Judy Merril, pioneering female science fiction writer of the 1950s, anthologist, and dissident, seems like a fascinating thinker who is unfairly being forgotten after her death in 1997. Unfortunately, I felt I learned more about her from the attractively-designed program than I did from I Love You, Judy Merril (House of James) Jim Smith’s one-man Toronto Fringe Festival show, which is well-intentioned, but only orbits its subject.
The premise is clever. Smith, while singing hilariously off-key in the shower, is abducted by aliens. In conversation with a growling alien voiceover, he discovers that he is supposed to make a presentation about Merril to a bunch of familiar-looking creatures from her stories.
The production has nice design elements from director Jim Annan and sound director Andrea Miller, like Smith’s spacesuit, the papers scattered on the floor, and the projections and archival video on the back wall of Theatre Passe Muraille’s Backspace. There’s a sweet ending video as well, that does its best to use Merril’s own voice.
I wish Merril’s voice had been more on display in the rest of the production. As someone with no previous familiarity with Merril, I appreciated the program note, but was largely lost during the show. I didn’t feel like I got to know Merril as an artist, person and pioneer. Instead, I did learn a lot about Smith’s childhood in the “black hole” of Kingston, and how much acid he’s dropped (it comes up a lot).
Smith is new to theatre, though he has a lengthy writing career, and it shows. I was glad this wasn’t a by-the-numbers birth to death biopic, but the stories don’t coalesce to form the kind of narrative arc he’s going for. Sometimes, they don’t make complete sense. Smith tells us about his brief moments of connection with Merril, bemoaning that he’s not necessarily the best person to be telling her story. This might be why he contextualizes it so much with his own. But why tell it, then? I often wondered whose story this was.
Smith’s has a noble goal (to prevent Merril from erasure) and exudes likeability. He’s not an actor, though. There’s a lot of stumbling over lines and backtracking as he recalls events. His stories take on a rambling quality, like that relative who has a hard time getting to the point.
Near the end of the show, Smith is told by the aliens that it’s time to wrap up, and bristles, saying he had no idea what his audience wanted, what he was supposed to do, and that he was just getting started. In this moment, he identifies the problem in his show. Find out what the audience wants. Let us spend more time discovering Merril, even if the details seem obvious to someone more familiar with the subject, and less time on politics, name-dropping, and the dance floor.
I would love to have a beer and chat with Smith about his life, and I may well go and watch that documentary on Judy Merril. Ironically, though, this show about alien abductions and other worlds ultimately fails to launch.
- I Love You, Judy Merril is playing until July 12 at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace. (116 Ryerson Avenue)
- Tickets are $12 in advance, $10 at the door. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by phone (416-966-1062), from the festival box office down Honest Ed’s Alley (581 Bloor West), or from the venue box office starting one hour before the performance. Venue sales are cash-only.
- Be advised that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and latecomers are never admitted. Set your watch to CBC time, and arrive a few minutes early to avoid disappointment.
- The play includes mature language.
July 07 at 03:15 PM
July 08 at 06:30 PM
July 10 at 01:45 PM
July 12 at 12:30 PM