In Off the Island (playing at the Toronto Fringe Festival), a young Dominican man lands in Toronto for university and begins to discover himself and his sexuality. This musical is a reminder that, while we think of Canada as a city of immigrants, not everything gets left behind in the old country — and not everyone knows what they’re in for when they land at Billy Bishop.
The show ends with a shout-out to Rainbow Railroad, and for people who can see themselves clearly in this situation (immigrants, refugees and other migrants who have come to Canada at least partly to escape from strictures on their gender or sexuality), this piece will mean something important. We don’t get a lot of shows about queer immigrants, and it’s important to see these stories and personalities reflected in our culture.
To run through the actors, Carmela Antonio is a standout for the realism she brings to the character and the focus she holds in musical numbers. Georgia Grant humanizes a tricky character and keeps us from turning her into a villain, which is harder than it sounds. And Brian Gibson (who also wrote the piece) keeps turning up in throwaway roles and turning them into highlights.
But the script needs work. It feels like the story is simultaneously too big and too small: much of the “little” story (about one man’s experiences as he finds his feet in the big city) is either blown through or left unresolved, while the “big” story (about the importance of walking in the light of truth and achieving personal liberation) is merely affirmed, rather than shown or built up to.
At one point, characters literally appear in spotlights, Hall-of-Presidents style, to tell the audience what it’s like to be trapped in a homophobic or transphobic society. These messages are important, but they don’t mesh well with the “little” story, about one specific man’s minute personal experiences.
I would love to hear more about Gibson’s own experiences, especially in a format which does less embellishing. (As written, the “conversion” scene in particular feels like something straight out of Reefer Madness: all it’s missing is some thick, dank, rainbow-coloured fog.) I also think there’s a show in the broader experiences of LGBTQ immigrants, refugees and other migrants, as well as those who remain trapped in home countries which will not accept them. You could perhaps even marry the two — but you’d need to move quicker, with more focus on telling the actual stories, and less focus on the pot brownies.
- Off the Island plays at the Streetcar Crowsnest Mainspace. (345 Carlaw Ave.)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (275 Bathurst St.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warnings: mature language; sexual content; strobe lights.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- The Toronto Fringe Festival is scent-free: please do not wear perfumes, colognes, or other strongly-scented products.
- Thursday July 4th, 6:30 pm
- Saturday July 6th, 1:00 pm
- Sunday July 7th, 6:45 pm
- Tuesday July 9th, 9:15 pm
- Thursday July 11th, 3:45 pm
- Friday July 12th, 8:30 pm
- Sunday July 14th, 12:30 pm
Photo of Gabriel Hudson by Brian Gibson