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.

Stage a Revolution: Day 4

Since volunteering for Front of House, it’s become a habit of mine to always seek out the main show boards at the information tents or box office at the Arts Barns. I like to see what shows have been selling out, particularly after good reviews in the Journal. I checked them out this afternoon while we were on the grounds, and it looks to me like there are a higher number of sold out shows than usually expected this early on in the festival. They also seem to have no correlation to reviews in the paper, though I have to say I haven’t done an exhaustive comparison. Most surprising to me is that not a single show of Spiral Dive has sold out, in spite of getting the only five-star review thus far. Perhaps the La Cite venue really is too far off the beaten track for most festival-goers to seek out?

Anyway, Mack and I watched two shows today – the first was Mockingbird Close by local artist Trevor Schmidt. An exploration of the ills of suburbia isn’t a new subject, but Mockingbird Close does an exceptional job of reaching and maintaining a harrowing level of intensity almost as soon as it starts. In particular, I appreciated the highly visual language, and the incorporation of Hansel and Gretel’s tale throughout. The play’s success rests heavily on the shoulders of the two actors, and Tiana Leonty and Cody Porter are well cast and well-matched for the roles of a couple searching for their lost son. The play’s two “halves” (the first about the family dynamic and the second about the neighbourhood), could have been individual shows themselves, and as a result, Mockingbird Close felt somewhat disjointed. As a whole though, I did enjoy the play, and would recommend it.

Mack picked our second selection for the day, @Life, at one of my least favourite venues, the Yardbird Suite. The description of the show in the program led me to believe the play was a “comedic examination of the role of technology in modern life”, but really, this is a play written by and for gamers. As a result, I have to say I didn’t understand enough of the references to like the play. However, I have to admire the energy level of the three actors, who were entertaining to watch, and a few of the sketches (the evolution of Mario, the “console reunion party”) that I mildly comprehended. Mack, on the other hand, having spent some time gaming, did enjoy the play.

I’ll be back at the Fringe on Wednesday. Have you seen any plays yet?

Stage a Revolution: Day 3

Our first day at the 2009 Fringe involved two plays, a lot of nibbles, and the obligatory grounds exploration.

I was particularly interested to see Revolution Square, billed in the program as a multi-use area and internet cafe. What it is in actuality is a beer tent that substitutes coffee for beer, with four computers set-up with internet access. It’s a nice family-friendly idea that provides an expansive seating section, but we’ll have to wait and see if it is utilized.

The food vendors seem to be more spread out this year, with some booths actually set-up in the typically retail-only area in front of Fringe volunteer headquarters. In addition, I’m disappointed that the “Fringe midway” is gone – I wonder if poor attendance was to blame for its demise? Lastly, I’m sad to see that complimentary copies of the Edmonton Journal are not available on the grounds this year (they also eliminated this perk at the Heritage and Folk Festivals). We were told by an information booth volunteer that the Journal said that they could “no longer afford” to offer free papers. I can say that Fringe attendees are typically rabid for reviews, and people gravitated towards the papers that were readily available on site. I wonder if this change will result in a change in how people select their shows – from choosing based on star rating to choosing based on content?

Our first show of the day was Teatro la Quindicina’s The Oculist’s Holiday. The premise of vacation hijinx reminded us of A Rocky Night for His Nibs, but the tone of this play eventually changed from one of lighthearted fun to introspection and tragedy. I have to say that the pacing threw me off (Jeff Haslam’s purposeful stumbles took a while to get used to), but Barbara Gates Wilson’s almost regal presence helped stabilize the somewhat unpredictable turn of events. The end of the play has been resonating with me even now, hours later, and without giving anything away, was a reminder to embrace opportunity.

Later that afternoon, we took in LoveHateKill, also at the Varscona Theatre. Five separate playlets by five different authors ruminated on some variation of love, hate, and kill, which was a fun interpretive exercise. My favourite, in both plot and acting was “A Love Story” by Trina Davies, exquisitely brought to life by Shannon Blanchet, who is rapidly becoming an actress to watch (she was great in Teatro’s Evelyn Strange, and also starred this past season in Catalyst’s Nevermore). The playlet recounted a woman’s experience of falling in love with an accused killer, and her efforts to be with him. The rest were somewhat interesting (for example, “Social Sundays” highlighted a sadistically creative games night between couples), but not particularly notable. Mack loved the random interlude of the “Jai Ho” Slumdog Millionaire Bollywood dance.

