Last year marked a big landmark for the Hamilton Fringe Festival. It was a turning point, and the theatre festival saw an increase of almost 50% in attendance. This year, the Fringe team pulled out all the stops and made the 11th year their biggest one yet, breaking new records for the fest. I spoke with Associate Producer Crystal Jonasson on 93.3 CFMU [Listen here!] to get the scoop on the new features to this year’s Fringe.
One of the new features was the Kick-Off Event at the Citadel Theatre. The evening kicked off with a performance by the Hamilton Aerial Group outside the theatre. If you haven’t seen HAG yet – they are a spectacular sight.
Inside the theatre, it was a packed house as Shelley Marshall took the stage. Having a history with Fringe festivals, Shelley was the ideal host for the show. Cast members from 23 shows (out of the 45 Fringe shows in total) took the stage one at a time to give two-minute previews of their shows. If they lingered any longer, that classic “Oscar” music creeped in to tell them to get off the stage! The previews were a fantastic idea. With so many shows, it certainly helped with choosing which plays to see.
Another awesome idea at the preview was the “Hats Off” segment. Seven local politicians campaigned to raise money for Fringe and each took the stage to act scenes from Shakespeare alongside professional actors. The more money raised, the more important the role. Depending on the amount of money raised, they played the “fool,” “loser in love,” or “hero.” I was so impressed by all of the candidates’ performances. My hats off, indeed, to Brian McHattie, Matthew Green, Sandy Shaw, Aidan Johnson, Brad Clark, Cam Galindo, and Michael Baldasaro.
In the 10 days that followed, I doubled the amount of plays I saw at last year’s Fringe and hit 12! It was such a strong lineup; I just had to do my best and see what I could. Let’s recap!
Jesters Incognito; HAW! Production (Hamilton)
My first play was the opening night of Jesters Incognito at Hamilton Theatre Inc. This project began as a 100,000 word novel by Harrison Wheeler that I remember seeing for sale downtown at Coles in Jackson Square. Speaking with Harrison, I learned he transformed his book into this one-man show in about two months. With a background in improv, a piece this demanding was new for him. Getting to see his very first show, I was so impressed! The way Harrison explored his creativity to aid in coping with mental illness was so inspiring and the piece promoted a fantastic and necessary message.
Fast Food Love: The Musical!; Big Bang & Company (Hamilton)
Switching gears for my next play – a musical at the Citadel Theatre. Or as the company put it, a “musical for people who don’t like musicals.” Written and directed by Carly Popenko, it featured a large, energetic cast whose characters all really leapt right out at you. Did I mention energetic? The cast really went for it! It’s always enjoyable to watch a show where you know the performers are having so much fun up there. Pat Skinner was a standout in the lead role. Although he was new to musical theatre, he is an obvious showman (having extensive experience in performing in bands over the years). Fast Food Love also received the lucky cover spot on View Magazine for the week, and they just couldn’t resist using the newspaper as a prop in the play.
The Great Canadian Tire Money Caper; Local Rascal Productions (Toronto)
Next up was my inaugural visit to brand new venue Mills Hardware. Corin Raymond stepped onto the stage and under a brilliant spotlight he began to talk right to us. Right from the beginning, he drew us in with his engaging manner and connected to the audience. He told his astonishing tale of how he funded the making of his album entirely with Canadian Tire money.
I truly believe in the universe at work in mysterious ways and that there’s a common thread that we can all trace through our lives. With every cent of Canadian Tire dough that Corin received, came a story from whence it came and it was so rewarding to hear as a listener. It was another link in the chain; one thing leads to the next in life. As satisfying as it was to hear the actual plot of his story, Corin’s commentary throughout was equally great. His take on money, work, and society’s often warped value that is placed on money was bang on. It was touching to hear the pure joy that Corin received from creating his art.
A one-person show like this impresses me so much. Corin didn’t miss a beat and the story flowed effortlessly from one incident to the next. I was hooked the whole time. I left this show with such positive energy and was very glad I could say hi to Corin during my Fringing and tell him how much I enjoyed his show.
At this point in my Fringing I knew I couldn’t miss the lip sync battle at The Baltimore House, which was the official Fringe Club again this year. There’s no better place in the city to be the go-to spot for food and drink to fuel up between shows and of course to party after.
A lip sync battle featuring Fringe actors (and even one stage manager!) was the best idea by Fringe and I hope they do this again next year. It was so hilarious and entertaining. I can always appreciate a good air band – I have the embarrassing home videos to prove it. Special shoutout to Baltimore co-owner Jimmy Skembaris who pretty much owned the floor, as I knew he would!
Romeo & Juliet: An Escapist Comedy; Make Art Theatre (Hamilton)
After reading the description that this was the telling of the Shakespeare classic in the style of Woody Allen, I knew I had to see this one at Theatre Aquarius. What’s funny was, I had just borrowed a copy of Allen’s Blue Jasmine and had watched it that afternoon. Pretty serendipitous. Based on its description, I knew that if this play was done right, I would love it. And boy, was it ever!
Ryan Sero’s Woody Allen was spot on. I couldn’t get over the rhythm of his speech and how perfectly he nailed the style. It wasn’t a Woody impression, either, it was a fully realized and reinterpreted Romeo character. Ryan not only starred as Romeo, but wrote the script as well. I loved how all six cast members remained on stage and played multiple parts (except for Romeo and Juliet). Making this particular performance even more special, as we applauded the cast at the end, they took a moment to give their best wishes to Ryan who, as of the evening before, became a father!
