Upon the Fragile Shore

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Upon the Fragile Shore (B+)
Upon The Fragile Shore explores a number of human tragedies, from the Boston Marathon Bombing to the struggles in Syria. The strength the showis in its performers: a virtuosic, talented group that exemplify what can be done with movement, voice and theatre. Its weakness are in it’s larger thematic arc: why these stories, why these voices, why now?

The performance brings together 16 characters afflicted by different tragedies from across the globe: Damascus, Boston, Aurora, Louisiana, Caracas, Jos (Nigeria), Kuala Lumpur (Malasysia). Bringing them together across the vast umbrella of trauma, we meet different people afflicted by global tragedies: bombings, shootings, imprisonment, displacement, to name only a few. While certainly, the topics they address are evocative and important, there is perhaps a weakness in casting the net too large: why these stories, why these voices, why now?  Its curational choices are unclear, as such, the thematic arc is fuzzy. While there are certainly echoes across the monologues, namely the metaphor of water, each monologue seemed to do a similar thing: impressing upon their audience what happened after a tragedy. They ask who is left behind and how does life continue? With a similar energy and emotional intensity in each section, Upon a Fragile Shore was exhausting to watch. All intense, all the time. The performance felt ‘over’ about 20 minutes before it was, complete with a few too many evocative endings. Thus while certainly the questions they ask are important, their message is lost in a play that doesn’t give us a moment to breathe, think, or reflect.

The strength of Upon the Fragile Shore is in its performers: Lara Arabian, Aisha Bentham, Jonah Hundert, and Alejandra Simmons. Seeing these four actors work together on stage was beautiful. Their commitment, presence and skill was astounding. The moments where they were together, in the colloquial ensemble pieces that bookened the show, were the most powerful. So too were their movement pieces that brought the stories to life. Additionally, the performance was beautifully illumined, using projection and onstage lighting, in creative, evocative ways.

Upon a Fragile Shore is certainly worth seeing. It discusses an important moment in our time: one rife with tragedy. Further, as the director’s note outlines, it bridges these real life places with fictional realities, asking us to enter a space that is both utopian and distopian. Asking us to walk with them upon a fragile shore. This is a powerful challenge. Indeed, as the actors state at the beginning, “doing good, and being good takes a lot of work.” Simply being present, the one thing they ask of their audience, takes a lot of work. This play took work, that much is clear. The actors, the stage manager, the director, clearly have worked and worked hard.  And it is not for nothing. This is a powerful performance. But a little more work in distilling and curating is needed still to make it a digestible one. But I hope we haven’t seen the last of this group, and Upon the Fragile Shore. 

Tough Guy Mountain (B-)
Tough Guy Mountain, is the tale of Lisa, the unpaid intern, and her first day at Tough Guy Mountain, the renowned, extra-dimensional branding corporation.  The performance overall lacked finesse, resulting in a play that, despite its few endearing qualities, had all the elegance of a gangly 19-year-old boy, and none of the charm.

The script itself is clever and sharp:  it tells a simple, indeed, all-too-typical story of big bad business versus the ever-failing, oh-so-endearing underdog ‘ART’. While the story jumped back in forth on this theme with great humour and a wry intelligence, this was lost in sloppy direction, acting and movement. That’s not to say that anyone one person was bad, or that the scenes weren’t well conceived. Rather, their hyper-stylized approach—an absurdist energy with a satirical bite— didn’t quite get the balance of earnestness and humour. Gestures that could have been funny were not precise enough. Shuffling across the stage was distracting. No one seemed to know how to move their cumbersome, and, as far as I could tell, completely extraneous set piece. Choreography, despite its simplicity, seemed muddled and strange. While Tough Guy Mountain danced with intention, the choices seemed half-hearted at best, and for all its cleverness, they were more often than not out of step.

Despite this criticism, there were some laugh-out-loud moments along with strong performances from Liz Johnston, Jessica Brown, and Iain Soder.  The few dance numbers were funny, if a little untidy.  Finally, the level of self-awareness, a kind of ekphrasis, if you’ll forgive the big word, was charming. One moment in particular, when the logo of the Toronto Arts Council travelled across their projection screen, announcing them as funders of this production, was a brilliant addition. But this too lacked intention, and as such, like so many of the other projections, it was ultimately forgettable, fading into the background like a bad screen saver.

This is the kind of performance that could get better as the run continues, and the performers and technicians find their grove. That said, with all that SummerWorks has to offer this year, I’d give this one a miss.