With more than 150 shows to choose from, the 24th Toronto Fringe Festival is a daunting beast. The Grid’s theatre critics have bravely sallied forth and found 10 exceptional shows worth checking out. The fest continues through Sunday. Go to fringetoronto.com for tickets and info; click on the titles for individual-play showtimes.
Written, directed and performed by T.J. Dawe. Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, to July 14.
T.J. Dawe has made a career out of standing alone on a stage and talking about himself, which means two things: he’s an out-of-this-world storyteller, and he’s got some serious, deep-rooted quirks. Both are true of Medicine, in which Dawe recounts his experience at a self-discovery retreat led by Vancouver addiction physician Gabor Maté, and involving ayahuasca, the Peruvian hallucinogenic tea. But this is by no means the Fringe version of Eat, Pray, Love—because even after more than a decade of writing and performing his confessional one-man shows, there’s a certain inner demon he still hasn’t been able to confront…until now.—C.M.
U.S. Drag (8/10)
Starring Zoe Gamache, Samara Stern. Written by Gina Gionfriddo. Directed by Tom McHale. Randolph Theatre, to July 14.
American playwright Gina Gionfriddo’s shrewd, hilarious satire takes deadly aim at the cult of victimization and the Gen Y sense of entitlement. Zoe Gamache and Samara Stern play a pair of spoiled, unemployed college grads looking for easy money. In the process, they encounter the obsessive and lucrative world of victim empowerment, which includes a support group led by a misguided do-gooder (Cory Doran), and a James Frey-type author (Josh Vokey) who has turned his trauma into a bestseller. Zaw Theatre’s production lacks polish (forgivable at the Fringe), but its eight actors give deliciously absurd performances. This show is anything but a drag.—M.M.
Dirty Butterfly (8/10)
Starring Kaleb Alexander, Lauren Brotman, Cherissa Richards. Written by Debbie Tucker Green. Directed by Jack Grinhaus. Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, to July 15.
Debbie Tucker Green is a U.K. playwright in the brutal-but-lyrical tradition of Sarah Kane (Blasted). Dirty Butterfly, her 2003 debut drama about domestic abuse, is flawed, yet the language is hypnotic. So is the acting in this powerful production by Bound to Create Theatre. Lauren Brotman portrays the abused woman with a painful wariness and dazed agony. Playing the neighbours who overhear her plight, Kaleb Alexander’s compulsive eavesdropper is cringingly pathetic, while Cherissa Richards conveys a near-hysterical desperation as the woman who refuses to get involved. Directed with minimalist intensity—and a brilliant use of coloured chalk dust—by Jack Grinhaus, this is a show that deserves a post-Fringe life.—M.M.
Written and performed by Mark Shyzer. Directed by Evalyn Parry. Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, to July 14.
In this sci-fi-inflected black comedy, Mark Shyzer plays four seemingly unconnected characters: an angry Goth kid, a sex-hungry divorcee, a dying old man, and a female high-school science nerd bent on inventing a dark-matter transporter. There’s plenty of dark matter in Shyzer’s solo, along with some cheerfully grotesque caricatures and a wry wit, inviting comparisons to the films of Todd Solondz. If the show—revised since its 2009 debut at Buddies in Bad Times—is stronger in its parts than as a whole, those parts are still pretty damn funny.—M.M.
Written and performed by Tara Grammy. Co-written and directed by Tom Arthur Davies. Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, to July 14.
Tara Grammy explores the perspectives of three Iranian-Canadian characters living in Toronto: an engineer turned taxi driver, an Iranian man dating a flamboyant Spanish perfume salesman, and a young Iranian girl with dreams of the stage, named Tara (based on Grammy herself). Each narrative arc is capable of standing on its own, but the real intrigue happens when the subjects cross paths with one another, revealing the tensions that exist not only between North American and Iranian values, but among different generations of Iranian-Canadians. The play lacks resolution, but Grammy is a young performer to watch.—C.M.
Of Mice and Morro and Jasp (8/10)
Starring Heather Marie Annis, Amy Lee. Directed by Byron Laviolette. Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, to July 14.
