Toronto Fringe: Fear & loathing in the workplace in the razor-sharp, brutally honest dark comedy The Huns

Breanna Dillon, Cass Van Wyck & Jamie Cavanagh. Set & costume consulting by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Steven McLellan.

 

One Four One Collective presents The Huns, a razor-sharp, timely new play by Michael Ross Albert, directed by Marie Farsi and running in the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre. It’s all hands on deck, after a break-in at a tech company office; and an international conference call meeting devolves into local power plays and startling revelations in this darkly funny, brutally honest workplace comedy.

It’s Friday morning and office manager Iris (Breanna Dillon), recently returned from leave, has gathered colleagues Pete (Jamie Cavanagh) and Shelley (Cass Van Wyck), a contract interim office manager, into a boardroom for an international conference call meeting to communicate and troubleshoot last night’s office break-in at their location. Ironically, this is a tech company; and Iris, who is not happy with the technical issues thwarting her attempts at projecting her presentation onto their flat-screen TV, is having a terse conversation with IT. Pete, who was in the office during the break-in, is technically on vacation and has a plane to catch for his destination bachelor party; and Shelley is calmly standing by, playing peacemaker, smoothing over rough patches, and ready to jump in to assist in any way she can.

Dialled into the meeting are colleagues from offices in Montreal, Texas and London (voice-over by Claire Armstrong, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Izad Etemadi, Marie Farsi, David Lafontaine, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Emilie Leclerc, Daniel Pagett, Tyrone Savage, Andy Trithardt, Jenni Walls and Richard Young—sound design by Trithardt). CEO Roman is otherwise engaged in London, so his VP wife Leanne has dialled in from a windy outdoor location, adding to the technical comedy of errors. On top of all of this, the office dealing with broken A/C, a garbage strike and various other issues around having just moved into an old building.

Things devolve pretty quickly once it’s revealed that the meeting is about something way more serious than just a handful of stolen laptops. And things get even more brutal for the gang around the table when—believing everyone has left the conference call—Iris comes after Shelley in a power play aimed at destroying any favour or credibility that Shelley has garnered during her few weeks in the position. This is exacerbated by Pete’s confirmation of Iris’s suspicions that everyone likes Shelley and wants her to stay on, including Roman. And things go from bad to worse when other, deeply personal, revelations emerge.

Outstanding work from the cast, including those on the phone, bringing sharply drawn, fully-rounded performances that could easily descend into caricature. Dillon does a remarkable job with Iris’s tightly wound, controlling edge—offset by her fears of being usurped by a new, younger employee. Iris’s put-on, chirpy corporate tone and take-charge demeanour belie her dread of being replaced and resentment over being undervalued. Cavanagh is a likeable goof of a bro as Pete, who may come off like a jack-ass who only cares about himself, but actually does care about his job and his colleagues. If Pete really didn’t think he needed to be there for this meeting, he’d be heading to the airport. And Van Wyck’s performance as Shelley unpacks a calm, cool, professional vibe that gradually reveals feelings of desperation and being adrift, not to mention brutally honest insights about the corporate world in general. Shelley’s “good servant” but circumspect professionalism contrasts nicely with Iris’s sense of entitlement and resentment. And does Iris really love her job—or is that just something she tells herself to make all the pain and sacrifice bearable?

While a corporate office environment may talk the good talk about a collegial professional attitude of teamwork, loyalty and meritocracy, this can often be a bullshit façade for the office politics realities of back-stabbing, power-grabbing and favouritism. Knowing and accepting this may help ease the soul-sucking nature of workaday life—but, despite needing to work for a living, we all need to ask ourselves how much toxicity we can suck up for a paycheque.

The Huns continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre for three more performances: July 11 at 5:30, July 12 at 10:15 and July 14 at 4:00; check the show page for advance tickets. Book ahead for this one folks; these guys are selling out.

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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.

Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip

Clockwise, from top: Alex Paxton-Beesley, Daniel Pagett, Mikaela Dyke & Anders Yates—photo by Alec Toller

Circlesnake Productions remounts its production of Slip, collectively written by the ensemble and directed by Alec Toller—opening in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace last night.

Walking into what appears to be a crime scene—some of us walking through it to get to the bank of seats opposite the entrance—we become immersed in Jane’s (Mikaela Dyke) apartment. Pieces torn out of books, scraps of paper, post-its litter the floor and cover the walls; and there’s a banner with a strange interlocking symbol (set by Bronwen Lily, lighting by Wesley McKenzie). Jane lies dead in the middle of the floor, red hood pulled up covering her face.

