Teatro’s screen debut: three streamed productions launch the 2021 season, the fourth is live

Jocelyn Ahlf, Gianna Vacirca, Oscar Derkx in Lost Lemoine Part 1, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Adam Kidd

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

For the first time ever, Teatro La Quindicina launches a summer season, its 39th, with a live gala screening.

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This is happening in a real theatre (the Varscona) — with real opening night snacks and drinks, and real people including the playwright and director. After that, minus the playwright and director of course, screenings can happen at your place, with scheduling created by … you.

Lost Lemoine Part 1, a collection of six short, vintage Stewart Lemoine comedies, is the  first of the three digital streamed productions in a four-show season with a live in-person production finale (a revival of Lemoine’s Fever-Land). Directed by Belinda Cornish, a Teatro star and playwright herself, it went on an exploratory mission in the furthest reaches of the Lemoine collection, short play division, back into the ‘80s.

The playwright’s “pandemic project” has been digitizing his work. “Anything before 1996 was written on a typewriter,” says Lemoine. “Initially, in the ‘80s, it was a manual, shortly thereafter an electric one with automatic white-out.” Longhand? “I haven’t had to do that for years,” he says. “By now, my signature is just a feeling.”   

Of the 20 or so contenders, culled from a catalogue of 100 or more plays, co-artistic directors Cornish and MacDonald-Smith, with Lemoine, picked six for Lost Lemoine Part 1, varying from five to 10 minutes each and all with only two, three, or in one case four, actors in a scene together at a time. All had been seen before, in assorted permutations for special occasions or in vignette collections like The Argentine Picnic, but some of them not for decades.

The  criteria were tricky. Which would work best on film? Which were irretrievably “of the theatre,” as Lemoine puts it? How would they fit together? How would they work with the actors already named to the cast? And how adaptable were they to rehearsals in COVID-ian times?

Teatro was at pains to employ actors already signed for productions, like Evelyn Strange and Everybody Goes To Mitzi’s, that didn’t happen when the 2020 season was cancelled altogether, and were postponed again this year. “It was touch-and-go for so long,” sighs Lemoine. “And people had held the place….”

The six lost Lemoines of Part 1, he says, “were rehearsed, live, as theatre (on Teatro’s home stage, the Varscona), then adapted for the screen….” Which was possible because of generous support from the Edmonton Community Foundation and EPCOR’s Heart and Soul Fund. “It’s certainly a roll of the dice for us,” says Lemoine, “as far as predicting how it’s going to be attended. But we didn’t have to worry so much about ticket sales.”

The results, says Lemoine decisively, are “not Zoom! These are filmed with costumes and set…. We’re using the stage and not apologizing for being in a theatre. And they’re clearly plays.”

There are even scene changes, something of a Teatro specialty and definitely not a filmic device. Lemoine has always considered scene changes “an opportunity to energize a comedy. We work hard on them…. You don’t want things to go slack for a minute!” With a lively scene change, the audience arrives at the next scene pumped, he thinks. And Lost Lemoine Part 1, with its sextet of plays, is a veritable showcase for that art.

The possibilities of film have intrigued him, the interplay of close-ups and long shots, the assortment of camera angles, the imaginative use of recurring imagery devised by director Cornish. The filmmaker Adam Kidd has been invaluable, says Lemoine. Taking a cue from Ludicrous Pie (“Ibsen-esque” as he describes), one of the six plays of Lost Lemoine Part 1, the image of actor Gianna Vacirca working on an actual pie recurs throughout, as the pastry rollout proceeds. “A little extra narrative to move things along,” says Lemoine. “Belinda has created a through-line, with set changes and images.”

Lost Lemoine Part 1, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Adam Kidd.

Some of the six are “situational comedy,” says Lemoine. In The Gauntlet, for example, “a blind date goes very strangely.” The Crazy Woman features a woman in a psychiatrist’s office, “in a banal conversation that gradually twists and turn into something unexpected.”

Vague Harvest is much different. Lemoine cites the French avant-garde film Last Year at Marienbad to describe the ‘60s way “people drift in and out of rooms saying pretentious things…. I hope people don’t dive too deep — because there is really only a surface.”

Lost Lemoine Part 2: A Second Round of Seconds, also directed by Cornish, opens Sept. 3 at a second live gala screening and then available online. Originally written for The Novus Players, Teatro’s subsidiary company of lawyer actors, to perform in 2016, it’s spun from the idea of speed dating, a concept Lemoine felt needed improvement. “And I was willing to take this on.”

