The Fringe is back, bigger than ever! So … what looks promising?

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

By Liz Nicholls,

The rumours are true: the Fringe is back, larger than life,  in the theatre town where the continent’s fringe phenom began. Fringe ‘O’ Saurus Rex, the 37th annual edition of Edmonton’s full-bodied summer theatre bash, starts its 11 day-and-night life Thursday night. And there are more choices than ever before.

So … what looks good? 

Lifting the 153-page glossy Fringe program is an upper-body workout. But do not be overwhelmed, my friends. Be curious instead.

Everyone’s a critic and a talent scout (and possibly a future playwright) at Fringe time. And there’s no wrong way to fringe (a verb that’s an Edmonton contribution to the international lexicon!)— except to stay indefinitely in the beer tent and fail to see a show. is here to help as you plot your own foray into the unpredictable 228-show Fringe galaxy. Have a look at a some intriguing prospects to consider. We’re in this together; I haven’t seen them yet either. 

Sometimes the play, or the playwright, caught my eye. Sometimes actors, or the director, or the company — theatre artists experimenting with something new. Sometimes a premise too bold, or improbable, audacious or just plain weird, to ignore.

Jérémie Francoeur in Macbeth Muet, Surreal SoReal Theatre. Photo supplied.

Macbeth Muet. Surreal SoReal, one of Edmonton’s most adventurous theatre indies, now Montreal-based, is back at the Fringe. And this time they’ve brought William Shakespeare with them. Don’t be arguing that you don’t understand Bard-speak. Jon Lachlan Stewart’s 60-minute version of Shakespeare’s swift and violent tragedy (with Marie-Hélène Bélanger) eliminates that problem: it’s completely word-free.” The visceral (and gory) non-stop action of the play happens with two actors, puppets, an assortment of objects that spring to hand. 

Punch Up!. Laugh or die: Talk about raising the stakes on black comedy. The Funniest Man Alive, who’s lost his sense of humour to the vicissitudes of divorce, is kidnapped by a thoroughly unfunny guy who’s fallen in love with The Saddest Girl in the World. If he’s going to make her laugh, and thereby save her life, the love-struck nebbish needs some last-minute coaching. 

Perry Gratton, Evan Hall in Punch Up! Photo supplied.

The Pretty Boy Projects production, directed by Braydon Dowler Coltman, introduces Edmonton to the work of another hot up-and-comer. That would be Kat Sandler, the innovative Canadian playwright whose immersive, follow-the-actors political satire double-header The Party premieres at the Citadel this coming season.

The actors, Merran Carr-Wiggin, Evan Hall, and Perry Gratton — paid-up members of that new generation of theatrical multi-taskers fuelled by the Fringe — started producing at the festivities when they were still in theatre school (Notes From A Zombie Apocalypse, 2011). Last summer, Hall directed  A Quiet Place; he and Carr-Wiggins co-starred in a revival of Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, the story of a friendship chronicled in blood, bruises, and broken bones. No crutches this year.

Luc Tellier in Tragedy: A Tragedy, Blarney Productions. Photo by Mat Simpson.

Tragedy: A Tragedy. There’s always something subversive and strange lurking under the apparently harmless surfaces of a Will Eno play (Thom Pain (based on nothing), The Realistic Joneses). In Tragedy: A Tragedy, an Eno from 2001, a local broadcast team is pumped up, in that breathless 24-hour news cycle coverage way, to report on whether the sun will ever rise again. An all-star five-actor cast, including Robert Benz as the team anchor, is directed by Suzie Martin. 

A Lesson in Brio. “I’ve thrown out the rule book,” says Teatro La Quindicina’s playwright muse Stewart Lemoine. His latest comedy, which premieres as part of the company’s summer season (one of two new Lemoines at the Fringe along with The Many Loves Of Irene Sloane),  is “a presentation … on brio: what you do to acquire it if you don’t have it, how you might show it if you do.”

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

Jenny McKillop is the presenter;  the other three actors (Mathew Hulshof, Rachel Bowron, Patricia Cerra) are there to assist with the presentation. Brio is in short supply in the world: take notes.

Concord Floral, 10 Out Of 12 Productions. Photo supplied.

Concord Floral. The play, by the young Canadian star Jordan Tannahill, is fascinating: a teenage “gothic suburban thiller” set in a derelict greenhouse where the town kids hang out to, you know, party — and (à la Boccaccio’s Decameron) they’ve fled a mystery “plague.” But, hey, have they brought it with them?

