NSTF: Joke packs a powerful, thought-provoking punch in A Man Walks into a Bar

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Rachel Blair in A Man Walks into a Bar – photo by Tanja Tiziana

Saw another remarkable Toronto Fringe remount last night: Circle Circle’s production of Rachel Blair’s meta theatre social commentary A Man Walks into a Bar, directed by David Matheson, now playing at the Factory Theatre for the Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF).

A Man (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) helps a Woman (Blair) tell a joke – and the narrative weaves in and out of role playing as they become a man and a waitress in a bar. It all starts off amiably enough, then the tone shifts to something decidedly different as the Man’s initial helpful demeanour becomes something else.

Bigwood-Mallin and Blair do an amazing job of navigating the scenarios, playing out complex, layered and socially relevant interactions with candor and humour. Blair’s Woman is adorably shy and awkward as she sets up the joke, confessing her nervousness at doing something completely new. As the Man, Bigwood-Mallin is charming and good-humoured, approaching the situation in the spirit of support and assistance. The intensity of their banter, light and punchy in the beginning, builds to a startling conclusion.

I’ve been struggling with what to write here, as I a) don’t want to drop any spoilers and b) realize that my experience of this particular play won’t necessarily be the same as that of others. Here’s what stood out for me. The Man says he wants to be helpful and supportive, but proceeds to continually interrupt the Woman, telling her how to tell the joke. This dynamic initiates a loop of sorts – the repetition of the unheard – and highlights things that guys just don’t get about women’s daily lives, where women have to be on their guard, even with apparently “average,” “nice,” “normal” men. It’s an indictment of a world where women are trying to find their voices and be heard, but men are hijacking the conversation (reminding me of Sen. Claire McCaskill’s famous quote that men should “just shut the hell up”). In addition, men are the ones making the rules, but they get pissed off when women play by those rules and things don’t go the way they expected. Miscommunication and misunderstanding aren’t the same as manipulation and harassment, yet the lines between them get blurred – by mistake or on purpose.

In 2016, when it comes to sexual politics and equality, the joke’s on all of us. And the joke packs a powerful, thought-provoking punch in A Man Walks into a Bar.

A Man Walks into a Bar continues at the Factory Theatre Studio until Jan 17, with a talk back following tonight’s performance (Jan 10) at the Hoxton. Advance booking is strongly recommended – this show was also sold out last night.

To book tickets in advance, call 416-966-1062 or purchase tix online; or you can purchase tickets in at the box office, which opens one hour before the first show of the day. Click here for full ticket/pass info.

NSTF: Sisters are takin’ names and kickin’ butt in From Judy to Bette

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Rebecca Perry in From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood – photo by Tanja Tiziana

The Toronto Fringe’s annual Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF) opened at the Factory Theatre last night and I kicked off this year’s festivities with Rebecca Perry Productions’ From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood. Written and performed by Rebecca Perry, and directed by Michael Rubinstein, From Judy to Bette is Perry’s NSTF debut – and a departure from her Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl shows – in this solo cabaret-style homage to four real-life women.

Inspired by four powerhouse performers (Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Betty Hutton and Lucille Ball) who refused to be relegated to the stereotypical female roles of the day, Perry highlights the career highs and lows of these remarkable women with anecdotes, quotes and songs. Perry is no slouch herself, taking us on a 30-minute old Hollywood history tour in a delightfully dynamic and engaging performance of a tight and entertaining script. Accompanied by music director/arranger Quinton Naughton, she gives us some sweet tastes of the tunes that made these women famous, particularly Garland and Hutton, featuring a moving performance of “Over the Rainbow,” a hilarious “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” and a rousing finale of “Rock-a-by Your Baby With A Dixie Melody.”

With big shouts to the design folks for this production: Edward George (set), Chin Palipane (lighting) and Patricia Whalen (costume and props).

Four talented dames take names and kick butt in old Hollywood in Rebecca Perry’s entertaining and eye-opening solo cabaret From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood.

From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood runs until Jan 17 in the Factory Theatre Antechamber; see the show’s page for exact dates/times. It’s an intimate space – and last night’s opening was sold out – so advance tix are strongly recommended. There will be a talk back following the peformance on Sun, Jan 10 at the Hoxton.

