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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:

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.

Rocket mania

Island Fringe Festival:
It's a Spaceship Now

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your weary wordsmith managed to see all eight Island Fringe Festival shows this year, but I only saw one of them twice: It’s a Spaceship Now, a delightful one-man comedy written by and starring Rhode Island performer Stuart Wilson. 

It's a show with technical issues, in more ways than one. The play includes recorded video segments in addition to Wilson's live performance and there were multiple audio malfunctions the first night I attended, though those problems were absent on the second night. In addition, the sight lines in the Kirk of St. James performance space were pretty dire by times, especially whenever Wilson was sitting or otherwise low to the ground. 

But as Wilson's show repeatedly tells us, technical difficulties can be overcome — whether it's the above production glitches fading away in the glow of the play's sheer giddy entertainment value, or the bigger technical challenge of turning a discarded Soviet nuclear missile into a home-made space ship in your own backyard. 

The latter challenge is the premise of It's a Spaceship Now, in which a fictionalized version of Wilson drifts through life as an under-employed, under-achieving underdog, a carefree artsy sci-fi fan who does most of his shopping in the trash. When he stumbles onto a de-nuked commie missile, he gets a crazy idea. Inspired by his mechanically gifted father and his favourite Star Trek character the android Data, Stuart decides to use the missile to fly into outer space. 

His goals are actually pretty modest, no dreams of interplanetary glory here — he just wants to fly to outer space briefly and come back down without dying "the most lonely death in the history of humans." Even that is going to be pretty darn tricky on a slacker scavenger's budget, so Wilson walks us through the mechanics of his project, which involve high-tech resources like Ikea furniture, duct tape and flaming laser discs. 

It's all ridiculous, but deliberately so. Wilson's greatest gift might be sharing that sense of ludicrous fun with his audience, the improvisational rapport he forms and sustains with a crowd. The play incorporates audience interaction aplenty, whether it's Wilson mixing up glasses of Tang (the beverage of astronauts!) for the patrons, passing around technical components for people to examine, using volunteers in his demonstrations, leading sing-alongs or conducting question-and-answer sessions, all good fun from start to finish. 

Stuart's intentionally unconvincing technical jargon, deeply goofy musical interludes and often laughably primitive accessories blend with his mellow, self-deprecating humour to make this an undeniably silly but irresistibly charming show. There are even hints of deeper feeling amidst all the nonsense as Wilson works out some daddy issues and blends his child-like yearning for adventure with an adult ambition to achieve something, anything at long last. 

After his last performance, Wilson said his favourite show of the festival might be Dawna Wightman's Life as a Pomegranate. A very worthy play indeed; but looking back at that lost Fringe weekend, I don't think any show made me smile or laugh quite as much as Wilson's gleefully absurd, weirdly touching space oddity. "Space is hella big," says stage Stuart in a typical sample of his scientific acumen, and so is this quirky little show's heart. That's why it's my festival favourite of 2016, laws of physics be darned. 

Deceptive Rainbows

The Glass Menagerie

Review by Sean McQuaid 

The Glass Menagerie is one of the greatest plays ever written. Granted, academics, critics and audiences have been saying that since its 1945 debut, but it bears repeating. Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical portrait of the disintegrating Wingfield family is just as poetic, funny and poignantly haunting now as it was all those decades ago, and director Robert Tsonos does right by this classic in its latest revival at the Watermark Theatre.

Unlike some Watermark productions, the action here is largely confined to the stage as opposed to the aisles and balconies; the occasional exception is Tom Wingfield (played by Joshua Browne), a subtle choice that works well since as narrator (and de facto proxy for the playwright) he operates on a uniquely metadramatic level. It makes sense that the only character speaking directly to the audience also moves amongst the audience, and it reinforces both his connection with us and his dreamlike detachment from the story’s events, which for Tom are a distant memory.

The Watermark’s thrust stage has its players surrounded on three sides by spectators, so the varied, conflicting sight lines make it tricky to arrange the set and blocking in ways that don’t obscure some of the action for at least a portion of the audience. That’s hard to avoid in this space, though, and moments of visual obstruction in my particular seat were few enough to be only a minor irritant on opening night.

Williams repeatedly, explicitly reminds us that the story we’re being told is a memory. Tsonos echoes this in various ways, including William Layton’s set design. The handsome apartment set's “walls” are really a skeletal echo of same: a transparent wooden frame with enlarged vintage photographic city-scape backdrops visible behind it, a suitably impressionistic space made charmingly concrete by furniture and props such as the titular decorative glass animal figurines.

