In Toronto It's Half the Size

When you open the newspaper in Toronto, you are likely to find the front pages filled with what New Yorkers might call "little things:" a handicapped man who had to pay a fine for using his wife's handicap sticker on his car; an op-ed urging the legalization of prostitution; a state environmental law slowly moving through the initial stages of confirmation by Parliament. Not much talk of war, corruption, lies and greed on the vast scale we're used to in the New York papers. In these same newspapers every July you'll also find listings for the dozens of plays at the Toronto Fringe Festival. The majority of these plays also come from a smaller perspective. They are plays about little things, sometimes about nothing at all. Those plays at the festival that do seem to be in dialogue with world events manage to be so in an understated way, without screaming out their timeliness and relevance in frenetic Big Apple style.

Out of the half dozen plays I caught at the festival, perhaps the most authentic Torontonian experience was sitting at the Pauper's Pub on Bloor Street with a pint of Keith's, watching the charmingly disarming Opera on the Rocks. Out of the midst of the drinkers, a group of four, their eyes glued to the hockey game on the TV screen, break into operatic song. He's open, pass the puck! Go, go, go, down the wing...oh shit." Using the mundane language of hockey spectators, the plain contemporary English of BFF's meeting for martinis on a TGIF, and the small talk of a horny bar fly, the company of talented singers make the most of this overly-dramatic theatrical form. Reminiscent of the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma's contrasting simplicity of language with grandeur of form, the opera takes the drama we all feel our lives infused with, and turns it into a collective joke. The result is a bar full of happy people laughing to their heart's content. In the funniest and most out-there scene in the opera, we witness a Lavalife date between two people whose online profiles enhance their height by a couple feet, their profession from nobodys to surgeons and even their skin color from one race to another. After the discovery of the mutual lies, the couple unites through their love of the local hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Within minutes he's on top of her on the bar dry humping as they orgasmically release names of Maple Leafs players to the air in operatic fervor.

On the other side of the vernacular spectrum, Pericles Snowdon's Bluebeard uses heightened poetic language, along with seasoned, controlled acting, to tell a grim version of a dark fairy tale. One of the strongest theatrical evenings at the festival, this imperfect British play arrived in Toronto after a run in both London and New York. From its description, Bluebeard seemed to be one of the few plays in the festival that directly addresses world events. Though it was written before the incestuous Austrian family had been revealed to the press and released from its twenty four year underground imprisonment, it is hard to ignore the story's echo in Bluebeard. The female ensemble portrays the story of four girls brought up in an underground dungeon, never allowed out by the girls' mother, Blue. Featuring the best acting I saw in the TFF (stand out performances include Andrea Runge as Piglet and Kat Lanteigne as Rooster), Snowdon's poetic control of the language drives the dark mood of the play along, touching along the way on issues of political subjugation, gender politics, and environmental disasters. The main question of the play, "Isn't it better to be put away somewhere safe than to get sent out to a world without a heart," is spoken too bluntly by the characters, and this thrusts the audience out of the play. In general the play is best when it is doing what the Fringe was created for - exploring new avenues for storytelling in a theatrical setting - and weakest when it follows the traditional path of the dramatic writer - tying up loose ends and providing explanations for characters' behavior, leading up to a culminating event. In David Metheson's production, these moments come across untidy and confusing, and pale in comparison to the rich, playful theatrical world created in the first half of the evening.

However, when watching this year's choice for Best New Play at the Fringe, you can't help but excuse the more interesting playwrights for trying to keep their work within a traditional frame. Rachel Blair's Wake is a well structured yet bland play about three brothers coming together at their father's funeral. The play's greatest strength lies in its oscillation between the present and the past, slowly revealing the memories that make up the emotional content of the brothers' relationship. Blair successfully uses her structure to portray the experience of a wake. And Frank Cox O'Connell gives a memorable performance as the shy Shane. Still, it's hard not to hope for more emotional engagement, as well as theatrical experimentation, from the winner of a major Fringe Festival.

One theatrical event that stood out as an interesting contemporary form was Barry Smith's American Squatter. More a presenter than an actor, Smith uses a projector connected to his laptop to tell the story of how the son of an L.A clean freak ends up squatting in London in "a zen-like state of disarray." Engaging and funny, Smith, a comic journalist from Boulder, Colorado, is in full control of his unique form. His ongoing use of video and photo footage, accompanied by entertaining PowerPoint-like amusement, gives American Squatter a twenty first century zing. In this moment, when the memoir seems to be encroaching upon the novel's status as king of the published word, Smith's theatrical memoir made a lot of sense inside the walls of Toronto's Factory Theater.

In the same space, I caught Balls, a two hander by Rob Salerno. Perhaps in a more American fashion than the vast majority of plays at the festival, the program for this Canadian play spoke directly about its political drive. A male response to The Vagina Monologues, Salerno felt that if the monologue is the appropriate form for women, the male experience is one of duality ("masculinity is not a one man show.") So the two characters play off of each other like boys do, cracking jokes about kicking each other in the nuts, about screwing each other's mothers, even going so far as the off-putting visual of a magazine dedicated to that singular type of sexual perversion, Clown Porn. But Balls does not stay in the mundane for long. Instead it travels to a challenging place for these male prototypes. Early in the play we watch Paul (Salerno) discover that he has testicular cancer. His buddy (Adam Goldhamer) helps him through the chemo, operations and other heavy ordeals, until, and this is where the play takes an unnecessary turn, he discovers that he too is sick with the same disease. "A real man needs only one," the play's T-shirt reads. Similarly, one case of testicular cancer would have been quite enough for the one play. Nonetheless, Salerno's staging is simple and direct, and the play ends with the moving picture of one man alone without his friend.

Balls is typical of many of the Canadian plays at the TFF in that it is on the Canadian Fringe circuit, making its way west from Montreal all the way to British Columbia. It's a summer of low budget stage fun for these little troupes, many of whom are making their first steps on the Canadian stage. The opportunity that the TFF, as well as the other Fringe Fests around the country offers is invaluable to many young theatricians. Also, all box office proceeds go directly to the companies.

The Fringe Fest culture in Canada has a long and wide-spread history, and you definitely feel it standing in the long lines to get into the shows. The festival is well established here, and most of the play-goers I spoke with were long time Fringe viewers who had already seen at least a handful of shows this year alone. The 2008 TFF had just under 150 shows, and sold close to 60,000 tickets. That's an average of almost 400 viewers per run. Unlike the New York Fringe, here every show helps spread the word about other performances in the Festival. Whether it's that helpful community vibe or the strong Fringe history in this country, audiences are sizeable, and in large part supportive.

Many Canadian theater professionals speak more highly of the upcoming Summer Works festival, showcasing new Canadian plays. That festival is juried, and so they say the quality tends to be higher. Acceptance into the Fringe, on the other hand, is by lottery (around one out of four submissions accepted), no jury involved, a system with its obvious pros and cons.

For someone who's been in the loud New York theater scene for close to a decade now, there is something enticing about the subdued quality of plays here (as well as the way they are presented and talked about.) While at moments it feels like they are just chickening out of saying what they have to say about the world, it also makes you look harder to find the meaning of the piece. Granted, often there's not much there to find aside from some cutesy dialogue or a gag, but when done properly it functions as an invitation for the audience to engage in the material in whatever way they choose. Everything doesn't have to be so damn big. Only in the US is a small coffee actually huge. In Toronto, it's half the size.

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