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The Island Fringe Festival

Fringe Fried  

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your crumbling correspondent somehow made it through the Island Fringe Festival’s newly supersized slate of ten shows in one humid, tiring-yet-fun August weekend. Limits imposed by my old nemeses time and space mean a few shows (Cardboard Countess, Half a Star, Realizations and Wild Card) are featured in expanded reviews while the rest of the plays get quicker coverage here in my omnibus musings. Onward…

Despite featuring more productions, this year’s Fringe is less varied in format — of the ten shows, only two aren’t exactly plays: Cocktails: Olivia Face and PTSD-Post Trump Stress Disorder. Both are one-person shows whose stars share observations, musings and anecdotes drawn from their own lives while exploring larger topics such as PTSD star Pam McCann’s thoughts on Trump’s America (though PTSD isn’t as Trump-centric as its title suggests). 

Local drag performer Face sustains a tone of dry, ironically detached wit paired with sly, slow-burn comic timing that makes Cocktails a frequently amusing show despite its often-bleak subject matter — tales of drug use, depression, death and other dark detours. Sunnier Californian import McCann’s oft-rambling show feels a bit more tentative and unfocused, but her genuine, charming, spontaneously funny personality makes it a fun ride regardless. 

Less fun is Caged, written/designed/performed by Toronto’s Emily Schooley as Lora, a woman wrongly imprisoned via false accusations from an abusive ex-boyfriend. Based in part on Schooley’s life, it’s gutsy stuff, but Lora’s often-angry monologue feels repetitive by times in terms of tone, physical business, and/or content; and her hopeful closing sentiments, while welcome, don’t quite feel like a natural progression. There are smart, funny, memorable and moving moments in the script, performance and staging, but it’s not a fully coherent whole yet. 

One of my favourite running bits from bizarre TV gem Gravity Falls is characters uttering “Wait, what?” when things get weird (like, say, Stan Pines finding “beautiful men” eating from his trash cans like raccoons). This year’s Fringe slate features two shows operating on a “Wait, what?” level of weirdness, both playfully inventive, entertaining and well-crafted: European import 25 @1919Paris and Toronto-based Diana (I knew you when we were fourteen)

Anastasia Wells and show creator Elliot Delage star in the semi-inscrutable 25, playing 12 different 20-something characters navigating everything from office romance and funeral arrangements to nightclub revelry and criminal insanity. Some (perhaps all?) of these short scenes seem connected in various ways, though it’s not always clear how. Some bits work better than others, but the tonally versatile and physically nimble Delage-Wells duo is watchable throughout. Wells in particular is eerily fascinating in an off-kilter way. 

Falling Iguana Theatre’s Diana is an even more jumbled assortment of scenes (all inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s “Elimination Dance” poetry) but it works quite well, partly due to its unifying through line: a young man (played by Ian Goff) obsessed with the abrupt departure of an old high school classmate, Diana Whitehouse (an incandescent Alexa Higgins). Written by stars Goff and Higgins and stage manager Sarah Higgins (also the show’s note-perfect narrator), it’s a whimsical-yet-wistful, high-energy show full of music, slapstick, mystery and strangeness as we learn Diana’s fate with surreal side trips along the way. 

Speaking of surreal, local playwrights Laura Chapin & Dave Stewart’s The Satan Show features the titular archfiend (played by Nicholas Whalen) posing as a psychiatrist. His patient — unstable reprobate Susan (Chapin) — blames her misdeeds on satanic influence, but an oddly subdued, sensitive Satan encourages Susan to take responsibility for her own choices. It’s a thoughtful, often funny script, though a couple of Chapin’s loopier laugh lines feel more like self-consciously constructed chuckle bait than natural dialogue. Her over-the-top Susan is often laugh-out-loud funny, but Whalen’s restrained, nuanced rendition of Satan is where the show feels most devilishly clever.

