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Fringe 2018 – the first half

At midweek, I’m just catching my breath long enough to sit down with my program book (my second program book, after the first had an unfortunate beer accident) and start coming to terms with not being able to see everything I want to see.

What I’ve seen so far:

Don’t Frown at the Gown – I loved this new Guys in Disguise play set in a suburban bridal salon in 1962.  The characters are charming, the conflicts between mother (Darrin Hagen) and bride (Trevor Schmidt) and between mother and best friend (Jason Hardwick), are timeless although the details are a horrifying reminder of the unexamined sexism of the world I was born into, and the salon owner Lady Laura Lee (Jake Tkaczyk) provides a cryptic example of serenity, empowerment, and hope for better things “in the very near future”.

Cult Cycle – A new musical set in a spin-bicycle exercise studio of course needs a soundtrack of original dance-beat music with catchy tunes (Composer Daniel Belland, check.)  It needs a bitingly-clever book and lyrics touching on all the catchphrases and attitudes encountered in boutique fitness as well as a plot with enough stakes to create interest, and a little bit of cheese (writers Stephen Allred, Bethany Hughes, and Seth Gilfillan, check) .  It needs a cast who can tell stories in song, sometimes while cycling at spin cadence, doing arm choreography with weights and towels, and even doing parallel-bars type gymnastics moves on a bicycle (Jaimi Reese, Mark Sinongco, Geoff Ryzuk, Nadine Veroba, Kendra Humphrey, Stephen Allred, check check check.)  It is very very funny.

Red Bastard:  Lie With Me – Eric Davis’s performance is a wonderful example of what can be done with bouffon, alternately alluring and appalling the audience, compelling us to confess embarrassing things, and challenging us to re-examine conventional assumptions of morality.

Bountiful – Rebecca Ann Merkley’s script about sister-wives in a contemporary polygamist settlement has a great balance of interpersonal frictions and cultural issues, with little touches that kept jolting me into realizing the characters were in some ways ordinary women of 2018 (Jameela McNeil’s sassy asides, Emma Wilmott’s “Cool”.)  Laura Raboud played the senior-wife leader of the group and Kayla Gorman played an awkward naive woman who reminded me a little bit of her child character in Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant.  There was something especially disturbing about seeing this in sequence with Don’t Frown, with the scenes of married women trying to reassure young brides about wedding-night “responsibilities” in ways that show the audience their own unhappy memories of encounters with honeymoon sex.

Merk de Soleil – This vaudeville-esque amateur-circus revue is a very different creation from Rebecca Merkley.  It has all the variety-show tropes – a big buildup, some repeated gags, a cast of odd characters, and some underappreciated helpers (Kristina Hunszinger, Josh Travnik, Andrew Brostrom).  Lots of fun.

The Wilds – Classic Wonderheads production telling a tender story in an amusing way without any spoken words.

For Science! – Christine Lesiak’s new show doesn’t need spoken words either, although it makes good use of text in a slide-show and benefited from audience members who rushed to contribute when asked.

The Alien Baby Project – Impossible Mongoose always has something cool and weird.  This year it’s a script from Nicholas Walker Herbert performed by Jessy Ardern and directed and designed by Corben Kushneryk.  Cool and weird.

2 Queens and a Joker – Cheryl Jameson, Madelaine Knight, and Vance Avery play Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I, and a messenger/spy go-between.  Dangerous-feeling design by Trevor Schmidt and script by Schmidt, Darrin Hagen, and Nick Green.

What I’m working on:

All Proceeds Go To:  Jake Tkaczyk, Alex Dawkins, Sarah Karpyshin, and I bring you a much-needed updating of the concept of seven deadly sins, and explore them using various performance genres including neo-bouffon, original music by Alex Dawkins, movement, dance, and audience contributions.  OSPAC on Gateway, three more shows.

A Golden Girls Tribute: Sofie’s Wild Ride is just what the title promises – a funny and nostalgic tribute to the characters of the TV show in some new adventures and to sitcom tropes in general (script by Amanda Leblanc, cast Brian Ault, Althea Cunningham, Nicole English, Ana Fassman, Rhonda Kosuska, and Amanda Leblanc).  Every afternoon at the Billiard Club, some shows selling out.