Detective Lynne (Alex Paxton-Beesley) and her partner Mark (Daniel Pagett) assess the scene as they await the arrival of medical examiner Blake (Anders Yates). Is it murder or suicide? Perfectly matched, they work at piecing together a story for this incident, playfully one-upping each other in a private, quick-paced game as each comes up with theories and trajectories.

As the detectives sift through photographs and other evidence found on the scene, we see pieces of Jane’s story played out in flashback—inspired by a photo Lynne finds on a shelf: a relationship with a young black woman, one of two people witnesses saw entering and exiting the apartment. Marina (Nicole Stamp) is Jane’s ex-girlfriend, still on friendly terms and concerned about Jane’s welfare. And we learn that the young ginger-haired man seen in the vicinity turns out to be Chris (Yates), Jane’s brother.

Meanwhile, Lynne is a subject of particular interest in a tribunal investigating an incident where she and Mark pursued a perp into a darkened alley and shots were fired. And she’s in the dog house with their boss Passader (Stamp), who expects great things from her. Brilliant and known for her remarkable instincts, Lynne has been anxious and off her game lately. And it’s not just because of the tribunal—she’s been forgetting, losing her grip on her memory and sense of time. And the investigation into Jane’s death becomes personal—maybe too personal.

Outstanding work from the cast in this tale where crime procedural meets psychological thriller meets dark comedy. Paxton-Beesley and Pagett have amazing chemistry as the two detectives; dedicated and good at their jobs, Lynne and Mark are well-matched, riffing off ideas and theories with a playful, mercurial banter and a good-natured sense of competition. Beneath the professional, hard shell exteriors are two damaged souls. Paxton-Beesley (no stranger to playing detective—Murdoch Mysteries fans will recognize her as Murdoch’s childhood friend turned private detective Winifred “Freddie” Pink) gives a compelling, heartbreaking performance of Lynne’s journey; Jane’s story hits close to home—and the dawning realization of what will it mean for a beloved career she’s dedicated her life to. And Pagett reveals the softer, conflicted side of Mark; a man struggling with alcohol and having a ‘normal’ life when he goes home from the job. Supportive and loyal to Lynne, Mark can’t help but be suspicious and concerned about her recent erratic behaviour.

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Mikaela Dyke & Nicole Stamp—photo by Alec Toller

Dyke gives a moving performance as Jane; deeply troubled, fragile and lost, Jane reaches out in an attempt to reconnect with ex Marina, but can’t bring herself to tell her what’s wrong—revealing and mysterious at the same time. Her perceptions of family are in stark contrast with that of her brother; whose version of the story is true? Stamp shows some great range as the hard-ass, domineering Passader, who has big plans for Lynne and demands she doesn’t screw it up; and the loving, kind Marina who longs to be there for Jane, but whose care and compassion can only go so far. Yates is hilarious as the wisecracking ME Blake, who doesn’t particularly enjoy his job, but game for the quick-paced, sharp-witted exchanges with Lynne and Mark. And he brings an edge of pragmatism and deep-seated pain to Jane’s brother Chris.

The immersive staging puts the audience on either side of Jane’s apartment, giving us a fly-on-the-wall’s-eye view of the proceedings. Photographs and writings become jumping off points for flashbacks, revealing new pieces of the puzzle. Memory and story weave in and out—and stories intersect and combine to a stunning and heart-wrenching revelation.

Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip.

 Slip runs in the Tarragon Workspace till April 2; advance tickets available online—strongly recommended as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

In the meantime, check out the interview with director Alec Toller on Stageworthy Podcast with host Phil Rickaby.

Rootin’ tootin’, swashbuckling good time had by all at Sex T-Rex double feature Sex T-Rep

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Sex T-Rex opened its hilarious, action-packed Sex T-Rep at the Storefront Theatre to a full house last night, with a double feature line-up of Watch Out Wildkat! and Swordplay: A Play of Swords.

Sex T-Rex is: Conor Bradbury, Julian Frid, Kaitlin Morrow (co-producer), Seann Murray (co-producer) and Daniel Pagett; with director Alec Toller and stage manager Katherine Belyea.

