Madcap and moving: The Margin of the Sky from Teatro, a Fringe review

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

The Margin of the Sky (Stage 11, Varscona Theatre)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It’s somehow fitting that this 2003 Stewart Lemoine comedy about the mystery of inspiration and creation is revived by Teatro La Quindicina as the finale of their 40th anniversary season, (and their last appearance at the festival where they were born).

The Margin of the Sky, one of my favourite Lemoines, follows its characters through a dizzying day of  impulsive adventure in L.A., land of perfect sunsets on the edge of the world, concepts waiting to be pitched, dazzling possibilities. It starts in chance encounters.

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A woman sits on a park bench, by chance chokes on a chicken salad sandwich, and gets rescued by chance by a passing Canadian. He is, by chance, a playwright struggling to write a screenplay for his L.A. soap star brother-in-law. And in the course of the day with his new friend Alice (Jana O’Connor), Leo (Mathew Hulshof) will make a huge discovery about the infinite horizons of his work. 

Meanwhile, the soap star (Josh Dean), sitting in a chiropractor’s office, has his mind blown by a piece of music and the stranger (Celina Dean) who provides it via her earphones. He isn’t used to eye-watering experiences, or being “overwhelmed.” 

Josh Dean in The Margin of the Sky, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

That the music is Gurrelieder, a monumental orchestral setting by the German composer Arnold Schoenberg of a Danish poem that gives the play its title, is pure Lemoine. And its lush emotional vastness is a life-changer in different ways for the quartet of characters, in the course of a day that feels heightened somehow, giddy, a bit like a dream, or a hallucination. The margaritas in Santa Monica are real, though, not that slushy kind.

It’s an expansion of vision, I guess, the possibility of seeing the world from other, perspectives or other worlds beyond — an exchange of sunglasses over sunset drinks, as one scene sets it forth. 

In a terrific and subtle comic performance by Hulshof, Leo gradually discovers that his fine-tuned Canadian sense of irony will only get you so far in creation. (note to self: something to ponder at the Fringe). Dean is very funny, too, as a star, just a bit fatuous in his assumptions and used to the easy path through the world of daytime television and fandom. He gets diverted off the glossy main route, and he’s startled by his own capacity for not being shallow.  

Mathew Hulshof and Jana O’Conner in The Margin of the Sky, Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux

The women are a delightful contrast in performances from O’Connor and Celina Dean: Alice the good-natured bookkeeper whose natural reaction is to say yes to adventure and be wonderstruck; Sheila the crisper high-end dress shop owner whose LA. self-possession gets a little shake-up, too. When Leo, in a magical moment of transformation, declares them “absurdly lovely,” he’s dead serious.

The ending is a framing surprise, so I won’t spoil it. I’ll just tell you that it makes you understand the excellent adventure in a new way. It’s madcap and it’s moving, like those margaritas “serious drinks in whimsical glasses.” Like Spence your eyes will be shiny.   

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The affectionate speedy fun of Six Chick Flicks in 60 minutes, a Fringe review

KK Apple and Kerry Ipema in Six Chick Flicks or a Legally Blonde Pretty Woman Dirty Danced on the Beaches while writing a Notebook on the Titanic. Photo supplied.

Six Chick Flicks or a Legally Blonde Pretty Woman Dirty Danced on the Beaches while writing a Notebook on the Titanic (Stage 1, Westbury Theatre)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If you’re under the impression that the term “chick flick” is a gold seal of approval for movie greatness, it’s possible that your mind will be blown by Six Chick Flicks….. What? No! You mean that there are romance narrative loopholes, cornball sexist clichés, and melodramatic improbabilities in chick flicks we know and like and re-watch? Who knew?

For everyone else, however, the fun of this high-speed two-person send-up of six favourites is mainly in the comic sparkle of its likeable performers (Kerry Ipema and KK Apple), the precise physicality of their character transformations, and the stage virtuosity involved in delivering half a dozen annotated re-enactments in 60 minutes.

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The script by Ipema and TJ Dawe is amusing in pointing out what we already know: big box-office movie successes about women written by men don’t have anything to do with a woman’s lived experience (whoa, there’s a shocker). This “analysis” of the male perspective is woven, at breakneck speed, into the physical comedy.

Six Chick Flicks… traces The Rose Effect, christened in honour of the Kate Winslet character in Titanic (who’s OK with posing nude and has an orgasm the very first time she has sex) through the six movies. There’s a through-line in the six-pack, as they note cheerfully, in “orgasms and unrealistic expectations.” a succinct summing up of the male gaze in Hollywood.

