2016 Hamilton Fringe Reviews, part 4

A few more Hamilton Fringe Shows I caught in the past few days.  These are all thematically what might be called “Thrillers”, so they naturally fit together I think.

Kairos Collective
at Theatre Aquarius Studio
Devised and performed by Nataila Bushnik and Robin Luckwaldt Ross

Inspired by the true life Mississauga murder case of Linda Andersen that dominated the Toronto headlines in 2004, this self devised and yet very intense one act docudrama tells the story of two young teenage girls who are arrested for the homicide of their mother.   In real life the two sisters, due to their young age at the time of the case, remained anonymous.  Their status as Young Offenders, allowed them to fade back into obscurity.

Here the killers are played by two Windsor Performing Arts Alumni Nataila Bushnik and Robin Luckwaldt Ross.  These two women also wrote the thoughtful script which explores the truth of what possibly might have happened the evening of January 18, 2003, into the full light of public scrutiny.

Much of the play, I am sure, is speculation.   I myself have worked on two theatrical projects based upon real life murders, and I can confirm that it is often impossible to know the true circumstances of a homicide.  Evidence is often contradictory, the deceased can’t refute what the killers admit to in a court of law.

Just like the real life detectives on the case, we the audience, have to piece together a narrative of what “might have” happened based upon the story is told to us by those involved – what is true and what is a lie?  It is up to us while watching to decide.  This raises the stakes in performance though as it forces an audience to become actively involved in the play, just by watching it.

On a bare stage, with nothing but a white sheet as a prop, these two young woman draw us deep into a dark and chilling world of conspiracy and murder.   Very effective music was created specifically for this production by Jaroslaw Bester and the Bester Quartet, which added a great deal. Similar to an Edgar Allen Poe short story, this play relies very heavily upon creating a very specific atmosphere of horror, Poe’s TELL TALE HEART immediately came to mind while watching this play.

Their mother, who we only see through the eyes of her daughters, is a self absorbed and abusive recent immigrant to Canada.  The two sisters, 15 and 16 years old in 2003, find the contrast between their unhappy home life and the exciting outside suburban world of school and the mall, intolerable, and so they make their plans murder as if it were some macabre class project.

With a great deal of premeditation, they ply their drunken mother with painkillers, sedatives and alcohol and pour her into a bath tub full of water expecting that she will die on her own.   The horror of the killing though, comes upon discovering that she is still alive, and so one of the two sisters holds her head under water for five minutes until she expires.  It was planned that both of them would take part in the killing,  committing the act together, but in the end it is the younger sister that does the deed, and thus feels more responsible for it.

Flush with $280,000 in life insurance money, the two sisters are very indiscreet about the circumstances of their mother’s death – the younger sister, tormented by guilt, confides the secret at a drug-fueled party. The truth makes its way to the police, who begin an investigation and are able to get a recorded confession using wiretaps, and – no spoilers here as we know this fact walking into the show – the two women are charged and eventually convicted of the crime.

The play only focuses on the events around the killing itself, without getting into the media circus that was the trial and the incarceration and eventual rehabilitation of the two convicted killers.  If the piece is ever expanded to a full length play, hopefully those details will one day become part of the story.

This was a play that I thought about quite a bit in the days following the experience of watching it.  I like that about it a great deal – that it did not give up all of its answers easily.   I hope the audience at Aquarius took as much away from witnessing the production as I did.  Kudos to all involved.

L.M. Magalas Productions
at Hamilton Theatre Inc.

A similar piece to BATHTUB GIRLS, although the case explored here is fictional, is first time playwright L.M. Magalas’ play THE FIVE LIVES OF COLBY CARTER.

This piece too, is an investigation that looks at the circumstances of a crime, in this case the poisoning of a young woman at a party. In this narrative however, the woman at the centre of the piece is Colby Carter, a music agent and promoter.  When the show begins she is in a coma and hovers close to death.

This play’s frame is her friends and family waiting for her to recover in the waiting room of a hospital.  The real meat of this play comes when a police officer named Tyler, wonderfully performed by long time Fringe and Community Theatre veteran Julian Nicholson, arrives on the scene and starts to investigate the circumstances of what happened.

Just like an Agatha Christie “whodunnit”, all of the potential suspects of the poisoning are present in that waiting room, former friends and lovers, and a jealous sister are implicated by each of the characters in turn.

The device that is at the centre of the play are several onstage reenactments of the same events over and over again – (think of the film GROUNDHOG DAY) – a replaying of events at a CD release party for wannabe Rock Star Keith Krocker, that all have been invited to.

Krocker, looking like a larger then life caricature of Irish Rock star Bono, steals the show.  Luis Arrajo plays this part with skill, gusto and sheer evil delight, and as a result gives the most engaging performance of the production.  He is caught out during the course of the party in sexual infidelity and plagiarism, but as he is also “the coolest dude on the planet”, he creates the much needed conflict that leads to a physical altercation.

Much of this play works extremely well, but as a whole, it does go on a bit too long, for my taste at least.  The early scenes in particular, seem like just set up for what follows.  Too much time is spent, I think, in getting us there before the crime scene reenactments start.  Perhaps a fast monologue by Detective Tyler, similar to the voice overs on the old TV show DRAGNET, setting up the circumstances would be a better way to start.

Playwright Magalas, has perhaps, also made the error of directing the show herself, which is not a good idea when producing your own play, unless one also has a great deal of experience as a director and dramaturge.

The late Canadian playwright David French, was great at this – his scripts were famously note perfect on the first day of rehearsal without any workshopping beforehand – but most of us who write for the theatre, don’t have that skill set.

Ironically, already involved in the production is Julian Nicholson, who has an extensive track record of directing new plays, so the outside eye/script editor the production desperately needed was already involved in the show.

As to the rest of the cast, Olivia Prunean as Sara, gives a fine performance, and Paddy Skinner as jilted country singer Adam keeps the action going in fine style as well,  Alex Whorms in a thankless “best buddy” role does nicely.

At the centre of the action, is Jenn Magalas as Colby, we only see her character in a series of flashbacks which are the reenactments at the heart of the play, she also has a lovely moment in an epilogue flashback at the very end, that ties together some of the threads quite satisfactorily.  I liked those final moments of the play, a great deal.

