Previews & Reviews
Vancouver Island and the Okanagan are full of performance – visit us here to find previews and reviews from our critics and aficionados.
Claustrophobic Loneliness and Ideas Galore
Beginning the latter half of Theatre Inconnu's 2019 season, Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, directed by Morgan Gadd, gives Victoria audiences an uneven telling of a story about isolation and obsession.
Dead Man's Cell Phone’s story is one of the weirder ones that you’ll see out at the theatre, and kudos to Theatre Inconnu for always taking on these productions.
Jean (Melissa Blank) sits by herself in a cafe, and is driven to distraction by the incessant ringing of a cell phone belonging to Gordon (Cam Culham), a nearby patron. After imploring him to answer, she realizes that the man is in fact dead, and yet his phone keeps ringing. Well, what is she to do but answer the incoming calls and find herself entwined in his life. Over the course of the show, she makes connections with the man's mother, brother, wife, and mistress (Wendy Magahay, Perry Burton, Sarah Herman, and Carilynn Nicholson, respectively) and slowly learns more about the life Gordon lead, all while telling tall tales of Gordon’s views about his family members.
Culham's performance of Gordon (who has a more-than-a-little shady profession) sits firmly in his wheelhouse and he clearly is having a lot of fun with the role. His cocksure monologue which opens the second act is entertaining, and you can see he’s really comfortable with the character. One of the more interesting (and under utilized) elements of the show are the shadow projections which help to set the scenes. There’s clearly good work put into them and they help to liven up the show. Overall the show has an interesting premise at its core, and has multiple levels of meaning that could be explored, particularly around technology as a force that both unites people and isolates them (and how fitting for the times we live in!)
The potential for a nuanced examination of these ideas I found lost due to the direction that was taken. All of the scene transitions feature the cast moving around some of the thirteen white-painted 'theatre boxes' on stage, taking a long time and never establishing any location. The physical bulk of these pieces pushes all the action into the smallest spaces possible, robbing any sense of openness. This claustrophobia really comes to the fore during an awkward dinner scene, where almost half the cast is upstaging themselves in one corner of the stage while pretending that a sumptuous meal is before them (albeit on a theatre block the size and height of a coffee table.) What came across was that the details of the staging didn’t really matter, so long as the lines were there. A line calls for caramel corn, so an empty bag of cheddar-caramel mix is brought out. A character 'eats' the corn, but looks to be picking up individual grains of rice instead. Hair is "braided" at one point in a manner that more closely resembles a chimp grooming its friend. What could be an examination of isolation is let down by unmotivated action and a lack of attention to details, either big or small. That direction was lost on me.
Dead Man's Cell Phone is certainly a weird play. Some fun, some camp, and you almost certainly will leave the theatre with more questions than answers.
Making Space for Those who Come After You
Opening the Belfry’s 2019-2020 season, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children offers a look into how we cope with the large and small disasters of life, and what we do when it comes time to reckon with our own actions. It’s a good play, worth seeing, though not without some significant faults in writing and staging that might hamper your enjoyment, depending on how picky you are.
The Children opens with Rose (Brenda Robbins) standing in the kitchen of Hazel (Nancy Palk) and Robin’s (Joseph Ziegler) cottage, having just shown up after an absence of forty-ish years. Rose and Hazel catch up on the lives of some old colleagues (all three of the characters used to work at a nearby nuclear plant), while eluded to through conversation they speak of a recent disaster that ominously presses down on them and the land. Words like “evacuation” and “exclusion zone” hint at the details of the recent calamity: in the wake of an earthquake and tidal wave, the nuclear plant has gone into meltdown, and the land and people are coping with the aftermath. Robin returns from tending to the cattle at their old farm which was much closer to the plant, and the repercussions and motivations of Rose’s return begin to unfold through the trio. Ultimately, The Children poses a lot of questions to the characters and the audience about the fallout from acting on personal desire and about our responsibilities that stem from following those desires, responsibilities both for our past actions and towards the future and those who will live with their results.
There’s a lot to really recommend The Children as a play to check out. The central premise is timely and relevant, particularly to an aging generation which, rightly or wrongly, has a reputation for holding on to their personal gains with a tenacity that impoverishes the subsequent generations. The call to action to proverbially and literally clean up the messes made collectively, is touching. Without getting on a soapbox, Kirkwood’s script lays out the case for making space for those who come after you, taking care of things as you go, and for just getting out of the way when it’s your time. It skewers a central problem with society, one that transcends generations, in what Hazel says at one point: “I don’t know how to want less.” This inability to collectively want less, particularly acute for those who seemingly have the most, spurs on our most destructive impulses, and condemns the future to reap the seeds sown by and ignorant past. The cast did an admirable job of conveying a group of people coming to terms with needing to get out of the way and take up the mantle of responsibility, though on opening night it fell a little flat.
Unfortunately, the performance that opened the show had a cast that wasn’t yet ready to be in front of an audience. While some scenes felt polished and well done, others lagged and sputtered, with bizarre gaps in the dialogue. It was evident that at least two of the actors were struggling with their lines in a few points, which made for some confusing and muddled moments at times that otherwise would have been powerful. The work didn’t seem to inhabit the bodies of the actors, and their actions and blocking seemed rote and rehearsed, rather than natural. It’s a nitpicky thing to bring up, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of Hazel preparing a salade niçoise at one point, using the strangest chopping technique I’ve seen (a potato was half finely-chopped, and half roughly cubed before being added to the bowl.) It came across like a mechanical series of actions - chop potato on line X, chop tomatoes on line Y, olives on Z, etc. - rather than a straightforward action motivated by the desire to make a salade niçoise. The disconnect between action and motivation remained throughout, and kept the performance at arms-length the entire time, leading to the most persistent question I had throughout: “Who are these people?” The characters might be hidden in the lines, but they weren’t present in the bodies of the actors, and that unfortunately undermined the power of the performance. Still, these are issues which, over the course of the run, will self-mitigate, and they likely will improve and grow into their performances. While the positives of the show outweigh the negatives, there are still a lot of curiosities surrounding the work, which may make it more of a puzzler if you’ve got a mind for these things.
There are a number of odd things about the staging which, while they may not stand out, linger over the show overall, giving a feeling of unreality. A cordless phone (offstage at the time) rings while the power is out. Hazel goes to lie down in the bedroom, yet when she’s called from the kitchen, she appears within a second of her name being called. Conversations, ostensibly secret ones, are carried on with an open door at the same volume as everything else. There’s a curious dearth of power outlets in the kitchen. The timeline of their co-working to the disaster to the present is muddy and unclear. The muddiness culminates in a final few minutes that veer towards the melodramatic before finally just fizzling out, ending with an unreal, dreamlike couple of moments. This uneasy unreality suffuses the show, propped up by some of the more puzzling bits of dialogue in an otherwise good script (any work that trots out “the definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results” shows off a singular lack of imagination). These are all little things, to be sure, but little details make up the big picture. You might not have noticed them, but your brain did.
The Children is a play worth seeking out, if a little wobbly. Built around a solid premise and backed by performances that will only improve with time, The Children makes the case for cleaning up your messes and getting out of the way.
Tickets and show info at: www.belfry.bc.ca
13 Dead Dreams of "Eugene" - Venue 3 - Metro Theatre
A projected shadow show about the dreams that an unidentified corpse is visiting upon the inhabitants of a small Midwestern town, 13 Dead Dreams of "Eugene" is certainly among the more uniquely premised and well-executed pieces this Fringe. Whether or not it delivers on the spookiness that that premise should have is altogether a different story.
Dead Dreams (created and performed by Erika MacDonald and Paul Strickland) loosely follows the two of them as they travel to Sabina, Ohio, where the body of an unidentified man (called "Eugene" because of the nearest resident to a scrap of paper found in his pocket) was kept on display for over three decades. Over this time, people in the town have been experiencing the same dreams, at least twelve distinct ones that feature watery secret-keepers under a bridge, curious encounters with ominous preachers, and the particularly chilling tale of the Whistlemaker. They uncover letters, written ostensibly by Eugene's spirit, inhabiting the body of one of the residents, ultimately promising the haunting of whoever experiences all of Eugene's dead dreams.
This piece has a lot of the things that make for a great Fringe show, an unusual premise (based on a real cadaver which was displayed for 35 years!), clever design, and solid performances; the creativity with which MacDonald and Strickland play with shadow and motion is really something else, and really clicks with the DIY aesthetic of their production design. The stories are spooky, reminding you of disturbing dreams or chilling nightmares. Some of the dreams are told through song, and they all have a dark folk, creepy-country vibe, and seem to be plucked straight from a Midwestern folklore. All of these are great qualities that the two performers deliver with dedication and enthusiasm. All of these formidable skills, however, don't quite deliver on the promise of a spooky night at the Fringe.
Undercutting the work overall are two main problems, one structural/technical and one stylistic. On the structural side, the piece begins with a distorted recording of one of Eugene's letters delivered over a clacking typewriter, and is really difficult to understand, putting the audience at arm’s length from the action of the work. We then are introduced, sort of, to the investigative "characters," but it never really is clear if we as an audience are supposed to believe that these are the actual experiences of the performers, or if the investigation is something which these two characters are engaging in. This extra distance between the audience and the narrative framework keeps the story that hangs the stories from really clicking emotionally. The stylistic incongruities are harder to pin down; the night I attended the audience took every opportunity to laugh throughout the show. This really defused any tension that might have built up from the otherwise unsettling visions, and made it seem less like horror, and more like a vaguely spooky story. Of course, that experience would vary with the particular audiences, but I get the feeling that the tales generally skew more towards campfire creepy, rather than full-blown fear-inducing.
13 Dead Dreams of "Eugene" is one of the most unique offerings in the festival, and presents its DIY shadow show with a lot of vigour and heart. Go with the expectation of something a little spooky, rather than really scary, and you’ll probably come out charmed.
False Profits - Venue 1 - Victoria Events Centre
What if the super-rich were trying to manipulate the world and governing systems into simply increasing their own already massive wealth? What if they had cartoonishly evil names for their organizations that were trying to siphon all of the money in the world? Well, it’s not so much a "what if" scenario, as Jeff Leard lays out in his newest solo show False Profits.
Focusing mainly on Koch Industries (the largest privately owned refining company in the United States) and the machinations of the Koch family promote deregulation and "trickle down economics," False Profits takes a wrecking ball to the neoliberal agenda that has defined American industrial capitalism for the last half century. Jumping between stories of the downright evil deeds of these profiteers to campy, over-the-top commercials for services such as phoney nonprofits set up to buy more political influence, Leard tells a story that is at once tragic, hilarious, and infuriating. Particularly his take-down of the champagne tower metaphor for the Reaganomics of the 80s is pitch perfect and conjures up some of the most funny and accurate imagery (and really, all those Gordon Gecko types are best referred to as "hoarding old goblins.")
It's clear that the show is relatively new, having clearly not fully settled into Leard’s muscles just yet. A few times Leard set out on a sentence only to restart after a few words, having seemingly missed an adjective important to his metre. These bumps in the road are addressed head on, though, as Leard is skilled at adapting to the situations he puts himself in, and as one of the most self-aware performers around, he overcomes with grace and humour.
It's rather refreshing to see a work that takes on a rather low-hanging fruit (unregulated free-market capitalism is, in a word, bad) it makes the subject more real and human by focusing on a particular dynasty of wealthy people and their pernicious influence. It makes the reality of the evils wrought not nebulous or removed but specific and immediate. The one thing missing is a definite call to action, which would really tie the work together. While Leard obviously can't offer any magic-bullet answers, a fact he openly bemoans, pointing the audience towards a plausible activity that they can do would serve as a fitting way to conclude the show. That said, the showdown in a castle fantasy he constructs as a finale is rather delightful.
Full of uncomfortable and infuriating truths, False Profits is a great education piece on the pitfalls of capitalism and a flashlight on the misdeeds of one of the most influential families in the modern world. What's more, it'll give you a good laugh while you get ready to stage a workers' uprising.
Playing With Men - Venue 1 - Victoria Events Centre
Staying on his tried and true method of mile-a-minute storytelling, Jon Bennett's latest offering, Playing With Men, may be the perfection of his performance style. Side-splittingly funny and scathingly self-critical, it’s a valuable work that probes at toxic masculinity and the culture of machismo.
If you've seen one of Jon Bennett's shows before, the formula of Playing With Men will be familiar to you; Bennett delivers quips and anecdotes at a blistering pace, aided by the mother of all slideshows. Divided broadly into two halves, Bennet first sets up his youthful love of Aussie Rules Football (which, to the uninitiated North American, looks like a fusion of Rugby and some sort of bloodsport) and his equal, or perhaps greater, childhood devotion to animals. As the show goes on, confronting a tragedy causes Bennett to reframe his past experiences, uncover the toxic norms that were instilled in him, and expose how deeply integrated misogyny and racism were into his upbringing.
Perhaps moreso than some of his other works, in Playing With Men Bennett displays a level of self-awareness and criticality. While played off for laughs, and there are lots of laughs to be had, Bennett unpacks traumas from his youth which set him on his course and informed his notion of how men are 'supposed' to process grief and pain. While some outlets appear to at least be constructive (his final game of Aussie Rules was rather touching), he explores the poisonous nature of the idea that feelings are to be bottled up, not discussed, and ultimately unleashed in violence and destruction.
The kicker to the work is in Bennett’s insistence on calling out his own behaviour in a really powerful way. Recognizing his own behaviours, his own internalized racism and sexism, and his own blindness to the effects of his actions over his life. He knows that he is wiser now, and able to at least see the patterns of harm, able to talk about them, and to confront his own behaviour and the actions of other men. Powerfully, he calls on men in his audience to look at themselves and to begin the process of actually talking with other men, particularly men whose behaviour is harmful and toxic. Stated simply and powerfully, confronting this internalized toxicity "can’t be left to the Hannah Gadsbys of the world."
At once critical and hilarious, Playing With Men is a powerful show that is important for men to see, particularly those who are coming to terms with their internalized biases. Bennet demonstrates his capacity for introspection, while engagingly delivering this self-reflective dissection of toxic masculinity.
Josephine - Venue 5 - Langham Court Theatre
Part cabaret, part biographical play, Josephine (performed and co-created by Tymisha Harris) is a touching and powerful look at the life of burlesque pioneer, international superstar, and civil rights advocate Josephine Baker. It's also probably the hottest ticket at the Victoria Fringe and you should do everything you can to get a ticket.
Following Josephine Baker from her childhood in pre-Great War Missiouri, to her stage career in Paris, and her work as a spy for the French Resistance. Weaving between performances of works she was famous for, dazzling (and cheeky!) dance routines, and dramatic monologues that open up the travails and turns in her career, the story of Baker’s life is fascinating and dramatic. She shakes off the confines that society would impose upon her, defying racial, familial, and sexual expectations. The story of Baker’s life is that of all great heroes: one of humble beginnings, overcoming adversity, and fighting for those around her. Taking on this mantle is no mean feat, and fortunately it is accomplished with aplomb by Tymisha Harris.
Simply put, Harris is undoubtedly one of the best performers to set foot in Victoria in recent memory. Her dynamism in portraying the different stages of Baker's life is brilliant. She gives thought and attention to how to affect her voice and bearing for each stage of life without becoming cartoonish or over the top. Even while portraying this formidable woman at her fiercest and most defiant, she elevates the fragility and vulnerability that Baker still encountered as a bisexual black woman in the mid 20th century. This is the kind of performance that is a rare treat to see in town.
