Monday, September 15, 2014

Fringe 2014: Roller Derby Saved My Soul and Definition of Time

Another splendid weekend to bookend my 2014 Fringe experience. And, again, two very different shows--though, as before, with a connecting thread.

Owing to a late morning start and abundant seawall traffic, I made it to the False Creek Gym just as they were shutting the house for the start of the noon hour show of Roller Derby Saved My Soul. Nancy Kenny's one-woman show is about Amy, a shy 30 year-old who lives in her younger sister June's shadow and harbours fantasies--nurtured by her love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer--of being a superhero. She gets her chance when June invites her to watch one of her roller derby games as a belated birthday present. After the game Amy finds herself in front of the recruitment table, mesmerized by the Glamazon Diana, and in a bewitched fog she suddenly sheds her inhibitions and signs up as "fresh meat."

What follows is a classic tale of heroic redemption. The bookish Amy--who prefers the movies to real life--quickly finds her skating legs (quite literally), blooming into a natural jammer. After the requisite hiccup of adversity and self-doubt, she triumphs by reconciling with her sister, getting the girl she thought out of her league, and--most importantly--saving the day for her team.

If you think this sounds a bit like Ellen Page in Whip It (minus the lesbian sub-plot), you'd be right. However, the stock dramatic arc notwithstanding, Roller Derby Saved My Soul is in no way derivative. This is thanks to two things. First, there is the show's taught writing, which confronts the cliches of genre (and gender) head on, upending them with the comedic one-two punch of timing and surprise--including some of the saltiest language about lady bits I've heard in a long time.

Then there is the performance by Kenny, who is as convincing in conveying the vulnerability of Amy as she is the bombast of June (not to mention the seductiveness of Diana). A naturally charismatic performer, Kenny is a also a gifted physical comedienne. She is clearly an experienced roller derby-er, and yet she is also able to translate kinetically to the audience what it feels like to be the unbalanced newbie trying on her skates for the first time. She's also hilarious as an increasingly inebriated Amy trying to keep up with her teammates (and the audience) in a drinking game to The Police's "Roxanne." Great stuff.

Movement is even more on display in Definition of Time, a quirky but strangely affecting dance-theatre piece that I took in at The Cultch after a pleasant cross-town bike ride. Conceived and choreographed by Iris Lau, the show was devised with the help of a slew of current SFU Contemporary Arts students and recent alums. These include performers Marc Arboleda, Elysse Cheadle, Shannon Lee, Carmine Santavenere, Clara Chow, and composer Elliot Vaughn, whose live score (featuring keyboards, violin, and percussion using everyday found objects) is simply brilliant. The text is by Adam Cowart, which is alternately allegorical and absurdist in its playing with various theoretical and material concepts of time.

Not that there is any real narrative through-line. The piece is more of an amalgam of fragmentary episodes, exploring through different choreographic structures and bits of physical theatre what it seems best to call the spatialization of time, giving it sensory dimension via different bodily encounters. To this end, I wish Lau had trusted herself a bit more in lettering the dancing speak for itself in the piece, rather than embellishing so many of the movement sequences with objects and additional dramaturgical effects. In the partnering, especially, there are often two or three other things going on that clamor for one's attention.

That said, I liked that the piece retained its rough edges. Though too long and overstuffed with too many ideas, there were myriad things to savour throughout.


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