I apologize for perhaps being a tad critical about this production, at least about the script, which I think still needs revision.  I appreciate and acknowledge that this is a first time producer mounting their very first play in their very first Fringe Production, so perhaps this is unfair criticism.   Also, I hear through the grapevine that this production is playing to very good houses, so on one level at least, that of finding an audience, it is doing very well.

Artists getting the opportunity to “do their own thing” and learn along the way is core to the philosophy of the whole Fringe Festival movement.  I applaud L.M. Magalas for seizing the opportunity to get her script from the page to the stage, and for putting up the time, effort and money to do so.

Hopefully, the play will go on to have another production when the script can be developed and be taken to the next level.  I am reminded of the fact one of the hit productions in the 2016 Hamilton Fringe, Michael Kras’ #DIRTY GIRL, is a rewritten and better constructed version of the play FOR KIERA, which told the same story but from an entirely different perspective, and was a gallery show last year.

Art in the end is never finished, merely abandoned, as the old saying goes.

And speaking about remounting older work, we come to John Bandler’s play…

Bandler Corp,
at Player’s Guild Studio

I saw the first production of this play back in 2010, when we both had original plays in the same Fringe venue, and when it was Playwright John Bandler’s very first production of one of his plays – the very same circumstances as is THE FIVE LIVES OF COLBY CARTER now.

Since then, McMaster Engineering professor John Bandler has produced a number of his original plays at the Hamilton Fringe over the years, including a whole trilogy of fascinating science fiction plays loosely tied together around the character of Naomi Verne.

Although his first play, CHRISTMAS EVE AT THE JULI-BEE MOTEL, is actually his most accessible one.  The script is a film-nourish thriller, heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock, that takes place in an out of the way motel lobby in the middle of a blizzard on Christmas Eve.

I was rather fond of the that first production of this play back in 2010, for one thing, it starred a friend of mine Monica Cairney, and while it had a few rough spots, I felt it held up rather well in performance.

I was unsure how I would react to seeing it again in such different circumstances, but I am pleased to report that the show has exceeded my expectations.   This is a tighter and more polished version of the play and features some nicely nuanced work from actors Aimee Kessler Evans (in the role of Cassie) and James Thomas, as multi-millionaire businessman Mick, whose life has collapsed and who finds himself at the end of his tether and stuck in a dead end locale as the Juli-Bee Motel.

Much of the strength of this revival of the play comes from veteran local director Tom Mackan, (who was directing plays here in Hamilton before I was born).   He raises the stakes significantly in this production, and gets sterling technical support from Anne Hogan, Daniel Van Amelsvoort and sound designer Peter Jonasson.

The play at its core relates a number of stories, some of which are true and some of which are not.  It is a play that does not reveal all of its secrets, but leaves some details open ended.  Your guess is as good as mine, as to what happens afterwards to our two characters.

It is also a very sexual play, although it is not an explicit one.  I hope, in the end, that the relationship between the two characters gets, eventually, down and dirty.  Film Noir, which heavily influenced this show, comes from the period in Hollywood when the Hay’s Code of film censorship was fully in effect.  In the Noir thrillers of the 1940/1950s, men and women stare longingly at one another with bated breath, and even married couples slept in two single beds.  I myself, prefer late 1960s films, for their freedom of expression, but I digress…

NOTE:   I have past relationships with Julian Nicholson, and Luis Arrajo in COLBY CARTER, and almost everyone involved in John Bandler’s JULI-BEE MOTEL production, except his two actors.  This obviously colours anything I have written here, and I waffled over I writing anything at all about John’s play because of this.

The idea in writing these articles is to guide you, Gentle Reader, in deciding whether or not to see these productions. If you disagree with anything I have written, then please come up during the Fringe and disagree with me.  I love to hear your thoughts on these shows too.  It is not a one way conversation I trust.

Keep on Fringing Folks – only a few days left now to go, and still so many more productions to see…

2016 Hamilton Fringe Reviews, part 3

One person shows are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love them.

They are a staple of the Fringe Festival movement, as one person on tour is by far the most economical way to move a theatre production from venue to venue.

A tangent; there is a one-act Samuel Beckett play that has no actors onstage whatsoever, but as no one has yet figured out how to tour a play that can’t move and promote itself – I think it is unlikely we will ever see it at the Fringe.

A few of my all time favourite plays are one person shows.  BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR by John Gray and Eric Peterson, Tom Cone’s HERRINGBONE, (the early version from Canada, not the later multi-character version that went to Broadway), Joan MacLoed’s JEWEL, and Patrick Suskind’s THE DOUBLE BASS just to name a few that linger in my memory.

This piece will discuss three very different one person shows that are in the 2016 Hamilton Fringe.

Written and performed by Carlyn Rhamey
Directed by Mel White
Squirrel Suit Productions
at Mills Hardware.

One person plays are often confessional pieces.   A diary can make great raw material for a monologue, as there is a first person narrative voice.

Carlyn Rhamey is personable and affable in a very funny self depreciating way.  She performs a theatrical reinterpretation of her own life, and the stories she tells are often funny while simultaneously embarrassing and sad.   We find it very easy to like her, as Rhamey explains the reasons why she has never been able to find love.   She chats about dead end jobs, and several awful sad (but thankfully short) relationships with men who only saw her as easy pickings.

What is compelling about her story is just how vulnerable she allows herself to be onstage.  The piece is performed directly to the audience, and therefore depends upon some form of reaction from the folks watching her.

She tells us about meeting the love of her life, and a relationship that goes well until her beloved gets a job in Scotland, and she is forced to make the choice between her life in Toronto and joining her boyfriend in the UK.

No real surprise here, she sacrifices her own job, and decides to follow her heart and head off to Edinburgh. The complication of the relationship falling apart just prior to departure, makes things tricky.

