Laughter … and something sinister in Imaginary Friend: A New Musical, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Imaginary Friend: A New Musical (Venue 35, La Cité francophone Theatre)

By Alan Kellogg

It’s been a good year for original Edmonton musicals at the Fringe. And here is another local production worthy of your notice, written by Stephen Allred and Seth Gilfillan, with music by Daniel Belland.

Things are a mess in a working class household. Single mother Pamela is having a terrible time keeping things together, working overtime for a disgusting (male) lecherous creep of a boss who seems to have invented new methods of sexual harassment in the office place.

Meanwhile, daughters teen Lea and 8- (or is it 10-year-old) Juliette are forced spend the long mum-less hours figuring out what to do. They’re running out of frozen dinners, and the lights and heat keep running our due to unpaid bills.

Lea’s escape is her (real) “digital girlfriend,” a love interest she rarely gets to see, while Juliette’s seemingly imaginary cloven-footed friend Rocky (his full name comes clear later) keeps her company and fills her naïve head with general awfulness. Gradually, we learn of his overall plan of possession, and it isn’t pretty. A serious denouement is building up, and it finally happens.

There are uneven performances here and, in the beginning, some intonation issues with a couple of the generally winning singers. Ditto with the dialogue. But the relatively few technical glitches never overwhelm the story or our young Straight Edge Theatre performers, who give it their all.

Imagine: writing an original musical for the local Fringe with a live band and a tale that keeps us engaged, with some laughs and some genuine creepiness. Full marks for the cast and creators: the large house thoroughly enjoyed their work.

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Life’s rich pageant at the pub: Two, a Fringe review.

Ruth Alexander and Julien Arnold in Two. Photo by Mat Simpson

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Two (Stage 12, Varscona Theatre)

“Wot’s your poison, luv?” says our genial host (Julien Arnold) in a rowdy pub somewhere in the north of Jolly Olde. His other half (Ruth Alexander), too, is pulling pints behind the bar. And they’re slinging insults at each other. 

You can just about smell the stale beer and the carpet that will never, in the history of the world, give up its special pub whiff of old cig smoke and ground-up chips (sorry, crisps). Which is odd, since the stage is completely bare, save the chalk semi-circular outline of an English bar.

Which just goes to show you just how authentic Max Rubin’s Atlas Theatre production feels. Two, the 1989 two-hander by the English playwright Jim Cartwright, is based on the social proposition — which is also a theatrical proposition — that the neighbourhood pub is a magnet for an all-ages community cross-section. 

Between them Arnold and Edmonton newcomer Alexander, a couple of very engaging and skilful actors, play 14 characters, and individualize them with impressive economy in gesture, voice, posture, slight adjustments of accent. There are couples in varying degrees of dissonance. There’s an elderly lady on an outing break from her invalid husband; she’s  hot for the butcher (“blood everywhere!”). There’s a flirtatious old ladykiller who sponges off his put-upon lady friend. There’s a lonely old widower, and a middle-aged woman with a pipsqueak boyfriend and a preference for “gargantuan men.”

The palette runs from wistful (the “other woman” hoping to get a glimpse of her man with his wife) to raucous (a couple of plump-sters riffing amusingly on their fat). The queasiest is a control-freak husband and his cowed wife. And there’s even a kid, looking for his dad.

In this dexterous production the tone darkens from the comic; the cumulative character sketches return us to the pub-owner couple whose rancorous bickering has turned lethal. The dénouement steps audaciously up to a secret tragedy. And, thanks to the performances, it never feels grafted on. I toast them. 

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Special of the day, a genuine home-cooked musical: Meat, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Meat (The Musical) (Venue 34, Varscona Hotel, Thomas Bennett Room)

By Alan Kellogg

The history of talented (and not so talented) actors, dancers and singers supplementing their income with stints at a restaurant likely goes back to harlequins and the medieval groaning board.

But few over the years have deigned to recount their pay-the-rent offstage gigs with original theatrical works — not to mention musicals — on the subject. Fewer still have actually enjoyed the experience waiting tables or filling salt shakers over long, potentially greasy hours.

