Stage a Revolution: Day 11

Our last day at this year’s Fringe was short and sweet – two plays nearly back-to-back, which, given that the skies threatened rain all day, meant that the prospect of getting drenched waiting in line was somewhat lessened.

We started the afternoon off at a new Fringe venue – The Laugh Shop – to see The Art of Being a Bastard. Set-up cabaret style not unlike the Yardbird Suite (which I similarly don’t like), the hodgepodge of chairs and tables wasn’t an ideal theatre. The play, one of two written by Matt Alden this year, was another very contemporary look at life, this time out of the lens of three shy twenty-somethings who wished they had more luck with the ladies. It was an enjoyable hour, though it did take a while to get going. The three actors kept up with the fast-paced production very well, juggling multiple characters and visibly sweating after a few of the frantic side-scenes (Mack in particular enjoyed the rap number, while I loved the Saturday Night Fever nod). It was another light, fun play that I imagine was written specifically for the Fringe, but of the two I watched in this category, Space was better.

Our last play this year was David Belke’s A Final Whimsy. Watching Belke’s yearly offering (this year marked his twentieth festival) has become a tradition for me. Whimsy focused on two sisters rehearsing a song for their father’s upcoming wedding, and needing to hash out some of the mysteries surrounding their mother’s departure from their young lives. Although the church setting was appropriate given the context of the play, the echoing acoustics made the dialogue hard to follow sometimes, particularly when the conversations were heated. That said, the vaulted ceilings worked for the musical portions of the show, with Andrea House’s rendition of “All I Have to Do is Dream” being the delightful standout. In all, it was a sweet story about family and what people will do to protect each other from painful truths.

Because the shows I wanted to see all scheduled themselves so well this year I didn’t end up spending that many days on the grounds. For that reason, it felt like I could have seen twice as many productions as I did. Of course, although the Fringe ended today, there are still opportunities to catch several popular shows that have been held over – check out the schedule here.

Thanks for a great Fringe! I am looking forward to next year already.

The Big Kahuna: Day 1

The first of my nine shows this Fringe was a reliable David Belke. Perhaps because I didn’t expect much from a radio serial, I found The Adventurous Times of Kevin Grimes just fantastic. It was deliciously seductive, soap opera-esque, and for a show where the voices and sounds of the actors were so much more prominent than the actors themselves, I had a hoot watching the group ham it up for the microphone. All of the performers mimicked the body language of the characters they were trying to portray, whether it meant hunching over menacingly or tensing their fingers up into claws. My favourite was the incredibly versatile Andrea House, who was sufficiently creepy as the villain’s second-in-command, among other characters she voiced. Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull was also pitch-perfect as the narrator, with a voice as smooth and trustworthy as spun cotton candy. It’s a shame I won’t be able to see the other live-to-air performances, but I will do my best to catch the remaining episodes on CKUA.

I was glad we were actually able to reach the Belke BYOV on time – after finding a parking spot, May and I had to wait in an aggravatingly-long “Will Call” line at the Central Box Office. I am hoping it was just first day kinks they were working on, and hasn’t been a problem for any other patrons.

Walterdale Theatre: “Up Shit Creek” and “Bless You, Billy Wilder”

After High Tea at the Arbour Restaurant in Rutherford House, Janice, May and I headed to the Walterdale Playhouse in Old Strathcona to watch a double-billing of Up Shit Creek and Bless You, Billy Wilder, a part of the Walterdale’s annual “Trading Stages” event:

“A collaboration of beginners and masters. Four directors and two writers, under the guidance of established local professionals, hone their crafts presenting a series of one-acts. A new masterpiece and an established piece from a master will run each night.”

Up Shit Creek, by Taylor Chadwick and mentored by David Belke, was up first. A play about a Canadian and an American filmmaker crafting a movie about 9/11, I found the dialogue inarticulate and unnecessarily circular. The enactment of the film scenes with mini Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein puppets were as amusing as it sounds, but created a pacing that felt off. By the end, I still didn’t feel any compassion for either of the characters – the American for feeling that he had to “sell out” to his film executive father, or the Canadian for not getting his desired story told. For that reason, the play seemed long and simply a vehicle for the writer to debate reactions to 9/11.

With that disappointment, I was even more excited about seeing a vintage Belke, or at least, what I thought would be a vintage Belke. With “Billy Wilder” in the title, I was honestly expecting something like Dreamland Saturday Nights – a harmless, lighthearted romantic comedy. What we got instead was an experience not unlike the Fringe surprise May and I saw a few years ago (billed as a coming-of-age story, the production ended up being a show about bulimia).

Bless You, Billy Wilder started out innocently enough – a shy artist who grew up in a religious colony interviews for a position to assist a man with a film restoration project. Interspersed with clips from Greed by Erich Von Stroheim, the movie being worked on, the play quickly degenerated into one focused on mental illness and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, ending with the man curled on the floor, racking with sobs, as his assistant tried to comfort him. The pair of actors were the bright spots – Michael Beamish as Emil was scarily spot-on, jolting my blood pressure as his manic attacks increased in frequency, and Kassia Haynes as Patience was as mature, loving and warm as her character should have been. Still, I can’t say I enjoyed myself – Bless You is the type of play one has to be mentally prepared for.

Live & Let Fringe: Day 3

My third day at the festival was a morning-to-night affair. While many of the Fringing public prefer wandering the grounds in the evening, I can honestly say I like arriving on site early. To grab a coffee and a paper, walk the alleys before a single vendor has opened, and appreciate the quiet before the storm has become a personal tradition for me. I haven’t been as fanatical this year about needing to secure those coveted front-row-centre seats, but I do remain tied to lining up somewhat early alongside fellow die-hard Fringers.

