Review: The 501 Toronto in Transit

by Lynn on December 5, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace until Dec. 8. Created and performed by Justin Many Fingers, Bob Naismith and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard.

Produced by Theatre Passe Muraille.

In its ‘theatre beyond walls’ season this year, Theatre Passe Muraille has presented a show in which the audience walks along Queen Street listening to directions on an MP3 player in The Queen West Project; listened to the trials and tribulations of the life of Toronto’s taxi drivers in Fare Game: Life In Toronto’s Taxis. And with its present show we ride the 501 streetcar and learn the stories of its passengers on their journey in The 501 Toronto in Transit. It’s a terrific ride.

Bob Naismith is our tour guide for the journey. He tells us that the 501 street car goes from Long Branch in the West to Neville Park in the East. The route is 25 kilometers long, has 115 stops and the journey lasts 90 minutes. The resultant play, The 501 Toronto in Transit, is a bit more than an hour, but it’s packed with colourful characters, a lot of poignant moments, some chilling moments, and is often hilarious and hopeful. We see the best and the worst of humanity and the best wins out.

The three creators/performers—Bob Naismith, Justin Many Fingers and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard–rode the 501 streetcar observing the passengers and the passing neighbourhoods; recording overheard stories and snippets of conversation and generally watched, observed and commented on what they saw.

Donna-Michelle St. Bernard recounts an incident in which a woman of Chinese decent confronts an elderly passenger on his racism towards her. The elderly passenger countered with more racism. Two black gentlemen came to the woman’s defence. A man at the back of the car offers his opinion. When the incident is over St. Bernard comments that the conversation was articulate from all sides; there was no violence, no one got knifed; the black gentlemen ‘had the Chinese woman’s back” and it ended peacefully.

Besides straight narration, St. Bernard offers comment in rhyme, rap, and dub poetry. She is an explosion of energy, watchfulness and optimism.

Justin Many Fingers, a man of few words, but when he speaks it’s thoughtful, offers several interpretive dances that vividly add to the production.

You get the sense that Bob Naismith has been riding the 501 streetcar all his life and not just to gather stories for this show. He has consumed various beverages at the more notable bars and pubs along the way, such as the Cameron House. He knows the history of many of the places on the route or those that are now gone. He knows the personality of the various areas. He calls the intersection of Queen and Sherbourne as “desperate”. And he knows the personality of the people who travel the journey on the 501 streetcar. He knows that at a certain stop a person referred to as ‘the stinky lady’ will get on asking for money and that while they will avert their eyes, everyone on the car will do everything to treat her with kindness. Naismith’s writing is poetic and lyrical in its elegance. It’s full of wit, self-deprecating humour, and keen observation.

Kindness and generosity are the watchwords that describe the multi-ethnic, multi-faceted passengers and drivers on the route. It’s noted that men drivers outnumber women four to one.

This is not to suggest that everything is sweetness and light on the streetcar. One vignette shows a man trying to be too friendly to a six year old boy sitting next to him, going so far as to stroke his leg, until his mother pulls the boy out of the seat and away from this guy. And then the guy chats up another young kid. Stuff to make you swallow hard.

I loved this show.

I loved how this cast of three offered their own unique observations but also worked as a cohesive efficient whole. The stories are ones we can all appreciate and recognize. They have found the decency in this microcosm of Toronto in this one iconic streetcar and its journey.

The 501 Toronto in Transit show is a terrific ride and I urge you to take it before it closes on Sat. Dec. 8.

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