What would you do if you could turn back time? As it turns out, there are only so many ways humanity can profoundly change the course of history. When time travel hits the open market, it’s not long before everyone’s already done the good stuff. Someone’s already gotten to Hitler, so why not go back and change something a little more low-stakes? Like, say, the course of a beleaguered actor’s career? Such is the set-up of Bugger the Butterfly, a quirky and winning Twilight Zone-style comedy by Pencil Neck Theatre that’s currently playing as part of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival.
It’s 1960 when Diego Chang (Kenny Grenier) arrives in the dressing room of Peter O’Toole (Gordon Harper), the actor not yet known for his starring role in Lawrence of Arabia. As he attempts to convince O’Toole that he’s come back to help him make a few more good movies, he has to combat O’Toole’s stubborn refusal to believe him.
The play has two layers happening at once. The first is the exploration of time travel in a celebrity-obsessed universe, which the play paints in detail, outlining the funny and (at times) sobering ways that humanity uses and abuses the power of time travel. There’s a lot of time-bendy worldbuilding of a society that we don’t actually see, where time travel has become mundane and celebrities are the main targets of journeys through time.
This element of the show is pretty refreshing. It’s actually fairly novel to have a time travel story that doesn’t deal with time paradoxes or efforts to make major changes in history. Diego’s motivation for turning back time is so simple as to be almost laughable. He just wants a few more good movies from his favourite actor, and to help him clean up his life a little. Therein lies the play’s heart, though, in many ways: it’s as much a story about how much the media we consume can affect us, move us, and motivate us, and how difficult that relationship can be to articulate.
The second element in play is the evolving dynamic between Peter O’Toole and Diego. Both Harper and Grenier give layered performances. Harper’s O’Toole is the ultimate thespian, caustic and wry without ever feeling cartoonish, while Grenier carries the play’s soul with sweet earnestness. Together, they have a quick comic timing that keeps the play rocketing along at a good pace, grounding a lot of the complicated time-talk with a strong command of the material.
The dynamic between the two shifts constantly, from allies to combatants, trust to mistrust. There’s one recurring joke where O’Toole assumes that Diego is just an obsessed fan with a crush, which basically amounts to O’Toole sort of hitting on himself for Diego, that I found particularly hilarious. He just keeps suggesting it, as though Diego will finally admit it if he says it often enough. It’s such a weird ego trip, but it illustrates the absurdity that the relationship often embodies. They’re great fun together, and make for an appealing duo on stage.
And that really is the word for it: Bugger the Butterfly is an appealing play with a quirky premise that feels well-oiled, well-constructed, and well-executed. It’s clever and funny, anchored by strong performances and a breezy pace. Even if you’ve never seen a Peter O’Toole movie in your life.
- Bugger the Butterfly! (Or My Sci-fi, Hollywood Adventure) plays at The Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre. (1115 Queen St. W.)
- Tickets are $12. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Fringe Club at Scadding Court, and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- This venue is accessible.
- Thursday July 6th, 06:30 pm
- Saturday July 8th, 04:00 pm
- Sunday July 9th, 07:30 pm
- Tuesday July 11th, 10:15 pm
- Thursday July 13th, 05:45 pm
- Friday July 14th, 04:00 pm
- Saturday July 15th, 01:45 pm
Photo of Kenny Grenier and Gordon Harper by Anto Zerducci.