We’ll be back on the grounds tomorrow – looking forward to it!

Ten Things to Love About the Fringe

My long list of love, in honour of the 28th incarnation of the Edmonton International Fringe Festival that runs August 13-23, 2009.

  1. Online Ticketing: the public at large was in arms when online ticketing was introduced two years ago, particularly because beloved at-the-door sales were sacrificed in the process. Since then, door sales have returned to front of house and some have finally embraced the convenience of the online system. Not surprisingly, I am one of them, and have been since the beginning. Being a crazy planner, I have most of my line-up identified within days of the program’s release, so ordering tickets for me is just the final step. Though I know some prefer spontaneously choosing a show, it’s still hard to argue against a system that reduces on-site lineups and encourages on-line exploration prior to the festival.
  2. Line-side Flyering: in my first few years of attending the Fringe, it amazed me that artists came out from behind the curtain to corral patrons the old-fashioned way – by doling out flyers themselves. Up until then, I thought there was a grand line of demarcation separating theatregoers from those that graced the stage, but at the Fringe – everyone is on the same level. Beyond that – I remember reading a quote a long time ago that referred to flyering as the truest form of advertising – who better to promote a show than those starring in it?
  3. Chatting with Fellow Patrons: when all of Edmonton’s theatre-loving public converges in the same area, you can expect some good conversations about theatre. It may seem odd at first to chat up strangers, but knowing that everyone has the same love of theatre in common breaks down many perceived barriers. I love finding out from those lining up next to me what they’ve seen and what they’re looking forward to seeing – the best reviews and recommendations are from fellow patrons.
  4. The Plays: perhaps this one is too obvious, but the Edmonton Fringe needs your help to break the ticket plateau of 77,000+. While that number seems like a lot, and did help us earn and keep the title of the largest North American Fringe for many years, we have now been surpassed by Winnipeg, who amassed over 81,000 in ticket sales this year. Given the maximum you will pay for a ticket is $14 ($12 of which go directly to the artist), it is not only a steal for some of the best theatre to hit the streets, but also $6-$10 cheaper than comparable productions in the city throughout the year.
  5. Outdoor Shows: a big draw for many who attend the Fringe are the outdoor performances. I think they really help set the tone on the grounds, as their amplified enthusiasm travels for miles around the stages. With the multitude of food vendors surrounding the performers, there’s no excuse not to grab something to nibble on, settle down, and enjoy.
  6. KidsFringe: I have no children, nieces or nephews to speak of, but KidsFringe holds a special place in my heart because it was where my Fringe experience began as a volunteer. You would be hard pressed to find an area of the grounds that becomes as lively as Adventure Park (christened “Revolution Park” this year) so early on in the day. From face painting to reader’s theatre, it’s a place for kids and their caregivers alike to enjoy some free fun.
  7. The Food: did you think I wouldn’t get around to mentioning food? I won’t claim that any of the booths are unique to the Fringe (the ubiquitous mini doughnut, green onion cake and chicken bhoona vendors frequent the summer festival circuit), but every Fringe-goer has their outdoor standby – mine is Funky Pickle Pizza. It seems the festival organizers have acknowledged the current economic situation as there is actually a page of food coupons in the program. Score!
  8. The Vendors: though craft shows may be all the rage now, I still love to stroll the vendor-lined alleys for handmade treasures. Whether it be jewelry, fashions or keepsakes, there are always interesting booths to be explored at the Fringe.
  9. Old Strathcona: even as the boundaries of the Fringe expand (even further north than last year’s New City BYOV – this year, a venue on Alberta Avenue joins the fray), the heart of the festival will always be Old Strathcona. The area’s businesses – retail and restaurants – are as much a part of the Fringe as the stages are. The festival doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s always a delight when the shops offer special menus and sales in tandem with the Fringe.
  10. The Atmosphere: dodging crowds and buskers, overhearing snippets of reviews, resisting the temptation of deep-fried dough…there is something intangibly irresistible about just being on the grounds, immersed in the people, the smells, the sounds. There is a frenetic energy in the air and a palpable thirst for theatre. Can you feel it?

