‘A post-pandemic brain scrubber’: what to see at Destination Fringe

Epidermis Circus, SNAFU. Photo by Jam Hamidi

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Your Destination is on the right (also on the left and straight ahead). And this late-pandemic world seems … possible and ready to be lively. Yes, the Fringe is back, starting Thursday, in the town where the continent’s fringe phenom began.

“A post-pandemic brain scrubber!” says SNAFU’s Ingrid Hansen, the co-creator and star of Epidermis Circus. She was talking about surreal art, of which her new and weird puppet show (see below) is an example. But she might have been talking about the Fringe itself with its 164-show universe to play in, at the 41st annual edition of the continent’s first and still biggest fringe.

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So, what looks promising? It’s a brain-expanding question since there’s no wrong way to fringe (except not see shows). Artists have experimented; so should you. 

But just for starters, here’s a selection of show possibilities that caught my eye (for the playwright, the play, the company, the director, the cast, or maybe just their irresistible weirdness). I haven’t seen them yet either; we’ll be exploring together. (Stand by for a  12thnight.ca post soon about productions I’ve caught before, or at other festivals, or during the season). 

Mathew Hulshof, The Margin of the Sky, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The Margin of the Sky. This Fringe revival of Stewart Lemoine’s 2003 elusive and moving comedy about the act of creation is an historic occasion. It’s the last time you’ll see Teatro La Quindicina at the Fringe.

How come? Born at the very first Fringe in 1982 as a venture (All These Heels) by a little group of friends led by their then-unknown resident playwright, Teatro grew up with the festival, bringing original Lemoine comedies year after year to full houses. And since 2008 (when they returned to the Fringe after an absence of five years), Teatro’s Fringe appearance has been part of their four-show summer subscription seasons. But “as an Equity company producing a Fringe show (with Fringe ticket prices) as part of a full Equity contract for casts and crew,” as Lemoine explains, the costs can’t be covered. ‘And it means other shows in the season have to pay for that.”

The challenge of producing shows back to back without a break in a summer season has been “exhilarating but exhausting.” After 14 years, the company plans to produce seasons that are “more spread out” (November to July). 

So at age 40, Teatro bids farewell to its birthplace with “my only play that includes a character who’s a Canadian playwright,” says Lemoine. As in so many Lemoines, from Pith! to The Exquisite Hour, Happy Toes to The Glittering Heart, Leo is imagining a fantastical world from which he takes something important. And music, Schoenberg to be specific, is his entry point. 

Ingrid Hansen, Epidermis Circus, SNAFU. Photo by Jam Hamidi.

Epidermis Circus: In this new “spicy puppet cabaret” from Victoria’s SNAFU (Kit & Jane, Little Orange Man, The Merkin Sisters), part live animation, part physical comedy, Ingrid Hansen creates a variety show of characters using “freaky body parts,” her hands, mirrors, found objects: “there’s nothing in this show anyone would identify as ‘a puppet’.” She creates “little worlds and illusions” live at a table, and “they’re projected huge behind me livestream. So you’re seeing the movie and you’re seeing me make the movie.”

“It’s a dark comedy and a celebration of the human body, a post-pandemic healing ceremony.” Find out more about Hansen and SNAFU in a 12thnight post soon.

The Hunchback Variations, Northern Light Theatre. Poster photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The Hunchback Variations. This intriguingly absurdist comedy by the Chicago playwright Mickle Maher is the production that Edmonton audiences almost got to see in the Northern Light Theatre season just past (another COVID cancellation). It’s a multi-scene panel discussion on sound between two of history’s most famous deaf artists, Beethoven and Quasimodo, the bell-ringer of Notre Dame. These unlikely collaborators are working to re-create the mysterious sound effect specified by Chekhov’s famously elusive stage direction in The Cherry Orchard. Check out 12thnight’s interview with director Davina Stewart from this past January here.

Plays By Bots. Photo by bots.

Plays By Bots. The future of theatre collaboration is here, and it’s wild (and a bit scary). The scripts are actually written by bots; Rapid Fire Theatre performers act them out, and then improvise the endings. Even this graphic for the show was created by a bot. What? “I honestly don’t understand it myself,” says RFT artistic director Matt Schuurman. “Every bit of it sounds like a fictional premise for a Fringe show, but it’s 100% real.”

Dreamers Cantata – A New Revue. A new revue by musical theatre specialists Plain Jane Theatre, who have combed the repertoire to focus on ground-breaking women and non-gender conforming artists. “Tougher songs than we’ve ever worked on,” says artistic director Kate Ryan of a list of musical theatre songwriters that includes Elizabeth Swados of Runaways and Rap Master Ronnie fame, Hadestown creator Anaïs Mitchell (who’s at the Folk Fest this weekend), Sara Bareilles (Waitress), Georgia Stitt, Micki Grant, Shaina Taub (Suffs, new this spring) and Edmonton jazz artist Mallory Chipman. Ryan directs a cast of five; the script is by playwright Ellen Chorley. 

Seth Gilfillan and Josh Travnik in Conjoined: A New Musical. Photo supplied.

Conjoined: A New Musical. Straight Edge Theatre, creators of Cult Cycle and Imaginary Friend, returns to the Fringe with an original rock(ish) musical. Sibling rivalry and the universal struggle to resist domination and find your own individual self get a palpable jolt from the fact that the two brothers are conjoined twins — and one’s fondest wish is to see the other dead. Amazingly, this is the second new musical of the season involving conjoined siblings (NLT’s Two-Headed Half-Hearted ran in April). Josh Travnik and Seth Gilfillan star, with a live three-piece band. (Meet Straight Edge’s Stephen Allred and The Erlking’s Chris Scott. see below, in an upcoming 12thnight post). 

