Sunday, September 13, 2009

First Fringe Reviews and Midsummer

So the 2009 Vancouver International Fringe Festival is well underway, and I saw my first shows yesterday. In the spirit of the Fringe's own economical ethos (short shows produced and staged quickly), I will try to post short Twitteresque thoughts on what I see.

murder, hope is a new solo work by Bellingham native Becky Poole that is ostensibly about brain disorders, with a particular focus on Landau-Kleffner syndrome, a rare form of aphasia that can cause afflicted children to suddenly lose the ability to express and understand language. I say ostensibly because the self-described "non-linear" piece also includes several Appalachian folk ballads about abused wives and avenging nurse-angels, as well as a disquisition on Batman's crime-fighting abilities and heroic status. Poole is an engaging and dynamic performer, and has an amazing singing voice (she's pretty talented on the musical saw as well), but her performance was stronger than the piece itself, with the various parts never quite adding up to a satisfying whole, and with what I found to be an over-use of an audio soundtrack focusing on one little boy, Devin, with the syndrome. Just as we get sucked acoustically into Devin's story, Poole pulls us visually in another direction via her own intense physical presence, or else the new use to which she puts one of her many props.

Matters Domestic is comprised of two new short two-handers by local playwright, author, and actor Barbara Ellison (full disclosure: Barbara is currently enrolled in a class of mine at SFU), and directed by local legend William B. Davis (best known as The Cigarette Man on The X-Files, but also a respected theatre actor, director and teacher in this city). Part of the delight of both pieces is slowly discovering the surprising twists in their plots and characters, so I don't want to reveal too much here. What I will say is that the first play, DNA, centres around high school senior Victoria's (Lesli Brownlee) revelation to her single mother, Amanda (Lisa Dahling), that she is pregnant. Amanda's reaction is far from what we might expect, and over the course of an intense but briskly paced 10 minutes, Ellison has fun reversing ageist stereotypes and overturning various maternal conventions. The second play, Download, is even harder to talk about without giving away the central surprising conceit of its plot. Suffice to say, the piece concerns a busy career woman's contracting of a man to be a helpmate to her around the house and a surrogate father to her busy teenage children, and what happens when the terms of that contract run up against the material realities of day-to-day life, not to mention matters of the heart. Again Ellison is asking provocative questions about normative conventions of parenthood and kinship relations, but in a way that creates an imagined future (the play is set, cannily, a year from now) that's all too believable. The writing is sharp and instantly recognizable and veteran actors William MacDonald and Nancy Sivak deliver superb performances.

Yesterday evening I also made my way over to the east side to see the last performance of the Traverse Theatre production of David Greig's Midsummer, which opened the newly renovated Historic Theatre at the Cultch last week. Greig is Scotland's leading contemporary playwright, and his work tends to be quite topically political (United Players staged an excellent production of his American Pilot a season or two ago). However, Midsummer, "a play with songs," as it is subtitled, is a rollicking romp of a comedy about two thirtysomething Edinburghers, lawyer Helena (Cora Bissett) and petty criminal Bob (Gordon McIntyre), whose drunken one-night stand turns--surprisingly for both of them--into something more meaningful. Briskly paced, the play is told largely in the third person, with the actors recounting Bob and Helena's story directly to the audience, pausing every so often to reenact a crucial scene, or to grab dual guitars and express themselves more meaningfully in song. The play doesn't pretend to be any deeper than its lonely-hearted main characters, but neither does it condescend to them or hold them up for ridicule, taking their loneliness to be real and heartfelt. It's therefore hard to resist the play's many charms, starting with Greig's deft writing and direction, and finishing with Bissett and McIntyre's completely complementary, wildly energetic, and near flawless performances. They are both so comfortable in their roles, and with each other on stage, that their relaxed banter, physicality, and occasional improvisations are infectious (one unscripted bit of hilarity that had actors and audience members alike in stitches last night occurred when one of the fake eyebrows that Helena had affixed to her forehead in her guise as a heavy after Bob--who has absconded with his boss's cash--kept falling off). The audience was roaring from the get-go, and when, later, various members are conscripted into becoming part of the action, all willingly played along.

Of course, another attraction of the evening was seeing the newly renovated theatre itself. It is, as all reports have so far conveyed, stunning. I got there late and so didn't have time to fully explore its amenities, as I had to rush to find a seat in the rapidly filling auditorium. I ended up in the balcony, which now has a main access hallway wrapping around it to afford better ease of access to the various sections. And while the sightlines up there are, overall, vastly improved, my one complaint is the height of the safety rail on each of the three rows, as it means for those of us not long of torso that we have to sit up incredibly straight (or else lean forward) in order to take in all of the action. Likely this has more to do with building codes than with aesthetics, and it's only a minor irritant, but I do long for theatre venues the world over to come up with a way to fix this irksome feature of most modern re-dos.


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