Watch Out Wildkat! A classic tale of revenge in the wild west takes a supernatural turn as Wildkat (Morrow) sets out to kill the man that killed her Pa (Pagett). As she tracks the varmint down, she meets the Devil (Bradbury), who has a hold on her Pa. Forced to make a deal with the Devil to save her Pa’s soul, Wildkat becomes his hired gun as the two set off to hunt down Spider (Murray), who is threatening to usurp the Devil. And when you make a deal with the Devil… Add some hysterically inept prospectors (Bradbury, Frid, Murray and Pagett) and you got yerself some high noon, good, bad and ugly good ‘ole times.

The cast does an outstanding job with this cowboy adventure, with the whole gang playing multiple roles. As Wildkat, Morrow is a driven, ruthless and formidable fighter with both fists and gun, her singlemindedness is tempered only by her good heart and love for her Pa. Bradbury is hilariously devious as the shape-shifting, and oftentimes befuddled, Devil; a creature who loves the boozing and shenanigans, but not so happy to forced into some hard work in order to defeat his enemy. Murray is diabolical as Spider, a terrifying and cold presence, and unbeatable at the poker table; and he gives a great comedic turn as the toothless prospector Curly. Frid is a riot as the interrupting, poncho-wearing Lonesome Cowboy, the narrator of this tale; and Pagett is hysterical and the grinning, ineffectual star-hatted Sheriff.

Watch Out Wildkat! is a rootin’ tootin’, sharp shootin’ good time.

Swordplay: A Play of Swords. Video game meets The Princess Bride meets The Three Musketeers meets Game of Thrones meets every other swordy thing you’ve ever seen. When his beloved Princess Pimpernel (Morrow) is abducted by the evil Baron Thorne (Frid), fallen knight Barnabas (Bradbury) sets out to rescue her. With the assistance of brother in arms Salvatore (Murray), the two face great odds and, outnumbered, battle their way into the Baron’s stronghold. But the maiden in distress is not what she appears to be, and when the two knights come face to face with a former comrade, things really get bent. Sword fights, magic, vintage video game graphics and a dragon – and did I mention that it’s all framed in the present day, as Grandpa (Pagett) plays an old video game with his sick granddaughter (Morrow)?

Once again, the cast does an awesome job with the genre. As Barnabas, Bradbury is channeling Oliver Reed from The Three Musketeers; a haunted man struggling to carry on when he’s lost everything he held dear, but ultimately unwilling to give up the fight. Murray’s Salvatore is very Inigo Montoya, a passionate Spaniard and master swordsman, loyal to his friends and death to his enemies. Morrow’s Princess Pimpernel is a combination of Cersei and Daenerys; cunning and fierce, she is not as helpless as she appears. Frid is deliciously evil as the manipulative Baron Thorne and later – as an even more dangerous foe to our intrepid heroes, using magic and fire to confound and defeat all who stand in his path. And Pagett is hilarious as the warm-hearted, smart-ass Grandpa – taking a page from Peter Falk’s book – and the neglected, put-upon servant Igor, a man of low self-esteem who just needs a kind word now and again.

Swordplay: A Play of Swords is a swashbuckling, magical trip of camaraderie, good vs. evil an old-school gaming.

Both shows draw inspiration from pop culture, genre film and TV, and a child-like sense of fun – and the playful, imaginative storytelling, and use of props and cinematic staging adds to the laugh out loud good times.

But wait – there’s more! Popcorn, booze, awesome Sex T-Rex merch (including gatch) and super friendly folks. And the program includes fun and handy cowboy and swordplay quote generators!

A rootin’ tootin’, swashbuckling good time was had by all at Sex T-Rex double feature Sex T-Rep.

Sex T-Rep continues to March 27 at Storefront Theatre. It’s an intimate space and a very popular company, so advance booking is strongly recommended. Book tix online; both shows run every night, and you can book one show for $20 or both for $30.

Otherworldly, funny, poetic rock & roll fairytale – Trout Stanley

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Poster design by Meags Fitzgerald

Last night, it was out to the Storefront Theatre for Severely Jazzed Productions’ Trout Stanley, written by Claudia Dey, directed by Daniel Pagett.

