Toronto Fringe: Telling stories in the darkly funny, quirky, satirical News Play

Clockwise from bottom: Andrew Cromwell, Rouvan Silogix, Greg Solomon, Madeleine Brown & Charlin McIsaac. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Theatre ARTaud and Lal Mirch Productions, in association with Prairie Fire, Please give us a dark satirical look at storytelling and journalism in Madeleine Brown’s sharply funny, quirky, edgy News Play, directed by Aaron Jan and running at the Annex Theatre.

Brother and sister children’s book team, illustrator Phoebus (Greg Solomon) and writer Joy (Charlin McIsaac), have hit a wall in their career; the fire woman superhero featured in their books is scaring kids and making them feel bad about themselves. When they return to their hometown Peterborough to visit their cousin Winny (Madeleine Brown), a troubled pyromaniac since the death of her parents in a fire when they were all kids—and the inspiration for their work—they find themselves suddenly becoming journalists. Winny’s recent fire escapade accidentally killed two Peterborough Examiner reporters, and Editor in Chief Art (Andrew Cromwell), former classmate and school bully, blackmails them into working for him in exchange for not suing Winny. The goal: sell 100 papers.

The siblings’ first assignment is producing an exciting piece about a local natural landmark—a big rock. They strike gold when Winny injures her hand while punching it, spinning the event into a story of significant bravery and resilience, while also making the town’s “crazy fire girl” look good in the media. This inspires local charity organizer Lyle (Rouvan Silogix) into inviting Winny to be the torch putter-outer at an upcoming event supporting those who’ve soldiered through personal injury.

Things go from crazy to bad to worse when Joy decides to take things to the next level. How far will she go for subject matter that people will want to read? Will her relationship with her brother, who’s against her increasingly extreme methods, be the same? And will their cousin Winny survive it all?

Great work from the cast is this sharp satirical trip. McIsaac and Solomon are great foils as the positive, cheerful Joy and the cynical, edgy Phoebus. Brown gives a lovely vulnerable performance as the shy, awkward Winny, who really does have reserves of strength that largely go unnoticed; still living in a town where everyone thinks she’s crazy, Winny perseveres because it’s her home. Cromwell plays the edge of menacing bully and charming manipulator as Art; you can tell immediately that Art was the school bully, and he’s desperate and amoral enough to go along with whatever scheme will sell newspapers. And Silogix gives lovely comic turns as the clueless, enthusiastic charity organizer Lyle and the gruff Greyhound bus driver.

Telling stories, making up stories and reporting stories—sometimes, they can overlap and get all mixed up. Are we fetishizing personal injury in our news media and charities? And is fake news, however small and local, ever harmless?

News Play continues at the Annex Theatre until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

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The oil industry on trial for crimes against humanity in the gripping, intimate Athabasca

David S. Craig & Richard Greenblatt. Set & costume design by Anahita Dehbonehie. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Samantha Gaetz.

 

Convergence Theatre presents the world premiere of Athabasca, created and performed by David S. Craig and Richard Greenblatt, and directed by Aaron Willis, assisted by Keshia Palm (who also appears as Huan, the Executive Assistant). A gripping two-hander, the audience gets an intimate, fly-on-the-wall perspective as a journalist and an oil industry executive go head-to-head over the environmental and human tolls of fossil fuel production and use. Part of the Toronto Fringe’s Next Stage Theatre Festival, it’s running at 77 Mowat Avenue, Toronto (a Toronto Carpet Factory space), the first site-specific production in the history of the fest.

Oil industry senior executive and gifted lobbyist/spin doctor Tom (David S. Craig) is being golden parachuted out of his position at Sol Oil, a Fort McMurray-based company that’s been touting the benefits its “green” oil production. It’s his last day at the office, and as he pushes back against the ridiculously prohibitive terms of his exit/non-disclosure agreement, he’s visited by Max (Richard Greenblatt), a journalist from The Outdoorsman, who’s there to do a profile piece interview.