“Although there are there are eight people in the cast, there are only two in any given scene … with only one scene of convergence,” which made it a worthy COVID project.

The logistics are that a woman stays put in a cafe, or a salon, or a bar. And when the bell rings, “it’s the man who rushes off, room to room, to the next encounter.” Cornish and film-maker Kidd opted to shoot it out of sequence, “so we could build a more convincing version of the room, not just a table and chair surrounded by darkness,” says Lemoine. “It goes together like a sitcom but with the pace of a farce.”

Kristen Padayas in A Fit, Happy Life, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Adam Kidd.

The third of Teatro’s digital productions, opening Sept. 10 with a third live gala at the Varscona, is A Fit, Happy Life. It’s a reworked (and re-named) version of a 1985 play Lemoine wrote for a three-night run at the long-defunct Phoenix Downtown. Mathew Hulshof plays an earnest department store bed salesman having an unusually busy morning; Kristen Padayas has the challenge, and fun, of being the series of customers, all five of them.

These high-speed transformational changes are made possible by the medium of film. In the original stage production, the customers were all played by different actors. Rachel Bowron, a favourite Teatro leading lady herself, gets her first design credit doing the costumes. Lemoine and Cornish jointly direct.

“It’s been really educational!” declares Lemoine of the three digital streamed productions that start Teatro’s 2021 season. “Belinda really got on board with the possibilities…. She was all about the performances, and (devising) the storytelling in a different way…. I wandered around making sure the words were right.”

And the Varscona, with its big screen and sound system, gets to play movie theatre for three big gala performances.

Booking, and the subscription permutations for the season, are available at teatroq.com. The three filmed productions, opening on successive Fridays — Aug. 27, Sept. 3 and Sept. 10 — are available for streaming through Oct. 31. Fever-Land runs live in-person at the Varscona Sept. 23 through Oct. 9. Check out 12thnight’s conversation with Teatro’s joint artistic directors Belinda Cornish and Andrew MacDonald-Smith here.

 

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‘A lovely step back into live performing’: What was it like to be a Fringe artist in 2021? We asked.

Laura Raboud, Nadien Chu, Rochelle Laplante in Macbeth, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

For artists, the Fringe has always been an experiment. Does their new show have potential? Will it attract an audience? How will the audience react? Will they get it? Laugh in weird places?

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In 2021, when a live Fringe itself was an experiment in making something big smaller, and safe in dangerous times, artists weren’t even sure how they could rehearse together, much less what would happen in Old Strathcona on Aug. 12.

How did it work out? We caught up with some Fringe artists on the last Sunday of the festivities.

•For the first time in its 32-year history the Freewill Shakespeare Festival went fringing. It was with Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth, Dave Horak’s two portable small-cast 70-minute productions honed especially for taking to parks and people’s back yards this summer. Both shows sold out their allotted 60 per cent houses early in the week.

From more than one angle, Horak is happy with the results of the cross-festival experiment. “It accomplished what I wanted,” he says, “which was to hire back some the actors (who lost the gig) when we cancelled last season, and do versions of the plays originally programmed” before he got the artistic director job. “So I can come back next year with my own programming.”

The Fringe shows and the summer pop-ups “reached a different  audience than we would normally get,” Horak thinks. “I was surprised that both shows shows got such great response…. I think we brought in some of our usual Amphitheatre (Heritage Amphitheatre) but I also know we reached some new folks.”

“I designed Much Ado,” a riotous high-speed version of the multi-hued comedy, as a ‘kids show’ since we were on the (Vanta) Youth Stage, and it was great seeing kids in the audience laughing at Shakespeare.” He got positive feedback, too, from stalwart Freewill fans about Macbeth as an inventive all-female black comedy with satirical edges. “That was great too since there’s alway a risk messing with Shakespeare too much…. I think we were able to experiment a bit because it was the Fringe.”

“And most important we’ve been able to keep everyone healthy and safe!”

Incidentally, if you couldn’t score a ticket, here’s an option. Freewill is doing one more week of pop-up shows; some are private but a bunch are open to the public. Check freewillshakespeare.com for the schedule.

