Reviews

Fringe 2019 Reviews, Part 4 (Time for One More?)

Note that the following reviews are the completely subjective opinions of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the other members of Assaulted Fish.

Russian Play

The Russian Play

“I see what you are thinking. You are thinking this is Russian play, you are thinking Chekhov, Tolstoy, so boring. And Russia. Shitty country.” So begins The Russian Play, a satire of a tragic love story that somehow also manages to be a tragic love story. A young flower girl named Sonya falls in love with a gravedigger named Piotr and they are happy for approximately 10 minutes of the play’s short 45 minute runtime. Then things go wrong. Extremely wrong. The Russian Play explores how love can destroy women while leaving the men around them relatively unscathed. All this would be extraordinarily depressing but for the central character of Sonya, who also serves as the narrator. At first cynical and wise-cracking and later, when the boundary between story and story-teller starts to break down, vulnerable and heart-breaking, she never entirely loses her defiant spirit and grim self-awareness no matter what is thrown at her.

Sonya is a tour-de-force role and Bronwyn Henderson is more than up to the task. Her open and expressive face captures all of Sonya’s conflicting emotions as she is inexorably dragged from subject to object in her own story. Dennis Virshillas and Nathen Cottell do fine supporting work as the two men in Sonya’s life. The staging is simple but effective with a single gravesite the only set piece on stage. The three actors are always on stage and move in and out of scenes with waltz-like precision. In fact, the play often feels like a stately dance, aided by the live music performed by violinist Ellen Smith and percussionist (and co-producer) Demi Pedersen.

The Russian Play may not end happily but what Russian play ever did? Because, as Sonya might say, in Russia, love is like vodka, it starts out smoothly but burns you from the inside out. — Marlene Dong

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Fringe 2019 Reviews, Part 3

Note that the following reviews are the completely subjective opinions of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the other members of Assaulted Fish.

Amelie

Amelie

Amelie the musical hews pretty closely to the plot of the popular film that it’s based on. As a young girl, Amelie Poulain is overly sheltered by her parents to the point where she has almost no contact with other people. As a result she develops a rich and imaginative inner life (as well as what appears to be quite severe social anxiety). Amelie grows into an eccentric young woman and moves to Paris to work as a waitress. A discovery of lost childhood mementoes and their subsequent return to their owner leads Amelie to devote herself to anonymously doing good deeds for the people around her. However, in doing so is she disregarding her own life and her own need for human connection and love?

West Moon Theatre has mounted a charming production that is as light and whimsical as its source material. This Amelie is bursting with colour and movement. Whereas the movie used CGI, the musical relies on songs and the clever use of the ensemble cast -sometimes as a kind of living set – to represent Amelie’s imagination (the Firehall Theatre has quite a deep stage and the production takes full advantage of that). There is not a weak link in the ensemble, although special mention must be made of Georgia Acken and Tessa Trach, who play the young and adult Amelie respectively, and Cathy Wilmot, who does a fine comic turn as Suzanne the owner of the Café where Amelie works. Even though it clocks in at a full 90 minutes, I was enraptured from beginning to end. — Marlene Dong

(Full disclosure: Amelie’s director, Chris Lam, is a friend and a former member of Assaulted Fish.)

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Dandelion

Aaron Malkin has an easy, natural presence on stage that works well for the themes he covers in Dandelion. This is a much more personal show than I’m used to seeing from Malkin. As one-half of the comedic clowning duo James & Jamesy, Malkin is often cast in the “white face” role next to the “red nose” antics of his partner. In Dandelion, Malkin reveals a vulnerable side when he talks about his insecurities – and his desire to uphold a standard – as a father to his five-year old son Oliver. He admits to being an anxious person and making mistakes that affect him deeply. Threaded between the more serious reflections are moments of whimsy. When Malkin reads from a notebook where he’s recorded questions that Oliver asks him, he’s conspiratorial in his delivery which endears himself to the audience.

There isn’t a strong structure to the show; it’s more of a series of scenes and Malkin moves between them with lighting changes or video vignettes. The highlight of the show involves a brick of butter and I won’t say anything more except that it allows Malkin’s clowning skills to be on full display. Dandelion may be too quiet a show for some audiences, but if you’re in the mood for something lighter, let Malkin’s performance take you there. — MD

