender, Frank are joined by the oversexed Maid Mary of Whatnot who is in search of a man who “smells like stability.” Frank already has his “happily – ever – after,” a snuggle–toothed, black–eyed convict. Maid Mary finds hers. And with the return of Prince Charming of Ikea there is renewed hope that Princess will finally have her “happily – ever – after” too.
    The broad, overwrought gestures and intonation of the Prince (Matthew Krist), Princess (Laura Kyswaty) and Maid Mary of Whatnot (Jennifer Wren) make merry the audience. Emails and texts sent with the sound of carrier pigeons in flight and the invocation of things “Ikea” are clever and amusing: particularly the post break–up return of the Allen key and mention of “sad Swedish statistic,” the couple that goes to Ikea happy and leaves in tears. These elements do add something fresh(ish) to this tired genre of the fairy tale spoof, but after seeing Prince Charming: Missing Person, I am left weary from yet another trip to the land of “once upon a time... ” and “happily–ever–after.” (BH)

TOMES
Production Company: Secretly Illiterate Theatre (Toronto, ON)
    The initial drama is fabulous! Fantastically–ominous, grand chords play. From the back of the darkened stage five hooded figures move upstage.
In sonorous tones one player sets the stage for the improvisational magic Tomes is about to perform. “We read without reading; write without writing. We will destroy books we have never read... and never will.” And they proceed to improvise a play based on a fantasy novel randomly chosen by an audience member. The process is fascinating. Knowledge of the plot, characters, and setting is based only on the reading “blurb” from the back cover and cover art on the front cover of the paperback. Monday night’s novel was Tales of Timerus: Wolves of the Gods.
    The truth is that although the Tomes players haven’t read this particular fantasy novel, they clearly have read many. This looks like a group who spent their teen years in a perpetual game of “Dungeons and Dragons,” and steeped themselves in the all things Tolkein: hobbits, wizards, and gold rings. They certainly know and can easily fill in the contours of any fantasy story.
    Despite all this, members of the audience, including me, were hard–pressed to applaud at the end of the performance. Tomes’ Monday evening performance was a disaster and the players knew it.
    One member of the troupe came to the front of the stage and said something like, “If you didn’t like the play, tell all your enemies. They will feel pain they’ve paid money to see.”
    I left thinking about my worst enemy. (BH)

XOXO: THE RELATIONSHIP SHOW
Production Company:
Two Juliets (Oakville, ON)
    XOXO is a clever and thoroughly–entertaining show written, directed, and performed by Meghan Chalmers and Franny McCabe–Bennett: the two Juliets.
    The Juliets present, reflect, and comment on a broad range of relationship scenarios: the childhood party game, “Seven minutes in heaven”; the TV show, “The Bachelor”; the story of the “First Kiss” (actually “Three, First Kisses”). They even throw in a scene from Romeo and Juliet to demonstrate their classical theatrical “chops.”
    At one point in the show, Meghan and Franny sit down to write their profiles for an online dating site. One says to the other, “I don’t really want to find someone on here. They could be... ” Together they compile a list of unsuitable prospects that starts with the most frightening, moves through the vaguely disagreeable, and on to the simply outrageous. They could be... a stalker, murderer, psychologist, robot, dinosaur, lactose intolerant, worst of all... gluten–free.
    Presented in monologues and songs, the Juliets’ feminist critique asks us to challenge our sexual politics, to think about we want, why we want it, (and with whom). The songs that riff on pop songs are incredibly witty, thought–provoking, and beautifully–sung. The harmonies are glorious! One of the most hysterical songs is one that riffs on a Brittany Speers tune. “Oops, You Did it Again” is the Juliets’ commentary on the “dick pic,” the latest form of social media–facilitated sexual harassment. After the well–warranted applause, the Juliets thank the audience for supporting a feminist song about consent.
    Sitting beside a group of mom with teenage girls was fascinating. They were laughing, but not too hard. (BH)

BYOV 1: The Players’ Guild
(80 Queen S.)