Undaunted Carlyn heads off to the UK anyway but she finds herself in Dublin, Ireland instead.   Not being rich enough to be in proper digs, she soon finds herself exposed to authentic Celtic culture, which is open and sharing, for the first time in her life.   Crack (or Craic to spell it correctly in Gaelic) has two very different meanings in each culture.  She finds generous and kind people who welcome her as one of their own.  She finds community. She finds the possibility of happiness.

Eventually she ends up in Scotland, where she runs into a bunch of Canadian Theatre students on tour with a show. (Tangent – Edinburgh’s Fringe founded in 1947 is the largest arts festival in the world – I too can relate from personal experience that there are wild Colonials aplenty doing shows there).  These expatriate thespians, with director Martha Henry in tow, embrace her to their group and as a result Rhamey gets inspired to study theatre as well.  Here too she has found community, but this time with young people who have a passion for something that attracts her.

There is humour a plenty in the show, so much of the play makes you laugh a great deal. Bagpipes, underwear, uncooperative baggage carousels, Jane Austen heros, and youth hostels are just a few of the stops along the way.

Does the experience of her journey change her life?  Does she find love once again?  Does she learn to do some step dancing? Does a career choice as an actor mean that she will one day be touring the Fringe circuit?  Actually strike that last bit, as you know the answer to that one already.

It takes courage to tell so much of your own life story onstage.  I applaud Carlyn Rhamey for sharing her experiences with us.  I enjoyed watching it a great deal – you should see it as well, as I recommend it highly.

Written and performed by Nicholas Dave Amott
Directed by Brennan Richardson
Fireflood Entertainment
at Mills Hardware.

Ottawa based actor Nick Amott presents a very different one person show.

Amott’s play presents a fractured narrative that seem the internal ramblings of a man in a deep coma.  I apologize that I missed the exact malady/disorder that his character is suffering from – but it is a sleep disorder that renders him unable to sleep until his brain is so exhausted that be becomes comatose. He performs several characters in different voices, and there are fragments of dialogue as his story jumps back and forward in time.

Some of these voices, (specifically those of his mother and of the medical team attempting to save his life are pre-recorded), while the other characters, (in his mind and externally in the real world as well), Amott performs himself.

The central conversation seems to be between a doctor, or therapist, with a thick English accent and Amott’s internal mind – a reference to Freud perhaps the internal and external in verbal combat with each other.   They banter, and the therapist questions the validity of the experience of a mind in a fever.  A great deal of the humour in the show comes from these exchanges back and forth.  There are a few clever one liners to be mined.

Unique to my own experience in watching one person shows, the actor here lights the production using several lamps, cell phones and even a BIC lighter – (some of these lighting instruments are on stands and others Amott manipulates with his hands).  This is a brilliant device, as we change focus instantly between these realities in the world Nick creates.   There is also an amazing rhythm to the show – the pace is very quick and it requires quite a bit of dexterity to keep turning on and off all of those lamps in time to the dialogue that is being performed.

One thing I liked very much about this show, was that the narrative it presents was not in linear order.  Like a detective, we the audience, are expected to do some work here piecing together tiny little bits of information to create our own theory of what is happening.

I won’t spoil the show by telling you how it turns out, but this production left quite an impression on me.  Even now, a few days after seeing it, I still have not figured it all out.  It has made me think – which is a good thing – something that the world needs more of these days.

Toller On The Run Productions
At Artword Artbar
Written and Directed by Sky Gilbert

David Benjamin Tomlinson, portrays the Canadian bisexual figure skater Toller Cranston in a stunning tour de force performance that reveals a great deal about the vanity and vulnerability of fame.

Cranston is an icon in Canadian sport, he tells us about the Olympics and world championships.  Figure skating is a performance art and there is a flamboyant theatricality about the character – he needs an audience to listen to him in order to be happy.  Indeed, Cranston as presented, seems to need to be worshipped by his adoring fans.

The play presents a series of stories of cruel figure skating judges, paparazzi stalking him and lovers (both male and female), of early childhood experiences that shaped him in “Swastika, Ontario”, where homophobia was rampant and beauty and sensitivity were ruthlessly stamped out.  Toller endures being different from those around him and vows to become better then the circumstances from which he has sprung forth.

There is a narrative twist to the play which I won’t fully reveal.  But the basic idea is that Cranston in telling this story to us is actually rehearsing the very play that we are watching to an audience of no one whatsoever.    Or perhaps not and our reality is that we are all sitting in the Artbar watching the show.  It is up to you to figure it out when you see it.

I found actor David Tomlinson – who bears no small resemblance to the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch – to be engaging and compelling in the role of Cranston.  He has a wide range of emotions and his need to be heard and understood is what raises the stakes and draws us in.

I am quite a fan of playwright Sky Gilbert’s writing – mostly as it forces me to think about experiences that, while not my own, show me the world around me in a entirely different and new way.  Over the years the body of work he has created is impressive and he has written more then a a few plays that I think are wonderful and have been seen only briefly. THE WHORE’S REVENGE is the one I have wanted to revive myself at some point as I recall the production of it in Toronto in 1989 with a great deal of fondness.   WHY WE TORTURED HIM is also – particularly for a local audience – one of the most important plays that ever came out of Hamilton.  These are plays that need to be revisited I think.   Perhaps if my luck at next year’s fringe lottery holds – I will get the opportunity.  Fingers crossed.

Sky Gibert created HammerTheatre as a local alternative theatre company back in 2007 to produce plays that were meant specifically for a Hamilton audience, and were thus unlikely to be performed anywhere else.  While this particular production is not by HammerTheatre, still the production team and venue recall those shows, in my mind at least.

Sadly, after a run at the Toronto Fringe, the brief run of this play at the Hamilton Fringe has come and gone.  I am grateful for the chance to have seen it, as I missed it in its first run last November.

NOTE  – I have no relationships with anyone involved in the first two productions.  But I have briefly served on a a non profit board with Sky Gilbert – I have also been fortunate enough though to have had a long time friendship with Theatre Aquarius co-founder Steve Newman who stage manages and has designed the set for TOLLER.  I know that anything I have written here about their show is filtered through those relationships – but as the production has now closed I think it more then fair to praise the work of these gentlemen, as it is so richly deserved.

