Meet Barry, the hipster ‘bot: Artisanal Intelligence, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Artisanal Intelligence, Spec Theatre

Artisanal Intelligence (Venue 10, Acacia Hall)

By Alan Kellogg

Well, here we are, apparently a group of über-hip start-up types, ready to pitched by Jane (Hannah Everett) on a revolutionary new product. It’s Barry, (Drew Carlson) and she (or pick yer pronoun) is the ‘bot/automaton/droid of the future today, designed to fulfill every customer need in today’s exacting world of hipster commerce. Plaid flannels and myriad tuques rule.

There’s no limit at what Barry can do. Well, maybe a few things. From time to time, (her, its ?) ) ever-blinking eyes and general twitchiness signal trouble. There is that dalliance with Miss Boona, the coffee maker, not a bad harmonizer along with her brewing prowess.

Yes, things are not always tight with Jane, who clearly has some worries about her latest marketing project. It’s fair to say Barry has an independent streak, which could prove dangerous. Horror of horrors, there is actually a Barry job interview looming at Tim Hortons? My word.

Speaking of which, Ira J. Cooper’s rich, jam-packed script is a wondrous thing to hear, a veritable glossary of the Here and Now, with some serious things re: A.I., labour issues etc. to ponder among all the laughs, which are many.

The performances are very good indeed, and director Bronwen Marsden keeps things moving along expertly. Strong, entertaining work courtesy of Vancouver’s Spec Theatre, which is welcome back any time.





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Paying the price for crime: A Momentary Lapse, a Teatro comedy. A Fringe review

Jocelyn Ahlf in A Momentary Lapse. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls,

A Momentary Lapse (Stage 12, Varscona Theatre)

Enter, shackled together.

In one way A Momentary Lapse is part of the canon of plays that trap deliberately mismatched characters together to see what rapprochement is possible (nun and hooker, serial killer and musical comedy star, etc. etc.).

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In the normal course of events, when would Louise Trent (Jocelyn Ahlf), an earnest but over-extended 35-year-old self-improver (homemaker, Hansard typist, flautist, Lancôme salesperson at the Bay, novice Amnesty International activist …) intersect with Arthur Pomeroy (Luc Tellier)? He’s a jaded, perpetually exasperated high school senior who has withering views on everything, including Hamlet (he has “the most embarrassing mother”). 

But A Momentary Lapse isn’t the normal course of events. Not by a long shot. In this madcap, blithely wayward 2005 Teatro La Quindicina comedy co-authored by Stewart Lemoine and frequent Teatro leading lady Ahlf, the characters are linked by the Criminal Code — and their intertwined breaches thereof.

The Law (Mathew Hulshof), in one of its (sorry, his) many manifestations, has nailed them. They’re “miscreants” together, doing Community Service in joint atonement: cautionary public confession for the good of society. The play is their presentational re-enactment of their respective misdemeanours, lead-up and consequences.

Their official duties include acting the bit players in each other’s lives.You’ll see Ahlf’s Louise as the school guidance councillor, for example, and as Arthur’s best friend Cody, an outsized lunk-head ( as Arthur notes en passant, “6’5” is pretty uncalled for in high school”).

How a school trip to Denmark (Hamlet’s stomping ground, right?) intersects with book-burning, the latest of Louise’s projects on an overseas flight and the lyrics of MacArthur Park … is the plot. One thing doesn’t so much lead to another, as leap to another. The fabric of the comedy is the weave of the characters. These include The Law, amusingly played by Hulshof, the authority figure who shows up in every situation, morphing from traffic cop to assistant principal to sheriff to flight attendant — a bylaw on legs.

As played by Ahlf, Louise has a very funny desperate addled sincerity to her, as she vaults breathlessly between projects that she never quite grasps. And Tellier is out-and-out riotous as Arthur, who has elevated the eye-roll to a fine art. He combines sullen and intense, which sounds impossible on paper but exists in real-life everywhere.

Light, light-hearted, and salutary.


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A great story, and a teller to match: Good At Cults, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Good At Cults (Venue 47, The Buckingham)

By Alan Kellogg

So, we’re in the middle of a job interview, and an attractive late 20s-something-ish (New Yorker Cait Elliot) in a sensible summer dress is verbally punching up her resumé for a prospective employer onstage. She has a never-say-no attitude, a driver’s licence, makes toothsome biscuits, and well, she’s really, really, good at cults!

The story unfolds, and it’s a righteous contemporary stemwinder that holds our attention over a fast-paced hour. There was Cult 1, a standard guru in a turban outfit that linked up with the yoga teacher lessons.