THE BELL RINGER
Production Company:
Bending Reality Productions (Hamilton, ON)
    Darkness. Almost. Thick, heavy ropes descending from the ceiling, touching the stage floor, and forming the shape of a cylinder. A slight person sitting cross–legged, in the centre of the hanging ropes, and writing in a notebook. Complete darkness. Briefly. Then a light on the slight person with the notebook. A young man.
    This is the haunting and brilliantly staged opening of The Bell Ringer, a thoughtful play about fear, loneliness, damaged bodies and minds, and power – the power to control and to hurt and the power to break free and to heal.
    The Bell Ringer, written and directed by Cameron Love, Jessica Marshall, Concetta Roche, and Taryn Crankshaw is inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The play is about Caleb (Philip Krusto), an 18 year–old boy with a physical disability, who struggles to free himself from the weight of past experiences; his abusive adoptive father, a priest, Claude Frollo (Charles Wallace); the isolation of his disability and his home in a bell tower (made of rope); and his inner fears. Caleb’s only real comfort is the companionship of his kind tutor, Em (Julie Diab).
    The writers create interesting thematic layers by using other characters to explore the struggle to break free of damaging and confining expectations and experiences. Claude Frollo is tormented by the conflict between his faith and his desires, and Warren (Danny Johnston) is a young “war hero” who returns broken, mentally and physically, and battles to reconcile his pre and post–war self.
    For the most part, the cast members deliver solid performances. It’s not a perfect production, but the writers, directors, and cast should be praised for their creative re–imagining of Hugo’s novel and for their inspiring exploration of universal themes and contemporary experiences. (RC)

THE REAL MEATBALLS
Production Company:
Hi–D Theatre (Hamilton, ON)
    Bless me Hamilton Fringe, for I have sinned...
    I expected this show to be a slog and a bust. Why? The title, for starters. The Real Meatballs? C’mon. And the summary? A recipe for disaster.
    I am delighted to confess that I was terribly wrong. The Real Meatballs is a fast–paced farce that keeps the audience guessing and chuckling — from beginning to end.
    The Real Meatballs is about a get–rich–quick scheme that involves meatballs, cooking lessons at villa, and reality television. What starts as a simple plan turns into a series of very funny encounters (between six characters) and plot twists fueled, in part, by pent–up sexual energy that ends up being un–pent–upped. Get ready for togas, leather this and that, belly dancing, the rubbing of Roma tomatoes, and a very intimate pasta–making conga line.
    One of the strengths of the show is the memorable characters. Frank Ready (Scott Maudsley) is the right mix of slick and bumbling, Bullwinkle, and early Steve Martin. Sophia (Rosemary Doyle) is a sneaky and slightly dopey sexpot. Greta Von Trappis (Debra Hale) is the very erect (with arms almost always akimbo) owner of the villa who knows how to grab opportunities. Herbert Hunt (Brian Paul) and Felicity Drummond (Jane Miller) are hilariously uptight Brits. And Doris Whackenhammer (Liz Gordon) is the desperate and demanding “head honcho of the Snack Channel.”
    This wacky show works because of a clever script and top–notch performances by all six cast members. And it’s no wonder. According to the press release, they have “24,902 hours of cumulative farce/comedy performance time between them.” Impressed? You should be. And I hope you will be if you take time to enjoy a serving of this very funny farce. (RC)

THE YELLOW WALLPAPER
Production Company:
A Company of Players (Toronto, ON)
    In the “Director’s Notes” for her stage adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story, Kristi Boulton expresses her desire for her audience to “see the depth of Charlotte’s psychosis” and to see how Charlotte appears to the “rest of the world.” To the latter end, Boulton reworks a character or two, using them as place holders for “the rest of the world.” Henry and Rachel’s heavy–heeled pounding across the stage adds weight and impact to the medical “must not” and social “should be” voices found in Gilman’s original story. The additional character layer also produces a fault line where the partriarchal authority a physician wields abuts the force of spousal devotion. Playing the role of John, Charlotte’s husband, Michael Patricelli negotiates this space with amazing subtlety.
    But ultimately, the message of social condemnation is the same. Madness is the just reward for the woman who neglects her “natural” role as devoted wife and mother in pursuit of a life of the mind and spirit. So Boulton’s attempt to amplify the sounds and impact of social convention is not this production’s most significant offering to its audience. Instead, it is the interpretation of the wall and the woman in it.
    The tattooed “Wallpaper Woman” (Sara Granger) has no speaking part, but her angular, sliding movements behind, around, and through the wall are mesmerizing, her presence, impactful. Arguably, Carlotte’s (Hanah Itner’s) most powerful and expansive moments on stage are those shared with Granger: the slow–motion mirroring dance mid–stage, fingers extended through the wall to hold Charlotte in a slightly menacing yet comforting embrace. These beautifully–terrifying moments alone are worth the price of admission. (BH)

