Monthly Archives: August 2013

Eleven solo shows

I saw eleven one-performer shows at this year’s Fringe.  I used to avoid them, preferring to see the interaction among characters rather than watching a single performer tell or recreate a whole story.  But the genre has grown on me, first with my admiration for storytellers and then extending to performers who act out their narrative with props and multiple characters.

Ask Aggie – Christine Lesiak’s departure from her clown persona to be an “advice diva”, answering audience questions about romance and sex, interspersed with stories and songs about her experiences with five husbands.  Funny, easy to listen to, and actually full of advice I didn’t disagree with.

They Call Me Mister Fry – Jack Fry tells stories about his first year of teaching elementary school, in inner-city Los Angeles.  He shows slides of some student work to illustrate some of the stories.  Reviewers seemed to like it more than I did.  It was well delivered, but it’s a genre of story that I’m very familiar with.

RiderGirl – Colleen Sutton tells about becoming and being a part of RiderNation, the community of Saskatchewan Rough Rider fans, along with other changes in her life, such as leaving a military band appointment to study acting.

Nashville Hurricane – Chase Padgett’s narrative was held over for one show yesterday, which is no surprise.  It was one of the best and most polished shows of any kind I saw this year.  His characters were very distinct from each other, compelling and not all likeable.

Borderland – Izad Etemadi, from Victoria BC, used first-person narrative and three point-of-view characters to tell a story in tribute to people he’d encountered through a Toronto-based group Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees.

Dykeopolis: Queer Tales and Travels for our Times – Kimberly Dark’s anecdotes, questions, and thought starters were a perfect example of the saying “the personal is political”.  Through stories from her own life, starting from the first girl she was attracted to in high school, she illustrated important points about gender and sexuality in ways that the audience connected with.

Zack Adams: Zack to the Future: – Shane Adamczak, from Australia tells a silly story about time travel to the future.  Many of the audience seemed familiar with his character from previous shows but it was my first time seeing him.

Canuck Quixote – Colin Godbout plays guitar and sings, and in between talks about the musicians and the songs and how they fit with themes of ethnic minorities and quixotic journeys.  I like some of the music and I wasn’t familiar with all of it, and I still didn’t find the show compelling.  Maybe his understated stage presence and lack of eye contact were too reminiscent of the title character of Nashville Hurricane.

Roller Derby Saved my Soul– Nancy Kenny recounted how discovering the sport of roller derby had changed her life as a 30-something single woman who “thought I’d have a more interesting job by now” and who struggled to get along with her mother and sister.  The stage floor had a bit of derby track taped onto it.  During the show she puts on roller skates and derby gear, and then delivers part of her story while skating.  This was not as distracting as you might think.  I really enjoyed it and found it inspiring.

Bad Guys Finish First – Gavin Williams starts off giving a self-help seminar about how to be successful by not caring about other people.  His character is so over-the-top mean that it’s clearly not sincere, but he still made the audience uncomfortable.  Of course there is a twist before the end, but it happens a bit too fast for credibility.  This show is a fascinating example of, I’m not sure if it’s the literary device of unreliable-narrator or the theatrical device of dramatic irony or something in between, though.

Limbo – Andrew Bailey tells stories about being a teenager and university student with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  His director Britt Small also directed Ride the Cyclone.

Death at the Fringe

Several of the shows I saw at this year’s Fringe examined the theme of death in some unorthodox ways.

Grim and Fischer was a mask show by the Wonderheads, the troupe which presented LOON last year.  It’s a repeat of a show that was at Edmonton Fringe a few years ago, but I missed it then.  Since I loved LOON, I was excited about seeing the troupe again, and I wasn’t disappointed.  The three characters were Mrs Fischer (Kate Braidwood), a determined energetic old widow with a lopsided smile and a sense of humour, Death (Andrew Phoenix) a long-faced persistent figure in a black overcoat, and Doug the Nurse (Andrew Phoenix).  Death checks his pocketwatch and attempts to deliver a summons to Mrs Fischer, but she isn’t ready to go yet.  Mrs. Fischer’s physicality and posture are very effective in creating the impression of someone who is active but very old.  After the show, the performers told us that they are developing a new show and hope to be back next year.