But it was Cult 2 that is the heart of the story/interview. It began in a New York coffee shop (1, there is a 2 as well) where she meets The Guy.  He’s clearly full of it.  And yet, ruefully she admits that she was reeled into the spiritual hogwash this self-described zen master, enlightened one, piano player, blah-blah-blah, spewed out. Locations on our collective journey stretch from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village to sublime Vermont to a cabin near….Edmonton.

Elliot is a storyteller of a high ether whose dialogue rings absolutely true. You’ll fall in love with her a bit, or at least empathize as she carries you along the cautionary tale that’s very much of this moment. And very entertaining.

NOTE: In all the years I’ve covered the Fringe, I’ve never felt the need to add an advisory. Opinions are like — well, you know. But a reviewer gave this show one star, which has apparently affected attendance. That qualifies as egregious journalistic malpractice. Don’t believe it.



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A pint-sized activist in a tiny town: Look At The Town! A Fringe review

Brianne Jang in Look At The Town! Photo by bb collective.

By Liz Nicholls,

Look at the Town! (Stage 35, La Cité Francophone Theatre)

How can you possibly resist the sweet charms of a tale set in a miniature town, with a tiny perfect houses, a Thrift Store, not one but two Him Tortons, a hockey rink where everyone goes to hang out, a temple (that’s new), a Little Mar ( the “t” has fallen off).

The above, my friends, is a rhetorical question. You can’t. Come on, there’s even a teeny bin behind the Mall Mart, the big-box store, overflowing with teeny recycle-able packaging. 

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“I feel another great thought coming on,” says 11-year-old Isabel (the delightful Briane Jang) in Look at the Town!, a sort of miniaturized Grover’s Corners. Here’s one: “Just because something is true doesn’t mean you have to stop saying it.”

Smart kid, Isabel. In the course of this irresistible little play by Kenneth Brown for persons of all ages, including those in the single-digit bracket, an urban activist will be born. Isabel, who lives with her opinionated grandpa (Bob Rasko), has figured out that the drift into corporatization will destroy not just the spirit but the economic viability of the town.

And it’s been bad for the general tone, too. The high-holiday festivities, including the Christmas concert and Halloween have been cancelled by the school principal, a shrieky old-school grotesque (Melissa Blackwood). And Isabel and her best friends Jake (Bob Rasko) who’s hockey-mad and Gwendolyn (Candice Fiorentino) who’s really good at school, will end up doing something creative about it. In this they will be inspired by Isabel’s grandpa’s favourite expression, but I can’t tell you what that is, because it would give away the surprise.

The seasons change. So does the lighting.  And a little town gets a new life. (Come and tour it with the actors before the show starts).

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Why do people sing together? Crescendo!, a Fringe review

Crescendo! Chorus Productions and Plain Jane Theatre at Edmonton Fringe 2019

By Liz Nicholls,

Crescendo! (Stage 12, Varscona Theatre)

Why do people sing? And why do they sing together?

There is something both touching and exhilarating about a musical that takes these questions and runs with it, the way this new “play with music” does. A collaboration between musical theatre specialists Plain Jane Theatre and Chorus Productions, and set in a women’s community choir, it gives us a gallery of characters who have their own motivations for joining a choir — and making Thursday a sacred ritual in which they breathe and sing together.

What’s the draw? There are as many stories as there are characters. Playwright Sandy Paddick based her idea on real-life interviews. There’s prim Bobby (Colleen Tillotson) and anti-prim Darla (Michelle Diaz), who met in rehab, the former for an eating disorder and the latter for drugs. Natalie (Jenny McKillop) has seven kids, so you don’t even ask why she’s eager to be at choir practice on Thursday nights, and why she always arrives breathless and late. May (Kirstin Piehl) is socially challenged, and singing together is her best shot at meaningful connection.

And then there’s Pat (Dawn Sadoway), the intense conductor, whose musical past includes a shot at becoming an opera star. Flashbacks, including a comical jury scene, loop back to shed light on the fate of that youthful dream.

In Kate Ryan’s production, the five actors step forward to present, as  cameos, a gallery of other choir members. They explain why they joined the choir in the first place — loneliness and the feeling of being stalled figure prominently — and why they stuck with it.

And then there are songs — some of them originals by composer/ musical director Jennifer McMillan (a fine pianist onstage, live at a grand piano), and others gathered from the eclectic choral repertoire. At those moments, the joining of human voices in sound explains everything. 

Crescendo! doesn’t seem to have arrived at its final form, in truth. With the principal characters there’s an assortment of dramatic close-ups and long shots, so to speak. And the shape of the piece seems a little random and in-progress so far. But we’ll be hearing more from the Crescendos! 

We are all, in our own way, looking for connection, transcendence, and change. I’ve never been in a choir. But this clearly leaves yoga in the dust. 