I'd be remiss if I didn’t bring up a couple of quibbles that I had with the show, but they really are quite minor. For myself, I could’ve used a bit more of a framing structure to the piece overall, as I found myself a little unmoored in observing the whole of her life. The show is similar to Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill (a cabaret show about Billie Holiday), however it lacks the anchoring framework of being entirely a work of reminiscence. This lack of frame manifests most clearly at the end of the show where it feels like it tries to end a few times, sapping the momentum right at the end of the piece. That said, these are minor qualms, and are made up for by the raw talent on stage.
Josephine is a gem of a Fringe show: expertly executed, approachable, and important, it's a work that is simply a privilege to watch. Get your tickets while you can, as this is sure to sell out quick!
The Ballad of Frank Allen - Venue 7 - St. Andrew’s Kirk Hall
When stuck on the path of least resistance in life, sometimes all it takes to make a big change is to have a tiny man living in your beard. This, effectively, is the premise of The Ballad of Frank Allen, a sci-fi bizarro comedy that is high energy and high hilarity.
Al (Al Lafrance) is a man stuck in a rut. Unable to scare up motivation to stick with a job, unable to work up the nerve to ask a girl out, and just generally unable to do much other than coast along the easiest route possible through life. Luckily for him, routine-oriented janitor Frank Allen (Shane Adamczak) has gotten shrunk down to a microscopic size, and now inhabits Al's prodigious facial hair. Able to influence his host’s behaviour through tugging on his hairs, Frank sets about course correcting Al's life, improving his playlist choosing ability, social skills, and even his kissing techniques. Eventually, Al and Frank learn how to communicate with each other, and find themselves caught up in a deadly showdown with a mad scientist. It's a madcap ride from one crazy scenario to the next, punctuated with song and silliness.
Adamczak and Lafrance are nonstop energetic performers, and it’s really fun to watch the two of them ping-pong off of each other. Their commitment to the bits, however ridiculous, is complete, ensuring that they bring the audience along with them on this strange ride. On opening night one particular gag seemed to go on a bit long, sliding from amusing into puzzlingly unending, like an improv scene that can’t find its ending, and it seemed to be getting a muted response from the audience. At its conclusion, though, one commented to the other "You're really committed to that bit?" and got a knowing "oh yeah," in response, drawing laughter from the audience. It’s clear that the two performers are able to read the room to see what’s working, while also demonstrating that they’re in it for the fun of what they’re doing. It's good to be able to visibly see performers enjoying the work that they’re undertaking.
This strays further into "your mileage may vary" territory, but it goes without saying that some of the gags or bits work better than the others. The scenes that took place in the lab where Frank was shrunk down were uneven, ranging from delightfully insane (I'll never be able to hear “enhance” in the same way again) to kind of flat (the quintuplet genius scientists were a little quirky, but didn’t really stick). That said, they're all given the same level of dedication, so what may not resonate with one crowd might with another.
The Ballad of Frank Allen is a good weird show to take in this festival. Tongue in cheek, zany, and packed with enthusiasm, it's a great piece to take some friends to if you want to laugh along with a tiny man clinging to another man’s facial hair. And really, who doesn’t want to do that?
Psychic Dynasty - Venue 5 - Langham Court Theatre
Psychic Dynasty, a Father-Daughter two-person magic show by Joey and Phina Pipia, has got some real tricks and neat stuff, though it misses some of the razzle dazzle you might expect from the show.
So, to put the cards on the table (so to speak) I love a good magic show. The wonder of knowing that there’s no way that what’s happening should be "possible," but also knowing that there’s some sort of trick or artifice behind it. Puzzling over the “how” of a great trick is lots of fun, and Psychic Dynasty certainly delivers on that element. From psychically learning what Beatles song is written on a whiteboard, to revealing what cards were secretly chosen by random audience members, to somehow manifesting the spirit of Johnny Cash, Psychic Dynasty has lots of the kind of tricks that should leave you gasping with delight. Unfortunately, the flourish of the reveal doesn’t quite match the tricks themselves.
What's lacking is a clear set of expectations, and this is unfortunately the case almost the entire time. The set-up for some of the tricks is rather muddy, making it unclear what was going on. An example: a deck of cards is bound with some elastics and sent into the audience for members to secretly peek at individual cards. The cards are then recited by Phina, and the folks in the audience sit down when they hear their card. But… well, it all happened so fast, and there was no clear set up that the deck wasn’t a trick deck beforehand. Rather than dazzle, as some of these tricks should, they come across as half-set up, relying on the audience to make some leaps to complete the mental setup, as well as having to bring in the excitement over figuring out just what happened. That said, there is a particularly neat set of tricks involving "conjuring the spirit of Johnny Cash" which are very well done, showing that the duo can really pull some feats off exceptionally.
Psychic Dynasty could be a lot of fun, and your mileage may vary. If you’re willing to put in a bit of the work yourself to be amazed, and aren’t afraid of getting called up on stage (a lot of people participate in this show), it’s a pretty fun way to spend an afternoon.
Summer Bucket List - Venue 6 - Roxy Theatre
Hot off the heels of last year's Pick-of-the-Fringe winning The Fitting Room, Collectivus Theatre appropriately brings their newest work to life in the dog days of summer. Summer Bucket List, written by Ellery Lamm and directed by Anna Marie Anderson, continues their trend of bringing well thought-out, well crafted drama to Victoria audiences, full of hope, yet embracing the flaws it takes to get to that place.
While serving summer detention by cleaning the school, teenagers Zoey (Lili Martin) and Grace (Maggie Martin) come across a "Summer Bucket List" left behind in a locker, presumably by a departed senior. A list that may seem familiar to anyone who remembers the seemingly limitless possibilities of two months away from school, bounded only by the confines and pressures that society puts on us: get drunk, have sex, lemonade stand(?), break into the pool at night, etc. The girls take to the list with a kind of resigned gusto, seeing this newly found list of objectives as a yardstick by which they have to gauge their whole summer. Moreover, there’s a ticking clock: they’ve got to get it done before Grace heads off to camp in a couple of weeks. Along the way, we meet other characters (Emily Hay, Isaiah Adachi, and Willa Hladun) who have either been party to the events that led to detention, or have influence over the goings on of the girls. Finally, many of the scenes are punctuated or intercut with glimpses into a therapy session, where The Girl (Arielle Parsons) talks about her own hopes, fears, and issues with an unseen therapist.
There's a lot of really great work on display, and it’s important to point out as much of this brimming talent as possible. Lamm continues to show herself as the playwright to watch in Victoria. Her dialogue is natural, and doesn’t feel like that of an adult trying to put on youthful affectation. Anderson’s direction keeps things moving, pretty effectively navigating the intricacies of the many scenes and locations. Moments like a chorus of screams at a concert or the final few lines, delicately delivered, are both powerful and lovely, showing a great attention to the emotional impact the work can have. Anchoring the piece, really, is the relationship between Grace and Zoey, which Martin and Martin (what a name for a duo!) navigate to perfection. Their friendship, close-knit at times, fraught at others, is believable and nuanced. Parsons really knocks it out of the park, though, as The Girl. Complex and angry, thoughtful and tender, she shows such a range and dynamism that is simply delightful.
Criticisms? I have some on a sliding scale of intensity. While from a technical standpoint it was a well executed piece, I had a lot of problems hearing what was happening on stage. Not that Aaron Smail’s sound design wasn’t good, but in the environs of the Roxy Theatre, I happened to be sitting in a dead seat. During a pivotal moment of the show (a monologue delivered at a concert) I could barely catch a word, not because things were too loud, but because the actors just happened to be in the places where the acoustics sucked up every decibel. A structural thought, too: the show really belongs to Grace, Zoey, and the Girl, and while I found the actors in the other roles were good, the characters themselves seemed less fleshed out. I found myself wanting to hear their stories reflected in the actions and dialogue of Zoey, Grace, and The Girl, rather than from them.
One last bit, which is separate from discussion of the show itself: while the Facebook page for the show has a full content warning, the Fringe guide (and thus, the board outside the venue) doesn’t include discussion of suicidal thoughts. Given they come up a number of times throughout the work, it seems an oversight.
Summer Bucket List is not just a good piece of theatre, it has real vitality and necessity to it. Poignant, funny and thought provoking, learn a little bit about teenage female rage and tick seeing this show off of your own bucket list.
Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum's Rush - Venue 6 - Roxy Theatre
Billed as a "bodacious vaudeville show" about Mel Malarkey's last night in her theatre, Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum's Rush might be about that evening, but the bodacious and hilarious show promised is sadly missing.
Mel Malarkey, portrayed by award-winning spoken word artist Charlie Petch, is the MC of a cabaret show at a theatre which is about to be bought out and turned into, gasp, a cinema. Mourning the loss of this bastion of live art, Malarkey performs short bits, introduces an absurd sounding act, and then retreats to her dressing room to get into her next costume. While there, she recites letters and poems about love and loss, moving on and staying true to who you are, even if you’re not sure who exactly that is. This formula repeats throughout the show, and while there are moments that really should be beautiful, I found myself disengaged almost from the get go.
What's off-kilter is really the tone of the show, never settling on if it wants to be an uproarious vaudeville comedy or a contemplative work about moving on. It could be that it’s there to emphasize the dissonance between a "show face" and who you are underneath, but the distance between the two versions of the character wasn't far enough. Despite physically taking a long time to go from one bit to another (Mel travels behind the stage between each bit, dragging the transition out) the two iterations of the character are very similar, MC Mel has a thin veneer of showmanship over a person suffused with sadness, and dressing room Mel just has that veneer stripped away, not much else. Furthermore, while in MC mode, it can be really hard to follow some of what’s being said, and while Petch delivers solidly enunciated words in the dressing room and post-show, they don’t make Mel's on-stage MC persona particularly easy to follow.
Maybe colouring my take on all of this is a tiredness with love letters to old Vaudeville acts. All the ukulele songs and gimmicky bits (of course there’s a dildo joke) feel rather same-y when you step back from them. While the production brings up the opportunities for otherwise discriminated against folks to perform and be themselves on stage using uncommon talents, it glosses over the predatory role of Vaudeville producers and promoters, and the role that sensationalism played in driving the acts into the ground. While these kind of things get touched on, the work never really skewers what was wrong with the scene, never quite nails down what it's trying to say. Further to this, it's a bit much to put on a show which laments the death of theatre in favour of cinema inside a venue which is a cinema converted into a stage theatre during the city’s largest theatre festival.
Trying to say something about acceptance and love, Mel Malarkey Gets the Bum's Rush doesn't quite manage to land any emotional punches. If you’re into old vaudeville and don’t care that the piece is tonally inconsistent, give it a go but don’t expect much more than some malarkey.
Dissection of a Mixed Heritage Woman - Venue 2 - Downtown Community Centre
Tracing from the point of her origin back many generations, Dissection of a Mixed Heritage Woman follows creator/performer Nyla Carpentier’s route as she attempts to figure out how to synthesize the seeming disparate parts of her heritage into the person she is now.
What part of your body belongs to what part of your heritage? Coming from a family with Scottish, French, and Tahltan ancestry, Carpentier has been searching for her answer to that question her whole life. Are her fingers from Scotland or France? Is the rhythm in her feet from the Tahltan dancing tradition, or from a fur trapper's jig? Carpentier navigates her bloodline like a person charting a river by boat, following her traits like streams to their sources. Overall it's a picture of a person trying to form a picture of themselves, and answering for herself whether or not she even has to choose "what" she is.
Carpentier is a natural and magnetic speaker, and you can’t help but be drawn into her performance. Poetic but direct, she jumps between anecdotes and stories, from a sorrow-tinged story of how one set of grandparents were married to the amusing facts of how the other set hit it off. Further to her storytelling, she showcases just how dance has helped her find and connect to her heritage. Without spoiling, there's a dance moment full of joy and honour that is so touching, moreso for how simple and straightforward it is. Her exploration of heritage is particularly powerful if you’ve ever had the feeling of being removed from your own history and culture. For myself, as a half-Swede far from my ancestral home and whose grandparents were encouraged to stop speaking their language, I found that Carpentier's sadness over not speaking Tahltan really spoke to me (recognizing that there are profound differences over why those languages weren’t transmitted and the differing realities of being able to learn them as adults.)
There is still some work to be done on the piece, but Carpentier addresses that head on. While some of it she knows like the back of her hand, some, like her own history, she is still learning. A couple of times the stories, particularly about herself as an adult, weren’t quite as well woven into the fabric of the show, seeming a little disjointed from it. That said, unlike the contributions of seven generations ago, this is new history, and takes time to integrate into the whole picture of one's self. No doubt as she practices and refines, these threads will blend into the tapestry better.
Dissection of a Mixed Heritage Woman offers the kind of introspection that anyone who has wondered about their heritage will find something in. Personal and universal, this kind of storytelling deserves to be seen and reflected on.
GRL PWR - Venue 3 - Metro Studio
Do you love pop music from the 90s and feminism? Do you maybe want to learn about those in a visually and musically engaging way? Do you want to have a good time with a great group of performers? If the answer to any of those is 'yes,' get your butt down to GRL PWR.
This show is exactly what it says it will be: a musical feminist lecture. The Saltines (a quintet of powerhouse local performers) take the audience through first wave through modern feminism, talking about the music that helped define each era, the pros and cons of each era, and the indelible contributions that each successive generation of feminists have made. Through flip charts and talking points, the Saltines catch us up on just how feminism got to the 90s before really diving into the heart of the lecture: the defining feminist ideas of 90s girl groups. That might sound dry, but they deliver the points with such energy and gusto that you can’t help but want to learn more.
Kicking this show to the next level is the undeniable energy and talents of the Saltines (Emilee Nimetz, Sadie Evans, Ingrid Moore, Sarah Murphy, and Jana Morrison). In a show with five performers it's a treat that you can't single out any one of them as being "the star" because damn, they're all stars. Everybody has time to shine, and everyone is clearly into it and having a hell of a time. Crisp choreography, good harmonies, and great bits of just enough schtick to keep the audience laughing, this team clearly knows how to work it and deliver a message at the same time.
If I were to complain about anything, it's that I found the levels a bit loud/wonky for myself. Sometimes I found it hard to hear the Saltines over the music tracks, which led to a feedback loop of everything getting a bit louder. Another quibble, which may actually be praise, and a bit of a funny thing for a 30-something man to say, but I wanted more feminist lecure! The super well-executed renditions of 90s girl group hits were great, but I was even more captivated by the feminist angles on everything. You mileage will probably vary if you know the songs in the first place, and since I effectively lived under a pop music rock for the 90s, I know that one's entirely on me.
If you’re looking for an uproarious, energetic, and informative experience, look no further than GRL PWR. Take your friends and particularly take anyone who's afraid of the word "feminist," you’ll come smiling and smarter.
Fool Munn Komming - Venue 7 - St. Andrew’s Kirk Hall
There some works of theatre which, for good or for ill, have defined the term Fringe or Fringey in the context of the festival, and Fool Muun Komming! is a good example of the kind of weird and wonderful theatre you can only see in the Fringe.
