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Lamplit Laughs

Aladdin: Another Fairly Tall Tale

Review by Sean McQuaid 

As many Canadians embrace the "sunny ways" of Canada's cheerful new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, your curmudgeonly critic concedes at least one point on the subject: tonal change is a powerful thing. 

A couple of years into his gig as Artistic Director at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, Adam Brazier has often struck a fairly sunny tone himself, a perspective that takes theatre seriously but doesn't take itself too seriously; and that sunny tone shines brightest in the Centre's annual community theatre holiday productions. 

Last year's Christmas show, Cinderella: A Fairly Tall Tale, re–imagined a classic fairy tale as a jukebox musical in a fantasy PEI setting with lots of shamelessly broad, unrepentantly silly, pantomime–style humour chock full of audience participation, pop culture references, local gags, metadramatic fourth–wall breakage and gleefully brazen sponsor product placement. 

The result may not have been high art, but it was staged with such skillful enthusiasm, knowing winks and infectious merriment that it was highly entertaining regardless—and this year's sequel, Aladdin: A Fairly Tall Tale, is cut from much the same magic carpeting. 

It's the familiar tale of impoverished youth Aladdin (played by Gabe Antonacci), manipulated into seeking a magic lamp by sinister sorcerer Jafar (Réjean Cournoyer) while courting the princess Jasmine (Maria Campbell) with the aid of the lamp's resident genie (Gordon Cobb), all fairly standard stuff. 

Writer/director Brazier sets his story in a fantasy version of Charlottetown, however, adding characters such as Aladdin's man-hungry mother Widow Twanky (Graham Putnam), Jasmine's PEI–ruling father Baron Wasteland (Dennis Trainor), Jafar's genie henchwoman Scheherazade (Melissa MacKinnon) and the ever–tearful Town Crier (Sarah MacPhee reprising her plum role from the Cinderella show).

It's all a bit repetitious in terms of how often Aladdin goes back to the same comedy wells tapped in Brazier's Cinderella, but like its predecessor this is a fun, energetic crowd–pleaser. Garnett Gallant's attractive sets combine with projected backdrops to craft a cartoony yet recognizable version of Charlottetown, and video director Jan Rudd's TV spots featuring the play's characters in comedic commercials for the show's sponsors put the "fun" in fundraising. 

Antonacci and Campbell are appealing and musically adept romantic leads, but the show's supreme scene-stealers are Putnam's wacky Widow Twanky and Cournoyer’s magnificently over–the–top Jafar, both hilarious throughout. Cobb’s low–key genie feels oddly flat by comparison, one of the least colourful performances in a show full of bigger–than–life personalities, though MacKinnon is charming as fellow genie and occasional narrator Scheherazade. 

MacPhee remains a weirdly endearing treat as the Town Crier, and assorted supporting standouts include smartly polished work in small roles by Ben Hartley, a fun running (or sweeping) gag featuring Anthony Welsh, a belly dancer played with sinuous grace by Amy Amierah, and some first–rate game show hosting by Kristena McCormack. 

Darling daughter having attended with me, she laughed a lot and said the best parts of the show were Jafar and Twanky. I couldn’t disagree, and the play left me with three wishes of my own: more scripted character work from certifiable improv genius Putnam, more roles showcasing what a spectacularly fun performer Cournoyer can be, and more of these commendably goofy Christmas shows.

Making Spirits Bright

A Christmas Carol

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your seasonal scribe has a well–documented passion for Christmas in general and 1843 novella A Christmas Carol in particular; so when the North Shore Players staged their new theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ timeless tale in December, ye olde reviewer headed for North Rustico’s Watemark Theatre like the wise men following the star. 

There’s a grain of literal light–seeking truth in that fanciful simile, since Watermark’s play was presented in conjunction with North Rustico’s Festival of Lights. The town’s rainbow–hued array of shiny Christmas displays probably helped draw people to the play and vice versa in a nice little loop of seasonal synergy, and I myself enjoyed a stroll through the lights with my good wife. 