But here it is, a sincere homage to Strathcona’s own Meat the Restaurant located just a few blocks east of this sweaty Fringe venue — performed, written, scored and choreographed by Meat employees. If that seems dodgy from a Fringe show consumer standpoint, so be it. But the good news is that like the excellent beanery itself, Meat the Musical is actually good, quite good. It’s endearing too, and Edmonton Proud. What a wonderful surprise. And you won’t gain a kilogram.

The song titles – many of them funny, touching and tuneful – give you a taste.  Mixing Drinks, Stuck, Servers are People Too, When Vegans Attack, Corners, Get Saucy – you get the idea.

So the kitchen curtain is pulled back to allow us access to what really happens among young staffers before, during and after service. MtM has been carefully written (book and score) by Shaney Borden and Sarah Adam, who also play Rosemary and Wendy, respectively. And well. The hard work shows across the board in the smallest details and many of the performances are absolutely Equity-quality professional.

There is romance, angst, yuks and more here. You’ll leave happy, a bit wiser and sated. The only problem is that during an afternoon show, you can’t debrief at Meat the Restaurant afterwards over brisket and pulled pork. I’d recommend the Fringe non-meat special broccoli-cheddar burger if you can’t get into the show, which has been packed. It’s delicious, like this heartwarming example of homemade musical theatre.

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The fascination of escape: Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, a review

Miranda Allen in Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca 

Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs (Stage 17, Roxy on Gateway)

This show premiered in the Roxy Performance Series in January. It’s back at the Roxy on Gateway (aka Stage 17) for the Fringe. Here’s my original review:

The international stage repertoire has no shortage of shows about the entertainment world and its fractious backstage — where dreamers and achievers, stars and wannabes, artsy bright-idea types and antsy bottom-line producers, collide.

Still, Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs is, I strongly suspect, the only show of the season in which new play development, and rehearsals, involve a handcuffed performer sticking her head in a bucket of water, and emerging with a gasp, triumphantly dangling the cuffs.

The fascinating new play, by magician/ illusionist/ playwright Ron Pearson, stars a stunning performer with an equally improbable collection of those qualifier slashes, actor/ escape artist Miranda Allen, in a production directed by Theatre Network’s Bradley Moss.

It opens in the dark, to the sound of water and a ticking clock. Together, they equal suspense. In the show that follows, we meet an entertainer who finds her place in showbiz and her true self in life holding her breath underwater, breaking free of chains and ropes and locks of every kind, and counting down to deadlines. It makes me nervous even thinking about it. 

Uniquely qualified for the role, Allen plays the real-life Edwardian escape artist Minerva Vano, whose prowess (and radical novelty as a woman showing it off) made her a sensation — and a rival of Harry Houdini. And Pearson’s script, which springboards from the gallery of characters provided by history, all of them male except her, has an organic feminist momentum to it.

The real-life Minerva, turn-of-the-century escape artist. Photo supplied.

It’s framed by flashbacks to performances and backstage encounters conjured under hypnosis, a new turn-of-the-century fad. Plagued by crippling mid-career panic and anxiety — in that line of work, who wouldn’t be? —  Minerva consults a hypnotist (the chameleonic Richard Lee Hsi, in one of his multiple roles). And under his prompting, her memory coughs up flashbacks from a career built on an extraordinary talent for escaping shackles, of one kind or another.

What is it you do? wonders the hypnotist. “I escape from things,” says Minerva. And then, onstage and with audience participation to tie the ropes, tighten the straps, and lock the locks, she does. 

Allen and Lee Hsi deftly create a performance style that nods to the period and the vintage escapes that are its source material. Allen’s Minerva doesn’t have a contemporary street hustle and edge about her as she deals with her audience volunteers: there’s a whiff of risqué about her bustling cheerfulness, but only a whiff. Radicalism still wears button shoes, a high-topped dress, and a pleasant smile in 1905.