Many of the productions in the Hamilton Fringe are created by young people getting the chance to create a body of work for the first time.  I am happy though that there is also room in the festival for older artists of long standing. The festival itself treats all participants in the festival equally, although as the capacity crowd at TOLLER proves audiences themselves treat senior artists perhaps a bit better.

Once again gentle reader, I find it a great privilege to have the chance to experience these productions and to have the opportunity afterwards to write about them.   More thoughts on the shows I have seen so far in the Hamilton Fringe will appear tomorrow after I have had the chance to have write them up.

Happy Fringing!

2016 Hamilton Fringe Reviews, Part 2

Theatre by Committee
at Hamilton Theatre Inc.

Cast:      Lindsey Middleton, Ben Hayward
Director:  Brandon Gillespie

Phil Rickaby Productions
at Mills Hardware

Cast Phil Rickaby
Director:  Richard Beaune

As both of these productions are thematically similar, I thought I would write about them together.

I have seen eleven productions now in the 2016 Hamilton Fringe.  But, as of this point, these are only the third and fourth productions that I have been able to write about while juggling my own production in the festival.  The whole point of this writing is to direct audiences towards good work that should not be missed, so I am feeling the time pressure intensely of getting these written and posted.  Apologies for that Gentle Reader – but I will try to get my notes into some sharable form as quickly as I can.

So here we go again…

FAITH is an original play by playwright Ben Hayward, about a remarkable young woman and her experiences with a United Church youth group – experiences which ultimately lead to her rejection of God, or at the very least rejection of organized religion.

Although a two hander, it felt very much like a one person show as Lindsey Middleton, in the role of Faith, delivers much of the play to us as a monologue, speaking directly as though the audience was another cast member. This young woman has a powerful story to tell us.

Faith is both a character in the play, as well as its major theme.  What EXACTLY do we believe in?  How does organized religion help us become closer to God?   Is love, even love for a married man with children, but still love nonetheless, essential to us as human beings.  Who are we to judge what is moral?  Can anyone choose who we fall in love with?

I love “long dark night of the soul” stories about redemption.  Rod Serling and the TWILIGHT ZONE were full of them.  The alcoholic nobody who becomes Santa Claus, the aged salesman who barters his own soul for the life of a child, to cite two excellent examples from the original sixties TV series.

But back to the play…

Faith is a very intense young person, desperately seeking connection.  She shares her family history telling us about a father who abandoned her at a very young age, and a mother who had no interest in having a daughter.   Despite this she tells us of her few happy memories of her childhood, and of her sad attempts to find and reconnect with her dad.

Like many vulnerable people, she finds a substitute for the family she never had by forming an attachment with an older and stable person, in this case, with the pastor at her church.   He is kind and funny, and listens attentively to her problems.  I myself was surprised by how this relationship was dramatized, and what followed in the narrative was unexpected.

Coming in to the theatre, I thought the story would be about sexual abuse, as the history of the some churches in Canada; as the examples of the pedophile Brothers of Mount Cassell in Newfoundland and the Residential school system perpetrated upon the indigenous population have amply demonstrated – this exploitation of the vulnerable is all too common.

So my preconception of this production, coming into it, was that it was about a predatory priest looking to exploit a vulnerable woman in his care, but that is not the direction that this production went in.  The story it tells is more complex.

The pastor is this production is David, played by Ben Hayward.  He spends much of the play as a kind of human prop for Faith to vent at.  He listens to her and attempts to understand her, without much success.  It is a hard role to handle, requiring stillness for much of the play and Hayward gives a balanced and nuanced performance in the role.

Using the biblical example of the story of King David (and that the pastor in this play shares the same name David is clearly no coincidence) and Beesheba, a young virginal woman in the bible that he falls for.  We explore the morality of teenage sexuality, through the viewpoint of a decent man desperately trying to do the right thing despite the temptations of the flesh on ample display before him.

Much of Faith’s value in herself comes from men who desire her sexually.  She is desperately seeking some connection that she can hold onto in her fractured life.

One of the most powerful moments in the play, was when Middleton delivered a sexually charged monologue directly to a member of the audience – (and in the particular performance I saw, the person she picked to perform that bit of the play to was me).  It was an intense experience I can tell you.

Middleton is attractive woman, and her energy onstage is palpable – you could power an entire city with the energy she uses.  She also spends much of the play in ripped jeans revealing more of her then is typical outside of a strip club, and her physicality is in-yer-face.   There is some disrobing in the play I should warn you.  But it is the “emotional nudity” – the bearing of one’s soul – which is what is so memorable about this production.

Indeed, I feel that this is what the theatre does best, showing us intimacy in a simple, immediate and direct manner.  What I took away from the experience of watching it, is that all of us are worthy of being loved and connected to someone.  At the end of the play, we sincerely hope that one day Faith finds love for real in her life.

In a similar vein, although with a bit more comedy in performance, was Phil Rickaby’s one man show THE COMMANDMENT.

God is, in this play, a self depreciating, yet all powerful deity who speaks to his chosen prophet.  Phil, however, is an atheist and spends the first half of the play desperately avoiding listening to the message that God wants him to share with humanity.

The frame for the play has Rickby’s character crashing on open mike night at a local pub.  Seizing the microphone, he shares an intense and personal story of redemption, feeling compelled to find an audience to tell his tale to.

The song sung by Joan Osbourne about God being a “slob like one of us, a stranger on the bus trying to finds his way home” was running through my head while watching this play.  In this case though, God is the one driving the bus.  He advises the his chosen prophet to get onto the empty bus, as “the next three buses are full already”.  How can one argue with that?

Much of the humour, comes from God’s attempt to tell his new 12th Commandment to a man that desperately does everything he can to avoid listening to it.  It is only tragedy that forces him to become humble enough to listen to the message.

I have spent some time of my life in 12 Step fellowships.  The people in these meetings “share” their experiences, often dark and disturbing memories about surviving unimaginable pain but also about ultimately healing and coming out the the other side.

At the end of ones endurance we hit a “bottom” – when the pain of staying the same, becomes less then the pain of changing – it is often only then that recovery is possible.  People find it in jails, rehab hospitals and in the basements of churches.