Life After Breath is a clown show I’ve already mentioned, a charming and poignant look at how two characters (Neelam Chattoo as Squee, Amy Chow as Nona) cope after the death of a loved one who used to take care of them, and how they have some underworld adventures in an attempt to re-connect with the person who died.

Into Oblivion is a set of musings, monologues, and mood vignettes on death created by the three young local performers (Isaac Andrew, Graham Mothersill, Jordan Sabo) and their director Nick Eaton.  In the program, the director writes that he was moved to think about death after the cyclist died on Whyte Avenue shortly after last year’s Fringe (he’s not named in the program, but it was Isaak Kornelsen).  My favourite thing about this show was the ways they used some audience interaction to add to their effectiveness without disrupting the thoughtful somber mood of their presentation.  They greeted audience members beforehand as if we were funeral attendees, and finished by welcoming us to stay for refreshments as we shared memories (and the refreshments turned out to be tasty cookies).  In other portions of the show, they identified the oldest audience member and asked polite questions about her mortality, used an audience member as prop in reflections on decomposition, and most unnervingly invited an audience member who claimed not to fear death to sit on stage and be blindfolded, after which they handed him a handgun.

You Killed Hamlet, or Guilty Creatures Sitting at a Play was a bouffon style piece (mockery and physical comedy), performed by Nathaniel Justiniano and Ross Travis of Naked Empire Bouffon Company of San Francisco.  It wasn’t exclusively about death; the topics bounced around as much as the performers did, but there was a lot of material about death, culminating in the personification of the play Hamlet in an audience member who lay on the stage and was then carried off by pallbearers.  It was funny, it was disturbing, it was fast-paced, and it had the most aggressive interactions with the audience of any show I’ve seen this year.  Another audience member told me he’d seen it twice so far, and that people who were too uncomfortable had walked out both times.

And as I’ve mentioned before, Off Book The Musical had a graveyard location the night I went, meaning that one character is a woman who has recently become a ghost (Jocelyn Ahlf), and one storyline involves a grandmother’s (Joleen Ballendine) death and her grandson (Kory Matheson), son (Matt Alden) and other mourners.

 

 

Finish your Fringe with God on God

I’ve seen lots of Fringe shows that I haven’t told you about yet, but the one I want to be sure to mention before it closes is the one that I am too close to to review.

This was my first year being involved with a Fringe production.  I’ve been stage managing an original comedy called God on God, written by Dan Moser and Jordan Ward, and performed by Moser, Ward, Kay Schultz, Nate Collins, and Colby Crossley.  It’s been fascinating, educational, and a lot more fun than I expected to help the show come together, tinker with details to make it run smoothly and on time, and watch people laugh from my seat in the booth beside our quiet organized sound and light tech Joey Roach.

We’ve been running at Venue 51.  Didn’t know there was a Venue 51?  It’s the Avenue Theatre, on 118 Avenue (Alberta Ave), between 90 and 91 Streets.  And while it would be fun to be closer to the main Fringe site in Old Strathcona and we’d almost certainly get more drop-in playgoers, it’s also been neat to be part of expanding the Fringe to a different part of Edmonton, and handy to have free convenient parking and little traffic nearby.  We’re the only show in the venue, which means that we’ve been able to stay set up between shows, which makes my job much easier.

Our last show is tonight at 8 pm.  Tickets will be available at the door unless we sell out ($12 cash only) as well as through the Fringe box office and yeglive.ca.  Our advertised running time is 50 minutes, so if you want to get to the volunteer wrap party afterwards or just get into bed early before going back to work on the post-Fringe Monday, you should still be able to fit us in.

Cast of God on God relaxing between shows

Cast of God on God relaxing between shows

I’ve watched it 13 times, and it still makes me giggle.  I try to do it quietly, but you don’t have to.  Finish your Fringe with God on God!

Some of the long-form improv at the Fringe

As usual, there are lots of opportunities to experience improvisational theatre at the Edmonton Fringe.  Edmonton has lots of improv performers and fans, and improv works well with Fringe audiences.  And the way improv works is that you can never see all of it, because every performance is different.