A Moon for the Misbegotten

Bittersweet beauty

Review by Sean McQuaid 

The gaps in your scattershot scribbler’s education are both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse in the sense that there are plenty of literary classics I just haven’t gotten around to yet — too busy watching Doctor Who or hunting Black Lightning back issues or some such thing (and no regrets on either count) — but a blessing in the sense that even now, past the midway point of my likely lifespan, I can experience the joy of discovering iconic stories for the first time. 

The consistently excellent Watermark Theatre is a superb supplier of that particular drug, helping audiences discover or rediscover theatrical classics every summer. This year’s offerings include a play I already knew and liked (a very fine production of Dial M for Murder) and a play I’d long heard of but had never seen before: Eugene O’Neill’s 1943 tragicomedy A Moon for the Misbegotten. As skillfully staged here, O’Neill’s smart, incisive script lives up to its lustrous reputation — earthily human yet poignantly philosophical, slyly funny but hauntingly sad. 

A sequel of sorts to O’Neill’s quasi-autobiographical A Long Day’s Journey into Night (written first but published/produced after Moon since O’Neill did not release Night during his lifetime), A Moon for the Misbegotten is set in 1920s Connecticut and revisits alcoholic actor James “Jim” Tyrone. O’Neill’s real-life brother Jamie (an alcoholic who died in his 40s) was the model for Jim Tyrone, who’s described by his most loving admirer in this play as shuffling through life “like a dead man walking slow behind his own coffin.” 

That admirer is Josie Hogan (played here by PEI’s own Brielle Ansems), a brawny, hardworking, acid-tongued farm girl with a bad reputation and a good heart, the latter carefully concealed. Josie’s preachily pious brother Mike (Jacob Hemphill) is fleeing home like his brothers before him, tired of their hard-drinking, violent, demanding father Phil (a gruffly amusing Paul Cowling). When talk arises of the Hogan family’s friend and landlord Jim Tyrone (Geoffrey Pounsett) possibly selling the Hogans’ farmland to despised oil fortune heir T. Stedman Harder (Richard Beaune), Phil and Josie scheme to stop this by any means necessary, including Josie’s subsequent moonlit seduction of a drunken Jim. 

Bill Layton’s handsome Dial M for Murder set is lavishly detailed but his Moon set is much more minimalist, dominated by the sketchily skeletal outlines of the Hogans’ ramshackle farmhouse and a large, lovely projected moon hanging over everything for much of the play. In this regard and others, Moon’s director Robert Tsonos (deftly doubling as a compellingly layered Tony Wendice in Dial M for Murder) strikes a tone of bittersweet beauty that permeates this production and lingers long after the actors’ final bows. 

Speaking of actors, all this works as well as it does thanks to a solid cast, notably Ansems and Pounsett as the moonstruck lovers. Both roles as written are richly multi-faceted acting showcases, and the Ansems-Pounsett duo take full advantage to craft a charming, hilarious, disturbing, achingly melancholy stage romance you’ll remember for many moons to come.

—On stage at Watermark Theatre in North Rustico to August 31, 2018 

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged/Revised)

Bard Medicine 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Performed by
Kassinda Bulger, Benton Hartley and Jay Nicholson 

Directed by
Laura K. Bird 

The Story
Authors Adam Long, Daniel Singer & Jess Winfield packed all of Shakespeare’s plays (or assorted distorted fragments of same) into one show in 1987. Later revisions by the authors, plus tweaks and improvisations by Bird and her cast help modernize and localize the script. Most of the plays get fleeting cameos, but featured stories include a loving look at Romeo and Juliet, heaps of Hamlet, and a meaty serving of Titus Andronicus

The Performance
Bulger and Hartley are funny, flexible, versatile and responsive, as befits their improv experience. Hartley in particular excels at listening to his scene partners, an underrated but essential skill. All three actors play many characters, plus fictionalized versions of themselves presenting the plays. 

Nicholson isn’t quite so confidently polished or genuine as his partners, but he’s an enthusiastic, likeable stage presence and his less-slick vibe actually fits the role they give his fictionalized self as the least knowledgeable presenter, so he’s quite effective here and often a crowd-pleaser. 