Max’s line of questioning, prescribed by Tom’s successor, goes off script and the true nature of his visit is revealed. Max is an environmental activist, driven to extreme measures; and he proceeds to put Tom on trial as a proxy for the oil industry and its crimes against humanity and the environment. The heated debate that follows forces personal and professional revelations and confessions from both men. Will Tom be able to finesse his way out of this and talk Max out of his end game? Will Max realize that targeting one executive and one oil company won’t stop the oil industry’s work—or the public’s appetite for fossil fuels?

Outstanding work from Craig and Greenblatt in this intense, insightful, darkly funny and poignant two-hander—keeping us at the edge of our seats, guessing what these two characters will do next. Craig’s performance as Tom is the picture-perfect embodiment of the slick, smooth talking senior public affairs executive. Flippant, entitled and self-interested, and eloquent in his bullshittery, Tom is forced to really pay attention to the environmental and health impacts of the oil industry—and, more critically, answer for his and the industry’s actions. Greenblatt does a remarkable balancing act with Max, rounding out the desperate nature of Max’s mission with thoughtful, intelligent argument. Armed with an arsenal of facts, figures and pointed questions to put Tom on the hot seat, Max isn’t a bad guy; he’s mad as hell and doesn’t want to take it anymore.

Both Tom and Max present good, solid—although conflicting—points of view. It’s a complex issue with no easy answers. The only thing for certain is that the fragile balance between the economic and environmental impacts of the fuels we produce and use is on all of us.

Athabasca continues at 77 Mowat Avenue until January 20 every night at 7:30 pm except for no show tonight (January 15); good signage and production folks will guide your way. At this point, the run is sold out—so if you don’t already have tix and want to take a chance at the door, best to get there early.

SummerWorks: Pitching vulnerability in the frank, darkly funny, insightful …And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next

Graham Isador. Photo by Jillian Welsh.

 

How do the stories we tell about ourselves reflect on us? And how do the stories we read shape how we see the world? Pressgang Theatre explores these questions, combining journalism and theatre together as playwright/performer Graham Isador takes us on a journey of personal story pitches to BuzzFeed in …And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next. Directed by Jiv Parasram, Isador is performing in the Theatre Centre Incubator for SummerWorks.

Staged as a stand-up routine, while Isador’s solo show has elements of a comedy show, it’s a storytelling show—differentiated by a beginning, a middle, an end and a take-away. Having taken the path to writing and publishing, a piece catches the eye of the Reader editor at BuzzFeed; and he’s invited to pitch his stories, with the instruction to mine the vulnerability—for this is a key ingredient of serious writing. What follows is a challenging apprenticeship in journalism; one that is both gruelling and encouraging.

Cycling through various stories from childhood and youth to adulthood, he submits pieces torn directly from his own personal headlines: The worst day of his first job; a heart-wrenching break-up, precipitated by a horrible moment of finding out his girlfriend was cheating on him; looking after his injured mother while his father lay in a hospital bed in critical condition.

Isador is a masterful storyteller, delivering a performance that is frank, darkly funny and deeply moving. There is vulnerability in the directness, coupled with a quirky stand-up comic edge—reeling us in and keeping us at a safe distance as the storytelling takes on a confessional tone. Struggling with depression, he comes upon a chicken/egg problem: Is it these worst moments of his life that are making him depressed—or is it the telling of story after story of the worst moments of his life?

Is it true that serious journalism only includes the stories of struggle, hardship and tragedy—the awful, sad, worst moments of our lives? What do we get out of staying in bad situations? In telling those tales of personal woe? In reading them? The take-away is largely left up to us—some serious food for thought.

…And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next has two more performances at SummerWorks: Aug 17 at 10:00 p.m. and Aug 18 at 9:00 p.m. Get advance tickets online. Last night’s show was packed, so advanced booking advised.