Awwright! Hanging with the guy who can walk on water, and other lessons at the Play The Fool Fest

Rebecca Merkley in Jesus Teaches us Things, Play The Fool Festival. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

So, how was your Monday? Me? I went to a festival (online) and met Jesus.

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It was a learning experience. “The man who can walk on water,” as billed (for, like, forever), turned out to be a real extrovert, an exuberant, self-deprecating, user-friendly guy: big hair, big sense of humour. Why he isn’t headlining in Vegas is an epic mystery not covered to my knowledge in Luke.   

Anyhow, Jesus has been enlisted to step in and substitute-teach the Holy Bible Assembly’s second grade Sunday School class. And he’d promised Pastor Greg to  “stay on-curriculum this time.”

“Please put your hands together for ….”

Jesus Teaches us Things, the only show at this year’s online Play The Fool Clown and Physical Theatre Festival with a “blasphemy” warning, is the solo creation of Rebecca Merkley. As audiences know from her Merk du Soleil series — and the sublimely kooky Merk du Solapocalypse finale that premiered at the Fringe — Merkley has real affection for old-school showbiz, the good-natured groaners, the mouldy puns, the sense of sussing out the crowd, clowning around and improvising with them….

Naturally Jesus opens with some quick miracles. OK, not for me to provide spoilers but, hey, “I also make a damn fine shiraz.” “Awwright!” declares Jesus cheerfully, moving on to a teaching moment about a central subject: “I’ve nailed the subject: any guesses?”

“Let’s all head over to the story board and I’ll tell ya all about it….” Merkley has one of those textured brass-band comedy voices, and hearing it applied to kid pedagogy has its own particular hilarity. “Sharp objects don’t belong in pockets!” declares Jesus remembering his teaching brief when the big moment comes with the nails and a hammer. “As the Good Book says, Luke chapter 9 verse 7, safety first!”

Inspired by her own unsatisfactory experiences at a bible college (as per her program notes on playthefool.ca), Merkley, who’s a fearless performer, turns a clown show into a satire. Her target is the repressive, marginalizing, persecuting way that religious institutions operate when they lose track of the heart of the matter: the loving embrace of humanity. As the Big Guy says from time to time, “it’s all good!”

Kiana Woo in Inga and the Date, Play The Fool Festival. Photo supplied.

You can catch Jesus through Thursday online. And while you’re at it, meet an adorable red-nosed clown who’s sharing her nervous excitement as she gets ready for a big date. Inga (Kiana Woo) speaks a fragmented kind of English as she gleefully shows off the party version of herself — her party duds, her date shoes,  her “special date juice,” the date ambience in her new apartment.

We the audience are her mirror in Inga and the Date as she primps and poses; her self-delight is contagious. The clown’s powers of invention are undimmed by every setback — and there’s a big one.

Good Morning Darkness, created by and starring Adam Keefe, is a sophisticated take on our collective sense of waking up to an isolating world that just doesn’t seem to work right any more. Or are we still asleep? Every time the man in the bathrobe sticks a toe out to venture forth, a buzzer sounds; every time he’s flung back. Even his attempt to fashion himself a dialogue, by creating a puppet companion, is doomed. Is this Beckett in pjs?

I also enjoyed an expert mime, Zillur Rahman John, a Bangladeshi-Canadian performer whose Hope For Life arrives at a more explicit sense of the pandemic world. He begins in a tour of nature, skilfully conjured, then ventures into the circus world, and then is wrapped in anxiety as the world closes in around him.

The clown optic is on the present. And not coincidentally, death seems to be part of every clown’s thinking at this year’s edition of the festival. Neech, the clown star of Barry Bilinsky’s film He’s My Brother, is looking, without much hope, for resurrection when his best friend, a hydrangea, cacks out rather decisively. For a more upbeat view, consult Jesus.

The short on-demand digital offerings of the Play The Fool Festival continue to stream through Thursday. Tickets: playthefool.ca.

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