This year I saw three long-form improv shows, Scratch, Rocket Sugar Factory, and Off Book the Musical.  Long-form improv creates one (or more) coherent (more or less) narratives throughout the performance, and wraps them up by the end of the show.  (Or else it leaves enough loose ends to make you come back for a sequel, as in the local improv soap-opera Die-Nasty.)  As you can see from that attempt to define long-form, improvisational theatre starts with some rules or guidelines but doesn’t necessarily stick to them.

Rocket Sugar Factory is the company of Jim Libby and Jacob Banigan, North Americans who currently perform in Austria.  I loved their show at last year’s Fringe so I made a point of fitting them in this year, and they didn’t disappoint me.  They started by getting suggestions from different sections of the audience – starting with audience suggestions is one of the improv traditions.  The performers built affectionate rapport while collecting suggestions in the intimate setting of the Walterdale Theatre, and because their separate conversations were simultaneous the result ended up more of a surprise.  In the show I saw, they concocted a horror tale (which was more of a classic ghost story) set in 19th century England.  Both performers made effective use of accents and body language to distinguish among their characters and delight the audience.  They switched roles frequently, occasionally confusing me but mostly following each other’s lead to build a funny creepy story.  Jim Libby’s occasional corpsing (falling out of character momentarily to laugh at what was going on) did not detract from the audience’s amusement and illustrated that they were having fun.  Rocket Sugar Factory has one more show, tonight at 6:30 pm.

Scratch is the show of Arlen Konopaki and Kevin Gillese, both of them Rapid Fire Theatre alumni who are currently working (separately) in the USA.  It’s playing at the Princess Theatre, to packed houses of fans.  The theatre isn’t an ideal venue, because it’s long and narrow, making it hard for the performers to hear audience suggestions.  Both of them wear cordless mics during the show, and they were easy to hear thanks to tech Cadence Konopaki.  Their style is very physical, and I could see that the mics were inconveniencing them, though.  In the show I saw, very physical included climbing Mount Everest, flying around as Game of Thrones dragons, playing piano, lumbering around as a yeti, and a lot of admirably athletic simulated sex.  Like the performers of Rocket Sugar Factory, it’s clear that Arlen and Kevin have been playing together for a long time, the way that they pick up each other’s cues, switching roles seamlessly and spinning around to signal a transition into another scene or set of characters.  In Scratch, most of the show had scenes alternating among three separate stories, with some fitting together at the end.  Scratch plays tonight at 10 and tomorrow at 3. 

Off Book is a completely improvised musical-theatre performance.  It’s a Rapid Fire production at the Yardbird Suite, which seems to be a great venue for performers although it is probably visually a bit unsatisfying for people sitting at the back since there aren’t any risers.  The acoustics are good though.

Rapid Fire Theatre hosts Off-Book performances sometimes as part of their regular season long-form improv offerings on Saturday nights, so if you enjoy this show you can watch the Rapid Fire website and Facebook group to see when you can see more.  The troupe is led by Matt Alden, and accompaniment is provided by the talented Joel Crichton on keyboard.  Other performers in the show I saw were Amy Shostak, Joleen Ballendine, Kory Mathewson, David Walker, Vince Fortier, and I think Jocelyn Ahlf.  Starting from the audience suggestion of a graveyard as location, they generated all the tropes of musical theatre from a catchy ensemble opening number “It’s a great day to be dead!” to a romantic plot with supporting sidekicks, impeccable rhymes, occasional dance numbers, harmonising two musical themes, a deathbed solo, and a tidy ending recalling the melodies explored earlier.  I thought that the performance I saw was particularly strong, and I thought that the venue was more conducive to appreciating the nuances of the lyrics than Rapid Fire’s usual space in Zeidler Hall at the Citadel.  Off Book plays today at 2:30, but is probably sold out.

Saturday recommendation: Dykeopolis at 12:15

Kimberly Dark’s solo show Dykeopolis made me happy and made me laugh, but it also made me think.

