Insights honed to a knife edge: Horseface, a Fringe review

Alex Dallas, Horseface, PKF Productions. Photo supplied

Horseface (Stage 14, La Cité Auditorium)

By Liz Nicholls,

At the heart of this whip-cracking solo show is a smile — wide, tight-lipped, ambiguously ulterior. This is what seething looks like when it’s smiling.

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In this funny sharp-eyed solo memoir by and starring Alex Dallas — Fringe audiences will remember her from the late lamented feminist comedy troupe Sensible Footwear — she is fuming. But since she’s English, which means operating under the mantra “don’t make a fuss,” there’s an air of cordiality — with homicidal top notes. Even as a little girl, Dallas recalls, she had recurring nightmares about wolves encircling the house “out there in the dark, biding their time.” And the older she got the more she understood what they meant.

The wolves are men — teachers, colleagues, boyfriends, friends of friends, strangers, university professors, celebrities at the Toronto Film Festival. “My mother never told me I would become prey,” she says, revisiting her childhood household, with its paternal secrets and stiff upper lips. And at the age of 64, she’s fed up and furious.  

Manspreading is the recurring trigger (euww, there’s a phrase I wish I hadn’t used) for this spirited review of the outrageous presumption of the predatory male. She unspools back to a seminal moment, at single-digit age, and the paunchy old school teacher who calls a little classmate friend “a stupid lump of a girl, a horseface.” The show was born at that moment; young Dallas stood up and told the bully to fuck off, and got ejected from class for her pains. 

It starts young, the closing in, the groping, the lewd come-ons, the assaults, the near-rapes — in metal work class, in restaurant kitchens in 5-star hotels, on public transportation, at Labour Party rallies for heaven’s sake. And Dallas is unsparing about reviewing the humiliating compliances required, in her ‘20s, to be “a cool girlfriend” and “pixie dream girl, funny, bubbly….” An expert storyteller, she makes of this chronicle, decade by decade, a wincing sort of black comedy. No wonder she’s “obsessed” with true crime. 

Anger isn’t very often a sustaining drive on the stage. But Dallas has a brisk, fierce delivery, contained in a crystalline English idiom (that smile is dangerously amusing). Which gets us back to manspreading and a recurring question in Horseface. Is it ever OK to kick a man in the balls?

Depends on the circumstances, that’s all I’ll say. 

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And put your hands together for … Jesus Teaches Us Things, a Fringe review

Rebecca Merkley in Jesus Teaches Us Things, Dammitammy Productions. Photo supplied.

Jesus Teaches Us Things (Stage 16, Sue Paterson Theatre, Campus Saint Jean)

By Liz Nicholls,

You’ve got to hand it to Jesus. He’s more famous for his exits, right? (well, exit singular really). But the guy really knows how to make a big entrance.

“We will we will save you!” Enter Jesus, rocking in Queen-ly fashion, tossing that big hair of his, exuding showbiz charisma right down to his Crocs. The crowd, all of us Grade 2s at the Christian Bible Assembly, put our hands together. His middle initial H is for Hardcore. 

Rebecca Merkley in Jesus Teaches Us Things, Dammitammy Productions. Photo supplied

In Rebecca Merkley’s very funny, inspired show, directed by Christine Lesiak, Jesus is stepping in as substitute teacher today; Pastor Greg (Adam Keefe), with his mild-mannered pastor’s air, and tithe bucket (10 per cent, just like an agent), hopes he’ll “stay on curriculum” this time. “Awwright!” A real old-school crowd-pleaser from way back, Jesus gets the rock rolling with a couple of quick miracles (the secret is safe with me). With the promise of more to come “Awwright, I could resurrect Meat Loaf….”

Hey, new dimensions here, maybe a re-branding? Jesus has a reputation for those morose, not to say depressive, gazes (not that you blame him) — with long straight listless hair to match. Who knew that he had so much showbiz energy and sparkle? Or a sense of humour? Or that his hair had so much body? 

Merkley, who has stage pizzaz for days, along with one of those big brash vaudeville comic-type voices, is an exuberant performer. She clowns around with the audience in a good-humoured all-embracing way. Her playground in Jesus Teaches Us Things is the territory, mined for smart satire, between religion and perky elementary school teaching techniques.