And although I listed ten different aspects to love, the truth is, the festival is a frenzy of it all rolled up into ten days. The Fringe is when Edmonton comes out to play.

See you at the Fringe!

I Heart the Fringe

For some people their yearly stampede moment happens when the fall fashion magazines arrive. For me, it is the day the Edmonton International Fringe program is released.

I got my copy yesterday (thanks, Mack!), and everything about it – the smell, the texture, the weight – infuses me with anticipatory glee for ten days of glorious theatre.

Mack just contributed a piece to Edmonton Stories centering around his discovery of live theatre in the city. It got me thinking about my own history with Edmonton’s theatre scene, which happens to be tied very closely with the Fringe Festival.

Back in high school, I was offered free tickets to a show by Marty Chan called The Bone House. Never being one to turn down anything complimentary, I accepted, and headed down to the Arts Barns for my first theatre experience. Centered around the hunt for a serial killer, The Bone House blew me away. The chills I felt were real, enhanced by the intimacy of the venue and the script’s dexterous ability to exploit the audience’s imagination. I couldn’t believe live theatre could be so exhilarating.

Actor Chris Fassbender was a standout in that play, so it was natural that when his name appeared in the cast for a Fringe show the following summer, I wanted to see it. That same year, I decided to volunteer for the Festival – it seemed like a great deal, the trade-off of time for Fringe dollars that could be redeemed for show tickets. Well, there wasn’t a better way to get to know what would soon become my favourite festival of the year – I volunteered for the next five Fringes. My fellow volunteers were fantastic, and I gained an appreciation for the festival as a whole as I worked through several teams over the years, including KidsFringe, Information, and Front of House.

I did stop volunteering a few years into stepping full-time into the workforce; it was easier to find the time when I was a student in high school and university. What didn’t stop, however, was my presence in Old Strathcona in mid-August, a time I look forward to every year.

Let’s not overlook the shows – my first Fringe show, Esther’s Hands, included a deafening gun shot, which left an indelible impression of tools available on stage to heighten tension. Or how about Stewart Lemoine’s Cocktails at Pam’s, for which I dragged a poor friend of mine to wait in line for nearly three hours, only to be faced with joke after joke involving 70s references that we did not understand. A year later, I gave Lemoine a second chance (Shocker’s Delight!), and by golly, I fell in love. I’m a Teatro la Quindicina subscriber now. And I will always remember Nighthawk Rules, the first Fringe play I took two of my good friends to – and believe me, they will never forget it either.

This year’s theme is Stage a Revolution – Executive Director Julian Mayne wanted to draw attention to the relative affordability of the Fringe when compared with some of the other festivals in the city, and is encouraging all Edmontonians to embrace live theatre by taking in at least one show. Though festival attendance numbers have been good (with the street performers, craft and food vendors, and vibrant atmosphere attracting crowds), our ticket sales have levelled off and seemingly reached a plateau at around 77,000. The Winnipeg Fringe, which has always been second to ours, just broke the North American Fringe ticket record this year, selling 81,565 tickets.

So for those new to the Fringe – I encourage you to explore the shows on the website (a program is handy, but I understand paying $6 for the guide isn’t economical for those seeing just one or two plays). A few to watch for:

Of course, the fun of the Fringe is to pick based on instinct. Recommendations are a place to start, but taking a chance on something different is what the Fringe is all about.

And on a side note, The Bone House – where my love of theatre began –  is returning to an Edmonton stage in the fall – it will run at the TransAlta Arts Barns October 22 – November 8, 2009.

See you at the Fringe!

The 28th Edmonton International Fringe Festival runs August 13 – 23.

Live & Let Fringe: Wrap-up

It was a year of many Fringe firsts for me, including the purchase of a Frequent Fringer pass, Die-Nasty, a deep-fried chocolate bar, and more plays than I’ve ever seen over the course of one festival. I also continued my role as a Fringe Evangelist, exposing two more newbies to the wonders of indoor productions (I’ll do a better job of pre-screening plays for my sister though, else Felicia may never again return to theatre). And of course, who could forget the controversial changes to the ticketing system? It was high drama scrutinized in the media, in line-ups, and on stage.

Despite all of this, Live & Let Fringe left me unsatisfied. It could have been the concentration of great plays I saw at the opening of the festival (as opposed to this weekend), or the consistently grey weather throughout, but there was just something missing from 007.

