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Tragedy is silly, Happiness™ is not what it seems …

Epic Tragedy is actually neither.  It’s frivolous and delightful, fun even if you don’t know the Greek-tragedy source material very well.  Gerald Osborn sets his story in a taverna in the Ancient Greece of the classic tragedies, but with thoroughly modern tropes like a first date from a dating-site match.  In the smaller roles, Eric Smith is a very feline Sphinx on the prowl, Francie Goodwin-Davies is a favourite as the Oracle, and Landon Shayne Penner shuffles anxiously as a mute slave working for taverna owner James Hamilton (Laws of Thermodynamics, With Bells On, Waiting for Bardot).  Ruby Swekla, Syrell Wilson, dale Wilson, Catherine Wenschlag, and Cat Walsh all bring extensive experience and fine comic timing to the major roles, making this fun and easy to watch.  One more show Sunday afternoon at the air-conditioned Walterdale.

Happiness™ is not easy to watch – at least, it wasn’t for me.  But it is very much worth experiencing.   Cory Thibert and Tony Adams, from Ottawa, perform as a sales/self-help duo making a product-launch presentation to the audience, with help from the technician for their presentation who was played by the technician for their venue.  The real context and the story context kept blurring like that, and it was creepy and effective, because I do want to go to a Fringe show and I do not want to go to a Forum presentation, Amway recruitment, or gospel revival meeting.  I couldn’t figure out whether to engage with the show or hide in case they were really one of the latter.  I loved it.  They have one more show on Sunday evening, at Rutherford School across the road from La Cité Francophone.

Upstairs and downstairs at the Fringe

Kind Hearts and Coronets – I never saw the Alec Guinness movie of the same name, but my father loved it.  The stage version, directed by Ken Brown, is playing at L’Unitheatre at La cite francophone.  John D. Huston plays the Alec Guinness roles as well as miscellaneous servants and executioners, Alex Forsyth plays Israel Rank, the man who grows up poor but knowing he’s only a few deaths from inheriting a ducal coronet, and Julia Seymour plays a variety of other characters including Israel’s love interests, mother, and jailer.  Forsyth’s smug evil leer as Israel’s plans seem to come to fruition is a disturbing delight, a different flavour of bad than characters I’d seen Forsyth play in Deadmonton, Closer, and 7 Ways to Die: A love story.  Last show today, Saturday 2:45

Bella Culpa – Amica Hunter and David Cantor of Portland are A Little Bit Off, the troupe that did the delightful Beau and Aero at last year’s Fringe.  For Bella Culpa, they’re in the Westbury, the big theatre in the Arts Barns, and their stuff is just as engaging and fun to watch in the bigger house.  The two characters in Bella Culpa are servants in a formal household, doing their work of cleaning and preparing for guests, but frequently sidetracked into playful adventures and explorations.   They make clever use of minimal props (buckets, a sponge, a duster, a table) and introduce some impressive acrobatics at beautifully unexpected moments.  They communicate their story mostly through physical expression and action, but occasionally speak a few words in French.  Their tagline describes them as “Downton Abbey meets the Three Stooges”, but I thought afterwards that one of the things I appreciated most about them was that the relationship between the characters was not hostile, not a predictable she-likes-him/he-ignores-her, and not a constant status difference like many physical-theatre/clown duos.  Worth catching (they have two more shows this weekend) and worth watching for in future.

This is Fringe!

Letters from Battle River – I went to this because it got a shoutout at the end of Annotated Autobiography of Leone McGregor, both being narratives about early women doctors in/from Alberta.  Laura Raboud plays the very energetic Dr Mary Percy, who travels from England to work for the Alberta government as a doctor in the Peace country in the 1920s.  I think indomitable would be the appropriate descriptor for this character, of rarely-flagging good cheer, delighting in her life and her work and the country and the people.   My two favourite specifics about this performance were the brilliant use of two wheeled coatracks and a chair to be all the props and set pieces, and the way of handling the racism of the time.  Early on, the character’s narrative (either a series of letters home or one very very long letter home, it’s not entirely clear) is steeped in throwaway racist assumptions about Eastern European immigrants, about First Nations and Metis inhabitants of the land, and occasionally about “Yankees”.  I found it jarring every time this likeable character used racial slurs, although I could see that she was fond of her “Russian” and “Frenchman” and “‘breed” patients and neighbours.  When she began to relate a visit to the “Indian boarding school”, I worried about whether she’d be equally cavalier about the residential school … but fortunately the playwrights had made a different choice (I do not know how much of the text came from the historical artifact letters).  Instead she said something like, it was beautifully light and airy, but of course they hated it, how could anyone like living in a dormitory when they could be curled up with family in a tent in the forest, and then she went on to muse about whether the British Empire was actually wrong to impose their way of life on indigenous peoples.  I did not feel as if the character integrity had been damaged by this viewpoint, and I was comforted that I could still find her sympathetic.

