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Little Shop of Horrors 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

(photo: pixbylorne)Little Shop of Horrors isn’t pretty, but it grows on you. Ye olde reviewer isn’t sure at this late date which he saw first — Roger Corman’s original 1960 sci-fi black comedy about a man-eating plant, or the 1982 Alan Menken/Howard Ashman stage musical version that blossomed into a film of its own in 1986 — but both shows initially left me a little cold. 

Corman’s 1960 low-budget seedling managed to be darkly downbeat and hokey at the same time (despite a young Jack Nicholson's memorable bit-player debut), while the 1986 movie musical offshoot was more clever, inventive, funny and visually spectacular but tacked on a discordantly happy ending. 

The 1982 stage version is comparatively authentic and daring, but dark — it’s a bloodily murderous, pitch-black comedy without much in the way of characters you can root for, most of them weak or corrupt and ultimately doomed. It’s perhaps the most nihilistic musical I’ve ever seen, albeit cheerfully so. 

All of that makes it pretty ideal for the Halloween season, during which ACT mounted the show at Holland College’s handsome new Florence Simmons Performance Hall. I like the space; the hall is small enough and its sloped-seating sight lines clear enough that there’s hardly a bad seat in the house. 

My wife, a lifelong Little Shopaholic, says it’s one of the better live productions of the show she’s seen over the years. She cites a strong cast (though she felt Robyn MacDougald’s Audrey too closely echoed her 1986 film counterpart) as well as some neat directorial touches like varied musical pacing amplifying the creepiness of certain scenes. 

As for me, I had fun despite my squeamishness. There were occasional technical difficulties, particularly with sound — ranging from a near-silent prologue to random actors' mics going quiet during certain songs, plus at least one supporting actor’s mic cutting in and out intermittently in one scene — but the show’s fundamentals are strong. 

The music’s great, both the clever Menken/Ashman songs and the performance of same, featuring a solid pit band and thirty actors. Director Peter Krauskopf's crowded stage is often busy but never cluttered, and Morgan Wagner's simple but effective choreography helps everyone navigate the space smoothly. 

Among the smoother navigators are the Ronettes — streetwise teens Chiffon (Jenna Marie), Crystal (Lindsay Schieck) and Ronnette (Alexandra Sorensen) — who offer oft-musical commentary on the proceedings like a doo-wop Greek chorus. Fine vocalists all, they do a lot to sustain the show's tricky tone of light-hearted darkness, and Schieck in particular adds a winning mix of charm and cynicism to numbers like "Skid Row." 

Steve Bruce and Robyn MacDougald are both funny, believable and sympathetic as meek star-crossed lovers Seymour and Audrey, an amusing Richard Fellbaum evokes Mel Brooks as schemer Mr. Mushnik, and ACT mainstays Gerry Gray & Terry Pratt shine in bit parts as an anguished dental patient and wheeler-dealer Patrick Martin, respectively. 

But the show's supreme scene-stealers are homicidal houseplant Audrey II, brought to life via elaborate puppets crafted by Ontario's Deb & Jenny Erb for Korda Artistic Productions and animated by an able team of puppeteers and vocalists; and an ideally cast, note-perfect Noah Nazim as gleefully sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello, the only performer chewing even more scenery than the giant flytrap. With monsters like these on stage, Little Shop of Horrors may not be pretty but it sure is entertaining.

A women’s world

Belles Soeurs: The Musical

Review by Sean McQuaid

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,” sang Tammy Wynette in 1969. Michel Tremblay’s innovative 1968 theatrical black comedy Les Belles-soeurs expressed a similar sentiment more sweepingly and bitingly, arguing it’s pretty much always hard to be a woman—at least as embodied by the ladies of Tremblay’s 1960s working class Montreal. 

Tremblay’s first and most popular professionally produced play, Les Belles-soeurs was a controversial trailblazer in the ‘60s for its earthy French dialect, its sexual politics, its focus on mundane, lower class characters and its subversive scorn for targets ranging from materialism to religion to the whole darn male gender. 

Now a longstanding Canadian theatrical institution, Tremblay’s iconoclastic play has somehow morphed into a mainstream theatrical musical. First adapted into this form in French by René Richard Cyr and Daniel Bélanger in 2010, it was further modified and translated into English by Brian Hill and Neil Bartram in 2014. 

Recently directed by Cyr for the Segal Centre, Cyr’s current production of the English musical is now appearing at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, where it’s a cousin somewhat awkwardly thrice removed from Tremblay’s original tale. Most of the characters remain, as does much of Tremblay’s oft-withering take on their crushingly dull, empty workaday lives, but the musical tries to have its cake and eat it too by tacking some happy closing sentiments onto the show. 

