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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. 

Story Night

The Four Tellers

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Growing up "down east" on PEI, live theatre wasn't exactly ubiquitous. Apart from school plays and the occasional cultural expedition to darkest Charlottetown, most of my early theatrical memories were made at the historic Kings Playhouse where shows like Dracula warped my impressionable young mind and helped instill a lasting enthusiasm for the stage. 

I've returned to the Playhouse on occasion, but not as often as I'd like in recent years; so when The Four Tellers launched their new season there, it was a welcome chance to revisit one of my favourite theatres as well as some favourite performers. 

Those favourites include folklorist David Weale and fiddling genius Roy Johnstone, the duo who arguably kickstarted PEI's whole modern theatrical storytelling industry over two decades ago with their seminal A Long Way from the Road stage show, so there's a nice symmetry seeing them in the latest of that show's many descendants. 

The last time I saw Weale perform at the Playhouse over a decade ago, it was a stripped-down one-man show, just him and a stool and a stack of stories. That worked, but so does the very different The Four Tellers production, a colourful and sometimes raucous ensemble of four storytellers (Weale, Alan Buchanan, Gary Evans and Dennis King) backed by two musicians (Johnstone and guitarist/vocalist Steve Sharratt). 

The set's backdrop is a segmented map of PEI, and its core is a kitchen table where the four storytellers gather as they take turns spinning their respective tales — some of them personal (like the illuminating "Who's Your Father?" round robin introductory segment about their parents), others culled from history, legend or lifted from fellow storytellers like the late, great Frank Ledwell; as the Tellers themselves admit, a little creative larceny is a hallmark of their craft. 

The musicians, the kitchen table set and the laughing, joking, casually conversational interplay among the  four storytellers combine to feel like one big kitchen party, though the show also shifts gears and tones to create moments of seriousness, sentiment or fancier stagecraft as needed. Most of the production is comedy, funny stories told by funny people, but it's also profound or moving or both by times. 

The musical content is a nice bonus in a show that's mostly billed as a talk-fest. The solid Johnstone-Sharratt combo also starts the evening on a fun note with jazzy interpretations of classic tunes like "Summertime" and "Blue Skies" well before the show begins, so audience members who show up early enough for this pre-show set are in for a treat. 

The stories are the main meat of the evening, however, and the titular tellers serve them up with style. Any occasional glitches in delivery — a verbal stumble here, a pacing issue there (King in particular seems a bit rushed at first before finding his rhythm) — only bolster the show's appealing sense of spontaneity and playful informality, especially since the tellers are quick to laugh at themselves and each other. The Four Tellers always seem to be having fun, and it's infectious. 

'Stein Capsule

Annekenstein & Friends

Review by Sean McQuaid 

The quasi–legendary Annekenstein sketch comedy run (1991-1997) wasn't my first live theatrical experience; but it was my first theatre experience as a fan, a show that brought me back again and again, so it looms inevitably large in my memory and my affections.  

David Moses, Rob MacDonald, Laurie Murphy, Nancy McLure and Ed Rashed were the show's mainstays, a superb comedic ensemble. Most have since left PEI or theatre or both behind, but MacDonald endures. From Enemies to Sketch–22 to Popalopalots to Tall Hat Chronicles, he and his ever–shifting array of collaborators have kept the local comedy flame aglow until Annekenstein itself finally lurched back to life this summer. 

Well, sort of. Technically it's Annekenstein & Friends, which in proper Frankenstein fashion is stitched together from the remains of multiple departed shows, mostly bits from the Annekenstein and Sketch-22 runs. "Rob MacDonald's greatest hits" was one audience member's accurate summary of the proceedings. 

Annekenstein classics like the self–explanatory "Anne-aholics Anonymous," speed musical "World's Fastest Anne" and game show lark "Win a Waif" remain hilarious decades later, and Sketch–22 standouts like the psycho-sadistic "Pavlov's Audience" and the surreally brilliant "Stand Up Canada, Atticus Finch Is Passing By" are worthy companions to the early material. 