The show is a hard one to summarize in a meaningful way, but here goes. An alien is coming to earth, and to prepare for his arrival, the audience is pulled in to a shared dream or mass hallucination. In it we see a day in the life of an alien critter, a series of bonkers dream sequences, an argument with a disembodied voice of an asteroid named Love Rock, and, peppered throughout, moments of real heartfelt beauty. It’s a show that culminates in a near perfect moment of devastating cacophony paired with simple elegance, that, despite not being sure what’s going on, you feel as though you got there organically.
Holding Fool Muun Komming! Together is no mean task, and Sam Kruger, creator and performer, has the requisite skills in spades. His control over his body and physicality is a sight to behold, and adds a level of precision to all the chaotic choices made throughout. It illustrates the care and precision put into a work which is regularly baffling, and, if you didn’t know better, might make you think that it’s just a bunch of random elements. Clearly it’s not, though parsing why you’re there and what you’re seeing may take most of the performance.
Fool Muun Komming! Is exactly as weird as you would expect it to be, and deserves plaudits for delivering the kind of experience you can only get at the Fringe. If you want something weird (this cannot be underscored enough) and wonderful, it’s probably a show for you.
Personal Demon Hunter - Venue 2 - Downtown Community Centre
Mixing storytelling, song, and some of the most earnest and well-meaning audience participation I’ve seen in any theatre, Personal Demon Hunter, created and performed by Velvet Duke, is an experience that is uplifting, and underscores the inherent value of every person who comes in the room.
Personal Demon Hunter is, perhaps predictably, somewhat difficult to pigeonhole. It’s somewhere around a cabaret show fused with a self help TEDx talk, minus the self importance of the usual TEDx speakers and instead infused with sincere appreciation for who is in the audience and the experiences they bring to the event. Velvet Duke doesn’t spin platitudes, or insist that people have to come to revelations about themselves in order to have value; rather he repeatedly reassures all participants, both passive and active, in his “seminar” that their value as a human is inherent, and entirely untied to whatever “growth” they have, you are not required to grow to be a person of value. The message is strong, and well worth receiving and repeating in this age.
It’s worth noting that this show hinges upon an engaged audience, and don’t let that be an intimidating factor. Established early, and well established at that, are ground rules for audience interaction, which Velvet Duke follows to the letter. At no point will you get pulled up, out of your comfort zone, and that is a sincere relief. Personal Demon Hunter is a show that cares about consent and appreciation, and those are qualities too often lacking in this sort of interactive piece.
Personal Demon Hunter is the sort of performance piece that you should feel good about participating in. A chance to experience catharsis, to laugh a little, and to breathe in a place of warmth and openness. Combine that with Velvet Duke’s velvety singing voice and quick wit, it’s the sort of show that you should seek out when you’re looking for a little self healing.
Disclaimer: I’m both a theatre reviewer and active member of the community. I’m the production manager of hapax theatre, and we have a show in the Fringe: Nevermore. This is my only plug for that show (really, check us out!).
The Robber Bridegroom - Venue 3 - Metro Studio
A tale from the Brothers Grimm come to life on stage, The Robber Bridegroom is a suitably creepy and clever way to reengage with a classic folk tale.
It is the day of a wedding circa 1809 in Germany, and the bride is walked down the aisle to her bridegroom. In front of the magistrate she faints, and experiences a startling vision of wolves, getting lost in the woods, murder, and talking birds. Confronted with a monster in front of her, in the guise of her husband-to-be, what should she do? And, importantly, what do we do when we see the wolf in the fold, threatening those we love?
The Robber Bridegroom is a tight, well crafted show, and clearly a lot of love and attention is given to reinterpreting the source material. The visuals are often creepy (particularly when shadow play is used), and amplified by a very well executed sound design. The puppet work lends an element of the uncanny to the production, and the performers do a great job of imbuing life into their creations. The message of the tale, rather than cautionary, is a call to action, stirring people to defend the people in their lives (particularly women) who are threatened by malign forces.
I’ve a couple of quibbles with the production, though neither are show stoppers. Sometimes in the puppetry-filled dream it was a little difficult to follow all that was happening. The characters as puppets vocalize, but do not speak, meaning you’ve got to pay double the attention to keep up with what’s happening. Do yourself a favour and skim a version of the story beforehand; you’re bound to get more out of it that way.
The piece also relies on some (light) audience interaction, which you’ve got to be primed for. On opening night, the house seemed quite reluctant to get involved when the time came. This lead to a bit of an unevenness in tone, where the performance became a bit more like a comedy than a chilling tale, as the cast tried to move forward without the feedback from the crowd. The show isn’t a panto, but when called upon it’s necessary to make your voice heard. You’ll know it when you get there.
The Robber Bridegroom is a great way to get something creepy out of your Fringe Experience. Technically well-executed, a classic tale tweaked for a modern time without being “modernized,” it’s a show that could leave you spooked, delighted, and motivated to take a stand.
Dear Samantha - Venue 4 - VCM Wood Hall
Bringing her delightful mix of honesty, humble bragging, and melancholy, Miss Samantha Mann returns in Dear Samantha, an advice show that is equal parts funny and touching.
If you’re not familiar with Miss Samantha Mann, do yourself a favour and become familiar. This multi-award-winning spinster librarian was most recently seen in Victoria in 2017 with Stories about Love, Death, and a Rabbit, a charming and heartbreaking work. Dear Samantha shows the newest phase of her career, that of being a (partially) trained agony aunt, think a live action “Dear Abby” columnist, or, as Miss Mann puts it “a therapist, but without the training or any oversight whatsoever.” Sam Mann dispenses advice on love, life, politics, and really anything that is a dilemma and weighing on your heart. Witty and delightful, her answers are at one moment poignant, the next side-splitting.
The core of the show is the disarmingly charming nature of Sam Mann, and how she walks on a razor thin line between wry self-deprecation and bragging about her accomplishments. This incisiveness gives her a freedom to say some of the things which we are uncomfortable with hearing about our own problems, or to reframe the questions to show that we probably know the answer to them already. Repeatedly she reminds us that many of our interpersonal issues can be simplified by simply talking to the people with whom we are experiencing problems, and being forthright. Moreover, she reminds us that, regardless of the anxieties that fill a particular moment, there are other moments.
Samantha Mann reminds her audience that it’s okay to breathe, and encourages them to get their feelings out and stand up for their needs. If you’re looking for something lighthearted and funny, but still with heart and hope, Dear Samantha is just the right show for you.
Delivering probably the weirdest “lecture” you’ve ever experienced, Dr Bradley Q Gooseberry gives you a primer on the most important aspects of field zoology: fields, zoology, and seduction. If you don’t think those have much to do with field zoology, and that claims they do don’t seem “credible,” don’t let that stop you from taking in the awkward delight that is Field Zoology 101.
A Media History Lesson
BOOM X, created and performed by Rick Miller, is the latest in his deep dives into the North American zeitgeist of the collective past. Exploring the media landscape from 1969 to 1995, Miller reenacts clips from newsreels, famous performances, and interviews with Gen Xers to get to the bottom of what it really meant to grow up in Generation X. Spoiler alert: he comes up as empty handed as you might expect.
Ostensibly BOOM X is an attempt to make sense of what it means to be part of Gen X, and features interviews with 4 Gen Xers who provide some context to the cavalcade of sound and images which the piece is a vehicle for. The show is structured around, and hinges entirely on, Miller’s skill as an impersonator, a rare talent that he has in spades. Short videos are projected over the screen that dominates the stage sans audio, and Miller provides all the dialogue missing, showcasing his impressive gift for impression. Often this cuts away to seeing Miller performing a snippet of a famous song or concert, in costume and in character, as one of the cultural icons of the time. It’s snappy, it shows a lot of skill; unfortunately, I found it almost completely devoid of meaning.
The thing that will make or break your evening’s entertainment with BOOM X could be whether or not you want to take a 2 hour trip down memory lane. If so, you could find some YouTube videos of news highlights and commercials from ‘69 to ‘95 and throw on a few old Columbia House Best of… CDs and have much the same experience. What doesn’t seem to be on this trip is any real personal connection to why we’re being shown all of this culture. We drop in on snippets of Miller’s life, but, being very generous with estimation, that makes up maybe a quarter of the two hour run time. That underdeveloped personal section contains mostly tortured baseball metaphors and reminiscences from other people’s lives. Interestingly, Miller is almost entirely absent from his own work, both physically (so much of the show takes place with him literally separated from the audience because of the scrim he performs behind) and narratively. Instead of a story, we get a montage. Perhaps Miller did this on purpose as a comment on Gen X itself?
The interviews with Gen Xers that are played or recreated hint at interesting stories that would be so evocative of the era, probably moreso than Miller’s own deliberately milquetoast story of coming up in the middle class in Montreal. One of the interviewees actually calls Miller out on his privilege and naïveté numerous times, and rather than showing that have any real impact on him or his storytelling, it’s on to the next musical moment. It’s as though acknowledging his privilege, but doing nothing about it or with it, is enough to put his character above criticism. Again, maybe a comment on the gen? He mentions, either as himself or as an interviewee, the queer activists and people of colour who were fighting for better rights and for their voices to be heard, but he never manages to get out from behind the decidedly white suburban lens of his own experience. For a show that purportedly aims to interrogate the experience of an entire generation, it makes the assumption that a fella from Montreal has an emblematic, universal experience of the times.
Ultimately, Miller bemoans the lot of the Gen Xer, sold a bill of goods of freedom and self expression, before being told they had to fit in with limited prospects for growth and freedom. It sounds eerily similar to the complaints of the oft-maligned Millennials, and mostly underscores the vacuous nature of the Gen X/Millennial generational divide, which probably wasn’t his intention.
Visually, BOOM X is impressive, with a lot of work put into the collage of videos and sounds which make up the real backbone of the show, but I found it missing the flesh of narrative.
If you’re a Gen X’er and want to walk down memory lane, or if you want to get a quick taste of the water Gen X’ers swam in, BOOM X may just be the show for you.
Tickets and show info at: www.belfry.bc.ca
Diving into the transformation of a child’s relationship with their parents into one between adults, and all the learning and discovery that goes along with it, Cory Thibert’s Awkward Hug presents a touching take on growing up, disability, and moving on.
Roughly chronicling a five-month period, Awkward Hug details a period in Thibert’s life when his family was forced to move from their rental subsidized house because his elder brother Gary had recently moved out. While five months may seem like a sufficient and fair amount of time, it appeared too short, too sudden for his parents, who became increasingly stressed and flummoxed with the task. It is at this point that the narrative is reframed: both of his parents have physical disabilities, and, in particular, cerebral palsy. This brings the theme of the story into greater focus, and it becomes less about learning to deal with stress, and more coming to terms with the suddenly named affliction which both of his parents have. This leads to realizations and revelations about why his parents behaved in particular ways, and how those behaviours may have been passed down to Thibert, even if the cerebral palsy wasn’t. It culminates in a moment of reconciliation and growth between Thibert and his mother, ending on a note of hopefulness and letting the go of the past.
Awkward Hug is an exceptionally well crafted story, and told in an engaging manner. Thibert has a real gift for creating a moment, setting up moments that pay off either immediately or later on. You can tell that this is a work which has been fine-tuned to near perfection, thanks in part to dramaturge TJ Dawe, with each vignette building upon those previous to elicit an emotional response. It’s also worth noting that, while this story prominently features two people with disabilities as central characters, it neither appropriates their struggles to tell a story, nor does it become a story about disability. Rather the focus remains on Thibert’s relationship with his parents, and what elements of their relationship could be traced not to a fault in character or to the emotional ups and downs of a family, but rather to the largely unacknowledged realities of living as a family with disabilities.
If there’s a complaint to be made about the piece, it might be one of staging or scale. While director Linnea Gwiazda keeps things clipping along well within any vignette, the pace is unfortunately allowed to sag between moments. Too many of the anecdotes end with a slow fade down to black, followed by Thibert moving to another section of the stage and the lights coming up again. Rather than feeling like an organic use of space, it comes across more as trying to fill all available space (at the relatively spacious Metro Studio) making the work feel less grounded than it perhaps ought to feel. This could be attributed to being in a space much larger than the piece necessitates and being unsure how to translate the work to a big venue.
Awkward Hug is a delightful awkward hug of a show. While it may not give you too much to chew on going forward, it’s a touching tale of growth and discovery, and normalizes stories of disability without being tokenistic or appropriative.
Jellyfish Are Immortal, created and performed by Sydney Hayduk, brings a lot of great intentions and ideas the plate, though it manages to miss more than hit, and ultimately offers up little more than a trite pile of meme-ready references. Billed as “a theatrical explosion between the self-help aisle and the marine life section of the bookstore,” it manages to land between so many things that it winds up exactly nowhere.
With ideas all over the place, it’s a little difficult to sum-up the cavalcade of thoughts present in Jellyfish Are Immortal. The thesis of the work seems to be that, for the good of the planet, people need to practice some earnest self-love. Not the commodified, treat-yo-self, buy into a new beauty routine self love that Instagram influencers peddle, but the kind that comes after a great deal of introspection and reflection. Of getting to know who you are inside, and forgiving yourself for your own faults and failings. After all, as you come to learn in the show, all people are capable of being monsters, and likely have been, but monsters are really just ugly exteriors with good insides. Like the immortal jellyfish of the title, who when facing danger can revert to a childlike state, people need to revert to being receptive to the world in the way that a child would be, or maybe see the wonder of the universe, or, well, maybe something else? The proverbial waters at this point are more than a little muddied, but worry not! Just dance like nobody’s watching and love yourself because you matter because you’re a jellyfish.
Without trying to skewer a work so clearly well-intentioned, it’s hard to see Jellyfish Are Immortal as anything other than a hodgepodge of ideas that doesn’t come together in a meaningful fashion. Delivered like a TED talk (but with dancing) the centre of this lecture turns out to be a swirling mess of ideas where a strong thesis ought to be. It’s hard to fault any one of the particular points made, but they’re strung together so incoherently that to get something out of it, the audience has to put a lot more into it in the first place. Is it useful to call people “monsters,” when that leads to a dehumanizing spiral of hate feeding hate? To the shock of nobody, the answer is no, but rather than go deep, there’s an interlude with a (plausible) caricature of a prototypical “bro” named Tyler (who, without building anything resembling consent, goes out of his way to make a female member of the audience uncomfortable), the focus moves on to the feelings of guilt that pile up after a one-night-stand. There’s a real problem with toxic positivity and the commodification of “self love,” but let’s not dwell on that too much because we’ve got a melange of video clips to watch and something about the great Pacific garbage patch (which, in an unfortunately tone-deaf way, is referred to as being fed ‘by the mentally ill’ - do better). The ideas are big, but the work done to bring them together was not up to the task.
The galling thing about Jellyfish Are Immortal is not the content, so much as the delivery. For all the talk of the harms commodified self love, there’s an insistence that this ill-defined regimen of self-love is the way to solve your woes. There’s a whiff of unrecognized hypocrisy about the show overall, the same kind of self-righteousness you may find in an instagram-ready meme that inadvertently promotes the very thing that it purports to skewer. And in this work, it’s a real shame because of the importance and vital messaging of the theme buried underneath everything else. Hayduk is clearly an engaging and talented performer, and gives the kind of performance you might expect if Natasha Lyonne were to deliver a motivational speech. Unfortunately, the piece is weighed down by the name-drops and references peppered throughout, and rather than a call to action, inadvertently becomes a satire of guided self-help.