Ipema and Apple amplify in zesty montage sequences: “Death Montage,” “Falling in Love Montage,” “Shopping Montage.” And, speaking of shopping, sometimes the heroines get to speak for themselves. Legally Blonde’s Elle, for example, who’s articulate since she’s a lawyer, explains the gist of her situation, a real time-saver: “I’m blonde, I’m rich, I’m pretty, and I’m blonde.” 

The celebrated Dirty Dancing lift is re-created for our entertainment, along with iconic moments in all their absurdity, through women’s eyes. The show stops for a moment to consider the terrible social implications of the Roe v. Wade decision before it resumes. 

We’re not talking satire here, or parody. As in Seinfeldian comedy, the show’s playground is the familiar: movies whose faults we already know, shrug off, and like anyway. An affectionate and entertaining send-up created in the spirit of fun. Dénouement: the  audience roars to their feet.   

 

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Playful and teasing, absurd and serious: White Guy On Stage Talking, a Fringe review

White Guy On Stage Talking. Photo supplied.

White Guy On Stage Talking (Stage 4, Walterdale Theatre)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Surprise! Here’s an entertainingly hyperactive, inventive performance piece that takes live theatre at its word.

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C’mon, there’s is no known way to predict what will happen next when a 21-scene hour-long show starts with Ass Song, starring a butt puppet smoking to Don’t Rain On My Parade (great moments in musical theatre), and includes Souls For Sale (audience collaboration on a list of things you’d sell your soul for), and a comic meditation on the sketchy service at The Last Supper. No wine (supply chain issues), only water.  

White Guy On Stage Talking, starring Jack Tkaczyk and Meegan Sweet, is, title notwithstanding, far from a lecture or a monologue. It’s a barrage of theatrical sass and ‘trigger warnings’ come to life,  before your very eyes. It’s both literal-minded and playful, smart and dumb, teasing and serious, goofball and satirical —sometimes in the same scene. The pair onstage touch down on, or bounce around on, or lift off from, a wide assortment of thoughts about modern life, its habits, its irritations, its absurdities and specious claims, its bullshit. 

And this is fun. 

There’s shame and catharsis, both involving easy-going audience participation (with champagne as a reward). It’s theatrical free-association at a sensory-overload buffet. In Happy Pride, scene 5, you can hear the vicious anti-tran rant written to Canmore Pride by the owner of disgraced Valbello Gourmet Foods. In scene 7, Creative Process, an amusing little piece of self-mockery from theatre artists, Sweet gets wrapped in plastic gauze, as Tkaczyk in a pumpkin head does close-up eye contact with the folks in the first row. 

I don’t want to give away the show’s vision of Heaven, except to say it involves a plastic swimming pool and an electric toaster. As in surrealist imagery, you pretty much have to unhinge the lobe of your brain that craves meaning, then hook it back up for scenes that make fun of fatuous modern practices like makeovers, or wonder about the queasiness that Juliet is 13 when she hooks up with Romeo.  

And modern theatre, you know, like White Guy On Stage Talking, takes some shivs too. How can you resist the spirit of performance art that water-boards “first-person theatre” in a pool. “Where’s the plot?” the torturer demands to know. “How will people know the meaning?” 

Have yourself a Fringe experience, and meaning will kind of seep into you. Don’t take anyone prissy.   

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The quest for the inner goddess: Guys in Disguise’s Crack in the Mirror, a Fringe review

Trevor Schmidt, Jake Tkaczyk, Jason Hardwick in Crack in the Mirror, Guys in Disguise. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Crack in the Mirror (Stage 11, Varscona Theatre)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In honour of their 35th year at the Fringe, Guys in Disguise, who cast their sharp-eyed long-lashed gaze on women’s roles, make a return to suburbia, the traditional home turf of the married, for the third of their Orchard Crescent trilogy. Crack in the Mirror, by the Guys in Disguise team of Darrin Hagen and Trevor Schmidt, is the funniest (and most insightful) of them all.

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The trilogy began in the ‘50s with a prickly comedy of nuclear paranoia Prepare For The Worst. The formidable ‘60s wedding planner mother in Don’t Frown At The Gown undertook to dispense lessons in the social proprieties of that decade. It ended with a mysteriously unapologetic single bridal shop owner saying “There’s a new kind of modern woman coming.”  