Veteran Rob MacDonald collaborators Alicia Arsenault, Cameron MacDonald (Rob's son), Graham Putnam and Josh Weale plus sublime new recruit Olivia King fill out the cast alongside Rob himself. All six are experienced, versatile and very funny performers, an ensemble that matches the original Annekenstein cast's depth and variety of talent. 

The great Nancy McLure's absence is oddly conspicuous, as she's still active in local comedy — it's a bit like staging a Beatles comeback tour minus either Paul or Ringo — but the new cast are all aces, so the McLure void is more of a regrettable curiosity than a serious deficiency. 

As noted, these are all accomplished, talented performers, so the premiere's occasional hiccups may be opening night jitters: a few misspoken lines, a slow cue or two, a punchline spoiled by a misplaced prop. One of the more persistent issues was Weale's tendency towards full–throated screaming during excitable moments. The frequency of that tactic diluted its impact and also left him awkwardly hoarse by the end of the night.  

Some of the sketches are modified for various reasons, but generally not in ways that undermine the original material. For instance, the addition of a literally and figuratively peripheral new character in the Atticus Finch script enables that sketch to utilize the entire company without hindering the main action; and while King has little to do in the new role, she makes the most of what she's given via her uniquely expressive face and some fun prop work. 

As with any sketch show, the quality varies — cleverly scathing dissections of PEI culture like "From Away to Eternity" and "The Boyce" fly by while less successful bits like "Samir the Tailor" and "Vulva Capella" drag on a bit beyond their freshness expiry date; but the overall quality of this all–star anthology is strong, the smartest and funniest show of its kind since the original Annekenstein run.

Glitzy, Guilty Pleasure

Mamma Mia!

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Dubbed “the guiltiest pleasure of the summer” by its director Adam Brazier, Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical stitched together from cheesy old pop songs. Not exactly a recipe for high art, nor emblematic of the Festival’s stated cultural aspirations. 

A little crowd-pleasing fromage on the Festival menu helps pay for said aspirations, though, and there’s fun to be had in the bargain. Mamma Mia! may be a relentlessly cheesy show, but it’s also a deliciously cheesy show filled with infectious, unforgettable songs and joyous musicality. 

Swedish 70s pop super-group ABBA folded in 1982, but British playwright Catherine Johnson (aided by ex-ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) smooshed a bunch of ABBA’s songs together with a few lyrical tweaks in 1999, wrote a new story around them and created a smash hit musical, Mamma Mia! 

My older sister had tons of ABBA on vinyl, so a sizable chunk of my childhood came with an ABBA soundtrack—and I loved it. Can’t say as it earned me heaping gobs of street cred on the Dundas school bus, but I hummed and whistled and sang those songs a lot as a lad, and my affection for them endures. 

So I walked into the Homburg Theatre with a lot of preexisting good will for this show, and I was far from alone in that sentiment. When recognizable ABBA tunes emerged in the instrumental overture, some of the audience actually started cheering. Overtures don’t usually net ovations. 

Johnson’s script is more inventive than most of its kind, building a coherent new story around its eclectic old songs. Said story involves free-spirited single mother Donna (Eliza-Jane Scott) and her adult daughter Sophie (Katie Kerr), who’s about to get married and wants to know which of Donna’s three old boyfriends might be her biological father: dreamy American architect Sam (Réjean Cournoyer), adventurous Australian author Bill (Stephen Guy-McGrath) or button-down British banker Harry (Cameron MacDuffee). Sophie invites all three men to her wedding and wackiness ensues. 

The show unwisely pushes its smoke machine to aesthetic and respiratory extremes, but Brazier’s overall production is energetic, fast-paced and funny—there’s humour packed into every nook and cranny of the cast’s performances, both physical and verbal. An expressive, oft-hilarious Nicola Dawn Brook is the cream of that bumper comedy crop as Donna’s old friend Rosie, though an airily arch Jan Alexandra Smith also excels as wealthy divorcee Tanya. 