Though full of grand ideas, Jellyfish Are Immortal is unfocused at best, and wide of the mark at worst. Some deep-diving dramaturgy and maybe a pass by a professional presenter (not to mention a sensitivity reader) might do it some good, but ultimately, like the cosmetic ephemera it attempts to discredit, it is likely to float out to sea, more flotsam clogging the ocean.
Part memory play, part love story, and all impressive puppet work, Kyle Loven’s Canadian debut my dear Lewis, is odd and extraordinary.
To sum up the story of my dear Lewis is a challenge of nigh-Herculean proportions, but here goes. Bookended by an over-your-shoulder angel and demon, a dynamic duo of finger puppets, the piece more or less breaks down into three ‘acts.’ First is a bit of seeing Lewis as a boy (and as a marionette) as he bons with his first dog, Buster. They gambol about the beaches and the forest, playing games, until, one day, Buster is no longer there. This leads into the second portion, a long period of shadow puppetry and projection against the inside of a faux newspaper. The story at this point becomes rather opaque, but it may be that of B, perhaps the love of Lewis’ life, looking for him in the forest before making her way to the city. This act is followed by a segment which has (presumably) Lewis seated at a metal table, his hands (albeit puppet hands) affixed to the top of it. Without spoiling any of the delightful surprises, the table may not be all that it seems, and Loven’s skill as a masterful puppeteer comes into full view.
So, my dear Lewis is a bit of an odd duck, and it’s really difficult to characterize the show. Loven is clearly an exceptionally talented puppeteer, but that might not be enough to hold the whole piece together, at least in its current form. Rather than telling a distinct story about the titular Lewis, it seems to be three altogether different works, in both style, substance, and tone, shoehorned into a single performance. The first ‘act’ has probably the clearest narrative, with its glimpse into Lewis’ childhood. There’s a lot of delight in seeing some of the small movements that Loven is able to capture with the puppet: cupping a hand to the ear to hear a response to a call, hands made into a loudspeaker, calling out to a missing dog. However, the second act has both the highs and lows of the work. There is beautiful and evocative shadow play, which is wonderful to see (bonus points for somehow making a shooting star appear in an otherwise static silhouette), but it’s also paired with out-of-place feeling video display. Without the charm of a well-executed silent film, and unmoored by a solid, discernable narrative, it comes across as trite, particularly when up against some really phenomenal work. Finally, the third section is, well, utterly baffling, but great to see. Outside of watching someone recover from sedative after a trip to the dentist, you’ll never see someone so surprised by their own hands.
It’s really hard to say what the ups and downs of my dear Lewis are. On the one hand, it eschews traditional narrative so completely that pointing out the lack of one doesn’t seem like a valid thing to say. On the other hand, the work manages to give all the emotional beats of a story, despite it never being clear what’s happening or what the stakes are. Watching my dear Lewis is like stumbling into an indifferent fever dream born of the minds of Franz Kafka and David Lynch. The only grounded criticism that can be laid is that in this story there’s no real invitation to go on this journey with Lewis, keeping everything at arms length, rather than having it really pull you in.
While my dear Lewis is not the kind of work that will pull you in with an engrossing story, don’t let that stop you from checking out Kyle Loven’s wonderful work. Strange and powerful, it’s the sort of thing that will defy description, really one of those things that must be seen to be believed.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to be part of a Mental Health Review Board, Certified, created and performed by Jan Derbyshire, gives you just that chance. You’ll get to decide if someone is sane, if she’s verifiably certified, and get a chance to laugh and learn along the way.
Certified offers a glimpse into Derbyshire’s life as a legitimate, certified insane person. Having spent a number of stints in psychiatric care, she has an up close and personal experience with the institution. We follow along her journey from when she first started hearing voices, to how those voices and intrusive thoughts took up so much space that she was forced into medical care. There are anecdotes about interactions with doctors, the number of ex-Hell’s Angels that now work as psychiatric nurses, and a long encounter with an imagined version of prominent Canadian author Miriam Toews. Through extensive self reflection, and an upturn in emotional and material support from those around her, she is able to take control of her mental health, and, if not surmount all the plaguing demons, come to terms with them in a way.
It should go without saying that Certified is exceedingly relevant in the twenty-first century West. Apart from all the run-of-the-mill woes that late-stage capitalism pushes onto our brains, the slew of medications that we have at our disposal and general overeagerness to prescribe away other people’s problems makes for a cocktail in which people, like Derbyshire, are pushed into being unwell, whether they are are not. These things may be called “side effects” of systems of isolation and institutionalization, but what really is a ‘side effect?’ Derbyshire points out that “‘side effect’ makes it sound like it happens over there,” that these ‘side effects’ be they of medication or the rigidity of norms, produce immediate, real, proximal results, and “isn’t an effect an effect?” In the end the audience is called on to make a determination on Derbyshire’s mental health, whether or not she is sane or ‘certified.’ It’s one of those rare moments of total bravery in theatre, where it really feels like the performer is placing their life, or at least their mental health, in the hands of the audience.
To be critically negative of Certified is difficult as the heart of the work is so clearly open, vulnerable, and authentic - all the things good theatre ought to be. If anything, the issues with it are technical in nature: an odd choice of a moon gobo seemingly at random, and sound levels which could probably have used some rebalancing. In the end, these are very minor quibbles, and come down to a difference in personal taste rather than overall quality.
Baring all the most vulnerable bits of Jan Derbyshire’s heart, Certified is a rare gem of a show. Raw and powerful, it’s a great example of the kind of work that normalizes talking about mental health, and reaffirms the vital need for community and connectedness.
Heartwarming, sad, funny, and hopeful, Raising Stanley/Life With Tulia explores storyteller Kim Kilpatrick’s relationship with dogs over the course of her life, with a focus on the four guide dogs that she’s had over the years.
On the surface, it’s a pretty straightforward biography of Kilpatrick (who was born blind), chronicling her getting used to using a cane to help find her way around, before finally taking the family dog (not a guide dog) for an unsupervised walk while she was a child. She tells stories of the various dogs that she has worked with over her life, and how they have impacted her, and what different personalities and quirks these companions have brought to the team they make up with their human. Throughout the play, images from paintings by Karen Bailey (who raises guide dogs) are projected across the back of the stage, described for those members of the audience who may not be able to see them by director Bronwyn Steimberg.
One cannot help but notice that this piece is designed to dispel myths and give insight to some of the everyday life of living with blindness. Sighted people may (and probably) assume to know things like how a guide dog is trained, as well as how they wind up with people. Are they always so well behaved? They must be, because we see them like that. They must just be assigned to people via the guide dog trainers, right? Kilpatrick’s pleasant storytelling undoes these and other fallacies and misconceptions about living and working with these creatures. They are not always perfect, much as any pup, and people have to be trained just as much to get used to working with this new four-legged teammate.
There’s a bit of a question hanging over the show, though, which makes the experience a little perplexing, and that is the images of Bailey’s paintings that appear throughout. The ‘action’ of the work, that is to say, Kilpatrick’s story, doesn’t intersect with the subject of the paintings (a guide dog named Stanley) until very late in the narrative, and then only very briefly and tenuously. Similarly, despite it being Life With Tulia, Kilpatrick’s current guide dog Tulia barely features in the storytelling at all. While there is clearly a neat idea behind marrying the work of a visual artist who raises and paints guide dogs to the narrative of a woman’s relationship with those animals over her life, it may need some iteration or further dramaturgy to really pop.
Raising Stanley/Life With Tulia is a charming work, and an important one. There are not many venues for persons with disabilities to get to tell their own stories in their own ways, and this is a good one to listen to. If there is a soft spot in your heart for the relationship people can have with their dogs, this is a tale to check out.
Weaving together biographical narrative, the tragedies of colonialism, and a good, old-fashioned comic routine, Michelle Thrush’s Inner Elder brings one woman’s search for identity and her own voice into sharp focus, both universalizing her experiences, while maintaining their critical Indigenous identity.
Inner Elder is, basically, a show in two parts. First is a biographical portion, following Thrush as she navigates her own identity as a Cree woman, and finding the pride in her heritage despite the constant wrongs and hardships that Indigenous peoples face in Canada. Not feeling quite a part of this world, she imagined herself as the different people she saw on television, before always being reminded that she was considered ‘other’ in the milieu of whiteness around her. Acting turned out to be a way to connect with the lineage of women that she carried with her, and a way to survive the world around her. With the regular systemic and personal obstacles presented, “it takes a great imagination to survive.” Partway through, the show is transformed by the physical appearance of Kookum (a character based on Thrush’s grandmother) who tells jokes, reminds people that it’s both okay and necessary to be able to laugh at themselves (especially White people), and brings a lot of love into the room.
There are elements of Thrush’s work that will seem familiar, having to be the grown up with alcoholic parents and not having access to the right language to express love within your family, but there is an undeniable lens of Indigeneity which colours all of these experiences differently. Having to cope with familial alcoholism takes on the mantle of struggling against a stereotype. Difficulties in school mean keeping anger even more in check, lest giving the teacher more ammunition and reasons to call you ‘savage.’ While the universal aspects of the story make it accessible to non-Indigenous audiences, the particular inflections make it an Indigenous story, told, importantly, by an Indigenous woman. Tapping into the women that she’s carried with her, Thrush takes the audience to a moment in her career where she needed the strength and support of these women and their stories, and shows what a powerhouse of an actress she is. Her twofold transformation in the show underscores the depth of her talent, and vitality of the artform.
If there’s one criticism of the piece overall, it’s that it might feel a bit like two altogether different works of art: first, a vital biographical story, and second, the irreverent and witty Kookum talking to the audience. Both parts are great, and worth seeing, but the transition between the two feels a little off somehow. The first narrative sort of crashes into the second, leaving a space between the two which is a little difficult to dramatically navigate. It’s not to say anything bad about either, but the transition between the two may benefit from some modest narrative adjustment. That said, the force of the one crashing into the other leaves a powerful emotional resonance which underscores even the silliest moment’s of Kookum’s appearance.
Inner Elder is the kind of theatre that Canada needs more of. Equal parts challenging and life-affirming, it showcases the skill of a great Indigenous storyteller, and lets her tell her story on her own terms. Without art like this, you’d get a bunch of white people in offensive costumes telling these tales, and, as Kookum says, “Nobody wants that!”
Chronicling the first New Year’s Eve of a Syrian refugee in Canada, Adrenaline, created and performed by Ahma Meree, is a harrowing account of the horrors of war, and the price of surviving.
Meree portrays an unnamed Syrian refugee living in an unspecified Canadian city, surviving the bitter cold of his first Canadian winter. He takes the audience into his home, where he greets members of his family, or at least ersatz versions of them: a fan draped with a shawl for his mother, a polo-clad propane tank for his brother, and a tall, dignified coat rack for his father. Though clearly separated from them, he shows his love for them with the gifts he’s brought, thoughtful items to fill what material needs he perceives they may need in this altogether different climate. Clearly, though, something is off in his narrative, and the sounds of celebration outside segue into dire reminiscences of the ongoing war in Syria, and the toll it took on him and his family.
In some ways, the story is predictable: you can see the twist coming a mile away, and almost from his first line, you can tell how things will unfold. This isn’t a downside, or flaw to the piece, however, giving the powerful solo performance something of the air of a classical Greek tragedy by way of modern Syria. This lends itself to the most powerful moments of the show: after the on-a-rail nature of the work comes to its natural conclusion, there is a coda of sorts. Simple in staging, the man eats a meal and joins in the celebrations around him, but this action, though Meree’s performance, transforms into a powerful and heart-wrenching image of grief and relief all in one. It is the knockout punch after a series of jabs, leaving the audience to ponder the reframed climax of the piece.
Adrenaline is performed entirely in Arabic, aided for those not fluent with projected surtitles. Ahmad Meree’s performance is transcendent, though, with so much emotion on the line that when the real heavy hitting comes, no translation is needed. This raw emotional force may seem unfettered at times, but it is clear through his actions throughout that he is a master of his craft and an excellent storyteller. It is worth noting that the company took pains to assert that this is not Meree’s autobiographical story, nor any individual person’s story, and that disclaimer serves to underline the depth of talent on stage (augmented particularly by a vivid and powerful sound design by Colin Labadie).
Adrenaline is a piece that bares all and leaves a lot of heart on the stage, and while it may not be factual, it nonetheless rings true. It is proof positive of the great contributions that immigrant and refugee communities make to the arts in Canada, and a stunning repudiation of the horrors of war. If you ever have the chance, see this.
Existing somewhere between a stand-up set and an autobiography, She Grew Funny, created and performed by Joanne O’Sullivan, is a touching and funny examination of the relationships we have with our mothers, while also wanting to come to aid and comfort the child that each of us once was.
O’Sullivan has only nine direct memories of her mother, her mother having passed away when she was six years old. She was so convinced that she had, as a child, somehow breezed past her mother’s passing, it seeming to have no effect on her. It was a conversation with her own six year old daughter, who protested that, if her own mother had died, she would “cry for eighteen hours, and scream for eighteen days.” (Those lungs!) It was the realization that her daughter, young as she was, had a deep love for her that made O’Sullivan reconsider the effect of her mother’s passing, and reassess what it may have meant to her at the time. Over the course of the show, she shares her nine memories (plus a bonus memory!) and unpacks what it was that made her grow funny. What the defence mechanisms she deployed were for, and what she might do to “fix” herself, and make sure that her own daughter didn’t inherit the traits that she had, perhaps by necessity, adapted.
O’Sullivan is an engaging storyteller, and there’s a lot to like in her delivery. Clearly honed by her time as a stand-up comic and comedy writer, she clearly knows how to weave an emotionally and dramatically fulfilling narrative. While some moments are clearly comedic (“Look how small my nailbeds are” is a top-tier pickup line), others land not with a thud, but the lub-dub of a heart beating in a moment of reflection. The piece is a real window into the tenderness of mother’s love for her daughter, but not in a saccharine or trite way, nor in a way that explores “motherhood” per se. Her quest to ensure that her daughter grows up confident and proud necessitates examining the person that she is now, and what she can do to improve herself. While practicing things like taking a compliment could seem silly, they underscore the travails of womanhood in the twenty-first century without dwelling on them, and lend a larger resonance to the piece.
She Grew Funny is the kind of personal that you want an autobiographical piece of theatre to be. Funny, poignant, and tugging on your heartstrings a little, it’s a good reminder of the importance of being kind to ourselves, forgiving ourselves, and the liberation that being vulnerable can bring.
Finishing off the Belfry’s 2018-2019 season is Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, directed by Anita Rochon. Brisk and funny, it’s an enjoyable piece of theatre, a pleasant conclusion to the season, even if it’s not particularly challenging.
4000 Miles takes place over a few weeks one autumn, when Leo (Nathan Howe) unexpectedly arrives at his grandmother Vera’s (Brenda Robins) New York apartment in the middle of the night, having just completed a cross-country biking expedition from Seattle. Over the weeks of his stay there’s ample time for the two generations to both bond and argue about family, Leo’s girlfriend Bec (Lucy McNulty), and Amanda (Julie Leung), a girl he brings home one night. Over the two acts, the differences between Leo’s West Coast granola hippie nature and Vera’s old-school 60s communist ideals are explored and contrasted, finding similarities in places, while naturally critiquing in others. By the end, it appears that Vera and Leo have found a new common understanding of each other, or, at least have grown closer as two strands of a family.