The show inside the theatre was considerably darker, and pleasingly so. A Christmas Carol is an often–grim tale of a diabolical old sinner getting scared straight by a dead man and his ghostly accomplices, so a strong current of darkness inevitably runs through it despite the story’s ultimately joyful, hopeful redemptory message. 

Director/adapter David Bulger and his cast have many of their finest moments amidst the shadowy aspects of Dickens’ story. The best scenes and performances in this production belong to the aforementioned sinner Scrooge (played by Carl Peterson) and his ghostly tormentors, while the cheerier chunks of the story don’t always land quite as solidly. 

Shadows and light are most effectively blended here by Peterson’s Scrooge, and by the always excellent Keir Malone as Scrooge’s long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit. Malone is warm, likeable and genuine as Bob, and heartbreaking as a grieving parent. 

Peterson, meanwhile, crafts a uniquely memorable version of a classic character—not just through his distinctive voice and appearance, but also through the considerable physical energy and emotive clarity he brings to the part. Every stage of Scrooge’s emotional roller coaster is made plain. It’s tough finding an actor who can play Scrooge’s nasty and nice sides equally credibly, but Peterson meets the challenge with entertaining and sometimes moving flair. 

Fraser McCallum is smoothly charming albeit somewhat affected as Scrooge’s good–natured nephew Fred, while Richard Haines isn’t nearly merry enough as Scrooge’s jovial ex–employer Fezziwig. Part of the problem there might be the fact that the company seems preoccupied by their choreography during the Fezziwig party sequence, concentrating too hard on executing their dance steps to remember that they’re all supposed to be having a good time. 

Shifting back to the shadows, McCallum and Haines turn in solid performances doubling as the spirits of Christmas future and present, respectively, though Jan King tops them both as a genuinely spooky spirit of Christmas past, bringing an ethereal, accusatory intensity to the role; but the prize cherry atop this supernatural sundae is Rex McCarville’s creepily superb turn as Jacob Marley’s ghost, perhaps the best rendition of this role I’ve ever seen in any medium. With his haunted gaze, sepulchral tones and anguished howls, he’s equal parts sympathetic and scary. Even your jaded journalist felt a chill or two, momentarily “frighted with false fire.” 

The whole production gave me a few chills, in fact—not just the spooky kind, but strongly felt emotion in general, especially from the performances of Peterson, McCarville and King. It’s no small feat bringing fresh feeling to a story as familiar as this, and Bulger’s company achieves it. There are glitches here and there—some of the scene changes run less smoothly than others, for instance—but it’s a strong production overall, and a promising start for the newly minted North Shore Players. 

Golden Age

Of a Certain Age

Review by Sean McQuaid 

With a short attention span cultivated by 1940s theatrical cartoons, 1980s video games and semi-animated 1960s televised fever dream Rocket Robin Hood, your distractible diarist has always fancied one-act plays. So when ACT (a community theatre) mounted Of a Certain Age featuring three one-act plays, I was helpless to resist—especially since the line-up included a locally legendary play I missed out on the first time around: The Prompter, written and directed by David Moses for Off Stage Theatre in 1991. 

Also on the bill are a couple of one-act romantic comedies, Lord Byron’s Love Letter and The Pretty Trap, both 1940s scripts by Tennessee Williams. Like The Prompter, both Williams scripts also prominently feature older women, the titular unifying theme of ACT’s three shows. 

Helping tie it all together is local actor/vocalist Tamara Steele, who narrates and sometimes sings introductions to each of the plays. This nice extra gives the overall production a more distinctive, coherent identity, as well as some added musical appeal. 

First up is Lord Byron’s Love Letter (directed by Sharon MacDonald), in which a reclusive old woman (played by Kate Martin) and her spinster granddaughter (Afton Mondoux) try to impress a visiting matron (Mireille Porter) and her indifferent husband (Tim Wartman) with a love letter supposedly written to the grandmother by Lord Byron during her youth. 

Mondoux’s strong performance as the spinster is the backbone of this production, an amusingly awkward and frustrated slow burn as her domineering grandmother obsessively micromanages the whole encounter. Martin and Wartman are fun as the grandmother and the husband, while Porter is somewhat stiff as the matron but still effective. 