We’re improvising together. Hey, we learn a campfire action song, “crack the whip, chop the tree, hit the nail.” There’s a whole theology in that. There’s arts and crafts time. And Jesus takes questions from the class. Can you explain the trinity? asks one of my classmates. A tough one; Jesus puts in a call to his dad. Merkley is funny and very quick on the uptake.  

Keefe hits exactly the right notes as the bland pastor in the beige cardigan who puts a smile of well meaning-ness on his face at will, and is just a bit behind the beat. He pops in occasionally to check up on the lively substitute teacher. Are you learning anything? he asks us, with a hint of the accusatory. “Yes Yes!” we declare. “Luke 10, verse 3!” 

It all feels kind of celebratory. Which might even be the point.   

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Inner critics be gone! Ellie Heath takes charge in Fake n’ Bake, a Fringe review

Ellie Heath in Fake n’ Bake, Edmonton Fringe 2022. Photo supplied.

Fake n’ Bake (Stage 28, Lorne Cardinal Theatre at the Roxy)

By Liz Nicholls,

Here’s a solo show for a likeable, vivacious woman, who arrives onstage to tell us a story, wow, trailing her own personal Greek chorus. They’re an assortment of inner critics, glowing beacons of negativity, bad ideas, and hopelessness, happy to tell Ellie Heath how she screwed up, how “awkward, pathetic, and weak” she is. Self-esteem, be gone!

Ellie Heath, creator and star of Fake n’ Bake, Fringe 2022. Photo supplied.

They’re right there, shining through the outsized McBurger, McMilkshake and McFries cutouts onstage (designer: Tessa Stamp), reminding her helpfully that the obvious way to shed  weight from an already very delicate frame, no problem, is to eat even less and exercise even more. Inspirational, really, how they remind her of the childhood bullies who chanted “fake n’ bake, fake n’ bake, ass ass patty cake.” What are friends for, eh?

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In all the dialogues that Heath will have in her first solo-written play — Ellie and her dad, Ellie and a skeptical ER nurse, Ellie and doctors — it’s the inner critics circle who step up with immediate helpful answers to any confusion or anxiety. Substitute booze for food, add pills, start smoking.… That way you can get an eating disorder and a whole chain of addictions all at the same time. And then you can enhance your anxiety level, by your ingenuity at hiding all of the above. 

The repertoire of Fringe artists telling personal horror stories onstage is quite lengthy, to tell you the truth. What sets Fake n’ Bake and the production directed by Kristi Hansen apart is its inventive storytelling and vivid theatricality; it has a reason to be on a theatre stage. Despite its serious subject matter it’s downright fun and funny.

Heath is a terrific performer, as you already know if you’ve watched comedy sketches by the Heath and her Girl Brain cohorts. You really want her to win. She deserves to win. One day she looks that chorus of hers in the “eye” and takes charge. And you want to cheer.

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Celebrating a vibrant culture erased by homophobia: The Pansy Cabaret from Guys in Disguise, a Fringe review

Daniel Belland and Zachary Parsons-Lozinski in The Pansy Cabaret, Guys in Disguise. Photo by Ian Jackson.

The Pansy Cabaret (Stage 27, Nancy Power Theatre at the Roxy)

By Liz Nicholls,

You just can’t go through the world assuming that drag shows will have overtures that are collections of vintage jaunty Edwardian songs played from a grand piano by an expert pianist (Daniel Belland by name). And you can’t expect “poignant” to be called upon to describe a show with that many sequins and a giant stiletto onstage. 

A century ago, in New York, in pansy bars, music halls, and pansy cabarets, on Broadway stages and in vaudeville, queer and gender fluid performers were putting it out there, in funny, playful songs and cheeky comedy routines. They were the highest-paid entertainers of the time, in a showbiz town.

Bert Savoy, 1929, The Pansy Cabaret, Guys in Disguise. Photo supplied.