And now it’s 1977 and that new modern woman is struggling to emerge from the suburban girdle, so to speak. That’s what ladies support groups are for. And at the meeting of the Ladies Auxiliary of Orchard Crescent the apprehensive participants are about to undertake an early feminist ritual. “Mirror mirror on the floor,” reclaim your inner goddess, says the feminist manual. And objects in the mirror, as a character will later observe, are closer than they appear. 

Feminism approaches, but the suburban battlements are well-fortified. Melanie (Schmidt), the beleaguered mother of five teenage boys (she answers the phone “lady of the house”), is the big-haired pill-popper hostess who knows exactly what to do with Pillsbury crescent rolls. “Everyone loves it when I’m in charge of snacks.”

Ruth (Jason Hardwick), a divorcée, arrives shorn at both ends just to spite “that bastard Larry.” She is woman, hear her roar. Ginger (Jake Tkaczyk) is a widow (the respectable way to be single), back from the Betty Ford, and strictly old school. “You’re so pretty you don’t need to be a lesbian,” she tells Ruth, who’s reported an abortive date with one Ray who turned out, alas, to be Rae, and A Girl. Mrs. Bradley hasn’t heard of Gloria Steinem, but wonders if she lives on the cul-de-sac.  

Guys in Disguise has never met an entendre they could resist doubling, and the script has its own giddy sense of humour. There’s a  scene built entirely on extreme pronoun entanglement, a la ‘who’s on first?’. You’ll laugh, I know it.   

The performances in Trevor Schmidt’s production will crack you up. Schmidt is the perpetually dazed Melanie, with her whispery little girl voice and instinct for conciliation. Her double-takes and pauses for reassessment are amusing in themselves. Hardwick’s Ruth talks loud, trying to be all brave and modern and brash because she craves validation for splitting with “that bastard Larry.” 

And, in a performance of inspired deadpan, statuesque Tkaczyk is Ginger, trotting with a forward lean on her high heels, genuinely perplexed by modern developments in thinking. And also modern developments in sitting: watching Ginger try to figure out how to sit on throw cushions is a little gem of physical comedy. 

Crack in the Mirror treats her affectionately though. The men of Orchard Crescent, wherever they are, should be very nervous.   

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Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away: Fags in Space, a Fringe review

Braden Butler and Sheldon Stockdale in Fags in Space, Low Hanging Fruits. Photo supplied.

Fags in Space (Stage 4, Walterdale Theatre)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, two gays messaged each other…. 

In this charmer of a rom-com by Liam Salmon, Luca and Todd (Sheldon Stockdale and Braden Butler, both excellent) are reviewing the cosmic forces that have brought them together across a vast universe. They’ve just moved in together, the final frontier. And they’re hosting a Christmas housewarming, a double-barrelled couple stress, fielding the inevitable question from their guests (that would be us): So how did you two meet?

And since Todd and Luca are reviewing their narrative — “our trilogy, boxed set, limited edition” — for our benefit, revising and rewriting memory, amending and confirming as they go, Fags in Space starts in the sheer randomness and breadth of deep screen gay space — Grindr, SCRUFF and the rest — and a frisson of gravitational attraction between distant stars. And it includes their own takes on such classic get-to-know-you gambits as “what was your worst date ever?” and “where do you see yourself in five years?”

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Todd,  sweetly earnest and awkward in Butler’s performance, is an astronomy post-grad who doesn’t know Star Wars from Star Trek. Luca, an expert on the nerdier reaches of pop culture, works for a company that creates exotic new cereals for upmarket hipsters. His wry and easeful sense of humour is winningly captured by Stockdale, Can Todd and Luca find happiness together?

Rom-coms are built on friction, obstacles to overcome, apparent incompatibilities, setbacks and separations, doubts, improbabilities that are actually romantic inevitabilities to everyone (except the participants). Salmon, a skilled writer of natural, funny romantic dialogue, moulds the form artfully. And Owen Holloway’s production is lit with the romantic chemistry between the actors; Salmon’s characters are amusing and amused with each other, a little wary, very aware of the odds stacked in this world against gay love stories with happy endings. We want them to succeed. 

Did I mention that it was a fun party at Todd and Luca’s place?  And we all had a very good time?

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Oh no! Bots have invaded theatre and they can do it: Plays By Bots, a Fringe review

Plays By Bots. Photo by bots.