She is a relaxed and powerful speaker, connecting effectively with the audience and owning the stage with just a chair and a hardbound journal.   Her richly intimate stories provided provocative and compelling examples of the ways that gender and sexuality interconnect and that homophobia arises out of misogyny.  And her presentation was skilfully designed to reach people with a wide range of experience and comfort level with the subject matter, for example clarifying her definition of the word “queer”.  But as soon as the audience felt comfortable, she jolted them out of that ease and then laughed, “You thought I was going to be a nice lesbian, didn’t you?”  The narrative flows smoothly from story to concept to the next story, from the tangible intensity of a first teenage attraction to finding a balance between protecting a partner’s safety and protecting her pride in an encounter with a macho Mexican cop.

The blog I Dig Your Girlfriend has an interesting interview with Kimberly Dark and a strong recommendation to see the show.  I second the recommendation – but since I’m just getting around to posting this now, there’s only one show left.  Today, Saturday, 12:15 pm, at Acacia Hall on 83rd Avenue (stage 10).  There’s a box office right outside the theatre, which takes cash, plastic, and Fringe bucks, and also lets you pick up tickets you’ve ordered on line.

Rent, Borderland, and other stories: Fringe 2013

On Sunday I arranged to take a night off from working backstage at God on God, because that was the only way I could see RentGod on God’s VUE review has three stars, by the way, and is running every night at 8 pm and Friday and Saturday at 10pm too.

Of course, I fitted in a few more shows as well.

Borderland – Izad Etamadi’s one-person show about a gay man leaving Iran, one of the eleven countries where homosexuality or sodomy is a crime legally punishable by death.   The performer plays three characters – Navid the would-be refugee, Zia who helps him escape, and Leila, a woman who takes care of him after he moves to Turkey and gives us glimpses of her own story as an “ugly woman” in a patriarchal culture.  His portrayal of Leila, and his transformation to the female character by turning his back and flirting his hips while donning a headscarf, were amusing without quite crossing into ridicule.  I wanted to hear more of that character’s story.  The performer also sang unaccompanied, both in Persian (I think) and in English.  The English material was original and in the musical-theatre idiom, and it reminded me somehow of local musician Joel Crichton.

Nashville Hurricane – I missed seeing Chase Padgett’s 6 Guitars at last year’s Fringe, so I was curious about his 2013 show.  This year’s solo performance reminded me of a short story, the kind of short story that’s an affectionate sad portrayal of characters in the rural South and in the music business.  He spoke as four characters, each with his or her own mannerisms and accent.  The eponymous character was a young musician who was probably autistic, and the others were various adults in his life.  The show I attended was sold out, and I didn’t look at my watch once.  Chase Padgett was so good that for a little while I felt like my own storytelling aspirations were futile.

Capital City Burlesque’s Elvis Odyssey – This show had solo pieces and group numbers, loosely tied together with the themes of Elvis Presley music and a global survey of cultures.  Along with nine or ten burlesque dancers, all talented, attractive, and seeming to enjoy themselves, other features of the show included Tim Mikula (of Rapid Fire Theatre and Doctor Jokes) as master of ceremonies, an impressive troupe of belly dancers called Les Trois Femmes, and costumed support staff – the Panty Zamboni and the Merch Girl.  I hadn’t seen this troupe before and I definitely want to watch for their shows in future.  An interesting note is that their Sunday-afternoon Fringe shows are “covered”, meaning that the dramatic finish of an act usually involves sparkly pasties on top of a bra.  This is a bit odd, but probably a nice touch to expose them (ahem) to a wider audience.    The show started a little late and ran a bit later than scheduled, which was frustrating to me at a satellite venue during Fringe when I had another show elsewhere to get to shortly afterwards.

Excuse Me … This is the Truth – This well-done story gently poked fun at the culture of contemporary enthusiastic Christianity, as backdrop to the sweet tale of a boy (Jessie McPhee) caught between his bossy longtime girlfriend (Joleen Ballandine) and a new friend (Lianna Makuch) who appreciates his interests and makes him notice that his girlfriend has been making all his decisions for him.   Also, they throw candy into the audience.  Really good candy.

Rent:  the Musical –Strathcona Alumni Theatre, the Linette Smith company that did Spring Awakening last year, is doing a production of the recent Broadway musical Rent, about a group of struggling artists in New York City’s Lower East Side.  Many of the characters are HIV positive.  As the story starts Christmas Eve they’re all unhappy for various reasons, including the threatened eviction alluded to in the title.

