Fringe review: Tomatoes Tried To Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life

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By Lucy Haines

If you just got a life-jolting diagnosis of esophageal cancer, with just a 50/50 chance to make it through a year, what would you do? Grab a banjo and write a Fringe show, perhaps?  It’s not that clear-cut, but essentially, that’s what accountant Keith Alessi has done with his life the last few years, creating the award-winning one-man fringe show Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life in the process.

In the sea of what seems like a high amount of  one-person shows at this year’s Fringe, here’s one to put high on your list. On a bare-bones set with just a couple chairs and banjos, Alessi offers a straightforward telling of his life story—the child of an Italian/American/Canadian immigrant family (where tomatoes figure prominently) and the struggles of his mom’s mental illness, faltering family life and the battles, passions, and triumphs that ensued through the decades.

“You can tell a lot about someone by what’s in their closet,” the soft-spoken Alessi told a full-house opening night at the Fringe’s Backstage Theatre. “Mine had over 50 banjos in it, and I couldn’t play a single one.”

After the initial years of chemo and radiation in his life-altering cancer journey, Alessi put aside the corporate career to learn the banjo and a few life lessons. He found what means everything to him, he tells the audience, thanks to mentors and jam sessions in his Virginia digs. “I look through the windshield and not the rear-view mirror” he says, while plucking at the oft-maligned instrument that stole his heart long ago.

A production of Vancouver’s Quivering Dendrites, with former Edmontonian Erika Conway serving as producer and director, the now internationally-toured show has earned great reviews from the Winnipeg Fringe and was named Most Inspirational Show at a NYC Fringe event earlier this year.

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