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Fringe Element

The Island Fringe Festival

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your haphazard hack was not actually assigned to cover the Island Fringe Festival this year—he just wandered into three fringe shows strictly as a civilian one weekend, and the Buzz editor later suggested it might be worth writing up. Hence the coverage of only three random shows, with apologies to those omitted. 

All three shows were solid, to varying degrees, and all seemed popular as well—the two indoor shows on my slate were both filled to capacity, those being Busted 2: The Sagging Continues at Merchantman's Next Door Lounge, and Small Talk at The Kettle Black. Lots of happy, enthusiastic theatre fans in attendance at each location. 

As its title suggests, Busted 2 is the sequel to last year's Busted: a Mammoir, writer/actor Laura K. Bird's one-woman show about the ups and downs of a large-bosomed life. Stuffy old square that I am, I'm never fully comfy with body humour or bawdy humour, and the Busted shows offer mounds of the former with occasional flashes of the latter, so I'm a tough audience. Still, my zaftig better half having attended both shows in the spirit of solidarity, taking me along as her sour arm candy, I was pretty well entertained each time in spite of myself. Bird is a smart, funny lady who knows how to work a crowd, and her often clever, sometimes poignant, frequently self-deprecating humour milks her subject matter for bountiful laughs. 

Considerably blacker body-based humour informs Blindness: a Dark Comedy, staged outside the Hon. George Coles Building. Written by and starring Marieve MacGregor, the play is a darkly comic exploration of living with blindness, MacGregor herself having been blinded by complications of diabetes. While MacGregor does most of the talking, it's nowhere near a one-woman show. Assorted actors play aspects of MacGregor's psyche and various characters from her life, and several musicians provide a soundtrack. 

The resulting show offers a lot of variety performance-wise and is often thoughtful, bravely honest and funny. The humour is sometimes uncomfortable given the subject matter, though, and some of the monologues can get preachy or maudlin. The play also seems lacking in focus by times, and one wonders if a slightly stripped-down version with a smaller cast might have more impact. The current cast mostly play their parts well, though, notably the funny and versatile Andrea Filion. 

Saving the best for last, Small Talk was staged in The Kettle Black cafe downtown. It's an unlikely theatre venue, a long, narrow space dominated by a central bar, but one of the many impressive things about this show is how skillfully it's adapted to that space. The bar becomes a set of morgue slabs inhabited by two anonymous Janes, oddly chatty corpses played by writer Kassinda Bulger and director Courtney Starkman, who perform on, under and around that bar and its overhead hanging lamps with plentiful energy and enviable agility. 

The Janes swap stories and theories about their situation, gradually discovering their fates are somewhat more intertwined than they might have thought. It's very nicely staged, and very well acted by both performers as they effectively convey the simultaneous comedy, tragedy and surreal horror of their situation. Bulger's script is funny, sad, clever and refreshingly economical—short and bittersweet. This aging Twilight Zone fan is a sucker for short fantasy drama scripts, and Bulger has penned a good one. Here's hoping it's the first of many such creations from her fledgling Art Without Borders troupe. 

Denmark in the Park

Hamlet

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Ye olde reviewer has a long relationship with Hamlet, the iconic William Shakespeare tragedy. Like MacBeth and Julius Caesar, it's one of the first Shakespeare plays that I started reading for fun, not just for school, though it figured repeatedly in my schooling as well. 

Heck, as an undergraduate full of hubris, youthful enthusiasm and Kraft Dinner, I even wrote a blank verse sequel to Hamlet: Horatio, starring the Danish prince's scholarly chum. That's how much I like Shakespeare's original tale of revenge, madness and rampant philosophizing. 

ACT (a community theatre) mainstay Terry Pratt likes the play, too, though he modified it somewhat while directing ACT's late summer production of the show in Robert Cotton Park, ACT's fourth Shakespeare play in this venue. Pratt's revision trims about ten thousand words off the text, jettisons various secondary characters and trims the cast down to a mere eight actors, some playing multiple parts. 