Miranda Allen and Richard Lee Hsi, Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, Ghostwriter Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

As all the men in Minerva’s world, including the suave and threatening Houdini, a villain in a tux, Lee Hsi creates a variety of 19th century showbiz men, from the patronizing to the sinister. They don’t realize that the era is changing, right under their well-shod feet. 

Minerva’s signature act and greatest hit was escaping from a water-filled barrel while chained (while it’s not re-enacted, it’s evoked). For run-of-the-mill claustrophobes such as myself, this is of course the ultimate nightmare, followed closely by jumping off bridges while chained. But for Minerva, who’s addicted to the adrenalin rush from escaping as the clock ticks, panic is a horrifying new development.

We see Minerva with her first husband Willie, a n’er-do-well touring magician with a certain chipper, wheedling, ever-hopeful charm and the financial acumen of a gnat, as Lee Hsi plays him. And Minerva’s first escapes are from flea-bag hotels in the middle of the night, to avoid paying. “We’re gonna hit the big time,” Willie is fond of saying. “You have to trust me. I know what I’m doing!”

To be fair, it’s Willie who suggests an “escape act” involving water and a locked barrel. He needs, he says, “something no one else is doing.” Minerva is game, but wonders “so how exactly do you escape?” And he cries “details!” Idea guys are like that. He reads the racing form while Minerva hits the (rehearsal) bucket.

Tessa Stamp’s design for Moss’s production, lit by Scott Peters, is responsive to the conjuring that goes into magic-making and escape. The fore-stage has an alluring simplicity: a trunk, a chair, hanging bulbs. They’re the props of a magic that has to start from nothing to be persuasive, and transcends predictable human possibility. The backstage, shrouded behind a black veil, is lit by a dim chandelier. The combination of preternatural skill and mystery, what is lit and what is in darkness, is at the heart of the show.

And by the time Allen is escaping from a triple-knotted noose or an impossibly tightened straitjacket in three minutes — will she? won’t she? is this the one performance where the straitjacket wins? — you feel you’re holding your breath. Artfully framed as a story, the play relies on that escalation of tension and sense of wonder.

For all that, and the big reveal of a mystery at the end — it’s a wowsa! — there’s a certain heart-on-sleeve innocence about Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs. Bonds and escapes, it points out, come in many challenges, both literal and metaphorical. It’s a man’s world, after all.

It invites you to cheer when Minerva unlocks thumb cuffs “used by Scotland Yard.” And, equally, you’re invited to cheer when Minerva declares her intention to have a solo escapist career, or resists sexist advances from a thuggish manager in an expensive coat. It wants to be inspiring in the time-honoured, applause-magnet way that escape acts work. And it is.

 

    

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The anti-rom-com rom-com: You Are Happy, a Fringe review.

Jenny McKillop, Jezec Sanders, Madelaine Knight in You Are Happy, Dog Heart/ Blarney Productions. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You Are Happy (Stage 19, Sugar Swing Ballroom, Upstairs)

There are two kinds of people in the world, as Bridgette (Jenny McKillop) briskly explains in this sour, tart little fable by the young Quebec playwright Rebecca Deraspé. And the grid is lop-sided.

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There’s the 92 per cent of the human population “who need to be two to be happy,” she explains. And there’s the 8 per cent who don’t. 

Since the play opens with Bridgette’s brother Jeremy (Jezec Sanders) in her closet, holding a noose and preparing to use it, he’s obviously single. Why else would a young man who knows how to sail want to commit suicide?

His sister, a paid-up member of the 8 per cent, undertakes his rescue, — by going shopping for a partner for him. Naturally, she looks in a supermarket, where singles feel most like outsiders. In the great collective dream of finding the perfect life partner Chloe (Madelaine Knight) has nearly given up. Which makes her susceptible to Bridgette’s project.

One two-year contract later, Chloe and Jeremy are A Couple. And, lo and behold, against the odds, it’s true love, or a reasonable facsimile. Which is all you really need not to end up in a closet, or feel like a total loser out in the world.