On the whole, the cast does a great job with their roles, bringing suitable warmth to a cozy play. While a little wooden right at the start, Robins and Howe do an exemplary job of bringing an intergenerational family dynamic to life. There’s a believability to their relationship, a strand between grandparent and adult grandchild that shows a well-developed relationship that’s not always mediated by the generation in-between. McNulty’s Bec is vulnerable and open, but appropriately rises to the occasion to challenge Leo when needed, naturally transitioning from softness to strength. Leung does a really great job with Amanda, going from platform-shoes-wearing drunk party girl, to a fierce critic of the communists at the drop of a hat. This change comes across fluidly, and shows a great range in the smallest role in the show.
It’s difficult to sink into the emotion of the work, due to how pleasantly bland it is. Not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but not challenging in any way, like a far less saccharine version of a Hallmark movie. It’s not that the characters don’t grow or develop, because they do, it’s just that it’s entirely predictable from the get-go how they will. This renders the piece, as a whole, rather formulaic, a trait that keeps it from really digging-in emotionally. The surprises come in the form of little bits of backstory, rather than in new actions and thoughts. The motivation behind Leo’s trip, the details of Vera’s first marriage, the emotions around the adoption of Leo’s sister Lily. The only new things that happen are courtesy of Bec and Amanda, who come in and disrupt the remembrances of Leo and Vera, keeping them from just soaking in reverie and nostalgia. The end result is a piece that is, above everything else, safe and fluffy.
4000 Miles is a bit of an odd duck, in that it’s executed effectively without flaws but doesn’t really land any emotional punches. Sweet and engaging, it’s a good play, the Danish concept of hygge made manifest on the stage. Just don’t expect it to stick with you over time.
Tickets and showtimes at: www.belfry.bc.ca/4000-miles
April 30 – May 18
Rachel Wyatt - member of the Order of Canada and recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal - is one of Canada’s most beloved writers, having penned numerous novels, collections of short stories, and scores of plays for radio and the stage. Rachel has adapted her acclaimed novel Letters to Omar for the stage in this world premiere of The Best of Friends. This story follows the adventures of three older women trying to make a difference in the world. The central character, Dorothy, is recently retired, childless, thrice married and now single. She spends her days fighting to keep her modest home out of the hands of developers and indulging in her lifelong hobby of writing letters she never sends to famous people - most frequently, Omar Sharif. In the preparation and aftermath of Dorothy and her friends’ attempt to pull off a major fund-raising dinner, Wyatt explores with wit and insight the ups and downs of deep-rooted friendship.
Praise for Wyatt’s Letters to Omar (the novel from which the play is adapted):
"Laced with equal measures of humour, wit, irony and insight... she [Wyatt] does not have to worry about her own legacy, burnished as it is by this latest novel." Winnipeg Review
Directed by: Clayton Jevne
Starring: Geli Bartlett, Gloria Snider, and Maureen Van Wyck
Preview: April 30 @ 8pm
8 pm: May 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18
2 pm: May 4, 11, 18
Mama’s Boy, written and performed by local legend Mike Delamont is a touching, if somewhat predictable, dissection of his relationship with his mother over the course of their life, and her impact on his career as a performer and comedian.
The particulars of the story are Delamont’s, and his alone, so to tell them on his behalf would do him and his story a disservice. Simply put, his mother did not have the easiest life, but still showered him with the best love she could, and a special relationship between the two formed through the years. Always wanting to make her smile as she tried to make ends meet, Delamont found his way naturally into acting, adopting outlandish characters and skits along the way. It’s clear throughout that he has a deep affection and respect for the woman, stating several times that the audience ought not to get the wrong idea about the woman based on her faults, because, at the end of the day, she loved her boy with all her heart.
Delamont has been working and touring this show for a couple of years now, and it really shows, which is equally a positive and negative. The emotional beats of the story, the rhythm that the piece works on, has been fine tuned to the point of predictability - anecdote, punchline, song, joke, anecdote, punchline, song, joke. While it works, it’s overly polished, every moment practiced and polished within an inch of its life. While some moments come across as very sincere (the story about the end of his father’s life was beautifully told and brought plenty of tears to the eye) others are rote, more mechanical than heartfelt. The whole thing really pops when there’s either a misstep in a line, or a genuine reaction to the laughter in the audience - the moments that can’t be over rehearsed or over thought. The moments that show a little roughness, or an unrounded corner really liven up the work, and make it feel a little less like the sombre cousin of Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever. While undeniably based on the real events, after years of practice, Mama’s Boy could probably use a breath of fresh air to make the depictions feel more real and less rehearsed.
An aside, a joke about being eyed up by all the single ladies like “a bacon wrapped cheesecake at a PMS convention” and feeling like “the Pied Piper of uterus” sticks out as a lame anecdote at best, and at worst a remarkably tone-deaf thing to boast about on International Women’s Day. Do better.
Despite the flaws, Mama’s Boy is a touching piece and tribute to an influential and loving lady. Some reworks, letting the seams show a little, and a bit less self-congratulation would elevate this from touching to triumphant.
Tickets and info at: sparkfestival.ca/shows/mamas-boy
January 29 — February 24, 2019
Bears, written and directed by Matthew MacKenzie, starts 2019 at the Belfry just right, brining Victoria audiences a powerful, timely, and exceptionally innovative performance that mixes Indigenous storytelling, modern dance, and multimedia in a way that is not to be missed.
The story of Bears is, at first glance, a rather simple one: Floyd (Sheldon Elter) was a worker on the Oilpatch, but after a workplace accident he finds himself on the run, hounded by the RCMP as he makes his way through the wilderness to the coast. Along the way he encounters the ongoing effects of development, from clearcuts to tailing ponds, oil spills and roadkill, as he searches for sanctuary. His mother (Tracey Nepinak) appears to him from time to time in his memories, with words of wisdom and remembrances that motivate him to continue his journey. Floyd is aided by the animals he encounters, portrayed by the fluid dance chorus, as butterflies, prairie dogs, and river otters that guide and assist him in his moments of greatest peril. His journey to the coast is one of personal and environmental transformation, and the final moments highlight the power and force of the great grizzly bears, bringing the work poetically full circle from the first lumbering moments of the piece.
Bears is an “unapologetically political” work of theatre, and that is to its credit. Rather than trying to slide a message warning of impending environmental catastrophe at the hands of resource exploitation into a different narrative, Bears wears its political view on its sleeve, bringing to the fore the uglier sides of industry. Floyd’s journey follows the path of a hypothetical pipeline from refinery to coast, illustrating the damages done all along the way, and underscoring the risks posed should anything go wrong with one. While the work doesn’t focus on the ongoing issues of pipeline opposition in the traditional Indigenous territories that they cross, the strained relationship between those communities and the government and companies at large is symbolically present with the perpetual threat of the RCMP, with the mounties presenting a ongoing terror, always around the corner, always ready to come from the treeline or descend from the skies. It’s a bold and unblinking work of art, and much like a bear, it refuses to back down or shrink from the fight.
Anchoring the production, Elter is a riveting presence on the stage. Surprisingly limber, this bear of a man brings a lightness and fluidity to Floyd’s movement throughout the piece that is truly exceptional. You’d never think that someone could effectively tapdance in heavy work boots, but somehow he manages to, all the while making it look graceful, even easy. You could watch his feet for hours and not get bored. In the chaos of Floyd’s journey, Tracey Nepinak’s depiction of his mother is a grounding and calming force. Present on stage for almost the entirety of the piece, she brings a calming weight to it, like a stone in your pocket reminding you not to float away. Flitting about Floyd throughout is the dance and movement chorus (brilliantly choreographed by Monica Dottor), seven young women which portray everything that he encounters, from bridges to bumblebees, otters to an avalanche, a raging river current to the mounties themselves. The only real questionable decisions with the show are with some of the choices in direction and costuming for the chorus. While most of the time they effortlessly depict animals and flowers, a few times they wear petal-evoking fascinators or whiskers to embody otters, which, given that they didn’t do so the rest of the time, kind of sticks out. Also, when speaking as a group, they sound almost overpoweringly loud, which seems appropriate at times, but wears with its consistency. That said, these are largely technical quibbles, and the talent and precision of the movement of the chorus is unquestionable. They further buoys the piece by bringing levity and humour to the work, which, given the subject material, could have been overwhelmingly dark. As it is, it avoids melancholia and depression and instead is a call to action.
Clear in its message and bold in in its execution, Bears is exactly what boundary-defying contemporary theatre should be. Do yourself the service of engaging with this provocative, important work. Stand together.
Tickets and info at: www.belfry.bc.ca/bears
Off the Metaphysical Rails
For its seasonal offering, The Belfry presents Griffin & Sabine, adapted by Michael Shamata and Nick Bantock from Bantock’s own epistolary Griffin & Sabine books. If you’re familiar with the works, there’s possibly something in the piece for you, but if not, you’ll likely leave the theatre stupefied.
To start, Griffin & Sabine follows the correspondence between the two titular characters as they explore the mysterious connection between them. Griffin (Matthew Edison) is a postcard painter living in London, whose work has come to the attention of Sabine (Yoshie Bancroft) due to the fact that she can somehow see what he’s painting as he paints it. Sabine, a philatelic designer (a delightful phrase!) who lives on the fictitious Sicmon Islands in the South Pacific, communicates with Griffin through letters, and we are treated to them getting to know each other and themselves through their correspondence. On the outset, the concepts of both psychic/metaphysic connection and epistolary performance don’t necessarily go together, but they combine pleasantly enough, at least for the first act.
Technically, this is one of the loveliest productions at the Belfry, with plenty of both subtle and in-your-face moments in its design. As they narrate their letters to each other the beautiful artwork of the postcards is projected across the stage, giving the actors the opportunity to directly inhabit the works which they’re referencing. Indeed, the overall design and execution is rather engaging, as postcards almost magically appear in the hands of the actors, and their images are blown up and animated. The sound design is well executed, underscoring moments of tension and revelation with subtle musical cues which contribute to the mood without overwhelming. There’s a lot of really neat stuff happening on stage, and it’s generally pleasant to watch, that is, if you don’t think about what you’re watching with any critical thought.
To put it bluntly, this is a play that didn’t need to be a play, and the seams of this stitched together mess really show. Edison and Bancroft do what they can with their characters, and the faults of the show shouldn’t be laid at their feet: they really just don’t have much to work with. While the first act is not bad and sets up an interesting twist come the end, the second act takes any semblance of a dramatic arc and smashes it to pieces. The letters of a brand new antagonist and some sort of psychic malefactor, Victor Frollati (voiced by Benedict Campbell), show up out of the blue at the start of the second act, and the action eschews the reflective metaphysical mystery of the first half for a prolonged melodramatic chase scene as Griffin and Sabine run around the globe, menaced by letters from this new threat. The stakes, which were personal before, suddenly are potentially apocalyptic, making a massive change in tone which the production has no handle on. The set, which was minimal but effective before, is replaced with a revolve in the floor, which the actors walk in circles round or stand on a ladder looking out from. Despite the dynamism it promises, this new set is underutilized, giving a somehow more static and boring act, despite the letters narrating an action-packed adventure. Come the climax of the show, the laziness of direction and dramaturgy is really in the forefront, as the epic, life changing event for the two characters is recounted by a character we’ve only just met, in a letter to a character we’ve only heard from two times (one of which was a letter which recapped everything we’ve already seen, coming across like a “Previously, on Griffin and Sabine…” segment clumsily dropped in the middle of the second act). What starts out well winds up going very madly off the rails, which, given the quality of the production, the premise, and the skills of the actors is a real shame.
A unique piece of theatre, Griffin and Sabine is certainly worth engaging with and exploring, and is a very well executed show. While deeply flawed, it’s not irredeemably so, because there’s an engaging and interesting story at the core. A less slavish devotion to the verbatim recitation of the letters of the book, particularly as the tempo increases in the second half, and some dramatic license in the arc of the story would drastically improve this production.
Directed by Michael Shamata, Griffin & Sabine stars Yoshié Bancroft (Sabine) and Matthew Edison (Griffin). Yoshié has starred in Home is a Beautiful Word (2014) and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (2015) at the Belfry. Matthew starred in Hannah Moscovitch’s What a Young Wife Ought to Know (2016 SPARK Festival). READ MORE...
Tickets and info at: www.belfry-theatre.prezly.com
TEqual parts mythic journey and plodding misfortune, Trad, directed by Wendy Merk, bustles its way through the traditions and storytelling of the Irish countryside in a journey to find something from the past.
Trad follows the pseudo-epic, Odyssey-like journey of Da (Gloria Snider) and his son Thomas (Deirdre Tipping) as they attempt to track down the child Thomas believes he fathered seventy years ago as a result of a one-time alleyway tryst. Unreal in the extreme, Thomas is a century old, and Da, keeper of all the old tales, is some unspecified amount older. The two dotter their way across the countryside in search of a child of whom they have no further details than having been born seventy years prior, and whose mother’s name is possibly Mary. All the while, Da spins the old yarns, telling stories that exist somewhere between folklore and local news; stories of impossible feats that the neighbor down the road did, or the near mythic exploits of the past generation of Irish farmers. The resulting action feels like it’s somewhere between a fable and a Sunday stroll with a couple of very odd ducks. It’s Waiting for Godot meets The Odyssey.
Snider’s storytelling Da is really the heart of the show, being equally sympathetic in his pining for the old ways, and infuriating in his intransigence and insistence on maintaining his own brand of authenticity in being Irish. More of a mystery is Tipping as Thomas, who, while maintaining the kind of antagonism with Da that may be expected of a couple of centenarians, manages to seem more confused than determined throughout their journey. Rounding out the ensemble is David Conway as Sal (an old woman encountered at the cemetery) and Father Rice (the village priest) who offers a perplexing contrast: a rather nuanced performance as Sal, and a broadly bland one as Fr. Rice. While their were some line stumbles as Fr. Rice (an actor’s nightmare and a great opportunity for Conway to practice some instant forgiveness for himself) the real pitfall was that the drink-loving padre seemed more a collection of lines and blocking than a fully fledged character.
The production of the piece is heartfelt, if a little inconsistent in tone. Da and Thomas hobble about the space while on their quest to find Thomas’ child, and their mannerisms certainly evoke a pair of very long in the tooth men out on a final journey. However, the pace and cartoonish walk with which they move about the stage wind up underscoring how small a space they’re working with, and look more like padding a scene out for length than driving the action from one locale to another. While taking place in a multitude of locations, from a cemetery to a train track to an orchard and the sea itself, the stage is dominated by a large doorway, well made and well executed, but that appears only once in the action of the show. Rather than coming up with something multipurpose or unobtrusive it sits there, drawing the eye in, waiting to be used. It’s a bit of a Chekhov’s gun, but in the end it goes off with a flag that says “bang” rather than with a boom. Stepping away from making this unreal piece tangible would have really served to elevate the production. On the positive side, the attention to detail in their truly epic beards is good to see, and they’re costumed in such a way as to give the story an appropriately timeless, and thereby folklore-like feel.
While it can’t quite decide if it wants to be a real story or a work of mythic fiction, Trad is an interesting outing and a play worth thinking about. Interrogating what it means to be from a culture, and what it means to preserve it, it’s a look at finding your place in the traditions that form who you are.
