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Christine Kristenbrun, John Allin, Sue Foster and Yvonne Taylor in Leacock Live!

Jacklyn Atlas

Toronto Fringe Festival Various venues in Toronto

With 150 shows in 27 venues, heading out to the Toronto Fringe Festival is like reading one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.

This year, alas, I keep choosing unwisely and turning to the pages where I am mauled by a painfully earnest musical about quarter-life crises or have my personal space invaded by an Australian performance artist channelling multiple "alien consciousnesses." I have enjoyed myself at a few shows, however.

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Leacock Live! brings to life the fictional small Ontario town of Mariposa from Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock's 1912 collection of gently satirical stories, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

Director Vrenia Ivonoffski has done a decent job of adapting two of Leacock's tales - The Hostelry of Mr. Smith and The Marine Excursions of the Knights of Pythias - for a large group of amateur but enthusiastic actors from Act II Studio, a continuing education program at Ryerson University. The Fringe is usually jam-packed with wannabe theatre artists straight out of high school and university, so it's about time we see some "older actors" (they range in age from their fifties to their late eighties) get in on the action. Leacock's words are all clearly spoken - that most of the cast carries around the script and there are occasional missed lines and giggles only makes the experience more transparent and delightful.

Leacock's satire is gentle, but his political scientist's eye is penetrating - he picked up on certain aspects of the Ontario mindset that endure. The splendid first story revolves around the hypocritical and self-righteous politics of liquor licensing, while the second is a marvellously tongue-in-cheek look at Canadian pride in the country's natural splendour. "Don't talk to me of the Italian lakes, or the Tyrol or the Swiss Alps," Leacock's narrator says of Mariposa's Lake Wissanotti. "Take them away. Move them somewhere else. I don't want them." Of course, the marine excursion in question goes terribly wrong.

Flash-forward a century to another trip to the lake gone awry. In Morro and Jasp Gone Wild, two sisters - who also happen to be clowns - are off on a road trip to the beach. As you enter the theatre, Morro (Heather Marie Annis) and Jasp (Amy Lee) are already on the highway and, very amusingly, fighting over the car radio. Morro, who is headed to the beach to take part in a volleyball tournament for an environmental charity, wants to listen to grunge, punk and metal, while Jasp, who hopes to lose her virginity in a Grease-esque summer romance, switches it to pop and hip hop. The two only find common ground on TLC's 1995 R&B hit Waterfalls, to which, impressively, Jasp knows all the words.

After their car breaks down, Morro and Jasp are left to fend for themselves in the wilderness. There are plenty of teenage hysterics and audience interaction/humiliation - hide away in the back, unless you don't mind getting a little non-alcoholic beer on you. It's all very funny and not at all Leacockian.

I can also recommend Dance Animal, a popular Montreal troupe that blends dance with sketch comedy. In their first show to make it to Toronto, music video and cartoon-influenced choreography unfolds to songs ranging from Reel 2 Real's I Like to Move It to Michael Bublé's cover of the Spider-Man theme song. In between, the young, multilingual cast take turns telling very Montreal-centric monologues about how they met the leader of their cult, Dance Tiger (choreographer and director Robin Henderson). Some of it involves doing hot yoga at the Biodome with Céline Dion. Pure Fringe fun.

The Toronto Fringe Festival continues over the weekend (more information at fringetoronto.com).

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