Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fringe Madness (2011 Version): Little Orange Man, The De Chardin Project, and Cabaret Terrarium

Ryan Gladstone recites, as one of his tales in Every Story Ever Told the unexpurgated version of Cinderella. Among other things Disney leaves out: the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to make their feet fit into the glass slipper and end up getting their eyes poked out by a pair of birds loyal to the heroine at the end of the story. These details provide a link to the extraordinary child savant, Kit, at the centre of Ingrid Hansen's Little Orange Man, about a hyperactive girl of Danish heritage whose greatest delight comes from reenacting the grisly folk tales told to her by her grandfather to the young preschool children adjacent her primary schoolyard. When she is banned from doing so any further by concerned parents aghast at the drawings their kids are suddenly bringing home, and when her beloved grandfather suddenly descends into a coma after falling down the stairs, Kit must call on the dream energy of the audience to channel the more vivid imaginations of her preschool friends and descend to the underworld, do battle with the evil slug-men, and rescue her grandfather. The piece is wildly theatrical (tickle trunks, hand and shadow puppets, musical numbers, and multiple movement and lighting effects abound) and Kit is totally believable as played by the charismatic Hansen--one half, with director Kathleen Greenfield, of SNAFU Dance Theatre. Kit may be lonely and have no friends her own age, but as she says, she prefers hanging out with her elderly grandpa and the young preschoolers because at least they still believe. The gift of this show (which Saturday afternoon's audience gave a standing ovation) is that through their extraordinary coups-de-théâtre (the celery sticks doubling as the evil slugs is my favourite), and the absolute sincerity of their story, Hansen and Greenfield also help us believe once again in the power of our own imaginations.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a Jesuit priest who also trained as a geologist (earning a Doctorate at the Sorbonne) and worked as a paleontologist in Egypt, France, and China, where he formed part of the international team that made the discovery of the early hominid Peking Man in 1929. While always remaining loyal to his vows, in his writings de Chardin openly challenged Church doctrine, including the idea of Original Sin, and treated the Biblical creation story as a metaphor, seeking to reconcile his work in evolutionary theory with his theological beliefs. However, he was never allowed to publish his theories in his lifetime, dying in relative obscurity in New York. Only with the posthumous publication of The Phenomenon of Man did Teilhard's ideas finally reach a wider audience. In so doing, his mystical reconciliation of science and spirituality--it's to de Chardin that we owe the epigram "Everything that rises must converge"--touched a chord with many seeking to find a basis for Christianity in the material world. In The De Chardin Project the folks at Quickening Theatre have taken the outline of Teilhard's life and turned it into a tremendously compelling hour of theatre. The writing (by Adam Seybold, who also plays Teilhard) is especially rich, and as voiced by Seybold and fellow creator Kate Fenton (who plays a number of roles and who also serves, along with director Ginette Mohr, as co-creator of the show) one feels in some sense inspirited by the words. At the same time, with just a few props and simple yet effective stage techniques, the material side of Teilhard's philosophy is brought to imaginative theatrical life. Both Seybold and Fenton have tremendous stage presence and chemistry, and as told by this company (winners of the 2009 "Cultchivating the Fringe" Award for Fish Face), you will indeed find your pulse quickening as you listen to de Chardin's story.

Accidental assassins turned cabaret artists, imaginary friends who turn out to be real, archaeologists who tell jokes, and hundreds of wooden frogs audience members get to stroke with sticks to camouflage their laughter: these are just some of the delights on offer in Richard Harrington and Chris Kauffman's Cabaret Terrarium. The show resurrects (as it were) the stars of Harrington and Kauffman's previous Fringe show, Hotel California, and features a hilarious rendition of The Eagles song. Gustave is an affectless Belgian singer-musician whose voice and sense of rhythm are as rusty as his little grey cells (to be fair, he has been encased in a block of ice). Nhar is his trusty pantomime sidekick. Together they enact an identity quest that, in its epic scope, is at once arctic and equatorial, amphibious and avian, physical and metaphysical. Great good fun.


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