Fringe reviews: Do You Think You're Better Than Me?, Hymns and Hearse and more

In which comedy newcomers Zoe Marin and Rebecca Ablack impress me greatly with their smart, witty and clear POV

Fringe reviews: Do You Think You're Better Than Me?, Hymns and Hearse and more
Rebecca Ablack (front, left) and Zoe Marin, along with David Civcic, Stephanie Perri and Rayhan Jabbar, are all comedy talents to watch. Photo by Trinity Lloyd.

I've written this before, and I've probably said it in a half dozen interviews over the years. But one of the reasons why I love the Fringe is discovering fresh new talent. That happened yesterday at the show Do You Think You're Better Than Me? (Rating: ✭✭✭✭) by Zoe Marin and Rebecca Ablack of the company Small Friend Tall Friend.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭ or ✭✭ = didn't work for me / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year

As I point out in my review of their show, published at Parton & Pearl, Marin and Ablack have a clear, urgent point of view, along with intelligence and wit. Their pop culture references are specific and mesh beautifully with their Gen Z concerns. And even the scenes that don't quite work are ambitious and full of intriguing ideas.

I know I'll be thinking about a sketch inspired by the DNA testing site for a while.

Do You Think You're Better Than Me? (Small Friend Tall Friend) continues at the Aki Studio until July 16. See info here.

Tricia Williams (left), Maria Syrgiannis and Justin Hay get dark laughs in Hymns and Hearse. Photo by Kerri MacDonald

Putting the 'fun' in funeral

Like most talented artists, Tricia Williams understands that if you create compelling, complex characters, you'll want to spend time with them – regardless of the plot. And that gives her play Hymns and Hearse (Rating: ✭✭✭) an appeal, even if it sometimes feels too loose and chatty.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭ or ✭✭ = didn't work for me / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year

Funeral home workers and co-owners Maxine (Williams), Chloe (Maria Syrgiannis) and Jeffrey (Justin Hay) are in financial trouble after a shipment of pinewood caskets was infested by termites and had to be destroyed.

It's a good thing they've got a lavish funeral the next day for a 92-year-old woman. But as they soon discover, the old woman isn't quite dead yet. What to do? Tell her relatives? Or, ahem, finish the job?

Williams seems less interested in the outcome of that horrific/comic event than in getting her characters talking about other things, and some of the exposition and dialogue feels contrived and awkward. When characters are about to leave a room, for instance, they announce that they're about to leave the room.

But once we get to know them a bit more, especially the things they've hidden from others, we get more drawn in. Jeffrey's story about how he lost his mother when he was 25 is quite poignant, and Hay delivers the story with tenderness and real emotion.

In fact, the main joy of the show isn't the plot but rather watching three actors create distinct characters, which increases the stakes of the comic situation.

Hymns and Hearse (Shout on a Whim Productions) continues at the Tarragon ExtraSpace until July 15. See info here.

Rosalind Goodwin in Hermaphroditus. Photo by Jess Thorp

Timely Hermaphroditus

With the disturbing rise of anti-trans policies around the world, Rosalind Goodwin's Hermaphroditus (Rating: ✭✭) couldn't be more urgent and important. Unfortunately, it's not quite at a ready stage of development, although it certainly has lots of potential.

Goodwin's premise is that the Gods on Mount Olympus are dispensing anti-trans legislation for all gender-non-conforming deities and mortals. And so Goodwin's eponymous Hermaphroditus ascends to the pantheon to discuss things with Zeus (Titus Androgynous) and Hera (Jan Jennings).

Director Cole Alvis's presentation of the main Gods is deliciously fun, Androgynous's Zeus making an entrance singing Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," with the significant line about thunder. Hera, clad in a bright red dress (costume and set designs are by Eish Van Wieren), meanwhile, has more problematic TERF views. The scene in which the hypocritical couple rewatch an episode of RuPaul's Drag Race, while ignoring Hermaphroditus's pleas, drips with satire.

The play's set-up, involving a character named Charlico (Margo MacDonald, on-book but ably filling in for Troy Emergy Twigg), could use more clarity.

And while it's ambitious to have the bulk of the script written in verse, not all the performers seem comfortable with the language, lessening the impact of this bold decision.

Hermaphroditus (Rose Gold Productions and Dead Name Theatre, in partnership with Necessary Angel) continues at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson) until July 16. See info here.

Whale watchers

There are some intriguing ideas about community, indigeneity and respecting the land in the collectively created 90-minute drama House of Whale (Rating: ✭✭). But some serious dramaturgy is needed to shore up its themes, characters and story.

A group of castaways finds themselves on an island deserted except for the scrappy survivalist Lily (Karrie Kwong). Things on the island aren't, however, what they seem. Soon we discover another set of people has been there all along, and eventually the groups meet.

While director Andre Newell brings out some of the comedy and gets characterful performances from many in the cast (Esther Chung, James Smith, Fegan DeCordova and Tara J. Paterson are standouts), the script is too sprawling and unfocussed to deliver much in the way of meaningful drama.

House of Whale (Monologue Slam Productions) continues at the Alumnae Theatre (70 Alumnae) until July 15. See info here.