Next up is fascinating historical curio The Pretty Trap (directed by Ellen Carol), an early prototype version of what later became Williams’ 1944 smash hit The Glass Menagerie. The Pretty Trap features roughly the same characters in the same situation—faded southern belle Amanda Wingfield (Joscelynne Bordeaux), her troubled daughter Laura (Emily Anne Fullerton) and artistic son Tom (Aidan Gallant), all hosting dinner guest Jim (Pat Caron). 

Where Menagerie was bleakly downbeat, however, Trap strikes a tone of cheerful farce complete with happy ending. It’s not nearly as powerful or memorable as Menagerie, but it’s an intriguing divergent take on these characters; or as Anya Emerson once put it, “Alternate realities are neat.” 

Bordeaux is a treat as a southern-fried, scenery-chewing sitcom version of Amanda, playing the part with loopy flair. Fullerton plays Laura’s shyness capably, though her performance becomes much more entertaining and distinctive as the character comes out of her shell. Caron is fine as Jim, but an oft-indicating Gallant works less well as Tom, and the directorial choice of inserting a life-size glass statue into the proceedings, while funny, helps derail much of these alternate Wingfields’ already tenuous link to reality. 

The evening concludes with The Prompter (directed by Nancy McLure), which Dave Moses wrote as a vehicle for and a tribute to the late, great local actor Mae Ames. Moses has long since left PEI to write for television and Ames passed away in 2012, but I knew both of them way back when and always regretted not catching that show, so I was eager to see it now—especially with the similarly storied Barba Rhodenizer taking Ames’ place this time around.

A legendary theatre professional struggling with her part in a local community production, “the Dame” (Rhodenizer) is forced to work on her lines with a young prompter (Madison Peters), striking intergenerational sparks as the stage veteran and the starry-eyed rookie teach each other some hard lessons about life in the theatre. 

Moses’s Dame is a fun, larger-than-life yet convincingly recognizable portrait of an aging theatrical diva; Ames must have loved the part, and the always excellent Rhodenizer clearly relishes it here, playing the role with theatrically grandiose hauteur aplenty while keeping the character likeably human, vulnerable and relatable. Peters, an offstage voice for most of the show, more than holds her own as the long-suffering prompter and Rhodenizer’s commendably solid scene partner. The result is a show this reviewer of a certain age will remember fondly for years to come. 

‘Toons

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Review by Sean McQuaid 

As a manly journalist in the Les Nessman tradition, your tumble-down typist has always enjoyed Disney’s 1991 animated musical romance Beauty and the Beast. Hummable and lyrically nimble tunes including a couple of indisputable classics (the title track and “Be Our Guest”), one of Disney’s first quasi-enlightened animated female leads in titular beauty Belle, memorably colourful supporting characters—what’s not to like? 

Disney’s inevitable stage musical adaptation of the hit movie ran on Broadway from 1994 to 2007. Summerside-based community theatre company Fandango mounted their own version in 2012, and have remounted it with some cast modifications at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts this November. 

Never having seen the stage show these past 21 years, I came to it with fairly fresh eyes—two sets of same, actually, with darling daughter adding her preteen perspective. She deemed the whole shebang “awesome” come the final curtain, and her dad liked it pretty well, too. 

The stage version adds or expands a ton of songs, so there’s more musical bang for your buck—and while none of the new material quite matches the original film’s musical heights, it holds up alongside the older material and feels like part of a coherent whole. 

There are inevitable limitations. More physically constrained than animation, the stage can’t quite capture the unreal wonders of the monstrous Beast and his castle full of living household objects, though Fandango does its best on a community theatre budget with some colourful, ingenious costumes and small but effectively deployed mobile sets.  

That said, a few of the minor supporting characters are sufficiently vague in terms of visual design to obscure who or what they are (the gargoyles spring to mind since only the program clearly identifies them as such, though their eerily decorative presence is welcome regardless). 

Sometimes scene transitions seem a bit slow or uneven as well, but director Shirley Anne Cameron mostly keeps the play moving along smartly. Overall coordination is especially solid in big cast-of-dozens showpieces like the impressively grand “Be Our Guest” number, even if some of the ambulatory cutlery are more energetic or on the beat than others. 