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You Belong Here

How does he remember all those words? This is Martin Dockery’s second show at the Fringe this year and, like Inescapable (reviewed here), the semi-autobiographical You Belong Here is filled with text, this time delivered solo in Dockery’s trademark, hyperactive manner. Dockery is a master performer who may not have invented the shaggy dog story, but has certainly raised it to the level of art. Trading in his usual flannel shirt for a dapper suit and tie, he initially bounds onto the stage like a demented talk show host only to stop and restart the show multiple times for increasingly spurious (and hilarious) reasons. Gradually, we realize that the form of the show reflects the content as You Belong Here is all about beginnings and restarts (in fact a more accurate title might be You Begin Here). Dockery is good at beginnings, he tells us with tongue firmly in cheek, less good with endings and terrible at middles. This is ironic because sometimes You Belong Here feels like it is all middle, stuffed with endless imaginative digressions (including an extended riff on how not to visit the Forbidden City) and witty asides with few hints as to where the narrative will go next. Where it does finally end up is with the best beginning of all, an event that literally begins a new phase in Dockery’s life. The final irony of You Belong Here is I was so taken with this tale of beginnings I almost didn’t want it to end. — MD

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Lift

Over the years, I have enjoyed several musicals from Awkward Stage Productions (their 2017 production of Cry Baby was a personal favourite and was a Pick of the Fringe that year) but unfortunately their production of Lift is a misfire. Lift is simply not a very good musical. Lift looks intriguing on paper: every day a group of eight strangers spend 54 seconds together riding a lift at the Convent Garden train station. Among them is a busker who imagines what is going on in each characters lives and projects his own stories of heartache and loss on them. In practice, the stories that spring from the busker’s imagination are cliched, sexist and stereotyped: the executive assistant who is secretly in love with her boss, the ballerina who moonlights as a lap dancer, the businessman who is unknowingly sexting with a gay man. None of the characters are developed in any meaningful way. The story and songs are meted out in the most rudimentary fashion; there’s no artistry in the scene or song transitions. The songs themselves are unmemorable and sound like variations on the same tune. At the show I attended, there were technical sound issues that created a harsh din instead of clear melodies and harmonies which unfortunately made many of the lyrics unintelligible (I actually had to look up a synopsis online after the fact to understand what I had seen). The cast tries hard and I applaud Awkward Stage Productions for selecting an obscure musical, but perhaps there’s a reason why it’s an obscure musical. This experience won’t stop me from seeing future productions from this company, but Lift definitely left me deflated. –MD

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Dissection of a Indian Aboriginal First Nation Indigenous Native Full-Blood Status Non-Status Halfbreed Métis Rez Urban Mixed Heritage Woman

Nyla Carpentier is, by her own tally, half French, one quarter Indigenous (Tahltan/Kaska) and one quarter Scottish, which has made her tall, high-cheek-boned, curly haired and racially ambiguous – in other words “the Ultimate Canadian!” In Dissection … of a Mixed Heritage Woman, Carpentier explores her mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage(s) in story, song, poetry and dance. She speculates, humorously, where she gets various body parts from (her cheekbones are clearly Indigenous, her button nose, French), as well what these labels do and don’t mean to herself as a whole. She shares stories of her forbears on both sides of the Atlantic and traces her lineage through spoken word poetry. Carpentier is an incredibly warm and natural performer blessed with a playful wit (a cleansing movement after a particularly harrowing revelation morphs into “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”) and somehow is able to create intimacy with an entire theatre of strangers. And oh, how she can dance. Carpentier has participated in Pow Wow dancing since she was a little girl and the absolute highlight of the show is when she performs a shawl dance, a sequence of such arresting power, beauty and catharsis that it took my breath away.

Structurally, Dissection … of a Mixed Heritage Woman still feels a bit like a work in progress. There is a great deal of raw (sometimes emotionally raw) material for Carpentier to draw from, but I’m not sure it is organized in a fashion that best serves her purposes. The shawl dance, for example, falls somewhere in the middle of the show, which makes what happens immediately after it seem almost anticlimactic by comparison. Still, like Carpentier herself, the show is greater than the sum of the individual parts and I am very interested in what she does with it next. — MD

 

 


Fringe 2019 Reviews, Part 2

Note that the following reviews are the completely subjective opinions of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the other members of Assaulted Fish.

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Fool Muun Komming!

In the words of Sam Kruger, the creator/performer of Fool Muun Komming!, his show is “a bit difficult to describe,” but I’ll give it a shot. First, you need to know that the full title is actually Fool Muun Komming! [BeBgWunderful/YEsyes/4sure.Hi5.TruLuv; Spank Spank :SOfun_Grate_Times], which, in some ways, tells you more about the show than I may be able to. Second, it’s a one-man performance piece made up of a series of vignettes centred around an unnamed alien (Kruger) trying to make an emotional connection with humanity before the Earth is annihilated by a sentient asteroid that the alien is also a passenger on (whew!). Finally, it’s weird. Really weird. And when I say “weird,” I don’t mean “look at me, I’m wearing two different socks” weird. I mean full-on “psychedelic lava-lamp, I levitate in my basement and my best friend is an orange” weird.

