Toronto Fringe: So much big puppet fun in the hilariously playful, genuine Bendy Sign Tavern

From movie-inspired favourites like Swordplay: A Play of Swords and last year’s Fringepocalyptic Wasteland, Sex T-Rex keeps on bringing it as one of Toronto’s best scripted comedy companies. And this time, there’s puppets! Sex T-Rex returns to Toronto Fringe with Bendy Sign Tavern, featuring the work of master puppeteer and Sex T-Rex veteran Kaitlin Morrow, and running at The Paddock.

The Paddock is transformed into the Bendy Sign Tavern, where the human audience gets served by puppet and human staff (including bar owner Nico). The ambience comes complete with pop tunes on the stereo, a cool piano man in shades (Elliott Loran); and the TV plays puppet sports on PSN (Puppet Sports Network), rock video by superstar Tim Rek, a movie trailer and a hilarious human household product commercial.

Bendy Sign’s feisty and determined bartender Joan (Morrow) is over the moon at the beginning of her final shift at the bar— She’s looking forward to bigger and better things as she and her band head out on tour—and to stardom. Her laid back, soul patch-sporting co-worker Bob (Conor Bradbury) isn’t so thrilled; he’s secretly in love with Joan, but can’t bring himself to tell her.

Throw in the Bendy Sign’s favourite enigmatic, pun-dishing barfly Bill (Julian Frid), put-upon millennial server Weeds (Daniel Pagett), the bar’s cryptic and elusive owner Sal (Seann Murray) and adorable regular, the aging southern belle Marigold (Josef Addleman)—along with some surprise guests and other regulars—and you’ve got yourself some big fun. But beware the scary basement and the roving Bachelorette Wolves!

Joan’s dreams of rock stardom are crushed when she finds herself kicked out of the band, then renewed by the appearance of none other than Tim Rek himself! And he wants to throw an after-party at the bar! Joan’s efforts to enlist her co-workers to fancy up the place are successful, but Bob’s heart isn’t in it. In fact, he’d just love it all to go away—and he has some tough choices to make. All in the name of love.

Awesome work from the entire ensemble in this rollicking puppet rom-com—and Morrow’s puppets are amazing! With songs and surprises around every corner, it’s no wonder this show is selling out.

Big dreams. Secret love. A scary basement. So much big puppet fun in the hilariously playful, genuine Bendy Sign Tavern.

Bendy Sign Tavern continues at The Paddock until July 15, with shows every night at 7:30pm—except for July 9 at 8:30pm. Definitely book in advance for this one, folks; order your tix via the Bendy Sign Tavern showpage. Otherwise, get there early and take your chances at the door.

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Rich tapestry of image, sound & dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song—photos by John Lauener

 

Nightwood Theatre partners with Volcano, Richard Jordan Productions UK and Moveable Beast Collective to present Century Song, opening last night in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre’s home at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Created by soprano/performer Neema Bickersteth, choreographer Kate Alton and director Ross Manson, the multimedia, multidisciplinary Century Song tells the stories of women throughout the past hundred years, incorporating the music of composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Georges Aperghis and Toronto’s Reza Jacobs; and including accompaniment by Gregory Oh (piano) and Ben Grossman (percussion, computer). The show also includes stunning projected images—black and white, and colour portraits, visual art pieces, and evocative landscapes, cityscapes and environments—projection design by Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs from Germany’s fettFilm; and featuring the works of numerous photographers and artists.

This is a show unlike any I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of theatre—so how can I describe to you this beautifully moving, powerful and innovative piece of storytelling that is really best experienced on an emotional and visceral level, as opposed to a cerebral level (though it does leave you with plenty to think about).

Opening in 1915 with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, we see a woman corseted and engaged in repetitive action, evoking housework and an agricultural setting. Moving into the 1920s/1930s, she is now clad in a sleek golden gown, placed in a magical forest—the setting, sound and imagery changing as time shifts into the 1930s and 1940s, with increasingly intense and horrific renderings of social and economic upheaval, and the devastation of war.

