The 17th Fringe Fest opens Wednesday (July 6) with 134 shows in 25 venues - that's more than 1000 performances. How to choose what to see? Here's the first of NOW's two preview roundups. Rating: NNNNN
HEAD-SMASHED-IN BUFFALO JUMP By Tara Beagan, Chris Hanratty, Kate Hewlett, Christopher Stanton and Brendan Gall, directed by Gall. Presented by UnSpun at Factory Studio (125 Bathurst). July 7 at 8:45, July 10 at 4 pm, July 12 at 6:45, July 13 at 11:30 pm, July 14 at 2:15 pm, July 15 at 9:45 pm, July 16 at noon.
The characters in Unspun Theatre's latest work, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, sail toward emotional suicide in their dealings with others by rushing to the edge of a metaphoric cliff and leaping off without a backward glance.
The play's title refers to an Alberta site where, for thousands of years, native people drove buffalo over a precipice and then carved up their carcasses.
That ancient act echoes eerily for Dusan, a romance-seeking Czech immigrant to Canada.
"He feels a connection to the buffalo, the falseness of having been tricked and betrayed beyond the point of healing," notes Christopher Stanton , who plays Dusan in the collectively written piece. "He also feels let down by a Canada that promised one thing in brochures but gives him only an ugly reality."
The three other characters - the reclusive Michelle, her eager neighbour Dennis, and Andrea, who frequents Dusan's pawnshop - are also lonely people seeking comfort and security in unusual ways.
Each feels forced to create a fantasy world away from the disillusioned reality they live in.
UnSpun's delivered the dramatic goods before, notably in the Dora Award-winning Thy Neighbour's Wife, which featured many of the artists involved in the current show.
"The company functions as a loose collaboration," says Stanton. "We like to work with friends whose creative instincts we trust, and we love blurring the lines between writer, director and performer.
"Each actor in this play has played all the characters at some point, so it's been very much an acting exercise. Even our director, Brendan Gall ," - Stanton's also appearing in Gall's Fringe show A Quiet Place - "had a hand in writing and improvising.
"We needed an outside directorial eye early on, for as any actor will tell you, though something feels good onstage, that doesn't necessarily mean it works."
Sister knows best
NICIMIS (LITTLE BROTHER) by Dawn Dumont, directed by Kathryn Winning. Presented by Daywalker at Factory Mainspace (125 Bathurst). July 9 at 7:30 pm, July 10 at 3:30 pm, July 11 at 8:45 pm, July 13 and 16 at 5:45 pm, July 14 at 11 pm, July 15 at 4 pm.
Jokes and tears both flow freely in Nicimis (Little Brother), and that's just fine with playwright and actor Dawn Dumont. The combination echoes the world she writes about.
Set on the Okanese First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, the four-character play tracks an eventful weekend involving a graduating student, his know-it-all sister, his girlfriend and a long-time pal.
"As a stand-up comedian, I'm used to combining the serious and the comic in my work," admits Dumont, who's worked at Yuk Yuk's and Bad Dog Theatre. "This is how my family talks all the time.
"I know that humour is good protection from a reality that's not so pleasant."
She thinks of Nicimis, which began in Nightwood's Write From The Hip and was workshopped in the Weesageechak Festival, as different from other aboriginal plays in that it addresses young people's concerns.
"I don't pretend they don't drink or smoke pot. Some people have said that I'm just adding to the stereotypes of natives, but these are characters that I see. They're not everyone, it's true, but if I can't tell their stories I feel that I'm somehow devaluing them."
Though the graduating Keegic is the title figure, the narrative's driving force is his sister Angie, who's left the reserve to study law in Toronto.
"She's pushy and protective, an exaggeration of a lot of native people who leave home and then return to try to fix the dysfunctions they see there," says Dumont, who plays the role. "But you can't force solutions on people.
"What works is being a support, not reaching in and moving things around to make them better. Angie doesn't realize it until the end of the play, but she herself really needs home and has gone there to heal herself."
What a Card
THE COMMENT CARD by Tricia Cooper, directed by Christine Wach. Presented by Manitoba Avenue at the James Joyce Pub (386 Bloor West). July 6-9 and July 14-17 at 8 pm.
Next time you're at a restaurant and fill out that innocuous little comment card, you'd better think twice. Those comments could end up in a Fringe show.
Tricia Cooper admits that her new solo show - motivated by a particularly bitchy missive she once received - is absolutely autobiographical.
A few years ago, she was working in a chain restaurant, here called Pasta Palazzo, in a centrally located Toronto mall, when two women, one of them wearing a T-shirt that read Grumpy, left a nasty comment card.
"They wrote that I was unenthusiastic, I didn't know the menu well and that I mumbled," says Cooper. "Now, I may be many things, but I'm not a mumbler. Oh, and one of them also wrote that I tried to steal her credit card, simply because I forgot to give it back to her."
Cooper confiscated the card and stuck it on her refrigerator door, vowing one day to get revenge - of the artistic kind.
The co-creator and performer of The Year Of The Panda, one of the Fringe's funniest plays last year, Cooper stresses that the new show is not an angry server's revenge tale.