BYOV 2: Artword Artbar
(15 Colbourne)


RISE OF THE PRICKLY PEAR
Production Company:
Red Betty Theatre (Hamilton, ON)
    How are the political upheavals and challenges we experience in this world of ours in so many ways a reflection of our emotional relationships with others and with our selves? Rise of the Prickly Pear currently playing at Artword Theatre seems to address that question by placing a love triangle (of sorts) in the Cuba of 1958. The revolution, led by Che Guevara, is in process while a mother is facing her own inner revolution in respect to her daughter and her own life. We watch as the mother (played with great energy by Tamara Kamermans) arranges a marriage for her daughter with an (unseen) wealthy older man. The daughter (played with lovely introspection by Carla Garcia) is torn between obedience to her mother (it seems) and her attraction to Ramon, a young Cuban who has decided to join Guevara’s band. But is it simply obedience to her mother or is it the lure of wealth and social standing that ultimately convince Hermosita, the daughter, to choose the older over the younger man? The director has placed a full length mirror downstage, where Hermosita could meet herself—if she wanted to. A special highlight is the impressive performance by Nathan Bigec as he recounts his witnessing the killing by Guevara of a young follower who has betrayed him. The scene itself sets up great tension and connects well to Ramon’s betrayal not only by Hermosita but by Marianna, the mother, at the end of the play.
    Love and politics are both “prickly pears.” And it might be recalled that in 1961 Castro created the infamous “Cactus Curtain,” an 8–mile barrier to stop Cubans from escaping to the United States—which is where Hermosita and her husband are headed.
    A strong play that could easily be expanded. A must see. (CC)

TRUMPET ROMANCE: A WILD JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF MUSIC
Production Company:
Artword Theatre
(Hamilton and Burlington, ON)
    In Trumpet Romance, currently playing at Artword Theatre, Stuart Laughton, trumpet player and musician extraordinaire, takes his audience on what he affectionately calls “a wild journey in search of music.” Using narration, musical instruments (trumpets, guitar, harmonica), and a series of projected images, Laughton does, in fact, take us on a journey that is not only entertaining and filled with gentle self–irony and humour. It is also profoundly moving and ultimately challenges us to look beyond the obvious in music and to experience its very essence. The journey itself is well crafted (by Laughton and Weihs), starting with what becomes ultimately a question: “Bon Vivant.” What, indeed, is a “bon vivant”?
    In Laughton’s case, he falls in love with the trumpet as a child, exploring the possibilities of the sound he—and the instrument––can make. Playing music becomes his life, leading to a distinguished career on the concert stage, but the world of concert halls, where the beauty of music can triumph (we witness a gorgeous moment in La Scala), that beauty can also become undermined by human pride, self–interest. Besides, music is not simply an ornament for the life of the “bon vivant,” not a cultural indulgence. Instead, as Louis Armstrong said about jazz: “You can even live by it.” Classical, blues, jazz, rock, experimental—music is not simply to be consumed but to enter into. And so we accompany Laughton to Murray Schafer’s Patria Project in the Haliburton wilds and we listen and watch as music finds its echo among the trees, in the air, in the life force that transcends everything. For that is what “Bon Vivant” means.
    Trumpet Romance is an extraordinary experience: beautifully put together, performed, and not to be missed.(CC)

BYOV 3:
Workers Arts & Heritage Centre
(51 Stuart)