Century_Song_7With projections covering both the back wall and floor, the zooming in on images provides the illusion of movement. This technical aspect takes on a playful effect as we journey from the 1950s through 1978, where we see multiple Bickersteths as a variety of characters in various living room settings. And it’s particularly cool when she returns to the stage, joining her projected, life-size selves.

The landscape gets intense again, as we’re whisked up a skyscraper and onto the roof where we see a vast, endless cityscape before us. It’s dark and stormy. Now dressed in a business skirt suit, she is caught up in a frenzy of chaos and speed—overwhelmed by the pace and bleakness of it all.

Century_Song_6Returning to a quiet moment, Bickersteth closes with Vocalise for Neema by Reza Jacobs, a piece commissioned specifically for Century Song; with a haunting, yet soothing, lullaby quality that shifts into bluesy and playful tones, it promises to bring some to tears as we return to the safe confines of the theatre space in the present time.

Bickersteth is a wonder up there, bringing a powerhouse performance that combines operatic vocals and dance. Taut and precise, flexible and present, her work is masterfully fluid and evocative as she travels through time and space—presenting the lives of these women, with all their joys, fears, challenges, successes and expectations as they play out their roles.

With shouts to the design team: Camilla Koo (set), Rebecca Picherack (lighting) and Charlotte Dean (costumes).

A rich tapestry of image, sound and dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song.

Century Song continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until April 29; advance tickets available online. Get out to see it—this is theatre like you’ve never seen.

Department of Corrections: The original post contained a typo in director Ross Manson’s surname; that has since been corrected.

Women of wit & wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy

Nightwood Theatre continues its 2016-17 season of groundbreaking theatre with Diane Flacks’ Unholy, directed by Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton, opening at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night.

Given the upcoming presidential inauguration and the accompanying Women’s March events, as well as ongoing changing attitudes towards religion, its treatment of women and LGBTQ people, and its place in our world, Unholy is a timely piece. It asks the question: Should women abandon religion?

Inspired by the 1989 documentary Half the Kingdom, Unholy is set as a TV debate, with host/moderator Richard Morris (Blair Williams) and debate teams of two women. On the pro side of the question are atheist lesbian pundit Liz Feldman-Grant (Diane Flacks) and excommunicated nun Margaret Donaghue (Barbara Gordon); on the con side are Orthodox Jewish spiritual leader Yehudit Kalb (Niki Landau) and progressive Muslim lawyer Maryam Hashemi (Bahareh Yaraghi).

Each woman is allowed two minutes at the podium to present her argument, followed by discussion and debate. This is an unapologetic, gloves off affair as arguments cover religion’s culpability for violence against women, women’s physical separation from male congregants, the niqab, family, sex, LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights, and justice for pedophile priests. It is a battle of scripture interpretation, points of religious and secular law, wit and conscience—conducted with sharp intelligence and humour.

Woven into the debate scenes are some revealing monologues and tender, intimate two-handers; through these, we get glimpses into the private lives of these four women. Liz rejected Judaism when her now deceased partner Stacey received a terminal diagnosis. Margaret, in her role as a nurse and administrator at a Catholic hospital, made a decision the Catholic Church couldn’t abide. The love of Yehudit’s life married someone else. Maryam found strength in family tragedy, and love and acceptance in her family’s new life in Canada. As private and public lives collide, and the debate heats up, of course all hell breaks loose.

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Diane Flacks & Barbara Gordon in Unholy – all photos by John Lauener

Flacks’ powerful script is matched by an equally strong cast that brings these fully drawn, complex women to life in this nicely staged, multi-media piece. As the atheist Liz, Flacks is a fierce, mercurial and determined debater; seeing the world of organized religion in black and white terms, Liz rejects the notion that religion can be a positive force in the world. Deeply wounded by the loss of her partner, out of her grief she became mad as hell at the state of organized religion and its impact on women—and chose her battle. Gordon brings a lovely, understated quietude to the soft-spoken ex-nun Margaret; beneath the surface, though, is a heart of strength, hope and courage. Not entirely convinced of her official debate argument, she is a disillusioned former soldier of the Catholic Church who disobeyed orders to follow her own conscience.