Directed by Wendy Merk
Cast (alphabetically): David Conway, Gloria Snider, Deirdre Tipping
Preview: Nov 27 @ 8pm
8pm: Nov 28, 29, Dec 1, 4, 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15
2pm: Dec 1, 8, 15
Tickets and info at: www.theatreinconnu.com
Langham Court Theatre
Langham Court Theatre’s autumn offering, Goodnight Mister Tom, is a somewhat bittersweet piece, that, while showing some impressive work, gives a somewhat melodramatic rendition of its source material. At times this plays quite earnestly, at others it seems a bit silly, leading to bit of a tonal jumble.
Goodnight Mister Tom, adapted from Michelle Magorian’s 1981 book of the same name by David Wood, tells the story of William Beech (Daniel Yaxley/Caius Munro), a boy evacuated from London to the village of Little Weirwold in preparation for the soon-to-be-declared Second World War. William, a scrawny, illiterate boy from what appears to be a quite broken home, is billeted with (Mister) Tom Oakley (Roger Carr) a reclusive widower who takes a shining to raising the boy, and his pet dog Sammy (puppeted by Nathan Corpus). In Little Weirwold, Will quickly makes friends with boisterous fellow-evacuee Zach (Axel Otto/Gabriel White) a child of actors who seems to take his relocation to the country in stride. As the first act progresses, Will grows as a person, even coming to somewhat befriend resident bully George (Asa O’Connor-Jaekel), before being summoned to return to his mother in London. Will’s life in London quickly turns tragic before being whisked away back to the countryside, for another bout of emotional growth, and something resembling a conclusion.
Briefly, the roles of Will and Zach are double cast, and the evening I saw the performance it featured Daniel Yaxley and Axel Otto in those roles, respectively.
There are some really lovely and enlivening performances to be seen in the show. Roger Carr’s Mister Tom is stern but affectionate, perfectly espousing the kinds of qualities that a work like this intends to advocate. Axel Otto brings such a breadth of energy to the stage, which, while sometimes hammy, is a delight to watch, and seems perfectly in character of a child with grease-paint in his veins. Daniel Yaxley gets to shine when being Will towards the end of the show, when portraying the excited, energetic child that we all know is hiding under the damage done by his upbringing. The standout talent of the show, though that’s not quite the right term (for reasons that will become apparent) is Nathan Corpus’ puppeteering work as Sammy, Tom’s dog. Simply put, Corpus makes a dog puppet come to life on stage, showing surprising subtlety and emotion with such a simple prop. Most importantly, he doesn’t pull focus at all, making you forget that there’s a person on stage controlling the puppet the whole time. This is no mean feat, and the kind of restraint it takes to stay focused on not hogging the spotlight while emoting as a dog puppet shows some serious skills which are truly lovely to see.
While a lot of plot happens, it’s hard to say there’s much of a story to it, which is the central flaw of the piece. Will’s journey unfolds exactly as one would expect from the first moment he’s on stage. Sure, there are twists and turns, but one never gets the impression that these are more than detours to a preordained conclusion. In that way Goodnight Mister Tom resembles a children’s book more than a dramatic work: a series of vignettes around a central theme rather than a narrative arc. This is augmented by an pervasive abruptness to the scenes, where the action of any particular point doesn’t so much conclude as it just ends. For example, William breaks down in tears during a surprise party (after someone observes that they’ve never heard him laugh before) and, after a moment of crying in a spotlight, the bit is done, and we turn the page on that chapter of his life, never to have that moment or its meaning ever visited again. It’s as though the playwright needed to fit every scene from the book into the adaptation, whether or not that scene really contributed to the whole or not. Scenes pick up days or months after previous ones, and without any particular clues to fill the viewer in on the passage of time, one has to constantly guess and backfill the missing parts of the story that were needed to get from point A to B.
While this might be attributable to the qualities of the script, it may also be some mishandling on the part of director Shauna Baird, a failing to weave a cord that really ties the disparate scenes together. Tonally it’s all over the place, with a pleasant bucolic first act that veers into a horror-like second half. Evidently these qualities can be woven into a cohesive narrative, but that thoroughfare is missing in this adaptation, leaving the piece, as a whole, rather flat. When the intensity does come, it’s jarring and out of place, like when William is tormented by his mother (Becca Elliott) upon his return to London. Mr. Hyde-like she screams and shrieks, seeming to come from an altogether different play than the one we’re watching. Similarly, Zach’s final scene feels light it ought to be tragic or horrific, but was so over the top that it provoked a chuckle from a cluster in the audience.
While the abrupt termination of scenes is jarring, one highly pleasant aspect of the show is the choreographed movement of the set between scenes. While the action shifts to the downstage, actors rearrange the items upstage to great effect, transforming the (admittedly a little threadbare) upstage into a bedroom, general store, library, kitchen, and many other places. The simplicity of the set is elegant, and the only quibble with it would be some more texture on the walls to avoid the feeling that the upstage action takes place in a void.
If you’re familiar with the original book, there’s bound to be greater enjoyment to this piece than if you’re coming in uninitiated. That said, there’s a little bit of the pastoral idyll of prewar England in Goodnight Mister Tom, and it represents some well produced community theatre.
Tickets and info at: www.langhamtheatre.ca
Mustard By Kat Sandler - The Belfry Theatre
Crossing back and forth between the world of colourful childhood imaginary friends and the world of real life heartarche and trouble, Mustard showcases the trials of moving from childhood to adulthood, and the universal need to be seen, known, and loved.
The focus of Mustard is the titular character, Mustard (Andrew McNee), the imaginary friend (or “boon” in the play’s parlance) of troubled teenager Thai (Heidi Damayo). Mustard has remained visible to Thai long after most boons are visible and desperately tries to maintain the girl’s wellbeing in the face of a tumultuous personal and school life, due in no small part to her older boyfriend, Jay (Chirag Naik). In a moment of desperation he becomes visible to Thai’s mother, Sadie (Jenny Wasko-Paterson) and Mustard’s purpose is expanded to safeguarding the wellbeing of her as well. Complicating the matter is the appearance of Leslie and Bug (Shekhar Paleja and Brett Harris), two entities which are determined to remind Mustard that his time with the family has passed, and that he has to move on to the Boonswallows, the dark land where the unseen boons go when they’re no longer needed.
For a play with such as fantastic premise, the emotional power of the work is surprisingly human and real. This is due in no small part to the magnetic work of McNee as Mustard, bringing a range and depth to the performance which is truly a delight to watch. McNee brings a fundamentally unreal (even within the context of the play) character to life with such nuance and grace that even with real people experiencing very real drama on stage, Mustard remains the emotional core of the show. It’s just as much about watching him grow up as it is about watching Thai navigate the troublesome space of adolescence. Counterbalancing Mustard nicely is Damayo as Thai, hitting perfectly the righteous rage and moody indignation of a sixteen year old girl who has found herself forced to grow up quickly. Unifying these two, Wasko-Paterson’s Sadie brings a believable maternal exasperation to the situation, which really transforms in the play’s climax to a touching and warm portrayal of resilience and motherhood.
The largest quibble with the piece is that it appears that director Stephen Drover did not quite know what to do with Leslie and Bug, and their disparate performances. While Harris delightfully chews the scenery as Bug, Paleja never really hits his stride as the loquacious Leslie. Bug is visceral in his means of making Mustard leave, while Leslie is supposed to hurt with words, however those hurts never really materialize as Leslie pontificates, his actions feeling unmotivated and unmoored. This feels more a misstep in direction than in the actor’s skill, as more than a few times the action feels like it’s on rails, the actors being told to move about the stage in certain ways, rather than being encouraged to find their motivation to perform those actions. Similarly, a lot of the play is spent with characters yelling at each other, which, while it may be scripted as such, shows that time wasn’t taken to find levels that weren’t just amps to eleven. It’s a treat, though, to see a piece so clearly well designed on the stage of the Belfry. While on the surface a plain, practical house, there are great surprises in Kevin McAllister’s set, showing what can be done when imagination intersects with reality.
Mustard is a show with a lot of heart in just the right places. Tugging at heartstrings, redemptive and ultimately hopeful, it’s the kind of play that reminds you of the joy of imagination, and the power of unconditional love.
Tickets and info at: www.belfry.bc.ca/mustard/
Langham Court Theatre
Langham Court Theatre opens its 90th season with Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, a favourite of critics and audiences alike for nearly eighty years. While there’s a lot to love in this particular offering of the old chestnut, there’s a tiredness that suffuses the production, which may leave you wanting more.
For those unfamiliar with Blithe Spirit, it’s an otherworldly comedy of the first order. Writer Charles Condomine (Alan Penty) holds a seance with Madame Arcati (Elizabeth Whitmarsh) in order to get an inside look at how a medium operates for his upcoming book. During the seance, his deceased first wife Elvira (Jackie Rioux) returns in spirit form, visible only to him, and begins sowing discord between him and his new wife, Ruth (Kate McCallum Pagett). After trying to establish a new routine as some sort of “astral bigamist,” a plan by Elvira is confounded, and all the characters find themselves in a trying new situation which demands more hijinks to solve. There’s a lot of fun to be had in this witty, irreverent piece, giving ample opportunity for physical comedy and stinging one-liners.
There’s a lot of talent up on the stage. Alan Penty’s caddish depiction of Charles hits the character’s unlikability on the nose, never tricking the audience into feeling sympathy for the fellow. Kate McCallum Pagett brings a softness to Ruth which makes the audience really feel for her plight as a wife set-upon by the ghost of her husband’s first spouse. Elizabeth Whitmarsh brings an infectious energy to Madame Arcati which is a treat to watch as she flits about the stage. The set feels like the real parlour of a house in the Kentish countryside, a feat of great design (by veteran Langham designer/director Toshik Bukowiecki) and dressing (Drew Waveryn). There is, unfortunately, a gulf between the breezy mile-a-minute nature of Noel Coward’s work, and the presentation of it in this production.
The overriding emotion of the piece is one of nostalgia, almost that because of the storied past (and four previous productions at Langham) of this play, it’s to be treated with the reverence of an old gramophone record. While the talented mainstays of the cast do their best to breathe life into the spectral play, their blocking is static and clunky, with players constantly getting stuck behind layers of furniture, striving to be seen. It seems also, that specific details mentioned by the characters were overlooked, or just plain ignored, leading to some curious incongruities. A drink is spilled on the bare wooden floor, and someone mentions that the liquid will come out of the carpet. A (extremely well done) rain effect stops playing, and then someone mentions how bad the weather is. The details matter, but it’s as if the director got most of the way there to a really funny show, and then adopted Madame Arcati’s refrain “it’s of no consequence!” when presented with the details of transforming a script into a play.
Instead of a tight work, the pacing is languid (punctuated by the peculiar and momentum-sapping choice to pull the curtain between every scene). Instead of seeing some magic, it’s a bag of tricks. This bumpy ride is not helped by the interminably long and unfunny front of house preshow recording, presented with breaks for (presumed) laughter and jokes about how the characters don’t know what cell phones are yet! Disconcerting, particularly to modern sensibilities and sensitivities, is that the territory acknowledgement in the preshow recording is called “a message from the spirits,” undermining the respect of the act of territory acknowledgement and conjuring up images of spiritualists communing with “Indian braves.” Hopefully the tone-deaf message will be re-recorded before the rest of the run.
There’s a lot of artifice on display with Blithe Spirit and it’s a pretty enjoyable show. Just don’t expect to be haunted by it for long afterwards.
Tickets and info at: www.langhamtheatre.ca
by Lucas Hnath
Opening their season with Lucas Hnath’s new classic A Doll’s House, Part 2 the Belfry shows off their ample skills at delivering modern drama.
Building on the work and mythology of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, picks up fifteen years after Nora (Martha Burns), the central character of the 1879 original, left her husband and children to forge a new life for herself. Now she’s returned, and is in need of a favour - the divorce from her estranged husband, Torvald (Benedict Campbell), which he neglected to file for. Anne Marie (Barbara Gordon), the nanny to Nora and Torvald’s children comes up with an idea on how to get Nora the divorce she wants, but it does involve her having to meet her daughter, Emmy (Alice Snaden), an encounter which the self-possessed Nora was hoping to avoid. Nora’s presence threatens do disrupt her plans to marry, and she pursues a path that will, hopefully, get everyone what they want, though it requires some moral compromise on everyone’s part.
While the work obviously draws comparisons to Ibsen’s original, Part 2 is more an examination of self-preservation, the inherent and necessary selfishness of it, and what we owe to each other if we profess to care for one another. Nora envisions a life for everyone free of binding obligation, a world without jealousy and pure motivation. This is contrasted most forcefully with what Emmy desires; having grown up in a household without a stable, loving relationship at its core, she wants that relationship more than anything else, finding Nora’s “future where everyone is leaving each other” to be a sad prospect. Hnath gives no easy answers to the questions raised, and by the end has left things in such a way as to leave the audience the choice to come down on one side or another.
The Belfry’s production of the piece is well-thought out and lovely to behold. Martha Burns’ Nora is a tour-de-force, an impressive tower of incisive critique of the bonds of matrimony (even if she was stumbling over her own lines a fair bit.) Benedict Campbell’s Torvald is both infuriating in his blindness to his actions and sympathetic in his emotions and reactions. Most impressive, particularly in her thoughtful understatedness, is Alice Snaden as Emmy. She stands with a poise and purpose so clearly derived from the absence of her mother, that when she is standing across the roof from Nora, you can watcher her visibly reacting to a person whose very presence threatens all that she has built herself upon.
There are still some curious choices to the piece, which, while not show-stopping faults, are certainly head-scratchers. Projected over the doorway are the names of the characters, changing from scene to scene based on whose scene it is, or who’s driving home the point of their arguments, as if the audience needs to be reminded who’s on stage at any given moment. In a strange turn, Torvald returns after having been in a brawl, curiously unbloodied and well composed after cracking his head on the ground. While these curiosities appear, they do not dominate the work, and the quality of the relationships between the characters on stage is what really sells the piece.
Thoughtful, complicated, and energetic, A Doll’s House, Part 2 has a lot to enjoy to it. At turns funny, furious, and contemplative, it’s a work that will let you leave the theatre with new thoughts and new questions - the kind thing good theatre is really meant to do.
Tickets and info at: www.belfry.bc.ca
Frankenstein by David Elendune
Sept 25 – Oct 13
Fresh from their recent Victoria Fringe box office smashes: Ian Case (War Of 1812) directs David Elendune's (Sherlock Holmes & The Curse of Moriarty) adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, winner of the 2017 Classical Theatre Company’s Playwrighting Competition. Staying true to the essence of the original classic by Mary Shelley, David explores the humanity of the characters, and how this is tested through the moral dilemmas they face during the course of the action. This tale presents a once “unthinkable” concept that many could argue is becoming less of an “if” than a “when.” What defines life? What is the value of life? Does anyone have the moral authority over the creation or destruction of what constitutes existence? These are heady questions, but they can also be the stuff of nightmares, and as a prelude to the Halloween season Frankenstein delivers!
Directed by Ian Case
Starring (alphabetically): Tenyjah McKenna, Michelle Mitchell, Brian Quakenbush, Evan Roberts, Ursula Szkolak, Ken Yvorchuk.
Set Design - Hannah Case
Costume, Lighting, & Sound Design - Ian Case
More Info/Tix: CLICK HERE!
