Edmonton Fringe 2017: what to see at our big summer theatre bash

My Love Lies Buried in the Ice, Dead Rabbits Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

So… what looks good?

Yes, my friends, the Fringe, Edmonton’s favourite summer festival, is back Thursday, in the town where the continent’s fringe phenom began. A Midsummer Night’s Fringe, the 11 day-and- night 36th annual edition of North America’s first and still biggest fringe, has more choices than ever. 

The 144-page Fringe program is a fat and weighty tome, to be sure. But don’t be daunted by the prospect of launching yourself into an unpredictable 220-show universe. Be curious and get excited instead. Scatter the classic four-word Fringe question “so, what looks good?” freely, wherever you go. I went to the Winnipeg Fringe last month to check out some of the 42 shows that are arriving here after playing there, so 12thnight.ca will be posting reviews of those, soon. Some of the Fringe’s biggest hits, shows I’ve enjoyed before at Edmonton Fringes past, are returning: check out the 12thnight.ca companion post on those. Meanwhile, have a look at some intriguing prospects below. I haven’t seen them yet; we can explore together. 

Some caught my eye because of the play itself. Sometimes the draw is the adventurous artists involved; sometimes an experimental premise that seems to come at us direct from left field. At Fringe time, the question “whaaaaat? who would do that?” is an attraction, not the reverse.

So, 12thnight.ca has 12, no 13, possibilities for you to consider….

April Banigan and Kristi Hansen in The Superhero Who Loved Me. Photo by Mat Simpson.

The Superhero Who Loved Me. How could you not want to see Chris Craddock’s first new Fringe play in six years? The award-winning author of Irma Voth returns to the festivities with The Superhero Who Loved Me, which would seem to invite the Craddockian love of theatricality, black comedy, and cartoons.  Wayne Paquette of Blarney Productions directs April Banigan and Kristi Hansen.

Gruesome Playground Injuries. Star Canadian director Ron Jenkins is back at the Fringe after an absence of 10 years, for a production of this two-hander by Pulitzer Prize nominee Rajiv Joseph. Merran Carr-Wiggin and Evan Hall, who are evidently injury magnets, return to the roles they first occupied in 2012 as 23-year-olds in Sandra M. Nicholls’ production.

Merran Carr-Wiggin and Evan Hall in Gruesome Playground Injuries. Photo supplied.

Now 28, the real-life couple play Gayleen and Doug, whose friendship over 30 years can be charted in blood and bruises, cuts and breaks, a whole anatomical gallery of damages. Carr-Wiggin and Hall plan to keep returning to the play at the same intervals the characters meet, till they’re 38, as in the play’s finale. That’s a lot of blood. 

Louise Casemore and Vern Thiessen in Gemini. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

Gemini. There was a time when Fringe BYOVs were repositories of site-specific theatre. It’s rare these days, but Louise Casemore’s artist brain still ticks that way. She “loves the intimacy, the obliteration of the divide between performers and audience.” Her OCD was a nerve-wracking expedition into that territory. Her latest is specially designed for a bar, the lower level at El Cortez Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar, “as close to an ambient bar environment as I can get.” 

Her first two-hander explores bar culture, the relationships it forges, its dependencies. And there’s this: Casemore co-stars opposite the award-winning playwright (and Workshop West artistic director) Vern Thiessen, in a rare stage appearance. 

 Kill Shakespeare. Based on the hit comic books by Conor McCreary and Anthony Del Col, this live radio play (with blow-up projections from the graphic series) imagines Shakespeare’s star heroes and villains outside their plays, and gives them an action adventure/thriller to be in. Will the expeditionary force led by Richard III, Iago and Lady M find the mysterious recluse William Shakespeare and assassinate him? Will the rebel movement led by plucky Juliet and Falstaff save him? Andrew Ritchie of Thou Art Here, the quick-witted “site-sympathetic” Shakespeare company, directs us and them towards the answer. No dithering from Hamlet, please.

Belinda Cornish, Ron Pederson, Louise Lambert in No Exit. Photo by Ryan Parker.

No Exit. “Nothing says summer like Sartre!” declares the puckish Ron Pederson.

OK, who does Sartre at the Fringe? Who has ever done Sartre at the Fringe? Bright Young Things’ production of No Exit, a 1944 play by the French existentialist bigshot assembles three strangers … in hell. “They know that’s where they are: an ugly room, badly furnished,” says Pederson, originally the director and now in the cast (along with Belinda Cornish and Louise Lambert; Kevin Sutley directs). “They’re unsure of what the nature of hell is, and what the torture will be….”

“Who knew that the author of Being and Nothingness would be so great at unpacking a story?” says Pederson. “It’s a real puzzle for actors,” says Cornish, artistic director of Bright Young Things, dedicated to reviving the neglected mid-century repertoire. “There’s meat to it, a bit of wrestling, and some really funny moments of comedy.”

