By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s Fringe Eve (the night the green onion fairy leaves a special stay-awake pill under your pillow). And lordie lordie, our giant summer alternative theatre extravaganza is turning 40. The big four-oh? During a pandemic? A festival whose double-signature is huge crowds mingling outside, or crammed rib-to-rib in often tiny make-shift theatres inside?
After the collective heartbreak of a cancelled edition last summer, The Fringe That Never Was, Edmonton’s most influential idea and its biggest grassroots success ever has figured out how to be back, and live (with a mix of digital shows too): Together We Fringe.
Artist-run, the oldest and biggest Fringe on the continent has wrapped its creative wits around the big pandemical problem of gathering — accessibility, travel restrictions, rehearsing, audience confidence — for fringers and artists by going smaller for 2021’s unique edition. Strikingly smaller. With intricate modifications and constraints for safety. The Alberta government may have turned its back on public safety, but the Fringe hasn’t.
As you’ll notice from the listings and schedule online at fringetheatre.ca, at 50-plus shows, Together We Fringe has less than a quarter the number of the productions of the dauntingly epic 260-show 2019 edition, Where The Wild Things Fringe.
Instead of some 50 indoor venues, there are 11. The usual 11 official Fringe venues, programmed by lottery, are down to three — plus a fourth, the Roxy on Gateway renamed pêhonân (Cree for gathering or waiting place) dedicated exclusively to Indigenous artists. See the 12thnight feature here. There’s an outdoor stage (Vanta), too. And the rest are curated BYOVs, with fewer shows. All indoor venues are down to 60 per cent capacity, with masks compulsory inside. Many of the shows (and all of them in official venues) have been filmed for online viewing.
You even have to have a timed two-hour ticket ($20) to get into the ATB Park (aka the Gazebo Park, gated for the first time), catch a couple of shows there, have a beer, a snack, and hang out Fringe-style. At night ($25) two bands do sets, and the window is a little longer. More details here.
After the devastation of the last 18 months in the performing arts, when an entire industry suddenly shut down, Fringe artists need your support. It’s a year for you to experiment. That’s what the Fringe is doing, and that’s what the artists have done to arrive on stage this August. I haven’t seen these shows either yet, so we’ll be experimenting together.
So in that spirit, I’m throwing out some ideas for you to consider, intriguing prospects, plays or premises that caught my eye, actors or directors doing something bold, or unusual or weird (or responsive to the time without putting COVID into the dialogue over and over). Some of the Fringe faves, including Guys in Disguise, Teatro La Quindicina, and the Plain Janes, are notable by their absence this year. But, hey, there’s the excitement of new talent. As Fringe director Murray Utas puts it, “the young ones are coming for all of us….”
Stay tuned for discoveries and reviews on 12thnight.ca.
•The Man Who Fell To Pieces, a 2018 Irish “comedy” of absurdist stripe about a man falling apart, takes on new resonances in the late-pandemic summer of 2021, when everyone is struggling to retain their identity and “emerge.” It’s produced by a new company in town (with a great name), Fairly Odd Productions.
•How can you not be intrigued by the billing of Merk du Solapocalypse, a “one lady circus spectacular with no circus and more than one lady”? Not least because it involves the loss of a theatre, and the attempts to undo the catastrophe.” This is the work of the remarkably versatile artist Rebecca Merkley, the fourth in her Merk du Soleil series.,
•For the first time in a 32-year history of al fresco summer productions the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is leaving its river valley headquarters, the Heritage Amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park, and going to the Fringe. With high-speed 75-minute, small-cast adaptations of Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing. The latter is to be found on the Fringe’s outdoor Vanta stage, the former at the Old Strathcona Performing Arts Society.
Have a peek here at 12thnight’s preview, an interview with Freewill artistic director Dave Horak.
•Chanzo introduces us to the work of an international team of newcomer artists. It’s a cross-cultural cross-border (and multi-lingual) piece from newcomer Mūkonzi Wā Mūsoyki, a playwright/ dramaturge/ scholar here from Kenya. The play takes its title protagonist back home to Kenya, with his Canadian girlfriend, to grapple with a family tragedy.
