The Vancouver Fringe Festival is upon us again and this year I have been fortunate not to see my usual one show (or none), but to have seen three! Which is pretty big for me. Each show offered something completely different and depending on what you are looking for I am certain at least one of the following three is worth getting up off your couch for. (Remember, art is something that makes our community special, and the intimate, innovative art that you find at the Fringe can’t exist without your patronage.)
And so, in the order in which I saw them, I would like to tell you about the three Fringe shows I saw this year:
Show #1: The Masks of Oscar Wilde, by Shaul Ezer with C.E. Gatchalian
In this experiment with what the playwright calls a “lecture-in-play”, two performers (characters A and B, played by Sean Harris Oliver and Tamara McCarthy respectively) tell the story of the celebrated career and devastating fall from grace of the renowned Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde. While Harris Oliver and McCarthy each have several parts to play, the “masks” in the title are metaphorical, referring to the different facets of this extraordinary man, including those parts of himself he stove to keep hidden. (Though Oscar Wilde was married with two children, he sought the company of young men, fell in love with the young Lord Alfred Douglas, and was subsequently convicted of homosexuality and sentenced to two years hard labour. After having once been the toast of the London theatre scene, he died destitute in France at age 46.)
I quite enjoy lectures about interesting things and so I am predisposed to enjoying a play like this. That said, more captivating than the lecture pieces absolutely are the tellings of Wilde’s children’s story “The Happy Prince”, and the actors’ merciless performance of a scene from one of Wilde’s three infamous trials.
As I left the theatre, an audience member behind me said, “Well that was a good little play”, and while he was right, I can’t help wishing it could have been a great little play. I believe that audiences can get on board with a form like a “lecture-in-play”, especially about a subject whose work and life almost speaks for itself. Granted, I was there on opening night when nerves and expectations run high, but I did feel there were moments in the performance, and in the text itself, that felt a little forced or pitched, as if the artists involved did not quite trust that their subject and his work were enough to enthrall us, without little embellishments like hamming up a scene from the already-hilarious The Importance of Being Earnest, or throwing in contemporary references now and again. Based on the reactions of the audience members seated around me, we were entertained, and the energy of the show could, I feel, be contained just a bit to leave the audience some space to meet the artists half way as they learn about this brilliant and tragic figure.
One thing I thought was new and different about this production was the presence of an ASL interpreter, and the ways in which the actors acknowledged her imbedded presence on the stage. If you are hearing impaired or would like to visit the theatre with a companion who has a hearing impairment and uses sign language, you may wish to inquire with the companies to see which nights this interpretation will be available.
You may like this show if: you like to learn, you are interested in Oscar Wilde or Victorian attitudes towards homosexuality, you want to see a relentless Victorian-era lawyer corner and skewer his witness, or you want to see enacted the sad and beautiful story of love and sacrifice that is “The Happy Prince” (it really is very sweet).
You may not like this show if: you have difficulty keeping up with a lot of text/information coming at you very quickly, or if you are looking for something a little more active.
Disclosure: I was invited by one of my friends to review this show courtesy of the frank theatre company. The content is my reviews is my own.
Show #2: Aiden Flynn Lost His Brother So He Makes Another, created by Morgan Murray and Nathan Howe, score by Derek Desroches and Nathan Howe
Company: Theatre Howl, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
When lonely Prairie boy Aiden Flynn’s little brother is stillborn, he decides to make a new playmate for himself. His creation is a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster, loving, loyal, and surprisingly cute while at the same time disturbing and grotesque. This sparse but beautiful story is told entirely without speech.
The bleak colourlessness of the set and of the shadow puppet scenes immediately places the audience somewhere recognizable (if you’ve ever been on the Prairies when the sky is grey), somewhere that looks like home but feels empty. The loneliness of the young Aiden is palpable, and his ingenuity admirable. We understand his good intentions, but from the first breath his “little brother” takes we are sad, because we know that what Aiden has done is monstrous, and we start to recognize, perhaps, the selfishness involved in creating a being that cannot be included in your family or community. Given this conflict, the conclusion is as beautiful as it possibly could have been.
You may like this show if: You like physical theatre, innovative storytelling, simple stories, or are interested in the slightly creepy.
You may not like this show if: You really prefer spoken text, or dialogue, and are not the kind of person who is comfortable watching silence.
Disclosure: Nothing this time, I chose this show based on its description on the Fringe website and just really liked it.
Show #3: The Chariot Cities by Harrison Mooney, music by Bryan Binnema
Company: The Chariot Collective (ad-hoc group of artists, based in Vancouver)
After folk-musician Wendy Brownlee meets the irreverent but charismatic musician Jack Stackhouse backstage at a late-night talk show, she is warned by the host not to marry him. She falls in love anyways and the family the couple create with their two children (who grow up to be musicians in their own right) is a family deeply scarred by Jack’s infidelity, drug use, and selfishness, and by their mother’s baffling and painful capacity to forgive him. Told over a period of 22 years, The Chariot Cities is a story of the ties that bind families together–not only ties of love and blood but also ties of hurts and resentments and of course, of music.
The story itself is painful enough in its ways, but it is through the songs that we get a sense of how keenly these hurts are felt, and how impossible they are to escape. Bryan Binnema’s music is excellent throughout but the piece that really stands out for me is the one belonging to the family’s daughter, Beata. Performed by actress Shantini Klaasen (vocals and piano), the song “You Let Me Down” is a suffering young woman’s heartbreaking cry for her father, exquisitely performed (I also felt the lyrics in this piece were the most sophisticated of the play).
I do wish this play was a little longer, a little more fleshed out to bring to the surface more vividly some of the undercurrents of messed-up relationships that run throughout the show, but one can always hope for a remount. Besides, there is something to be said for not sharing everything, and perhaps the play is better for it.
You may like this show if: You like music, and are interested in the dynamics of musical families such as the Wainwrights.
You may not like this show if: You don’t like folk music, or the interspersion of song and scene onstage. This is also not a play for children.
Disclosure: A friend of mine is involved in the show and I was able to see this performance through her comp. I was not asked for a review.
I hope I have encouraged you to attend at least one performance at the Fringe Festival this year. There is really so much more that I didn’t see so haven’t mentioned but it is worth exploring. Remember that you will need to buy a $5 Fringe Membership in addition to the tickets for the shows you are seeing (you only need to buy the membership once and then you present it with your tickets when you attend each show). Happy Fringing!