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Dynamic Duos 

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Most years at the Island Fringe, I can narrow my favourite show down to one or two contenders by the end of the festival. This year, three shows were pretty much neck-and-neck in my affections come the end: Cardboard Countess, Half a Star and Wild Card.

All three plays have something in common beyond quality entertainment: they’re either two-handers or shows with larger casts totally dominated by two lead roles. It’s been a good summer for dynamic duos at the Fringe. 

That includes real-life mother-daughter duo Victoria & Carson Goring from British Columbia, creators of The Cardboard Countess. Victoria plays the titular Countess, a refuse-clad homeless woman who lives in a “palace” fashioned from repurposed garbage, hoarding surprising treasures in a stash of cardboard boxes. 

The high-minded, anachronistically fancy-talking Countess sees her “kingdom” as a revolution against the world’s soulless materialism, consumption and corruption; sullen teen Ever (Carson) is contemptuously skeptical at first, but the mismatched pair ultimately bond as Ever starts coming around to the Countess’s way of thinking. 

Smart, funny, poignantly sad yet ultimately hopeful, and well-played by both Gorings, The Cardboard Countess is linguistically playful and whimsically inventive. I particularly like the recurring bits where the Countess’s madness enables her to perceive and address the audience, a fun metadramatic gimmick that ultimately has a meaningful payoff. 

Half a Star is more straightforward, but no less full of smarts and heart. Longtime friends and theatrical collaborators during their years together in PEI, Justin Shaw (now based in Alberta) and Benton Hartley are reunited here, playing a theatrical duo whose longtime friendship and creative partnership ended after a scathing Toronto Star review panned their dismal Pyramus and Thisbe play. Given a shot at redemption when they get a chance to redo their show, the ex-partners try to revive their career and rebuild their friendship.  

Co-written by Hartley and Shaw, Half a Star features some of the cleverest, funniest dialogue of this year’s Fringe, delivered with rat-a-tat precision by a super-simpatico acting combo. Their lines are packed with eclectic, oft-amusing references ranging from Shakespeare to pro wrestling to local colour (paging Whisperwood Villa), all rooted in two distinctly drawn characters locked in a conflict with real emotional stakes and more than a few touching moments. It’s so good, not even its deeply problematic venue (the noisy, distracting Charlottetown Legion space) can seriously sabotage it. 

Last but far from least, Wild Card features its writer/director Brynn Cutcliffe as Chris, an impish free thinker who embarks on a unique experiment: declaring herself and her platonic friend Will (Josh Graetz) to be in love, and trying to make it really happen by sheer mental force of will. Their ensuing awkward, occasionally sweet pseudo-courtship takes some weird turns, such as discussion of quantum physics theories about the “multiverse” or potentially infinite parallel worlds, which perhaps explains why the show spins into a series of sometimes-conflicting versions of Chris-Will interactions as if watching this play out in assorted alternate realities. 

It’s a thoughtful, funny, original romance featuring a pair of thoroughly charming leads – and if it doesn’t always make logical, linear sense, well, as Cutcliffe’s script contends, no subject is worth studying if you can fully understand it. 

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