The result feels off, not so much because of deviating from the darker original play—the current musical can and should be judged as its own entity—but more because of the cognitive dissonance within the musical itself. The show spends a lot of time telling us how empty and unhappy most of these women's lives are before it unconvincingly reassures us they'll be okay in the end, and it can't quite stick the landing. 

That being said, there’s still plenty of entertainment value in Tremblay's story, as skillfully executed by Cyr’s cast and crew. When 1960s Montreal housewife Germaine Lauzon (played by Lisa Horner) wins a million trading stamps in a contest, she invites female friends and relatives to her apartment to celebrate her good fortune and help her paste all the stamps into redemption books she can exchange for fabulously tacky luxury consumer goods. The gloating, gleeful Germaine, however, doesn't realize her jealous guests are stealing her stamps while they gossip, gripe and swap stories. 

The entertaining Horner heads an all-female cast of widely varying ages, showcasing fine and funny performances such as Valerie Boyle playing Yvette Longpré, whose seemingly endless wedding anecdote song is a little gem of understated comic timing; the honey-voiced Lili Connor as Des-Neiges Verrette, whose ode to her salesman paramour is equal parts sweet and sad; Geneviève St Louis, who makes a filling comedic meal out of a relatively one-note role as the relentlessly bitter Marie-Ange Brouillette; and the broad-yet-nuanced Marcia Tratt, who makes snooty Lisette De Courval’s operatic tribute to snobbery a rousing comic showcase. 

Like the original play, the musical doubles as an anthology of sorts by giving most of its characters a turn in the spotlight as they tell their various individual stories (though the best musical number is the ensemble’s hypnotic, hilarious and masterfully staged “Ode to Bingo”). The musical’s larger overall story may not bear close scrutiny, but its individual characters, songs and vignettes are often entertaining, insightful and compelling.

To shell and back

Island Fringe Festival:
Nutshell

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your withered wordsmith knows youth is a vital component of any thriving theatre scene, so it's reassuring to see creative young Island thespians doing fine work like Nutshell. Staged in the outdoor patio area at the Beanz coffee shop as part of the Island Fringe Festival, this dark comedy is a co-production of UPEI's venerable Vagabond Productions and a new company, The Fantastic Space. 

The latter company's founder, ubiquitous young local theatre fixture Benton Hartley, is the author and co-star of Nutshell. Inspired by (but not directly based on) Hartley's own experiences with social anxiety, the play stars Justin Shaw as Jonah, a young man whose long-term depression and anxiety spiral out of control after he is fired from his job and hides out in his apartment for 13 days, shunning friends and family. 

Director Rory Starkman (previously director and co-star of last year's Fringe highlight Small Talk) makes good use of the Beanz space, arranging much of the action downstage but with lots of upstage depth and free-ranging movement courtesy of the surrounding courtyard. Sight lines are good, and the composition and physical action are varied enough to offer points of interest from multiple audience angles. 

Starkman also assembles and helms a strong ensemble of actors including Hartley, Shaw and Starkman's Small Talk writer/co-star Kassinda Bulger. Ashley MacLeod plays Jonah's best friend and unrequited crush Ellie, Hartley plays her significant other Bryce, and Bulger, Dylan Gaudet, Noah Nazim and Morgan Wagner steal assorted chunks of the show as the voices in Jonah's head: Naivity, Catastrophe, Apathy and Intimacy, respectively. It's a bit like an adult male version of Pixar's excellent Inside Out film. 

Shaw is quite good as Jonah — believably troubled, bitter and intense but still sympathetic. MacLeod and Hartley are natural and likeable as Jonah's friends, and both have an easy, organic interplay with Shaw. Bulger is loads of capricously playful fun as the most child-like of Jonah's inner voices, the well-cast Gaudet and Wagner are effective in their parts, and Nazim is quite entertaining. His seething stare often feels more like Anger than Apathy, but he's vividly memorable regardless and helps instill a real sense of menace in the voices tormenting Jonah. Jay Gallant, Kat Nazim and Greg Doran also do solid work in assorted supporting roles. 

Hartley is trying to say something important about a serious topic here, which could easily drift into cloying very-special-episode territory; but the play largely avoids that trap, partly through handy narrative devices like Jonah writing an article about his condition. This enables the character to talk about his issues directly and even somewhat didactically without feeling wholly unnatural. 

Also helping keep the story grounded are a sense of psychological realism — the story doesn't pretend to solve all of Jonah's problems in an hour — and even more importantly, a sense of humour. Nutshell may be a serious message play, but generous spoonfuls of comedy help the medicine go down.