Tomes; Secretly Illiterate Theatre (Toronto)
Switching gear again, I saw the improv show Tomes at Mills Hardware. This team have a unique concept – they take a box full of fantasy novels that they have never read, get the audience to choose one, and perform the entire narrative, based entirely on reading the back cover aloud. I would be so completely useless at improv, that I couldn’t get over how well they carried the story through, acting as multiple characters each and jumping in wherever someone left off. It was a very entertaining show.
I also want to give a shout out to cast member Doug who hustled the promo so well throughout their Fringe run. I saw him everywhere I went; he was always out and about promoting the show and wanting to chat about Fringe plays.
Love With Leila; Unveiled Productions (Victoria, B.C.)
I made sure to see Izad Etemad’s production at Theatre Aquarius after missing last year’s Borderland, which I had heard so much about. His character Leila made an appearance in the one-man show, and he built this new show focusing on Leila. I’m so happy I caught it! Leila is so endearing yet feisty – you just want to be her best friend. She speaks directly to the audience as she shares her story, and even took a selfie with us during the performance!
The show has an empowering message and you feel so uplifted by the end. At one point, several of us were invited onstage to dance with Leila, including myself, my mom, and some of the lovely ladies from Baltimore House. Girl power!
Be on the lookout for another production from Izad to come – A Very Leila Christmas!
XOXO: The Relationship Show; Two Juliets (Oakville)
Speaking of girl power, this was the theme that carried on into Love With Leila‘s sister show. I also missed Two Juliet’s production at last year’s Fringe. It was part of the gallery mini series and they since expanded it into an hour-long show that took place at Mills Hardware. Meghan Chalmers and Franny McCabe-Bennett are the perfect duo and I am so glad I got to experience their unique cabaret style.
The show is a tour de force for the women – a non-stop mix of song, comedy, spoken word, monologues, and movement. Each segment transitioned brilliantly to the next and I was thoroughly entertained all the way through.
I would totally see this again; there was so much to take in. Good thing it was just announced that Two Juliets will be bringing XOXO: The Relationship Show back, performing the show at Yuk Yuk’s Hamilton on October 2nd. They will be joined by special guest, Leila of Love With Leila!
A Language For Dogs; Outrun the Mill (Toronto)
This was the most unique production in terms of location. We began at Citadel Theatre and were met by the cast who, in character as real estate agents, led us across the street and we were asked to choose one of them to follow on a walking tour.
Performing all the way, they took us around the block and we ended up at the performance space, vintage shops Hawk & Sparrow/The Eye of Faith on James North. Hawk & Sparrow’s space was emptied out after the shops’ close for each performance. It was such a unique idea to use a local business as the site of performance. The play was very dramatic, and demonstrated so much intensity from the performers.
Sherlock & Watson: Behind Closed Doors; Baby Gumm Productions (Hamilton)
I ended my Fringe run with four of the gallery mini series productions. The first was at Factory Media Centre. This was an interesting reinterpretation of the classic sleuth, Sherlock, and his relationship with Watson. What did go on behind closed doors, exactly? The dynamic was tense and layered; there was a lot going on in their 20 minute dialogue. It looks like Hamilton’s Baby Gumm Productions has created some interesting pieces – I would also be interested in seeing their Emerald City – A Musical Play.
Suitcase: The Untold Story of Evelyn Dick ; Aperio Theatre (Hamilton)
Megan Janssen wrote, directed, and acted in this production, which was the first project by her theatre company, Aperio Theatre. Talk about multitasking! Megan had a very commanding presence in her role as Evelyn. The piece was very psychological and blended fact along with Megan’s own interpretation of Hamilton’s notorious murderer. It was so impressive what could be covered in the span of 17 minutes! The gallery space of b contemporary worked so well for the intimate performance.
The Solider’s Letter; Wonder!and (Hamilton)
This was a unique and moving production. A voiceover monologue was played overhead at Factory Media Centre, spoken by actor Vincent Corazza. The monologue voiced a letter written by a solider in WWI to his family back home. Onstage, John Brough sat by a single tree while a backdrop of war visuals and sound effects played. After the reading, John came forward and spoke to the audience. We learned that he is a Canadian Veteran who served in the military from 1965 – 1968. He spoke openly about his experiences, and it was truly touching.
I was moved to purchase one of the handcrafted teal and red poppies they had for sale to help raise awareness for soldiers suffering from PTSD. Proceeds from the sales went to Wounded Warriors Canada. Proceeds from all ticket sales also went right to the cause. What a wonderful way to make a difference and a great addition to Fringe.
The Conspiracy of Michael; Reaching Symmetry (Hamilton)
Back over at b contemporary, I caught The Conspiracy of Michael. Writer Stephen Near wove together an intricate piece, and starred as the title character as well, acting opposite Lauren Repel as Emma. Stephen is an active member of Hamilton’s theatre scene and also works for the Hamilton Arts Council. He is another performer I saw out and about at many plays and was a fantastic Fringe enthusiast!
It’s a difficult play to explain; there was a lot going on in the dialogue and it kept you on edge. The piece left me intrigued and wanting to learn more. Perhaps we will see it developed into a longer piece, which I would be curious to see.
Every year, Fringe as whole leaves me wanting more. I had a fantastic time and I hope everyone continues to support local theatre throughout year as we await next year’s festival.
Thank you very much to Fringe for your accommodation and all of your hard work!
Note: I received a media pass to attend the Hamilton Fringe Festival, but all thoughts are my own.