Unexpectedly educational and unabashedly silly, A Brief History of Beer is a refreshing pit stop of the Fringe, where you can laugh, learn, and drink! How much more could you ask for than that?
The premise is simple: a la Carmen Sandiego, someone nefarious has stolen the goodness of beer from the timeline, and it’s up to our intrepid guides to lead us all to recovering the glory of the beverage. The timeship Zythos is powered by beer, which requires the audience to occasionally consume their pints in unison, and luckily the VEC is fully licensed and the perfect venue to dive into the malty history of the beverage.
Hosts Will and Trish are top notch in their knowledge of the history of beer, and while they’re clearly not trying to give nuanced performances, their unabashed passion for the rich history and art of brewing is refreshing and fun. That’s not to say that the performers aren’t talented, but rather that their real skill lies in making you care about this oft misunderstood beverage. They still have have moments to shine, though: Will delivers one of the best Carl Sagan impersonations, and Trish captains the ship with campy vigour. It’s remarkable that this show, while billed as a sci-fi sketch comedy, is actually the most enjoyable lecture that you’ll likely attend. At the end of the show, I found that all my notes, usually about performances, design, and the like, were tidbits about the history of beer.
Practically the definition of adult “edutainment,” A Brief History of Beer is a riotously fun hour. Come the end of it, you’ll realize that you both had a great time and learned a few new things, and if you do have a little buzz, so much the better.
Navigating loss, love, and faith, The Fitting Room is an ambitious ensemble drama by Ellery Lamm. Hitting more than it misses, it’s a really promising piece that showcases a talented ensemble and really tight scriptwriting.
Noah has recently died, and the lives of a number of his friends and family come together around a fitting room in an unnamed department store. Best friend Henry, feeling responsible for his death, listlessly tries things on, encouraged by his mother Amy, seemingly at the end of her rope. Cleo and her friend Sophie are trying on clothes, and Cleo confesses her attraction to Hanna, Noah’s sister. All five of them swirl around the fitting room, encountering each other in novel combinations. The encounter between Amy and Cleo is particularly touching, initially arguing over a blazer before making their way toward a fuller understanding of the wholeness of flawed people.
The real strengths of the piece are twofold: a smart script and talented cast. Lamm’s play is modern and relevant, exploring nuances to queer identity, faith, and the attempts to cope in the face of terrible loss. The dialogue is fresh and natural, and funny at just the right times, never wallowing in melodrama. The cast, similarly shows a lot of skill, bringing their energy down at times before bursting out again. There’s a clear attention to physicality, particularly as Henry slinks about the stage, perfectly embodying a reluctant middleschooler. The only universal pitfall to the cast was that it was pretty difficult to hear them halfway back in the house.
While strongly cast and written, the piece suffers from some overdesign flaws. There’s a large wall built on stage to show the fitting room, it remains unused the entire time making you wonder why it’s there in the first place, like setting up a Chekhov’s Gun that never winds up being fired. The spaces outside the fitting room are dimly lit, which would be fine if there wasn’t as much action taking place outside of them as there was. As it stood, in flashbacks and scenes adjacent to the room, the stage feels confined and awkwardly small: an impressive (but unintentional) feat on the largest stage in the Festival. Overall, for a play taking place at, and named for, a singular physical location, the piece didn’t really feel like it happened in any particular place, which is somewhat curious.
Despite some design and direction quibbles, The Fitting Room is a solid ensemble drama with excellent writing. Heartfelt and hopeful, it’s the kind of work that ought to be supported, fostering the next generation of great Victoria artists.
Delivering probably the weirdest “lecture” you’ve ever experienced, Dr Bradley Q Gooseberry gives you a primer on the most important aspects of field zoology: fields, zoology, and seduction. If you don’t think those have much to do with field zoology, and that claims they do don’t seem “credible,” don’t let that stop you from taking in the awkward delight that is Field Zoology 101.
Returning hit to the Fringe, Field Zoology is a lecture and induction into the ways of the field zoologist by local comedian Shawn O’Hara. Using transparencies reminiscent of elementary school science overheads, you learn such things as the life cycle of the bullfrog (which includes a foray into being a toad, not to mention its hideous precursor state, the tadpole), how to identify animals from their silhouettes, and how to best trap raccoons with Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. It’s a mixed bag, but O’Hara’s deadpan John Cleese-like delivery is what sells the ridiculousness and makes the show pop.
The only disappointing thing, really, will not be universally experienced by audiences, in that the show is identical to its earlier incarnation at Victoria Fringe. The beats that worked still work, the ones that were rougher still need the same work, and it’s a bit disappointing that it hasn’t been polished a little more, maybe into some sort of second edition on 102 class. That said, O’Hara really shines when “answering” questions submitted by the audience beforehand. Here, his improvisational skills really take off, and he can really riff on whatever people feed him.
Field Zoology 101 is certainly a crowd pleaser, and a great introduction to Fringe for the uninitiated. Irreverent and witty, it’s the kind of lecture that we all wish we had accidentally stumbled into.
How one defines family, and how you navigate that process of definition while dealing with the persistent need to feel as though you belong is the central question of Blood Relative. While that may sound particularly heavy, and it certainly is, creator/performer Ren Lunicke navigates their travails with grace and openness, making the experience a deeply inviting and disarming one.
The piece is autobiographical, with Lunicke dipping into their past and the pivotal time around the death of their grandmother. Peppered with recordings of Ren’s grandmother, Blood Relative follows Michelle (Ren’s name at the time) as she bears witness to the passing of her grandmother while struggling with a painful condition which may affect her ability to bear children should she want them. It’s a highly personal and specific piece, but in its granular attention to one life it manages to break out into the universal, having echoes which no doubt resonate with anyone who has struggled with the notions of looking for family, history, and belonging.
Blood Relative interrogates the meaning of being related, and how most any embroidered pithy quote fails to contain the contradictions with that big F-word. Family isn’t wholly formed by choice, nor is it entirely foisted upon you. Lunicke explores how blood ties, ancestral land, and personal choice all form a tangled weave of a definition of family, yet still leave crucial elements out. More than all of those, family is a need to bear witness to each other, and a willingness to see people for who they are.
Lunicke’s presence demands leaning in to be a part of their story, to bear witness to a life lead, and to learn and grow from the journey of another. Through Blood Relative, Ren’s family grows for an hour with each performance, and it would do you well to share that tie with someone who exhibits such a generosity of spirit.
If you’re after a Shawn O’Hara Double-Bill, you can check out Fake Ghost Tours 2, where Shawn and his brother Abdul Aziz take a group of thirty on a moderately paced walking tour of sites of their haunted past. Delivering anecdotes about the locations of supposed hauntings, punctuated by interactions with people mistaking the tour for a genuine ghost tour, it’s an amusing 45 stroll through Chinatown’s spectral side.
After a brief primer on why O’Hara and Aziz became ghost hunters, the tour sets off to sites of intense paranormal activity such as the phone booth near Centennial Square, Jusu Juice, and the First/Last spike of the E&N Railway. They tell of ghosts of dogs, horse actors, and murder hotels, and you learn dubious facts about their family history all the while. The show really veers off the rails in the best way possible when they have to contend with onlookers offering their own tidbits of ghost lore, or drunken bargoers trying to figure out what this large group of people wearing Fringe Buttons is doing. Aziz and O’Hara’s abilities to banter and make the situations work really keeps the loose structure of the tour together, seizing any opportunity to get a good ghostly riff in.
Similar to Field Zoology however, the show is probably best enjoyed if you’ve not seen last year’s Fake Ghost Tours. A few of the jokes are recycled directly from it, and the anecdotes delivered aren’t quite as tightly told as they need to be. It’s a really great premise, and perhaps early showings before the sun goes down and the craziness comes out are grounded, but at a late night tour, a lot of the bits seemed to be getting away from them, jokes getting muddled, and some sites of haunting jettisoned at the last minute because the structure had broken down beforehand.
Fake Ghost Tours 2 is a solid bit of comedy, though it’s not as much of a home run as its original incarnation. Still, if you’re in the mood to laugh at some clearly ridiculous stories while meandering the downtown, it’s hard to go wrong with this work.
After a short sanity break from shows (plus stage managing two performances of The Boy in the Chrysalis) it’s time to get back to reviews!
If you think that hearing the story of his first love from a diminutive Australian man wearing a pink princess dress doesn’t sound like a good time, you’re dead wrong. How I Learned to Hug features more of Jon Bennett’s hilarious telling of his own history, mixing side splitting hilarity with the right amount of pathos.
Without delving into the details, How I Learned to Hug chronicles Jon’s relationship with love, and more specifically public physical affection, from his first love letters from Emma-Lee at six years old, to his transformative romances as a young adult. Delivered with his characteristic breakneck speed and exasperation, How I Learned to Hug is equal parts funny and awkward, providing continuous moments where we can laugh at a ridiculous situation from his life, usually because he’s connected it to the universal and given the audience something to identify with, and therefore be able to laugh at themselves just a little bit.
It’s difficult to praise the show enough, because Jon is such a gracious and inviting raconteur. Self-deprecating but not pitifully so, there’s a vulnerability in making the scars of his life visible for all to see and laugh at which is really quite touching. The moments where Jon stops talking, or at least slows down to a normal human pace of conversation, buy the performance instant gravity, letting the emotional beats land with power. The only quibble would be one that, to be truthful, is not really fair to the work, in that it’s not as strong as previous hits Fire in the Meth Lab and My Dad’s Deaths. While there’s still an emotional through-line, the heart of the piece, coming to terms with it being alright to show affection, doesn’t quite land with the same gravity as his other performances. Still, there’s a lot of heart on display, and it’s quite possibly the funniest thing you will see this Fringe.
Breakneck and uproarious, How I Learned to Hug should be top of your list if you’re looking to laugh while taking in the festival. Jon Bennett will not disappoint with this mile-a-minute trip down memory lane.
Nakota needs to write the greatest story for his grade six class, but with the pressures of superheroes and comic books pushing from one side and his precarious health pressing from another, where will he find his story, and where will his story be able to lead him? Rocko and Nakota: Tales From the Land explores the challenges of intergenerational storytelling, the power of myth and legend, and the universal need to speak from the heart and let your truth be known.
Nakota has been confined to hospital due to repeated fainting spells which are threatening his life. He is alone when another one comes on him, but out of the blue his grandfather Rocko, also in the hospital, comes to his aid. Rocko tries to lead Nakota through legend and parable to finding his voice, telling stories of great heroes of his tribe, yet these are not the indomitable superheroes of comic books, but rather fire-eyed champions who, crucially, knew when to ask for help. Rocko helps Nakota explore what he thinks of as heroism and how he can find the hero in his own story of healing and growth.
It’s clear that writer/performer Josh Languedoc has a deep understanding of what makes myth so powerful, and its central role in culture and identity. While the tales that he brings to life are generally variations on a theme of “speak from your heart,” the repetition underscores the stylistic similarities to worldview-shaping myths and fables: tell the same story in different ways until it’s in someone’s heart. Languedoc’s telling of how Raven stole light when the world was covered in darkness is particularly striking, the stage wonderfully evoking the time before time of shapes moving in darkness. The only thing that feels off in the production is a drop in tempo and rhythm in the transitions between Nakota’s framing story and his encounters with Rocko. That said, his ability to breathe new life into traditional Indigenous stories (complete with seamlessly inserted Metallica and Blue Rodeo lyrics) is a gift to see in person and more than makes up for any pitfalls in pacing.
Rocko and Nakota is a testament to the power of storytelling, and giving yourself the time and space to look, listen, and breathe. Josh Languedoc weaves tales together in a thesis on the fundamental purpose of storytelling: to remind you that you’re not alone in your struggles, and to give you the strength to go forward.
For show times, venue info, and tickets, visit www.victoriafringe.com
What do you do if you’re the last florist on Earth, tending the last garden, as quite possibly the last human? Probable options include singing, dancing, telling stories, and living through a dreamlike trance, all of which happen throughout The Last Garden.
When you come across something billed as “absurdist” in a programme, you might be under the impression that the work might be just a little bit weird. It’s refreshing that The Last Garden takes its absurdism seriously, poetically weaving together a series of songs, thoughts, stories, and movement pieces that reminisce on what it means to try to accomplish something at the end of the world. Performer Tanner Manson’s movements and actions are so precise that it’s impossible to not look for meanings in a work that challenges the notion of trying to build that meaning up in the first place.
The Last Garden’s real centrepiece is an examination of the power of storytelling. At first, counter to the industries of destruction wrought by science and engineering, the worst thing stories can do is make you waste eleven dollars on a Fringe show. Over the course of the performance, this notion is challenged and torn apart. Stories are what have motivated people to perform acts of love and hate. Stories are what have helped people come to terms with the world around them. Stories have kept people alive long after they have died, granting them the kind of new life that a fallow field has when spring comes and it fills with blossoming flowers.
It may not be the kind of piece that is “for” everyone, but everyone should take the opportunity to be challenged by The Last Garden. Funny, sad, confounding, and hopeful, it’s the kind of work that will plant seeds in your mind - let them grow into something wonderful.
Swordplay! Romance! Renaissance France! The promise of Fool’s Paradise is that of a story about a transgressive love and the fallout from your own past. It aims high, though falls wide of the mark.
Fool’s Paradise shows a fictionalized account of the early life of Julie d’Aubigny - la Maupin, a scandalous French aristocrat who dressed as a man and duelled her way across France. During her exploits, she finds herself in a convent, seducing the young Mathilde. They elope after some corpse thievery and arson, and set off through the countryside, one step ahead of the law and la Maupin’s reputation.
The work is somewhat of a curate’s egg - parts of it are excellent. Actors bursting into the house with gossip about la Maupin’s exploits was an inspired choice, snappy and immediate. The choice of Renaissance France as a setting is ambitious and interesting. Unfortunately, the central premise, that is the relationship between Julie and Mathilde, doesn’t live up to the promise of the piece. Both are divorced from their motivation, waxing expository rather than showing us with concrete, animated actions. All the most interesting bits happen offstage, a fire, a duel, a murder, while onstage Julie swears like a character from Game of Thrones while the rest of the cast speaks in a manner more suited to the century in which the piece is set. Curiously, the theme of two women falling in love against the backdrop of a less tolerant time is left unexplored, leaving a rather curious hole in the production.
Fool’s Paradise shows a lot of promise, and Fringe is the right venue to swing for the fences and explore works in a style or about a subject which otherwise may be overlooked. While there is some good writing at times, this work will really shine after a few revisions and another kick at the can.
“I feel like fucking up,” says the man on stage as he strips down to his underwear in the first four minutes. We watch him in his 400 sq foot Ottawa apartment embark on doing just that as he builds his own myth for a trauma he’s just faced. And that’s exactly the duty of myth – to bridge the gap between reality and fantasy. And what better bricklayer than Bacchus - a bottle of red - to ready the journey of the mind. (Side note: Favorite anecdote: an audience member saying “He’s gonna be drunk by the end of this!”)
“Getting off on being contrary,” he uses his real life experiences with his mother and his lover to push against to build a fortress in his mind against the real-life horror he’s just experienced as a Grade 2 teacher. We can almost see the scaffolding as he physically rebels – wrapping himself in a red satin robe he’s used for drag that is woven with Paris fantasy, putting on lipstick, imagining the Eiffel Tower so intensely that it appears as a projection on his drapes.