Whizgiggling Productions premiered a new play, Destination Wedding, a frothy concoction expertly made from comedy and mystery by playwright/ director/ designer Trevor Schmidt, Northern Light Theatre’s artistic director. “I think we were quite fortunate with both our location and having Trevor’s name attached to our show,” says Whizgiggling’s Cheryl Jameson, one of the three actors in the show. “We did quite well!”

“It felt weird being on site and crossing through the main outdoor stage area,” she says of that main Fringe thoroughfare, usually packed with people. “And there was almost never anyone in the beer tents, even the performer beer tent.”

She describes the 2021 experiment as a Fringe with “a small-town fringe festival feel to it, which isn’t necessarily bad, but there were no sounds and crowds and energy we were used to…. But I had an an amazing cast, we had great technicians and a great venue (the Westbury Theatre), so we ended up having a really great experience.”

“We are just thrilled to be back onstage doing live theatre in front of people instead of my cat.”

Carlyn Rhamey is one of a small number of artists who brought a show from the great big Canadian Elsewhere (in her case Hamilton). The ADHD Project is a captivating solo demo of how to use real-life personal documentation, to fashion a play. “Our venue (La Cité Auditorium) is a 200-seater, so at 100 seats (reduced capacity) it was perfect for me!” she says. “I enjoy a more intimate performance space…. Overall I did all right.”

At this year’s edition, which didn’t have crowds to pitch shows to, “ I found not being able to flyer more of a struggle, as I often get a chunk of audience through that,” Rhamey says. “But overall still a successful Fringe, and a nice easy intro back into touring and festivals.”

•Ashley Wright, director of Chris Dodd’s Deafy, a funny and moving solo show that took us vividly into the world of the Deaf, was pleased with the Fringe’s dual live/online face this year. “We did well at the box office. But we’ve also appreciated the opportunity to let people see it online. For those who are still hesitant to be out and about in crowds, or for folks who aren’t in Edmonton, the online version of Deafy (available now through Aug. 31) proved to be a big success.”

Jaimi Reese, Ceris Backstrom, Manny Aguerrevere, Josh Travnik in One Song, Margin Release at Edmonton Fringe 2021. Photo supplied.

•Calla Wright and Daniel Belland brought One Song, a startlingly impressive new musical about coming out for young audiences, to the Fringe in staged reading form, to test it out on a live audience. And the live audience loved it. At a festival where new work often gets lost in the fray of more polished crowd-pleasers, it was a happy experience, Wright says.

“It actually worked out great!” she says. “We never sold out or anything, but we had really solid houses of 15 to 45 people every performance. Our expenses were relatively low — just the space and Fringe fee (lowered to reflect the 60 per cent capacity rule) plus a few technical rentals and minor costume pieces — so we were actually able to break even, and pay the company a profit-share.”

“It was also very useful in terms of taking the show elsewhere! It was great for us to see the show eight times, and get a sense of how audiences reacted to various parts. We also found all our reviews gave us great feedback, which gives us a really solid jumping-off point for improvements.”

So a new musical that deserves a bright future was launched at the Fringe, in this strange year. Wright thinks the experience will take One Song forward. “We had some teachers come to the show and express interest in a future school tour, which was one of our big goals.”

“Definitely a weird Fringe…. I really missed seeing all the shows I normally do, and the en masse family reunion the Fringe usually is for theatre artists. But for us, One Song was a really lovely step back into live performing! It was incredible to be back rehearsing with new and old friends….”

“We felt so supported and safe to share our process with Edmonton. And I think we’re all feeling really fulfilled.”

   

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The finale, an update: The Fringe returned, small but live, and the people came…

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“A grand experiment.” That’s that’s how Megan Dart, Fringe Theatre’s interim executive director, describes this year’s trimmed one-of-a-kind adaptation of the Edmonton Fringe which ends its 11-day run tonight. “Like any good show you don’t know what is it till you get an audience.”

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Together We Fringe faced, head-on, the most controversial, logistically challenging, loaded concept of the year: togetherness. It’s always been a specialty at this, the continent’s oldest and biggest Fringe, with huge crowds outdoors, and audiences crammed into little theatres (many of them makeshift, and none of them roomy) indoors.

In this changeable late-pandemic moment, when the tension between human gathering and social-distancing continues after 18 devastating months, Together We Fringe celebrated 40 years of fringing by inviting theatre-goers back to the live theatre experience (with a digital option available for all shows in the official Fringe venues).