Best Thing
There’s a sense of manic, anything-goes whimsy that comes with a small troupe playing a big cast of characters at breakneck speed and with gleeful abandon. The actors are having fun and it’s contagious, even (or especially) during performance glitches (whether deliberate or genuinely accidental), such as Bulger hilariously cracking up during her own puppet show. 

Shortcoming
The script unavoidably shortchanges most of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of stage time, the authors’ humour gets a little crass in spots and the show’s comedy isn’t always kid-friendly, though the iffier bits are often lost on younger patrons regardless. 

Final Thoughts
If heavily abridged Shakespeare blended with pure, uncut silliness into a potent comedy smoothie sounds refreshing, get thee to Georgetown while supplies last.

—On stage at Kings Playhouse in Georgetown July 15, 29 & August 5, 12, 19, 26, 2018 

Ghost Light

Bright light

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Performed & Written by
Shawn Wright 

Directed by
Thomas Morgan Jones

Supported by
Erika Morey (stage manager) 

Produced by
Charlottetown Festival with Theatre New Brunswick

The Story
Shawn Wright grew up in a big Catholic family in small-town New Brunswick, raised by his father “Lefty” Wright and his mother Regina, whose colourful personality and community theatre exploits inspired Wright’s own acting career. This one-man show features Wright playing himself — as well as his mother and various other characters — in anecdotal snapshots of their collective history, focusing on Regina, his relationship with her, and her eventual death.  

The Performance
A true one-man show, Ghost Light is all Wright all the time, and he carries it with appealing, low-key confidence in what feels like a very real, very naturalistic performance when he’s speaking as himself. His other characters here seem comparatively broad by times, but they’re entertaining, and the contrast helps set Wright’s core persona apart from all the other roles. Strong in both comedic and dramatic moments, he is equally adept at earning laughter and tears from his audience. 

Best Thing
It’s pretty much a tie between Wright’s self-assured, movingly human performance and his script, the veteran actor’s impressive first effort as a playwright. He invests the people, places and times he talks about with so much colour, quirk, warmth and specificity that the subjects of his stories seem vividly alive, none more so than his late mother. 

Shortcoming
Transitions between segments are a bit choppy in spots as Wright sometimes seems to momentarily lose his place in the narrative or hesitate in switching characters, though any such hiccups are infrequent and fleeting. 

Final Thoughts
Wright’s well-written, well-performed show is uproariously funny, achingly sad, and frequently thought-provoking. Though it’s a one-act play, it feels like a full theatrical meal with plenty of entertainment value and heart. Wherever she is, I’m sure Regina is both flattered and proud.

—Ghost Light plays Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings at 7:30 pm until July 20, in the Festival Loft, accessed through the second floor of Confederation Court Mall, Charlottetown.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Faithful and Fresh

Review by Sean McQuaid

In the beginning, lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber created the 1970 rock opera concept album Jesus Christ Superstar. Strong album sales said: "Let there be a 1971 Broadway musical version." It was fruitful and multiplied, producing many revivals and adaptations both staged and filmed; and in its 47th year, director Adam Brazier remounted it at the Charlottetown Festival...and your rapt reviewer saw that it was good. 

Pretty darn good, actually. My decades-long affection for this show makes it hard for new productions to surprise or impress after so many versions spanning so many years; but Brazier's take, both faithful and fresh, nails most of the essential JCS elements while doing a few things differently or better than many past incarnations of this musical. 

Credible as the gentle, serene everyday Jesus, Festival veteran Aaron Hastelow excels in the story’s darker moments: furious in “The Temple”, agonizing over his impending doom in “Gethsemane” (my new all-time favourite version of that number) and viscerally anguished during his torture and crucifixion, a sequence harrowingly-yet-artfully staged by Brazier, choreographer Linda Garneau and lighting designer Michael Walton. It’s a bravura performance, emotionally moving and often vocally spectacular. 