What ties Fool Muun Komming! together is Kruger, whose goofy wordplay and manically precise physicality are the beating alien heart of the piece. His whiplash timing and pliable body create moments of hilarity and menace but also beauty and even the sought after emotional connection. Some of the vignettes work better than others and there are a few times where Kruger goes for the obvious joke rather than the creative one, which is only a shame because it breaks the spell a bit. That said, it is well-worth seeing on the strength of Kruger’s performance alone and is certainly the quirkiest and most original show I have seen so far. — Marlene Dong

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Inescapable

Fans of Martin Dockery are not going to be disappointed by Inescapable, the latest offering by the critically acclaimed Fringe regular. This two-hander pairs Dockery with Jon Paterson as old friends who have retired to a back room during a Christmas party and appear to be locked in some kind of endless and very personal argument. It is hard to say more without giving away the play’s secrets.

Those familiar with Dockery’s writing will know that he often uses repetition and circular structures, with each loop adding information and creating new connections with the previous loops. This is the case with Inescapable as a lifetime of secrets, lies and betrayals are gradually revealed over the course of the play’s 55 minutes. Another thing that Dockery fans will be familiar with is that he talks really, really fast. Inescapable spins by at a furious rate and it is a testament to Dockery’s skill as a writer and the duo’s skill as performers that I never felt lost despite the rapid-fire dialogue and complicated structure of the play. The characters in Inescapable may not be having a good time, but the audience definitely will. — MD

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Guards at the Taj

Director Paneet Singh and featured actors Adele Noronha and Andy Kalirai have produced a jewel of a play. Written by Pulitzer-nominated playwright Rajiv Joseph and set in 1648 Mughal, India, Guards at the Taj is a dark, comedic meditation on the themes of power and beauty, duty and honour, and love and friendship. The Taj Mahal has recently been completed after a 16-year labour by 20,000 artists and artisans. Whether history or myth, the story goes that to prevent the labourers from creating another architectural marvel like the Taj, the emperor decreed that all their hands be cut off. It’s a horrific command, impossible to comprehend let alone action. Yet that’s the position Humayun and Babur finds themselves in as imperial guards of the Taj Mahal. Just as beauty is juxtaposed with brutality, Huma and Babur exist according to opposing ideals: the former’s world is defined by duty and structure, while the latter’s is one of dreams and imagination.

Kalirai plays Babur with tremendous heart: he’s charming and poetic, and hilarious and horrified when he needs to be. I think Noronha has the more difficult task of portraying the masculine Huma, but not to worry, Noronha excels at playing up the character’s ridiculous rule-bound rigidity and then the fallout of Huma’s actions later. The final scene was deeply affecting, a testament to the talented actors, excellent direction and set pieces.

If I have any quibbles they are with the script not the production. The second act dragged and had too many digressions. If it focused on the discussions about beauty, the final act and scene would resonate even more. — MD


Fringe 2019 Reviews, Part 1

Note that the following reviews are the completely subjective opinions of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the other members of Assaulted Fish.

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Josephine

Mon Dieu, quelle une vedette! I’m talking about the singular Josephine Baker and Tymisha Harris who portrays her in this outstanding “burlesque cabaret dream” of a show. Josephine Baker has been described as the first African-American superstar. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know much about Baker, as the show covers most of the essentials of her life: from her humble beginnings in St. Louis, Missouri, to her first forays into show business on Broadway in the 1920s, to her rise to stardom in Paris, France, and the triumphs and tragedies of her later life. Josephine is also not shy in depicting the racism and sexism Baker experienced but was at times able to triumph against.

What makes Josephine the play a triumph is the incomparable Harris who does not so much depict Baker as channel her spirit for the duration on the show. Harris is the real deal, the archetypal triple threat, a charismatic actor who dances with joyous abandon and sings as effortlessly most people breathe. Harris has been touring the show for several years now, but there’s no artifice whatsoever. Every moment is fresh; her discoveries are pure. From playing with a floating feather to performing Baker’s famous Danse sauvage to singing the most affecting version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a-Changin’” I’ve ever heard. This show is my favourite so far in this year’s Fringe – and it’s selling out. Get your tickets while you still can. — MD

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A.I. Love You

Note: as this is a play about Artificial Intelligence, I invited an expert friend to chime in with her thoughts.

Hey Siri, what can you tell me about A.I. Love You?

