How do you replicate Frank Capra's 40s film classic It's A Wonderful Life onstage?
Canadian Stage isn't going to try. Instead, the company presents it as a radio play, adapted by Philip Grecian. Director Donna Feore turns the audience into viewers at a 40s radio show, who hear the familiar story and watch the interplay of the studio actors.
The Christmas-based fantasy focuses on George Bailey, a depressed man in small-town America who's convinced by angel-in-training Clarence not to commit suicide by showing George what the town would be like if he'd not been born.
"We have to walk a fine line in playing two sets of characters, those on the page and those in the studio," says Mike Shara, the production's George. "We can't take away from the major story, but it's also fun to show the behind-the-scenes stuff. We don't just stand around reading a radio play. We have a richer canvas on which to paint."
There's an added live dimension, too, in the foley (sound) effects by John Gzowski and the music by Leslie Arden.
"The story is an American version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol," offers Shara, who's done some fine work at Shaw and more recently in Soulpepper's The Way Of The World. "It stresses the season's basic humanity, in contrast to the selfish, financial concerns of the tale's villain."
What about the danger of becoming sticky with treacly sentiment?
"Not here," the actor shakes his head. "The story is really quite dark, especially when George's fortunes go downhill. He becomes really ugly and goes to a bad place. The more I can make his life harrowing, the more moving the story becomes. This version won't be maudlin or sappy.
"After all, for an actor, there's always more meat on the dark side."
And how can Shara avoid the influence of James Stewart in the film?
"I'm one of the seven people in the world who hasn't seen the film," he smiles. "In any event, there's no point in my doing a bad Jimmy Stewart impersonation. But none of us is trying to copy the film. It's such a good story, it stands on its own without mimicry."
Congrats to the producers, troupes and volunteers involved in last week's Sketch Comedy Festival. Despite the freezing temps and late start times, the shows we attended were packed, with the waiting list for one exceeding 100. Yes, people are hungry to see good sketch.
Overall, the quality was high, although we were disappointed with Chicago's much-hyped OneTwoThree at the Comedy Bar. Their opening sketch - where the trio was outfitted like ballerinas and wastefully tossed around glitter - went nowhere, as did their sketch about three dogs playing cards. Arf. We gladly left early to head downtown for Derek Forgie's The End Of An Error, a sketch tribute to the dying days of a certain president's time in office.
This show was sketch at its edgiest. Forgie, who could be Howie Mandel's red-headed nephew, has a mischievous glint in his eye, wicked wit and boundless energy. He helped bridge some top-rate acts like the Williamson Playboys, who delivered great material about Bush making the economy "manageable by shrinking it down"; Kathleen Turner Overdrive, who imagined how life would have been different had Bush been a porn star (named Seymour Bush); and Accidental Company's Brian Crosby, who dispensed advice on how to economize during a war ("Try gently used grenades"). Shame Is Right helped bookend the show with a clever, deadpan look at an inappropriate 9/11 anniversary.
Other acts who scored during the festival were Hawkmail, whose likeable postmodern laughs consistently score (can't wait to see troupe member Pat Thornton's upcoming TV series); Halifax's Picnicface, who come up with high-concept sketches that make you think as well as laugh; and a big discovery, Keys to Invincibility in Verbal Argumentation, featuring two members of the group the Somethingorothers, who provided a lecture and demo about arguing that was full of bluster and bullshit and, frankly, brilliance. It'll be interesting to see if this is a KTIIVA one-off or if they can do more.
Speaking of doing more, it's been a couple of years since we saw the Imponderables, a troupe we always felt coasted on charisma and slick production values. Their material has improved immensely, both live and on video. One sketch, about two frat brothers and a parking ticket, unexpectedly turns into a hilarious choreographed number. Another, starting with a banal premise about guys discussing their dreams, takes a sudden turn that's brave and bold. And the finale, about a wedding band casually discussing sex, veers off into surreal territory, and the performers stay with it every second. Their video work is just as clever.
The Second City Best of the Fest Award went to Montreal's Uncalled For; Picnicface won the NOW Magazine Audience Choice Award; the Steam Whistle Brewing Arbitrary Award of Merit went to Toronto's Statutory Jape; and winners of the Sketch Com-Ageddon were The Riot, from Toronto. torontosketchfest.com.
If you've laughed your way through Atomic Vaudeville's Legoland (see review), you know not to miss the Victoria company's cabaret show Sunday (November 30).
The award-winning troupe, run by Jacob Richmond and Britt Small, has brought Legoland to Toronto three times already, but we've never seen the kind of cabaret show that made the company's reputation.
"We started it as a make-work project for ourselves," says Small, who co-writes and co-directs with Richmond. "Then we discovered that a lot of people wanted to write and perform, and the audience loved the format because it was so informal. They could sit and drink beer during the show and didn't have to be quiet.
"We see our vaudeville evenings as a form of entertainment rather than a form of art."
At first the shows were traditional vaudeville, a series of unconnected music, theatre and comedy acts. But as Richmond wrote more, the evenings became elaborate and theme-based. And now, performers who've been together for nearly four years have developed characters the audience knows and expects to see - rather, says Small, like a human company of Muppets. The cast is a blend of theatre and comedy performers.
"Audiences in Toronto won't know these characters," admits Small, "but they will notice the threads that tie the acts together. And while we use comedy, the show relies on strong characters. It's not like an evening of sketch comedy, which is usually episodic to the point of wiping the slate clean between scenes."
The show follows the vaudeville format in that short scenes break the fourth wall. Often physical rather than naturalistic, the scenes play directly to the audience, with actors facing out rather than each other.
The company will draw on local as well as Victoria performers. Among the Torontonians are Naomi Skwarna, Sheila Heti and Alec Toller, while Andrew Bailey, Morgan Cranny and Kelly Hudson have travelled eastward for the show. Look for appearances by Celine Stubel and Amitai Marmorstein, as their Legoland sibling characters and other figures; Marmorstein may show us his Jewish rapper, Jewpac.
And what's the theme? Small's not giving much away since the company writes each topical show the week before performance, but it looks like we'll see an evening that contrasts big city/small city. Don't be surprised if it ends with a big dance-off.