There’s a cast of 14 and four musicians, squeezed onto the small stage along with a couple of scaffolding fire-escapes.  But they use the space well (and look more comfortable than the audience squeezed onto risers).  I haven’t seen other productions of the live show, just the movie, but in this production I was immediately captivated by the story of Collins (Hunter Cardinal) and Angel (Jordan Mah), rather than focusing on Mark and Roger (Cameron  Kneteman and Maxwell Theodore Lebeuf) and their parts of the story.  Hunter Cardinal stood out for me because he projected his character’s emotions so powerfully.  The scene in which Angel dies in thrashing agony as Collins tries to comfort him and himself was particularly effective.  Cynthia Hicks was also delightful to watch, portraying Mimi with a mix of allure and loneliness.  Maureen (Emmy Kate Devine)’s defiance and performance-art show, Joanne’s and Benny’s (Morgan Melnyk and Christopher Scott) uptown discomfort with the bohemian crowd, and the minor characters’ contributions to the plot and strong musical support (especially from Gabriel Richardson and Lauren Derman).  It’s a long show (two hours ten minutes plus a short intermission), but it is well-paced and everything moved smoothly.  (As a brand-new stage manager, this impresses me more than it used to.)  The musical accompaniment was well balanced, allowing all lyrics to be heard in the small space but still sufficiently powerful when needed.

I believe that it’s sold out for the remainder of its run.  This is no surprise, with the cast list full of names to watch in musical theatre, and a production worthy of them.   Sometimes for BYOV shows there are a few tickets at the door, though.

The first seven shows I saw at Edmonton Fringe

Ask Aggie: The Advice Diva – Last year at Fringe I enjoyed Christine Lesiak’s clown alter ego Sheshells and her partner Rocket in Fools for Love.  This year Christine Lesiak has a one-person show with audience participation, and it’s also delightful.  When the audience comes in, you get a card on which to write a question about love, sex, or relationships, and you put them in a little box on stage.  Aggie is fabulous, flirtatious, flexible (as suiting a physical-comedy expert, she draws each question from the box in a different way, including with her toes) and five times widowed.  She alternates reading and answering the audience’s questions with scripted material responding to frequently-asked questions with stories about her experiences with her various husbands, the best of which is the musical number “Vibrators are a Girl’s Best Friend”.

They Call Me Mister Fry – This was a storytelling show by Jack Freiburger of Los Angeles, talking about his first year as a teacher.  The story had some familiar elements – middle-class career change into teaching, dreamed of teaching at a fancy surburban or private school, didn’t get the job, landed underprepared in inner-city school, got in trouble with rigid rules or bureaucracy (in this case, No Child Left Behind oversight), made a difference for some kids, and decided to stay.  The performer did a good job of portraying Grade 5 students with shifts in posture.

Waiting for Bardot – Trevor Schmidt plays an aging Brigitte Bardot pursued by a journalist (James Hamilton) who gets more than he bargained for.

Rocket Sugar Factory – Jim Libby’s and Jacob Banigan’s long-form improv show.  I saw this troupe at last year’s Fringe, before I had gotten involved in doing improv myself, so I didn’t appreciate then just how good they were at creating characters and a plausible narrative.  Jim Libby seems to create more of the ideas and Jacob Banigan follows them.  I would definitely watch these guys again.

RiderGirl – Colleen Sutton’s one-person story about becoming drawn in to the world of Saskatchewan Roughrider football fandom known as Rider Nation, and how her shared enthusiasm and commitment to the team connects with other events in her life.  I expected it to be a funny affectionate portrayal of the phenomena I encountered this summer in Saskatchewan, and it was.  I did not expect it to make me cry, which it did.

Happy Accidents in Something Simple – this was a collection of short pieces by local clown performers.  My favourite was the musical ensemble directed by Scooby (Mary-Lee Bird), which included a propane tank turned into a well-tuned steel drum as well as a trombone and percussion on various found objects.

Life After Breath – another clown show, this time one long narrative about two characters, Nona and Squee, coping after the death of a third.   Neelam Chattoo’s Squee, the younger or more dependent character, was particularly endearing.