Fruitful pursuits

Island Fringe Festival:
Life as a Pomegranate

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your nomadic natterer has lived in multiple small towns in multiple provinces. Shortly after moving to a remote northern Alberta village years ago, I was introducing myself to one of the locals during a supply run to High Prairie. Asked what I did for a living, I alluded briefly to my checkered past in the arts, academics and such. "Boy," said my new acquaintance, laughing, "are you ever in the wrong place!"

That experience helps me relate to Rosie Fudge, the heroine of actor/playwright Dawna J. Wightman's one-woman show Life as a Pomegranate. An aspiring actor whose promising career is hindered by a needy mother, Rosie gets married and moves to small town British Columbia, largely devoid of show biz opportunities. Rosie's artistic ambitions slowly wither as she submerges herself in the roles of wife and mother, yearning for a way to resume her craft and rediscover her bliss.

Wightman's impressions of being an artistic fish out of water in a small BC town feel real and familiar, and she builds a character you can root for in Rosie. Awkward, moody, anxious, self-critical verging on self-loathing, yet sweet and funny and idealistic and eternally bolstered by the "blue ball" of creativity she visualizes as the core of her being, Rosie struggles but you want her to succeed. 

It's a frequently funny, sometimes painfully sad script, and all nine characters in it are played by Wightman, giving each of them his or her own voice, posture and mannerisms, ranging from charmingly, flamboyantly manic-depressive Rosie to her croaking mother, her loutish husband and vividly sketched supporting characters like amiable stoner Slow Moe or mean girl Sutton, a haughty ice sculpture of a woman who becomes Rosie's nemesis.

Her biggest external nemesis, that is. Rosie's often her own worst enemy, especially when her inner critic manifests vocally as a self-destructively wicked witch persona who could match Margaret Hamilton in terms of menacingly venomous glee.  

Despite the confining close quarters of Marc's Lounge, Wightman's multi-role extravaganza is a very playful, versatile performance incorporating pantomime, song, dance, kazoo music and even finger puppetry, all of it done energetically and passionately. 

As Wightman herself said in a 2012 interview with Cate McKim about this play, "When I act, I give all of me, every cell. No tricks. No shortcuts." That all-consuming zeal for her craft persists in Wightman's 2016 run, making Life as a Pomegranate perhaps the best-acted show of this year's Island Fringe Festival.

Nothing more than...

Island Fringe Festival:
Feelings

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your subdued scribbler tends to be none too outwardly emotional, so perhaps it's no surprise I had trouble relating to a play called Feelings. Deemed a "semi-autobiographical" show by authors/actors Emile Beauchemin and Bill Black, it's a dramatic comedy in which these two young Quebec thespians analyze their friendship, their theatrical collaborations and each other. 

Ingesting a mind-altering substance at a club, the two best friends (playing themselves) share an extended hallucinatory vision quest guided by the authoritative and amusingly detached disembodied voice of Michael Maynard, sounding like an automated museum guide. Together they look back on the good, the bad and the ugly of their years together. 

The result is a meandering, muddled blur of monologues and dialogues that only intermittently entertain or illuminate. It's not helped by the fact that these actors have a tendency to rush, subverting both players' timing and sometimes Black's articulation as well. We're meant to be inside their heads here, so clarity of both words and emotional beats matters more than usual. 

On the other hand, sometimes what's being said is too clear. "I'm really envious of your carefree attitude," says Beauchemin to Black matter-of-factly, one of multiple moments where the characters are rather flatly telling us how they feel or what they think rather than showing us, inelegantly blurring the line between drama and group therapy. 

More subtly artful and more satisfying are moments in which the revelations skew metaphorical. For instance, meditations on the plays they have directed and performed — classics like Caligua, Othello and Twelfth Night — lead to ruminations on the nature of striving for perhaps-unattainable dreams, with various characters literally or figuratively aiming for the moon. 

There are genuinely moving, thought-provoking moments in this play spinning out from that lunar theme, including the show's rather poetic conclusion and a nifty monologue or two along the way. The less the show is spoon-feeding us its protagonists' feelings, the better it works. 

But there is a lot of spoon-feeding, and a lot of loud, angry noise either from the players themselves or from their music and effects, all of which helps the play feel like a longer, drearier slog than it actually is. The periods of over-the-top cacophony tend to be off-putting while the quieter bits are where these performers shine, whether it's in the less overwrought monologues or an adroitly executed pantomime sequence. 