Lee Siegel as Judas crafts many of the show’s biggest musical “wow” moments with his own powerhouse vocals, though his numbers don’t always fully connect for me emotionally, as if the imposing wall of sound he generates obscures some of his character’s subtler emotional shadings. Also an occasional factor for Siegel and others like Tara Jackson (a darkly intense Annas) is an intermittent issue with audio balance: music director Craig Fair’s deftly hard-rocking orchestra is great, but sometimes the actors’ lyrics get lost in the instrumentals. 

Most of the songs are clearly articulated, including fine versions of fan-favourites “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” featuring Mary Magdalene, played poignantly here by a sweet-voiced Hailey Gillis, whose wistfully melancholy “Could We Start Again, Please?” duet with Jacob MacInnis (a very fine Peter) is the best version of that particular musical number I’ve seen. 

Other standouts in the cast include a suitably sonorous Greg Gale as Caiaphas and a superb Cameron MacDuffee in the plum role of King Herod; his lone song is a show-stopping treat thanks to some gleefully inventive choreography, MacDuffee’s cheerfully louche performance and some vividly memorable costuming by designer Cory Sincennes, whose sparkly, bearded Herod reads like a surreal glam rock Zeus.  

Speaking of plum roles, a sunny Andrew McAllister could use a bit more edge as militant apostle Simon while Brendan Wall fares less well as Pontius Pilate, exuding imperious authority and not much else. Wall or Brazier may have been shooting for subtlety here, but what we get is a Pilate seemingly devoid of subtext whose inner conflict is only apparent once the script makes it outwardly explicit. 

There’s a lot to like in the overall production, though, such as Sincennes’ set, dominated by looming pillars and high, cell-like window frames that imprison or expose the actors depending on the moment; it’s an imposing yet versatile space and Brazier deploys his larger ensemble well within it, crafting energetic, oft-frenetic crowds whose singing, dancing, adoring/menacing presence helps keep the show moving and consistently energized. 

Thoughtful, entertaining and inventive, Jesus Christ Superstar is the best new addition to the Festival’s mainstage since 2015’s Alice Through the Looking Glass — and for Island audiences, there’s never been a better time to come to Jesus. 

—On stage at Homburg Theatre in Charlottetown to September 22, 2018. 

Skin Flick

Movie Night 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Fun fact: Comic book publishers of yesteryear discouraged their scripters from using the word "flick." See, the comics' typical hand-lettered allcaps font, coupled with cheap printing methods and pulp paper, posed a risk of the "L" and "I" blurring together such that "FLICK" might become a less family-friendly word. 

Recalling that, the title of Norm Foster's 2009 comedy Skin Flick (newly staged at the Watermark Theatre by ACT) feels uniquely apt, featuring as it does both the execution and the utterance of FLICK's dark counterpart. Yet despite or because of the seamy subject matter, this is one of Foster's smartest and funniest plays. 

Married couple Rollie & Daphne (played nicely here by director Keir Malone and Marti Hopson) lead amiably dull workaday lives until Rollie loses his job. Facing financial ruin, they team with Rollie's sketchy pal, lecherous ex-TV cameraman Alex (Noah Nazim), to produce a pornographic film for quick cash. Uninhibited, unemployed actress Jill (Jenna Marie) signs on as their star, and Alex's weirdly soft-hearted bookie Byron (Alex Arsenault) joins the project hoping to recoup some of the money Alex owes him. 

Fittingly enough for a play about video, Foster enables his play's narrator (usually Rollie) to rewind, fast forward and even edit the play's action, such as blanking out some of the swearing, a fun gimmick well executed by the cast in terms of both the actors' split-second timing and the characters' repeated puzzlement over what's happening. 

Foster's self-aware script gives the characters in general and the narrator in particular direct or indirect asides to the audience, and it's especially well-suited to such an intimate performance space. Malone's direction keeps the blocking suitably tight yet intermittently interactive, perhaps most memorably when a quasi-sensual Hopson-Marie clinch practically spills into a patron's lap. Whether amused, confused or even uncomfortable, the crowd is always engaged. 

