05 July 2016
The Comedy of Errors (A)
Shakespeare BASH’D bows out of the Fringe Festival with a fast and slick final show that is the most flat-out successful play I’ve seen so far at this year’s festival in terms of pulling off what it sets out to do. In this case, that would be staging a deliriously energetic and breezy Shakespearean production in and around a cloistered, packed space filled with an eager audience. The choice of Comedy of Errors is a smart one; the play is both so manic in its farce and so straightforward in its domino-fall plotting that it’s perfectly suited for the quick and unflagging energy that these wonderfully skilled performers bring to the proceedings. The set is the second floor of Victory Café, where drinks and food are on sale at the bar (even during the show: a plate of chicken wings was slickly delivered to a patron midway through the performance). The availability of booze combined with the casts’ pre-show flutterings around the space in character ensures an audience primed to be receptive, and the production more than meets them half-way.
The story in brief: Antipholus of Syracuse has arrived in Ephesus with his servant Dromio of Syracuse; neither is aware however that their respective identical twins (each of whom has the same name as their sibling) are living in the city, which causes mass confusion when Adriana (Suzette McCanny) the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, stumbles across her husband’s long lost identical sibling and mistakes him for her spouse.
The most notable conceit of the production is the choice to have Kelly Penner and Tim Welham each playing their own twin (Penner as the two Antipholuses, Welham as the two Dromios), instead of the usual practice of having four actors cover the four roles. Director Julia Nish-Lapidus exploits this to hilarious effect, sending each actor racing around the space in order to make entrances as one character following their exit as another. Her method for dealing withs scenes where all four characters appear shouldn’t be given away; suffice to say that the solutions are usually so simple that they make the madness of the whole scenario even more amusing. Both leads are not exactly distinct in their two roles, but that’s probably the point; more importantly, they are superb performers of Shakespeare’s text as well as gifted physical comedians.
That goes for the rest of the cast as well: McCanny’s enraged and baffled Adriana is pitched at around 11, which is appropriate for the frenetic pacing of the production, and Bailey Green, doubling as both Adriana’s friend Luciana and a courtesan, is sharp and does manage to be distinct in her dual roles. David Mackett, Brenhan McKibben, David Ross and director Nish-Lapidus, all playing multiple parts themselves, are also strong. Nate Bitton should also be credited for some hilarious fight choreography pulled off in the fairly tight performance space. A production happily free of errors, this is a triumphant and hopefully temporary farewell to the Fringe from the BASH’d troupe.
In Gods We Trust (B)
The Lactors’ Studio is an acting troupe made up of performers who make their living as lawyers. The program for their second Fringe production includes a deadpan dictionary definition explaining the linguistic origin of the word “Lactor”; you probably don’t need me to explain it to you. This year, they have put together the cheesy but endearing satire In Gods We Trust, and despite not being professional performers, the members of the company acquit themselves well.
The story is this: for reasons that I honestly can’t recall, the Greek Gods have had to abandon Athens and take up residence atop Mount Rushmore (a picture of which is projected onto the back of the Al Green stage). Athena (Catherine Wiley), has returned from a spell in Canada, and with the help of Hermes (Satinder Besrai), calls a meeting of the Gods to determine who should win the upcoming Presidential election. Naturally, given the distinct characteristics of each God and the catastrophic nature of the current election cycle, the meeting turns contentious.
Both the premise and the execution of said premise is often quite corny, but the actors’ frank commitment and strong comic timing, under the direction of E. Llana Nakonechny, keeps the show trundling along nicely. The company, working from a treatment by Besrai, Chris Leafloor, and Kerri Salata, have composed a script that can best be described as organized: every God (nine in total) is given a perspective that plausibly aligns with their mythological traits, every character gets their say, there is a surprise twist in how one God chooses to vote, and the play concludes on a predictable but satisfying question mark. The familiar arguments against both Trump and Clinton are made (tellingly, the Gods make few arguments for their preferred candidate, just arguments against their candidate’s opponent), but there’s little to upset or surprise anyone who has spent time following the campaign.
It’s not exactly explosive theatre, but the unflagging energy of the performers, array of snappy jokes, and relative briskness of the script is to be commended. I’ve seen several shows at this year’s festival that are shaggily paced and structurally unsure, and the Lactors’ very straightforward but tightly formed script is, in that sense, a refreshing change of pace. If anything the show’s clockwork form proves that there are advantages in bringing the compartmentalized discipline of the legal world to the often more unpredictable, erratic world of theatre. The company is forwarding all profits from the show to “The Toronto Lawyers Feed the Hungry Program”, a great initiative that alone would be worth the cost of a Fringe ticket; happily, the production itself is worth it as well.
War Tapes (C+)
More and more of us are spending an increasing amount of our time online. This is an undisputed fact. What War Tapes posits is, maybe we shouldn’t? Look, dealing with the emotional effects of spending the majority of your days plugged into the internet is clearly a valid subject to tackle, and writer Christian Metaxas should be credited for recognizing that there’s more to the discussion then just, “the internet is bad”. His protagonist, Kendra (Peter Naccarato) is not an emotionless robot, simply a man who, like many people of his age and background, finds it easier to spend his free time enjoying the immediate pleasures of online gaming and sharing funny videos with friends rather than engaging with the outside world.
But Mataxas doesn’t seem to know where to go from this initial premise, and so we are treated to a series of interchangeable scenes that director Dane Shumak does little to enliven: Kendra ignoring phone calls from family members, engaging in pseudo-philosophical debates with his friends, considering whether or not to look at a digital folder filled with unlawfully stolen webcam pictures of under-wear clad women, and blowing off the inexplicably long list of ladies who are pursuing him (despite a tendency to spend most his time in his room, Kendra is apparently his college’s resident Casanova – – maybe I’m just naive about heterosexuality, but given Kendra’s house-bound tendencies and general attitude, this does not seem plausible).
While there’s interesting stuff sprinkled throughout these scenes, the unfocused script and static staging sap the production of sustained interest. Indeed the attempt to criticize the insular world of these characters is ironically undermined by the play’s limited perspective. I understand Mataxas wanting to show us in near real time how these characters are wasting their youth, but too much of the hour is devoted to watching them wax philosophical about the implications of The Matrix (The Matrix!), past girlfriends, or voice-chatting online about skipping class while whiling away the hours on first-person shooters.
Scene transitions are marked by some stylishly edited video sequences featuring jarringly juxtaposed images from around the world (birds flying through the air, Trump bloviating at a rally, a slyly extracted clip from “Wheel of Fortune” where the mystery phrase is revealed to be “LIVE IN THE MOMENT”). There are also intermittent voice messages from girlfriends explaining Kendra’s problem to him (“The supermodels, the porn, the hentai – – none of it is real, Kendra!”) These messages are performed by Bronte Germain and Margaret Rose-Keery, who are each given only one onstage scene apiece, which is too bad because the actors are both good; Rose-Keery especially brings a refreshing level of focus and energy in her brief appearance towards the end. Indeed all the performers do solid work – – Naccarato, though a little rushed at times, is confident in the lead role, and Conner Edmondson, Michael Lake, and Dane Shumak as his friends are each distinctly and very humorously played.
The play does settle on an understated and effective conclusion, ending with a silent IM conversation between Kendra and a stranger. It’s an inherently doomed attempt at connection that delivers the show’s message with more efficiency and style than much of what has come before. Metaxas has a premise worth engaging with, and the framework for an interesting and timely story about online addiction; he just needs to explore both that premise and his characters further, and in a more tightly paced production.
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