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Belly up to The Fringe

BY GORD McLAUGHLIN

The Fringe theatre festival is like a crowded bar. The people are different, but you can count on running into certain types: philosophizers, ravishing youths, born comedians (and stillborn comedians) and any number of clowns. Navigate the Fringe with this metaphor in mind -- and with a clear grasp of which types appeal to you -- and you're sure to achieve the intoxication that comes from satisfying theatre.

FAMILIAR FACES As in any bar, it's nice to meet people you already know. Lauded director Chris Abraham works his magic on Belize, David Austin's account (written in collaboration with Abraham) of fleeing Toronto's drug scene for a Central American heart of darkness.

Scant months after their successful remount of last year's smash Fringe hit JOB: The Hip-Hop Musical, Montreal's Foqué Dans la Tête Productions returns with the sequel, JOB II. Like its predecessor, JOB II won the Montreal Fringe's best text award for Eli Batalion and Jerome Saibil.

Keir Cutler (of last year's stunning Is Shakespeare Dead?) has based his latest Fringe entry, Teaching Witchcraft, on the writings of 15th-century Roman Catholic inquisitors, and it looks suitably disturbing. Others to watch are Fringe faves Ellen Ray Hennessy (with John O'Callaghan) in the Irish drama By the Bog of Cats, and TJ Dawe (who wrote and starred in last year's Tracks) in A Canadian Bartender at Butlin's.

SWITCH HITTERS The appeal in a bar is self-explanatory but onstage it takes a bit of explaining. Talented actor Paulino Nunes (Seizer, Lobby Hero) makes his first foray into playwriting with Rodeo Star, described as a "sexy psycho-sexual thriller" directed by Adam Nashman.

Crack comic performer Teresa Pavlinek (Second City, History Bites) brings her delicious timing to the director's chair in Ralph Chapman's politics-among-friends drama Now Watch This Drivel, while actor Jason Cadieux (Lilies, Poor Super Man!) has written the well-reviewed comedy Unleavable, about hijinx in the publishing world.

THE GUY WHO BRINGS THE DOPE Jason Jazrawy has written and stars in Joint Account, one man's contemplation of the act of getting stoned. Working from a paranoiac premise (his character has been captured by persons unknown), Jazrawy gets intense and philosophical while "only occasionally straying off-topic or forgetting what he was thinking about."

YOU'VE GOT A REPUTATION Australian writer/performer Nicola Gunn and director Mark Chavez (of last year's The Elephant Club) drag critical acclaim behind them like the train of a wedding dress. This year, Gunn portrays seven characters in her new show, Tyrannous Rex.

"Devastatingly funny" is how the Montreal Gazette described Pumpkin Theatre'sAn Act of God, in which the supreme being Himself (Shawn Baichoo "at his best") is the dark-horse candidate in an election.

"Full of delightful surprises," says playwright Michael Healey about Paul Gibson's That Boy, winner of the 2003 Toronto Fringe New Play Contest. In it, two guitarists meet to write a song for a rising pop diva, who happens to be the girlfriend of one and the ex of the other.

Sabotage: in fine form, from Albuquerque's burningcities new works co., just won best comedy at the Montreal Fringe and brings a trail of accolades from across the country -- apparently it's "indescribable," so we won't try.

CUTE BOYS AND PRETTY GIRLS Skip this section if you're high-minded, otherwise... Burlington's Elizabeth Helmers ("A five-star looker" says Gord McLaughlin) is the writer and star of The Interview, playing a job-seeker who's stuck in an increasingly bizarre meeting. Stephen Sheffer (Toolkit Production's Cannibal! The Musical) wrote and stars in Back to Mine, a gay drama that plays with notions of time and rape.

A trio of winsome women takes the stage in Ann-Marie B. Zammit's karaoke comedy, Is This On? Meanwhile, precocious actor and published playwright Jonathan De Souza, all of 20 years old (his stage manager is 19), is touring his play, Theseus in the Labyrinth, an absurdist fantasy that sprang from "London, Ontario's thriving alternative theatre scene." Who knew?

Brendon Allen and Megan McCoy (more Toolkit regulars) brighten up a quintet of short plays called Pick-Up Bras and Long Term Shorts. Handsome David Tripp co-stars with playwright Helen Juvonen in The Aleatory Project, in which they alternate characters and twist the plot according to coin tosses and the turn of a playing card. It's all about chance -- much like going to a bar or the Fringe. You may go home alone from the former, but heed the above guidelines and you're sure to get lucky at the Fringe.

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