These tough economic times haven’t spared Toronto’s popular red-nosed duo, Morro and Jasp, and to make some much-needed dough, they’re performing their own version of Of Mice and Men. As always, Jasp has a master plan and guides the clueless Morro through the story (more gently at some times than others) in a way that draws unexpected parallels with Steinbeck’s George and Lennie. The format is more structured than anything these clown performers have delivered to date, not to mention the most melancholy. But while their frivolous, improvised segments are still the strongest, it’s great to see these two aren’t getting caught in a shtick.—C.M.
Starring Sarah Carney, Jame Herbert Hazlett, Nicholas David Herd, Dylan Harman Livaja, Michael Liu, Suzanne Love, Nada Marie Christiane Mayla, Krystal Hope Nausbaum, Andreas Prinz. Directed by Judith Thompson. Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, to July 14.
Known for her gritty and dark scripts, Judith Thompson has made a habit of collaborating with real-life non-actors on her recent projects. Her co-creators in RARE are nine performers of various ages, ethnicities, and sexualities who “just happen to have Down syndrome”—as she writes in her Director’s Notes—and the play explores their pasts, presents, and futures in their own words. This is one Fringe production that is impossible to forget, if only for the unbridled enthusiasm of the performers and the moments of pure joy, rage, comedy, gravity, and above all, honesty, that come from watching them tell their own stories in front of an audience.—C.M.
[ZED.TO] ByoLogyc: Where You Become New (8/10)
Co-created and starring David Fono, Martha Haldenby, Trevor Haldenby, Byron Laviolette, Elenna Mosoff. The Annex Wreckroom, to July 15.
Some Fringe-goers wish that the festival could last for months at a time. ZED.TO, which represents the biggest Toronto venture into immersive theatre yet, will keep audiences engaged for the next four months. In this event, the department heads of the fictional biotech giant ByoLogyc have a meet-and-greet with their VIP customers (the audience), craftily revealing the characters, tensions, and plotlines that the performers have been developing over about two years. Their effort pays off—not a detail is missed. The corporate video is slick, the characters compelling, and at the end you’re jolted and left wanting more. But we’ll have to wait until the fall to see if ByoLogyc’s latest miracle pill, ByoRenew, will bring about the end of humanity.—C.M.
The Little Mermaid (7/10)
Starring the Sisters of Salome. Directed and choreographed by Sarah Skinner. Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, to July 15.
Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale told through belly dancing? It sounds crazy, but it works. As it turns out, the aquatic-themed story is perfectly suited to the Middle Eastern dance form, with its undulating bodies and billowing veils. Sarah Skinner and her Sisters of Salome troupe gracefully conjure up waves, sails, and mermaid tails—enhanced by Holly Meyer-Dymny’s gorgeous lighting—as they silently enact Andersen’s sad fantasy about unrequited love. (Note: this is not the upbeat Disney version.) Things only go wrong in the duets with the mermaid’s beloved, the handsome human prince (Tim Spronk), whose awkward dancing threatens to break the show’s magic spell.—M.M.
The Super Secret Subway Society (7/10)
Starring Kevin Dowse, Brittney A. Filek-Gibson, Freddie Rivas. Written and directed by Katherine Sanders. Palmerston Library Theatre, to July 14.
As part of this year’s Fringekids! series, writer-director Katherine Sanders has whipped up an engaging tale about the imaginative possibilities of the TTC. Cool girl Amy (Brittney A. Filek-Gibson) discovers riding the subway doesn’t have to be tedious when nerdy boy Seymour (Freddie Rivas) sweeps her up into his fantasy about the Red Rocket as a time-travelling spaceship. With the help of the Dr. Who-like Prof. Summerhill (the high-energy Kevin Dowse), they set out across the urban universe in search of the elusive Spadina diamond. The show suits children ages eight to 12, while adults will appreciate its gentle digs at the transit system Torontonians love to hate.—M.M.
The Grid also recommends: Help Yourself; Jem Rolls: Ten Starts and an End; PornStar; R U Smarter Than an Irishman; The Other Three Sisters; (with)out.
What are your Fringe favourites? Let us know in the comments section below.