The Pansy Cabaret captures that period when joyful expression and freedom seemed possible, and welcome. Guys in Disguise’s Darrin Hagen, a queer history researcher of note, has unearthed this fascinating and, he thinks, little known story. And it’s performed by a real sparkler of an entertainer, Lilith Fair (aka Zachary Parsons-Lozinski). She captures the sound and cadence of a century ago, feelingly. And she also salts the betweens and sometimes the middles with very funny contemporary winks and asides. .

The show opens, for example, with an amazing ode for a lost love by one of the period’s biggest stars, Daryl Norman (his mom made his costumes). And it’s followed by Ray Bourbon’s cheery “I’m back in drag again….  I’ve never like squeezing into BVD’s or shorts. Unless they’re on someone else.” 

Zachary Parsons-Lozinski in The Pansy Cabaret. Photo supplied.

Ms. Fair, who’s lightning quick on the uptake, has fun with the audience, even in a formal theatre. And she annotates with explanations, the origins of camp for one — a drag queen shield for “gender warriors” as she put it. 

The end of Prohibition was the abrupt end of the Pansy Craze and all its richness. Suddenly, a vibrant, witty culture died; access to stages and bars for homosexuals was verboten, by law. In Europe the countdown to the lethal perils of Nazism was underway.

And the queer voices that had sung songs and cracked jokes, vanished; they were silenced in a single decade.

The Pansy Cabaret is a celebration of that giddy, brave culture, a window into what once was…. We’re in Alberta, a slender border away from the steady grind toward repression. The moment is now for us to make sure that legacy doesn’t slip away.  

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The underwater world of depression: Pressure, a Fringe review

Sydney Williams in Pressure, Nextfest Arts Company. Photo supplied.

Pressure (Stage 28, Lorne Cardinal Theatre at the Roxy)

By Liz Nicholls,

Grace has somehow lost her footing on terra firma. She’s underwater, immersed in another element, fathomless, paralyzing, pressurized, where the ordinary rules of engagement do not apply. She knows how to swim, but the temptation to let go once she’s submerged, is almost overwhelming.

Pressure, a new and convincingly tough-minded play by the up-and-comer Amanda Samuelson, premiering at the Fringe as Nextfest’s first official cross-festival foray, looks for a theatrical way to explore depression. And the spikiest of the insights it sets forth might well be that the loving concern of everyone around Grace (Sydney Williams) — her stellar mom (Sue Huff), her patient partner and soon-to-be ex Ricky (Meegan Sweet) —  who do everything right and are standing by, hands outstretched, are pressure too.

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The play is unflinching in its presentation of depression as a self-fed all-consuming relentlessly inward gaze. And in Emma Ryan’s production, you believe all the characters.  Williams, a terrific newcomer, doesn’t shy away from that harsh light. She’s very convincing. So is Huff as a mother whose veneer of cheerfulness gives way to whole depths of terror. Sweet is excellent, too, as an empathetic partner. The fabric of the play is a long un-chronological series of scenes that are not easy to watch, in which Grace, ever more brutally, dismisses love, treats everyone around her badly, worse and worse, and knows it. Get out, she tells her people. “I need to be alone.” Further justification for guilt and self-loathing. Signs of success in her chosen field? Grace’s play has been accepted for an Off-Off Broadway production in New York (New York!). But that’s pressure too. “I feel like I’m a fake.” 

Grace’s horoscopes (she’s looking for signs of validation in the universe) are one of the framing devices of the play. They get grimmer. Today: “you are a big fat failure.” Tomorrow: “avoid being too emotional, and being a burden on others.” They’re a veritable  archive of self-loathing en route to, well, self-removal from the scene.  The other framing device is a series of un-mailed letters to her long-absent father, an angry and vicious guy you glean, who behaved terribly to his family. Is his awfulness an inherited trait? Grace wonders.

Emma Ryan’s production lets this incremental declension into paralysis take its time; it’s full of thoughtful and ominous pauses and delayed reactions (Grace only says “bye” after someone has already closed the door).

The experience is a bit exhausting, in truth, because, like depression itself, it moves slowly and sneaks up on you glacially. Serious depression takes time, and Pressure is fulsome and ambitious that way. Can Grace turn things around? And how? Is there a bottom to misery that isn’t suicide?

There’s a mystery attached to those questions. Did I fully understand it? Actually, no. But you need to see it through. No pressure.