This textual crash diet works surprisingly well, overall. It slashes the running time from around four hours to under three hours, for one thing, and while there are deleted elements I miss—like the play's spooky opening scene, or the whole plot thread about rival monarch Fortinbras—what remains flows well enough that viewers new to the play won't notice any omissions, preserving the story's essential core. 

Noah Nazim makes a memorable ACT debut as Hamlet. He's a bit overwrought at times, even by the standards of the part—his opening scene in particular feels a bit too intense so early in the story, before tensions have escalated all that much for either the characters or the audience by comparison to what's coming—but he shows plenty of range, energy and charm over the course of his marathon role, and is often fascinating to watch.  

Richard Haines and Catherine MacDonald are both solid as dysfunctional monarchs Claudius & Gertrude, though Haines feels somewhat flat as the previous king's ghost, not so much ethereal as leaden. Gordon Cobb works well as royal advisor/ultimate windbag Polonius, all the funnier thanks to the baffled, irritated reactions he elicits from cast members like Haines and MacDonald, unspoken or otherwise—Pratt's cast are all good listeners, actively engaged in the action even when they are not the focus of it. 

Clark's Horatio, metadramatically doubling as an interactive guide for the park audience, is effective in both roles and is a thoughtful, likeable presence. Good overall as Hamlet's ill-fated ladylove Ophelia, Lindsay Gillis is downright great in her madness scene, made all the more eerily, alluringly sad by her lovely singing voice. 

But my favourites in the company are Kier Malone and Sara McCarthy, who play four roles apiece and make every one of those parts distinctive and entertaining. Malone, for instance, brings passionate emotion and impressive physical agility to the part of Claudius pawn Laertes, teaming with Nazim for some of PEI's best theatrical swordplay in ages; and McCarthy, great fun in all her roles, is the earthiest (sorry), funniest Gravedigger I've ever seen. 

As he did with 2012's MacBeth, director Pratt uses the park's widely varying locales to great advantage with scenes ranging from fields to woods to beaches and back again, adding plenty of visual variety and atmosphere. There are even nifty bonus cameo scenes where you can see characters engaged in bits of business off to the side while the audience troops from one location to the next. All told, Pratt's slimmed-down Hamlet is an inventive, entertaining variation on the original. 

Improvised Nonsense

Popalopalots

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your recidivist reviewer has covered the Popalopalots improv troupe a few times already over the years, so on doing it again I faced a haunting question: how can I do it differently this time?  

That's when it hit me: improv reviewing! Ordinarily I go through multiple drafts of any given article, revising and trimming and editing and polishing my assorted ravings ad nauseam until something vaguely readable emerges from the textual mire. 

But this time, in the spirit of improv, I'll just type whatever malarkey pops into my head within a tightly limited time span—let's say half an hour—and then we're all stuck with whatever nonsense leaked out of my brain during those fateful thirty minutes. 

Sounds good? Bad? Terrifying? Door number three, says I, but it's too late for doubts now—the clock is literally ticking as I type this, so let the uncensored, unfiltered, possibly unfortunate reviewing commence....now! 

Show funny. Me laugh lots. Cameron very funny, possibly some kind of comic genius. Graham very funny, definitely some sort of comic genius. Alicia very funny, sing real nice. Jordan very funny, sing good too. Rob very funny, kind of passive aggressive. Sometimes not so passive. Getting more good at moderating thing, too. Ben funny but laughs at everything a lot, like, more than audience does, and audience laughs quite a bit. Dylan funny, more confident than before. Kelly funny, little too quiet sometimes. Show good. Lots of laughs for little money. The end. 

Or not, since apparently that spurt of deathless caveman prose only took an even seven minutes. Huh. Maybe I've been over-thinking this whole reviewing racket all these years? May as well run out the clock for the remaining 20–odd minutes by expanding on some of this, I guess...

Most of these Popalopalots are pretty familiar by now. Fearless leader Rob MacDonald and his comedic soulmate Graham Putnam, collaborators on shows like Enemies and Sketch-22, formed their improv troupe in 2011 with several other foolhardy local personalities, notably comic book merchant Dylan Miller. 

