Tag Archives: rapid fire theatre

Stories and songs

After an early performance of Sonder at King Edward School, I saw four more shows yesterday, all of them with a focus on story.

Little Monsters, written and directed by Kristen Finlay at the Walterdale Theatre, is the subtle and familiar story of a mother who is determined to do the best for her child, and how that understandable conviction can lead to some imbalance and unhappiness.  It wasn’t quite the story that I was expecting and I liked it better for that.  Erin Foster-O’Riordan was very believable as the earnest mother, not overplaying or ridiculous.  Cory Christensen and Julie Sinclair as her husband and her best friend had smaller parts in the story, but each brought his or her own issues to the encounters, as we saw gradually.  Anne-Marie Szucs played the uncompromising preschool director with intimidatingly still body language.   The Fringe-style simple set and lighting cues created an office, a living space at home, a parent-viewing room at the preschool, and a park bench.   I loved the line about the expectant mother only feeling perfect until other people knew her secret and started giving her advice.

The one thing I didn’t enjoy about the experience of watching this play had nothing to do with what was unfolding on stage.  In choosing a seat near the action, I had unwittingly chosen one that squeaked with every small shift in movement, so my seat kept making noise and nearby patrons kept looking at me.  I wish someone would either fix that seat or discourage people from sitting in it.

Sundogs, by Michaela Jeffery, directed by Louise Large, is playing in the small proscenium space of the Telus Building.  Holly Cinnamon was compelling as a slightly-out-of-control woman living alone on a farm, first encountered wearing a white cotton nightgown and rubber boots.  Police officer Mike (Evan Hall, also in Letters to Laura) and book acquisitions editor Dan (Brendan Thompson, also in Kurt Man buyer and seller of souls) each visit her to discuss some disturbing events that happened recently, and as their visits occur we find out more about her life.  Something about the sequence of the various scenes did not fall into place for me until later in the story.  I can never decide whether that pleases me as the narrative catches me by surprise and suddenly makes a different kind of sense, or whether I feel foolish for not catching on earlier.  This play had the most convincing and horrifying example of the consequences of living surrounded by clutter and hoarded possessions that I have ever heard or read, and it made me think anxiously about the boxes I’ve moved to the edges of all my rooms to make space for actors to sleep this week.  I hope to be able to see Holly Cinnamon’s original solo performance This is the kind of animal that I am later in the week.

I had not seen Bruce Horak’s This is Cancer before, although it had played at Edmonton Fringe a few years ago.  It’s … disturbing but in an aesthetically satisfying way.  Bruce Horak plays the title role in costume and makeup that are both eye-catchingly sparkly and nastily damaged.  Dave Horak (director of Fatboy and Bombitty of Errors, actor in Kill Me Now, and Bruce’s brother) plays Cancer’s stage assistant.  There is some singing.  There is a very gentle poke at the cancer-fundraising industry.  There is a chance for a few audience members to insert obituaries for dead loved ones.  There are some other forms of audience interaction some easier than others.   As with most performances that have an actor personifying something horrible like Death or the Devil, I found myself torn between liking the personification and wanting him to have a bad outcome.  I wondered how the show would manage to reconcile those, and I was moved to tears by the way the ending put the narrative on the side of life and health.  Those whose cancer connection is more recent or ongoing might have found it a bit too facile for their truth, but for me it worked well enough to start breathing easily again.  There is a short question and answer period afterwards with the performers out of costume.

Going from This is Cancer to Off Book the Musical was a bit emotionally disruptive.  But the performance of Off Book was well worth the warm stickiness of a full house at C103.   Leif Ingebrigsten accompanied on piano as Matt Alden, Amy Shostak, Hunter Cardinal, Joleen Ballandine, Vince Forcier, and Kory Matheson created and performed an hour-long musical based on audience suggestions of “a wedding” and “a discount warehouse store”, using four rehearsal boxes as the only visible props.  The main characters’ problems were both compelling and amusing.  The mayor (Matt Alden) wants to marry Mary (Joleen Ballandine) as well as winning an election, but she’s been married four times before, avoided finalising any of the divorces, and considers herself unmarriable.  Side plots involve a discount warehouse going out of business (major improv points to Hunter Cardinal who tied up that loose thread of plot right at the end when I had almost forgotten it), and a little boy (Vince Forcier) asking his parents (Amy Shostak and Kory Matheson) how to respond to a proposal he’s received on the playground.  There was a little bit of dance, and songs created in a wide range of styles including rap.   Off Book also plays frequently at the Rapid Fire Theatre Saturday night CHiMPROV longform shows during the season, but if you like musical improv you should definitely try to catch a show at the Fringe.