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Meowsa! Grindstone gets its paws all over the sacred Broadway canon: (Thunder)CATS, a Fringe review

(Thunder)CATS, Grindstone Theatre. Photo supplied.

(Thunder)CATS (Stage 18, Luther Centre)

By Liz Nicholls,

In this inspired piece of Cats burglary, the forces that brought us Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer get their paws all over a musical theatre blockbuster that’s had way more than nine lives. As the New York Times ads used to say,‘Cats is forever’. They weren’t wrong, grammatical considerations aside. And that’s more than enough Lycra to reach to the heavyside layer and back.

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Grindstone Theatre’s Byron Martin and Simon Abbott, with Curtis den Otter, who evidently don’t think kitten-size, have created a rumpus of an original musical satire that marries the Broadway mega-mouser musical that everyone in modern society has seen to the obscure (OK, obscure to me) ‘80s TV cartoon Thundercats. 

Who would think of doing this? The sheer lunacy is pretty irresistible, in truth. And the plot Martin and co have concocted — Thunderians fleeing their home planet, hanging out waiting for instructions from the ghost of their leader and choosing a ThunderCat to be renewed, or “re-animated for modern TV” or something — makes at least as much sense as the ‘storyline’ (to speak grandly of something about as substantial as a kibble) in Cats. And probably more. Additionally, it’s a lot funnier.

Anyhow, sense is not what either Cats (conclusion: “a cat is not a dog”), or this cleverly silly musical satire, is after. It’s about singing and dancing, and big ‘80s cat hair and Lycra cat butts. It’s about inventively dropping unmistakeable riffs from the Lloyd Webber Cats cat-alogue, with spiky, raunchy new lyrics. On display are sexy feline moves ramped up (choreographer Sarah Dowling), a big battle, stage fighting with a mystical sword. 

“Limelight, turn your face to the stage light…”  Yup, plus a memorable version of Mammaries from Stephanie Wolfe as the Grizabella of the piece, past her prime time poor thing, “only seen in old re-runs.” Donovan Workun is the much-awaited Jaga The Wise (oh, was that a spoiler?). Kudos to David Son, Owen Bishop, Paul-ford Manguelle, Kristin Unruh, and the unstoppable blue “mechanical cat” Brennan Campbell.  

It’s not easy to parody something that’s already silly; you’ve got to be smart to pull it off. The whole kit-and-caboodle can sing, and they can dance in way that fully justifies all that Lycra. The three-member band, led by Abbott, is hot. This one’s got its scratch marks all over “hit.” An outrage really, in the best possible ways.

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‘There’s always a heartbeat’: the original magic of Salsa Lesson, a Fringe review

Andrea House, Brittany Ward in Salsa Lesson. Photo by Jae Hoo Lee,

Salsa Lesson (Stage 25, Spotlight Cabaret)

By Liz Nicholls,

It may be true, as the singer tells us, that “there’s always a heartbeat even when you can’t hear it.” But you can, you can…. The irresistible rhythms of salsa pulse through this enchanting original multi-lingual “storytelling concert” from Stardust Players (Chasing Willie Nelson, Forget Me Not). 

The joint creation of the multi-talented actor/singer-songwriter Andrea House and jazz composer/pianist Chris Andrew, Salsa Lesson is a story that’s both expansively open-ended and as intensely precise as the houses on your block of your junior high classmates. It’s something you could never expect to find anywhere at the Fringe; you just have to be happy when you do.

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Salsa Lesson is of this place. Its music (and musicians and dancers) are cross-cultural. Its story has Edmonton locales, the drive past 23rd to Millwoods, past the Superstore and the MacDonalds…. Performed in Spanish mostly but also French, and English by House — an artist who wraps her supple voice easily around jazz, Latin, blues — the songs emerge in a strangely apt way in a story about divorce, aging, middle-aged uncertainty, chances lost, memories unearthed. And the story is told, in a kind of rhyming spoken-word rap — the program calls it, amusingly, “mom-rap” — to a musical score.  