MacDonald, Putnam and Miller have all stuck around since then, and are much the same as before: Putnam remains a bizarre comic genius, MacDonald remains the endearingly awkward ringleader (though he's refined his moderation skills somewhat over time), and Miller has gotten lots more confident and verbally resourceful after years of practice, stronger each season. 

A ton of new talent joined them in 2012, young thespians such as Jordan Cameron, Benton Hartley and Cameron MacDonald. All three of them lingered, and all benefited the troupe in various ways: musical talent (Cameron), well-rounded theatrical skills (Hartley) and another shot of uncut comedic weirdness (MacDonald) on a par with Putnam. 

The two Camerons have become especially solid improv performers, and while Rob MacDonald's long career boasts plenty of accomplishments, I'd bet his son Cameron's evolution into such a gifted comedic collaborator is one of Rob's proudest career highlights. 

New to me in this context are recent recruits Altass and Casely. An accomplished stage manager and costume designer, Casely is a likeable presence but a bit too quiet and tentative by times—though Miller started out much the same way, so she may yet evolve as she settles into the company. Altass is a stronger rookie addition: fearless, funny, quick on her feet, and her fine singing voice is a nice bonus for the troupe's musical improv games. 

As noted, the group's moderation has gotten commendably tighter, and the "Top Pop" competition for the night's top performer adds an element of comedic suspense and a narrative through line of sorts to the proceedings. 

The online stopwatch says my time has run out, so thus endeth my foray into spontaneous guerilla reviewing. Will I ever do anything like this again? Will any of this make sense to me upon re-reading? Will I actually get paid for this? Quite possibly yes. Weep for our civilization, gentle readers...

Highlight of the season

The Affections of May

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Years ago, your weather-beaten wordsmith was lunching with a visiting grad school chum in downtown Charlottetown. I exchanged greetings with various friends and acquaintances in the street en route, then did the same with other familiar folk inside the restaurant. My increasingly incredulous dining companion eventually asked me: “What are you, the mayor or something?”

It’s all part of the joys of small-town living, I explained, where everybody knows everybody. Folks “from away” might find this charming and amusing or baffling and unsettling, depending on their perspective—and both perspectives are on display in The Affections of May, Canadian playwright Norm Foster’s oft-produced romantic comedy, newly remounted at the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside.

Quirkily sunny May Henning (played here by Marlene Handrahan) and her self-absorbed spouse Brian (Robert Clarke) give up good jobs in the big city to open a bed-and-breakfast in small-town Grogan’s Cove, trying to resuscitate their moribund marriage. May loves their new life but Brian hates it, callously deserting May for his old job and an old flame back in the city. The suddenly single May attracts two rival suitors: socially awkward banker Hank (Gord Gammie) and hard-drinking, hard-luck handyman Quinn (Cameron MacDuffee).

Much of what happens next is predictable in terms of who May ends up with and how, but there’s chuckles aplenty to be had along the way. Foster’s funny, inventive script builds a world of amusing small-town eccentrics pleasantly reminiscent of Newhart, albeit with a dark underbelly that fuels some of the play’s more dramatic moments as the story develops.

Foster treats all his characters with some measure of respect or affection or both, making them more relatable. Even the appallingly selfish Brian is believable and understandable in terms of making a case for how and why he acts the way does, and all three corners of the love triangle spawned by his departure are sympathetic in their own way.

Director Catherine O’Brien’s solid production has much to recommend it—fun and familiar music choices, artfully composed blocking, designer David Antscheri’s handsomely convincing set, and most especially the cast: the same fantastic quartet featured in The 39 Steps also star in this show, and there’s a really smooth chemistry and comic timing between them. They all play their May parts well, especially Gammie. 