The stage adaptation fleshes out the supporting cast nicely, revealing more about the backstories of the Beast’s transformed servants and the nature of their metamorphosis, and animated bit players like the feather duster and the wardrobe get developed into fuller, funnier characters here as the coquettish Babette and theatrical  diva Madame de la Grande Bouche. 

Rachel Mundy is a charming, sympathetic and consistently strong Belle with a lovely voice. Another strong vocalist, Popalopalots veteran Jordan Cameron is often funny as the Beast and nails the pathos of the part, though he doesn’t always sell the scary aspects of the character and seems hesitant on occasion when switching emotional gears. 

Steve Bruce revels in cartoonish villainy as Belle’s brutish suitor (bruitor?) Gaston—not the most naturalistic performance, but deliciously swaggering, hammy fun from start to finish. A funny Devon Surkan, enjoyably reminiscent of a young Danny Strong, is ideally cast as Gaston’s sniveling sidekick Lefou, as is Alfredo Campos as their sinister ally Monsieur D’Arque, both roles having expanded to good effect in the stage version. 

As in the original movie, the show is often stolen by the Beast’s transformed servants: Peter Surkan is perfect as the fussy clock Cogsworth and Adam-Michael James is charming fun as suave candelabra Lumiere. Sandra McNeill capably fills the key role of matronly teapot Mrs. Potts, though Claire Casely Smith and Charlotte Thompson land more laughs as Bouche and Babette, respectively. There are no small parts here, only small household objects seeking big laughs—and often succeeding. 

Partial Things

An Evening of Short Plays by Harold Pinter

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your outsize appraiser fancies undersize drama. That's one of the things I like about the late Harold Pinter, author of so many short plays and sketches. These include Silence (1969), Press Conference (2002) and One for the Road (1984), all staged by Winston Smith Theatre at the Guild as a Pinter triple feature in October. 

Of course, brevity isn't Pinter's only selling point. His work is dark, funny, oddly enigmatic—showing more than telling, often hinting more than showing. Pinter tends to make his audience work at figuring out who's who and what the heck is going on. 

In fact, Pinter's shadowy weirdness—such as oft-ominous "comedy of menace" featuring dark humour with intimations of darker doings just out of view—arguably works best in short form. One recalls Twilight Zone scripters, referencing that great show's less successful double-length incarnation, discussing how hard it is to sustain bizarre, intense stories for long without diluting their punch. Similarly, Pinter's better shorts get into your head and get out before you quite know what's hit you. 

Winston Smith Theatre (presumably named for the character from George Orwell's anti-authoritarian novel 1984) had billed its Pinter triple feature as a political statement timed to coincide with the recent federal election, and parallels between the two aren't hard to find. 

Contrary to popular rhetoric in some quarters, the newly defeated Prime Minister Stephen Harper was never literally a dictator, nor did his regime ever commit any crimes even remotely equivalent to those of Pinter's brutally corrupt authorities in One for the Road and Press Conference. 

That being said, Harper ran an often ugly government by Canadian standards, and its darker instincts aped elements of Pinter's rogue regimes: secretive, controlling, intrusive, arbitrary, paranoid, vindictive, hypocritical, sanctimonious, vainglorious, openly contemptuous of dissent, and above all saturated with a never-ending stream of propaganda that drenched almost everything Harper's government ever said or did in oceans of Orwellian double talk. 

Perhaps most tellingly, Harper's exploitation of the niqab issue and other cynically manufactured cultural controversies during his final campaign evoked the words of Pinter's corrupt official Nicolas in One for the Road, who makes the political pitch that "we all share a common heritage" as if that trumps everything else. For these and other reasons, the Winston Smith gang's pairing of their Pinter showcase with the election feels timely and apt. 

The least political play in this triple bill, enigmatic oddity Silence, is a disjointed meditation on memory and relationships as voiced by Ellen (Melissa Kramer) and her two suitors Rumsey (Lennie MacPherson) and Bates (Donnie MacPhee). Kramer's pretty perfect in this, drifting dreamily through the short's shifting times, places and emotions. MacPhee is effective as her rougher love interest Bates while MacPherson offers definite contrast as the meeker Rumsey, but is so quiet and understated as to flirt with inaudibility or indifference by times, less compelling than the rest of this triangle. 