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Niki Landau & Bahareh Yaraghi in Unholy

As Yehudit, Landau is both comic and poignant; shifting from a willful young woman to dutiful adult, she serves her family and community with strength and stand-up comic good humour. Circumspect in her interpretations of her Orthodox Jewish faith, she sees room for growth and change; this includes space for women to play a significant leadership role. Yaraghi is sharp and passionate as Maryam, and an excellent foil for Flacks’ Liz. Like her debate partner Yehudit, Maryam is hopeful and believes in a progressive Islam as she strives to break the barriers of stereotype and ignorance in a post-9/11 world where extremists are continually making headlines.

Turnabout is fair play for the male moderator. As women are largely relegated to the sidelines in day-to-day life, especially religious life, it is he who stands off to the side as the studio is dominated by the four women. Williams does a nice job with the affable Morris; as the women take the podium, he rides the fine line of refereeing authentic discourse and the desire to create gripping television.

Each of the women is an archetype: the wounded Fighter, the Lover with a patched up heart, the heartbroken Mother and the haunted Healer. Although each is broken-hearted and struggling with a crisis of faith, each is passionate, strong, wise and loving as she strives to stay hopeful and work towards a better world.

Serious issues, but Unholy makes you laugh a lot—and it’s going to stay with you well after you leave the theatre. It may even change your mind.

Women of wit and wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy.

Due to popular demand, Unholy has extended its run at Buddies to February 5; you can book tix in advance online or by phone. The run also includes several scheduled talkbacks:

Friday, January 20 – Gretta Vosper: as an atheist and a minister with the United Church of Canada, Gretta’s self-proclaimed motto is “Irritating the church into the 21st century.” SOLD OUT

Monday, January 23* – Nightwood Theatre Young Innovator Michela Sisti hosts a panel discussion about women in religion as part of Brave New Theatre’s response to Unholy. Joining her will be playwright Diane Flacks, Raheel Raza (journalist and inter-faith consultant) and Andrea Budgey (Humphrys Chaplain, freelance writer and environmental activist).

*Please note: there are no performances of Unholy on Mondays. For more information on Brave New Theatre, please visit their Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 25 – Stay post-show for a Q & A with the stellar cast members of Unholy.

Friday, January 27 – Lynn Harrison: a Reverend with First Toronto Unitarian, an interfaith, non-denominational congregation with its roots in social justice and inclusion.

Thursday, February 2 – Due to popular demand, atheist minister Gretta Vosper will return to share her insights on women in religion and inclusive atheism.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Unholy:

Wacky, trippy good times with stand-up, sketch, music & improv in The Dandies’ Holodeck Follies

Out at the Comedy Bar cabaret space last night for a big fun night of Star Trek-themed comedy with The Dandies and their season 5 premiere of Holodeck Follies.

Set up in a variety show format, the evening’s festivities were hosted by stand-up comic Hisham Kelati, and featured guests Northwest Passage and Leslie Hudson. The Dandies are: Chris Casselman, Danielle Cole, Alan Leightizer, Zach Mealia, Jamillah Ross, Dale and Andie Wells, and Jason Zinger (musical director).

hisham-kelati-tngHost Hisham Kelati (aka Black Riker) kicked off the night with a set, interspersing bits throughout the evening. A Star Trek fanboy himself, bits included a hilarious encounter in a bathroom during a fan convention and anecdotes about his Eritrean mother, illustrating how she’s a Klingon mom at heart.

northwest-passageSketch comedy duo Northwest Passage (Kat Letwin and Simon McCamus) served up some darkly funny—and socially apt—storytelling with a series of sketches about a Grade 1 overachiever (Letwin) and how an art class critique from her teacher (McCamus) changes her life. The far-reaching and lasting consequences of that fateful day come on funny and poignant at the same time.

leslie-hudsonSinger/songwriter Leslie Hudson is also a serious Star Trek fangirl—and she proves it with a set of soulful, blues-infused original songs inspired by the various series (included on a CD). With driving beats and heartfelt ballads, she sings of doctors, captains and strong Klingon women.