KOMUNKA
(Critic’s Choice)
Production Company:
Hooligans Theatre (Toronto, ON)
    The biggest compliment I can give to any Fringe show is that I want more. I definitely want more Komunka. This play deserves a second act and a bigger audience and I really hope it gets one.
    Set in the kitchen of a communal house in modern–day Russia, Komunka is angry, biting, and has the best joke about Chekov I’ve ever heard. The audience is invited to sit directly at the table with the cast and you are fully immersed in their world. All the performances are excellent and the script goes back and forth between the stories with ease, creating a fully–realised world full of real people. Andrew Pimento as Alex and Sean Pratt as Sasha were highlights for me, but they are truly first among equals.
    The weakest element of Komunka is the monologue by Man in the Box, but even this is a case of wanting more. His story of being a homeless Russain–Ukrainian in Moscow is fascinating, but doesn’t really tie into the rest of the characters. In an expanded Komunka I have no doubt that element would be included in a more holistic way.
    Komunka was my favourite piece at Fringe this year, and I hope that Hammer / Hooligans Theatre continues to develop it. I’d love to see where it can go. (RM)

BYOV 4: Gallery On The Bay
(231 Bay N.)


MODERN TIMES: ALMOST A MUSICAL
(Critic’s Choice)
Production Company:
Gallery on the Bay (Hamilton, ON)
    Playwright David Dawson offers the following as the play’s central question: ”Is it possible to love Rob Ford and Mike Duffy at the same time, and if not, well, who wants the last piece of pumpkin pie?” Whose interest would not be piqued by a play that serves up absurd questions about plump, disgraced politicians and pumpkin pie?
    Instead of Rob Ford, Mike Duffy or pumpkin pie, one gets a suicidal psychiatrist, a penniless Bay Street banker, a drunkard squeezed into a messy “romance sandwich,” and a Crisis Helpline volunteer itching for her shift to end. Two buskers come and go offering songs about the stuff of our modern times: corporate greed, Sunni and Shiite “disaffection,” the Boko Haram kidnapping. The play asks much of its audience. There’s work to do; puns, sarcasm, and metaphors to “catch.”
    Social commentary takes shape in the in–between spaces. Questions are asked and not quite answered. Cultural references and context are freely offered but their relevance rarely explained. “Is there another train coming?” “There is always another train coming.” But no train arrives. (I resist the impulse to make a Godot reference here. You can thank me later). An Osama Bin Laden lookalike does roller skate along the tracks through. The suicidal psychiatrist’s phone rings. The ringtone is the “Ode to Joy”; it’s the Crisis Helpline volunteer on the line. The drunk guy’s first call is from his wife, the next call from his suicidal mistress. The ringtone? The theme from “Mission Impossible.” Of course, the penniless banker, practitioner of “am–ness,” has no phone. Thanks to the wonderfully–textured performances of Ray Rivers and John Darling, the play’s seemingly random elements together come together. In the end, the buskers assure us that “Everything’s gonna be all right.” (BH)
Gallery Mini–Series:
b contemporary Gallery
(226 James N.)

BORDERLINE ME
Production Company:
BorderLine Productions
(Hamilton, ON)
    One woman struggling against a lifetime of demons, set to prove that she is the victor. The intense vulnerability behind actress Robin Zee’s performance had me convinced this play was based on true events before I knew that to be the case. Although somewhat uncomfortable in front of an audience, Zee clearly has the ability to share and express herself openly.
    Subject to abuse, human trafficking, drug addiction and mental health issues, Zee is a motivating personality who obviously has reinvented herself in a wonderful way. She gives brief glimpses into her experiences, however she needs to develop more of a performance style for her presentation. It was very raw and Zee’s choreographed movements were more laboured than natural; director Learie McNicolls could spend more time helping to craft her stage ability.
    The play itself is written in a very straightforward manner — some metaphorical or artistic elements in the script would result in a more theatrical product. Orange McFarland gives a lovely masked stand–up bass performance throughout as background, which was a key element for the show’s overall effectiveness. He mirrored the picture of Zee’s past as a sort of isolated, anonymous player in someone else’s game. Ultimately this is a brave performance, but it needs work. (KP)

THE CONSPIRACY OF MICHAEL
Production Company:
Reaching Symmetry Theatre
(Hamilton, ON)
    Actor and playwright Stephen Near portrays a conspiracy theorist wrapped up in his own world of heavy over–analysis, which we eventually learn is contained within the walls of his recently deceased mother’s house. The play is small in scope, beginning with Near spouting rants on standard conspiracies and ideas. There is a build–up of this characterization until much of it becomes peeled away as we realize his mother’s death has likely influenced this behavior.
    Lauren Repei plays his sister, who calls him and pleads with him to move on and start packing things up around the house. She is compassionate and begs for his reality to return to hers, for all they have now is each other. Perhaps the play is intended as an illustration of those parts of us that struggle between holding on and moving on. The sister is not devoid of understanding for her brother’s stalled mental state, however she is entirely focused on the business of going forward from the point they are at. The two reach a sort of agreement, revealing then a positive message about coming to terms with death and the importance of letting go. The performances were good but the play didn’t contain much; it could have been written with a bolder stroke. (KP)