"There's nothing about putting weird things in your coffee or food," she laughs. "It's just a story about how you can get someone fired just because you're in a grumpy mood. In the play I also try to get the card out of the box before getting busted."
Cooper, who's part of sketch comedy troupe the Royal Lichtenstein Company, is performing the show in the James Joyce Pub, which should create an art-imitating-life vibe. Some of her former serving staff colleagues will help pack out the place.
And if there any annoying drunks?
"Drunks aren't so bad," she says. "It's those busy people who say they need a well-done steak in 20 minutes before the theatre who are annoying. Drunk people just need a hug."
THREE MORE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS by Caryl Churchill, directed by Christopher Brauer. Presented by Broken Dog at Factory Studio (125 Bathurst). July 6 at 7 pm, July 9 at 2:15 pm, July 10 at 11 pm, July 13 at 9:45 pm, July 15 at 12:30 pm, July 16 at 8:45 pm, July 17 at 1 pm.
It's no surprise that while couples speak volumes to each other, they don't always communicate. Look at the three duos in Caryl Churchill's Three More Sleepless Nights, a short La Ronde-style piece in which people bed each other in serial fashion.
"Formalistically, it's clean and simple, but Churchill's trademark overlapping dialogue gives it a different kind of energy," says director Christopher Brauer . "I appreciate that even when her scene work goes into naturalism, she keeps a real sense of structure so that it doesn't slide into theatre-as-television.
"The result is a series of scenes that are little dramatic pressure cookers."
Brauer first worked with most of the cast - including Shannon Perreault , who initiated the project - in last year's Equity Showcase production The Power Of The Dog. A reunion of people who work well together proved positive for a show so layered with emotional subtext.
"The piece is about self-obsession and how it can kill communication between people. And, of course, without communication, there can be no love."
The 1980 script - the first in which Churchill used overlapping dialogue - explores some of the same politics she later dealt with in Top Girls, but the director notes that this is a more personal, less overtly feminist play.
"Everyone in the play is dysfunctional, and there's no blame laid on any one character. Instead, the playwright focuses on the problems with a me-first attitude, how looking out solely for number one can ultimately be detrimental to number one. The attitude blinds each of them to the brutality they impose on one another.
"I appreciate that Churchill uses a great sense of subtlety in her characters. You never feel that you've seen these people before, but they still remind you of people you know.
"And I love the fact that she embraces human contradiction, that someone accuses another person of something that he does 10 lines later himself. That's very real, and offers a comment on power and how we use it."
TALES FROM ANOTHER ENGLAND by Justin Sage-Passant, directed by Stewart Matthews. Presented by Screwed & Clued at Factory Studio (125 Bathurst). July 8 at 11:15 pm, July 9 at 8 pm, July 11 at 7:15 pm, July 13 at 12:30 pm, July 14 at 9:15 pm, July 15 at 2:15 pm, July 16 at 3:30 pm.
Forget the image of England as vine-covered cottages, clotted-cream teas and cricket matches in white.
That's not the country that native-born Justin Sage-Passant knows, and he's passing on his impressions in Tales From Another England, a solo show that nails a new British reality over the romantic past.
"In today's political and social climate, I find England a bizarre place - moving, sad, infuriating and funny," says Sage-Passant, en route to Toronto from the Ottawa Fringe. "The distance between real individuals and cultural stereotypes has broadened tremendously, and I'm not at home with the culture that the media presents or that the politicians tell us exists. That's not the truth of the place."
The writer/actor's part of Screwed & Clued, a talented British troupe that's toured the Canadian Fringe circuit since 1998. Its four previous Toronto appearances include the 18th-century robbers' tale Fitch & Cabbage and last year's creepy take on Pinocchio. This year the company has eight Fringe gigs.
Sage-Passant plays the narrator, Richard, who goes on a journey to take the pulse of his country, to discover what it's really like. In addition, he creates some 10 other characters - among them a Russian student, a kinky businessman and an abused street teen - who hold the mirror up to a land that's no longer Shakespeare's demi-paradise.
"Richard's the everyman figure through whom the audience meets the other figures. He's the most naturalistic, played straight and low-key, chatting with the people in the house."
The others are defined vocally and by their physicality, using an acting style that the company does extraordinarily well. The troupe usually begins with a character's physicality and then layers in the emotion afterwards.
But why bring a show about English life to Canada?
"I admit it sounds absurd, but the point is that it's the people who make the country rather than the other way round. That's what gives the piece an international feel."
THE FRINGE: TORONTO'S THEATRE FESTIVAL featuring local, national and international companies. Opens Wednesday (July 6) and runs to July 17. $10 or less, $2 surcharge on advance tickets, discount passes. Advance tickets sold up to three hours before showtime by phone, online or in person at the Fringe Club (292 Brunswick); also by fax at least one day before show. At least half of all tickets for each performance are on sale one hour before showtime at the venue; first show of the day and KidsVenue tickets available half-hour before showtime. No latecomers. Fringe hotline 416-966-1062, advance 416-967-1528, fax 416-966-5072, www.fringetoronto.com. See Fringe listings, page 94. Check out NOW'S Fringe updates beginning July 6 at www.nowtoronto.com/fringe