What I learned at this year’s Fringe: thoughts of a Fringed brain

Celina Dean and Mathew Hulshof in The Margin of the Sky, Teatro La Quindicina, Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I want to go to the beautiful place and enjoy the view and then come back. I think we all do.” — Leo in Stewart Lemoine’s The Margin of the Sky 

You can’t go off to the Fringe and be there for a week and come back without learning things, and having an odd sense of heightened reality. It’s bound to happen. Here are some assorted thoughts from time well spent…. 

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Most remarkable story that isn’t in a show. The Margin of the Sky, the final production of Teatro La Quindicina’s 40th anniversary season, is the last time you’ll ever see a Teatro show at the Fringe. The company was born there in 1982, the very first Fringe, before anyone even knew what exactly that was. Then Teatro was a troupe of high-school friends who gave themselves a kooky name, and took a comedy called All These Heels (one characters was a Hungarian concert pianist with an eyepatch, played by Leona Brausen) by one of their number, Stewart Lemoine to “A Fringe Event.” And now? Teatro is a professional theatre company, with subscribers, fans, a season, a theatre with a red velvet curtain, Equity contracts…. And they bid farewell to the Fringe in 2022 by reviving a 2003 Lemoine comedy about what creative inspiration means, and where to find it. It begins a hold-over run Tuesday as part of Teatro’s 2022 summer season. 12thnight review here.

Rebecca Merkley in Jesus Teaches Us Things, Dammitammy Productions. Photo supplied.

Funniest clowning: Jesus. In Rebecca Merkley’s Jesus Teaches Us Things, the man himself is a riot. The guy loves a crowd, and since he’s had a couple of thousand of years to tune up his act, he does a big opener: you should see what he can with a glass of water. 12thnight review here.

Audience participation: always tricky. When it goes wrong, the audience wants to shrink into nothingness in their seats. When it goes right, it’s a party. See above, for a stellar example; Jesus takes questions. Another is White Guy On Stage Talking. In one scene we make a group list we made with the two performers (Jake Tzakcyk and Megan Sweet) of “things we’d sell your soul for.” See below. 12thnight review here.

Even veteran artists, who’ve had two years of pandemical isolation to brood on their art, tried something new for this Fringe. 

Andrea House, Brittany Ward in Salsa Lesson. Photo by Jae Hoo Lee,

(a) The magical reinvention of a classic story as an original musical: in Salsa Lesson, actor/playwright/singer-songwriter Andrea House gives a story — a narrative of the middle-aged plateau and unexpected new horizons — breath-taking dimensions. The story, ruefully funny, is in House’s own invented “mom-rap,” a kind of hip-hop/ spoken word poetry cross. And the songs, mostly in Spanish, give the everyday,” with its hopes and disappointments, and its yearning for love, a heightened lustre of passion. Enchanting. 12thnight review here.

(b) The magical reinvention of a long gone era as an original cabaret: The Pansy Cabaret tells a story no one knew, even Darrin Hagen, a queer historian, and playwright and actor, composer and musician). What he discovered was the true history of the “Pansy craze,” a vivid queer culture that flourished a century ago and vanished in the decade after Prohibition, erased by homophobia. Drag queen Lilith Fair re-creates it in great style onstage, with a fascinating selection of  beautifully sung vintage Edwardian music hall songs, accompanied by Daniel Belland at the grand piano. The warning to the a world sliding ever farther right couldn’t be more clear. The Fringe holds it over starting Tuesday. 12thnight review here.  

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

New musicals of every shape and size, many of them by young artists: Fringe 2022 was an unusual proliferation. Such a complicated, challenging form: storytelling through and with music, songs that have lyrics and performers with an unusual range of skills (see Salsa Lesson above). The largest scale new musical I saw? Chris Scott’s amazingly ambitious The Erlking — horror, mythology, satire, folk tale. The smallest? Conjoined, witty, funny, clever, and macabre — and infused with real musical theatre savvy. It’s a stagecraft challenge, too, for co-creator Stephen Allred’s production: two conjoined brothers, the A-type one who dominates, the other who seethes with resentment, and hatches murderous thoughts. 