With the help of the Storyteller (Dan Jeannotte), we learn that Ducharme twins Grace (Tess Degenstein) and Sugar (Hannah Spear) were orphaned as young adults and live an isolated life on the outskirts of a mining town. Sugar has been unable to leave the house since their parents died and, having built a world of their own, the two have created an unusual dynamic, with Grace in the traditional husband role and working at the town dump and Sugar being the stay-at-home ‘wife.’ Their daily domestic routine is turned upside down and sideways when Trout Stanley (Colin Munch) arrives on their birthday, lost and in search of closure as he travels to see where his parents died. Everyone has a secret.
The language of the piece is party poetry, part soap opera, part bedtime story – all with an undercurrent of rock and roll. The world is both harsh and beautiful – and in some cases, it all depends on how you look at it.

Pagett has an excellent cast for this trip. Spear brings an adorable and poignant combination of wide-eyed and haunted, yet optimistic and day dreamy child to the fragile, introverted Sugar; shy and reserved, and so full of longing for she doesn’t even know what, but overshadowed by Grace’s reputation as ‘the pretty one.’ Degenstein’s Grace is a ballsy extroverted rockabilly pin-up girl – and knows it – but beneath the vain exterior is a good, strong heart willing to go to any lengths to protect her sister. Munch gives Trout an edgy lost boy quality, tempered with a sharp wit, poetic soul and an aura of mystery. Like the sisters, Trout has suffered family tragedy and, while he is very likeable and claims to be unable to lie, he is hiding something. As the Storyteller, Jeannotte is a wry-witted, charismatic narrator, ushering – even directing – the scenes and joining in at times on the dialogue. He tells us the story of Trout Stanley with a twinkle in his eye, but with a commitment to the action that goes beyond a generic storyteller.

There’s some highly entertaining and effective staging afoot. Highlights include the sisters’ and Trout’s dance break to Heart’s “Magic Man” near the top of the show is both impressive and funny, especially Trout’s perfect execution of the classic David Caruso CSI Miami sunglasses flourish. The playful, cartoon-like quality of Trout’s late night visit to the twins’ house, sneaking in under cover of darkness to steal food and drink. During intermission, the Storyteller remains seated at his desk, wearing a cone-shaped party hat and flanked by a red balloon while he has a snack and reads a paperback. And who wouldn’t want to have a rock guitar exclamation every time you entered a room, just like Grace.

With shouts to the design team: Hanna Puley (set/costumes), Melissa Joakim (lighting) and Daniel Maslany (sound). The white set and props – particularly the shelves of Sugar’s figurine creations – and the slender birch trees on either side, coupled with lighting effects, give the space an ethereal, almost weightless quality. The wooden desk and chair, which is the Storyteller’s space, is like a link from our world to the world of the twins – and the Storyteller is our guide. The poppy, soft techno pre-show soundtrack, followed by rock riffs and remixed Heart tracks during the course of the action serve as sonic echoes of this world’s beauty and brutality.

Trout Stanley is an otherworldly, funny, poetic and moving rock and roll fairytale featuring a stand-out cast. Get yourselves out to see this.

Trout Stanley continues at the Storefront Theatre until June 6; you can get advance tix online here.

You can follow Severely Jazzed on Facebook and Twitter. In the meantime, check out the show trailer:

Toronto Fringe: Furtive desires emerge in Karenin’s Anna

karenin's anna - 2Karenin’s Anna is playwright Michael Ross Albert’s modern-day adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, directed by Luke Marty and currently running in the Toronto Fringe at St. Vladimir’s Theatre.

In this two-hander version, Anna (Caitlin Robson) is a Brooklyn girl who has just married Sergei Karenin (Daniel Pagett), the cousin of a friend, so he can get his green card. For the next six months, he will be living with her in her one-bedroom apartment, sleeping on the couch and paying her rent. Anna intends to use the money to pursue childhood flame Bobby, who is off in Italy to marry someone else.

From the moment the two enter Anna’s apartment, there is an earnest quality to their relationship, even in their polite stranger’s distance. As the play progresses, the dynamic between them evolves, and new – and previously hidden – feelings and emotions emerge.

Robson does a lovely job with Anna, a restless, passionate woman, full of longing – her emotions sometimes getting the better of her and shifting to cruelty. Pagett’s Sergei is nicely layered, frustrations surging beneath his calm politeness as he struggles with his own desires, missing his beloved back home terribly. Both are living daily lives of quiet desperation that can only come to a boil.

With shouts to Marty’s in-the-round set design, which gives the audience an intimate, fly-on-the-wall perspective of this relationship.

Karenin’s Anna is a beautifully rendered adaptation, told with passion and truth by an excellent pair of actors.

The show runs at St. Vladimir’s Theatre until July 12 – check here for exact dates/times.