The production moves so briskly and brightly that the sentimental, emotional aspects of the story often get shortchanged by comparison to the showier elements. Moments with real emotional punch are few, among them Scott’s powerful “The Winner Takes it All” lament and Cameron MacDuffee’s all–around fine work as Harry. He’s funny and charming throughout as a genial stiff, but he also brings heartfelt tenderness to songs like “Thank You for the Music” and especially his poignantly bittersweet “Our Last Summer” duet with Scott. The show as a whole could stand to wear a lot more of that heart on its glittery sleeve. 

Kerry Gage’s choreography has its moments, often comedic (such as the cheerfully goofy “Lay All Your Love on Me”), though the darkly intense “Money, Money, Money” is the most strikingly memorable dance number; but the real star is the music, which the company does ample justice under Bob Foster’s musical direction. The strong principal singers are backed by a lush chorus and a small but mighty pit band to produce a satisfyingly big, rich sound. 

That sound is at its biggest and best in a string of encores at the end, during which the show turns the disco dial up to 11. The set morphs into the sparkly love child of Studio 54 and The Price is Right, the cast changes into shiny outfits and the whole company belts out a couple of choice reprises plus the rousing “Waterloo” for good measure. It’s a beautiful Saturday night fever dream. 

Reviewer Discretion

All New People

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your stuffy stenographer being eternally, unrepentantly old, I have never been a particularly hip and happening hepcat. So when theatre producers talk about doing an edgy, adult show—which tends to signify some combination of sex, violence and/or profanity—my enthusiasm typically wanes. 

Hence my initial wariness regarding ACT’s production of All New People, a dark comedy penned in 2011 by Zach Braff, longtime star of TV’s Scrubs. The key participants in ACT’s new production of the play have strong track records, though, and I’ve enjoyed Braff’s work, so I figured it was worth a try despite all the ominous promotional rumblings about adult content. 

Said content features oft-gratuitous profanity, drinking, drug use, sordid sex talk and sexual situations, including one actor getting to second base with a castmate. It’s the raciest live show I’ve ever seen in Charlottetown, and the script often tries way too hard to be naughty as Braff self-consciously sheds his network sitcom shackles. 

Still, this show largely transcends these drawbacks through the play’s subtler elements and the ACT production’s laudable quality. Braff’s dialogue leans too heavily on the profanity crutch, and his female characterizations are occasionally suspect (Kim in particular too often embodies stereotypically dim, sexually objectified wish fulfillment), but the show’s four main characters gradually reveal layers beyond their surface quirks and depravities. All four emerge as human and likeable to varying degrees, and Braff’s story is ultimately compassionate, even optimistic, despite its darkness. 

Said darkness revolves around Charlie (Cameron MacDonald), a melancholy young man who is contemplating suicide in an isolated beach house when he is interrupted by a series of oddball interlopers: drugged-up real estate agent Emma (Emily Anne Fullerton), debauched fire chief/drug dealer Myron (Tim Wartman) and high-priced hooker Kim (Ashley Clark). 

Ace character actor Keir Malone directs them all skillfully. Blocking and pacing are solid, as are the show’s pre-taped video flashbacks to the characters’ pasts featuring strong supporting players Tim Gormley, Benton Hartley and Paul Whelan. Braff’s script is chock full of jokes, which the cast delivers with keen comic timing. Fullerton and Wartman in particular make everything from quick asides to more fully constructed gags hilarious with some truly inspired line readings. 

Fullerton sustains impressively manic energy, generating many of the laughs along the way but shifting deftly into pathos as required. Wartman fully inhabits his louche, leering, larger-than-lowlife character from start to finish, alternately appealing or repellent and always interesting to watch. A scantily clad Clark supplies more than just eye candy, landing gag after gag with dimly deadpan élan as she makes a meal of the play’s most thinly sketched role, adding some artful poignancy with her lovely singing voice. 