Happy as Larry. OK, I’ll bite. What happened to Friar Lawrence after that fiasco in Romeo and Juliet? The guy has a lot to answer for, as both a herbalist and life coach, not to mention strategist. This solo show by the U.K. performer Richard Curnow proposes to follow up.

Fags in Space, Low Hanging Fruits. Photo supplied.

Fags in Space. A new play by Liam Salmon (Local Diva, Archangel, Silence of the Machine), an insightful and witty writer whose archive of work reveals a fascination with sci-fi/horror, the mysterious, the unknown . This one, which leans into reclaiming the old gay slur, is a queer rom-com, which suggests — can it be? — the possibility of happiness. It’s generated from the classic couples question: so how did you two meet?. Their story takes them through the cosmos.

(Thunder)CATS. As a survivor of watching WAY too many productions of Cats in way too many cities, I can’t possibly not see a satire of the Lloyd Webber con-cat-enation. It’s by the forces — Grindstone Theatre’s Byron Martin and resident composer Simon Abbott — that unleashed Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer on a suspecting world this past season. Seeing it is kind of a moral and cultural obligation. 

(Thunder)CATS, Grindstone Theatre. Photo supplied.

“It takes the piss” (out of the Broadway musical), “using characters from the ‘80s cartoon Thundercats,” Martin explains. “It’s a series of character songs with no real plot, full of dancing, singing and humping…. The music is all original. And every song is directly a deep original cut into Cats, literally scene by scene, song by song…. It takes its job pretty seriously!” (laughter). Originally improvised in 2018 as part of a theme night at The 11 O’Clock Number, it comes with an entire cat-alogue of performers: nine actors wearing a lot of Lycra, and a live three-piece band led by the very accomplished Abbott. 

(Thunder)CATS got a mentorship boost at the Banff Centre from Bob Martin and Lisa Lambert (of the Fringe-turned-Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone). “They loved it; they said ‘you have to do it!’” and Lambert came to see the 2019 Fringe incarnation. COVID thwarted plans for a 2020 tour that would have included Edinburgh. 

How did Martin, Abbott et al get hooked to an obscure 80s cartoon? At Grindstone “we play cartoons on the TV behind the bar.” 

The Erlking, Scona Alumni Theatre Co. Photo supplied

The Erlking: a new musical.If Midsommar and The Book of Mormon had a baby.” That, intriguingly, is how writer/composer/lyricist Chris Scott describes his new musical, fresh from a six-month workshop at Berklee College in Boston. He wrote The Erlking at 17, as a theatre student at Scona High; then “it went to bed for 12 years.” Meanwhile,  Scott got his BFA in musical theatre in Boston, and moved to New York with dreams of Broadway in his head. 

It’s on an un-Fringe-y scale, with a cast of 12, “a big, textured, lush orchestral score … musical theatre meets film score,” and 19 or 20 songs. And Scott’s Erlking isn’t the malign child-luring elf of Euro-lore, taken up by Goethe. “They’re a benevolent (gender-neutral) figure whose name has been smudged by the ruling classes.… It’s all about balance of power, abuse of power, faith, perspective.”

Jon Paterson, How I Met My Mother. Photo supplied.

How I Met My Mother. The versatile theatre artist Jon Paterson has been on the Fringe circuit for 25 years, in all kinds of roles in all kinds of shows. He’s toured with RibbitRepublic and Monster Theatre. He’s co-created with fellow Fringe artists (Inescapable, with Martin Dockery). He’s commanded the stage solo before now, memorably explosive in Daniel MacIvor’s House. How I Met My Mother is Paterson’s first solo-written Fringe show. It’s his own “bad-ass to caregiver story” as billed, of a man who leaves behind his raucous and wayward teen years to take care of his ailing mom. It’s been getting big buzz on the circuit.  

Crack in the Mirror. in honour of Guys in Disguise’s 35th anniversary at the Fringe, this third of the Orchard Crescent trilogy by Darrin Hagen and Trevor Schmidt takes the women of the ladies’ auxiliary  into the ‘70s. Find more in an upcoming 12thnight post about the groundbreaking company that marries theatre and drag and changed the course of gay history in this town.  

Cheryl Jameson, Michelle Todd, Kristin Johnston in Destination Vegas. Photo by Justin Gambin.

Damn, it’s happened again. This list of possibilities has gotten out of hand, and I haven’t even mentioned Fake n’ Bake, a new solo play, the first she’s written by herself, by Girl Brain’s Ellie Heath (more about her in an upcoming 12thnight post). Or Destination Vegas, a sequel to Trevor Schmidt’s riotous Destination Wedding. Or The Big Sad, a new Jessy Ardern play about grief for kids by the inventive indie Fox Den Collective (Queen Lear Is Dead, S.I.S.T.E.R). It’s not in the program but has four performances (Stage 3) in the daytime slots formerly occupied by Undiscovered Country. And how about Pressure by up-and-comer Amanda Samuelson, Nextfest’s first official foray into the Fringe as a producer? 

And this: on a risk-enhancement agenda, there’s White Guy on Stage Talking. For one thing it’s by the playwriting team of Jake Tkaczyk and Brandon the Moustache. For another, its warning list, second to none, taps into modern anxiety pretty comprehensively. “Violence, cartoonish violence, nudity, sexual content, death, suicide, Adult language/content, eating disorder/body image, mental illness/disorders, drugs/alcohol, religious content, political content, strobe lights, gunshots, smoke/fog.” Yup, I’m intrigued.

Enough of list-making already. It’s time to start fringing. (Tickets, schedule, and show information: fringetheatre.ca.)


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