SUITCASE:THE UNTOLD STORY OF EVELYN DICK
(Critic’s Choice)
Production Company:
Aperio Theatre (Hamilton, ON)
    This short play is an imagined cutout from the life of Evelyn Dick, Hamilton’s infamous murderess. In the scene Evelyn begins and ends by dusting up the ashes of her husband, reminiscing with sharp, scattered emotions how and why his murder occurred. She is in a small room of her apartment trying to cover up any evidence of her wrongdoing, coldly talking to her dead husband and animatedly talking to herself about the different routes she could take with regard to police testimony. Revealing a strikingly confused yet calculating and sociopathic young girl, the play is effective with its violent emotional shifts and icy underbelly.
    Megan Janssen writes, directs, and acts in this one–woman show; she has a bright presence, which works to juxtapose the events behind the story. Much like what we know of Evelyn Dick, the glamour Janssen naturally brings from within her persona ignites a dark and chilling sense of contradiction to the brutal, bloody act of dismemberment – which she is apparently capable of. The show offers a brief glimpse of what Evelyn Dick’s life might have looked like during that crucially anxious period between committing murdering and being caught. (KP)

Gallery Mini–Series:
Factory Media Centre
(228 James N.)


CAPSULE
(Critic’s Choice)
Production Company:
Theatre George (Hamilton, ON)
    This comedy about an astronaut lost in space started out seemingly rough around the edges, but it went in such an interestingly unique direction that I fell for it head over heels by the end. Michael Rinaldi co–writes and stars in this production, with the help of video footage featuring Juno Rinaldi. Peppered lightly with honest, dark moments of reflection about the isolation and loneliness, this play is styled in a goofy sort of manner that juxtaposes the reality rather intelligently.
    Michael Rinaldi’s character Captain Robert Ballantine lost contact with ground control long ago, and his sanity is dwindling faster than his powder packs of water and food. Suddenly one day he receives an unknown signal, and his screen comes to life; another astronaut who has also become lost spiraling through space contacts him incidentally. The two share an immediate friendship and become bonded by their common reality, celebrating in rather glorious fashion as they face the inevitable.
    The set is a handmade space capsule containing Rinaldi, styled with the same goofy sense of humour that works so well as an anchor for the serious moments in the rest of the play. While you aren’t intended to take anything too seriously at all, the humour wouldn’t work as well if it weren’t juxtaposed by the genuine emotions hovering underneath the situation. Juno Rinaldi gives an excellent performance on video as the other lone astronaut, which makes the show really successful. The show’s climax is to die for. (KP)

SHERLOCK & WATSON: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
Production Company:
Baby Gumm Productions (Hamilton, ON)
    Excellent writing went into this fan fiction, outshining the performances. Mark Keller plays a rather gay Sherlock Holmes, perhaps slightly too gay; the character enters the realm of caricature. It is fairly straightforward to infer the sexual relationship between the two characters simply by the title; a more subtle approach could heighten the overall dynamic and mystique.
    Early in the show a recently–married Watson enters Holmes’ quarters (that they used to share but do so no longer, to Holmes’ chagrin) to find Holmes in a cocaine–infused state of isolation and devastation. He is absolutely distraught to have lost his life partner to marriage!
    It was interesting to see a version of Sherlock Holmes that was desperate instead of totally in control, and it definitely came off. I believed I was watching ‘The’ Sherlock and Watson; these weren’t foreign characters. Louis Adams was a bit stiff in the role of Watson, which made it harder to believe that these men shared a sexual relationship. But the writing was so interesting and the subject matter so intriguing that the slightly–off performances weren’t much of a distraction. To their credit, Keller and Adams have an excellent rapport on stage. There was a seemingly deep connection between the two men which helped to sell the idea that they are in fact lovers... entirely behind closed doors. (KP)