The show's director Adam Brazier is perfect as the Minister in Press Conference, cheerfully performing a grotesque variation on political spin in which the usual sort of sunnily sanitized, self-serving political rhetoric is applied to more overtly horrific subject matter than usual. 

But the triple bill saves its best for last with One for the Road, starring the show's producer Jody Racicot as Nicolas and Donnie MacPhee, Katie Kerr and Noah MacKinnon as a dissident family held in his abusive custody. All four actors are good, but Racicot shines brightest with his quicksilver shifts in tone, style and mood—alternately genial, vicious, quiet, loud, laconic or violent depending on the moment, but always menacing and compelling throughout. 

Racicot's sinister star turn caps off the night in bravura style, though it also intensifies one's feeling come the final curtain that it all ends too soon. These three plays only fill about an hour in total, making this particular Pinter showcase more of a tasty snack than a full theatrical meal. 

Comic relief

Kooperman

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Andrew Murray and Dylan Miller in a scene from KoopermanYe olde reviewer has a yen for yesteryear film-wise, watching more cinema classics than new releases; but I catch the odd fresh flick now and then, and local indie film Kooperman was uniquely alluring McQuaid bait on multiple levels. 

For one thing, being locally produced by Periscope Pictures, it includes various folks I know personally among its cast and crew. Readers can read as much or as little critical conflict of interest into that as they like, but it certainly played a role in luring me to the film’s packed City Cinema provincial premiere on October 16. 

The project’s geography was another draw. Co-written by producer Jason Rogerson and director Harmony Wagner, Kooperman is billed as the first ever PEI-made feature film. Set in and filmed on PEI with a soundtrack by local musicians, it counted 79 Islanders among its 85 employees. It’s a bit of a developmental milestone for PEI cinema, in terms of showing what’s possible in this province. As they say in Wackyland, “It can happen here.” 

Also intriguing is the film’s lead, Dylan Miller. Owner of real-life Charlottetown comic shop Lightning Bolt Comics (where much of the movie is shot), Miller plays struggling comic book retailer Griffin Kooperman. Miller’s always been kind of a low-key side man in local theatre, arguably the Aquaman in his circle of theatrical Super Friends, so how well he’d fare as a cinematic lead was one of the film’s bigger question marks. 

As it turns out, he fares quite well indeed. Granted, he’s playing a character whose life and personality overlap with the real-life Miller in various ways, but it’s still a very impressive performance – genuine, sympathetic, funny, even moving. In fact, the nuance Miller brings to his work plays better on film than it sometimes does in theatre, enhancing and showcasing fine details that don’t always pop on stage. 

Wagner and Rogerson surround him with a quality supporting cast, notably Andrew Murray, Carl Peterson and Adi Vella, all entertaining as Kooperman’s comic shop cronies; a creepily funny Jeremy Larter, who makes the most of a dead-end subplot as a perverted fake psychologist; and an immensely likeable Tamara Steele, who exudes benevolent warmth as Kooperman’s totemic, super-heroic imaginary friend. 

The Wagner/Rogerson script is often smart and funny, though its humour occasionally veers into adolescent crudity. Admittedly I’m more of a Margaret Dumont than a Melissa McCarthy in terms of my comedic sensibilities, but sometimes this coarseness is a bit much – in particular, a catastrophic fecal field trip feels excessive in terms of both length and content, though some audience members were clearly digging it. 

That fecal detour, like the Larter material, is one of a few spots where Kooperman feels padded – there’s an episodic, meandering, occasionally repetitive rhythm to the movie’s narrative by times, as Kooperman works to save his struggling store and his dignity, suffering assorted setbacks – but the film’s core story and characters are appealing, engaging and often fun. 