The hot passionate pulse of salsa is led by the superb three-member band — pianist Andrew, percussionist Raul Gomez Tabera and bassist Rubim De Toledo — and accompanied by dancer/choreographer Brittany Ward partnering with guests from the Latin dance community. It heightens the stakes, and emotional possibilities, of a tale that the teller fears is just a cliché: crappy childhood, middled-aged, cheating husband, younger woman, “shit happens,” divorce … you know. “I’m a predictable stereotype,” she tells us. “I just really over-shared there.” 

The storyteller’s kids post her plight online behind her back— “our mom is sad and needs a boyfriend.” And she meets a Chilean man that way. Oscar tells her that they went to junior high together and he was in love with her. And here’s the spark of ignition: a friend with “a Groupon coupon” propels her into a salsa class. “I don’t want to feel bad no more … I don’t want to be sad no more.”

The writing is witty, the rhymes are fun, the spirit is rueful, the memories of her awkward junior high self are wincingly funny. “This isn’t our first rodeo,” she says of a brave foray with a girlfriend to a junior high Valentine’s Dance, in borrowed boobs. “It’s our second.”

Then passionate, emotionally exuberant Spanish songs of love, longing, and heartbreak, erupt and frame things in moonlight.  

Director Davina Stewart figures out how to put it all together, and House’s performance is both sly and open-hearted. You’ll feel lucky to be there.  

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A girls weekend in Sin City: what could go wrong? Destination Vegas, a Fringe review

Destination Vegas, Whizgiggling Productions. Photo by Justin Gambin.

Destination Vegas (Stage 1, Westbury Theatre)

By Liz Nicholls,

The premise of Trevor Schmidt’s new comedy is right there, amusingly (in front of a cactus) for all the world to see, from the first lights-up moment of Destination Vegas. 

Three women, in their sparkly on-the-town party dresses, are onstage, handcuffed together. Now there’s a tickling sort of stagecraft challenge for the playwright, who also directs this Whizgiggling production. An action adventure in which the participants are chained together, start to finish?

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It implies, strongly, that the question ‘what could go wrong?’ has already been answered. And it hints, also quite strongly, that what happens in Vegas does indeed stay in Vegas. They’re in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night, digging a shallow grave big enough for three, highly motivated by a man with a gun. (Gratuitous life coach suggestion: maybe they should have seen a Cirque du Soleil show instead of hitting the casino). 

It seemed like a good idea at the time, three employees of Pennywise grocery deciding to have a girls weekend in Sin City to use up their vacation time owing before it’s yanked by the forces of conglomerate capitalism. 

Paula (Cheryl Jameson), who has an enigmatic tattoo possibly acquired behind bars, is a dab hand with numbers (and, you know, counting things, like money or maybe cards); the getaway is her idea. Charmaine (Kristin Johnston) is a Russian emigré with an exotic accent, and a dark history as a serial widow. She’s looking for Mr. Next while “I’m still young and very beautiful.” 

Marcie (Michelle Todd) is the naif of the trio, a mom loathe to leave the twins with her hubbie. But hey, it’s not her first Vegas rodeo. “I used to be a dancer in a Vegas magic show,” she reveals. Her dimbulb reactions to every dark development, accompanied by “shut up Marcie!” from Paula, have a hilarity all their own. 

Destination Vegas is a sort of backward-spooling caper, that involves blackjack tables and sinister guys named Sting or Snake. The plot doesn’t have the intricacy of last Fringe’s Whizgiggling production, Trevor Schmidt’s Destination Wedding.   

It’s light and fun, though. The writing is funny. The staging of necessity involves amusing choreography (it pretty much nails the concept “ensemble”). And the interplay of three skilled actors is something entertaining to seek out, like a mai tai with an umbrella.

I mean, no one goes to Vegas for King Lear, right?   

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From the shower into the fray: Underbelly, a Fringe review

Nayana Fielkov in Underbelly, Ragmop Theatre. Photo supplied.

Underbelly (Stage 4, Walterdale Theatre)

By Liz Nicholls,

Some days are like that, don’t you find? What starts gaily with singing in the shower has a way of turning into a day when your monster hat becomes an actual monster, swallows you, and horks you out whole with mighty retches of digestive turmoil.