Would theatre-goers come? Inside (and with their masks on) to see live shows? No one could say for sure.

They did. A Fringe like no other (last summer’s was cancelled) in a year like no other was downsized by about three-quarters to 61 shows (from 260 in 2019) and 421 performances in 11 venues (down from 50), each reduced to 60 per cent of house capacity for social distancing.

By Sunday night, 71 percent of the available indoor show ticket inventory for this reduced-capacity Fringe, had been sold (some 37,307 tickets). Which is, impressively, a higher percentage than the 54 per cent of available tickets sold at 2019’s giant, with its record-busting 147,358 in ticket sales. And it’s not over. All digital Fringe performances are held over, online, till Aug. 31.

“We did our job! We’re a theatre festival!” Dart declared happily on Sunday morning, echoed by Fringe director Murray Utas. Of the five scenarios Dart, Utas and their team juggled in the landscape of ever-changing restrictions during this past year, one was to go all-digital, as other Fringes across the country (including Winnipeg) have opted to do this summer. “We didn’t want to go there,” says Utas.

Both he and Dart feel their “grand experiment” in going live has been validated. After a Zoom-laden year “people were missing it. Live theatre. Edmonton is a theatre town.” The streamed versions of shows produced (and paid for) by the Fringe were both “a gift to the artists, who can take them wherever they go, and insurance for us,” says Dart, in this landscape of changing restrictions. The streamed shows are all held over on Fringe TV through Aug. 31. So far they’ve sold 2,426 tickets (pay-what-you-can, with a $5 minimum), Dart reports.

Edmonton is a theatre town, yes; it’s also a summer festival party town. And the Fringe’s massive outdoor scene (in 2019 estimated at nearly 850,000 site visits) has been perhaps the biggest challenge of all to make over at a moment in history when public safety requires social-distancing. How do you prevent too many people from fringing together at close quarters, and still be a festive experience?

Utas and Dart experimented. Their initial try was a no-go, as they admit freely: a two-hour $20 entry ticket into the ATB (Gazebo) Park, gated for the first time, to see outdoor shows, grab a green onion cake and beer, and feel kind of Fringe-y. “”Murray and I stood in the park (on the first Friday), looked around, and knew it wouldn’t work,” says Dart. “We knew before we even opened.” Says Utas, “we’re just not gates and fences. We’re all about being accessible.… But we also knew we couldn’t welcome the masses” as usual. On a busy Fringe Saturday, it wouldn’t be unusual to attract 20,000 people to the site,  predominantly in the ATB Park and clustered in circles around street performers.

The entire park was licensed, which explains why the Fringe’s beer tents (“we had too many,” says Dart) seemed eerily empty. The $20 ticketing idea was jettisoned on the spot the first Saturday morning, adjusted to pay-what-you will tickets, with the money going directly to the outdoor artists in lieu of the audience bucks that would normally drop into their hats, busking style. “We’d already filled their hats,” says Dart of the Fringe’s direct contributions. By Saturday afternoon, the park had sold out (to wit, 500 Fringe-goers, at distanced picnic tables), and remained so almost every night. “It was an incredible success.” And somehow, “organically” laughs Dart, it was never over-capacity.

“I’m so proud of our team,” she says of production forces led by Chris Kavanagh. “Such care and heart to make sure it was a comfortable experience….”

In the end, the pay-out to Fringe artists (who chose the ticket price to a $13 max, and kept the gate minus the $3 Fringe service change) will amount to some $350,000. It’s a fraction of 2019’s $1.4 million, but  the artist roster is much smaller than usual. And Together We Fringe gave artists a chance to return to performing live in front of a live audience after a shutdown year. “No one had their legs under them,” as Utas puts it. 12thnight chatted to a selection of Fringe artists; look for their comments here.

Together We Fringe was a quieter, smaller, gentler version of something noisy, hustling, and big. But 154 of the 421 performances (389 of them indoor), more than a third, sold out (their 60 per cent max), reports Dart of performances in venues varying in size from the Garneau and Westbury Theatres to tiny Grindstone. To cite just a couple of examples from the range of Fringe “theatres,” there wasn’t a ticket to be had for either of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s two shows, Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing, after the first Fringe weekend. Die-Nasty sold-out seven of its nine performances at the Varscona. Every performance but one of Trevor Schmidt’s new play Destination Wedding at the Westbury was sold out. All the available tickets for the Fringe’s own Late-Night Cabaret at the Backstage Theatre, reduced to 68 seats, were instantly snapped up….

