Reefer Madness is one of the worst films ever made: a depression-era exploitation jaunt which depicted marijuana fiends as barely human, driven to murder, and always puffing away like a factory smokestack.
Reefer Madness: Origins (playing at the Toronto Fringe Festival) re-imagines the film’s creation as a parable about the follies of prohibition, and the lives and communities destroyed in the wake of the anti-reefer movement.
It’s an interesting premise, and one taken literally: Origins is structured in a similarly exploitative manner, loaded down with melodrama, moralizing, temptation and vice. But in this retelling, it’s the perils of prohibition we’re aiming at, not the dope fiend and the reefer-smoker.
There are some highlights here, especially among the actors: Nicole Moller and Liam Kinahan have excellent chemistry as two young Christian lovebirds; David Wilson’s nightclub singer perked up the audience; Barry Kelleghan turns in a worthwhile performance of a barely-there part; costume designer Alessia Urbani has dug some real gems out of her tickle trunk for this period piece; and Ezera Beyene often looks like the only one on stage having any fun at all.
But oooof, is this remake heavy. From where I sat, many of the speeches felt overly-long and Hall-of-Presidents-y, a symptom of the fact that every character in the piece is pulling double or triple duty. (One character represents, simultaneously, a nightclub-owner, a smalltime weed dealer, black society writ large, the exploitation film industry, and the millions of lives destroyed through marijuana prohibition. It’s a lot for a single character to carry.)
On opening night, towards the end, the melodrama got so thick and overwhelming that audience members were audibly giggling in the middle of the show’s tensest scene. That’s always the danger with this type of media: indeed, this is exactly what happened to the titular film. If you lean too hard into the moralizing and the heavy-handed symbolism and the dire warnings, you get into a danger zone where people lose the ability to take it seriously.
This can be a desired effect: maybe the author and director want that reaction, the better to ridicule the racism, authoritarianism and paternalism of the Great Green Scare. It’s an interesting angle, as is the overall idea of taking the dramatic tropes and cinematic language of the original Reefer Madness and turning them within. This production is by no means pointless. But ambition alone can’t carry a 90-minute show.
- Reefer Madness: Origins plays at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. (30 Bridgman Ave.)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (275 Bathurst St.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warnings: mature language; gunshots; realistic violence or gore; fog or haze effects; not recommended for children.
- This venue is barrier-free. Designated accessible seating is in the middle of the auditorium.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- The Toronto Fringe Festival is scent-free: please do not wear perfumes, colognes, or other strongly-scented products.
- Friday July 5th, 2:30 pm
- Sunday July 7th, 8:15 pm
- Monday July 8th, 4:45 pm
- Tuesday July 9th, 5:45 pm
- Friday July 12th, 9:15 pm
- Saturday July 13th, 2:15 pm
Photo of two cast members supplied by the company