A lot of this feels familiar. With its aspiration-challenged retail working stiffs, pop culture references (loved the nod to Armless Tiger Man), super-heroic imaginary friends and more, Kooperman’s tone, themes and content often echo Rogerson’s first big stage success Players, which itself echoed Kevin Smith films like Clerks. That’s more of a curiosity than a criticism, though, as much of the film’s considerable wit, charm and personality is built on that foundation. Wagner and Rogerson can be justifiably proud of what they’ve achieved with a small Telefilm Canada grant and a large pool of Island talent. 

A cast of standouts

Evangeline

Review by Sean McQuaid

When the Charlottetown Festival announced its 2015 theatrical line-up featuring the girl power trinity of Alice, Anne and Evangeline, your rascally reviewer remarked on how this combo could become an adorable merchandising juggernaut along the lines of Disney Princesses: Festival Fillies, collect them all! 

I was joking, of course—unless it actually happens someday, in which case I'll demand my cut —but in all seriousness, it's great to see the Festival mounting three significant, ambitious shows like this in one season, and the fact they all feature female leads is a rather neat incidental bonus. 

For me, Evangeline takes the bronze on this year's Festival podium—not as fun or as freaky as Alice, and nothing beats Anne in terms of warm, fuzzy theatrical comfort food—but Evangeline's an undeniably well-crafted, musically rich, often emotionally powerful show. 

Written by Ted Dykstra and based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1847 epic poem of the same name, 2013 musical Evangeline chronicles the British Empire’s 18th-Century expulsion of the Acadians as personified by Acadian newlyweds Evangeline (Josée Boudreau) and Gabriel (Jay Davis), separated during the expulsion and doomed to decades of heartsick wandering. 

New leads Boudreau and Davis are solidly entertaining performers with great voices, capably backed by a big cast whose standouts include fellow newcomers Brent Carver (as clergyman Father Felician), Stephen Guy-McGrath (as fiddler/notary René), Sera-Lys McArthur (as Shawnee nomad Cornflower) and Cameron MacDuffee (distinctive and versatile in multiple roles). 

Meanwhile, excellent returning cast members Laurie Murdoch and Réjean Cournoyer continue to play the heck out of the show's two primary British characters: morally conflicted Colonel Winslow and cartoonishly evil Captain Hampson, respectively. 

Directed by Bob Baker and co-produced by Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, the 2015 production is faster, more lively, more colourful—changes to the blocking, choreography, projections and set (including a revolving stage) give the show more visual energy and verve, and some minor script revisions streamline the story a bit. 

Yet despite all the outward modifications, Evangeline remains a somewhat ponderous show at its core—long (still a good three hours), repetitive, melodramatic and a bit overstuffed, partly because some of the musical sequences seem to be more about celebrating culture than advancing story. Evangeline's adventures span "many a tedious year" (to borrow Longfellow's phrase), so any faithful version is going to be more of a marathon than a sprint, but Dkystra's version of the tale feels drawn out regardless. 

There's a lot to like here, and the Festival still deserves major kudos for midwifing such an ambitious new Canadian musical; but for all its undeniably stirring music and artful flourishes, Evangeline remains for me a show more admired than enjoyed. 

A Big Laugh

ABigWHAT

Review by Sean McQuaid 

For all his Bohemian quirks, your prim and proper prattler is a bit of a square at heart. Heck, in the old days I was practically a young male version of Margaret Dumont (the society stiff from the Marx Brothers movies), forever aghast at the world's innumerable improprieties. 

A couple of decades later, I'm far less easily shocked—more jaded or more tolerant, maybe both. Capable of watching assorted modern cable TV dramas without too many palpitations, anyhow. 

That being said, I'm still not a fan of crassly bawdy humour or gratuitous profanity in my entertainment, and that caveat is my one real quibble with the largely excellent ABigWHAT sketch comedy show starring Benton Hartley, Olivia King, Cameron MacDonald, Jacob Rollwage and Morgan Wagner. 

Granted, this is coming from a guy who'd rather watch Wayne & Shuster than Family Guy—"bit of a square," like I said—but I think it's possible to be subversive and weird and funny without working blue. The original Muppet Show springs to mind, in that spirit—freaky enough that the show's comically upright Sam the Eagle (possibly my spirit animal) could denounce it, but nearly always tasteful. 