For the main event, The Dandies—who set up their characters at the top of the evening—returned to the stage for some Star Trek-themed improv. Company member Alan Leightizer schooled us on audience participation for sound effects: entrances/exits through ship doors, transporter beams and warp speed engagement.

Set on the USS Hummingbird, the crew is getting used to some new arrivals: a disgraced, demoted former Captain of the USS Albatross and his Borg colleague Nine of Ten; and an ambitious young first officer. The Hummingbird’s Captain is a fierce and unforgiving Klingon woman with a love of vintage Earth clothing and reputation for ritually killing those who displease her. And the new Commander’s attempt at ingratiating himself gets super awkward when she expects his shipment of bell bottom pants to ring.

The newly, and dubiously, promoted Doctor has no patients to practice on, so the Captain assembles an away team. Beamed down to the surface, the gang finds themselves on a planet inhabited by talking monkeys. The Captain decides to fight their leader to the death for possession of the monkey inhabitants; binge-watching the Rocky movies in preparation of the battle.

It’s silly, it’s crazy—and it’s 90 minutes of good fun Star Trek parody.

Wacky, trippy good times with stand-up, sketch, music and improv in The Dandies’ Holodeck Follies.

Holodeck Follies was a one night only show, but look out for a return of The Dandies in February and keep an eye out for them at Toronto Comicon (March 17-19).

 

Second City serves up the fun with a trippy mashup of holiday classics in Twist Your Dickens

Ever wonder where the misfit toys went after Santa took them off the island? How about that original ending to A Charlie Brown Christmas that the network execs didn’t want you to see? And how Oliver Twist became an activist?

Wonder no more, my friends. For this holiday season, Second City presents Twist Your Dickens. Written by former The Colbert Report writers Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort, and directed by Chris Earle, with music direction by Ayaka Kinugawa, it’s running right now at the Greenwin Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

If you’re looking for a straightforward comedic retelling of A Christmas Carol, you ain’t getting it here. Starring Seán Cullen and Patrick McKenna, and featuring award-winning Second City alumni Jason DeRosse, Nigel Downer, Sarah Hillier, Karen Parker and Allison Price, Twist Your Dickens plays with sketch comedy and improv as it weaves other classic holiday favourites with Dickens’ famous Christmas tale, twisting and turning the storytelling—and the fun—in wacky, unexpected ways. Think secret Santa at the Fezziwigs’ office Christmas party; Tiny Tim’s sleepover; Oliver Twist’s orphan protest.

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Karen Parker, Sarah Hillier & Patrick McKenna in Twist Your Dickens – all photos by Paul Aihoshi

Leading this wacky band of performers, Cullen gives us a deliciously nasty and darkly funny Scrooge; callous and money grubbing, with hints of the Grinch, he has a game, child-like quality—which comes in handy on his journey with the ghosts. McKenna does a fabulous job, juggling several supporting characters, including the woebegone Jacob Marley; the chains he forged in a miserable life linked with confessions shared by audience members, inspiring a round of hilariously bizarre improv. McKenna also does a hysterically hyper-cheerful (or is he?) Fred, Scrooge’s nephew; he does a mean Jimmy Stewart George Bailey too.

Rounding out the ensemble is a fine group of sketch comedy/improv performers. DeRosse is Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s put-upon but faithful clerk (or is he?); he gives a stand-out performance as Linus in the alternate ending for A Charlie Brown Christmas, as the gang reacts to his speech at the school Christmas pageant. Karen Parker plays Mrs. Cratchit, Bob’s supportive wife who can barely stand to tolerate Scrooge—and has some interesting suggestions on that score. And she shines with the song stylings of Ruby Santini, delivering her own personal, hilariously inappropriate take on classic Christmas songs during a recording session (featuring McKenna as her baffled, stressed out producer). Hillier plays Tiny Tim, with a decided twist; this kid may be schlepping along with an ill-fitting crutch, but he’s no wilting wallflower.