April Banigan, one of our experienced and versatile actors, makes her directing debut with this acrid little tale of love constructed from scratch, like a puzzle or an equation. And her production, with its trio of charming actors, goes for a bouncy, bright, shiny performance style: the premise is that the characters assume they’re in a rom-com even though they’re really not.

McKillop’s Bridgette never stops beaming, as she lays down the law: a fairy godmother with a steely side. Sanders’ amusing Jeremy commits the odd masculine slip-up, but he learns how to make up for it with romantic gestures. He’s a quick study when it comes to dietary preferences, for example. And he’s hip to the salutary effects of neck massages at moments of crisis.

And, as the pushover Chloe, whose reservations about the creepiness and improbability of it all are easily overcome by her romantic neediness, Knight captures the sense of a character torn between amazement and delight. Chloe retains vestiges of skepticism, in the self-deprecating little laugh she attaches to the end of every line. 

Banigan’s Blarney/ Dog Heart production enjoys the theatrical style of a comedy that’s about the artifice of love. The characters look us in the eye, and set the scene. “I’m in the elevator, and you’re in there with me.”   

Is enforced couple-hood, nailed down with research, a workable solution to life’s great conundrum, i.e. happiness? It’s probably revealing that the original French title, Deux Ans De Votre Vie, literally “two years of your life,” is translated in English as You Are Happy.

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The crazy spirit of the Fringe, on legs: Are You Lovin’ It?, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Are You Lovin’ It? Theatre Group GUMBO, photo by Sue Brenner

Are You Lovin’ It (Venue 5, King Edward School)

By Alan Kellogg

Need a non-alcoholic break from one too many coming-of-age identity plays or satanic jugglers? Look no further, dear festival-goers. Relief is available from Osaka’s Theatre Group GUMBO.

Here is, I dunno, a company of Japanese Dadaist clowns or something like that, some dressed as WacDonalds employees. They gleefully, energetically, deliver a naughty, certifiably mad and political (but-endearingly not politically-correct) hour of vignettes and audience participation bits that will leave you sputtering with joy and amazement.

Dancing turds, Donald Trump, fast-food One World milkshakes including, well, a whizzed-up baby, intestines that reach into the audience and serve as a limbo stick and jump rope, a stereotypical maniacally laughing Japanese businessman no one but a countryman could get away with, a dancing, prancing Jesus Christ character complete with a crown of thorns — are you getting the gist of this?

So if you’re not revolted, by all means catch this one, which approaches a kind of kinked genius for the not-faint of heart. Now that’s it’s legal and as long as you’re not driving, might I suggest a dropper of Aurora oil to complement the show….

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And the kids came through! Raymond and the Monster, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Marc Horton

Raymond and the Monster.

By Marc Horton

Raymond and the Monster (Stage 16, Sanctuary Stage at Holy Trinity Anglican Church)

In the interests of full and complete disclosure, I must say that I didn’t want to review this play. What if the kids in Raymond and the Monster couldn’t sing? Couldn’t dance? Couldn’t act?

What if Raymond and the Monster was boring? Unwatchable? Awful?

If all those dire things turned out to be true, it would ruin next Christmas and many Christmases to come in our house; it would make my life hell on all sorts of levels. You see, my granddaughter Poppy has a role in Raymond and the Monster — she’s the cute 10-year-old in the blue smock — and it is very, very, very important to her.

I am unbelievably happy to report that Christmas in our house is safe, and that Raymond and the Monster and its cast of more than two dozen kids from age 8 to 15 are a thorough delight. These youngsters can sing, can dance, can act. This play is wonderfully inventive, superbly presented and undeniably funny.

Whew.

Full credit must go to directors Alyson Connolly and Elaine Dunbar who put this show together over the course of a nine-day camp. One can only admire the patience, the skill and the dedication required to fashion something as accomplished as this over the course of just a little over a week.

The seemingly simple story has villagers in an unnamed village in thrall to a wicked ruling duchess, played with a perfect blend of venality and menace by a terrific Pearl Philip. The duchess has convinced the villagers that she alone can control a monster held in her castle’s dungeon, but that keeping it penned up is costly indeed.