Putting things in perspective, this complaint is intended more as an asterisk than an accusation—ABigWHAT features adroit, funny, laudably inventive sketch comedy, and I'd recommend it to anyone who isn't easily offended (stay home, zombie Margaret Dumont)—but however hard I laughed at much of the show, part of me regrets that there's quite so much cussing and off-colour gags in the mix. Especially since a troupe this intelligent and creative could probably sustain their comedic stride just fine without those crutches. 

Mind you, "edgy" humour's been the sketch comedy tradition in Charlottetown for well over a decade now. Off Stage Theatre's long-running 1990s sketch comedy gem Annekenstein gave way to the similarly enduring Sketch 22 show in the 2000s, and while the two shows had personnel in common (notably accomplished funnyman Rob MacDonald, Cameron's dad), the latter show typically worked way more blue than the former ever did. 

ABigWHAT owes quite a bit to Sketch 22 in terms of both tone and format (like its predecessor it combines live sketches with filmed video segments), but arguably improves the formula with stronger characters, often superior acting and a more unified, coherent show. 

The most familiar faces in the cast are Cameron MacDonald and Ben Hartley, both Popalopalots improv veterans, in addition to the hardworking Hartley appearing in scads of other shows (seriously, he's like the "Where's Waldo" of local low-budget theatre). The duo complement each other, style-wise. Hartley plays pretty straight more often than not, which both plays to his strengths and gives his oft-wackier scene partners a sturdy foil, while the frequently freaky MacDonald might be PEI theatre's most weirdly gifted comic savant since Sketch 22's Graham Putnam. 

Jacob Rollwage falls somewhere in the middle of that Hartley-MacDonald comedic spectrum—a more distinctively strange comedic presence than Hartley, not quite as adaptably versatile as MacDonald—but the strongest standouts of this show might actually be distaff duo King and Wagner. Both from a musical theatre background (including roles in Anne & Gilbert), they are charming, likeable performers with impressively solid acting chops, elevating whatever scene they're in whether their parts are large or small, oddball or straight. 

The show's video segments in particular reinforce that impression, making it easier to see and hear all the shadings and nuances that King and Wagner bring to their roles—like in "Basement Amazement," where King's nimbly expressive face conveys hapless webcaster Candy Furlong's amusingly pathetic emotional beats with crystal clarity even when she's not talking, and in which Wagner's darkly downbeat cameo as MacDonald's "matron" somehow makes an immeasurably creepy weirdo played perfectly by MacDonald even scarier.  

Both very funny, King and Wagner tend to give somewhat more grounded, relatably human performances than the show's leading laugh machine MacDonald—like Hartley, they do a lot to balance out the ensemble.  

The strength and diversity of that ensemble might be part of why ABigWHAT already seems capable of something Sketch 22 seldom achieved: generating concepts and characters with legs. That's partly due to how uneven Sketch 22 could be—its try anything, swing-for-the-fences approach spawned more than a few outright duds sprinkled among its comedic gems—but even their best bits, brilliant sketches like "Atlantis Regional Municipality" and the Atticus Finch game show, tended to be one-and-done exercises that didn't necessarily lend themselves to recurring characters. 

ABigWHAT, by comparison, features some memorably distinctive and funny characters who seem to have plenty of life in them beyond a single sketch. The show's "Sighants" video shorts about bizarre fringe pseudo-science are a fun recurring segment, for instance. MacDonald is great in a drily understated role as the monocled intellectual host of these ludicrous interludes, which build to a satisfyingly big sci-fi climax late in the show, one of several recurring threads over the course of the evening. And while "Basement Amazement" seems to have been meant as a one-shot, it left me wanting lots more adventures of King's adorkable misfit Candy Furlong. 

Like any sketch comedy show, the humour is somewhat hit-or-miss—for every "Superfly" that soars with wildly quirky nonsense there's "A Day at the Office" that overstays its welcome—and the language and content are a bit on the salty side for more delicate viewers. But there's a lot to like in this commendably clever, endearingly energetic show, Margaret Dumont be darned. 

ABigWHAT's summer season is over as of publication time, but for a fine sample of their comedy wares, check out this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHgkts-j9ig

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