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.

The Prairie Bowl – a different kind of tournament!

I’ve played in, watched, and volunteered at lots of hockey tournaments, so I know the routine.  You see the list of teams coming from other towns and you’re excited about seeing new talent, while wondering whether the home-town kids are really as good as you thought.  You might get there early on the first night and see the organizers setting up the charts on the wall where they will update the standings throughout the weekend.  You wonder whether the winter weather might be slowing down some of the out-of-town competitors, so it’s a relief to see each new cluster of unfamiliar and bewildered faces get welcomed by the organizers.

The lobby fills up, because lots of fans want to be part of this inaugural event.  You pick up a program and find out that the visitors are from Winnipeg, Calgary, and Red Deer.  A second Calgary team starts play Saturday night, and like any partisan hockey parent you wonder whether that’s fair.  You line up at the concession stand and stock up on red licorice – but you notice that they don’t serve burnt percolator coffee, and they do have beer.  That’s a clue that this is a different kind of tournament.

After they tear your ticket and let you into the auditorium, you get more clues.  It’s warm!  And the seats in Zeidler Hall are comfortable!  The MC introduces a panel of judges who will hold up scorecards, but you’re used to that from watching figure skating in the Olympics.

The first game is between Red Deer and Winnipeg.  The team captains, Serge from Red Deer and RobYn from Winnipeg, shake hands, and the action starts.  And the audience starts to laugh.  Because what you’re watching is the first-ever Prairie Bowl of Theatresports, the somewhat-competitive loosely-codified short-form improvisational-theatre scheme invented in 1981 in Calgary by Keith Johnstone and nurtured locally by Rapid Fire Theatre.

If you’re a frequent Rapid Fire attendee, you’ll love seeing the best of the Rapid Fire company mixing it up with less familiar performers from the other teams, all on top of their game.  On the first night of play, there were lots of jokes with good-natured local colour – the Donut Mill in Red Deer, the Calgary-Edmonton hockey rivalry, crime in Winnipeg, and the lack of tournament representation from Saskatchewan. Apparently there is improv in Saskatoon and Regina but they couldn’t make the schedule work this time.  There was singing (spontaneous musical numbers about dishwashing), dancing (expressive movement in a Chinese restaurant), and physical comedy (the garbageman with a sore back finding a dead body over and over again, the four-bodied drummer showing his/their moves).  Joel Crichton provided musical cues and atmosphere on the keyboard, last night’s MCs were locals Kory Mathewson and Joe Vanderhelm, and members of all teams took turns as judges and as opening-act free-improv players.

I don’t know if this is the kind of tournament where they give Most Valuable Player awards, but RobYn Slade of Outside Joke (Winnipeg) and Ryan Hildebrandt of the Improv Guild (Calgary) are both delightfully expressive.  It was also reassuring to see the judges assess a penalty (sitting out one round while wearing the Ring of Shame) to a visiting player who used a rape metaphor, and to see clear acceptance from everyone on stage that the penalty was appropriate and the rape analogy inappropriate, establishing the boundaries of respect and good taste in a genre without many boundaries.

If you enjoy watching improv theatre, or if you’re curious about what this phenomenon is all about, this is a good weekend to come check it out.  There are two shows Saturday night, at 7:30pm and 10:00 pm, and the playoffs are on Sunday night starting at 7:30 pm, all in Ziedler Hall at the Citadel Theatre.  Tickets are available at the door for $12, or you can order over the phone or on-line here.  There is convenient indoor parking in the Library Parkade (which seems to run underneath everything on the east side of downtown) for $5 cash.  You can also get to the Citadel from the Churchill LRT station without going outdoors.  Outside Joke from Winnipeg are in the early lead after two rounds of play, but the scores have been very close and all teams are still in the running.