"Welcome to our ego trip," says the duo early in the show; and while you have to give them props both for self awareness and for cheekily lampshading that aspect of their project, I'm not sure the show ever fully escapes the shadow of this mission statement. 

Feelings is equal parts self-revelatory and self-absorbed; and while it's easy to admire the bravery and artistic idealism of the exercise, it's hard to deny how tiresome and self-indulgent the show often feels despite the readily apparent talent, experience and intelligence behind it.

Étrange carnaval

Island Fringe Festival:
Un Glitch Absurde

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your Precambrian prattler had Browning on the brain during this show. The director of 1931's seminal original Dracula flick, Tod Browning spent years working in carnivals, circuses and vaudeville before breaking into the movies, where his films repeatedly mined outsider themes in general and Browning's sideshow past in particular. 

Charlottetown Burlesque's fringe festival show Un Glitch Absurde reminded me of Browning with its opening number, where the company enters in circus-like roles such as a strongman (who later morphs into a ringmaster of sorts), a devil, a bearded lady, a masked acrobat and more. 

This literal sideshow ends with the first song (apart from an animated Gordon Cobb lingering as ringmaster-like emcee Maqui) but the Browning notion stuck with me, partly because burlesque in general seems like it would have been right up Browning's dark, quirky alley, a funhouse mirror reflection of his old vaudeville stomping grounds. 

With their colourful costumes and stage names, burlesque performers are Browning-esque oddball outsiders, a kind of loopy parallel realm of gaudy dual-identity performance art evoking sideshow acts, roller derby, professional wrestling or super-heroics. To portray the other, you become the other. 

The "other" in this case, and a big part of what makes burlesque a fringe genre, is its sexual and strip-tease elements. Once a low-brow satirical variety show of sorts, burlesque later incorporated stripper acts that gradually took over and redefined the genre, both in its early 20th Century heyday and its more recent revivals. 

As such, burlesque is an awkward fit for your stubbornly square reviewer — kind of an "only Nixon could go to China" dynamic, arguably — but I wanted to cover the full Island Fringe slate this year, burlesque included, and I wasn't alone. Charlottetown Burlesque is among the festival's most popular features, and there were many familiar faces in the sold-out crowd — men and women, young and old. It was a diverse and happy audience. 

It may be a sign of my deepening moral turpitude (not to mention my irrational delight in saying or typing the word "turpitude"), but I enjoyed the show. The language and content got a tad too spicy for my taste in spots, but there's no real nudity and plenty of well-executed musical comedy, not to mention more artistic and emotional range than one might expect. 

There's sensual material, of course, such as company standout Moxie (Cameron Cassidy) and friend doing fine work on the once-scandalous 1967 tune "Déshabillez-moi" (one of several French songs in this refreshingly bilingual show), or the beguiling veil dance by company founder Amphora Rhodes (Alicia Denison) that closes the evening; but there's also comedy, romance, even pathos in some of the material. 

Francesca LaBella (Marissa Ladéroute) is quite funny in "Jalouse," for instance, and Ruby Doll (Andrea Fillion) brings lots of lively, appealing personality to numbers like the quietly crazed "Coin-Operated Boy." She has occasional trouble finding the microphone's sweet spot (somewhere a mock-aghast Lorelai Gilmore is saying "Dirty!"), but at her most audible she's among the company's best assets. 

Always audible and often amazing is the charming Charmaine Foxx (Ashley Clark), whose vocals are so consistently strong they're worth the price of admission no matter what duds she's donning or doffing. Clark's powerhouse performance of "Blue Alert," for instance, would be a smoking show-stopper even for sightless audience members. Like much of the rest of the show, it's a treat well worth the risk of turpitude.

Breaking Bard

Island Fringe Festival:
A Better Play Than Hamlet 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

As a longtime admirer of both literary icon William Shakespeare and accomplished funnyman Lorne Elliot, your crumbling chronicler was eager to sample Elliot’s new Shakespeare-inspired comedy despite its ominously hubristic title: A Better Play Than Hamlet

Perhaps the most celebrated and highly anticipated production of this year’s Island Fringe Festival, Elliot’s self-penned one man show debuted in a Culinary Institute lecture theatre, a venue uniquely ideal for the play’s subject matter. 

Elliot plays a drunken, cynical, immeasurably embittered professor giving the keynote speech about Shakespeare’s classic Hamlet at an academic symposium. A Shakespeare roast of sorts ensues as Elliot’s professor pokes often clever, occasionally vicious fun at the Bard in general and Hamlet in particular. 