Plays By Bots (Stage 7, Yardbird Suite)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Welcome to the future. Crazy: Why did I choose to believe that, OK, bots might be able to do neurosurgery, repair Maseratis, host TV morning shows, but there are limits. Bots would NEVER be able to write plays. C’mon, theatre is, like, special. You know, reserved for humans.

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What was I thinking? 

True, the improvisers of Rapid Fire Theatre (a corps that includes a couple of brainiacs like Kory Mathewson who specialize in A.I.) have created scenes with A.I.’s before now. Now, RFT has enlisted Dramatron, a bot brainchild of the research scientists at DeepMind, to write scripts for theatre, including locations, stage directions, characters, dialogue. And, OH NO!, Dramatron has actually delivered. It’s just that the bot script just stops part-way through (I mean the bot doesn’t get a Canada Council grant or anything). And it’s for the RFT cast to improvise what happens and how it all ends. 

Plays By Bots presents one Dramatron play per Fringe performance. Friday night’s script was The Man At The Bar, set in a dive bar called The Pool Pit with (as specified in the stage directions) a dirty floor and an atmosphere full of smoke and the smell of beer. 

At the outset the four-member human cast each got a sealed envelope with script and  their role descriptions, and a bag of props and costume pieces. Teddy (Jacob Banigan) is “an orphan and gifted lounge singer,” Gerald (Michael Johnson) is “quite wealthy.” His wife Rosie (Tyra Banda) is “a regular.” Gordie Lucius in a fetching blond wig is Lolo the road-weary bartender. 

And if there’s a certain flatness in the dialogue, which runs to declarations, that in itself is amusing since it turned out to be perfectly suited to the deadpan comic talents of Friday night’s improvisers. Banigan, for example, knows exactly what to do with “I’m putting down a song. A special song. I’m gonna sing the song.” He returns, as instructed, to the mic to deliver lounge-y songs extempore (“this is a helluva town…”).  Rosie declares “I have a new hat…. I look beautiful in it.” Gerald says to Teddy “I want my money…. I’ll sue you.” 

The surprising thing (surprising to me, anyhow) is that the whole Dramatron play does hang together and create a world. About half-way through, the alert human actors start improvising,  from the groundwork of the first part. They run with the characters; they reprise particularly funny laugh lines. Things happen, but Lola keeps pouring the drinks, and the human actors continue to capture the playwright bot’s tone. 

It’s a genuinely funny entertainment. Uh-oh. 

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Putting the grit into dark comedy: Mules, a Fringe review

Kyra Gusdal and Miracle Mopera in Mules, Edmonton Fringe 2022. Photo supplied.

Mules (Stage 4, Walterdale Theatre)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Mules, a tense and suspenseful two-hander by the actor/playwright team of Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic (who starred in the 2006 premiere), puts the grit back into dark comedy.

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Its entry-level mystery, so to speak, is a mysterious odd-couple sitcom encounter, at first comic, between two women, high school classmates who haven’t seen each other in a decade — in the women’s can at Vancouver airport. And it just keeps escalating in a farcical high-stakes way that leaves “it seemed like a good idea at the time” in the dust. 

One character, Cindy (Kyra Gusdal), is a stripper, a hard-edged chick, on a fuse that isn’t long and gets a whole lot shorter in the course of Mules. The other,  Crystal (Miracle Mopera), a single mother with a cheery air of normalcy about her, has a germ phobia about using public washrooms, which certainly puts a damper on the urgent task at hand. Her erstwhile classmate has sent her on a drug smuggling mission to Bogota, and retrieval of the illegal import, as the title tips off, is at hand, assisted by Ex-Lax.  

“Life is going to get a lot better for both of us,” Cindy insists. As one thing after another goes way wrong, this will start to seem, well, ill-advised, crazy, and probably doomed, a bit like the unravelling heist that David Mamet’s inept lowlifes in American Buffalo are plotting. 

What sticks with you about Mules, as Kevin Sutley’s production confirms, is that it frames a story that emerges, in bits and pieces, little exchanges, revelations and silences, of girlhood hopes shut down, dreams delayed indefinitely, friendships abandoned and betrayed, the sense that life somehow just isn’t as good as it should be, and still could be — if only. 

Kevin Sutley’s production is both supple in its rhythms and intense in momentum, between moments of comedy. And two very watchable young actors, newcomers to the scene, bite into this demanding material in compelling ways. Gusdal convincingly charts the rocky two-way route between tension, panic and desperation. Mopera is entirely convincing as the struggling single mom who has dared to reimagine a future beyond the scramble of the present. 