With its cast of 10 young U of A theatre grads, Mieko Ouchi’s production revisits the exciting workshop version I caught last season.

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

The Alien Baby Play. How can you not want to see what’s up from Impossible Mongoose? The adventurous little indie with high-speed mythology and myth-making on its mind has already given us The Fall of the House of Atreus and Prophecy. This latest, a highly unusual one-act by the American Nicholas Walker Herbert, is  “interesting and strange and kind of lovely in the oddest, Fringiest way,” as director Corben Kushneryk puts it. “The only woman since the Virgin Mary to be impregnated by a creature not of this world has invited the audience to her place to witness the birth. And meet the (alien) father.”

“All our work has surrounded myth,” says Kushneryk. “And this kooky comedy has that aspect! It’s fun, it’s grotesque….”  His production stars Impossible Mongoose’s resident playwright, Jessy Ardern.

Timysha Harris in Josephine. Photo by Von Hoffman.

Josephine. This award-winning “burlesque cabaret dream play” from Orlando, which spent five weeks Off-Broadway this winter, has attracted rapturous reviews everywhere it’s been. It tells the remarkable story of ground-breaker Josephine Baker, the first African-American international superstar, who electrified France in the early ‘20s. Triple-threat Tamysha Harris, who’s toured with the legendary Euro-dance company Pilobulus (among other credits), stars. You’ll get to see Baker’s celebrated “banana girdle” routine in motion.

Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Belinda Cornish in The Real Inspector Hound, Bright Young Things. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The Real Inspector Hound. Bright Young Things, who gravitate to the ‘well-made plays’ of the previous century, hang out at the Fringe with the likes of Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan, Harold Pinter, and last summer, the great Fringe existentialist himself Sartre (a crack production of No Exit). They’re back with an ingenious, very funny early (1968) Tom Stoppard country house whodunnit infiltrated by a couple of pretentious theatre critics (an outlandish notion, right?). Mark Bellamy’s eight-actor cast of Edmonton stars is joined nightly by a different celebrity every night as the much-ignored corpse.

Hotel Vortruba. Vancouver’s Ragmop, a dexterous physical comedy theatre duo of surreal proclivities (Falling Awake), return with a new production. And I for one don’t want to miss a chance to check into a hotel on the frontier between waking and dreaming. 

Collin Doyle and James Hamilton in The Zoo Story, Bedlam Theatre Concern. Photo supplied.

The Zoo Story. “I’ve been to the zoo. I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!” Collin Doyle and James Hamilton, playwright/actors both, and frequent collaborators in Bedlam Theatre Concern, have a 25-year history with Edward Albee’s first play, the 1958 one-act that catapulted him to stardom with its escalating park bench encounter between a middle-class book editor and a rather menacing loner. 

In the fall of 1993, they were two 18-year-olds — and each got a $100 acting award at the Provincial One-Act Festival. “The Glory Years! as Doyle recalls. “We didn’t really know who Edward Albee was; we just really loved the play.” The next time was the 2002 Fringe, and Doyle and Hamilton were 27 and knew exactly who Edward Albee was.

This time, directed by Theatre Network artistic director Bradley Moss, Doyle and Hamilton are in their early ‘40s.  “We always wanted to do it again. And this time we’re the right age,” says Doyle, who hasn’t been onstage as an actor in a decade.

“What’s changed is the perspective on how much time has gone by,” says Doyle, whose Terry and the Dog won this year’s Sterling as outstanding new play.. “Both of us feel the history (of the characters) more…. And for me, as a writer, I realize how much I’ve stolen from the play, a lot of the structure of storytelling….”

Camille Ensminger and Oscar Derkx in The Soldier’s Tale. Photo supplied

The Soldier’s Tale. There are exciting firsts attached to this rare production of a strikingly multi-disciplinary World War I dance/theatre/music collaboration between the great Russian composer Stravinsky and the Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz. It’s never been fully staged professionally in Alberta (and since it requires three actors, a dancer, and seven top-drawer musicians, you can guess why). And it marks the Fringe debut of Edmonton Symphony Orchestra chief conductor Alexander Prior, who’s at the head of an unusual ensemble of professionals; Farren Timoteo directs; Laura Krewski choreographs.  

Christine Lesiak in For Science! Photo supplied.