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Seán Cullen & Sarah Hillier in Twist Your Dickens

Downer calls out the show’s obvious and not so obvious anachronisms as the Heckler; and does an awesome job as the rad, energetic Ghost of Christmas Past. And Price is hilarious as the drunken party girl Ghost of Christmas Present and the prankster Ghost of Christmas Future.

With shouts to the design team Jackie Chau (set), Melanie McNeill (costume) and Christina Cicko (lighting), and stage manager Andrew Dollar.

Second City serves up the fun with a trippy mashup of holiday classics in Twist Your Dickens.

Twist Your Dickens continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until December 30. Get your advance tix online; for group discounts (8 plus), call THE Group Tix Company 647-438-5559, outside GTA 1-866-447-7849 or visit the group box office online.

Funny as hell & sh*t gets real in the socially sharp, outrageously funny Late Night

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Kat Letwin & Alon Nashman in Late Night – photos by John Gundy

Moses Znaimer and Kat Sandler have teamed up for Zoomer LIVE Theatre’s inaugural production, the debut of Sandler’s Late Night (winner of Toronto Fringe 24-hour playwriting contest), currently running in ZoomerHall – a new space that will serve as a launch pad for intimate, multi-media indie productions. Located in a Liberty Village complex that’s also home to ZoomerMedia, ZoomerHall is part of ZoomerPlex (70 Jefferson Ave., Toronto), a multi-media production and event space.

Directed by Sandler, and produced in partnership with Theatre Brouhaha, Late Night opened on Thanksgiving weekend; I caught the show last night. As we enter the space, we’re greeted by the painfully shy intern Davey (Michael Misu), and a couple of audience members are invited to ask Marty some pre-programmed questions.

After 22 years hosting The Early Late Show, Marty O’Malley (Alon Nashman) is leaving the chair to young, fresh comic talent Sarah Goldberg (Kat Letwin), with a surprise reveal planned in his final show, broadcast live for the first time in the show’s history.

When the running order of the guests has to be changed, the reveal comes early. And when Sarah makes a joke about her and Marty, all hell breaks loose, exploding on social media and forcing longstanding exec producer Alanna (Maria Vacratsis) into emergency measures to appease a titillated and scandalized audience, and a confused bunch of network execs, pushing Sarah into a co-host position for the remainder of the show.

And when Sarah and Marty crack open Marty’s retirement present and begin chatting with guest Kevin Lee Hicks (Nigel Downer), things get really crazy – and the crazy gets turned up to 11 when Marty’s actress wife Vivienne Lawrence (Rachel Jones) shows up.

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Michael Misu, Maria Vacratsis & Rachel Jones in Late Night

Sandler’s script goes for the jugular, hitting all the nasty facets of show business: ageism, sexism, racism, sizeism, homophobia and the myth of heteronormative, traditional relationships; not to mention sex scandals and the exploitation of disease-battling kids turned celebrities. The main event here is Boomer versus Millennial, and she’s got an outstanding, kick-ass ensemble for this wild and wacky ride – all nicely balancing the funny with the real.

Nashman hits all the notes as Marty; classic inappropriate Boomer white guy, in the tradition of Letterman, O’Malley is magnanimous an even a bit verklempt on camera as he bids farewell to a job he loves. Nashman provides some nice layers of hurt and bitter, as O’Malley’s external calm collapses into rage. As Millennial comic Sarah, Letwin is a natural-born smart-ass; she does a really nice job mining the conflicting emotions of this moment for Sarah, who’s thrilled to be taking over the show and scared to death at the same time. She’s made a name for herself as an unashamed and out there comedienne, and masks her discomfort with an irreverent bravado. Vacratsis is a scary delight as Alanna; a hilarious combination of cheerleader and dragon lady, she’s been with the show for years and will do whatever it takes to keep it alive. Musi is adorkably funny as the socially awkward intern Davey; forced out of his comfort zone on a number of occasions, his reward is the care and feeding of Vivienne, who he goes fan boy gaga over.