For those who haven’t gotten their fix, holdovers start this Wednesday. Although I’m disappointed that my pick of the Fringe, Madagascar, was left off of the schedule, I’d recommend The Power of Ignorance (which might play better to a larger crowd in the Arts Barns).

Only 355 days before the madness begins again – see you next year!

Live & Let Fringe: Day 10

After brunch, May and I headed down to the Fringe site to catch Chance Moments (Stage 11). One of the few productions I picked based on its written description in the program, the play catalogued a series of snapshots integral to the rise – and fall – of a couple’s relationship. The script and direction themselves weren’t bad (the use of everyday objects as scene starters was a nice touch), but the acting was simply not there. Kyle Schroter in particular was flat, emotionless, and couldn’t grasp the concept of pacing and beats. The production ran ten minutes short of its advertised show length, indicative of an all-too rushed delivery, and the actors’ inability to embrace poignant pauses. As a whole, the story was one that I have seen done better elsewhere (last year’s 52 Pick-up, for example), and with anaemic acting, Chance Moments ended up being one of my weakest picks this Fringe.

To round out the festival, I met up with Dickson for his selection of El Muchacho (Stage 1). A musical primarily starring teens, the plot had been adapted from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (whatever that meant). A complicated “love story” involving an executioner, a blood-thirsty president, his guitaristo son, and a chica nicknamed Dum-Dum, the ninety minute production seemed to go on and on. There were also a number of offbeat pop culture references (including a snipe about Ryan Smyth) that Dickson didn’t appreciate – he felt they distracted from the play as a whole. A few days ago, I came across a review of this play in the Journal, and although I didn’t read the text of the article, the headline stuck in my mind – “Easy on the eyes, but often hard on the ears.” Too true. Lead male singer John Tribiger, as the tale’s Romeo, could not hold a note, and more often than not, was inaudible. Thankfully, the lead female, Katherine Carleton, could sing, but with her talent, it’s a wonder how she was cast opposite Tribiger. All this being said, I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on this group of kids; I can’t imagine getting up on stage to act, let alone sing. So bravo for their effort…but the onus will simply be on me to avoid amateur musicals in the future.

Live & Let Fringe: Day 9

Before lining up for our play on Friday night, I convinced Mack to join me in another Fringe first – a deep fried chocolate bar. Battered then fried, I can best describe it as a “corn dog gone wrong.” Biting into it, the coating suggests that there was to be something of substance on the inside, while in reality, only a mass of melting chocolate greets you. In the end, the combination of salty, sweet and oily tastes didn’t make for a very pleasing treat. Mack claimed that it was “disgusting,” but said in between mouthfuls of the delicacy, I didn’t believe him. For me anyway, this was both a Fringe first and last.

Mack picked Out of Pocket (Stage 7) as his play of choice this year, a story involving an expectant couple and a pair of homeless people who panhandled on the street in front of their apartment. With the help of a hat and a scarf worn multiple ways, Mark Jenkins and Vanessa Sabourin played all of the characters involved. Sabourin in particular (on the heels of her exceptional performance in Madagascar) seamlessly transitioned from one role to another, and was quite good as the comically nasal mistress Jesse. Mack found the plot to be a bit routine (going the “just desserts” path), and I had to agree. Not a bad play on its own, but compared to the productions I had watched earlier on in the festival, Out of Pocket was just average.

Live & Let Fringe: Day 4

I took my sisters to Strawberries in January (Stage 6) today. There was quite a bit of buzz surrounding this romantic comedy before the festival even began (directed by Mieko Ouchi, starring real-life couple Chris Bullough and Jana O’Connor), so I had high expectations going in. There was just something missing about the production, but what I can’t quite put my finger on. Bullough (as Francois) was solid, Patrick Howarth had his usual presence, and I really have no complaints about the female cast members, but besides a few tender moments (Bullough’s laundromat confession of loving Sophie’s flaws was touching), the script felt empty. Besides Francois’ pleas, I never really saw the evidence I needed to want to see him united with his beau, and because of that, the ending was abrupt and smelled more than a little of deux ex machina. Strawberries in January is far from being a bad play, but one I just can’t recommend.

With the return of the work week, I’ll be giving the Fringe a rest for a few days. But I’ll be back for a handful of plays before the close of the festival.

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.