The Fringe threw its biggest party in thirty years, and more people than ever before showed up! I’m ecstatic that the festival attracted its largest crowds this August, but more than that, finally blew past the 100,000 ticket barrier (selling a total of 104,142 tickets)! I’m sure some of this had to do with the stellar weather over the ten days, and its anniversary year, but it’s likely also connected to the proliferation of BYOVs (Bring Your Own Venues) across the city.
Several of the shows I took in this year were hosted at BYOVs, but only one that we visited was far-flung from the Old Strathcona stratosphere, at the Stanley Milner Library. Though I do enjoy immersing myself in the festivities of the Fringe grounds, on a weeknight when we only had enough time or energy to take in one show, I really appreciated being able to have dinner at home, walk to the venue, and walk back, without having to transcend the crowds. I had to wonder if those who live in Oliver or on Alberta Avenue felt the same way about their neighbourhood BYOVs. I know it’s a train of thought engendered as a result of where we live, but if this trend of BYOV expansion continues, it’d be neat to see BYOV “districts” spring up, so that patrons wouldn’t necessarily have to leave Old Strathcona for just one or two shows. If they could base an evening or a day in that area, perhaps it would be win-win for everyone.
Sustainival was a new to the Fringe this year, carnival rides powered by used vegetable oil. I’m a sucker for amusements, so I was looking forward to taking this part of the festival in as well. I wasn’t sure how successful it was, as there never seemed to be that many people in line. From his remarks, Sustainival CEO Joey Hundert seemed happy with the response (25,000 rides sold), so perhaps a steady stream was all that could be expected from a sideshow that was new to everyone.
Mack and I rode the Tornado and the Ferris wheel (of course), and we definitely appreciated the lack of line-ups. From up above, however, Sustainival definitely seemed like a world of its own, not yet integrated into the Fringe world.
I felt like we bought and ate more food on the grounds that we have in past years – and like the plays we watched, some meals were better than others. My favourite was again Zaika – the mango chicken ($10) provided a healthy portion that wasn’t overly spicy or sweet, and a samosa with a crisp-perfect texture.
Mango chicken with rice and a samosa
The Nomad Kitchen was a disappointment, after hearing many good things about it. Service was poor: Jill and I weren’t acknowledged for several minutes, and when we were finally able to order the North African grill ($12), I received an incomplete dish (it wasn’t dressed with bean spouts, cilantro, or their signature sauce).
North African grill with tofu
Mack was similarly disappointed by his banana crepe ($6) from Crepes-Mania. The crepe itself was good, but they used green bananas so hard and tasteless he had to pick them out.
Mini doughnuts are an annual tradition for us, and did (hurrah!) hit the spot.
Some of the best food at the Fringe ended up being at sit-down restaurants. We had time in between performances one night, and trekked over to Route 99 to revel in our usual order of poutine and pizza.
On another day, we lunched in a gloriously quiet Packrat Louie – a little pricey for a lunch at the Fringe, but a good trade-off for solace.
Spicy Hawaiian flatbread and Halibut ‘n Chips
For the first time in recent memory, the balance of the dozen plays I watched this year tipped on the poor end of the scale. Two in particular I really didn’t care for, while a few others rounded out the middle. As I’ve said in the past, however, that usually makes me appreciate the ones I did enjoy all that much more.
- Eco-Confessional: Just before walking into Eco-Confessional, Jill was scanning the Journal review of the play which noted how awkward and unrehearsed Mark Leiren-Young was. As such, we braced ourselves for the worst, but were both pleasantly surprised. Sure, Leiren-Young was far from polished (referring to his script now and then, or re-treading lines), even leaning into clumsy (acknowledging coughs and other noises from the audience), but because he weaved in an explanation of why he was the unlikeliest of performers, it all became a little endearing. The message of this show, which illustrated why “perfect is the enemy of the good” in the green movement, really resonated with me, but Leiren-Young also delivered his story with such passion and heart that it was easy to get swept up in his cause.
- The Slipknot: I look forward to TJ Dawe every year, and he rarely disappoints. The Slipknot was the play that “catapulted” Dawe to fame a decade ago, the one that I never had the chance to see…until this year. Though it didn’t have the depth of Totem Figures, the show was every bit as witty as I expected, with amusing social commentary and observations throughout his tale of dead-end employment. I am always amazed at Dawe’s fast-talking ways, and his masterful ability to weave and connect seemingly parallel stories.
- Mothership Down: Marty Chan’s Mothership Down, a play about Alberta’s Conservative dynasty and Canada’s political system, was presented in the form of a TED Talk. It was a vehicle I’d never seen used before, and alongside it, PowerPoint that had a hilariously omniscient presence and often, wielded clever punch lines. Frenetic, but at times poignant, it was very much a well-balanced play, with a lot owed to actor Taylor Chadwick, who did a fantastic job. It also featured Mack’s favourite ending of all the shows we watched, involving a pie and a victim we did not at all anticipate.
- Little Room: The Slip-Knot did for TJ Dawe what Little Room did for Jon Lachlan Stewart – a play that made him a “household name” at the Fringe. It was another play I didn’t see when it debuted seven years ago, so I made sure to seize the opportunity this year. Intense and challenging, the semi-autobiographical show demanded much of Lachlan Stewart, who played different several characters with ease, and with three benches, transformed the stage into everything from a playground to a shopping complex. It was a coming-of-age story, but told with such raw honesty that even now, days later, I’m still haunted by the turn of events.
As a whole, I had a great time at this year’s Fringe, and as always, can’t wait for the next installment. Congratulations to the organizers, artists and volunteers for such a successful festival. Here’s hoping for 30 more years to come!