It is often said in those rooms, that we “carry the message”, and that is the feeling I got from watching this play.   That hope and redemption is possible was the message Phil is sharing with us.  That the stakes were very high in his need to tell us this particular story.

One person shows depend very heavily upon audience reaction.  Story tellers depend upon someone to tell their stories to.   I was very lucky therefore to have caught Phil Rickaby’s show on one of those magical nights when there was a tangible connection between audience and performer – for whatever reason we all felt a strong connection that has coloured my experience of seeing the play.

Some credit naturally goes to Director Richard Beaune, it is easy to forget that great productions depend on an outside eye to shape and edit the experience of a play.

The beats – changes in tone and mood – in this play were incredibly precise.  It felt to me that this was a play that Phil had been performing for a very, very long time, and I was astonished to learn that the show that I caught was only the third performance EVER of the play. It is having its debut at the Hamilton Fringe.

I do hope that THE COMMANDMENT goes on to have a long run, as there is a real and sincere message at the heart of this production.

A tangent here unrelated to these productions here being discussed – I often get frustrated at Fringe plays that often have no point at all, other then the performers desire to get an agent or future work.   Perhaps that is another post to come in the days to come after the festival  – shows that seem to belong only to the person onstage rather then being meant to share with an audience.  But I digress from the point of this particular bit of writing.

Again, I must assure you, neither of these plays are about religion, they preach no particular creed, but they are both dark and personal journeys.

We seek light out of the heart of darkness – spiritual journeys are sometimes described as journeys through the desert.   At the end of a long journey, a cold drink with friends is a great way to end my day of fringing, as well.

I have no affiliations with anyone involved in any of these productions outside of meeting  and drinking with them at the Fringe Club this past few days.  That is one of my favourite experiences of a fringe festival – the chance to meet and interact with other performers.

More thoughts to come tomorrow, including some very cool one person shows I caught this weekend.  11 shows seen so far – off to another one in 15 minutes.

Go see these shows!

2016 Hamilton Fringe Reviews

As Theatre Erebus once again has a webpage – and as this one is basically a blog based webpage, I have decided to do some writing during this year’s Hamilton Fringe Festival.

First off, on one level it is completely unfair that I review or criticize any of the other productions in 2016 Hamilton Fringe.  I am well aware of this.

The main reason that it is perhaps a bad idea, is that I am an artist with a production in the festival myself.  It would be quite correct to say that any opinion I may have about another company’s work is thus likely to be biased – and if I slag every other show in the festival, am I actually just promoting my own show?    So indeed I freely admit this upfront. Coming to this site to read anything I write here, you are going to notice all of the show info about MARY I HAVE HIS PANTS.    And hey, I like the theatre that I like, and I don’t like others.

Perhaps, this is no big deal?   I firmly believe in the end, that there is an audience for every show.  That I am not a particular show’s target audience does not diminish my appreciation for other productions.   For me, this blog, is a chance to rave about the ones I like, in the hope, gentle reader, that you too may discover something that might not otherwise have attended.

It has been a few years now since I have seen ANY theatre at all, never mind writing theatrical criticism.  Last time I had the chance (and in fact the only time I ever got to review any shows at the Fringe was in 2013 when I was a community reviewer – a program I set up after hearing about what the Vancouver Fringe set up after attending the CAFF conference in Montreal).   I did 12 or 13 quick write ups of shows I had seen in 5 days.  It was fun and yet grueling as well.   But I was never asked back to do it again, so I surmise that was too opinionated, or that what I wrote was not what was wanted.  And indeed I saw no Fringe shows at all in 2014 and 2015.

My biggest frustration about the Fringe Festival movement (and not just the Hamilton Fringe which I have a long history with) is that there are always, bloody brilliant productions that simply never find the audience that would have appreciated them.  Often these productions that failed to find an audience, were ones that I personally loved.  While at the same time, some productions that were consistently selling out, were (in my mind at least) worthless crap.  Go figure!

So much of what I would like to write about in the mini reviews that will follow in the days to come, are the shows that moved me emotionally, that inspired me, that got me thinking about the art form of theatre itself.   Did I immerse myself completely in the production, or did my mind start to wander off, wishing it was over?   To me that is success, that the show flew by without me being aware of its length – that I was so engrossed in what was happening onstage, that I lost myself in the experience.

So I promise in whatever I write to focus on what worked for me – rather then pious declarations of what didn’t.  I know from my own theatrical practice that a play is merely a 1000 choices that were made in rehearsal, from blocking and creating a good ground plan, to editing (in a new play particularly) and interpretation of the text – its staging, casting, pacing, and use of the technical elements, sound, lighting and increasingly today multi-media technology.   Theatre is a collaborative medium, and even a self written one person show has at least a stage manager and a venue technician, and (with luck and more often bitter experience) a director as the outside eye on the proceedings.

I see theatre – all theatre – as a learning experience.  From really bad productions I learn a great deal – at the very least I learn how NOT to stage something.  And in the back of my mind is always the question – how could I have done any better?  How could I have made this better if I had made different choices?

I want to see theatre artist’s skills to improve.  My deepest wish is that the worst show in the festival two years later, comes back with the most successful one.  Because all of those involved saw each others work and learned from it.   The whole point of a fringe festival is to see as much as possible and let it sink in.   Love it, hate it, but see it and be part of that wonderful thing called community.

I worked on a production at the 2011 Hamilton Fringe called ESCAPE by a first time playwright named Robert Savoie.  He had never read any other plays other then the works of Anton Chekov.  So the first draft of his play was a large cast of people standing around talking without much onstage action.  But Robert did have a compelling story (drawn from his own life experience) to tell.     I patently explained to him the basic rules of a Fringe production – i.e. that smaller casts are better then large, that you have to keep it simple as you only have a few hours to tech, and that a character speaking directly to an audience and story telling eliminates pages and pages of needless exposition to set up your scenes.  Robert saw EVERY single production in the 2011 Hamilton Fringe, and he absorbed what he saw – he learned from the experience and his next play which he wrote and produced for the 2012 Fringe was a much, much better piece of writing.