A.I. Love You is a play by Melanie Ann Ball that explores the question of whether Artificial Intelligence should be given the same rights and freedoms as organic intelligence. The play does this by setting up a “debate” between Adam and April, a seemingly everyday couple, who are going through a relationship crisis. The twist is that one of them is a manufactured “companion.”

The most innovative feature of A.I. Love You is that the audience is invited to vote on and even engage with the characters at various points of the debate. These interactions ultimately decide the course of the action and the ending the play. At the performance I saw, the audience was fully into it and the final vote was very close.

Hey Siri, what did you think of the play?

It’s your opinion that counts.

Okay. The play poses some fascinating questions not just about A.I. but also about personhood and who gets to make decisions about themselves and others. The audience participation requires us to engage these questions directly. Ultimately, how much do we trust A.I. to know what’s best for us?

You trust me to find you restaurants and suggest bands you might like.

That’s different, Siri. Those choices are based on complex algorithms, my previous preferences and data collected from other human input.

So are your choices.

No, they’re not, Siri. My choices are based on … Look, you’re just a tool, okay?

You’re the one talking to me.

Anyway … A.I. Love You is thought provoking, entertaining and surprisingly emotional.

I cried.

— MD (& Siri)

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The Trophy Hunt

If you’re looking to literally go off the beaten track, this Fringe show is for you. Granville Island is an ideal location for the rolling world premiere of Canadian playwright Trina Davies’ site-specific show. The Vancouver leg features monologues from three different perspectives on big game hunting: the hunter, the guide, and the hunted. Ariel Slack is hilariously awkward as Amy the bumbling safari guide, who acts as the framing device for the show. Michael Karl Richards succeeds at the difficult task of humanizing an unsympathetic hunter who stalks and kills a revered lion and then is subsequently hunted down on social media and punished. Slightly more relatable is Sandra Ferens’ Jan, a local guide, who feels trapped by the “rich assholes” who pay her for a guaranteed kill, their casual bloodlust and unwillingness to even go through the motions, removing even the pretense of hunting as sport. Finally, there’s Soraya portrayed with dangerous delight by Lissa Neptuno. For me, it’s her performance that brings the play’s theme into focus: in human nature vs. nature, who is the hunter and who is the hunted?

(Note that the show duration in the Fringe program is incorrect; this show is 50 minutes. Due to the roaming nature of this show, those who have limited mobility may find it challenging to step-off into the grassy areas.) — MD

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Legoland

Legoland is the frenetic, shaggy-dog tale of teen-age siblings Penny and Ezra Lamb. Raised in a hippie commune near Uranium City, Saskatchewan and home-schooled by their pot-smoking parents, the Lamb’s world is upended when their parents are busted and sent to prison. The siblings are unceremoniously dumped in a repressive Catholic school and have to learn to survive in the outside world, which their parents had always disparaged as “Legoland.” There they hatch a scheme to save the soul of Penny’s boy-band crush turned misogynistic gangsta rapper, kicking off a cross continental road trip fuelled by Happy Meals and Ritalin. Got all that?

Legoland wears its oddball nature prominently on its Catholic school uniform sleeve and was a big hit when it first came to the Vancouver Fringe in 2006, winning a Pick of the Fringe award that year. This 2019 mounting is boosted by the energetic performances of Ashley Chodat and Christian Krushel who display the charisma and the comedic timing needed to navigate the many twists and turns in the story.

That said, I don’t feel the script has aged particularly well. What may have seemed original and edgy in 2006 (kids selling ADHD meds for fun and profit, over-the-top misogynistic rap lyrics, Geoffrey Dahmer puppet shows) barely seems provocative now. The Lambs, while entertaining, ultimately don’t seem to be characters so much as a collection of quirks and witticisms, many of which seem incongruous for two kids that are supposed to be 15 and 13 and have had very little contact with the outside world. Still, Legoland is a fun, colourful ride as long as you don’t dig too deeply. — MD

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Fake Ghost Tours 2: Journey to the Other Side (of Granville Island)

When you’re on what may be the most hilarious nighttime tour of Granville Island, you just keep walking and laughing. Abdul Aziz and Shawn O’Hara are self-proclaimed ghost hunters but really, they’re top-notch improvisers – silly, witty and immediately likeable. It’s hard for me to recount this show because as with most improvised shows, audience participation is key. The best moments for me were when Aziz and O’Hara answered ridiculous questions on the fly (Sample: “It’s a little known fact that all seagulls are actually the ghosts of coke-heads.”) The final stop in their ghost tour was a killer. You’ll enjoy this show, truly, madly and deeply.

(Evening shows may be challenging for audience members with mobility or visual challenges. You’ll walk along dark paths and/or dimly-lit areas of the island.) — MD