(Thunder)CATS, Grindstone Theatre. Photo supplied.

Satire: it’s a helluva lot easier to just make fun of Cats than it is to actually create a funny raunchy full-bodied alternative musical — by marrying the “now and forever” Broadway musical to an 80s TV cartoon. That’s a lot of sexy feline dancing, cartoon battles, a hot band, copious Lycra, the whole kit-and-caboodle. …. In (thunder)CATS, The Grindstone team of Byron Martin and Simon Abbott (with Curtis den Otter) did that. 

Most creative sex scene: the Romeo and Juliet clinch of two puppets from found objects, a sock and bunched-up panties, on a stage strung between two audience volunteers, in SNAFU’s “spicy puppet cabaret” Epidermis Circus. It’s held over at the Fringe starting Tuesday.

White Guy On Stage Talking. Photo supplied.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at the Fringe? It’s a question fringers get asked regularly. For me, White Guy on Stage Talking, I think. See above. Twenty-one performance art scenes that theatricalize, in a scrambly, amusingly cheap-theatre way, pretty much everything that makes you crazy or anxious or outraged about modern life. It’s for your brain to put together. The runner-up in weirdness is about creation, too. The Hunchback Variations is all about artistic failure, the continuing and possibly inevitable failure, in 11 minutely adjusted “variations” of the efforts of two of history’s most famous Deaf artists, to create a famously elusive stage effect, from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

Ellie Heath in Fake n’ Bake, Edmonton Fringe 2022. Photo supplied.

The solo confessional: these require a special kind of theatrical ingenuity to answer the unspoken question ‘why am I on a stage telling you about my life?’ Ellie Heath’s Fake n’ Bake, the story of a life sucked into a vortex of addictions then restored, inhabited a playful stage world. Jon Paterson’s How I Met My Mother is a personal invitation into a theatre named after the mother who saw him through his bad-ass teen years. Paterson, a Fringe veteran of 25 years standing, tells the story of a theatre artist in search of redemption who reinvents himself, improbably, as a care-giver for his mother who’s declining into dementia.  

Alanna McPherson, Chelo Ledesma, Bella King in Dreamers Cantata, Plain Jane Theatre Company. Photo by db photographics

Welcome discovery: I hadn’t known about Georgia Stitt and her Alphabet City Cycle till I saw Dreamers Cantata, one of my favourite Fringe shows. Such clever, challenging funny and insightful songs, part of the Plain Jane Theatre Company’s new revue Dreamers Cantata, curated from contemporary musical theatre innovators. Beautifully delivered by young triple-threats who sizzle. See below. 

Most startling, possibly unwelcome, discovery: Wouldn’t you know it? Bots can actually write plays (Plays By Bots, written by a bot named Dramatron and acted by the improvisers of Rapid Fire Theatre, was pretty funny, in a deadpan sort of way. Geez. Is nothing sacred?

New talent: young artists I hadn’t seen before (a long list, among them Sydney Williams (Pressure, by up-and-comer Amanda Samuelson), Miracle Mopera and Kyra Gusdal (Mules), Alanna McPherson along with her castmates Bella King and Larissa Poho (Dreamers Cantata). 

The starting continuity of the Fringe presence in this theatre town: Kevin Sutley directed the 2006 premiere of Mules, starring the co-playwrights. And he directed this 2022 Fringe revival, with young artists. Jana O’Connor, the new head of Lit Fest, was the stage manager of the 2003 premiere of The Margin of the Sky. She’s one of the quartet of actors in Teatro La Quindicina’s Fringe farewell revival of the Stewart Lemoine comedy. 

Theatre is lucky; we have some great piano players in this town: Daniel Belland (The Pansy Cabaret), Simon Abbott (thunder)CATS), Michael Clark (Conjoined), Steven Greenfield (Dreamers Cantata) among them. Just sayin’. 

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