Have you heard the one about… Punch Up, a FRINGE REVIEW

Evan Hall and Perry Gratton in Punch Up. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Punch Up (Stage 9, Telus Phone Museum)

Punch Up is a classic joke set-up on legs. SO … The Most Pathetic Guy Ever kidnaps The Funniest Man Alive, so he can learn to make The Saddest Girl in the World Laugh.

The stakes are high. Life and death, actually. If the Most Pathetic Guy Ever (Perry Gratton) can’t get The Saddest Girl in the World (Merran Carr-Wiggin) to laugh, she will commit suicide. And he’ll have to help her do it, even though he’s fallen in love with her at first sight. That’s the deal.

And here’s the catch. The Most Pathetic Guy Ever, Duncan (Perry Gratton), a die-hard comedy nerd, is supremely unfunny. The simplest knock-knock joke is beyond his grasp. 

Duncan’s hostage, his second-favourite comedian Pat (Evan Hall), has his work cut out for him. Pat himself has lost his funny when his wife, the other half of his comedy act, dumped him and took his best jokes. And being chained to a typewriter in Duncan’s “super secret hideaway” has not lifted Pat’s spirits.

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By the Canadian playwright Kat Sandler and smartly directed by Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Punch Up is a funny comedy about comedy, about what’s funny and what’s not. What’s always been funny, historically? Is it still funny if you screw up the delivery? It’s a whirlwind catalogue of the classics — whoopee cushions, pratfalls, pies-in-the-face, Abbott & Costello, Mel Brooks, the Seinfeldian anecdote…. 

Merran Carr-Wiggin in Punch Up. Photo supplied.

The comedy of tragic excess is the Saddest Girl’s domain.  Brenda’s woe-filled biography is one personal tragedy after another, non-stop. And Pat and Duncan, the one exponentially exasperated and the other dimly eager and uncomprehending, are a classic two-man comedy act, of the vaudevillian stripe.

The actors, all-three, are excellent as characters trapped in a joke set-up. They bounce off each other at high-speed in Dowler-Coltman’s production, timed like a demented cuckoo clock and punched up to a farcical buzz-saw pace.    

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The acquisition of, well, in a word, joy! A Lesson in Brio, a Fringe review

Patricia Cerra, Jenny McKillop, Rachel Bowron, Mathew Hulshot in A Lesson in Brio, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A Lesson in Brio (Stage 12, Varscona Theatre)

The verdict is out on whether charm or perfect pitch, any more than a first-rate digestion, can be learned. But Stewart Lemoine’s A Lesson Brio, very timely in these glum times, proposes that brio can. And along with brio, its mystery corollary, charisma.

What delightful news. A lively and charming lecturer Dr. Guinevere (Jenny McKillop) beams at us from the empty stage, and explains that she’s a scholar (with a PhD) in these matters. And she assures us that “no theatrical artifice has been employed” in her step-by-demo of how brio (the contagious animation that attracts other people and changes lives) might be acquired.

This, of course, is completely (and hilariously) untrue). But A Lesson in Brio is so sly and smart, so artful about the ways it plays on either side of the fourth wall, that theatre jokes are effortlessly part of the comedy. 

You will enjoy the way Dr. Guinevere’s assistants — yes! played by real actors, surely the only way to “do” real life! — step in and out of their roles to present revealing scenes. Not least the “the part of the audience volunteer” played by Patricia (Patricia Cerra). 

The demo subject Ric, played by actor Mathew (the highly amusing Mathew Hulshof), would seem to be an difficult test case for Dr. Guinevere’s methodology. Not only is he listless (for reasons that will be revealed), but he is outstandingly dumb, too dumb too know he’s dumb. And when he’s kicked out of the car by his girlfriend Destiny on the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan for being dumb, the wheels for his reclamation into a more joyful life are set in motion.