Thus, she taxes everything: milk, shoes, water, beds … children.

And should the parents not come up with the necessary gold pieces that are a head tax on their kids, well, things could get rough for everyone. The duchess has specific plans for all the loot she’s collecting. She wants to purchase the Camelon sceptre from her broke but aristocratic cousin and would-be sonneteer, the Count of Camelon, played with much charm by Ronan Faria

It seems that the only thing standing between the kids and being tossed into the dungeon is Raymond, the town scamp and an orphan who has no one to pay for him. He’s an inventive lad — Edward Bennett brings a proper impishness to the part — and while we all know things will likely turn out for the best, there’s a lot of fun to be had watching it all unfold as it should.

A word here about the music. There are some surprisingly strong voices in this young cast, notable among those is Chloe Brinco who plays the village seamstress and the mother of two, and Sam Michaelchuk, the town crier.

The best tune among the half dozen songs is The Sonnet Song written by Elaine Dunbar. It’s full of wonderful word play and manages to explain, more or less, the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and those of a more Petrarchan bent. I loved it.

—  Marc Horton is the former movie reviewer and books editor at the Edmonton Journal. We compared Fringe credentials with Poppy when they met for a post-show burger. His said “Media,” hers said “Artist.” Hers looked better.

 

 

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Full of sound and fury and signifying … you know. I Hate Shakespeare!, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Marc Horton

By Marc Horton

I Hate Shakespeare! (Stage 2, Backstage Theatre)

When Hamlet and Laertes face off at the end of Act V and engage in swordplay that will see bodies litter the stage, the would-be ref in the scrap judges one sword thrust as a “hit, a very palpable hit.”

I judge I Hate Shakespeare!, a 75-minute spoof that seems much, much longer, a “miss, a very palpable miss.” The six-member cast struggles, and struggles mightily, but to little avail before it all comes to a welcome end.

I checked my watch at about minute 20 and then regularly from then on. Trust me, the hands on my timepiece crept on at a petty pace from minute to minute to the last syllable of would-be satire.

The show is predicated on the fact that to many these days, the Bard is too wordy and the words he uses are too, well, old. (That criticism is, of course, silly. It’s akin to saying Mozart used too many notes or Rembrandt too much dark paint.)

Some parts of this skit-ish show come close to working. the cleverest of the lot involves bottling Shakespeare’s wit where come-uppance quips spew forth after gulping the equivalent of literary Red Bull. It works, and at least made me smile.

But another where Juliet appears on a dating game show was decidedly dated and shopworn. Ditto for another that lamely tried to use Jerry Springer as a hook. Who, pray, watches Springer anymore? Is he even a thing nowadays?

And a skit that attempts to mine Titus Andronicus for jokes doesn’t work either. It’s the Bard’s most bizarre play that involves hands, feet, tongues and heads being lopped off. There are folks ground up and baked into pies, and one hapless character buried chest deep and left to die of thirst and starvation.

Titus Andronicus is goofy enough all by itself. It doesn’t need help.

Unfortunately,  I Hate Shakespeare! does need help. The whole thing seems overwritten and sadly under-rehearsed. The timing too often lacks the rhythm that might have given some of the scenes more bite.

I didn’t hate I Hate Shakespeare!, but I sure didn’t like it much either.

Marc Horton is the former movie reviewer at the Edmonton Journal. His favourite Shakespeare-on-film is Laurence Olivier’s Richard III which proves he has an absurdly forgiving nature when it comes to hammy performances.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It ends in tears (and a minor key): The Legend of White Woman Creek, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

The Legend of White Woman Creek, The Coldharts.

The Legend of White Woman Creek  (Venue 3, Walterdale Theatre)

By Alan Kellogg

Fringe favourites New York’s The Coldharts – Katie Hartman and Nick Ryan – return to Edmonton reprising this song cycle that has played here twice before. Clever and accomplished though they certainly are, they might consider putting this one on the shelf of  Gothic American preserves for a time, at least here. And, it must be said, in spite of the fact that the cautionary tale couldn’t be more timely and resonating for Western Canadians. And this comes from a sincere admirer, who just bought the CD.

