A scene from Cowboy Mouth - part of the Playwright Project's festival of Sam Shepard plays
The Playwright Project brought a little bit of the cowboy to Toronto last week (May 1 to 7). Seven local indie troupes galloped around town with seven one-acts by Sam Shepard, presented in as many venues.
The mechanics must have been difficult, since every company played once in each of the seven spaces. Think of it as a kind of guerrilla theatre, the troupes having an opening night each performance.
Given that many of his works deal with the iconic figure of the cowboy and the landscape he inhabits, we liked that the StoreFront Theatre - where we saw many of the plays - added a rope motif to the venue's walls. A lariat of sorts, it sketched figures, including several appropriately misshapen hearts, around the space.
Murder and memory are at the centre of surface/underground's When The World Was Green: A Chef's Fable, in which a woman (Shannon Taylor) searching for her father interviews a chef (David Fox) who's on death's row for poisoning a man - the wrong man, it turns out - in a centuries-old vendetta.
Director Peter Pasyk and designer Patrick Lavender play up the lyrical side of the script as characters drift into poetic moments and reminiscences of possible and actual past events. Music is key here, provided by composer and sound designer Beau Dixon.
Tunes also become part of Pomme Grenade's Cowboy Mouth, in which two lovers (Vanessa Dunn and Adam Kenneth Wilson) alternately fight and make up and, along the way, order a lobster dinner. Shepard co-wrote the script with Patti Smith, and you get the sense that the authors lived the characters' competition and confrontations. Reg Vermue (Gentleman Reg) contributes live music and becomes part of the action by the end, with Dunn providing some electric moments under director Natasha Greenblatt. Amy Siegel's design of candles, a horselike skull and overhead projections gives the staging a dreamy quality.
In Red One's production of Geography Of A Horse Dreamer, one of the best evenings, a Wyoming sheep herder with the uncanny ability to dream the winner of horse races is kidnapped and held incommunicado by a pair of goons so he can supply his information to their leader.
Staged intimately and in the round by director Amos Crawley, the noirish show, lit by Melissa Joakim, is a non-stop roller-coaster ride of laughs and chills, including a surreal musical interlude (sound design by Gordon Highland and choreography by Monica Dotter) featuring the ironically upbeat We're In The Money.
Its excellent cast features Steven McCarthy as the dreamer, who musters a series of accents over the course of the hour, Benjamin Blais and Brenhan McKibben as his bad cop/good cop guardians, Julian Richings and Carlos González-Vio as their bosses and Jenny Young and Gordon Bolan (part of musical group Local 165) as the musician siblings who set everything right at the play's end with their guitar/six-guns.
The festival's wild-card production was Alex McCooeye's adaptation of Saving Fats. It's based on a Shepard short story about a guy who ropes in a reporter with a story about helping rescue jazz great Fats Domino and his beloved piano following Hurricane Katrina.
The narrator (James Wallis) is Shepard's creation, while the reporter (Caitlin Stewart) is McCooeye's; a literal side-story, to the left of the main action, has Domino (the charismatic Jeremiah Sparks) performing at a hurricane relief concert. The production ends with a nice sting about the relative truth of the tall tale.
McCooeye, who co-directs with Jesse Griffiths, lays on some unnecessarily broad comedy early in the show involving the reporter. But Wallis's storytelling skills, which help establish the narrator's shrewd, manipulative personality, and Sparks's tunes, including several musical encores (one with his fellow actors on guitar and harmonica) are both impressive.
In Theatre Brouhaha's The Unseen Hand, one of the festival's more surreal scripts, an alien named Willie (Kevin Ritchie) asks the help of a robber clan, the three Morphan brothers (Scott Clarkson, Rick Jon Egan and Tom Darcy McGee), to save him and his kind from evildoers on a distant planet. Willie, a former baboon with a blood-red handprint on his face, has to bring the latter two back to life before they can start on their quest. The quartet also have to battle an adversary here on Earth, the nerdy Kid (G. Kyle Shields), who proves to be a rah-rah American reactionary.
The production's best performance is Egan's cheerful and charming Cisco, the most innocent of the Morphans; his work has an understated style that contrasts with the larger performances director Kat Sandler asks of the others. Ritchie's Willie has great energy and delivers Shepard's sometimes gibberish lines - he occasionally sounds like Waiting For Godot's Lucky - with zest. Clarkson also does good work, once he leaves behind some corny old-man acting.
Again, the show is filled with music (played by Alexis Budd), mostly cowboy tunes, and ends with the entire cast singing the theme song from the 60s TV show Rawhide.
We applaud another successful festival and look forward to next year's one-week blowout, which will mine the short works of yet another playwright.
Ever since the Humber School of Comedy started up, people have been wondering whether or not you can teach people to be funny. But the quality of some of its graduates - among them Nikki Payne, Jason Rouse, Debra DiGiovanni - speaks for itself.
So we headed down to Second City Monday, May 6, to see the latest graduates in Humber's Comedy Writing & Performance Program put on their New Faces show, directed by SC alum Bruce Pirrie.
Hosted by Scott Thompson, who also gamely took part in several sketches, the show was uneven, and quite long, and meant we missed a Leafs game, but there were more than two dozen talents to showcase.
And it was worth it to witness the developing artists. Overall, the sketch writing wasn't very sharp and featured a disappointingly narrow range of topics. But we really liked Connor Boyle and Danny Dillabough's opening bit, Writer's Room, in which Thompson used sexually tinged mnemonic tricks to remember everyone's names.
Dillabough's Pawn Shop sketch also scored with its absurd premise of a guy who's cut out his own kidney for cash. And the show closed on a literal high note with clever sketches involving a foot-in-mouth Rob Ford and then a Les Mis-style number set in city council. Adam Gall wrote the Ford bit, and Cass McPhee and Vallicity Wilson wrote the political musical parody.
Among the performers, Connor Van Abbe showed solid comic chops as a man stuck outside a locked bathroom door, Kyle Andrews confidently delivered a series of songs as Justin Trudeau (which he co-wrote with Denis Keane), and Wilson, hidden in an outrageous wig and costume, was amusing as Hitler's Food Taster.
Among the stand-ups, Dillabough stumbled at first but then quickly won over the crowd with bits about inappropriate adjectives for women and how ads for missing children should be time-sensitive. And Darren Springer showed a ton of potential with his focused, confidently performed jokes about his father's voice messages and awkward email alerts.
Remember their names. They'll likely be popping up at comedy clubs around town.
It's time to raise a glass and toast the memory of Harold Kandel, an inveterate indie theatregoer and iconoclastic audience member who is honoured every year at the Harold Awards, a celebration of those who've contributed to theatre life in Toronto.
Kandel thought nothing of commenting on a performance as it happened; performers sometimes loved his being there, sometimes feared it.
The awards in his name were inaugurated in 1995, and this 19th edition, hosted by Richard Lee and Lindy Zucker, will induct a dozen or so people into the fold of those, as the phrase goes, Harolded.
This year's Harolds are handed out on Monday (May 13) at the Monarch Tavern. In addition to those prizes, the Ken MacDougall Award for an emerging director and the Barbara Fingerote Award for volunteerism in the theatre community will also be presented.
$10 at the door; please also bring a canned good for donation to the Good Shepherd Centre.