The Wrestling Play
Review by Sean McQuaid
Island audiences tend to give standing ovations to just about everything, regardless of the quality of the play or the performance. I’ve seen standing ovations for merely good shows, okay shows, even downright crummy shows, as if PEI stood for “Proclaims Excellence Indiscriminately.”
These vertical ovationists presumably mean well, but the cumulative effect of all this randomized reverence is to cheapen standing ovations so much that they become meaningless. As such, your contrary critic tends to shun standing ovations on principle. I’ve probably participated in fewer than ten over the past decade.
Like universal standing ovations, Justin Shaw is a product of the Island theatre scene. He’s spent much of the past several years working and studying in Quebec and Alberta, recently hired as artistic director of indie company Theatre; Just Because in Fort McMurray; but before that, he was a familiar face in Charlottetown through gigs with the UPEI Theatre Society, Vagabond Productions, ACT, aBigWHAT, the Popalopalots and more, including fine work in last year's Island Fringe Festival as the star of Nutshell.
Shaw's career comes full circle at this year's Island Fringe, where he stars in a one-man comedy that he wrote and workshopped in Montreal, rehearsed in Alberta and brought home to PEI for its world premiere in a makeshift wrestling ring assembled in Rochford Square.
The Wrestling Play is Shaw's debut as a playwright, and it's an impressive first effort. TWP stars Shaw as Charles, an unhappy English teacher who quits his job to pursue a career in pro wrestling. His ensuing odyssey entails physical injury, sexual exploitation, emotional trauma, pharmaceutical misadventure and more than a little public humiliation, all of it entertaining.
It’s an always ridiculous, occasionally dark, surprisingly surreal, frequently hilarious tale, and strangely moving in terms of how much heart Charles brings to his story in general and his ludicrous dream job in particular. Shaw’s script also dabbles in metadramatic quirk, allowing Charles to interact with the audience, comment on storytelling mechanics and even mess with his underlying reality, suggesting alternate endings and questioning his own identity.
Quixotic, neurotic and slightly deluded, Charles is a fascinating character — partly for the suspense and sympathy his self-destructive quest generates, but also because his all-consuming passion for this silly pseudo-sport is so charming, even infectious. Charles sees wrestling through eyes of enthusiastic, child-like wonder, such that it’s hard not to get swept along with him.
It helps that he’s played by an engaged, intense, endlessly energetic Shaw. Years of stand-up and improv comedy have helped him hone a sense of comic timing and audience rapport ideal for this interactive show, and he gives an athletically and emotionally grueling marathon performance full of physical slapstick, wacky prop comedy, manic rants, wry humour and quiet desperation. It’s a bravura performance, probably the best of the 2017 Fringe, and I gladly joined in Shaw’s richly deserved standing ovation.