His absent lover David plays antagonist by proxy, blamed for trying to keep him in the world of the mundane, showing him “how ridiculous the charade” of being a drag queen was. “To fake it and never be?” he asks, “No thank you.”
Really what we’re witnessing in this 40 precious minutes is a human self-actualizing and the pain of that. He wants to be left alone in the more beautiful world he’s imagined. He wants to be born in Paris, not Medicine Hat. He wants to be in a bigger apartment, he wants to be everything he’s not.
Kudos to lighting design as it goes from Apollo yellow to blue at the inevitable but beautifully timed turning point. Apparently writer Liam Monaghan’s second play for stage, this is a perfectly plated first course. And bravo to actor Vaughn Naylor, who didn’t skip a beat – I’d be interested to see it at the end of the run to see him sink in even more.
The tragedy leaves no room for fantasy, aside from a drawing that’s been left that eerily mirrors his favorite Happy Meal toy. And that 5 x 7 sheet of bond paper with colored wax, along with the idealism of hating hypocrites, is all he’s left holding at the end of the soliloquy.
For show times, venue info, and tickets, visit www.victoriafringe.com
What would Sesame be like if the puppets were secretly sapient? Not the characters, no, but the physical puppets themselves. Think if Oscar the Grouch was tired of having a hand inside him, didn’t want to do educational work, and was fomenting revolution with the rest of his felted kind. More or less, that’s the premise of Ernie & Bethy and it works in its own weird way.
E&B basically tells two stories. First, the Puppets, led by Leo the Lemur (NOT a raccoon) and his friend Allie the Alligator, are planning a takeover of the educational show to be performed for sick children. Leo wants some “real art” and is sick of the asinine anti-smoking schtick. Meanwhile the titular Ernie and Bethy are two new hires to the puppet company, tasked with putting together the show to put on for the kids. Madness ensues when the puppets begin their takeover, but the two sides come to an amusing reconciliation. While not breaking totally new ground, E&B is a fresh take on what an adult-oriented puppet show could be. The puppets are all well made, have fun characterization (the simpleminded and earnest Toad is a hilarious standout), and lend themselves to some great physical comedic moments.
The human story attached is less successful, though, not confidently landing on personal growth or change, but more just showing what the flaws of the two central characters are. Tying their struggles to the show that they ultimately put on would be more dramatically satisfying than the (admittedly charming and funny) finale which they do perform. In fact, the humans adapt to the situation of having puppets which can talk (and move the humans’ arms around) remarkably quickly, and seemingly without a second thought. Between the incongruity of their situation, and the sometimes too thick schtick, there are some opportunities to massage the script into something tighter. As it is, it’s quite funny, with a little more dramaturgy, it could be really good.
Ernie & Bethy is probably the weirdest puppet show you’ll see for some time. It’s got some opportunities for growth, but don’t let that stop you from seeing a well produced work of comic madness. Smoking puppets, existential angst, and the need to create art have never come together in a better package.
Bursting with talent and energy, Carey Wass builds a one-of-a-kind music show for the audience one track at a time, busting out tunes about anxiety, pro-wrestling, and Tom Cruise running. Carey, OK! is catchy, fun, and surprisingly touching.
Carey is a superb performer, and that’s the greatest underlying strength of the show. A la Reggie Watts, he builds, sample-by-sample, multilayered tracks to back his songs, both silly and heartfelt. Carey started making music this way a number of years ago at a time when he felt oppressed by a lack of creativity in his life, and out of working on that music, this show has come together. While certainly a little tongue-in-cheek there’s an earnestness and generosity to his performance: he just wants to help build people up, so they can in turn build each other up. Spreading a little joy and light in the world is his mission which he accomplishes with ease.
Carey, OK! is a show that demands an audience, hooting and clapping while watching a great performer do what he does best. You’ll laugh, you’ll get a tune stuck in your head, and you’ll maybe try to make the lives of those around you a bit better. You can’t ask for a performance to do much more than that.
It’s Day 1 of the Victoria Fringe Festival, which means it’s time to catch the explosion of live performance happening all over town. Every day of the Festival I’ll be giving my thoughts and impressions about a few works and letting you know what you need to know to enjoy the best festival of performance Victoria has.
For show times, venue info, and tickets, visit www.victoriafringe.com
The Session, written and directed by Tien Providence, is the confessional story of an eighteen year old woman, Leslie-Haydn Burke, and the events that have unfolded for her after an awful fight with her mother. She finds herself living on the street, working as a hooker (her preferred word for her profession), before finding herself implicated in a brutal crime.
Unfortunately, those bare facts are the whole of the show, and there is a hamfistedly on-the-nose quality to the storytelling. The play comes across like the backstory to one of the characters on Orange Is The New Black, but shown as a Blaxploitation version of Roxanne by The Police. Leslie-Haydn’s speech sounds less like a streetwise, jaded-but-hopeful, tough-but-scared woman who’s spent two and a half years working the streets, and more like what a middle-aged man thinks that kind of person would sound like. Contradictions abound in the piece, one character being knocked to the ground nearly senseless, before being described as angrily watching Leslie-Haydn walk away. A second set of eyes on the script might have caught these flubs, but sadly the piece seems to have escaped serious editing.
Rais Clarke-Mendes as Leslie-Haydn is left to twist in the wind on stage, which is a pity. With a predictable rhythm she reaches a crescendo of anger, laughs maniacally, disconsolately sobs, tries to seduce the unseen person to whom she’s speaking, petulantly rolls her eyes, and continues the story. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. There are moments of real talent poking through as Clarke-Mendes shifts characters from time to time, and the fact that she is able to keep revving up to a frantic fever pitch shows a well of energy which is a boon to have on stage. As it is, the performance feels untethered, never grounding the action in a real place before zipping off again, amps to eleven.
Full of rage and contradiction, The Session has the kernel of a solid piece of theatre, some tantalizing premises, but needs some work. Some serious dramaturgy, maybe cutting from two or three villains down to one, and an outside eye on direction would make this piece really pop.
Back from down under, The Birdmann and Egg return to one of their favourite places with another entry in their unique, bizarre, and charming series of comedic cabarets.
If you’re unfamiliar with The Birdmann, you should get familiar with his weirdness while you still can. The show defies easy definition, but can best be thought of as a kind of madcap variety show, with lip-sync dances, groan-inducing puns, balancing acts, anti-humour, and a live death on stage. One shouldn’t forget the charming, awkward, and captivating Egg, who backs up Birdmann on keyboard and trumpet, and even delivers a song of her own. It’s the kind of piece which, while it may have a thread connecting it all, you’re better off just letting yourself be blown on the wind, and not getting too caught up in trying to figure things out.
If anything, that’s the central message of the piece, and it has a touching, almost bittersweet quality to it. Creator Trent Baumann has been touring The Birdmann for a decade, having come to Victoria multiple times and leaving a mark on the city’s Fringe history. While there’s forward momentum to the piece, it’s really a bit of a retrospective, a warm reminder of the fun that we’ve had with The Birdmann over the last ten years. It’s telling of the love for Victoria that Birdmann and Egg have, that they have come back time and time again, just to share some of the magic that happens when great performers get on stage in front of a crowd that’s happy to be there. The dedication to sharing an out-there performance that is equal parts weird and wonderful is the perfect example of what the Fringe Festival is about.
Wacky, wonderful, thoughtful, and thoughtless, The Birdmann and Egg FINALE is the kind of show that you can only see at the Fringe. The world may be a time machine that only goes forward, but let The Birdmann turn back time and bring a little more joy into your life.
Retreading their tried and tested form of mom-centric comedy (momedy? Seems like a genre worth creating) the women of the hit series return with Mom’s the Word 3: Nest ½ Empty, sharing their stories of mothering today’s millennials.
Mom’s the Word 3 follows the five moms (the same performers which originated the first Mom’s the Word in the 90s) as they recount stories from their emerging lives as empty-nesters. Somewhere between storytelling and standup, they recount with varying degrees of wryness stories of children moved out but moving back in, dissatisfaction with partners, anxieties over aging and health, and the general travails of being a middle-aged middle-class woman in today’s society.
There’s a lot of heart and humour as these women bring up all the good-and-ugly parts of mothering adult children. The joy of having your children come home turning to frustration as you come to think that they might be “the worst possible combination of your DNA.” The realization that, with the kids out of the picture, you and your partner may not have much uniting you, a marriage of separate bedrooms and lives. The real emotional heavy lifting of the piece happens as unquestioningly real elements of the moms’ lives come through: the aftermath of a child having near-fatal accident, an aging parent who’s becoming increasingly incapable, a spouse with a deeply challenging medical diagnosis. These snippets bring a depth to the performances and ground the madcap antics and produce some really touching theatre. There’s also a lot of laughter to be had, depending on your comic taste and whether or not you’ve raised children who are now in their mid twenties to thirties.
The choice of the word “antics” is, unfortunately apt for the piece. The anecdotes shared come out with such a speed and from all directions that picking up the heart in them is nigh-impossible. The delivery of these bits have has polished so highly that it’s nearly impossible to tell if they happened in the first place. Doubtless there’s a lot of truth to it, but the facts of the events have been so deeply covered with a veneer of comedy that it’s hard to see them as real events that happened to real people. This distance between performer and performance is most explicit in the flashy act one finale, a mashup of parodies of current(ish) Top 40 hits detailing the ridiculous elements of modern middle-motherhood. The entire vocal track of this admittedly clever and well choreographed piece is prerecorded, the performers lip-syncing and dancing around the stage, which, given the opportunity of the intimate space at the Belfry, feels like a lazy choice.
Mom’s the Word 3 may not be entirely for everyone, but there’s certainly something in it for anyone. While a lot of the humour may come across as an ensemble delivering menopause jokes and complaining about the way kids are, there are some real moments of heart, touching on family universals: feelings of fear and hope, vexation and, most importantly, love.
Playing till August 12 at The Belfry, tickets an information available at belfry.bc.ca
The kind of show that really makes you want to feel, think, laugh, and cry, My Funny Valentine, written by Dave Deveau and directed by Cameron Mackenzie, manages to almost do that, frustrating the emotional needs created by a well-written and important piece of theatre.
My Funny Valentine is an examination of the 2008 murder of Larry King, a 15 year old student in Oxnard, California, who was killed by one of his classmates, Brandon McInerney, 14, apparently because Larry asked Brandon to be his valentine. This solo piece, performed by Connor Wylie, tells the story of a community coming to terms with this tragedy from the points of view of community members. In a series of monologues, Wylie moves from being a local reporter, to a fellow student, to teachers and parents, with each story being a tight little arc, telling personal accounts of coping in the face of terrible events.
The real strength of My Funny Valentine is in the humanizing of the community’s grief, and its reminder that the reactions of people to these events are not monolithic or uniform. Breaking the story is a boon to the reporter’s career, but forces him to contend with having gotten ahead because of an awful act. A teacher is catalyzed by the slaying to champion work for LGBTQ rights, but also stymies her own life, making her unable to move past this tragedy after a full decade. Rather than fall into an easy hagiographic portrayal of the children involved, My Funny Valentine points to the murky details of reality which complicate our responses: Larry had a history of disruption, sought attention, and deliberately provoked other students, and Brandon came from an exceptionally troubled home, where gun violence had already laid a finger. Nobody denies the tragedy, nobody thinks it’s a good thing, but the responses are varied, ranging from righteous fury to sardonic acceptance of the new norms. It is a testament to Deveau’s writing that these all come off as genuine, considered ideas, and provoke the audience to talk about, and more importantly act on, ways to foster a world where children do not shoot other children.
There is, however, a problem with the piece as presented, and it’s rather hard to pin down precisely. Put it this way: after seeing a work about such a tragic and senseless event, and the grief which follows, it’s fair to expect to be emotionally drained, and this production didn’t manage to make that connection. Wylie is clearly a very talented performer, but there’s something missing from the portrayal, the characters appearing on stage coming across more as characters than as living people. While saying all the right words, the mannerisms of each character are more like caricatures thrown at an improv sketch than those of real people. There’s the valley girl, there’s the resigned teacher, there’s the angry conservative dad. By the third time the audience sees Helen, the teacher who is most deeply troubled by this, her appearance is as tiresome as a Fred Armisen character overstaying its welcome. The gap between performance and connection may be with the direction, though, failing to ground these people as people before moving on to staging and more exciting things. Without that, these speakers come across just as tropes, well spoken, well meaning tropes, but tropes nonetheless. Ultimately, it may benefit from being taken on by a different team, letting a new set of eyes see the piece for what it could be, rather than what the writer and the director have created it to be.
My Funny Valentine is a great play, and a work which deserves and demands reexamination and repeat performance. Though this incarnation may not punch at the level that the play requires, it is an important piece which must be seen and talked about.
Langham Court Theatre
Langham finishes its 89th season with Alan Ayckbourne’s comedy A Chorus of Disapproval, directed by Langham regular Wendy Merk.
Chorus is an extremely fitting play for an amateur society to take on; it follows the travails of everyman Guy Jones (Evan Roberts) after he joins the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society (PALOS for short) for their production of the 1728 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera. The production, directed by Dafydd ap Llewellyn (Jaymes D. Goodman), is taking a long time to make progress and actors are dropping out and getting canned all over the place, providing Guy ample opportunity to rise through the ranks from lowly Crook-Finger’d Jack to leading man Macheath. On his rise to the top, Guy manages to seduce the director’s wife, Hannah (Kelly Vanderswan), and Fay Hubbard (Kristin Pickup), one of the members of the company and the wife of resident lothario Ian (Wayne Yercha). Much of the second act centres around Guy juggling the affections of these women, as well as some political intrigue over ownership of a piece of land adjoining Guy’s employer’s property. The ups and downs of Guy are largely reflective of the conflicts of The Beggar’s Opera, transposed to a community theatre.
The piece is perfectly suited to the regulars at Langham, providing a sort of meta-theatrical examination of community theatre and the British amateur theatre tradition in particular. Little details will be immediately familiar to anyone who has worked on a community production of any sort: actors working their way back out of position after being placed in the right spots, an exuberant (and somewhat maniacal) director (played with perfect fervor by Goodman), and a rehearsal process which can seem to drag on when an overambitious amateur keeps bungling their lines. Highlighting the strength of a good community theatre, the ensemble features both returning regulars, talented newcomers to Langham’s stage, and brand new actors as well. Like the people of the PALOS, the players are clearly engaged in a labour of love, both loving the material, and the culture that it exemplifies.
The show, for all its strengths, is a little uneven, with a much stronger first act than second, and somewhat bumpy pacing. While there’s a sense that there must be some sort of time crunch (characters do repeatedly refer to the number of months left) there’s no sense of this on stage, as the two leading men never vary in their costuming, while the women do. Roberts’ Guy is also hard to pin down, without a real sense of who the character is. When performing as the characters which Guy is cast as, he shines, but when back in the role of the mild-mannered am-dram newcomer, the character doesn’t come off the page. While there’s a clear affection for the material, there’s a roughness to it, a lack of attention to detail, taking the form of repetitive props (those same pewter steins that have been making their way through Victoria’s theatre scene for the last two decades) and a set that only really works for two scenes throughout the piece.
Overall A Chorus of Disapproval is a fitting end to Langham’s 89th season, and a good work to go out on. There’s plenty of humour and heart in this piece, and something to love, particularly if you’ve ever found yourself volunteering with a society like the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society.
More Info/Tix: CLICK HERE!