My Theatre

01 July 2016

Toronto Fringe ’16: Part III

By // Theatre (Toronto)

The Unending (illustration by Chloe Cushman)

The Unending (illustration by Chloe Cushman)

Be sure to check out our Full List of Fringe Reviews

The Unending – 3 Short Plays (A-)
Site-specific plays always have the potential to be alienating experiences: a bunch of plucky actors demanding an extra degree of engagement from the audience as they move through a unique space or spaces. If the work itself is not thoroughly and confidently worked out, it can be a slog. When it works, however, the experience can be galvanizing.

Happily, the Aaron Willis-directed The Unending Plays holds up on that promise. I knew very little about what would be on the program as I and the other fifteen or so audience members trooped up to the top floor of the Auntie’s and Uncle’s diner, where we were served lemonade by one of the actors, Andy Trithardt. The performance is set over three locations, each of which acted as the stage for a short play centred around infidelity (an updated translation of August Strindberg’s The Stronger, Samuel Beckett’s Play, and What Doesnt Kill You by cast member Julie Tepperman). Everyone is so close to one another in the cramped space that it was only after a minute or two that I realized that the woman at the table next to me leafing quietly through an old Life magazine was in fact one of the performers, Mayko Nguyen.

She is greeted by Tepperman, who appears laden with shopping and a slightly too boisterous wig. The first play is a monologue delivered by Tepperman to Nguyento, and a motif runs throughout all three works of one or all characters engaging in self-justifying diatribes while almost never taking part in an actual conversation. Tepperman is all hauteur in this first play, but unshakeably so – – it’s fascinating to watch such a technically controlled performance from only five feet away.

Viewers are lead from space to space by Sheila Ingabire-Isaro as an ethereal guide who unites the pieces with monologues outlining the unending and circular nature of desire and unbreakable habits. I don’t want to give too much away about the other locales we were taken to, since part of the pleasure of the performance is the surprise and strangeness of particular settings – – suffice it to say that the spaces chosen matched the tone of the plays: the Strindberg set is cramped and homey; the Beckett set cramped and severe, and Tepperman’s strikingly more modern work is by contrast staged in a much more open, warmly-lit setting.

There were a few heart-stopping trip-ups during Play, a famously fast-paced and athletic piece of text, but otherwise the actors were very strong, moving proficiently through different works and performance styles with technical precision and enjoyable fluidity. The uptight waspishness of the first show melds into a severe otherworldliness in the second, and then a contemporary, stammer-y realism in the last. Nguyen and Tepperman, who are both on show for nearly the entire night, do an especially good job of carrying their parts, basically switching roles between the first and third play, with one character staying silent and watchful, and the other becoming increasingly intense in their desire to explain themselves.

Trinthardt himself contributes a ghostly and carefully cued soundscape. Costuming by Michelle Tracey, set/prop work by Nick Blais and Marcus Jamin, and makeup are also compellingly distinct (the set for Play is especially wonderful), with the aesthetic difference of each play making the obvious thematic connections between the works more evocative and intriguing than they otherwise might be. The parallels between the first and third play are so especially clear that it makes Ingabire-Isaro’s connecting speeches feel a little too calculated as a means of clarification. Still, she is a nicely mysterious presence, and the enigmatic energy she creates mostly outweighs the feeling that stitch work is being done by Willis to give shape to the evening. Besides, how can you give shape to something that never ends?

ELEKTRA (B+)
Greek tragedy often requires a high level of emotion and vocal technique from its actors. This can be grating; thankfully the young cast of Stichomythia Theatre have managed for the most part to achieve nuance within their heightened performances, and are delivering a snappy and at times quite exciting hour of Sophocles down at the Artscape Youngplace.

The story is this: Clytemnestra (Daniela Piccinin), married to Agamemnon, has murdered her husband in revenge for his sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia in order to turn the Trojan War in the Greeks’ favour. Their daughter Elektra (Alice Lundy) is herself now bent on avenging her father’s death by murdering her mother and Aegisthus (Eric Bleyendaal), who also conspired in the assassination. The resulting blood bath leaves Elektra and her brother Orestes (Erik Helle) stunned at their own violence, dreading the people they’ve become and what this means for them going forward.

As the titular princess, Lundy is poised and confident, effectively communicating both Elektra’s agony in the face of her father’s death and her single-mindedness in delivering justice. She communicates this last aspect perhaps too well; my viewing companion and I both agreed that this was a production where we came out siding with Clytemnestra, whose comparative pragmatism comes through shiningly in Piccinin’s similarly poised but more shaded performance. It helps, again as my friend pointed out, that this edited version of John Barton and Kenneth Cavader’s translation gives Clytemnestra more time to make her case than most of the other supporting characters, while Elektra’s call for vengeance and justice begins to sound tin-eared in the face of the troubling fallout that such vengeance would obviously create.