Feel free to read what I write here, share it, disagree with it or ignore it completely.   I think we all do this anyway.   The few wonderful reviews over the years that I have had of my work I have clipped and pasted in a scrapbook – they get photocopied and added to grant applications.  The rest – (and I have had more then a few bad write ups trust me), I have consigned to the dustbin of my mind.

One other thing I will try to consider.  I have been involved in theatre in Hamilton since the late 1970s when I took a kid’s drama program up at Mohawk College.  Over the years I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of people.  Often some of the people in various shows I have some connection to. Where this is the case I think it important to declare the relationship or connection upfront, as it may colour whatever I have written about the show.

I was the Theatre Editor at VIEW Magazine for a few years, and wrote many reviews.  I saw it as a personal mission to get as much coverage of the local theatre scene as we could – and happy were the issues of VIEW where I was able to get as many as 4 or 5 articles covering various productions into the paper.   Often though, I was asked to cover and write about shows that I had no interest in, or that were not my personal “cup of tea”.  Acting professionally about it, and being fair to the audience who actually support that kind of theatrical work I tried to be fair.  Even if I disliked something, I had to accept that there was an audience that indeed loved it, and saw it as what the world needed more of.  “Middle of the road” and “Lowest common denominator” are not my favourite starting points in creating theatre.

But with the writing I do here, I can write about the shows that I want to write about.   If I don’t write about it mind you – it does not necessarily mean that I didn’t like it.  It just meant in juggling the needs of my own show has not yet given me time to see it or write about it.  Anything I absolutely hated – I promise – will get no mention whatsoever.   And given that there are 47 productions in the 2016 Hamilton Fringe – even in the best case scenario I won’t be able to catch more then 15 of them.  So, for those of you out there who know me, I will leave it to you to figure out which is which.

But here, of the productions that I have seen so far, are the shows I have felt compelled to write about.   More will be added in the days to come, so check back if I have piqued your interest.

Also I have been asked to take part in a Fringe discussion podcast by Toronto Theatre Artist Phil Rickaby, whose compelling play THE COMMANDMENT is in the 2016 Hamilton Fringe Festival.  It is available to listen to at this link

Cheers – and I hope you catch some cool Fringe productions…

Brian Morton

Broken Soil Theatre
Staircase Theatre
Written and directed by Michael Kras

I saw a preview performance of this play a week before the festival itself.   So I must point out that what I saw may not be the final finished production.

Also SPOILER ALERT!!!!   If you have not yet seen the production yet, I would advise you to stop reading this and come back to read it after you have seen the show.  I have strong opinions about this piece, and I think it only fair you see it and form your own opinion before you read mine…

So here goes…










Playwright and director Michael Kras is a clever artist, and I myself pay attention to his work whenever I get the chance.

He has woven a tight and compelling drama out of subject matter that is ripped straight out of the reality of today.  The stories of BC teenager Amanda Todd, Halifax teenager Rehteah Parsons and the online hacking scandal of female celebrities in September 2014, are just a few of the resonances that the play immediately brought to mind.

#DIRTYGIRL is a tight three hander, although at its core it is really the story about a friendship between two young women, Kiera (played by Claudia Spadafora) and Bridget (played by Cass Van Wyck).

I like theatre that makes me think, something that shows me something about life that I otherwise would not get to experience, something that has a specific point of view.   It is within Broken Soil’s mission statement that this is a show for a younger generation.  Cleqarly the experiences of twenty somethings are utterly changed by technology then were my own experiences at the same age.  Just how huge the online, social media world has become in the lives of teens and twenty-somethings is a central part of the play.

I loved the idea, which Kras explores to the full that the social media “twitter-verse” is some kind of literal monster – a malicious demon living within the internet waiting to pounce on the unwary.

The male actor in the production, Matthew Power in the role of James, was the least developed of Kra’s characters.  He comes across as rather shallow and unworthy of a girlfriend such as Kiera.   I think it likely though that this choice was exactly the point – that women often are attracted to guys who don’t deserve them.

The core of the play is that Kiera is not ready to have sex with her boyfriend.  To appease him as she clearly does like him, (and to fuel his masturbation fantasies), she takes a nude “selfie” of herself and sends it to her boyfriend as a kind of promise of sexual adventures to come.  This is her undoing.

There is a meme floating around internet that reads “Trust is knowing that he will never post those pictures we took online”.  But trust is earned.

Trust is the key to that word “consent” which is core to any sexual relationship.   Kras hammers home the double standard between men and women – articulated by Bridget who points out that if Keira had simply slept with James – instead of taking that picture – none of what followed from that choice would have happened.  Hindsight is always 20/20.

Recording sexual images of yourself can be problematic.   While on one hand I have admired artists who use themselves in their art, before taking such an image one should always ask the question – “What would your mother think if she saw it?”   “What would happen if this became public?”  Because as we have seen, with the hacking scandal as a prime example, that what was always meant to be private often becomes very public indeed.  And yet as I totally support all forms of artistic expression – why should not nudity be also part of that?   The images of Egyptian activist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy in particular come to mind.

There is much to praise about this production; the script is first rate, and its relevance is obvious.  It records the very real dilemma of young women feeling they have to live up to the constant stream of porn that young men are exploring – it creates a false expectation of your partner’s willingness to be “good, giving and game” in exploring their sexuality.  Sex is core to us as human beings.   True intimacy which we experience with our lovers is also.   I always used to joke (at least when I was younger), that I disliked porn films, as I much preferred “theatre”, an intimate, interactive and live experience which is the theatre’s very real power is what I crave.

It is that promise of intimacy inherent in the subject matter that makes this such a compelling subject for a play.  And the cast is indeed committed to the work, which raises the stakes significantly.  The two women dominate, and their very recognizable relationship is very well developed with a great deal of sensitivity.  We quickly come to identify with them both.

At the core of the play though is a single central image.   You don’t need a PhD in drama to figure out which one.

The photo that Kiera takes to send to her boyfriend hangs over the onstage action for much of the play.  And the particular image used is nothing that Kiera’s mother would be upset over.