Things begin with an academic specializing in matters paranormal explaining that, after lighting candles in a circle, she will summon the spirit of Anna Morgan Faber.

Anna appears in a 19th century period frock wielding an acoustic six-string and proceeds to sing her tragic story. It begins in what is now West Virginia and travels west to Kansas and eventually back home. If you’ve never seen the Coldharts, by all means give this a shot, because they always provide something serious to admire. I’ll leave Anna’s ghost to tell you about her sad journey.

Hartman is a wonderful singer and competent finger-picker, and the storytelling here is crisp and understandable throughout, no simple task. The tale itself is also worthwhile, especially for white folks, grim as it is. I’d suggest a clown show (maybe not) or a visit to the beer tent for a bracer or two afterwards.

But many of the songs are in the same key and come off oddly repetitive, not to mention unrelentingly dirge-like. And the cumulative effect of all this somehow lessens the impact of the production. The Coldharts are always welcome here, but they might consider pulling something new out of their (period) valise next year. That said, the packed house loved it, and you may too.

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“What do you see?” Portrait of the artist as a waning star in Red, a Fringe review

Michael Peng and Braden Butler in Red. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Red (Stage 5, King Edward Elementary School)

At the outset of Red, a man stares out at us from the stage with such fierce unblinking intensity you might have to look away before his eyes drill a hole in you.

It’s the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. And, as Leigh Rivenbark’s wonderfully acted Wishbone Theatre production of Red begins, Michael Peng as Rothko is gazing at one of his paintings in such an active, penetrating, visceral way you suspect it might actually blister the colours right off the invisible canvas.

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“What do you see?” Rothko demands from his newly hired assistant Ken (Braden Butler), a young up-and-comer painter. That question is crucial to Rothko’s artist’s credo, his world view, his soci0-cultural engagement vis-a-vis his “audience.” Poor Ken. As you suspect from the start, he’s in tough no matter what he answers — and “red?” is definitely not going to get a gold star from the master, who’s dogmatic, confrontational, tyrannical, and blessed with a formidable gift of the gab. 

We’re where the sun don’t shine— in Rothko’s sealed New York studio in the late ‘50s. He’s working on a series of commissioned murals for the new restaurant in the Four Seasons. And he has lots to say, none of it good, about the kind of rich insensible philistines who are his clientele.   

As a theatrical prospect, Red could have been like watching paint dry, literally. But John Logan’s Tony Award-winning 2010 two-hander feels very active and alive. For one thing, there’s the excitement of the performances. Peng has never been better than here, as the bitter, mercurial, competitive, and witty artist who sense that his status as a titan in the art world is being supplanted by a new generation of artists. Newcomer Butler as the assistant is excellent, chronicling in a compelling way the arc by which the young man, at first cowed and humble, seems gradually to be energized and empowered as a spokesman for the “new.”

Rothko’s aphorisms, which have surprise stingers, are vigorous and enlivening — “Nature doesn’t work for me; the light’s no good.” His sense of humour has a signature Jewish sense of anti-climax. “We’re a smiling nation living under the tyranny of ‘fine’.” But he doesn’t just stand there yakking with Ken. The pair are actually, convincingly, at work in the authentically spattered, crammed studio space Daniel Van Heyst.

A canvas gets stretched on a frame; the primer gets cooked. And then, in an exhilarating moment (accompanied by triumphant orchestral music), the primer gets hurled at the red-hued canvas. And Rothko readies his brush, playing with the bristles, like Federer with his racket or Horowitz warming up for the Hammerklavier sonata. “There’s tragedy in every stroke,” he says. 

It’s a fast, muscular, stimulating 90 minutes in the theatre. And what better place than the Fringe to ask “what do you see?”. After all, a play that explores the relationship between art, artists, and audiences seems made for a festival like this one.

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