What will the Fringe team hang onto for the future? Digital versions of Fringe productions, say Utas and Dart decisively. Streaming is a great enhancer of audience outreach for one thing: fringers in 19 countries tuned in, and bought tickets (so far, another $7,000 to artists).

The experiment of a venue dedicated to Indigenous artists (curated by Josh Languedoc) is a keeper too. Quickly, tickets for the one-off performances at pêhonân were nearly impossible to land. “That they sold as quickly as they did (and to such a wide audience demographic) is so revealing about how necessary it was. It shouldn’t have taken so long!” says Dart. “Such a gathering of community and generations! This is just step 1….”

There were “a lot of firsts,” says Utas of Fringe 2021’s roster of game artists. “A lot of first-timers!” Dart points to “the significant piece of our festival ecology that was missing, the international artists, and a certain hum.”

“There’s no party to this one,” says Utas of Fringe 2021. “But it was kind, a kind version of the festival.” And, against the odds, it was back.

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The killer comedy of Die-Nasty, a Fringe review (or thought for the day or discussion point or whatever)

Mark Meer and Jacob Banigan in Die-Nasty, Edmonton Fringe 2021.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Die-Nasty (Varscona Theatre)

Well, this is a bit awkward.

I finally caught up mid-week with Die-Nasty, the improvised serial  soap with the late-night Fringe edition that’s actually set at the Fringe and about the Fringe (and let’s face it, the Fringe is pretty weird.) In this fringified town it’s a must-see comedy institution. It takes that meta-phenom of the Fringe show about Fringe shows to an entirely new and stratospheric level.

The Die-Nasty cast, with guests, rotates through the nightly performances, directed by Ron Pederson, with scene intros that are hilarious in themselves. Yup, there was Mark Meer’s very funny Hunter S. Thompson character, renamed Fisher T. Johnson, conducting interviews for his podcast Children of a Lesser Pod. His interviewee Wednesday night was Bart Gold (Wayne Jones), celebratory realtor, whose face is on every bus stop bench in Old Strathcona. As we learn in the improvised self-introductions at the outset, he’s not at the Fringe to find the next great Edmonton play (unlike everyone else … just kidding) but on the lookout for his fourth (“and best”) wife.

Here’s a hoot: Jacob Banigan is Spiro Gerussi, swaggering heir to the Canadian star legacy (a possible oxymoron) of his dad Bruno, of ancient Beachcombers legend. Reeking of entitlement, he’s in a Fringe play. And cowboy-turned-playwright Cooter James (Tom Edwards) isn’t happy with his work: Spiro has skewed the delicate tragic-comic (or is it comi-tragic?) balance of the piece.

Dr. Grimshaw (Stephanie Wolfe), the chief psychiatric officer of the Fringe, has a lot to work with, lie about, fudge, etc. She was having a day about town Wednesday night. The Mill Woods mall got a mention.

Naturally, there’s an emerging playwright (Tyra Banda), taking the momentous next step after Nextfest, premiering her gritty new play Fuck You Stephanie. There’s the Toronto actor of Method stripe and all-black wardrobe (Emma Ryan), reeking of noblesse oblige, who’s at the Edmonton Fringe to seek out pain.

And then, O No, there was a hapless, dithering theatre reviewer (Kristi Hansen) with a name similar (well, identical) to mine. She’s been cutting a swath through the Fringe. “I’ve recently become a murderer and an artistic director,” she says apologetically. Apparently the night before, Liz strangled rumpled, entirely affable Fringe artistic director Murray Utas (Matt Schuurman) in a fit of … what? pique? deadline pressure? murderous rage? evil? ruthless ambition (from seeing too many productions of the Scottish play)? Is this a natural extension of the theatre reviewer’s job (discuss amongst yourselves). I’m sure Liz has an entirely viable watertight alibi.

At last night’s Die-Nasty, I’m told, Liz was at it again. OK, one murder could be, like, accidental, right? Making a habit of it, well….

How can it all be resolved? This is the big unknown I leave you with. Meanwhile, I really have to do something about my hair.

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Living between cultures, with a legacy of secrets: Feast, a Fringe review

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Feast (Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre)

In Feast, you will see an Indigenous man in a T-shirt that says “You Are Living On Stolen Land” dancing gamely with a settler woman to ABBA’s The Winner Takes It All.