Foster's text walks a tricky moral tightrope here but the tone stays light throughout, partly because these appealing characters are mostly nice people (give or take an Alex) despite their dabbling in an ugly business. The play itself, for that matter, is not as naughty as one might expect. For all its salty language and murky morals, the story never turns nasty and there's no real nudity; and while this is now the second ACT play I've seen involving on-stage fondling (what an age we live in), even that moment is played for awkward comedy and pathos rather than cheap thrills. 

ACT's game cast all have strong comedy chops but they also find moments of surprising sweetness in the text, especially Arsenault and Marie. Nazim is perhaps the least naturalistic actor here, but he's playing the show's cartooniest character, so it's partly a function of the role; and while his oft-intense eyes flirt with overacting early on, he eases into a subtler yet funnier groove as the show goes on.  

Marie is winningly charming and funny in her biggest ACT role to date, but Arsenault narrowly edges her out to score the inaugural (albeit imaginary) Colm Meaney Award for bit player turned breakout star. Excellent in smaller parts in past ACT productions, Arsenault steals scene after scene here. He's genuine, understated, sympathetic and often hilarious, alchemically transmuting low-key line readings like Byron's enthusiasm for a breath mint into comedy gold. Performances like that help make ACT’s Skin Flick a night to remember.

Popalopalots 26-hour Improv Marathon

Open all night

Reviewby Sean McQuaid

Your semiconscious scribbler slept sparingly this past Easter weekend, thanks in part to the Popalopalots improv comedy troupe. In 2016, the group improvised for 26 hours straight as a fundraiser for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and they did it again on March 30-31 this year to raise more money for the QEH.

Most of the original marathon’s survivors were back, including troupe founders Rob MacDonald, Dylan Miller and Graham Putnam, plus Jordan Cameron, Kelly Caseley and Cameron MacDonald. Making it a magnificent seven was recent recruit Kassinda Bulger in her Popalopathon debut.

(I’m not sure if “Popalopathon” is the event’s proper name—some of the promotional material refers to it as the “Popalopalots 26-hour Improv Marathon”—but troupe members have used the “Popalopathon” term, it’s short and catchy, and it sounds like a potential Creature Cantina background character or something, so I’m embracing the shorter title.)

The Popalopathon offers the troupe’s usual freewheeling comedic pizzazz, plus the sadistically fascinating spectacle of human beings pushed past their mental, emotional and physical limits for entertainment purposes. As the audience guffawed its way through the final, grueling hours, my thoughts drifted back to The Simpsons and spectator Hans Moleman shouting at a kids’ hockey game: “We paid for blood!”

Not much bloodshed this year, though, figurative or otherwise. I only saw about eight hours of the marathon spread across several visits (family commitments made watching the complete show impossible), but the performers seemed to be holding up better this year in the segments I watched, including the finale. They seemed a bit less punchy this time (give or take Cameron MacDonald walking into a wall at one point), and definitely less randomly surly.

They were even managing some pretty technically tricky games late in the marathon, like the “split screen” gimmick where two different sets of three actors perform simultaneous, interlocking versions of the same scene on two separate halves of the stage; the cast of the scene changes whenever an actor walks into the stage left wings and his or her counterpart walks on from stage right (or vice versa) and picks up where the first actor left off.

Actors took occasional breaks, whether deliberate ones offstage or less deliberate ones onstage; Jordan and Dylan in particular power-napped their way through parts of certain scenes, which may have been partly where they both got the energy for some artfully deft balloon dueling late in the game.

Sister troupe Side Hustle joined the Popalopalots for part of Saturday afternoon, featuring hustlers Sarah Brown, Jill Chandler, Patti Larsen and Monica Rafuse (this writer’s sister). The infusion of fresh energy helped, and the guest stars performed well. Rob complimented the hustlers on their pantomime object work (quite strong), and the Larsen-Rafuse duo executed a commendably coherent, compact, tightly crafted alphabet sketch.