Gammie’s line delivery and body language make Hank a memorably distinctive, wincingly awkward, winningly sympathetic and often hilarious presence, sometimes without even saying a word. His tortured attempt at small talk with Clarke’s Brian, for instance, is a priceless slow-motion train wreck, and it helps make Harbourfront’s Affections of May a comedic highlight of the summer.

Evergreen

Anne of Green Gables—The Musical™

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your fickle freelancer walked into this year’s Anne musical fearing he might be underwhelmed. Granted, the Charlottetown Festival’s version of Anne Shirley is a reliable crowd-pleaser, but her sharing a stage with the Festival’s surreally dazzling Alice Through the Looking-Glass this summer left your skeptical scribe wondering if plain, simple Anne might pale by comparison.

As it turns out, not so much. The whip-smart, wildly inventive Alice may be the better show overall—heck, it might be the best show ever mounted on the festival's main stage—but Anne herself is the better, richer character, and the musical built around her continues to satisfy with character-driven humour, charm and heart. 

Former associate artistic director Wade Lynch returns as director of this year’s Anne. There are lots of fun little touches befitting the comedically accomplished Lynch, plus some additional wordless scenes featuring a girl reading the original Lucy Maud Montgomery novel as our gateway into the story, a nice nod to Anne’s creator. 

Even with those extra scenes, Lynch helms a somewhat shortened version of the show here, and all to the good—there’s less of the outdoor sporting business, for instance, but what remains of that is still a lively visual spectacle with lots of tightly choreographed moving parts. The more compact running time is an especially good fit for a show that often attracts a child audience.

Performance-wise, publicity has focused on local actor Jessica Gallant as plucky orphan Anne Shirley—only the second Islander to fill the iconic role during its 51-year run—but she’s not the only item of note in the cast list.

Lynch has filled many of the musical’s roles with new faces (some of them new to the Festival and all of them new to their parts), including Hank Stinson and Charlotte Moore as Anne’s adoptive parents Matthew & Marilla, Festival fixture Glenda Landry as meddlesome neighbor Rachel Lynde, Ben Chiasson as Anne’s would-be beau Gilbert, Jessie Cox as Anne’s best friend Diana, Kayla James as Anne’s rival Josie and Katie Kerr as Anne’s teacher Miss Stacy.

Like Gallant, Stinson and Landry are Islanders, giving this year’s core cast an especially homegrown flavour. More importantly, all play their parts well, whether they are locals or “from away.” Gallant gives Anne the right mix of vulnerable sweetness and larger-than-life flourish; Cox is a girlishly charming Diana; Stinson’s Matthew is full of folksy pathos; Landry nails Mrs. Lynde’s obnoxious hauteur; Moore seems stiff at first as the repressed Marilla, even by the standards of the part, but is all the more emotionally potent when the character softens later on; James is fun to dislike as nasty little schemer Josie, as well as one of the company’s best dancers; and Kerr (who preceded Gallant in the title role) is bright and appealing as Miss Stacy, albeit somewhat implausible in the role since she often looks and sounds more like one of Anne’s classmates than a teacher.

An interesting asterisk, acting-wise: this review was based on a performance featuring understudy Anthony MacPherson as Gilbert, replacing an absent Chiasson. MacPherson usually appears in a smaller role as schoolboy “Moody” MacPherson but he slots seamlessly into a lead role here, which is exactly what an understudy is supposed to do. A solid triple threat, he sings, acts and dances his way through the part with energetic ease.

The story and the musical are so familiar by now, and this critic so old and jaded, that your reviewer half-expects to be numb to the play’s charms each time he returns—but it hasn’t happened yet. And it doesn’t seem to have happened for the audience as a whole, either, if the large, happy crowd at this performance was any indication. These Gables remain evergreen.

Fantastic Four

The Affections of May 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Years ago, your weather-beaten wordsmith was lunching with a visiting grad school chum in downtown Charlottetown. I exchanged greetings with various friends and acquaintances in the street en route, then did the same with other familiar folk inside the restaurant. My increasingly incredulous dining companion eventually asked me: “What are you, the mayor or something?” 

