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My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

Toronto Fringe 2017: The Seat Next to the King and other scandals, Shakespearean sacrilege and comedy

by DREW ROWSOME -

Navigating the Fringe can be overwhelming. Just diving into the program guide is diving off the deep end into an overabundance of possibilities and potential. And the word of mouth and eye-catching promo is so relentless and enticing that one is exhausted before even attempting to see all the shows that one absolutely must. Because spots in the Fringe are assigned by a lottery, the festival has to begin before the break-out shows can be predicted. Except for one.

The Seat Next to the King by Steven Elliott Jackson (ThreesomeReal Life Superhero) already has buzz by virtue of winning the Toronto Fringe Festival 2017's Best New Play award. Jackson explains that there were 70 entries divided among four jurors who picked their top three. Those 12 were then read by all the jurors who chose The Seat Next to the King. "I've been so unlucky in the lottery," says Jackson. "My entries were never picked or wait-listed for the last 13 years." And now his work has been given a slot not by luck, but because of quality.

One of the jurors, Tanisha Taitt (Sister Act), told Jackson that, "She was hooked three pages in and that it was the only play that she was still thinking about three days later." And then Taitt offered to direct, adding, "I didn't plan to do the festival again, I'd done six shows in three cities and was content with my Fringe experience. This beautiful piece brought me back. Steven's script is raw, with an external simplicity that belies its internal complexity. The characters are real historical figures, but the story is fact meets fiction. It's an unapologetic, sexy, heartbreaking, relevant work that holds me in its hands."

Jackson's play recounts a fateful sexual encounter between two men in a public washroom in 1964. That the men are Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King's right hand man and the organizer of the "I Have a Dream" march, and Walter Jenkins, Lyndon B Johnson's top aide, is as relevant as it is that they were both sidelined and mostly written out of history for being gay. "Bayard is fearless, so literate and has faced more things," says Jackson. "Walter is scared shitless, he has everything to lose. Jenkins was caught twice for bathroom sex at a time when being gay was considered a threat to the government. They were right next to the two most important men of 1964, they could have met."

The Seat Next to the King was written before Black Lives Matter and the police stings in Marie Christie Park, and Jackson wishes he could take credit for being so prescient. "I like to write history plays," says Jackson. "We can't fix what we did in the past but how do we figure out ways to acknowledge it and how do we have these conversations?" And then Taitt became even more of an ally. Jackson told her that she was his first choice "'not because you're a black woman, but because you're a person who experiences this every half hour. I can write it but I need you to bring it to life.' When you give a play to someone else it can be awkward but I trust her. I have to let them go. It's been beautiful so far to watch them perform."

And don't discount the appeal of two men cruising and feinting next to urinals, Sunny Drake (XNo Strings (Attached)), comparing notes at a theatre opening, confided that The Seat Next to the King, was the Fringe play he had heard the best advance buzz about. Jackson is excited to see his friend Adam Bailey's new play The Life of Henri ("the life of Henri Rousseau and his contemporaries, Monet, Picasso and Dali in one of the zaniest, most improbable journeys to success the world has to offer"). Bailey is also directing Dear Uncle Wish ("We follow Bride, a nurse studying in St. John's, as she returns to her childhood home of Heart's Desire for the first time. A magical world opens up as she must stay with her Uncle, a folk healer, who enlists her to read him the letters he receives from the world over. Inspired by true events, this magically real coming of age story offers a look at the lost art of "charming", and a point where the present met the past") which also comes with a hearty endorsement from Victoria Urquhart.

The Fringe also boasts a remount of The Clergy Project with Father Daniel Bereton reprising his soul-baring journey as a gay priest, and the hunky and hilarious Phil Luzi, who knows theatre as well as he knows comedy, is directing Disengaged ("a comically raw look at relationships, love and the institution of marriage through the eyes of a cynical, yet hopeless romantic") and Life Records 2: Side B (a "comical, heartwarming and honest solo show about the songs that make their way into our lives and become the soundtrack to our memories").

