Hanger (photo by Zaiden Chrysler)

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Hanger (A)
Hilary McCormack is a wonderful actress- subtle, emotive, engaging and strong (further evidence of this can be found just one paragraph down). Unfortunately, Hilary McCormack is working in an industry and a time where there is not yet a suitably rich canon of female roles deserving of said remarkable performance qualities. So Hilary McCormack wrote one herself. Actually, she wrote two, both among the meatiest female roles I’ve seen on stage in quite some time. As the spiralling Kat, the meticulous Tennille Read finds a new gear, unleashing herself into McCormack’s complex creation with abandon and vulnerability so stirring that it may be her career-best thus far. McCormack herself plays “Liz” but she’s really three people in one, every important female figure in Kat’s confused consciousness- her mother (punishing and unpredictable), her therapist (calm and assertive) and her suicidal sister whose body she still sees hanging from a rope in her apartment. McCormack’s transitions between characters are disorientingly seamless, creating, without a single technical crutch, a window into Kat’s perspective. The play is bold and complicated, tragic but never indulgently dramatic, staged with insightful simplicity by Joshua Stodart, but the real winners here are the performers of whom so much is demanded and who both deliver above and beyond.

Twelfe Night (B+)
Ale House Theatre’s original practices mandate makes the success of their productions almost completely dependent on finding the perfect cast. Director Joshua Stodart can keep the action moving and provide some character insight but, with no interesting adaptation or fun modernity to focus on, the audience will lose patience with a sub-par performer far faster than they otherwise might. In Twelfe Night, the OP shines a particularly bright light on the chasm between the great and the not-so-great. The bit parts are a mess and the subplot falters, Toby and Andrew’s broad immaturity feeling as dated and unfunny as it’s ever been (the sort of doltish company Jake Vanderham’s winking Feste seems unlikely to keep). Tal Shulman’s Malvolio helps it along some, taking too much time with his letter but excellently playing the tragedy of his part in the comedy (Stodart’s greatest directorial moment is the brutal transition into the Sir Topaz scene, highlighting the bullish nature of the whole plot). In the main story, Tayves Fiddis is wasted on a dull Orsino but Ale House does right by Twelfe Night by kicking ass with the two leading female characters (which shockingly few productions manage to do). Peyton LeBarr is heartbreakingly sincere and casually funny as Viola, taking care to play the weight of her brother’s supposed death even as her pain moves on to unrequited love. But (as teased above) it’s Hilary McCormack’s bright and capable Olivia who most elevates the production. Often played simply flighty and vain, Olivia is more than she seems (a rare female head-of-household after her father and brother die, called cruel by a man who sends servants to woo her and refuses to let no mean no, continually flattered but never truly considered) and McCormack captures all of her in a rare performance that reveals the extent to which Orsino is the silly one in that non-relationship. She’s genuinely furious when she learns of Malvolio’s mistreatment, she laughs at herself when Feste proves her “the fool”, and she physically kicks the crap out of Toby and Andrew for fighting with Sebastian rather than just screeching at them to stop like most Olivias. I said recently that it’s not okay that Bianca is the most interesting character in Stratford’s Shrew but it is more than okay that Olivia is the star here.

The Philanderess (B+)
Sophia Fabiilli’s adaptation of Shaw’s Philanderer is a little too caught up in its gender politics and general modernity, at times losing sight of the humanity that makes the story worth telling. We know that Charlotte has her PhD and lots of big ideas about monogamy and marriage (in that she believes in neither) but we never get a strong sense of where those beliefs come from or how she feels about what she has to give up in order to uphold them. There are lots of laughs (the physical comedy is great, with excellent fight work from Nate Bitton) and some strong ideas (Charlotte writes a blog about her philandering but its feminist statement has gotten lost in its pop appeal) but the characters and their emotional journeys seem to take a backseat to those two more prominent features. The two exceptions are Jakob Ehman‘s vibrantly dumb but eternally hopeful young buck who has a few moments of moving disappointment and the play’s standout character- Seth Drabinsky’s savvy Sylvie Craven- who ends the show with a beautiful display of empathy. The play could use a dash of subtlety and more natural actresses in the older roles but The Philanderess is generally well executed and more ambitious than most Fringe shows, which affords it some extra consideration.

God’s Beard! (B)
Sketch trio Falcon Powder deliver a fun hour of friendship-themed comedy in their latest show, framed by the disastrous adventures of a group of storm chasers on an ill-advised mission. There are plenty of hits in the one-off scenes (Little Mosque on the Prairie references peppered into a good-natured scene about assisted suicide and necrophilia; a “Dance Dance Revolution” tournament gone very wrong) but the story that frames the action isn’t quite strong enough.

The Orchid & The Crow (B-)
Daniel Tobias’s solo show is half storytelling, half rock and roll comedy. It’s half culture-skewering and personal reflection, half emotion-skirting and dick-joke pandering. On opening night it was half improvised when an over-zealous audience member started correcting Tobias’ science. This last bit was polarizing (at least one audience member used it as his excuse to walk out the second the applause started) but I found it amusing, revealing Tobias’ natural charm and adaptability. Unfortunately the actual show (minus Diane and her unwelcome facts about the brontosaurus) isn’t as funny, or as surprising. It has its moments (the opening and closing numbers are great) but there’s a lot of cock talk (do we really need to spend so much time on Tobias’ opinion of circumcision?) and not enough about the balls (The Orchid & The Crow is ostensibly about Tobias’ bout with testicular cancer but, while we hear all about the surgery and the chemo, we get very little about his actual feelings on the matter). The Orchid & The Crow has a strong foundation and an engaging performer, it just needs to focus and delve further into what’s already there.