 

 

 

Another couple of days at the Fringe

One of the things I do at the Fringe each year is watch for the little improvements that make things run more smoothly and more fairly.  Like at Folkfest, another 30+ year tradition in Edmonton, the tweaks are small but always done to make things more fair, more convenient, and more fun.  Last year one new thing was a spinning postcard rack in the Arts Barns lobby for artists to leave their handbills on display.  It wasn’t designed ideally for that high-traffic activity, so the handbills often fell out of it, and festival director Murray Utas spent a lot of time picking up spilled handbills and sorting them to return to the rack.  This year, the rack is back, but it has been rebuilt with Plexiglas shields to allow the postcards to be seen and not fall out.  Little things like that.

This year the Playwrights Canada Press booth will be open all week, with staffing help from Concrete Theatre.  And the beer tents take debit and credit including tap, which speeds things up for the ticket sellers and for the patrons.  Little things, but little things that keep improving my favourite festival.

Marv ‘ n Berry Presents: Imagination is a sketch-comedy show performed by members of Rapid Fire Theatre, Nikki Hulowski, Quinn Contini, Mike Robertson, and Sam Stralak.  It’s very funny and occasionally surreal/weird – not quite as odd/eerie as Gossamer Obsessions was though.  Although I had heard many of their punchlines while sitting in on part of their tech rehearsal, I still laughed hard during the show, because good sketches are all about quickly conveying characters and situations which become funnier and funnier.  Not sure what was my favourite – the suburban couple auditioning to be gangsters, the fishing-trip participant with safety concerns, the board-game store …

Mormonic, the Musical  Sister Pratt, Sister Olsen, and Brother Bradshaw have turned the El Cortez basement into a meeting room to host an information session and potluck for people curious about the LDS church, complete with bad Power-Point and excellent songs.  The touch of having the slides be skewed and distorted on the screen as in pre-digital-projector days delighted me with nostalgic detail.  The script and lyrics were written by performers Amanda Neufeld and Jaimi Reese, and the music was composed by performer Daniel Belland, who plays the piano during the show but also sings and acts, which I have not seen him do before.  It is cleverly funny watching the characters’ personalities become revealed and unravelled during their presentation, and the music is appealing and sometimes catchy.

Pompeii, LA This play by Declan Greene is produced by Cardiac Theatre, with Harley Morison (director) and Jessica Glover (stage manager).  The familiar names on stage include Cody Porter, Elena Porter, James Hamilton, Nikki Hulowski, Morgan Grau, and Sam Stralak.  It’s a drama about Hollywood life, switching between scenes to show the challenges and unhappinesses for various characters, from an aging Judy Garland to a former child star trying to succeed in a disaster movie (Pompeii, it’s a metaphor and not) and a make-up artist trying to live her dream.

Prophecy This is another take on Greek tragedy written by Jessy Ardern and directed by Corbin Kushneryk, the creative team behind last year’s award-winning Fall of the House of Atreus, a Cowboy Love Story.  This one focuses on a smaller part of the stories, and on a few women characters:  tormented Cassandra, gifted (under dub-con circumstances) to see the truth and cursed not to be believed, Hecuba the proper queen and the mother of Cassandra, Paris, and Hector, and Andromache the timid and modest wife of Hector.  All characters are played by Carmen Niewenhuis, with clever smooth clues to character change in her costuming, voice, and posture.  And this one is not a funny play, although some of the design and acting is inherently funny.  It is disturbing and provocative and surprisingly topical, gory only in our imaginations, with content/trigger warnings offered in an envelope on the door rather than in a way that lessens the surprises for people who are willing to be surprised.

Shadowlands is a solo show written and performed by Savanna Harvey.  I saw a reading of this script at NextFest in June, before the performer left on her CAFF-lottery tour of five Fringe festivals, so I was excited to see it properly staged.  It’s told in alternating voices of several characters – maybe four, maybe five or six depending on how one counts.  A different prop represents each character, as in the puppetry genre referred to as object theatre – only this show is performed in the dark, with each character being represented by a different kind of light.  I don’t want to tell you much about it, because for me part of the fun of this kind of play is figuring out who/what each character is and how they are going to connect.