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Come to think of it, Underbelly is a clown show with an oral fixation. In the course of this mouth-centric free-associative fantasy by and starring the malleable clown Nayana Fielkov of Ragmop Theatre, singing turns into gargling. In magnified projections on the light-up shower curtain that’s the stage centrepiece, a formidable range of jagged teeth will be brushed, in close-up. Lipstick will be applied slo-mo to lips that become giant kissy lips. A nose is picked with a toilet brush. Miles of string will emerge from a mouth. Severed limbs will be gobbled up. Light-up eyes will be disgorged. Finger food that’s  fingers will be consumed. Inner rumblings and retching and spewing are a major part of the soundtrack.

The doorbell rings from time to time. Is a hot date at hand? “Coming!” trills our protagonist who doesn’t, distracted by her own fantasies. 

Clowns seem to be, by nature, free-associaters. By the time our protagonist arrives onstage in the flesh from behind the shower curtain after a lengthy set-up, the toilet brush that’s been up a nostril will become a  microphone, and red lipstick and shower-singing will transform her into a Frenchified chanteuse (gargling turns into those sexy Piaf rrrrr’s). Or the brush is a conductor’s baton and the audience will turn into the orchestra.

In Underbelly, the performer, playful and inventive as she is, works awfully hard at engaging the audience. Too hard, maybe. It’s one thing to acknowledge the audience, but the more the character labours to involve us, the more she seems to step outside the fantasy framework of the show. And the more we see it as a best-of demo series of clownly inventions. 

They’re well done, of course; Underbelly is a chance to see an expert clown at work. And there’s amusement in that.  

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Redemption in the loop of time: How I Met My Mother, a Fringe review

Jon Paterson, How I Met My Mother. Photo supplied.

How I Met My Mother (Stage 16, Sue Paterson Theatre at Campus Saint-Jean

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight,ca

As we know from the moment in history we’ve touched down in, something’s gone haywire with time. It stands perfectly still, awaiting the Restart button. Or it loops backwards, takes its own timeout, then lurches forward. Or else it’s weirdly compressed into the present moment.

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All of these things happen in Jon Paterson’s How I Met My Mother. It’s the first solo show the 25-year Fringe veteran has ever written by himself, and it’s a show for two. In it he tells the most personal of stories: how his unruly teenager self, desperate to be bad-ass cool, cruelly tests the remarkable patience of his long-suffering mom. And how that self-centred kid, who’d get so mad he punched holes in the wall when the Winnipeg Jets lost to the Oilers, eventually became his mother’s care-giver for a time when she was stricken with early onset dementia. 

It’s a story of redemption. And the charismatic Paterson, who’s always had a dangerous energy onstage, doesn’t spare his younger self, as he recounts, in vivid detail, his transgressions. Lies, food fights, joy rides, and worse…. In the production directed by Vanessa Quesnelle, he re-creates a party that turned out to be a nightmare of destruction. 

In a counterpoint of scenes, these tales of a terrible youth alternate with scenes in which Paterson struggles to be a care-giver and make amends. By that time he’s an actor on the Fringe circuit — “trying to make a living as an independent theatre artist, don’t laugh” — and the only person in his family who doesn’t have A Real Job. One of the touching things about How I Met My Mother is seeing how an  artist applies his creative wits to making the world entertaining for someone whose abilities to understand and react are on the decline. Little things, like a trip to Starbucks, grow as his mom’s frontiers shrink. And there’s real valiance in Paterson’s effort to improvise small-scale excitement in an ever-flatter landscape of a life. 

Which returns us to the subject of time. As it slows down to an eternal present moment for Paterson’s mother, whose memory bank, emptied of short-term content, flips directly into the past long-gone, his own memories unspool. They return again and again to family Christmases, and to the Fringe. 

Paterson’s mom, his biggest supporter, stage managed, promoted, helped with his productions across the country. And now, it transpires, we’re in a Paterson show at the Fringe, sitting in the Sue Paterson Theatre at the College Saint-Jean, named after her. It’s a conjuring turn, Paterson’s homage to the mom he regained only to lose her again in the wordless mists of dementia. She seems to have returned to the theatre; he thinks so.

You won’t get a warmer welcome into a theatre anywhere at the Fringe.   

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