As you can gather, there’s a certain satirical sense of humour at work in Feast, brought to the Fringe by the puckishly named Indigenized Indigenous Theatre. Cultural juxtapositions and tensions are everywhere in this latest from Josh Languedoc (Rocko & Nakota), the multi-faceted Anishinaabe actor/playwright who’s the Fringe’s new director of Indigenous strategic planning.

At the centre of Feast are two lovers (Sheldon Stockdale and Marissa Gell), who fall in love across the Indigenous/settler divide. Each is haunted by voices, a dark legacy of secrets from their very different pasts. Is their relationship on a collision course?

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The roar that Gabe that carries in his head is his uncle’s voice, and reverberates from a mysterious coming-of-age incident with this formidable, imperious masculine figure in the woods. The uncle commands the boy to be a man. “Cmon boy, stand strong!.” “Cmon boy, walk faster!” “You have to learn to fight!” Gabe is struggling to write the story of that night.

Gabe’s unstable high-maintenance actor settler girlfriend Jocelyn (Marissa Gell) still hears the voice of a former lover in her ear. It’s a barrage of abusive remarks from the creepy and toxic director who played a bit part in shattering her self-esteem. “I’m not worthy to be loved,” she says. “All I ever do is push people away.”

On this first viewing — Feast is getting its first public audiences at the Fringe — the real heart of the play, to me, isn’t the relationship of the man and woman, except to know that it’s disintegrating. Jocelyn’s anxieties (theatre freelancing and an overbearing mother) are less gripping than the relationship between the Indigenous boy and the man he becomes, the spirit world Gabe once shared and the “real world” where people grow up and leave their roots behind.

The boy plays in a colourful, magical world co-habited by four companions, the animals of the Anishinaabe medicine wheel, who talk to him, run with him, protect him. And on a graceful set of stylized pillars — totems? — designed by Sarah Karpyshin, that world is rich,  animated, and individualized, by Rebecca Sadowski’s choreography, a weave of traditional Indigenous and contemporary movement motifs. The dancers — Emily Berard, Sydney Williams, Demaris Moon Walker, Kristin Unrah — are eloquent, both in speech and movement.

The man has arrived in adulthood trailing vestiges, and hearing echoes, of a boyhood spent more vividly among traditional Indigenous spirits. And the play leans into the question of whether (and how) that spirit world from his past can live in the adult still. That’s more fascinating, and more theatrically realized, I think, than the ups and of downs of Gabe’s romance with a needy actor.

But, hey, maybe that’s the point. Languedoc is a fluid writer of breezy dialogue; his muse tends to the comic. With this new play, the playwright is applying that dexterity to exploring the tensions of living bi-culturally, of hearing Indigenous voices from an Indigenous past filter into a present that tries in every way to dim that pulsing sound.

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You’ll laugh (a lot) and wince: The Disney Delusion, a Fringe review

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The Disney Delusion (Grindstone Comedy Theatre)

I don’t know if “wince-laughing” is a term yet in the audience reaction theatre handbook. If not, consider this clever, very funny solo play by and starring Leif Oleson-Cormack to be its official calling card.

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Wince-laughing will come naturally to you in the course of a show in which the man before us, who has a lighthouse beacon smile and a gift of the gab, tells a personal — hilariously, ruefully, yes wincingly, personal — story of his younger self.

This Leif, whom the current bisexual Leif conjures unflinchingly, with an air of “I know, right?,” is a sexual naïf with an MFA in playwriting, self-esteem issues, and unrequited romantic hopes in 2006. Imagine the sense of futility attached to a college education and chalking up mountainous student debts without ever losing your virginity. Wincing, right?

Anyhow our hero’s crackpot calculations vis-a-vis Arthur, a hunky crush he never seems to be able to land, go way south in the escalating chaos of a trip to Disneyland. Oleson-Cormack’s transparently ulterior motive vis-à-vis Arthur is a day of going on all the rides, with a carefully plotted progression towards the more romantic ones like Pirates of the Caribbean, and a movie kiss timed for the exact moment the nightly fireworks go off. What could go wrong?