Now I totally get that the actress involved in the production has no need to relive in real life the experiences of the character that she is portraying onstage.  So I am not suggesting that she should have taken a more provocative image of herself.  Rather, that if the choice was to actually show the image of Kiera, that a better one could easily have been found online – a quick look at Shutterstock reveals a few possibilities that might have worked with some digital editing…  (The female nude gets used in ads all the time).

Or perhaps an even stronger choice would have been never to have showed us the picture at all, leaving it to our imaginations as to what it contained.

This is a minor quibble, mind you, in what I feel is a brilliant production.  But I love things that are authentic – the more authentic the better.  So much of this play had me totally engrossed in the piece.  My congratulations to all involved and I hope they have great audiences.


4.48 PSYCHOSIS by Sarah Kane
Skipping Stones Theatre
at Hamilton Theatre Inc.

Cast: Kate McArthur, Breanna Maloney, Dylan Mawson
Director: Sean O’Brien
A talented trio of actors from Windsor University’s Performing arts program present a rarely seen play by the alternative English playwright Sarah Kane.

Right up front, I should mention that I ADORE the plays of Sarah Kane. I have owned a copy of the anthology of her “Collected Works” for a decade now – the five plays that she wrote in an 4 year span before her tragic suicide at the age of 28 in 1999. Her plays are visceral and “in your face” and for me represent everything that I love about live theatre. (If anyone ever wants to do a production of BLASTED in Hamilton please let me know – I have been itching to do it for years now).

Kane has been quite correctly called ‘the voice of her generation” now silenced too soon. Her work is rarely performed in Canada, sadly, which is a real shame as her plays are articulate, detailed, poetic and emotional powerful. Enormously effected by the war in the Bosnia and the parade of human destruction and suffering, she artistically reflected the world around her in her brief life.

This is actually the very first of her works I have ever seen performed – although I understand this particular play – which was her final work – has actually been staged before in Hamilton as part of Black Box Fire’s Emerging Artist Series about 6 years back. I missed that production, so while I have read the play and have some knowledge of the text, this staging of it is the one I will remember.

The play is performed on a bare stage with just the three actor’s bodies as set. There are a few broken mirrors, that reflect the action back at us. Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish Theatre Director wrote a book back in the 1960s called “TOWARDS A POOR THEATRE”. In it he argued that productions staged such as this force an audience to focus just on the performances – the actors and their bodies moving in space. I have no idea if Director Sean O’Brien has read Grotwoski, but his staging of the play certainly followed all of the rules of “poor theatre” – it allowed us – just like in Shakespeare – to focus on the words we hear, and the images that form in our minds as we listen.

The play creates a multitude of stunning images. The story it tells is of a group of in-patients in a mental hospital all of whom are being treated for depression and for the fear that they will do themselves harm. They talk to health professionals and plot their own demise, they are medicated “chemically castrated”, and one of the funniest moments in the play is a list of all of the medications they are prescribed and the effects on them of each of the medications.

While performers present a play to us, an audience absorbs it and responds to it. I was emotionally a wreck while watching this production, some of which I know is the after effect of the death of a friend about two months back from mental illness.

The title of the play comes from the time in the small hours of the morning, when suicides (statistically at least) tend to occur. I once watched a young woman end her life by jumping in front of a train in the Montreal Metro while I was a student at NTS back in the 1980s. Unless you are suffering from this kind of mental illness it is impossible to understand the reasons why someone attempts to end their life. Kane, who was clearly suffering at the time she wrote this final play, attempts to explain and give us some reasons we can understand. Parts of it read like a plan, which indeed perhaps it was.

The most poignant scene – two women as therapist and patient (Kate McArthur and Breanna Downey) share a sad moment in which the therapist claims that she won’t actually kill herself because “I like you, and likeable people can’t kill themselves”. The irony is palpable.

One of my favourite theatre critics, once coined a phrase that has always stuck in my mind. “People who like this sort of thing, will find much to enjoy”… Myself – I love this kind of theatre. Raw, visceral and seared into your memory with a red hot iron, never to be forgotten. The Fringe is one of the few places you can find it. Trust me, 4.48 PSYCHOSIS pulls no punches – it hammers its message relentlessly. It presents a stark journey into the heart of darkness, that only those afflicted will ever experience. It ends bleakly and in death, but is full of truth and meaning. I commend this company for bringing it to us, and hope they find an audience for the piece that enjoys it, and was as emotionally effected by it, as much as I was.
NOTE – Kate McArthur and I once acted together in a production of KING LEAR about ten years ago. I have no other relationships with anyone involved in this production.


More reviews to follow when I am able to type them up!

2016 Company Members


Winner of the 2014 City of Hamilton Arts Award for Emerging Artist in Theatre, Gregory has been featured in several productions across the GHA and GTA, including the lead in R&D Productions’ presentation of EAST OF BERLIN (Staircase Theatre 2011).  He is also a playwright whose original script ON THE ROCKS was produced by Windmills Theatre as part of the 2014 Hamilton Fringe Festival.  MARY, I HAVE HIS PANTS marks Gregory’s fourth collaboration with Brian Morton, having previously acted under Morton’s direction in HOW COULD YOU, MRS DICK? (DLT, 2013), TIME AND THE CONWAYS (DLT, 2011) and NEW TALENT (London, Toronto, and Hamilton Fringe Festivals, 2010).

Andrea has been performing in community theatre in the GHA for almost 10 years, with this being her fourth show for the Hamilton Fringe Festival.  Some favourite past productions include: ALL MY SONS (Players Guild), HEMINGWAY AND HIS WOMEN Hemingway (DLT), JANE’S THUMB (Hamilton Fringe 2011), THE GLASS MENAGERIE (Black Box Fire), and TIME AND THE CONWAYS (DLT). Andrea was most recently seen in THE RIDE DOWN MOUNT MORGAN (DLT). Andrea is thrilled to be performing in the Hamilton Fringe again and to be working with such a talented cast and under the direction of Brian Morton. Enjoy the festival!

