My positive experience of seeing St. Francis Talks To the Birds playing at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse actually begins with the venue and front of house staff. They stick out as a great pairing to host plays at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival. Front of house members got us pumped for the show, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Upon entry, the creative and playful set, (spray paint and saturated colours are used!) set a particular tone. I wait in excitement to what see story will take place here.
What unfolds is an absurd situation in which vultures Mike (played by Cameron Johnston) and Angela (Tanya Rigely) begin having marital spats while feasting on some poor unfortunate soul’s innards. The absurdity is cranked up a notch when the poor man comes to and introduces himself as St. Francis of Assisi, complete with a little tin foil halo hovering above him.
If you don’t know much about St.Francis, don’t worry. All I could frantically recall on my way to the theatre was that painting we learned about in art class: Saint Francis in Ecstasy. The text is able to entertain and explain its own reference at the same time. Playwright David Ives weaves a farcical encounter between the Saint on his death bed and the circling vultures that await the inevitable.
This play is a treat. Ives’ absurdist comedy is certainly an effective way to consider issues of faith and desperation, and the confounding nature of humanity and sainthood. These vultures personify social criticism of the saintly life, with some real memorable zingers. The play explores both what unites and separates us, and St. Francis is able to silmultaneously link and differentiate us all in his declaration (in the face of vulture criticism!) “We all have our beliefs.”
Johnston is hilarious in his neurotic portrayal of Mike. Rigely is upbeat in her role, but, in contrast to Johnston, I felt her grasp of her character of Angela to be a little less consistent. There are times when I felt there could have been peaks and valleys in the vulture mania, but it’s a short piece, and overall, these cast members play off each other very well.
I thought Annemieke Wade was absolutely flawless in her performance of Saint Francis. She was just bang on with her delivery and working of comedic moments. She seemed to clearly understand the play’s tone and her place within it.
A big shout out to costume designer Ima Borbosa for her crafty yet effective vulture threads, and especially for the costume of St. Francis’ grandmother: That…is something I will not be forgetting anytime soon: a stroke of comedic brilliance! Director Adam Bailey does a great job of balancing tone and performance in this production to create an absurd experience that I buy into wholeheartedly.
- Saint Francis Talks To the Birds is playing at The Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse (79 St. George Street.)
- Thursday July 4th at 7pm, Saturday July 6th at Noon, Sunday July 7th at 10:45pm, Monday July 8th at 2:45pm, Wednesday July 10th at 7:30pm, Friday July 12th at 3:30pm, Sunday July 14th at 7:30pm
- All individual Fringe tickets are 10$ ($5 for FringeKids) at the door (cash only) and go on sale one hour before showtime. 50% of tickets are available in advance and are $11 ($9+$2 service charge), these can be purchased online at www.fringetoronto.com, by phone at 416 966-1062 ext 1, or in person during the festival at the Festival Box Office in the parking lot behind Honest Ed’s (581 Bloor St W).
- Value packs are available if you plan to see at least 5 shows.
Please note that there is absolutely no latecomer seating during the Toronto Fringe Festival
Photo credit: Photo by Jonathan Brett