The story of how he and Arthur are diverted by a sugar daddy doctor on the make before they even get to Anaheim, and end up in West Hollywood on the very night of Obama’s first victory, ups its ante in a crescendo of comic dread and hilarity. The gin-and-tonics are triples; “drunk logic” is disastrously applied. And did I mention the Frank Sinatra impersonator? The Disney Delusion is masterfully told, and annotated liberally with smart observational humour by Oleson-Cormack, a winsome performer, spontaneous and engaging.

“An (unfortunately) true story” as billed, the show is an unusual fusion of stand-up comedy and theatre. And it capitalizes on the particular appeals of both — the bright forward energy (and sharp-eyed comic observations) of the former, the narrative structure and momentum of the latter. Both the current and the younger Leif’s occupy the stage, in a vivid way. And they make great company for a Fringe hour.

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The wave, in free-flow dance form: Water, a Fringe review

Water, Viva Dance Company. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Water (Westbury Theatre)

The creator and the destroyer, the enigmatic element that makes us who we are, floats our boats, and drowns our hopes…. Water is the inspiration (and title) of an imaginative, free-flow new contemporary dance production by Viva Dance Company.

Its prevailing metaphor is the wave, a veritable wellspring of invention for a director/choreographer/designer/playwright (Viva’s artistic director Stephanie Lilley) with an ensemble of dancers at her disposal. But in its series of dances, Water comes to us in splashes, too, in stormy lashings, whirlpools, ebbs and flows, from white-water tempests to tiny drops.

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Water is in perpetual motion in Lilley’s production. Dancers accumulate gradually onstage, gather force and speed in synchronized wave movement, then subside. Storms are generated in collisions of bodies. A solo exploration of depression as drowning, the feeling of being at the bottom of the sea or the proverbial ‘slough of despond’, weighted down and unable to move — “how can nothingness feel so big?” — happens under a fine-web net. Dancers break free, come up for air so to speak, and vigorous athletic bursts of movement happen.

The crash/subside cycle is reflected both in lighting, and in the way groups of dancers form, then re-form. The lyrical gives way to the acrobatic, with music from pop-rock ballads to more hard-driving choices. The image of a tableau of dancers to one side, with a soloist centerstage, then joined by others, is repeated.

There is nothing prosaic about the way Lilley sets her cast in motion to music. The spoken text, though, is less poetic than the movement text. Calling water a “basic necessity,” true as it is, feels a bit like someone wearing a suit and oxfords to a deep dive, an intrusion from a land-locked medium of communication. Ditto “Clean water is a right not a privilege.”

But once you get, er, splashed by the visual metaphor, there’s a kind of immersion to the experience. Water is free-associative fuel for the artists at work here. Surf’s up and they dive in.

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Finding your place in the world: The ADHD Project, a Fringe review

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The ADHD Project (La Cité francophone Auditorium)

The woman before us onstage is her own best evidence that having ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) has its up sides.

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The energy of Carlyn Rhamey’s solo show is so attractive, and its creator/star so appealing, so ready to see the comical side of her own storytelling, that you’ll want to cheer. But growing up “special,” being a bit different in a world that rewards sameness, has its sadnesses and struggles too, as you’ve probably always suspected. And is confirmed, in a personal, first-hand way, in The ADHD Project.

Rhamey herself is “the project.” Her show is a first-hand chronicle of what it’s like to be barraged by challenges that include (as we learn) frantic fidgety energy, impulsive behavior, inability to pay attention, faulty memory. And she has the anecdotes and a supply of droll family photos, videos, and report cards — annotated with a comical slant, to document it.

The subtext, which gradually seeps through the bright surfaces of comedy, is a sense of exclusion, of loneliness. Kids have a cruel instinct for sussing out misfits: her younger self is a target for bullying — and it’s in both the classic styles. Her classmates either attack her or they pretend she doesn’t exist. The birthday party anecdotes are a heartbreaker.

Turning personal confession directly into theatre is a challenge in itself, as you know if you’ve spent any time fringing in the last 40 summers. The ADHD Project, thankfully, is decidedly not an example of personal therapy for the person onstage, depositing their supply of grievances, or the contents of their mind, into your lap. This is a show about stepping bravely into the fray, and thinking positive. ADHD people, after all, tend to be high-energy creative thinkers, problem-solvers par excellence. “Their brains are on fire,” says Rhamey. So it’s good to have them on hand when the world is burning.

Rhamey talks about the feeling she had, as a kid, “that no matter what I do I can’t find my place.” The fact that she’s in a theatre, a bright and user-friendly presence, making us laugh and teaching us something as she tells her own story, is a tip-off that her place has been found.