It’s all part of the joys of small-town living, I explained, where everybody knows everybody. Folks “from away” might find this charming and amusing or baffling and unsettling, depending on their perspective – and both perspectives are on display in The Affections of May, Canadian playwright Norm Foster’s oft-produced romantic comedy, newly remounted at the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside. 

Quirkily sunny May Henning (played here by Marlene Handrahan) and her self-absorbed spouse Brian (Robert Clarke) give up good jobs in the big city to open a bed-and-breakfast in small-town Grogan's Cove, trying to resuscitate their moribund marriage. May loves their new life but Brian hates it, callously deserting May for his old job and an old flame back in the city. The suddenly single May attracts two rival suitors: socially awkward banker Hank (Gord Gammie) and hard-drinking, hard-luck handyman Quinn (Cameron MacDuffee). 

Much of what happens next is predictable in terms of who May ends up with and how, but there’s chuckles aplenty to be had along the way. Foster’s funny, inventive script builds a world of amusing small-town eccentrics pleasantly reminiscent of Newhart, albeit with a dark underbelly that fuels some of the play’s more dramatic moments as the story develops. 

Foster treats all his characters with some measure of respect or affection or both, making them more relatable. Even the appallingly selfish Brian is believable and understandable in terms of making a case for how and why he acts the way does, and all three corners of the love triangle spawned by his departure are sympathetic in their own way. 

Director Catherine O’Brien’s solid production has much to recommend it – fun and familiar music choices, artfully composed blocking, designer David Antscheri’s handsomely convincing set, and most especially the cast: the same fantastic quartet featured in The 39 Steps also star in this show, and there’s a really smooth chemistry and comic timing between them. They all play their May parts well, especially Gammie. 

Gammie’s line delivery and body language make Hank a memorably distinctive, wincingly awkward, winningly sympathetic and often hilarious presence, sometimes without even saying a word. His tortured attempt at small talk with Clarke’s Brian, for instance, is a priceless slow-motion train wreck, and it helps make Harbourfront’s Affections of May a comedic highlight of the summer. 

Madcap thriller

The 39 Steps

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Decades ago, when your ramshackle writer was in near-mint condition and movie rental stores were plentiful, he scored some extra shekels clerking at Off the Wall Video. Staff got free rentals, so this old-time film fan gleefully sampled director Alfred Hitchcock’s assorted classics: Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Birds, Rope, Shadow of a Doubt and many more.

Hooked on Hitchcock ever since, ye olde reviewer was easy prey when Harbourfront Theatre added The 39 Steps to its summer season. Starting life as John Buchan’s 1915 spy novel, it has been adapted repeatedly for film, most notably by Hitchcock in 1935. A Hitchcock-inspired theatrical play written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon in 1995 and rewritten by Patrick Barlow in 2005 has enjoyed international success as a “comedy thriller” by playing the Buchan/Hitchcock espionage yarn for laughs.

Part of what makes the play inherently funny (and temptingly economical from a production standpoint) is its cast: only four actors playing dozens of roles. With countless quick changes, funny accents, facial contortions, shifting props/costumes and the wearing of literally many, many hats, the play takes on a madcap meta-dramatic energy where deliberate technical glitches, not-so-special effects and gleefully brazen guerilla stagecraft are all part of the gag, encouraging the audience to laugh along with the show at its own manic silliness.

Gord Gammie plays reluctant yet dashing adventurer Richard Hannay, who is unwittingly drawn into a spy ring’s treasonous plot and finds himself on the run from both the spies and the authorities. Marlene Handrahan has a triple role as Hannay’s three romantic interests, and all the other supporting roles are filled by the remaining two actors, Robert Clarke and Cameron MacDuffee.

Directed here by Caleb Marshall, the show is breezily brisk in pace and tone from start to finish. Gammie strikes just the right tone of knowingly cheesy self-regard as handsome hero Hannay and executes plenty of fun physical comedy, whether he’s fighting with a spotlight, eating while handcuffed to his ladylove, trying to shimmy out from under a corpse or battling a hilariously unconvincing stunt dummy to the death.