Yury Ruzhyev (No Elephant ShowViva CabaretKomunka) is in the ensemble of In Sundry Languages ("A multilingual cast weaves together a series of comic vignettes about immigration, accents, language learning, cultural silos, and what you really mean when you ask 'Where are you from?'") and if his performance is as provocative and sexy - and it most likely will be - as his contributions to the fundraising campaign, In Sundry Languages will be more than memorable.

Thomas Gough (No Safe WordBent) applies his considerable talents to Death Meets Harlequin, a children's show where he plays the disciplinarian Doctor who is in conflict with Harlequin, "a wide-eyed mischievous dreamer chasing butterflies and playing guitar instead of working ("Will a visit from a mysterious singer named Butterfly change everything?"). Also in the Kidsfest programming is the intriguing Night at Castle Impending Doom ("A Gothic horror as performed by puppets. A tale of intrigue, vampires and pudding"). Who can resist a puppet/horror combo?

A large cast and the starpower of Heath V Salazar (Suitcasesand Kit Boulter (Hedwig and the Angry InchSongs and Screams) promise that a visit to "The Museum of Malignant Muliebrity" in Nasty will be unforgettable. In delicious sideshow bally they tempt with:
"Meet the primordial female, the mother of original sin, first wife to Adam, seductress of Satan himself, baby killer, and all around unholy gal; Lillith!
Ungrateful for her natural allure, this beauty mutated into a horrific beast to punish the unsuspecting lads that dare look upon her monstrous visage: give it up for Medusa!
We have the Hungarian Countess of blood, accused of torturing and murdering 600 servants, and sapphic tendencies. Behold, Elisabeth Bathory!
Of course, we can't forget our newest instalment. Whitewater, Travelgate, Benghazi, private email servers, and an aversion to genuine smiling; the "Nasty Woman" herself, Hillary Rodham-Clinton."
Sounds like diva overload and role models not to be missed.

Comedy, dance and social commentary mash-up in Pineapple Club from the creators of last year's smash hit Dance Animal. Dance mixes with vaudevillian comedy and philosphical queries in Falling Angel ("consider if God might actually enthroned in the heart of every human being, garden bush and can of beer"), the only outdoor production at the Fringe. Choreography of a less ethereal sort is provided by fight director Nate Bitton (Bone CageGoodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)) in the "chilling thriller" Recall ("Lucy makes people uncomfortable. There's something about her eyes. There's something about the way her mother's boyfriends keep disappearing"), and a new version of George F Walker's Adult Entertainment ("Sex, liquor, secret deals, fist fights and perhaps even love").

And it wouldn't be the Fringe without riffs on Shakespeare. Rough Magic uses theatre, aerial work and music to imagine the sexual tension between The Tempest's Ariel and Caliban. Macbeth's Head promises zaniness and gore as Macbeth's severed head seeks revenge on Shakespeare himself - and they promise a "genderbending Richard III." And the cast of Shakespeare's Ghostbusters declaim:
"Pray I beseech thee, audience fair
To hear this tale of actions rare
If spirits be the problem that troubles thee most,
Whom wilt thou call? The busters of ghosts."

And in the rapidly expanding category of great titles and intriguing promo that strikes at my own personal soft spots, I'm curious about Universal Horrors ("Broken Rhythms brings the classic horror movie genre of the 1930s, '40s and '50s back to the stage through dance and in 3D. Cult classics such as Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein all make an appearance in this multimedia show that will both surprise and seduce, and is certain to send shivers down your spine") and I'm delighted to see that Tom Cruise is not involved and hopefully not referenced. And the most irresistible title award has to go to Jamie Black's riff on gender roles and self-determination: It's My Penis and I'll Cry If I Want To.

The Toronto Fringe Festival runs from Wed, July 5 to Sun, July 16 at 35 venues around the city. fringetoronto.com


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