The performances by actors playing actors playing test subjects are very funny; Lemoine is at his wittiest. And the situations set up in the play for resolution by Dr. Guinevere will make you laugh out loud. A sublime open-mike scene in Lloydminster — by no means a frequent location, I would hazard, for comic scenes that are out-and-out show-stoppers — stars Rachel Bowron as Rachel playing a singer-songwriter. Ditto flashbacks in which Dr. Guinevere revisits her formative childhood years, when she restored joy and the will to live to her widowed father in a series of educational initiatives that include conversational Welsh.

Wistfulness be gone. Finally, a comedy that’s actually about how to be more lighthearted and joyful. And it works! 


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Taking holy orders, holy smoke: Bad Habits, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Todd Babiak

Bad Habits, A Little Bit Off. Photo supplied.

Bad Habits(Stage 37, Auditorium at Campus Saint-Jean)

Sister Florence welcomes us postulates in a gruff accent, with a hint of New Jersey. It comes with a warning: entering the convent isn’t easy. Becoming a bride of Christ is not for everyone.

Life in the nunnery may be for one among us: Margarine Tub, a buck-toothed young woman with plenty of energy and a sincere love of the Lord. Sister Florence is sceptical but Margarine is a hard worker — if a bit too curious.

Sister Florence and Margarine Tub ride hoverboards — holy rollers — across the stage, as nuns do. When she is left alone to tidy the convent, singing, “Cleaning up, cleaning up for Jesus,” Margarine breaks one of the only rules: don’t read the bad book.

Enter the funniest, saddest Satan in history.

Amica Hunter (Margarine) and David Cantor (Sister Florence) are veterans of the Edmonton Fringe. Bella Culpa and Beau & Aero were just as funny and charming as Bad Habits, and just as naughty, but this is the first time they have mixed physical comedy with extensive dialogue.

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They’re so charismatic, so silly, and so intelligent it would be a fine hour of entertainment to watch them feed guinea pigs. Their take on religion isn’t satire, exactly, and they aren’t trying to teach us anything, which is a genuine relief. They’re theatre people who know we love theatre, who get their jokes about it, and don’t mind if the penguin sex scene doesn’t advance the plot.

Todd Babiak




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Joining the circus: Merk du Soleil, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Rebecca Merkley in Merk du Soleil, Dammitammy Productions. Photo supplied.

Merk du Soleil (Stage 21, El Cortez Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar)

Well, one thing about this show is its wonderful venue, the downstairs mine/vault of El Cortez, one of the city’s hippest, best-designed restaurants. There’s a bar down there and you can sip a nice drink as you ponder what the hell is going on onstage. Upstairs, tacos al pastor beckon.

It’s all in quotations, this one, and we shouldn’t be taking anything seriously. Whatever the concept, it’s basically a sort of wonky variety show, where sparkly, unitard-ed Merk (Edmonton playwright/ director/ co-designer Rebecca Merkley) keeps procrastinating from performing a death-defying trick. Helping her out in a series of bits and running gags — that include a terrible standup comic, an elephant guy, God Save the Queen whilst waving rainbow Pride banners, and so much, much more — are one-man-band Chet (Andrew Brostrom), Spruce Grove Boob E (Kristina Hunszinger) Spruce Grove Boob J (Josh Travnik).

It’s stupid, really stupid, and if that is the intent, so be it. These are actually talented, attractive, theatre-schooled players who can sing, dance and play with high energy and almost save this seemingly thrown-together, if studiously un-pretentious, muddle. If you’re looking for a 45-minute diversion (a drink helps) that will support some local actors and musicians, give it a whirl.

 — Alan Kellogg

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Behind the scenes in Bountiful, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Bountiful, Dammitammy Productions. Photo supplied.

Bountiful (Stage 35 L’Unithéâtre at La Cité francophone)

Surely there is a compelling theatre piece to be written and staged surrounding the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints community in Bountiful, B.C. For years, Warren Jeffs — the American “Prophet” of the breakaway Mormon faith, now serving a prison sentence in the U.S. — has been in the news along with his Canadian Bishop. In June, Bountiful’s Winston Blackmore (who was found to have taken two dozen wives) and James Ohler (five wives) were sentenced by a B.C. Supreme Court judge to house arrest and community service for practising polygamy.