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A wild journey, and an unlikely friendship: Kevin, King of Egypt. A guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Rob Gee in Kevin, King of Egypt

By Alan Kellogg

Kevin, King of Egypt (Venue 8 (Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre)

Among other attractions, The West Midlands county town of Leicester has been variously known for potato chips, pork pies and a rather tasty red cheese.

On the Fringe circuit, its claim to fame is monologist Rob Gee, who has parlayed 12 years as a psychiatric nurse into a strong, affecting 6o-minute performance on the vagaries of institutional care and societal imperatives regarding “mental health.”

Edmonton Fringe has a history with Gee and this show, including a CD of the work recorded here in 2016 — and natch, available for purchase, along with the script.

We watch, entranced – Gee is a dynamo onstage — as psych hospital inmate Kevin, who considers himself totally sane, escapes confinement and takes us on his wild journey to regain the throne in Egypt as rightful monarch. There are 13 characters on board, including key personage young Millie. And Gee is very much up to the task of keeping things moving smoothly and comprehensibly, no easy feat considering the manic nature of things. Sometimes – in the spirit of, and certainly not in derivative way — the show reminded me of Christopher Boone’s harrowing trek in A Curious Incident….

And Gee does it all by himself, with nary a prop or special effect in sight. As you walk out, entertained, it will also give you pause to consider how we treat the Kevins of this world.

As a postscript, more kudos for Gee are deserved for personally delivering the standard Treaty 6 opening advisory – a subject of some grumbling in certain circles, let’s be honest – to dramatic effect. There’s something about a kind-hearted visitor’s take on your place that makes the quotidian come alive.

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Best in the biz: Ron & Wayne, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Ron & Wayne

Venue 2 (Big Rock Backstage Theatre)

By Alan Kellogg

Many yuks, hoots etc. here from two absolute masters of improv comedy with impeccable credentials, Ron Pederson and Wayne Jones.

In classic fashion, they ask for a patron to come onstage and answer a few questions before dispatching them back to their seat and then proceed to instantly create a half-hour bit from a few basic details. On my afternoon, Abby, a 12-year-old aspiring actor visiting from Port Hope, Ont. was the willing victim.

Pre-teens can create some potential rubs for even the best of this realm, since the proceedings of thus normally raunchy medium necessarily have to be toned down (somewhat!) given the young subject.

But then Pederson and Jones are among the best in this field. They expertly delivered an hilarious fable, working in Abby’s short best friend Samantha, the balloon giraffe she was holding, the white sands of Port Hope, deep, comic Edmontonia from homeboy Ron and Abby’s relatives in the theatre, who were sitting at another table for some reason. And although the language etc. was indeed cleaned up a bit it, in no way was the performance dumbed-down, which speaks to the chops onstage. They also can and did do some physical comedy that rocked the nearly-full Backstage Theatre, a very agreeable venue for this act.

Money-back guarantee on a Fringe show from a couple of pros: It’ll brighten your spirits.

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The modest dreams of the grocery cashier: Check Me Out, a Fringe review

By Liz Nicholls,

Check Me Out, NextGen Theatre, Edmonton Fringe 2019.

Check Me Out (Stage 15, Holy Trinity Anglican Church)

In his new comedy, premiering in a NextGen Theatre production, Trevor Schmidt, who has written so often and so well for women, sets about capturing the dynamics of female friendship. And — tricky, this — it’s in a setting that isn’t in itself wildly “dramatic” or traumatizing.

In Check Me Out, we’re backstage, so to speak, at the Pennywise Family Grocery, in the “employees room” out in the back alley. That’s where cashiers go to smoke, hang out, chew the fat, sympathize with each other, bitch about the management, undergo cashier training (and attitude re-training).

There’s a blowsy and good-natured 31-year veteran Shirl (Elizabeth Allison-Jorde, in fanciful boho garb), who’s chronically late for work. There are a couple of young cashiers. Snarly Martha (Morgan Alexandra Donald),  in a cloud of vape, is glued to her phone. Her go-to conversational gambit is “fuck off Tanya.” The latter, a self-important eager-beaver (Janelle Jorde), is, as she’s fond of reminding everyone, the “junior assistant manager.”    

What sets the play in motion is the arrival of a newcomer, Daphne (Blair Wensley), whose husband has dumped her, for an older woman (how hard on the ego is that?). She’s wide-eyed, flustered and nervous about being back in the work force after 32 years, and Wensley captures all those qualities beautifully. She actually blushes, on cue. 

The performances are unforced, and on the money; we feel like we’re eavesdroppers, but the tone isn’t condescending. The humour is gentle, piquant but not pushy. The public address announcements are constantly a bit screwed up. “Everyone loves a good jellied salad.” Secrets are revealed. Suspense comes from the vegetable codes: will Daphne pass the cashier’s test?

And gradually, unobtrusively, you realize that “validation,” like dreams, comes in all shapes and sizes. The modest ones can be the most momentous. 

