This was a tough Fringe. On one hand, I did a terrible job of getting out to shows, only seeing 9 in total (plus whatever I take in at Best of Fringe). On the other hand, part of the reason I was so  unenthused about long days of Fringing was that I wasn’t impressed with what I’d seen so far. Compared to last year’s pretty darn good Fringe, this year was severely lacking. Maybe I just wasn’t seeing the right stuff but everything seemed trapped in script issues or awkward direction or god knows what else. Here’s a look at the second set of shows I did manage to see, including the only one I thought was particularly great.

Antigone (Soup Can Theatre)
Randolph Theatre
This production of Sophocles’ Antigone is very Soup Can. They’re a very high-minded company with big ideas about social commentary and modern application who mysteriously manage to assemble standout casts. They always sport capable direction (in this case, that of Scott Dermody), strong visuals, and clear storytelling. And Antigone fits all those categories. But, also in Soup Can tradition, it’s marred by its own intentions and the carefully thought-out, well-publicized modern frame doesn’t inform the piece as intended. Like with Marat/Sade‘s McGill psych experiment setting, Sophocles’ story is transplanted so as to comment on recent history, specifically against the backdrop of the G20 riots and Occupy movements. That’s a great idea, Soup Can thrives on good ideas and has a ton of them, and I would even agree that the story of Antigone fits beautifully with said commentary, but the production seems to forget about it halfway through. The beginning is great as guards in riot gear trap and threaten Ismene (the always fantastic Leah Holder) as she tries to warn her sister Antigone about the consequences of her actions (burying her brother against Creon’s will). But that’s pretty much it. From there, Dermody just tells the story. I’m fine with that, I’d always prioritize the story over the directorial themes, but I’ve seen Antigone before and I was looking forward to it being informed by recent events as heavily advertised. Because that extra layer of fascination was more missing than I expected, the piece felt long and draggy (and Sophocle’s version is nowhere near as enthralling as the Anouilh). Cydney Penner is a strong leading lady, Thomas Gough an authoritative Creon and Glyn Bowerman a likably tortured Haemon (which sounds horrible, but is actually kind of perfect). In fact, the cast as a whole is pretty strong and Dermody adds some really interesting elements such as a silent meeting between Antigone and Haemon while she’s in jail. But Antigone needed some more judicious cutting and a more explicit exploration of its themes to really be the piece it has the potential (and the poster) to be. It’s technically sound but not particularly interesting.
Grade: C+

Charlie: A Hockey Story (Jim Sands Presents)
Annex Theatre
I picked this show on a whim, thinking that its father-son Shakespeare vs. hockey story would be something I could relate to. It turned out to be 90% hockey to 10% Shakespeare, which made me a little sad, but it’s still very sweet and pretty enjoyable. Jim Sands is far from a polished performer but his one-man show is constructed well and he has an interesting generation-spanning story to tell. The way he brings his two subjects back together in the end is a great, winking twist, and his personal connection to the story makes his awkward pauses and strained style worth it. Jim is likable, affable and incredibly sincere, making his 75 minute show seem shorter than many of the shorter shows at the festival.
Grade: B-

Tick (Lallygag Theatre)
George Ignatieff Theatre
I was really looking forward to Tick. I love Jessica Moss as a performer (I know you know this already, I talk about her all the time) and a sweetly combative child-leader is the perfect role for her expressive, high-energy, worldly-but-innocent vibe. With Moss in the title role, Tick should have been great. Moss delivers exactly what I was expecting from her, but that’s where the awesomeness of Tick ends. The rest of the cast ranges from annoying to acceptable but the real problem is, inescapably, the script. It’s frivolous and silly when kids shows Really don’t have to be and uses the innocent characters to tell a story that reeks of disgruntled twenty-somethings who are mad at Rob Ford.The kids don’t talk like kids or act like kids or care about things actual kids care about. Aside from a particularly funny temper tantrum staged by Moss, there’s very little honesty to Tick at all. A children’s story should be trumpeting the awesome potential and admirable openness of kids, not using them as a megaphone for whatever it is you want said.
Grade: C+

The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare Bash’d)
Site Specific- Victory Cafe
Thank God for Shakespeare! The central problem with almost every Fringe show is the script- many of the originals need more work and most of the public domain ones are too stiff. Enter Shakespeare, and the festival is saved! Slight exaggeration, but it’s so great to go to a Fringe show and be able to judge a production on what the company actually did with the text, because we can all agree that while Taming is far from the bard’s best, it’s still better than Charlie’s Having a Baby and not worth nitpicking (for the most part, more in a minute). I’m always of the opinion that Toronto needs more Shakespeare companies so I’m thrilled with Shakespeare Bash’d’s mere existence (and the nerdy way they spell their name). But, more than that, their Taming is really good- easily the best thing I saw at Fringe this year (by far). Under the direction of Eric Double (who also appears as Christopher Sly in the induction he bravely decides to leave in then stages partially outside where the audience lines up), the production is quick, energetic and masterfully cut to the point where I didn’t notice what was missing but it wrapped up in a clean 90 minutes. The cast is across-the-board great with the weakest point probably being Julia Nish-Lapidus’s Kate who just isn’t as dynamic as everyone else (and the script demands that Kate out-interesting Bianca, which Nish-Lapidus doesn’t manage to do against Sofia Labiilii’s snarky ingenue).I loved Ellen Hurley’s wacky Biondell[a], Milan Malisic’s crazy takes on Gremio and the Pedant, and Alex Johnson who managed to stand out in the production’s smallest roles (a Lord, a Taylor, a Widow). Jesse Griffiths is brilliantly editorial as Tranio, adding little moments of communicative hilarity. My favourite in the cast was Kelly Penner who makes the unlikely Hortensio the story’s standout character with a theatrical and perfectly timed performance. During the induction, the whole cast of players mills about and dashes into the pub in front of the audience. Not knowing who was who, I assumed Penner was the star based entirely on him being the most commanding in those early moments. The actual star is James Wallis, the Shakespeare enthusiast who started the company. At first I wasn’t crazy about Wallis’ Petruchio because he doesn’t have the easy stage presence and charm of most of his predecessors. But there came a point when I sort of tuned in to him and found that he might just be my favourite Petruchio to date. He hits the comedy where he needs to but generally leaves the craziness to costars in broader roles like Penner and Griffiths. What Wallis does that I’ve rarely seen before is play the love, or at least the sweet regard, towards Kate. Acting opposite his real-life fiancee, I believed Wallis when he looked at Nish-Lapidus like she’s uniquely wonderful. He plays usually boisterous lines like “there’s a wench” with heartrending sincerity. It’s really quite a startling performance- amusing, affecting and wholly unexpected, not unlike the production itself. Double doesn’t do anything to creatively avoid the awkward ending wherein Kate reminds women that they should be their husbands’ servant, but by softening Petruchio it does make it a little bit easier to swallow.
Grade: A-