And the idea to tell the story to a “gentile” audience via a conflicted but still-in-the-fold-church “sister” is a particularly inspired artistic decison, one made by Bountiful’s Edmontonplaywright/ designer/ director Rebecca Merkley. Heaven knows, the sect has had plenty of bad press, most of it richly deserved. But what does it look like from the inside? And from the perspective of women?

Merkley knows something about this from personal experience, too, as she grew up in nearby Creston, B.C. And as she points out in the program notes, the play is indeed inspired by real events.

There’s not much faulting the (generally) perfectly competent cast here, or even the direction or staging. There are indeed some winning musical moments. Actors Kayla Gorman, Jameela McNeil, Laura Raboud and Emma Wilmott give it their all. Gorman, the narrator, is particularly effective and McNeil delivers a typically strong turn. But they aren’t given many favours. Real people — even cultists — just don’t talk like this, do they?

No, the problem here is the storytelling, the script. It’s frankly all-too-often turgid, simplistic,  and doesn’t traverse the basic dialogue believability bar. And while we don’t expect to feel uplifted by the vicissitudes of the Bountiful FLDS, the mild depression you feel on the way out has less to do with a misguided, creepy and sometimes unlawful sect and its blinkered faithful, but with the sense that this is a well-intentioned, well-poised opportunity missed.

— Alan Kellogg

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The ultimate in home births: The Alien Baby Play, a Fringe review

Jessy Ardern in The Alien Baby Play, Impossible Mongoose. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The Alien Baby Play (Stage 3, Walterdale Theatre)

“Thank you so much for coming!” beams the cordial, slightly breathless woman we meet in The Alien Baby Play, the latest from Impossible Mongoose. “It means a lot you could come over….” She’s even made cookies.

We’re here to support Bethany in her hour of need. She’s 15 months pregnant, we’ve been invited to the birth, and tonight’s the night. The father will be on hand. And here’s the tricky (but intriguing) thing: he’s an alien.

Bethany, as she tells us, has had a devil of a time trying to figure out how overcome skepticism — even though the Virgin Mary set the precedent for impregnation by the other-worldly. She’s been battered by the prospect of disbelief, and thank god we are different!

Jessy Ardern fleshes out this theatrical premise — a character throwing herself on our mercy — in a dimensional performance that’s full of manic charm, and a kind of brisk forthright practical humour that’s well nigh irresistible. She’s a great performer.

And in Bethany she creates a memorable character up against the cosmic unknown, excitable, apprehensive about the future and yet somehow hopeful. The American playwright Nicholas Walker Herbert gives her a play to work with that opens up expands ease-fully into an odd, imaginative exploration of what it means to be an outsider in the world. And Corben Kushneryk’s Canadian premiere production gives her the room to breathe, to pause, and to reach out to connect with us, apparently on a one-on-one basis. Defences are futile when you’re at a home birth.

Bethany is a former Grade 3 teacher, with that kind of enthusiasm, who knows the value of a show-and-tell, a bulletin board, a pointer. Having retained her own, she values the “sense of wonder” in little kids, witness a devotion to the study ancient ruins visible only from the sky and impossible to explain in pragmatic terms.

The situation in which she finds herself in this oddball play is an invitation to elasticized, expansive thinking — about love, about being a parent, about being human. And it hits your heart in the strangest ways. 

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Puzzling out the paradox of identity: Fetch, a 12thnight Fringe review

Cat Walsh and Lora Brovold in Fetch, Interloper Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Fetch (Stage 28, The Playhouse)

Two women stand before us, in identical dresses, with identical hairdos, holding identical boxes. They are both named Hannah Morgan.

And in Cat Walsh’s clever new mind-bender, which turns the mystery of identity into a kind of unnerving horror story, they seem to be the same woman. And, like the cat in the box in the famous Schrödinger’s Cat quantum physics puzzle, she is both alive and dead.

Or not.