While Piccinin is the highlight, all the actors are very strong. Each is physically and vocally confident, though it’s worth noting that many speak in a slightly quavering, pseudo-British accent. Helle makes a strong, charismatic Orestes, and offers a nice counterpoint to Lundy’s slightly more frenetic anger, with their reunion scene being the strongest and most affecting moment for both performers. Bleyendaal is arrogant and determined in his brief appearance, and Alyson Parovel and Shawn DeZousa-Coelho as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis and a wise old man offer good support. Chorus members Grant Gignac, Elizabeth Kalles and Cara Rodger are nicely synchronized and emotionally engaged, and Will Jarvis provides some stirring guitar work from the corner of the room.

The performers do a good job of making full use of the small circular space (the play is essentially staged in a class room, with chairs circling the stage to create an in-the-round effect). You’re rarely more than five feet away from the action, and the actors hold up to the scrutiny – – like the intimately staged first short play in The Unending, you’re getting a front row seat to more technically crafted rather than wholly spontaneous-seeming performances, but, again, it’s Greek theatre.

The show has no credited director and is seemingly a collaboration between the actors, which falls in line with the aesthetically stripped down nature of the production. The costumes are straightforward robes and dresses, and the space provides two lighting options: on or off. But the play feels carefully blocked and paced, and the more crowded scenes are staged very cleanly. Despite the fact that almost the entire room is visible to us, entrances from different corners of the room are pulled off with panache; performers kept popping up from seemingly nowhere. All in all, this is a bare bones but passionately performed piece of Greek theatre put on by promising young professionals, and is well worth checking out.

Binge (C+)
Young people re-assessing their lives following the sudden death of a close friend has been the catalyst for a host of comedy-dramas, and Binge, produced by the Epigraph Collective and written by co-star Joel Edminston certainly falls within the genre, though with an extra layer of National Lampoon-esque fratiness. The play centres around two close friends (Edmiston and Luke Pieroni) dealing with the accidental death of their friend and fellow band member by embarking on a province-wide pilgrimage: to honour his memory and work through their own quarter-life crises, the two decide to follow the instructions scribbled down on a scroll (put together by the friends in happier days) detailing an epic seven-day pub crawl to be played out around Ontario. Their pilgrimage takes them through various towns and bars, including a stop-off at their Oakville high school. Throughout, both friends recount shared memories and discuss their unresolved issues with their dead friend, their families, and with one another, all the while getting increasingly drunk and erratic.

These scenes are broken up with musical interludes featuring Pieroni on guitar and Edmiston on drums, though these moments don’t quite take off in the way you would expect for a show that advertises itself as being performed “concert style”. Set in the Kensington bar Round, the site-specific production certainly aims to establish a hang-out mood while taking you through the friends’ journey of self-discovery, but the show doesn’t seem to be confident in committing to its ostensibly musical trappings, nor does it feel like a fully fledged play. The result leaves us somewhere in the middle, watching these two young men wander through a dramatically erratic week of boozing.

Both actors have an endearing chemistry, and each create moments of real magnetism – Edmiston especially has an agile charisma that gives the play much of its mileage. But they require a stronger directorial eye to wrangle and give focus to their energy, as well as bring polish to the blocking and pacing of the show, something director Curits te Brinke doesn’t quite pull off here. While there’s always an element of first night jitters to take into account, too many of the scenes felt underrehearsed, with both actors appearing not wholly confident in the space. As it stands the production is a slightly lumpy collection of scenes that trundle towards a straightforward and low-key emotional climax, interspersed with undercooked jam sessions.

There’s definitely a sharper work within the one that currently exists: Edmiston is up for touching on lots of themes, including the self-loathing of the two characters and how their malaise comes not only from their friends’ death but from a crippling repressiveness that has dictated much of their lives, and for which alcohol serves as an obvious balm. But too many of these themes feel both under-explored and over-discussed, the misery of the characters becoming a repeated signifier of their conflict without really being developed beyond a “we’re in this together bro” ethos. Taken into account with other conversations about screwing anonymous women and going to see Dave Matthews at the amphitheatre, it all starts to blend together into a self-referential odyssey in search of greater meaning (though to be fair, this is a conflict the characters themselves seem to be struggling with as they meander from town to town and bar to bar). I struggled to engage, but with the right crowd and a slightly more focused energy, this current incarnation could make for a stronger showing than the one I saw – the performers certainly have the likability factor. As it stands, I can only quote Edmiston’s character when he responds to Pieroni’s fascination with a nearby tree by saying “I think we’re amazed by different things.”

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