Pompeii, L.A. Edmonton’s introduction to the young Australian playwright Declan Greene comes courtesy of Cardiac Theatre (Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes). Director Harley Morison describes it as a “collage,” a tumble into the “magical, weird, toxic” Wonderland of L.A. and Hollywood, celebrity, and “the machine that eats up child stars and spits them out.

“”It’s like flipping through channels on TV,” he says. Or “a sound stage, where you open one door, and there’s Judy Garland, another and it’s Johnny Carson, a whole B-list of stars.…” Of Morison’s six actors, five have two or three roles. 

My Love Lies Frozen in the Ice. “A tale of love, loss and madness” from the English company, Dead Rabbits Theatre, who brought us The Dragon last summer. I loved the ingenious theatricality of their storytelling, and its playfulness in that fable. This new show sounds magical and inventive, too: A balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1897, three men and the woman they left behind. Sign me up.

Madelaine Knight in With Glowing Hearts: A Canadian Burlesque Review. Photo supplied.

With Glowing Hearts. Haven’t we waited long enough for a burlesque revue of Canadian history? Send in the Girls, those adventurous history buffs, who have un-corseted Shakespeare heroines, the multiple wives of Henry VIII, and the Bronte siblings, get down and reveal the, er, underpinnings of Canuck history and leading ladies like Laura Secord, Klondike Kate,and Nellie McClung. The mind reels, and jigs.

Legoland. The play is from the same brain, Jacob Richmond, responsible for the macabre and alluring Ride The Cyclone, a bona fide Canadian alternative theatre hit on both sides of the border. Like the dead teenagers of that play, the precocious home-schooled brother and sister of Legoland come from Uranium City, Saskatchewan. (Note to self: see all plays with characters from there;  you can write the name and it has a weird kind of Shangri-La magic about it). And they have an enforced public service presentation for us, on why assaulting pop icons is wrong. Luc Tellier directs; Jenny McKillop and Rachel Bowron play the siblings.

Rachel Bowron and Jenny McKillop in Legoland. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Rivercity the Musical. Photo by BB Photography

Rivercity The Musical. The last time Rebecca Merkley said “wouldn’t it be so funny if…?” she came up with a comedy about synchronized swimmers. Last summer’s sleeper hit The Unsyncables was her first play. Then Merkley  said it again. This time the result is a new musical — she was a singer-songwriter before she became a playwright — spun from the Archie comics.

The heroine is Betty: “she’s my favourite,” declares Merkley feelingly. “She’s cool, sweet, kind, nice, she fixes Archie’s car, she makes five-course meals. She’s awesome. Her only weakness is … Archie.” And that cad is in love with Veronica. Doesn’t that sound like something to sing about?

Brian Dooley, Nadien Chu in The Small Things. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The Small Things. It’s by the scarily clever Irish playwright Enda Walsh (Disco Pigs), so I’m already getting tense, in advance. It imagines a world violently reduced to tongue-tied; the two characters are the last to spew out words, in the face of a catastrophe of silence. Wayne Paquette’s production stars two elite actors, Nadine Chu and Brian Dooley.

Linda Grass in Ciara, Trunk Theatre. Photo by db photographics.

(Note to self: What is it about the Celts?) The only other prospect in the line-up with similar tense-making potential is Ciara, by the well-named Scottish playwright David Harrower (A Slow Air, Good With People, Blackbird). Linda Grass stars in Amy DeFelice’s Trunk Theatre production of the intricate dramatic monologue that takes us onto the mean streets of Glasgow, and the career arc of a gangster whose daughter runs an art gallery. 

Slack Tide. There’s buzz about this new play from up-and-comer Bevin Dooley, about two siblings and the dark secret that has estranged them. In addition to “violence, sexual content, religious content, and adult language,” the warnings include “disturbing imagery.” The strong parts&labour cast includes Merran Carr-Wiggin, Chris Cook and Julia Guy.

Multiple Organism, by Mind of a Snail Puppet Co. Photo supplied.

OK, even with bagels, a dozen includes 13. So, have a peek at Multiple Organism. I’m intrigued. Where else are you going to see a large-scale shadow puppet adventure with original music, with live projections on the nude body of an actor? It’s from the adventurous Vancouver duo Mind of a Snail, who’ve brought us the magical Curious Contagious and Caws and Effect.

Suddenly this intriguing possibilities list seems to be bursting at the seams. What about The Apple TreeOne of the hottest directors in town, Dave Horak, directs a strong Plain Janes cast in the three-hander musical by the same forces brought the world Fiddler on the Roof.  Or MAA and PAA’s new history cabaret Vern’s Diary, the writing of a Canadian prisoner of war, with original music? And hey, there’s a Morris Panych….

Stop, Liz. It’s time to explore.  

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