The professor lands some very palpable hits along the way, ranging from the oddly Italian-named soldiers patrolling Hamlet’s Danish castle to the fact that Hamlet is lucky enough to be abducted by “the relaxed, friendly type of pirates” when Shakespeare’s plot requires them; but as the lecture continues, Elliot’s I-come-to-bury-Shakespeare-not-to-praise-him diatribe starts to reveal whole other agendas both professional and personal on his rogue academic’s part, not to mention the fact that said academic just might be going mad himself. 

The result is a fun, surprisingly thoughtful black comedy with more layers than might be expected at first glance, and more respect for Shakespeare’s melancholy masterwork than its provocative title implies.  

The Culinary Institute classroom not only fits this play perfectly, but it also provides some of the best acoustics and sight lines of any Island Fringe venue this year. Elliot is always visible and almost always audible, though his character’s often drunkenly slurred speech is a bit too mumbly for clarity in spots. 

A past master of the comedic monologue from his decades of stage work, Elliot makes the most of his script here with well-calibrated shifts in timing and mood, scoring laugh after laugh. It’s a funny performance of a funny script, despite a few rough spots — a Holocaust reference or two, for instance, feels jarringly over-the-top even coming from Elliot’s bitterly unstable professor. 

Most of the time, though, Elliot successfully navigates the murky waters between black comedy and darker drama as he explores the professor’s personal issues and ruminates on the significance of a literary classic while scoring plenty of cheap laughs at said classic’s expense, whether it’s turning Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be” speech into a drinking song or denouncing the “totally unnecessary” Fortinbras subplot. 

Come to think of it, PEI’s recent abridged Hamlet production (directed by ACT’s Terry Pratt) excised that same subplot in its entirety, so Elliot’s professor may find more than a few real-life sympathizers with portions of his manifesto; but whether audiences agree or disagree with his points, odds are Elliot will leave them laughing. 

A Tale of Two Dances

Island Fringe Festival:
Ceilidh on the Coast and Hikari

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your torpid typist danced in his prehistoric preteen days. Trained in tap but lacking the terpsichorean drive to stick with it, I ultimately evolved into an eerily lifelike adult with the nimble grace of a woolly mammoth, post-tar pit. Retaining a fondness for footwork regardless, I was intrigued to see two different dance shows in this year’s Island Fringe Festival. 

The most traditional of the two shows was Ceilidh on the Coast staged at Confederation Landing by Reel Talent School of Dance, a step-dancing showcase featuring Reel Talent’s director Jennifer Carson and some of her star pupils plus occasional audience participation. 

Reel Talent’s a bright, energetic group with commendable focus (scarcely dented by loudly competing musical performers from the nearby Peakes Wharf stage), offering upbeat, animated step-dancing, some of it reworked for their small Fringe troupe from choreography designed for larger Reel rosters. 

The Reel gang largely dances to recorded music but they also provide some of their own, notably original tunes penned by the company’s singer/guitarist/dancer Olivia Blacquiere. This adds welcome variety and uniqueness to an otherwise fairly conventional step show. 

Nowhere near conventional is Hikari, produced by Mexico City company Komorebi. In fact the two dance shows are literally as different as night and day, Ceilidh being a sunny afternoon affair while the darkly enigmatic Hikari is produced in shadowy outdoor park Rochford Square as night falls. 

The venue suits Hikari in some ways, with the shifting leafy shadows of nearby trees adding layers of organic atmosphere, but not every aspect of the show works well here. Billed as a triptych about darkness vs. light, the show starts with performer/choreographer Dora Hagerman literally dancing in a dark outfit covered by built-in lights. Promotional photographs of past performances suggest a strikingly impressionistic effect of disembodied streaks of light in darkness, but Hagerman is too clearly visible in the park’s twilight for this gimmick to be fully successful. 

The last two thirds of the triptych are more effective, all of it danced in front of various screen projections while music plays, including lots of loud, harsh industrial guitar courtesy of musician/composer Héctor Murrieta. 

Phase two of the dance is intentionally difficult to watch — partly due to Murrieta’s sonic assault and a series of creepy images on the screen, but mostly because of a monstrously transformed Hagerman. Garbed in a mummy-wrapped, hunch-backed, grotesquely masked outfit, a bloodily red-lit Hagerman staggers and writhes and growls her way through a genuinely disturbing routine that’s pure nightmare fuel. 

Haberman’s third dance and final metamorphosis is a welcome palate cleanser as she shifts into a vaguely butterfly–winged costume for a closing routine that is still passionately intense, but more smooth and lyrical. Hikari ends as it began, puzzling and strange and not always satisfying, but daring, inventive and visually and emotionally memorable.

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