2 UNEXPECTED Fringe hits

Make a right turn at the Fringe and you find an old favourite. Turn left and you come across something you might have never expected. That’s part of the fun.

Onions and Garlic

Empress of Blandings Productions, Venue 11  (Studio Theatre)

The multi-talented Dave Clarke is a familiar Fringe participant, but his co-writer for Onions and Garlic is a surprise: Paula Simons, the widely-read columnist who often thunders from the pages of the Edmonton Journal. She has long been an arts contributor (full disclosure – she was once my producer on CBC radio), but I am not familiar with her oeuvre as a playwright.

I am glad to report that, with the musical assistance of that canny old pro Clarke, and writer-director Celia Taylor, Simons does quite well. Onions and Garlic is certainly an entertaining knish.

We are told the story is based on an old Jewish folk tale, and like so many of the tales from that fertile cradle of storytelling the results have often led to good theatre. Think Fiddler on the Roof or anything from Sholom Aleichem.

The cast here includes Emanuel Dubbeldam, Eunice Gatama, Damon Pitcher and Rory Turner (and how’s that for a matzo soup of ethnicity?). Presumably they are all amateurs but there is no doubting their ability and commitment. There’s some hearty singing, a desultory effort at dancing and the older brother (Pitcher) performs an impressive tap routine (something you don’t often see in the dusty streets of a shtetl).

The Cain and Able tale is told by your Bubbe (Gatama) – that’s Gramma to us Goys. A rich man has one son, an energetic if perfidious go-getter who is bequeathed the old guy’s money when he dies. His other son is something of a mensch but mostly a nebbish who peddles onions from a cart in the street. He is transported to a happy kingdom, Sunny Leone, where they suffer from bland food and suddenly his onions become very valuable. There is a real twist at the end as his grasping brother tries to repeat his success.

All this is broadly played with its folk-tale simplicity masking some very clever creativity. Clarke’s melancholy suffused songs and background music (played on what he calls his “electronic klesmer”) is a real plus.

It’s a tale as old as Zion and as warm as the Sea of Galilee and certainly worth 45 minutes of your time. And, yeah, be sure to bring the kids.

4 out of 5

The Charm Offensive

Novus Actors, Venue 12  (Varscona Theatre)

We are used to lawyers from TV. Square jawed and relentless they pursue indurated felons. But who knew they’re also Fringe actors? That’s right: Actual professional lawyers star in Stewart Lemoine’s new comedy – now let’s see if these legal eagles’ powers of cogency and asseveration (legalese talk for emphatic assertion) can be transferred to the stage.

As a Friend of the Court, let me observe that you have to make no accommodation for these barristers’ day jobs. They are completely at home on stage, and in Lemoine’s patented brand of sophisticated and whimsical dialogue. The Charm Offensive is definitely not a lesser Lemoine. The ace playwright has given these lawyers a real Teatro turn by offering them some genuine theatrical grist, albeit as light as an open and shut case.

Lemoine writes difficult dialogue that must be delivered with a certain control and velocity. Showing a remarkable consistency of ability the overall result is fast moving, funny and quite successful – and that’s a compliment when you consider we’re used to hearing Lemoine’s words delivered by his virtuoso stock company Teatro La Quindicina.

The direction is tight and the pace is brisk. And to the audience’s great enjoyment the playwright is not above veering off into inspired silliness. An author is behind a wall feverishly typing on a mechanical typewriter. “He must be writing a historical novel,” observes one of the characters.

The convoluted plot is impossible to explain in this short review. A group of widely different people find themselves at a meal using ornate Regency cutlery. The journey of how they got there is the plot. There is a woman who is serially seducing married men (Stacey Grubb), a second-story man (Ed Picard), a dilettante who became wealthy when his father invented a new kind of parsley (Don MacCannell, a fine comic actor with a killer silly grin), a woman obsessed by her own beauty (Marissa Tordoff), a driven author (Mark Facundo, who has a great sense of laid-back timing) and the woman who sets it all in motion (a perky animated Morgan McClelland). They’re all lawyers.

The upbeat feeling of the whole endeavour is greatly heightened by the directors’ choice of using an impossibly cheerful a cappella singing group to punctuate the action. Kudos should also go to the Varscona Theatre’s excellent technical staff.  Their timing was impressive and the cues bang on.

A class action with class all the way.

4 out of 5