   For Science!. Billed as “Bill Nye The Science Guy meets Blue Man Group,” Christine Lesiak’s first new Fringe show in five years brings together her “science nerd brain and clown heart,” as she puts it. Lesiak, an artist of the experimental stripe, is the possessor of an unusual skill set: you can never be jaded about running into clowns who are also space physicists. It was as a physicist that Lesiak arrived from the Maritimes in 1993 — long before Edmonton audiences met her feisty red-nosed clown Sheshells or advice columnist Aggie, who improvises shows from audience questions.

An absurdist homage to science nerdism, For Science! is “a series of scientific experiments” of increasing challenge in which enthusiastic audience members are invited to assist. The worthy purpose, declares Lesiak (a founder of Small Matters Productions), is “the most fun possible.”  Lesiak, who co-stars with Anna Pratch, calls it “audience interaction for the age of #MeToo.”

Cat Walsh and Lora Brovold in Fetch, Interloper Theatre. Photo supplied.

Fetch. And speaking of physics, the latest play by Cat Walsh (Do This In Memory of Me, The Laws of Thermodynamics) was inspired by the elusive Shrodinger’s Cat paradox beloved of physics majors. In her new two-hander (which started life as two monologues) Walsh applies the idea (sans cat, but there’s a toy dog) to “doubles … the “two opposing possible existences” of a character. “The two Hannah Morgans have the same origins, their paths diverge, and then become more and more entwined,” says Walsh of a strangely adversarial relationship. “You know that sense you get that there was a moment in life when things could have been different?” Walsh co-stars with Lora Brovold.

Julie Niuboi Ferguson in Scorch, Blarney/ Bustle & Beast. Photo by Liam Mackenzie.

Scorch. Thorny issues of gender identity and “gender fraud” — infinitely complicated by the confusions of first love — are at the heart of this 2016 solo play by the Irish playwright Stacey Gregg, inspired by a real-life U.K. court case of recent vintage. The innovative performance artist Julie NIUBOI Ferguson stars in Brenley Charkow’s production. 

Boyan Peychoff, Julie Golosky, Jennifer Spencer in One Polaroid. Photo by Nathaniel Vance Hehir.

One Polaroid. The dark secrets that filter through prairie storytelling and under the placid surfaces of the landscape are the natural theatre habitat of playwright Michele Vance Hehir. Her new play is the final chapter of a trilogy (The Blue Hour, Ruination) that has taken us, pre- and post-World War II, to the small prairie town of Roseglen in 1973. We meet two fractious sisters who may well be the ones to shut out the lights in a fading town.

Everything’s Coming Up Chickens! A Revue. The Plain Janes are ideally equipped to do musical revues. They’re besotted with musical theatre — every forgotten corner, every obscure gem, every over-produced flop. Artistic director Kate Ryan describes their first revue in eight summers at the Fringe as “a kind of love letter to our artists and the (crazy) life in the theatre.”

Karina Cox, Jarrett Krissa, Kendra Connor, Garett Ross in Everything’s Coming Up Chickens! A Review, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by db photographics.

It’s inspired by “the mother of all backstage musicals Gypsy  (as the title tips off). And Ryan and musical director Janice Flower have culled widely: from Irving Berlin (his 1933 revue As Thousands Cheer), Charles Strouse (Applause), Tick Tick Boom by Rent creator Jonathan Larson, among other musical offerings . And hey, even satirical numbers from Scrambled Feet and Upstairs at O’Neals, revues produced by the Janes’ predecessor Leave It To Jane.

Dave Horak, Michael Anderson in Rig Pig Fantasia. Photo by Navras Kamal.

Rig Pig Fantasia. The highly original actor/playwright Chris Bullough, who grew up in Fort McMurray, has fashioned a play for Wishbone Theatre that wonders about oil, the art of dance, the boreal forest, “what it means to be a man.” 

Whoa….This list is getting way out of hand. And I haven’t even mentioned WASP, in which Steve Martin hones his razor wit on ‘50s suburbia. Or The Great Whorehouse Fire of 1921, unearthed by David Cheoros and Linda Wood Edwards from the under-tilled soil of real Alberta history. Or Liane Faulder’s Walk, inspired by her journalistic book The Long Walk Home. There’s an alluringly scary recent Caryl Churchill (Escaped Alone):  apocalyptic visions over afternoon tea. There’s a new Kenneth Brown, Roy and the Red Baron, which imagines a limbo encounter between history’s most famous fighter pilot and the Edmontonian who shot him down …

I’m leaving you with dots … your cue to explore. Stay tuned for Fringe reviews, previews, interviews on 


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