Both Hannah Morgans, played by Lora Brovold and the playwright herself in Suzie Martin’s production, and, weirdly, aware of each other, are haunted by defining moments of childhood. Which is, in itself, a resonant insight into the way the architecture of identities are built, elaborately, on something tiny and long gone. In the case of the two Hannah Morgans, who seem to be alternate versions of each other or mirror images, or doppelgangers, the moments are different, and so are the perspectives. But the location is the same: a Florida amusement park that was the destination of a family vacation of long ago.

“All accidents are a surprise but not all surprises are accidents.” Hold that thought. Or not.

One Hannah Morgan (Walsh) is breezier, apparently more chipper until she isn’t, as she recalls a childhood full of the aggravations of many older siblings. The other Hannah Morgan (Brovold), an only child, is grimmer, more defined at the outset by grievance and loss.

Both stories of growing up — and telling what it’s like to be the Hannah Morgan who grew up — are different, and also the same: they intersect from time to time. At one recurring intersection — and it gets creepier and more disturbing — is a small stuffed toy dog named Mr. Anderson.

Hold that thought. Or not.

Walsh, who gravitates to black comedy, is a witty writer. And in Fetch her writing for the Hannah Morgans as six-year-olds, you’ll be amused (and a little rattled) by her dark insights into the morbid kid mind, beautifully captured by the deadpan gravitas of the actors.

It’s a puzzle of a play, in a fascinating way, teasing and smart. There are many mysteries here, including the one in which there are alternative versions of you, running around telling people about your childhood from another angle. I will not be explaining Fetch; I can’t. I’ve asked my mind to Fetch, but it won’t Sit or Lie Down. 

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An experiment in other selves: Rig Pig Fantasia, a 12thnight Fringe review

Michael Anderson and Dave Horak in Rig Pig Fantasia, Wishbone Theatre. Photo by Laura O’Connor.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Rig Pig Fantasia (Stage 1, Westbury Theatre)

An eerie boreal forest of tall swaying translucent trees hangs from the sky. Sometimes they’re skeletal, backlit by an ominous red glow. Sometimes they seem to glow from within, lit by dreams and memory.

That’s where Chris Bullough’s new Rig Pig Fantasia happens, in its evocative, meandering, theme-and-variations way. And the design (Michael Peng with lighting by Anita Diaz) gets to the heart of it.

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It’s not called a “fantasia” for nothing. Rig Pig Fantasia isn’t a play built on a satisfying, recognizable infrastucture — two guys operating heavy oil machinery together, bonding, and learning a lesson, for example, or a man reinventing himself. It’s unhinged from those moorings, having a wander. Go with it. 

There are non-linear dance sequences next to visceral bar brawls, real-guy banter over T-Ho coffee next to memories, real-life morning-after romance scenes juxtaposed to scenes that a born-again artist is fashioning, and casting, from the raw materials of his life. 

All the characters have more than one self. Aaron (Dave Horak) and Brett (Michael Anderson) are the oil co-workers, a heavy machinery duo who party together on the weekends and have views on doughnuts. There’s an affectionate comic vaudeville between them as Brett remembers the world of his unfulfilled boyhood self, who loved to dance; Aaron flinches. And the friction escalates when Brett “meets someone.” She’s an artist (Laura Raboud) who inspires Brett to revisit his true self and has, it transpires, a surprising double-life too. The assumption that art and the natural world are born allies seems built in and, in truth, not questioned. 

The actors in Bullough’s Wishbone Theatre production are first-rate, all three. The chemistry, verbal and physical, is so believable in their scenes together that when the “plot” kicks in, I couldn’t entirely wrap my mind around its revelations.   

Anyhow, Rig Pig Fantasia has an experimental feel about it. It has a wide theatrical embrace — a mixture of real characters in dramatic encounters with their other possibilities (alter-egos, memories, alternative choices). There’s a kind of flickering incoherence about it (enhanced by the lighting). And, although it unspools itself a bit too far at the moment, maybe that jostling of position is the point.    

These days you can start a instant argument by saying the name “Fort McMurray” out loud: environment versus industry, saving the planet versus saving the economy. But the bedrock of the piece is that everyone actually does know at heart that fossil fuel consumption causes climate change, and the planet’s biological sustainability clock is ticking.