“In memory,” says Tom, “everything seems to happen to music.” As such, this play is ideal for Watermark’s commissioning of original musical scores by Leo Marchildon for its productions this season. It’s a welcome bonus too seldom seen in PEI theatre, and Marchildon’s warm, wistful, occasionally jazzy soundtrack enriches the overall mood and flavour of the piece.

A strong cast ties it all together nicely. Browne seems a bit rushed by times, a trait perhaps contributing to the company’s rare moments of uncertainty regarding cues or lines, but his brooding, restless energy suits the trapped, frustrated Tom. Gracie Finley strikes a satisfyingly tragicomic tone as Tom’s overbearing, delusional mother Amanda, often funny and always sad as the faded southern belle trying to pair up her introverted daughter Laura (Leah Pritchard) with Tom’s sunny co-worker Jim (a gregariously charming Daniel Briere).

Pritchard is particularly fine as the fearful, reclusive Laura, her skittish body language and halting vocalizations sketching the character vividly, and powerfully expressive even when she’s not moving or talking. Her face alone speaks volumes, whether it’s a glimmer of potential joy in conversation with Jim or the shattering heartache that follows.

The Glass Menagerie repeatedly depicts happiness as fleeting or illusory or both, like the “brief, deceptive rainbows” evoked by the script; but there’s beauty in rainbows, however transient, and this production captures the timeless beauty of Williams’ story with crystal clarity.

Inconstant Moon

Salt-Water Moon

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Adding charm and historic heft to this summer's Kings Playhouse slate, Salt-Water Moon is a sweet slice of retro romance wrapped in Newfoundland lore. Written by Canadian playwright David French in 1984, the award-winning Moon was a "prequel" companion to French's 1972 hit Leaving Home and its assorted follow-ups from 1973, 1988 and 2001. All five plays feature the fictional Mercer clan of Newfoundland in what French called "emotionally autobiographical" tales inspired by his own family background. 

Set in the small Newfoundland outport of Coley’s Point in 1926, the oft-produced one-act Salt-Water Moon features 18-year-old Jacob Mercer (Fraser McCallum) returning home from Toronto to court his estranged ex-sweetheart Mary Snow (Marli Trecartin), now engaged to another man. Sparks fly as the former couple discuss their defunct relationship and their respective troubled family backgrounds' bearing on same. 

Much of that background hinges on World War I, their parents being among the many Newfoundlanders slain or traumatized by that conflict. A topic explored in multiple Mercer plays, it's often compelling stuff -- though French's incorporation of this thread doesn't always feel wholly organic here. Jacob's wartime thoughts in particular feel a bit shoehorned in by times, however intense or insightful they might be. 

Moon is first and foremost a love story, though, and in that capacity it delivers. Jacob and Mary are largely likeable, entertaining characters who clearly like each other however much they deny it, and their oft-amusing, sometime touching interplay is what gives this two-hander its humour and heart. 

Director Melissa Mullen keeps the play moving at a pleasantly leisurely pace, and some of the most affecting moments are in pauses and silences such as those near the beginning and the end of the play, both well-executed by the actors. 

Rougher patches tend to fall within the monologues. Some work well, such as Trecartin's sad account of Mary's sister Dot's fate or McCallum's gleeful reenactment of a devilish prank, but there's a plodding sameness to some of the longer bits where there's too little variation in pacing or feeling for long stretches. 

One or two of McCallum's angrier extended speeches fall into this trap, for instance, where there's so few shifts in timing or tone within them that they start to sound a bit like recitation despite their intensity. He fares better in lighter sequences like Jacob's lengthy Tom Mix film anecdote, organically timed and executed with such infectiously colourful enthusiasm by McCallum that the material really pops. 

If Trecartin seems a tad stiff or uncertain on occasion, that may stem at least partly from her character's motivation — Mary spends much of the play either trying to decide how she feels about Jacob or trying to hide it or both — but overall, she and McCallum have an appealing chemistry together whether trading barbs or pitching woo. 

Randall Fletcher's front porch set provides a credible, functional location for the proceedings, though a screen-projected backdrop of the titular moon is more problematic. There seems to be a slight screen rolling glitch by times, not to mention a pesky software update notification popping up briefly the night I attended. 

Fleeting glitches like that, however, do little to obscure Salt-Water Moon's enduring glow. Ably enacted by Mullen's players, French's poignantly comedic script continues to shine. 

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