Perhaps most impressively, MacDonald—the comically gifted, perpetually wacky living cartoon character of Popalopalots and aBigWHAT fame—is cast against type as the serious dramatic core of this show, and he is sympathetic, nuanced and entirely effective. It’s a revelation, and a happily surprising one. 

There’s an appealing comic chemistry in the easy interplay of the four leads, all of whom get to play plenty of serious dramatic moments as well as loads of broad comedy. In fact, all four give the strongest all-around performances I’ve ever seen from any of them in any show—these are talented actors in peak form, and actor-turned-director Malone can be justly proud of his ensemble’s achievement. 

The “adult” content might be a tad too spicy for some; but there’s a smart and funny show underneath all that adolescent posturing, and ACT’s superb cast & crew do it ample justice. It’s a dirty job, but someone had to do it. 

We’ll Always Have Belfast

Romeo and Juliet 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your incurable romantic—well, certainly an incurable something, anyway—has enjoyed William Shakespeare’s iconic 16th Century tragedy Romeo and Juliet since well-meaning educators first thrust it upon me decades ago. It may be flowery, melodramatic and occasionally implausible, but it boasts several unforgettable characters, a genuinely touching love story and some indelibly artful text.  

The play’s recent Vagabond Productions run also boasted other alluring curiosities. One was director/producer Greg Doran shifting the story’s titular doomed lovers from 16th Century Italy to late 20th Century Ireland at the end of “The Troubles.” The other unique draw was the show’s unconventional venue, the chapel at stately nursing home the Mount, formerly Mount St. Mary's Convent. Suitably intrigued, I decided to get me to a nunnery. 

The results were decidedly mixed. It’s always a great play (even abbreviated as it is here), but this is seldom a great production. The Mount’s cavernous chapel space, imposingly large yet aesthetically generic at the same time, adds scant colour and the company does little to dress it up. Doran’s varied and dynamic blocking uses the floor space well, sending actors up and down the aisles and situating action all around the audience, but the chapel’s echo chamber acoustics dog the cast. Robert Crossley’s booming Prince, for instance, has an often unintelligibly big sound, while quieter players such as Erin Mazor’s Nurse and Heather Parry’s Lady Capulet drift in and out of audibility, intermittently swallowed up by the space. 

The Irish setting turns out to be a shrug-worthy asterisk, adding little apart from replacing “Verona” with “Belfast” in the dialogue and using guns instead of swords; and the mostly unremarkable modern plainclothes costumes get randomly weird in spots. T. Noah J. Nazim’s dapper Friar Laurence looks more like a stage magician than a clergyman (give or take one rosary), and Mazor’s inexplicably overalls-clad, stripey-tights Nurse seems little more than a clown nose away from The Big Comfy Couch

The cast as a whole tend to rush through their lines a bit too quickly, though the pacing smoothes out pleasingly in spots. Dylan Gaudet and Kassinda Bulger make for a genuinely youthful, often appealing Romeo and Juliet, the former all boyish Richie Cunnigham charm and the latter a movingly earnest ingénue. Their first romantic moment together plays somewhat fast even by whirlwind romance standards, but slower pacing in other scenes better serves both their skills and the text, notably in Bulger’s fine soliloquies. 

Gordon Cobb’s Lord Montague is overblown, Mazor and Parry are both erratic, and Nazim sometimes seems like he’s in a different play than the others. He’s a talented, often compelling performer—his sarcastically skeptical attitude early on clearly and amusingly reminding us just what a starry-eyed dolt Romeo can be, for instance—but other moments get played too big or too odd or both, such that his wild-eyed Friar nets some unintentional laughs in awkwardly serious places. 

On the bright side, R. Tori Fraser’s Benvelina (a gender-flipped Benvolio) is a likeable presence, Benton Hartley’s suitably sour Tybalt brings glowering intensity to his part, and an energetic, funny, animated Ashley Nicole MacLeod nearly steals the whole darn show in the plum role of Mercutia (a gender-flipped Mercutio), though all three of these characters exit the play early. What remains thereafter, despite the setting and venue, is not exactly a religious experience.

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