My Boyfriend’s Girlfriend – A new musical by Jamie Price (aka musician Must Be Tuesday) plays in the Telus Building.  It is impressive for a new work by young artists, a fully staged three-actor show with a storyline, songs with clever lyrics and varying melody styles, and musical accompaniment by Price on keyboard and guitar.  The narrative is probably valuable both as a demonstration of queer, polyamorous, and transgender lives for people who are not familiar with these variables, and as positive representation for people who don’t often see their lives on stage.  Just the simple stage business of a character turning away from the audience to take off a bra and put on a tank-top style binder was effective as storytelling and as education, without being enough nudity to distract.  It is hard to plot a story with those goals and show realistic problems and still make the problems solvable, but Price, director Alicia Maedel, and performers Mandi Molloy, Emanuelle Dubbeldam, and Matthew Oliver van Diepen have made a good start.  I could easily imagine this show on a bigger stage with fuller orchestration, a little less didactic and a little funnier or more dramatic, being the next Rent or Avenue Q.  Or it could just be what it is, and a lot of people will enjoy it, see themselves or their friends or family, or learn something.

A Woman of a Certain Age – This was another show full of satisfying representation, with writer/performer Wendy Froberg playing six characters, all women in their late 40s or older, with interconnected lives.  Important common thread was provided by the interactions the other women all had with esthetician Magda, each of them having different reasons for wanting to look younger or look pretty again.  Magda often tried to talk to them about other ways of resolving their problems, suggesting that youth and beauty were not a panacea, but she loses her salon job, and it’s not clear if they don’t like her attitude or her age.  The performance follows all the rules of a good multiple-character solo show, (if you don’t know what they are, this is demonstrated in The Big Fat Surprise) and I enjoyed it.

Gossamer Obsessions:  Wilt – is a set of “parable” sketches, funny and sort of delightfully weird, in a magical or not quite real way, by masters of improv Amy Shostak and Paul Blinov.   Their costumes are reminiscent of fairy-tales, and their stories hover over the abyss between ordinary life and the just plain strange.  The hour flew by.

History + storytelling = autobiography

The first show I watched from the audience at this year’s Fringe was the new work The Annotated Autobiography of Leone McGregor, by Savanna Harvey.  The performer credits for the show listed Kendra Lamothe as Leone, Savanna as The Writer, Vina Nguyen as Freud, and Heather Janzen as The Stagehand, and the performance starts with the Stagehand seated on the stage beside a box of props, putting a script up on an overhead projector and making notes on it as the narrative progressed.  This was an interesting layer, reminding me of lectures of a certain era.  Sometimes I would look at it ahead of what was happening on stage, in the same way that subtitles don’t always reveal the key points of a story at the same time as the French or foreign-language spoken dialogue does.  Sometimes the Stagehand’s presentation would prevent that by covering sections of the page with paper, and I remembered that teaching technique as well.  One page even contributed the inner dialogue of an imaginary reader in a classroom setting struggling to keep up with the text on the page.

But that was just a side thing – most of the storytelling evolved in a fairly linear and visual way, showing the life story of Leone McGregor, born in Saskatchewan early in the previous century to poor parents, attending Normal School at a young age and teaching school to raise money for university, then studying medicine as the only woman in the first medical-school class at U of Alberta, continuing to graduate school in pathology, the only medical research discipline that would offer her fellowships.  And eventually she was able to study and practice her real calling, psychotherapy.  “Until I acquired the word, how could I know what I wanted to be?” the character says.  This fits with musings earlier on, “concept without words, meaning without text, what is the point?” says the Writer, which is funny because this performance (as most) endows the non-verbal with layers of meaning.  The movement piece that expresses young Leone’s being teased and bullied and “just a game” assaulted by classmates, and its soundscape, was evocative and disturbing, as were other movement-heavy segments of the piece.

Leone’s letters (handwritten on the projections, read out by the actors) added pieces of the biography and also demonstrated the importance Leone placed on her friendships with other women, keeping in touch through her travels for career and new husband.   The samples of psychological counselling advice were odd, mostly seeming to include suggestions of resolving the problem by spending money on something – self-care, a romantic weekend, other indulgences.  I was reminded of the newspaper-advice segments of the 1960s in Shout.

I found the story satisfying, and the writing clever but not so clever it distracted me. Karlie Christie’s costuming is also worthy of mention, particularly Leone’s period-appropriate and movement-friendly outfit.  As Autobiography is playing in a BYOV space, it has more performance times than a lottery-venue show, and if this intrigues you, you should seek it out.

And now, back to the grounds!  See you at the Fringe!

She Loves Me!

The other night I watched a musical that was new to me.  Not new to other people, She Loves Me (book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock) first hit Broadway in 1964, and is opening again next spring.  The Hungarian play on which it’s based was also the basis for the 1998 romantic comedy movie You’ve Got Mail.

The current production, in the Amphitheatre at Faculte St Jean (across the street from La Cite), by Foote in the Door Productions, is directed by Barb Mah, with music direction by Michael Clark.  The setting, a 1930s perfume shop in Budapest, was simply evoked with shades of pink and green in backdrops, counters, and sales-staff shopcoats.  The shop seemed like the equivalent of something like The Body Shop or Lush – selling a variety of necessities and luxuries, focusing on customer experience, and doing a huge business in presents before Christmas.