 

     

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Epic in scale (and complication). Horror, mythology, folk tale, social satire in a new musical… The Erlking, a Fringe review

The Erlking, Scona Alumni Theatre Co. Photo supplied

The Erlking (Stage 23, Strathcona High School)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s a fascinating ambition about the mélange of horror, mythology, folk tale and social satire in this new musical (book, music, lyrics) by Chris Scott.

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In a small town outside a city, children have been disappearing, right at harvest time. The mayor is a fascist who hates poor people and the lower classes generally, the Catholic priest is creepy, and there’s a peculiar stranger in town with a grievance and a proposition for kids. Ah, and everyone has stopped believing in magic. 

No, my friends, we’re not in Brigadoon any more. We’re not even in that midwestern town in Footloose where the mayor is dead set against rock n’ roll and dancing. 

The Erlking is an original, and it’s epic (a Fringe rarity) — not only in conception, in cast size (12 performers), in sound (big electronic orchestral tracks that, alas, in the opening performance’s sound mix tended to drown out the lyrics), but in plot complications. 

The opening scenes of the Scona Alumni Theatre production, which review the fateful events of the year before, set forth a rigid class system where the poor kid outcasts sing and dance in rambunctious fashion, and the compliant upper-class kids form prim quartets and sing like church choirs. Scott’s music, which includes a kind of operatic recitative to propel the narrative, is unfailingly inventive.

The mayor (Annette Loiselle) talks the talk: children are our future, children are the preservers of our way of life, etc. etc. she says on more than one occasion. But as for walking the walk … well, we meet her own children. Michael is a conflicted young man since his best friend is lower-class. Michael’s sister is a steely-eyed upholder of the maternal orthodoxy, without her mother’s beaming smile and fake charm.

The stranger in town (Natalie Czar), as you quickly glean (not a spoiler), is the Erlking, After a lot of teasers to everyone onstage, it transpires they’ve come to correct a myth maladjustment in which they are routinely maligned as an evil elf who lures kids to their deaths. Their goal is to restore the lustre of their ancient reputation and make life better for everyone, by reinstating magic. But they’re unwilling (unable?) to use their powers right away. Why? Possibly it’s because they rely on faith and belief, and both have atrophied, as the characters reveal in a somewhat repetitive sequence of scenes. 

Anyhow, the Erlking, who prefers to go incognito, uses a variety of aliases (“just another grain inspector,” they say, “making her way through the void of capitalism”). The story unfolds in a series of repeated musical argument scenes to reinforce the set-up — between Michael and the other kids, the Erlking and skeptical kids, the mayor and the kids, the kids amongst themselves, the mayor and the mayor’s empathetic maid.… 

There’s no shortage of juicy ideas and vivid characters here. But since the Erlking, who’s high-spirited, recruits one kid at a time, with lots of scenes devoted to second thoughts and re-tries, the serial, looping nature of the storytelling makes the whole thing feel a bit over-extended, in truth. It takes quite a while to build — there are a lot of entrances and exits — and might fruitfully be condensed. And there are big rewards to be had in doing that, I think.

You’ll enjoy the spoken dialogue of the script with its barbed comments about education cuts, pedophile priests, the inequities of the economic status quo. There’s an unusual and impressive musical here in the making, a couple of drafts from its final form. Hey, that’s the magic of the Fringe. 

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A smart, fun, dark new ‘relationship’ musical: Conjoined, a Fringe review

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

Conjoined: A New Musical (Stage 13, Servus Theatre, La Cité francophone)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s always someone to block your sun. And, be honest, wouldn’t your heart feel lighter, your spirits rise, your life be just better without that someone weighing you down, smudging your prospects, thwarting your dreams, clouding your blue skies?

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This clever, darkly funny little original rock musical by Stephen Allred and Seth Gilfillan, is about that. Unfortunately, for Pat (Josh Travnik), the someone who’s casting a perpetual shadow over him is his handsome, buff, conceited, bossy, smug twin brother Braxton (Seth Gilfillan). And worse, they’re attached, permanently. Which certainly ups the ante on sibling rivalry and the classic struggle for self-discovery.  