My first show of the day was The World’s Wife (Stage 2), which features two of my favorite actresses – Davina Stewart and Leona Brausen. Adapted from poems by award-winning Carol Anne Duffy, the play cycles through solo vignettes of wives of famous figures throughout history. I have never before seen a Fringe production with such elaborate costumes; the price of admission is easily recouped based on the wardrobe changes alone (Stewart’s showstopping Medusa gown garnered a few gasps from the audience). Beyond aesthetics, the perspectives on sacrifice, love, sexual power, and subordination are portrayed perfectly by the three women (Brausen’s incredibly astute Mrs. Darwin was my hands-down favorite). Trevor Schmidt’s direction was notably creative – casting Eurydice (Orpheus’s tragic love) as a stand-up comedian complete with a laugh track was inspired. A likely candidate for the post-Fringe holdovers, The World’s Wife is a fun and intelligent play.

Later that afternoon, I headed to Stage 6 (Catalyst Theatre, and in my opinion the best of the Fringe venues) for Madagascar. It is without question the best play I have seen at the Fringe so far this year, and one that I almost don’t want to write about for fear that I will not do it justice. The premise, as presented in the program, is simple, “three Americans find themselves alone, in the same hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome.” Operating on different timelines, it took some time to piece together the story, but believe me, it is worth the effort. Haunting, sad, tragic – Madagascar asks difficult questions about family, identity, relationships, and personal needs in beautiful prose illuminated by the exceptional ensemble of Vanessa Sabourin, David Ley and Coralie Cairns. Sabourin and Ley in particular shone – the audience felt their pain, confusion and frustration on every step of their journey. I will stop there, but like Esther’s Hands and The Bone House from Fringes past, Madagascar has left an indelible impression on me.

That night, I met up with a friend to watch David Belke’s The Head Shot of Dorian Grey (BYOV C). As my friend remarked, Belke’s productions are reliable, his name nearly synonymous with “romantic comedy” at the Fringe. This incarnation involves two young actors (Jesse Gervais, Katherine Fadum) who first meet at an audition, but don’t discover their chemistry on stage until a joint reading of Romeo & Juliet. Setting the play in the world of theatre allowed Belke to share his inside observations gleaned from personal experience, but it seemed to get out of hand at times – the one hundred minute play felt long, with each crazy audition coming off like filler and like another stall tactic to keep the two would-be lovers apart. Gervais has never blown me away before, but here he was very natural, good humored, and likable. And oh, that gaze – did I ever want to be on the receiving end of that stare. Also a Belke standard, the supporting characters, or in this case, the supporting actors cast in multiple roles, were superb. So much so that the play could have germinated from a decision to test the deft versatility of Linda Grass and Glenn Nelson in a series of quirky but forgettable characters. Overall, Dorian Grey is cute, but not as memorable as many a Belke play.

We ended the evening with a quick bite at Murietta’s. The high ceilings might be nice to look at, but had an echo-chamber effect, with the room reaching a surprisingly-high volume. I ordered the portabello mushroom ravioli, and while it reached our table in no time at all, the dish itself was nothing special. The slightly pricey menu matches the elegant setting, but I’d much rather head to the more casual Dadeo’s or Cafe Mosaics anytime.

Theatre: “Dreamland Saturday Nights”

May and I then attended a matinee of David Belke’s remounted Dreamland Saturday Nights at the Varscona. From the website:

“When two lonely hearts meet at an old time repertory cinema, they discover that where one sees colour and romance in a search for love and adventure, the other analyses lighting, direction and camera angles. The play follows the growth of their relationship over a series of Saturday nights as they watch old movies together, eat popcorn and fall in love – with a little help from their friends, Bogart, Davis and Astaire.”

Just as nostalgic as the description portrays, the play was a classic Belke romantic comedy. I loved the use of old trailers and concession advertisements to set the tone as the audience seated themselves (though Shadow Theatre’s own trailers could have been better put together – I thought they were fake until I looked in the program). The set was as functional as it was pretty – the designer found great replicas of theatre seats and a concession stand to accompany the whimsical pastel colored swirl backdrop, evoking the desired feeling of innocence and push for simpler times. The stage also incorporated a clever sheer movie ‘screen,’ to distinguish between the film realm and reality.

Like most Belke plays, the supporting cast stole the show. Patrick Howarth, the only actor who appeared in the original, was fantastic. His impersonations were spot-on (and he can dance!), with his Jack Nicholson imitation garnering the most laughs. Aimee Beaudoin, playing the “wicked” gold digger, was so fabulous in her oozing indifference and cruelty that I was left wondering how it could have been possible that I’d never seen her before. In particular, her maturity as an actress shone through in her Bette Davis masquerade. Angela Christie was well-cast as Dorothy, the cute and shy female lead, but I’m still unsure about Chris Bullough. Although better this time around than in Teatro’s House of Cats earlier this season, he didn’t completely convince me that he was remotely torn about his decision of tearing down the Dreamland. The program didn’t list the original cast, but as Chris Fassbender was a Belke favorite while he was still in town, I couldn’t help but think Fassbender’s ability to juggle quirkiness with heartfelt sincerity would have better suited the role.

As a classic movie fan, I’m embarrassed to say I couldn’t recognize all of the allusions (the buck stopped with Citizen Kane and Empire Strikes Back for me), but I could relate to Dorothy’s sentiment of wanting to have a bit of both Oz and Kansas in her life. So despite its shortcomings, Dreamland Saturday Nights was an enjoyable piece of fantasy, comedy, and romance.