•A cross-cultural communication of another sort is to be found in Deafy, a solo play in spoken English, ASL, and surtitles by the very engaging Deaf artist Chris Dodd. See the 12thnight preview here.
•In a smoke, brimstone, and flood summer, surely the last gasp of the climate change-denying brigade. The Frente Collective, an indie with an ecological bent, is back at the Fringe, with a new Leslea Kroll play. Patina, says the playwright, is inspired by the children’s climate strikes: “Patina Bellweather is the minder of Smaland in the land of meatballs and Swedish flatpack furniture.” Eileen Sproule directs; Rebecca Starr stars.
•The Fringe’s only father-daughter writing team: David and Sophia Cheoros, from MAA and PAA Theatre, an indie devoted to breathing life into our history. Their 30-minute play Camping, on the Vanta outdoor stage, targets a kid audience, in a fantasy encounter in the Banff woods between a seven-year-old in 2021 and a Ukrainian man in 1916, imprisoned during Canada’s World War I internment of Eastern Europeans. Sophia turns 10 during the run of Camping.
•There are new plays from veteran premium artists. Northern Light artistic director Trevor Schmidt premieres Destination Wedding, in a Whizgiggling Production with three top-drawer actors, Cheryl Jameson, Michelle Todd, and Kristin Johnston (NLT’s We Had A Girl Before You). (He’s also directing the provocative Woman Caught Unaware by the Brit playwright Annie Fox. Davina Stewart stars). Actor/ playwright/ Nextfest artistic director Ellen Chorley has a new kids’ play, with an Arthurian reverb: Win The Warrior. Elizabeth Hobbs directs a trio of young actors we haven’t seen before.
•Two venerable franco-albertan stars, Gilles Denis and André Roy, are back at the Fringe in Everything Is Beautiful, an English version of France Levasseur-Ouimet’s Prends mes yeux, tu vas voir.”
•Understandably, on average the casts at Together We Fringe are smaller (“togetherness, but with elbow room,” as Fringe director Murray Utas puts it). The biggest cast at the Fringe, at 11 actors, is in This Old House, a mystery written and directed by young theatre artist Grace Fitzgerald.
•This is a big improv and sketch comedy town (this is so not news). Edmonton, which embraces the idea of making things up on the spot (and not just in the city transportation department), has not one but two long-running full-length fully improvised musicals. And they’re both at the Fringe: Grindstone’s The 11-Clock Number: The Improvised Musical, and Rapid Fire’s Off Book: The Improvised Musical at Yardbird.
Rapid Fire Theatre, which specializes in this adrenalizing spontaneous branch of entertainment, is curating an entire BYOV (the Yardbird) with improv/sketch shows created by its starry performers. And at Grindstone Theatre’s two BYOVs, improv, sketch and stand-up figure prominently. Elsewhere, at the Varscona, two of the three offerings are improv. Die-Nasty‘s annual Fringe-themed edition and Gordon’s Big Bald Head MasterThief Theatre reunites Mark Meer and Ron Pederson, with Jacob Banigan, who lives in Austria.
And here’s an oblique COVIDIAN premise: The Trip, improvised from the great pandemic premise of getting the hell out of here and going somewhere, gathers audience cues about the journey they wish they were on.
•Fringe favourites are returning. Here are three: the very funny comedian Mike Delamont is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his divine incarnation as God, in with a best-of God Is A Scottish Drag Queen show. Tamysha Harris, who was here in 2018 and 2019 with Josephine, her Josephine Baker show, is back again with it, and a live band. I haven’t seen it but my 12thnight colleagues have really enjoyed it. Alan Kellogg’s 2018 review is here. Melanie Gall, who’s an engaging revue artist (I’ve seen her Piaf show), has a new one: A Toast to Prohibition.
And I leave you with this: the irresistible idea of an Indigenous version of Grease by the hip-hop duo LightningCloud. Bear Grease runs one night only (Aug. 20) at pêhonân, the Fringe venue at the Roxy on Gateway.