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What? A rueful, affectionate Mamet? A Life In The Theatre, a Fringe review

David Ley and Sebastien Ley in A Life In the Theatre. Edmonton Fringe 2019.

By Liz Nicholls,

A Life in the Theatre (Stage 28, The Playhouse)

In theory, letting David Mamet loose to satirize the world of theatre and its practitioners is a bit like offering a buffet of legs to a shark. If I were an actor, it would give me nightmares.

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But A Life in the Theatre, one of the earliest Mamets, isn’t the bloodletting you might imagine from the author of such foul-mouthed, viciously carnivorous stage outings as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet’s comedy of two actors — a crumbling veteran and an ambitious upstart in a low-budget rep company— does have its cruelties, true. But the tone is rueful, poignant, not usually part of the signature Mamet palette. It’s almost affectionate, for god’s sake, about the all-consuming world of pretend and fragile egos, its pomposity and hyperboles, its rituals and traditions, its malicious subtexts, its secret rancour.

In Kathleen Weiss’s Vault production, which cleverly moves from dressing room to rehearsal to stage, the father-son duo of David Ley and Sebastien Ley set forth the tensions between collaboration and competition in the double-portrait of the actors. The powers (and memory) of the older Robert are waning. Young John’s career appetites are getting sharper in inverse proportion to his tolerance for patronizing advice from his aging stage mate.

Robert, a bit of a windbag, is prone to lofty pronouncements about the theatre and life. “We must not be afraid of process,” he declares. “We are explorers of the soul.” He’s fond of beginning thus: “When you’ve been in the theatre as long as I have….”

The opening scene will make theatre pros smile (and wince a little). When the curtain comes down, Robert and John’s offstage repartee, starts with positive review of the highlights. There was lots of applause, ergo the audience must have been “acute, discerning.” Amusingly, it doesn’t take long for the knives to come out, but the jabs are sneaky. 

The Leys, father and son, manage the nuances in this interplay with considerable dexterity under Weiss’s direction. And they rise to a series of parody scenes of assorted genres, from dramas of marital infidelity to swashbucklers and war melodramas, with comic zest. 

“I loved the staircase scene tonight. Just like a poem,” says Robert, wheedling for kudos and a dinner invitation, and getting irritation instead from his young colleague. “I must tell you this about the theatre …” he begins. But John isn’t listening. He’s working on an audition piece.

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The fine art of Quatsch: An honest* History of Bullshit. A guest 12thnight Fringe review by Marc Horton

Paco Erhard in An honest* History of Bullshit

An honest* History of Bullshit (Stage 8, Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre)

By Marc Horton

In German there are any number of ways to say “bullshit.”

Paco Erhard, a Berlin comic making his second welcome stop at the Fringe, probably knows them all. There’s “Schwachsinn,” “Blodsinn,” with an umlaut over the “o,” and “Quatsch.”

“To bullshit,” an intransitive verb — but you knew that already, didn’t you?— is “veraschen,” and “a load of bullshit,” is “volliger Quatsch,” again with that pesky umlaut over the “o” in volliger.

Alas, I could find no translation for “bullshitter”although a pal whose knowledge of German is vastly better than mine said that “Dreckschwatzer,” might suffice, although he was also pretty sure it was regarded as vulgar and decidedly impolite.

I sincerely hope that Erhard, a genuinely funny guy, doesn’t take this the wrong way, but he is a Dreckschwatzer of the first rank. His 75-minute An honest* History of Bullshit is full of digressions, diversions, observations and the kind of self-deprecating humour that softens what sometimes might seem just a tad harsh. Pedophile priests, for example, come in for some richly deserved condemnation and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church gets a drive-by drubbing as well, which is all well and good.

And while this really isn’t a history of bullshit, it is really funny with just a little history, all of it complete fiction, I suspect, thrown in.

Erhard makes much of his Germanness – “Yes, I am German, but I have other problems, too,” – that drew laughs and applause at a near sellout mid-afternoon show.

He also touched on local issues. Calgary, for example, is “where they think libraries are made to be looked at from the outside.” It was also where he first learned irony, he said. “It’s where you take millions from the firefighters and give it to the Flames,” a quip that works only in cities held hostage by hockey teams.

Many, many things are skewered by Erhard’s wit. The list includes recycling, Americans,  Trump of course, IKEA, the German army, consumerism, religion, racism, nationalism, lefties, righties, liberals, conservatives, Brexiteers, etc., etc.

It’s great fun.

— Marc Horton retired after a four-decade career as a journalist with the Edmonton Journal where he covered cops, courts, city hall, environmental issues, education, indigenous affairs, politics, hockey, football, movies, books and women’s fashion. Only one thing on that list is Quatsch.





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