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The impossible, pulled off brilliantly: Gordon’s Big Bald Head in MasterThief Theatre, a Fringe review

Gordon’s Big Bald Head: MasterThief Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Gordon’s Big Bald Head: MasterThief Theatre (Varscona Theatre)

If there ever was a way to celebrate the return of live fringing to our summer — and simultaneously gloat that Edmonton has something no one else has — it’s getting a ticket for Gordon’s Big Bald Head.

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This deluxe trio of improv virtuosos — Mark Meer, Ron Pederson, Jacob Banigan — does something crazily difficult, maybe impossible, better than anyone else anywhere. Yes, world, we have a trio of improvisers so deluxe they invent an entire original  Fringe show at every performance — a version of a show chosen randomly from the Fringe program by a member of the audience. Armed with the title and the program description (and three chairs), they’re off.

This year’s edition, MasterThief Theatre, introduced with suitable PBS gravitas by Mark Meer, is specially tailored for the Fringe in its 40th year. Since there’s no weighty Fringe tome to flip through, the trio arrive onstage with a stack of programs from Fringes past the past.

I caught the show on the weekend. Fringe Daze, the 1988 edition of the Fringe, chosen randomly by a “criminal mastermind” in the audience, offers up, from Stage 14 that year, The Return of the Bride by the notable Canadian playwright Brad Fraser. Judging by the description it’s a thriller in a sinister mansion with a werewolf, Frankenstein, and other genre accoutrements.  Just for good measure, GBBH offered to throw in a few extras, a mummy and Dracula.

What happened then was a hilarious hour of entertainment, a mixed-monster plot of utmost intricacy, woven with dramatized bit and narration, and a wild assortment of characters set in non-stop motion with very funny physicality, cross-references, recurring gags, asides. The trio’s powers of concentration must be ferocious, but I have to say it looks utterly easeful. Comic chemistry at its finest.  

So what goes on in that big bald head of Gordon?

For one thing, as we’ve found out Fringe after Fringe, there are three remarkably alert, agile theatre brains synchronizing in there, alongside a comic timing device with a hair-trigger mechanism, and an archive of genres with a retrieval system that’ll make you blink in wonder.

Give yourself a treat. Fun fun fun.

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Off the page and onto the stage, with murderous intent: Murder He Wrote, a Fringe review

John D. Huston as Charles Dickens in Murder He Wrote. Photo by David Whitely

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Murder He Wrote: A Dickens Of An Hour (La Cité francophone theatre)

The stories are vividly dramatic, ’tis true. But the translation of Charles Dickens’s rich, descriptive prose style, and his gallery of vivid characters, into solo theatre is work for the pros.

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You’re in luck, fringers. John D. Huston is back at the Fringe with a two-part Dickens show he last performed here nearly three decades ago. Murder He Wrote is old-fashioned storytelling as performance, a virtuoso weave of narration, voices, very particular accents, expressive gestures, facial adjustments.

Part 1, Sikes and Nancy, a set-piece culled from Oliver Twist, take us into the criminal London demi-monde. The man who stands before us is Dickens, or a contemporary re-creation thereof, in vintage lecture wear (with Dickens hair), at a podium. Huston’s predecessor in this enterprise, a violent crime thriller, was the man himself. Dickens apparently took it on the road for his lucrative “Readings” series in 1868. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a hit. Nothing like lurid violence to draw in the Victorian thrill-seekers.

It’s a measure of Huston’s expertise that he sets in motion, with impressive precision, a cast of individual characters and the successive locales of a nocturnal pursuit, with annotations about the spooky shadows and lighting. You know exactly who’s who, in accent, cadence, and timbre.

The poster child for good-hearted women doomed by their attraction to bad men, sweet Nancy has terrible taste in boyfriends: he’s the brutish thug housebreaker Bill Sikes. On the night in question, she’s followed by a spy to a nocturnal encounter with a rich gentleman. It will not end well for her. And as for Sikes … well, Dickens as we know, is good on hauntings.

The companion piece, Captain Murderer, a droll confection adapted from a Dickens short story, is a macabre black comedy about a serial husband with a particular way of dispatching his wives. The characters are heightened, the surprise twists amusing. All good unwholesome fun. And fun, too, to see how an expert lifts storytelling out of the library, off the page, and onto the stage.

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