What is it that makes Fringe theatre so damn special? There are, of course, a myriad of answers to this question. However, in my opinion, the opportunity for an artist to present their brainchild with passion and enthusiasm to their friends, family, and community and for an audience member to experience creation as a truly affirming force in the world, is downright invaluable.
This evening, I made my way in the sweltering heat to the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace (Venue 1) to see Act II Studio‘s original production of Spychasers as part of the 2012 Toronto Fringe Festival. This show was not flawless in its performance, it did not feature ‘professional’ actors, and it did not present a perfect script. And yet, it still managed to embrace exactly what I think the Fringe Festival is all about.
Beginning in a bustling train station, Spychasers, a story about WWII espionage, is set in London in the year 1939. Top agent Richard Hannay is on the search for the man leaking Britain’s secrets to the Germans. Adapted by members of Act II Studio from the novel “Mr. Standfast” by John Buchan, former Governor General of Canada, this show takes you to a gentleman’s club, a pacifist rally, a Scottish cliff, and a French château.
As my guest Patrick and I took our seats in the blissfully air-conditioned theatre, a cart sat stage right packed with old, vintage suitcases. As the show begins, these suitcases turn into walls, seats, podiums, and even various modes of transportation. Detached handlebars become full bicycles and open cockpit airplanes. A wire in a scarf creates the illusion that it is blowing in the wind. A long, tug-of-war rope becomes the English Channel, and a dolly the means to cross it. The use of props was so creative and imaginative, they added a great deal to my enjoyment of the show. I’m a sucker for productions creating a sense of environment in unsuspecting ways.
However, the most ingenious technical aspect of the show was the live sound design. That’s right folks, live. The sounds of trains, horns, and buttons were all recreated side stage with actual ‘bells and whistles’ by the sound operator. Feelings of suspense and victory were improvised musically on a keyboard. There were, of course, some necessary pre-recordings included but, even still, live and prop-based sound cues are generally rare in my experience.
Before I get any further into this review, it’s important that I explain what kind of company Act II Studio is. It was developed out of an acting workshop offered by Ryerson’s Senior Studies Program in 1988-91. Directed by Vrenia Ivonoffski, it was the creation of a group of seniors who “refused to retire silently into old age.” Act II exists to provide creative opportunities to adults over the age of 50, challenge stereotypes about aging and health, and create understanding between young and old.
One of the most endearing qualities of Spychasers was the clear enthusiasm and passion of the cast. Because they were having fun, I had fun – and it was difficult not to enjoy myself. The timing of some of the more funnier bits worked very well and the crowd was really engrossed throughout. Some of the cast also managed to humourously use their age to their advantage – The ‘chasing’ scene was especially entertaining.
That being said, I thought the production had some pacing and focus issues. There was a fair bit of upstaging going on, some unwise blocking choices, the set changes could have been tighter, and it wouldn’t hurt for some cast members to speak up.
Did this affect my enjoyment of the show? Not a bit – it didn’t even matter. Witnessing that many people enjoying themselves both onstage and off was truly amazing. From the spirited audience reactions to the fun, and engaging performances the notion of building a stronger community is evident. It is no surprise that tonight’s show was a sell-out. With that much love in the room for theatre and one another, it couldn’t have been any other way.
- Spychasers plays at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace (30 Bridgman Avenue)
- Performances are: July 07 01:45 PM, July 08 03:00 PM, July 09 10:15 PM, July 11 11:00 PM, July 14 12:30 PM, July 15 07:30 PM
- All individual Fringe tickets are $10 ($5 for FringeKids) at the door (cash only). Tickets are also available online at www.fringetoronto.com, by phone at 416-966-1062, or in person at The Randolph Centre for the Arts, 736 Bathurst Street (Advance tickets are $11 – $9+$2 service charge)
- Value packs are available if you plan to see at least 5 shows