Never one to shy away from an opportunity to show off, Chris eagerly brings his skills as an actor and general purpose “goof-ball” to this production. He has been a fixture of the Hamilton music scene since moving from Toronto in 1990. He is an acclaimed web-comic artist and plays keyboards in a “Steampunk folk-rock” band called Babbage Industries. Due to the declining number of active accordionists in the world, Chris has enjoyed far more work over the past few decades than he has been entitled to. His past acting credits include performances in ESCAPE, (Hamilton Fringe 2011), THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW and TRAFFORD TANZI (Waterdown Village Theatre), and THE SUICIDE, TIME AND THE CONWAYS, HOW COULD YOU, MRS DICK? and VIEUX CARRE for DLT. In his off hours he composes music for  UROTSUKIDOUJI: THE MUSICAL.

Tyler is thrilled to be part of MARY I HAVE HIS PANTS.  Originally from Strathroy Ontario, Tyler studied drama at the University of Waterloo and has been living in Hamilton since 2003.  Past Fringe credits:  Benedick in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING with Make Art Theatre (2015 – Winner “Best of Fest”), Director of ROMEO & JULIET: AN ESCAPIST COMEDY with Make Art Theatre (2014 – Winner “Critics Choice”), Ivan/Uncle Harold & Fight Choreographer of BRIDEZILLA VS THE APOCALYPSE with Brain Deadpan Productions (2013 – Winner “Best in Venue”), Jack in AWKWARD JACK with Perplexed Productions (2012), Co-host of THE FRINGE LOUNGE WITH LARRY SMITH (2011), Hugh in PURPLE with Goodstock Productions (2010), and as part of THE UGLY STIKS sketch comedy troupe (2007 & 2008).  Tyler would like to thank everyone involved in MARY I HAVE HIS PANTS, and as always, his daughter Mia.

David B. Fraser – (Playwright)
David has written several critically received one act plays for the Hamilton Fringe Festival, including 2015’s DRINKING, FIGHTING AND FISHING, A HOME FOR MARGARET (2014 Hamilton Fringe), TOMMY ALCOTT (Hamilton Fringe 2006), BETTING ON THE RIVERMAN (Hamilton Fringe 2009 and revival production in 2013), EMMA PORTER, (Hamilton Fringe 2003 / Toronto Fringe 2007), and THE ART OF SEDUCTION (winner of the Hamilton Fringe New Play Contest in 2008).  A Hamilton native, David has performed in theatre for over 35 years.  His past favourite roles include Doc in Piccadilly Circus’ THE LARAMIE PROJECT, Valmont in LES LIAISONS DANGEROUS for Dundas Little Theatre, Polonious in HAMLET and Banquo in MACBETH for Hamilton Urban Theatre, and Bruce in BEYOND THERAPY for New Group Theatre.

BRIAN MORTON – (Director / Producer)
Brian trained at the National Theatre School of Canada, and was the founder and first Artistic Director of Theatre Terra Nova, a professional theatre company in Hamilton dedicated to the production of Canadian Plays that operated out of a former church on Dundurn Street.  While there, he produced and commissioned Douglas Rodger’s play HOW COULD YOU MRS DICK, about Hamilton’s notorious Evelyn Dick – (in 2013 he finally got to direct the play at DLT). In 1991, he was a partner in the Evelyn Group, which reopened the historic 1924 Tivoli Theatre as a venue for live performance.  With Theatre Erebus he produced the UK premieres of four Canadian plays for the 1990 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He has directed the plays: FUGUE, TIME AND THE CONWAYS, ESCAPE, SUMMER OFFENSIVE, FAIR LIBERTY’S CALL, ETTA JENKS, COLD COMFORT, STRAIGHT AHEAD/BLIND DANCERS, CAUGHT IN THE NET, LA RONDE, THE WORKINGMAN, KRAPP’S LAST TAPE, BEING AT HOME WITH CLAUDE, I CAN’T IMAGINE TOMORROW, as well as his own plays  DREAMER WITHIN A DREAM and THE ADELE KOMOROWSKI PROJECT.

His greatest success as a playwright was his stage adaptation of Sylvia Fraser’s book MY FATHER’S HOUSE, which premiered at the Dundas Centre for the Arts in November 1992, and has since had productions in London, Toronto and Markham.   More recently his play NEW TALENT, about the 1997 Plastimet fire, was the highest grossing show at the 2008 Hamilton Fringe – it subsequently toured the 2010 London, Toronto and Hamilton Fringes. For many years Brian was the theatre editor / drama critic for VIEW Magazine, he has also published articles in the HAMILTON SPECTATOR and the MCMASTER SILHOUETTE.  He was the recipient of the 2013 City of Hamilton Arts Award for Theatre.  Brian also spent 14 years driving the night shift as a taxi driver in Hamilton.

Mary, I Have His Pants!

Theatre Erebus Inc will be producing the world premiere of Hamilton playwright David B. Fraser’s adult comedy MARY, I HAVE HIS PANTS as part of the 2016 Hamilton Fringe Festival.

Stubborn, pigheaded, and always right, John Timmins has been coasting along for much of his life and marriage.  Off up north to his brother’s cabin for his annual vacation, this year his wife Mary, insists John also drag along his ill suited best friend Randy, leading to a series of frayed nerves and wild revelations in this “adults only” comedy from the winner of the 2008 Hamilton Fringe New Play Contest.

The production will be produced and directed by Artistic Director Brian Morton, the winner of the 2013 City of Hamilton Arts Award for Theatre.  The cast includes  Andrea Adcock,  Chris Cracknell, Gregory Cruikshank and Tyler Brent.

At the Player’s Guild of Hamilton, Studio Theatre, 80 Queen Street South

Friday, July 15 @ 10:30 PM
Saturday, July 16 @ 2:00 PM
Monday, July 18 @ 6:00 PM
Tuesday, July 19 @ 9:30 PM
Thursday, July 21 @ 6:30 PM
Saturday, July 23 @ 9:30 PM
Sunday, July 24 @ 3:00 PM

All tickets are $10 at the door, (a $5 Fringe Backer button is required in order to purchase a ticket). Book in advance by calling the  Fringe Info Line at 289-698-2234 or online at www.hamiltonfringe.ca,

Warning – Mature Content, Strong Language, and a Chainsaw.  Recommended for an adult audience only.