As in the usual workplace-set story, there’s a cast of characters that includes a boss (James Toupin) with some unreasonable demands and prejudices, an eager-to-please errand boy (Sam Banigan), and a loyal sidekick (Dustin Berube), and in this case there’s also some sub-plot material in the affair between co-workers (Christina O’Dell and Mitch Caddick).  The story soon focuses on Georg (Russ Farmer), a senior employee mistrusted by the boss, who confides that he’s been writing letters through a lonely-hearts correspondence club to Dear Friend.

On a busy day in the shop, then, in bounces Amalia (Ruth Wong-Miller), costumed in a beautiful peacock shade of blue that stands out dramatically from the rest of the show palette, and she quickly talks herself into sales work with a very funny demonstration.  Amalia is also a member of the Lonely Hearts correspondence club, and you can guess the broad strokes of where the story goes from there.

My favourite bits of the show were some of the ensemble numbers with dancing, the stylized couples in the restaurant with the snooty waiter (Kent Sutherland), and the Twelve Days of Christmas shopping crowds in the store.  Six musicians behind the scenes provided accompaniment, atmosphere, and extra entertainment, and the singing was delightful.  Ruth Wong-Miller has a strong pleasant soprano voice and is particularly well cast in this show.  The part with her jumping on the couch in pajamas is also charming.

The last show of the run is tonight (Saturday 28 November) at 7:30.  If you haven’t seen it yet, they should have tickets available at the door, and it’s a lot of fun!

Two solos and two physical duos

Mike Delamont’s Mama’s Boy was a great example of autobiographical storytelling.  He has a good natural delivery and the comic timing which enhances Scottish Drag Queen helps this kind of narrative as well.  It was a loving, respectful, realistic, painful story about growing up with an alcoholic.

James and Jamesy’s 2 for Tea was a delight.  I’d missed this playful British duo last year and now I can see why everyone was talking about them.

Beau and Aero was another physical-theatre escape, very well paced so that one turn or game led directly to the next one.  They had particularly creative explorations of balloons, and some impressive acrobatic stunts.

Both 2 For Tea and Beau and Aero incorporated some audience interaction, and they chose people who participated with initiative and humour, especially the young girl who played a cardiologist and gave her thoughts on life in 2 For Tea, and the man who bopped them with balloons in Beau and Aero.

The other solo performance I saw yesterday was Naked Ladies, by Thea Fitz-James.  After the show, the performer acknowledged that a lot of intense material had been touched on, and invited audience members who had responses to connect with her later.  I appreciated the invitation to process – it reminded me of the similar invitation at the end of a performance in a funeral home a couple of years ago, acknowledging discomfort and giving people a chance not to be alone with their thoughts.   I didn’t have anything to say at the time, and I’m not sure I do yet.  The performance jumped around to different moods and concepts, and the performer kept reminding us that all stories are edited, all memories curated.  The parts that made me most uncomfortable – and I mean that in a good way – were the parts where she was reading from her childhood diary about trying not to masturbate.  That bothered me in ways that seeing the performer naked didn’t.

An 18+ Monday night

Last night I saw two burlesque shows and went to the Late Night Cabaret.  I guess there are some themes there.

O Manada had five dancers (all male) performing as various Canadian archetypes, in solos and larger ensemble pieces, and the hosts were a 1975-era Pierre and Maggie Trudeau.  I have misplaced my program, so I can’t tell you who the rest of this Toronto-based troupe are, but Maggie Trudeau was Morgan Norwich.  The show was fast-paced and full of topical humour leading up to a hilarious speculation that followed naturally from the premise of the show.  The performers engaged some audience members (thank you!) and were a lot of fun to watch.

Burlesque-Prov is hosted by local improviser Lee Boyes.  He introduced the two regulars of the show, Kiki Quinn (who is also in Second Breakfast Club) and LeTabby Lexington (who is also in Die-Nasty this Fringe), along with tonight’s guest performers, one called Fiona who was from out of town, and one from Man Up (his name in that show is Tres Debonair but I think he was introduced last night as Givenchy or something like that).  Kristen Welker was stage kitten in a catsuit complete with claws.  Each performer did a solo act to music selected by the audience, with some kind of theme or limitation also provided randomly.  They also had a box of props to use as they chose. I don’t have the background to know how hard this is, but it was also fun to watch.  The show ended with all performers on stage alternating short bits with high energy.

Late Night Cabaret, hosted by Amy Shostak and Julian Faid, included some sketch comedy from Hip Bang, a story from Martin Dockery, a glimpse of Release the McCrackin, another burlesque performer (C.R. Avery, who is in Some Birds Walk for the Hell of It), and some risque country songs from Shirley Gnome.

What with visiting friends in the beer tent in between shows, I almost didn’t put my ID away all evening.  And that’s not a complaint.