THE SOLDIER’S LETTER
Production Company:
Wonder!and (Hamilton, ON)
    Honouring soldiers and those who have given their lives to the war effort is a noble concern, however this presentation misses the mark by quite a wide margin. Not quite a play, this show is merely a soldier sitting with his back to the audience while a tape plays. A male voice speaks, with the sounds of battle in the background, and in a clichéd melancholic tone he recites clichéd sentiments regarding the horror and difficulty of war. I’m not sure there is anything new to offer anyone here; there isn’t even any acting. I saw the opening night “performance” — and the computer screen that was projecting a war photo on the back wall actually showed the play button and counter where you could see the video’s time slowly progressing. It was unimpressive to say the least. There was no particular point that the show was trying to make; ultimately it was a non–event and needs vast re–working to become something of value. A story about war illustrating the darkness of that life would have been infinitely more effective. (KP)

Gallery Mini–Series:
Hamilton Artists Inc.
(155 James N.)


ADD FRIEND
Production Company:
a field of crowns (Hamilton, ON)
    Playwright Andrew Cromwell skillfully articulates the dilemmas we face(book) in our now social–media–styled lives in this interactive one–man show. “Who is my online persona?” he asks as he looks for a sense of clarity behind how we translate ourselves to the computer screen, as well as how we are perceived by others (some we barely know). Directed and performed by friend Andrew Gaboury, the play is designed as a sort of rhetorical discussion with the audience. Gaboury is honest, approachable and governs the tone of the conversation with earnest curiosity. When he breaks into the climactic scene it is pure energy; all physical, and delightfully brings to life his vision of his online self. Intelligently written and thoughtfully portrayed, this is a good quality show that will leave you pondering as well as smiling. Using observations and questions and a few key facts, Cromwell successfully articulates an issue that a large number of us deal with on a daily basis yet cannot quite understand. Have we become addicted to social media? Are we compulsively attracted to it? Can that be healthy? And in the end we are left with that same circling question: to de–activate or not to de–activate. (KP)

AIR
Production Company:
Tottering Biped Theatre
(Burlington, ON)
    Entirely physical and set to increasingly intense classical music, this play has no speaking parts; it is simply far too creative to be portrayed with words. Playwright and actor Trevor Copp, directed by Richard Baune, has a body ready to move, crafted by years of dance — which he uses with beautiful fluency.
    He begins by pantomiming a writer and becomes repeatedly distracted by thoughts, then he re–collects himself and tries again only to reach the eventuality of complete distraction. The use of the writer was valuable, as it provided a context for the total loss of standard reality. As the physicality builds, the size of the dreams behind the movement builds as well, in essence portraying his complete submergence into imagination. Copp’s delightful experiments are all guided by a relationship with air, enabling total freedom of size and possibility.
    The flow of his body is the central element, however it’s Copp’s facial expressions that capture the translation of imagination to thought, stabilizing the play within his own mental awareness. This results in a more whimsical experience; Copp is highly skilled with all the elements and the end product is a fresh fusion between acting and modern dance. (KP)

THERE WAS AND THERE WAS NOT
(Critic’s Choice/BEST OF VENUE)
Production Company:
Pilaf People Productions (Hamilton, ON)
    This play is a beautiful piece of art in motion. Lead actress Paula Grove uses movement and facial expression as a large part of the dramatic portrayal, and her ability to exude raw emotion is utterly breathtaking. Told with startling, effective slow–motion pantomime in the beginning and end, the essence of the show involves travelling abruptly between the warmth of familial love and the horrors of war.
    Grove portrays a matron subjected to harsh violence, yet she remains a rock for her children, providing them with a sense of stability in the onset of war and upheaval. There is not much dialogue and it is all Grove’s; the only other actor in the show is an excellently performed male pantomime role. Building full scenes around her using only her voice, movement, and one cloth as a multi–purpose prop, Grove with heart–wrenching ability creates a clear picture of the matron’s world.
    There is an honest yet haunting quality present that reminds us of life’s realities; while we experience the best of what life has to offer, we must survive the worst. The playful love we share with our family is what we fight battles for, but we cannot avoid the damage of battle. This experience was extremely moving and was my best of the entire Gallery Series. V (KP)
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