To book tickets in advance, call 416-966-1062 or purchase online; or you can purchase tickets at the box office tent, which opens one hour before the first show of the day (it’s heated and includes a bar featuring tasty warm drinks). Click here for full ticket/pass info.

Check out these great interviews with Perry from In the Greenroom blog  and Stageworthy podcast; Perry was also featured in this week’s brave, bold and beautiful Love Your Body edition of NOW Magazine.

Toronto Fringe NSTF: Big rhapsodic fun with sketch comedy in Unbridled & Unstable

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Gwynne Phillips & Briana Templeton in Unbridled & Unstable

My second opening night show at the Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF) in the Factory Theatre Studio last night was The Templeton Philharmonic’s production of Gwynne Phillips’ and Briana Templeton’s sketch comedy romp Unbridled and Unstable.

From the moment they appear through the mist astride their noble steeds Dvorak and Duchovny (riding side saddle, of course), Philips and Templeton take the audience on an engaging, satirical ride of sketches: Victorian equestrian ladies, a book club discussion, a 1950s amateur foley artist radio show, a real estate agent’s absurd home showing and audience participation horse racing.

Drawing on psychological dramas and thrillers of the 50s and 60s, Phillips’ and Templeton’s voice and diction work is spot on. Most of the sketches are two-handers, but the gals break out for solo efforts: Templeton’s hilarious historic romance novelist reading, and Phillips as the drunken and inappropriately frank Aunt Gloria, staggering down memory lane as she describes the photos in a family album to the kids. Throw in some wacky fun dance breaks – with nods to disco, Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and Truly Scrumptious’s music box doll from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – and you’ve got one ripping good time.

Added bonus: Templeton Philharmonic merch is available for purchase before the show and the program notes include saucy renderings of horses by Philips, Templeton and SM/Associate Producer Vanessa K. Purdy.

Unbridled and Unstable is a big, rhapsodic fun trip though some sharp-witted and highly entertaining sketch comedy. Somewhere, Dorothy Parker is raising a martini glass to these two wacky, smart and fun-loving gals.

Unbridled and Unstable continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Sun, Jan 18 – with a talkback at The Hoxton following the show on Sun, Jan 11. Click here for advance tix.

Toronto Fringe NSTF: Erotic, poetic & truthful evolution of a relationship in Mine

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Jenna Harris & Michelle Polak in Mine

Toronto Fringe kicked off its annual Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF) at Factory Theatre last night, the heated beer tent in the courtyard filling up with excited actors, audience and volunteers coming in from our first extreme cold snap of the season.Thankfully, the tent’s bar menu includes some warm boozy concoctions like cider and rum, and tea with a little extra something to take away the bite of winter.

I saw two shows in the Studio last night, the first being Discord and Din Theatre’s production of Jenna Harris’s Mine, a two-hander directed by Clinton Walker, featuring actors Harris and Michelle Polak.

We see the relationship between Beatrice (Harris) and Abby (Polak) unfold through a series of non-chronological scenes, giving the storytelling a tone of excitement and disorientation – much like falling in love. Opposites attract – and the audience is carried along with the tension, heat and heart of their meet cute, their distancing, flirtation, date nights, sexuality and domesticity.

Harris is sweet, cerebral and shy as Beatrice – and Diane Keaton-like with her comic timing and neurotic moments. Polak’s Abby is very much in her body, panther-like and assertive, with a soft butch swagger, and a mouth and heart full of poetry. Pablo Neruda’s I Crave Your Mouth, Your Voice, Your Hair features prominently in the text, the perfect complement – and perhaps even the inspiration – to the passion and desire for possession that plays out between these women.

With shouts to Jenna McCutchen’s set design – love the two pedestals and couch/bed made of books – and Melinda Deines’s sensuous choreography.

Mine is an erotic, poetic and truthful journey in and around the evolution of a relationship – with lovely work from actors Harris and Polak.

Mine continues its run in the Factory Theatre Studio until Sun, Jan 18 – and includes a talkback at The Hoxton after the Mon, Jan 12 show – click here to order tix in advance.