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Nigel Downer & Rachel Jones in Late Night

Downer is entertaining and compelling as actor Kevin Lee Hicks; a gay black man who’s come to fame by playing cool grandma Mama Jones (who we also get to meet) on the big screen, Hicks is unapologetic, sharp-witted, resourceful and opportunistic. Jones is both a laugh riot and deeply poignant as Vivienne Lawrence; an actress in her mid-forties now relegated to mom roles, she’s struggling with her career and her marriage, and gutted that her kids get drawn into the gossip about her and Marty.

ZoomerHall is the perfect venue for this production. The studio audience sound stage set takes Late Night beyond site-specific and into immersive theatre, complete with cameras and live video monitors.

Funny as hell and shit gets real in the socially sharp, outrageously funny Late Night. My ass was laughed off. Get yourself on over to ZoomerHall to see this

Late Night continues at ZoomerHall until October 23. Check out show dates and get your advance tix online.

Epic good times & kick-ass adventure in Sex T-Rex’s World Tour II: Callaghan! & SwordPlay

sex t-rex worldtour

I think we can all safely say that last night’s opening of Sex T-Rex’s World Tour II production of Callaghan! and the Wings of the Butterfly and SwordPlay: A Play of Swords was the sweatiest fun Sex T-Rex show yet. At Unit 102 Theatre for a two-night run before heading east, the Sex T-Rex double bill will be the last show running in the Unit 102 space – and Unit 102 Theatre Company is in the process of looking for a new home. Both shows are directed by Alec Toller, with fight choreography by Kevin MacPherson.

Callaghan! and the Wings of the Butterfly, written by Seann Murray and Colin Munch, is a hilarious, action-packed homage to the relic hunting Indiana Jones genre. The opening scene finds the gruffly handsome, leather jacket clad Jack Callaghan (Danny Pagett) seated with three disreputable characters, playing Russian roulette in St. Petersburg (where they just call it “roulette”); he’s lost everything he holds dear and he gives no f*cks. Even in his despair, he can’t resist when his burley, fly by the seat of his pants friend Sal (Connor Bradbury) shows up with one last job. They must find the Hunab Ku, an ancient Mayan relic with untold power, before the evil Dr. Klaus Von Handerstopp (Seann Murray) does. As they set upon their mission with their loyal nerd tech support guy Walt (Julian Frid), memories of their lovely, game and resourceful colleague Muriel (Kaitlin Morrow) haunt Callaghan’s every waking moment. During the nail-biting, side-splitting climax, Callaghan comes face-to-face with Von Handerstopp – and must make a hard choice.

Bang-on, hysterically funny characterizations; evocative exposition via brilliantly written narration; and playful, improv-inspired action that uses imaginative props – all delivered with Sex T-Rex’s signature comedic, cinematic and high-energy stylings – Callaghan! is one big kick-ass fun adventure. All this and one helluva dance break (choreography by Robin Henderson).

SwordPlay: A Play of Swords borrows from some swashbuckling favourites that include nods to The Princess Bride, The Three Musketeers and Game of Thrones, as well as 1980s video games. I saw SwordPlay in an earlier double bill back in March (with Watch Out, Wild Kat! at the Storefront Theatre) – and had just as much big fun the second time around.

Epic good times and kick-ass adventure in Sex T-Rex’s Callaghan! and SwordPlay World Tour II double bill.

Sex T-Rex continues their Callaghan! and the Wings of the Butterfly and SwordPlay: A Play of Swords double bill with one more show in Toronto at Unit 102 Theatre tonight (Sat, Aug 20) at 8pm and 9:30 pm, respectively. Then, they’re off to the following cities/venues:

Thursday, August 25 at 8pm – Academic Hall, Ottawa, ON

Friday, August 26 at 8pm – Montreal Improv, Montreal, QC

Sunday, August 28 at 8pm – The Black Box Theatre, Fredericton, NB

September 2-11 – Atlantic Fringe Festival, Halifax, NS

You can keep up with all things Sex T-Rex on Twitter and Facebook.