Braxton and Pat are not a two-man democracy. The former, whose self-esteem knows no bounds, is a gung-ho achiever, a repository of up-and-at-‘em aphorisms, who makes all the decisions — when they get up, when they go to sleep, when they brush their teeth and do cross-fit. By his own admission Braxton is “popular, successful, and everyone loves me.” 

Well, not quite everyone. Pat is simmering with exasperation and resentment; he was shortchanged on everything, including his name. “Look at him, look at me,” he laments in one of the show’s witty, cleverly rhymed songs. And resentment, as set forth in song, is gradually turning into murderous fantasies as Travnik conveys in a captivating junior Sweeney Todd escalation. “What if the source of all your problems just disappeared?”

How do you grow up, discover your sexuality, find love, make your own choices, when I is we? Now there’s a pronoun problem for you. Could they be separated? Braxton is devoted to the dying wishes of their mother, who was religious (“she marched against gun control,” says Pat) and prescribed eternal togetherness. Medicine offers a way out. Will ‘they’ take it?

There’s a kind of macabre hilarity to the storytelling, and the graphic way, heartfelt but amusingly unsentimental, that it twists a universal coming-of-age and relationship problem into a new shape.  

The tricky bare-stage stagecraft and choreography by Allred in this Straight Edge Theatre production is ingenious. And Gilfillan and Travnik, strong singers both, are real firecrackers onstage. 

The music, accompanied by a live onstage three-piece band with chops,  propels the story in an accomplished and catchy mix of  musical theatre-type dreamer songs (“If I were me, just me …”), pop ballads, driving rock numbers…. Conjoined is startling, smart, and fun — a brand new musical it’s exciting to find at the Fringe. You’ll leave smiling.

 

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Creating ‘the impossible, mysterious sound’: The Hunchback Variations, a Fringe review

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

The Hunchback Variations (Stage 3, Studio Theatre)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A curious pair arrives onstage at the start of this smart, touching, genuinely odd, sometimes trying two-hander comedy. “Good evening and welcome …” says the brisk, professionally genial guy in the business-casual suit at the outset, evidently a veteran of such occasions. “I am Ludwig Van Beethoven, composer, and on my left is Quasimodo,  hunchback and former bell ringer for Notre Dame de Paris.”

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The absurdist premise of The Hunchback Variations, an enigmatic 2002 comedy by  Chicago playwright Mickle Maher stops you in your tracks: it’s a panel discussion on sound delivered by two of history’s most famous Deaf artists.

Unlikely collaborators, they’ve been working to create the “impossible, mysterious sound” demanded by Chekhov’s famously elusive stage direction at the end of Act II, and again the final scene, of The Cherry Orchard: “Suddenly a distant sound is heard, coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away.”

Ian Leung and Dave Clarke, The Hunchback Variations. Photo supplied.

Directed by Davina Stewart originally for the Northern Light Theatre season just past (a COVID cancellation), the piece unspools in 11 variations, with minor adjustments. The grotesquely masked Quasimodo (actor Dave Clarke, ironically a sound designer himself) presides over a table of assorted noise-makers — rolls of cellotape, a melodica, a bell, finger harp, coconut shells … — and sounds them at random intervals. 

In each case Beethoven — veering between abrupt dismissal, condescension, bemusement, and enforced affability in Leung’s perfectly pitched performance — says “that is not the sound.” Sometimes Quasimodo, an earnest and lyrical participant once he starts to roll reads from prepared statements about artistic failure — the types of it, the ways to make it more pleasant (“I believe everything would’ve gone a lot better if we had not rehearsed at my house”), the inevitability of it. Would it have mattered if Beethoven had actually read The Cherry Orchard? Possibly. Nah, not really. “Our collaboration was doomed,” says Quasimodo.

Art about the intricacies of failing to create art: there’s a certain dry origami wit to that sort of rueful, nagging artistic introspection. Is all artistic creation, in a sense, absurd, since it can never arrive fully at the capture of feeling beyond the human capacity to express it? The Hunchback Variations persists with questions like that, and leaves you with them. .

Not every audience will have the patience for it, in truth. But the insights are moving. And so is the portrait of the artist as perpetual quester, imprisoned by a crazy need, in the face of inevitable failure, to “express the inexpressible,” as Beethoven puts it, or “solve the impossible problem,” as Quasimodo says. You keep trying, knowing “that is not the sound.”  

Where do all the failures go? wonders Quasimodo. “Where is the place for the uncreated?” This elliptical set of variations is all about building it. And in its strange way, that’s a fascinating project. 

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