With Glowing Hearts:  A Canadian Burlesque Revue is just what the subtitle promises, a revue-style burlesque show with each act based on a woman or women from Canadian history.   The host is Ellen Chorley dressed as Famous Five activist Nellie McClung, and the panty zamboni (stagecrew) is Kiki Quinn dressed as a very cute beaver.  I never know whether to refer to burlesque performers by their stage names or by the names I’ve seen them listed by in other genres, but in this case both are in the program so you can figure out who is who.  Sweet Lady Night is a particularly strong singer, Scarlett Von Bomb is a great dancer, and Violette Coquette and LeTabby Lexington are experienced and talented burlesque performers.  The costumes are fabulous, the choreography is fun, and … and it was not only educational but inspiring, acknowledging the flaws of the historical characters by today’s higher standards of intersectional feminism and challenging the audience to take action.  The finale included a speech by Chorley that made me cry, and a Famous Five transition-to-the-present group dance number that had me clapping and cheering and fist-pumping.

Opera Nuova’s Carousel

Opera Nuova’s two mainstage productions this year are The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera composed by Leoš Janáček, and Carousel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. 

Carousel is set in a coastal village in Maine (Wikipedia says in 1873).  In the opening scenes, a touring carnival has set up outside the town, with various circus-style performers (a strong-man, dancers, a fortune teller, a juggler), carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Justin Kautz in tonight’s performance), and manager Mrs Mullin (Emily Stewart tonight).  The set includes three lovely carousel-horses, turned on a revolve during the opening waltz by members of the chorus.  (Apparently one can bid on the horses by contacting Opera Nuova before the end of the run).  Local mill girls Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge (Krista Paton and Brittany Rae) visit the carousel, but the carnival manager gets jealous when Billy Bigelow pays too much attention to Julie, banning Julie from the carousel and firing Billy.  Both Paton and Rae have lovely soprano voices in the solos and duet setting up their friendship and the story.  Kautz portrays Billy as a cocky flirt, confident in his charm, but with foreshadowing of physical threat in the way he grabs Mrs. Mullin’s forearm and threatens Carrie in the first scenes.

The larger ensemble then gathers on stage for clambake preparations, and the enthusiastic “June is Bustin’ Out All Over”, featuring Olivia Barnes tonight as Nettie Fowler.   This piece is echoed later by “That Was a Real Nice Clambake”, again with delightful choreography.  In between are important scenes advancing the tragic story – Julie and Billy lose their jobs, get married, and discover Julie expecting a baby before they have any money, so Billy agrees to help his no-good friend Jigger Craigin (Nolan Kehler tonight) with a robbery scheme.

After Billy’s death (with a spectacular fall off a pier by Kautz, one of the founders of Toy Guns Dance Theatre), the scenes 15 years later focus on Billy trying to make amends to his daughter Louise (Emily Steers tonight).  Louise’s barefoot dance piece explores solitary childhood joy on the shore with hopscotch, innocent celebration with local boy Enoch Snow Jr (Jordan Sabo of Man Up dance troupe), being picked on by a group of local children and taking petty revenge by snatching one girl’s hat, and then being swept up in a group of performers, the carnival workers of the opening scenes, particularly being drawn to a young man among them.   Later, she confides in Enoch Jr that after graduation she plans to run away with them and become an actress.

One of the most disturbing scenes of the musical is when Billy, granted visibility by the heavenly guides in order to help his daughter, gets frustrated when she won’t take his gift and slaps her hand.  Louise flees to her mother, who comforts her and seems to reminisce almost wistfully about a hit that feels like a kiss.  The underscoring music hints at this being sweetly nostalgic, which is jarring against the horrifying but realistic thought that Julie’s good memories of her abusive husband might be encouraging Louise to expect no better.   The more hopeful ending is that Billy’s spirit enables Louise to take in the graduation speech about not being limited by one’s parents’ failures and not being alone.  We can’t tell whether her happy ending will continue with running away to be an actress, marrying Enoch Jr, or perhaps something better than either.

The lighting and costumes for this production create a muted palette for the modest village and mists off the sea.  Vernacular dialects (slightly different for the carnival workers and the villagers) add to the vintage down-home atmosphere.

There is one more performance of Cunning Little Vixen tomorrow night (Friday 29 June) and one more of Carousel Saturday June 30th, both at Festival Place in Sherwood Park.  Julie

carousel 1

Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge at the Carousel

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!