Handrahan is equally adept as the other half of some of those physical comedy bits and makes each of her three roles distinctively entertaining, especially the deliciously over-the-top femme fatale Anabelle; but the real MVP’s of this team are the heroically versatile Clarke and MacDuffee, who play more parts in two hours than some actors do in a year and net plenty of laughs along the way.

Hitchcock fans will enjoy the many references to his work sprinkled throughout the show, even a fun cameo of sorts by the late Hitchcock himself; but Hitchcock expertise is not required—you can still enjoy the highly atmospheric music, for instance, without knowing it’s been lifted from flicks like Vertigo and North by Northwest; and you don’t have to know the latter film to enjoy this play’s various other nods to it, including some epically goofy shadow puppetry.

If you’re up for comedic thrills (and if your lungs can weather the show’s liberal use of a fog machine), head to Summerside and get Hitched.

Expect the unexpected

Alice Through the Looking-Glass

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Many shows are billed as fun for all ages, but few make good on that promise quite so spectacularly as the Charlottetown Festival’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass.

Based on Lewis Carroll’s classic 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, the late James Reaney’s 1994 stage adaptation was revived by the Stratford Festival to much acclaim in 2014, a production newly remounted here in Charlottetown.

Carroll’s tale of a young girl passing through a mirror into a dreamlike alternate reality of living chessmen has a timeless appeal on multiple levels. Adults enjoy Carroll’s clever wordplay and whimsical yet knowingly adult interpretation of a child’s mind, but there’s plenty of broad silliness for the kids, and imaginative weirdness for everybody.

Jillian Keiley (director of the Stratford/Charlottetown production with Christine Brubaker) says their goal “is to tap into the magical world of seven-year-olds, where anything is not only possible but likely, and the only thing you can reasonably expect is the unexpected.”

Your creaky chronicler is decades beyond age seven, though with a skull (and a basement) awash in comic books he communes more with his inner child than most. Even better, he attended the show with an actual seven-year-old (darling daughter Elsa), so this review incorporates the perspectives of both wide-eyed child and musty man-child—and they both enjoyed the heck out of it.

It starts with a good script, incorporating plenty of fun lines and characters from Carroll’s evergreen original text, and entrusts it to a solid cast. Natasha Greenblatt is delightful as Alice. Her lovely voice’s slightly husky, jazz singer quality is counterintuitive for a juvenile role, but Greenblatt is so convincingly, endearingly childlike in her expressions, attitudes and body language that she is charmingly believable throughout, with a touch of English reserve appropriate to the character and the period that sharpens the contrast between Alice and the cavalcade of kooks she encounters.

Just a few of said kooks include the Red Queen (a regally imposing Jan Alexandra), the White Queen (an elegantly loopy Eliza Jane-Scott), the Red King (a dreamily drowsy Hank Stinson doubling as an excellent narrator elsewhere in the show), and the White Knight (a mesmerizingly erratic Qasim Khan), whose weird quasi-musical number is a memorable showstopper.

A fun innovation is the play’s omnipresent swarm of bizarro Alice doubles. Carroll’s novel has Alice acting as an unseen force manipulating the chessmen at one point, but the play features a host of invisible forces (seen only by the audience) manipulating everything—and these invisible forces all look like photonegative doubles of Alice herself, dark-haired instead of blonde, in reverse-coloured costumes. Many of these doubles are actually men, making the Alice hordes all the funnier (and creepier).

Part stage crew, part chorus and all freaky, the Alice swarm keeps the play in near-constant motion and cranks up the surrealism yet another notch, in addition to plentiful visual quirkiness everywhere else you look thanks to set/costume designer Bretta Gerecke. The whole show is a perpetual feast for the senses, packed with gimmicky but fun extras like audience participation, airborne jelly beans, confetti cannons and more.

It all adds up to one of the finest, funniest, most wildly creative shows ever staged at the Charlottetown Festival. Or as Elsa put it after the final curtain, “That was amazing!”

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