It may well be the most wonderful time of the year, but does everyone have to go on about it so much? For those already tired of Christmas cheer, a pair of mean and dark comedies opened this week to subvert the spirit of the season.
Rob Ford, Toronto's portly and polarizing mayor, is an easy target. He is also a moving target, given that every day seems to bring a new twist in his legal travails. Both of these factors sink It's a Wonderful Toronto, a poorly devised holiday show written by Matt Baram and presented by the usually sharp-shooting comedy troupe The National Theatre of the World.
It begins as a straightforward parody of It's a Wonderful Life: The Rob Ford Holiday Spectacular, with the mayor – played by skinny sketch comedian Paul Bates, barking his lines out from inside a purposefully ill-fitting fat suit – contemplating suicide atop the Bloor Viaduct.
This premise seems a little cruel, premiering on a day when a visibly stressed Ford disappeared on an unscheduled holiday. Luckily, as in the Frank Capra movie, an angel (Ashley Botting) soon appears to convince the mayor that his life is worth living.
Though at first Ford is skeptical – in part out of concern that God isn't respecting his heavenly taxpayers. "Is it true that everyone gets his own guardian angel?" he asks in disgust. "How much does that cost?"
So far, so funny. But, alas, It's a Wonderful Toronto derails shortly thereafter when Dan Forth (Brandon Firla), a theatre director recently fired by his board of directors, interrupts the action, and we find ourselves thrust into most overdone of theatrical forms, the Fringe-style meta-musical.
Ford, it turns out, is not actually considering killing himself, but acting in a holiday show in order to repair his image with Torontonians. His co-stars include his niece Krista, the lingerie football star, portrayed here by Jenna Warriner as a dumb-blond cutout. Also involved is an image consultant named Jane-Ann Finch (Aurora Browne), whose name is always punctuated by a sound effect of someone being shot.
Rather than upending expectations, It's a Wonderful Toronto sets about confirming its downtown audience's prejudices – which may be why so little of it generates the expected laughter. There's a solid line here or there, but altogether too many rewritten Christmas carols, inside jokes about Actors' Equity, and corny bits that don't become any funnier for being put in ironic quotation marks.
A less depressing time is to be had at a darker play, The Lime Tree Bower, an early work by popular Irish playwright Conor McPherson.
Pherson's play weaves together three monologues that intersect around a heist in small-town Ireland. Kind-hearted teenager Joe (the promising Anthony MacMahon) is lured by an older troublemaker into a drunken night at a disco that goes terribly awry, while his older brother Frank (Matthew Gorman), tired of working at the family chip shop, plots revenge on the man his father owes money. Then there's Ray (Gray Powell), a casually misogynist professor of philosophy, who is dating Joe and Frank's sister and is planning to show up a visiting academic star.
McPherson is a gifted storyteller – his investigation of the slippery ethics of the two older men is particularly compelling, alternatively attractive and repellent. However, Cart/Horse Theatre's slow but steady production does have the misfortune of appearing on a Toronto stage at the same time as Terminus, another dark Irish play composed of three monologues getting a quicksilver production as part of the Off-Mirvish season.
Here, Sarah Dodd, an accomplished actor, is at the reins, making her directorial debut, and her staging is dreary. The three actors sit in chairs on elevated platforms for the entire show, their line echoing in an under-furnished set. It's never clear where or why these characters are telling their tales, but the yarn pulls you in. Shaw Festival regular Powell – after initially seeming like he would rather be somewhere else – gives a bravely unlikeable performance, while MacMahon makes Joe's loss of innocence resonate poignantly. The ending is a triumph of subverted expectations.