Even Aaron, the rig pig who argues fiercely for jobs and against tree-huggers and modern dance, knows it, it turns out. It’s what you do with that knowledge that counts. Witness this show. 

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Truth and Fiction: Stewart Lemoine’s The Many Loves of Irene Sloane, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Todd Babiak

Stacey Grubb and Marissa Tordoff in The Many Loves of Irene Sloane. Photo by Russ Hewitt.

The Many Loves of Irene Sloane (Stage 12, Varscona Theatre)

“Chaos will yield to order,” says Irene Sloane, played by Marissa Tordoff. “Music always makes it so.”

In Stewart Lemoine’s universe, this is what music does. And for audiences, this is often the effect of Stewart Lemoine’s alterations on humanity: in his plays we are more thoughtful, more polite, more considerate, and more imaginative than in that other, less ordered world outside the theatre.

The Many Loves of Irene Sloane begins with an introductory book club meeting, where the majority of the members fail to read the book. Yet even in this familiar situation, the not-terribly-literary members speak with an impossibly elevated, self-aware vocabulary that makes us want to escape the like, um, uh, you know, polluted dialogue of the, like, real world?

Nick, played by Ed Picard, is the convenor of the disappointing club. Just when he is about to break it up for the evening, a surprise member arrives. Kristen, played by Jill Gamez, has not only read the book. She has brought her grandmother’s short, unfinished manuscript — The Many Loves of Irene Sloane — for her fellow book club members to read.

They do, and we see the play-within-a-play: Irene and her new amanuensis, the lively Lucette Sans Souci, played by Morgan McClelland, are interrupted by the mysterious Wolcott Smythe, played by Mark Facundo, who pursues Irene for the wrong reasons.

Kristen’s grandmother’s story is not satisfying to the book club members, but in anticipation of one line of dialogue from it haunting them forever they rewrite The Many Loves of Irene Sloane in front of us — with delight and gentle surprise.

Todd Babiak









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Check in at the Hotel Vortruba! A guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Hotel Vortruba, Ragmop Theatre. Photo supplied.

Hotel Vortruba (Stage 37, Auditorium at Campus Saint-Jean)

Welcome to the Hotel Vortruba. You can check out any time you want — but you’ll never want to leave.

Vancouver’s RAGMOP Theatre, who dazzled audiences here last Fringe with Falling Awake, isback with a terrific new production that falls under the somewhat dry rubric of physical comedy, but in fact expertly skips across the genres to delightful effect.

Nayana Fielkov, her character shlepping a road-weary suitcase, resplendent in a double-breasted houndstooth coat — and coming off like a particularly manic Roz Chast character with a Bride of Frankenstein coiffure — has a bit of a time attempting to ding the hotel desk bell. It happens, after a series of yuk-laden  turns.

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From the depths of the check-in counter emerges limb by limb the long, lanky form of her innkeeper, played by Matthew “Poki” McCorkle, who sports a dubious tux and Phantom-style mask. Outside, the elements are howling, along with occasional stage smoke (that produces a different sort of effect here in Hades this week, but still works). Throughout the story, the two emit a wide variety of sounds — singing wordlessly Cirque-and otherworldly-style, gurgling, muttering, grunting, gargling and more. Only very rarely ( as Mump and Smoot do so well)  do they break into a word or two of English, and to hilarious effect. The audience is enlisted at times to help out, and that works, too.

It seems wrong to go into much detail about the vignettes forever kinking the normal comings and goings of a hotel sojourn. Bending the quotidien dross is a huge part of the charm here. And the two (along with an unforgettable mechanical friend) roll it off with consummate dispatch. The staging involving multiple moveable carts is particularly innovative.

The pair are also impressive magicians, as you will discover. But I will say the pas de deux with a certain creature supposedly rare in this province marks a kind of theatrical first. While we’re at it, let’s toss a bouquet to Soren Olsen, who co-directed with the cast and delivers a first-rate sound design.

We don’t do stars around this operation. But this is about as entertaining as it gets at any Fringe, anywhere. Book it.

Alan Kellogg


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