Popalopathon 2018 had categories of games/topics scheduled for each 30 or 60-minute block, ranging from staples like “Follow That Character” (Jordan and Kelly dominated as a quivery alien and his crusty manager, respectively) or improvised songs (Jordan and Cameron’s tale of socialist sea monkey dystopia was equal parts funny, disturbing and poignant) to weirder segments like family-friendly improv fairy tales (my preteen daughter and niece helped with those) or Rob discussing his 20 favourite numbers between one and 100 (seriously, I watched that happen circa 1 AM for 30-plus minutes).

This more structured approach may have helped sustain momentum and morale, and definitely guaranteed a wide variety of material. Not every game or sketch clicked, but these seven brave souls and their collaborators scored a lot of laughs and raised a lot of money for a good cause.

The Sunset Limited

McFadden2 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Two McFaddens enter, one leaves. Not as grimly gladiatorial as it sounds, but still an accurate summary of the spectacle on offer at The Guild this January, where accomplished father-son acting duo William and Corin McFadden starred in AMS Entertainment’s production of The Sunset Limited, directed by Mahdi Selseleh. 

Written by acclaimed long-time novelist and infrequent playwright Cormac McCarthy in 2006, The Sunset Limited is a verbally playful yet emotionally bleak two-hander featuring a spirited, spiritual debate between a pair of unidentified strangers, a suicidal intellectual (played here by William “Bill” McFadden) and a working class, born-again Christian ex-con (Corin McFadden) who prevents him from leaping in front of the titular Sunset Limited train. 

Dubbed “White” and “Black” in the McCarthy script (echoing the skin colours of the play’s 2006 original cast), the characters debate the meaning of life (or lack thereof) and the ethics of exiting same, with Black Corin trying to keep White Bill in his dingy apartment long enough to talk Bill out of his death wish. 

It’s not the feel-good play of the millennium. McCarthy’s “White” is like the dour humanoid antithesis of those “Hang in there, baby” motivational kitten posters, a despairing bundle of nihilistic bon mots who says life’s only redeeming feature is its inevitable end, a consummation he wishes for devoutly and eloquently. 

The script’s undeniable pleasures, however, include the wry comic chemistry of McCarthy’s Black-and-White dialogue, with some laudably luminous turns of phrase amidst the all-consuming darkness. This play is nearly two hours of two guys arguing about death, but it’s engaging, thought-provoking, even entertaining for most of that span. This isn’t conceptually ground-breaking — self-destructively depressed smarty-pants antiheroes have been theatrical staples since Hamlet — but McCarthy’s words sell it. 

The McFadden duo don’t always seem sure of those words — Bill even spends much of the play sequentially browsing a multi-page document apparently unrelated to the action, as if consulting notes or a script — but the emotional content of the performance is mostly on point. Bill brings a gravelly, bone-weary gravitas to his part that fits his role snugly while Corin’s prickly energy helps keep things moving and generates some of the play’s more memorable moments. 

That energy can be a double-edged sword — for instance, Corin’s take on his character feels oddly hostile in spots given Black’s benevolent intentions — but that may be a directorial issue as much as an acting one. There are some odd choices here, like Bill shouting a line about whispering where quiet intensity might have worked better, though such considerations are admittedly subjective. 

Director Selseleh handles this dark play capably. The simple set is sufficient to evoke Black’s shabby apartment, the mostly well-deployed music and sound effects help cement both mood and setting, and some suitably stark, elegantly simple graphics used in the play’s promos as well as an opening screen projection set an aptly ominous tone. 

Some acting oddities make it a bumpy ride in spots, but the script is smart enough, the McFaddens’ overall performances are strong enough and the production as a whole solid enough that assorted obstacles never quite derail The Sunset Limited

Events Calendar

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Some Upcoming Events

Fräulein Klarinette

Piano and clarinet recital at UPEI’s Dr. Steel Recital Hall January 26
UPEI UPEI Clarinet Profess [ ... ]

Raised on TV #3

February 15 & 16
The Guild Now in its third season, Raised on Television (RoTV3) is taking a loo [ ... ]

Bluegrass at the Carriage House

February 3
Beaconsfield Carriage House Janet McGarry and Wildwood, a favourite PEI band, will be fea [ ... ]

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