(Metaphorical) Masks, Monsters, and Music: Take Your Pick at the Fringe

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

Company: MatchMaker Productions in association with the frank theatre company, Vancouver

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.)

MoOW puppet bannerI 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.

Tickets for the remaining performances of The Masks of Oscar Wilde can be purchased online here.

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

10087746When 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.

Tickets for the remaining performances of Aiden Flynn Lost His Brother So He Makes Another can be purchased online here.

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)

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 7.44.04 PMAfter 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.

Tickets for the remaining performances of The Chariot Cities can be purchased online here.

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!

My Hot Night with Maria in the Shower at the Waldorf Hotel

Friday night. Pre-Rapture. The dance floor in the boiling hot belly of the Waldorf on East Hastings. I was there. That’s right: Friday, May 20, 2011, I absolved my sweaty sins with Maria in the Shower, celebrating the release of their latest CD, “The Hidden Sayings of Maria in the Shower” with the kick-ass, virgin-tempting show they called PANSTEREORAMA.

My first brush with the glory that is Maria in the Shower was in 2008, when I went to the Ukrainian Hall to see the Dusty Flower Pot Cabaret‘s magical production, “Valley of Ashes”.  I recall marveling at the spectacle, the rusty sorcery, and the puppets. I also remember thinking to myself, “Hot diggity, this music is great.” I then became interested in something else, I dunno, university or whatever, and forgot to ask myself where some of that music came from.

As it turns out, some of that music came from Maria in the Shower, so when I saw them for the first time doing a set of their own at this April’s ArtsWells Fundraiser at the Rickshaw Theatre, and then again last Friday at the Waldorf, I wasn’t seeing a new band so much as bringing into focus musicians I had already experienced through attending Dusty Flowerpot productions. And holy petunia, it was worth it. Wonderful as they are as a component of a larger theatrical production, on their own these musical men are overflowing with showmanship, theatricality, and a pure and unadulterated love for what they’re doing.

Photo credit: Brayden McCluskey

Before Maria in the Shower, I had never seen someone play an accordion and a trumpet at the same time. I had never seen anyone play a stand up bass while standing on their stand up bass. For that matter, I had never seen anyone playing a trumpet while standing on a stand up bass that someone else was playing. Trifling logistical details perhaps, but the kind of details that make me shout, “Holy F—” and scream a LOT.

All of this would have been cheap razzle dazzle had Maria in the Shower not had the musical chops to back it up. And they do. I got swing, I got jazz, I got a bit of Klezmer, I got trumpet and accordion (which are two of my favourite instruments after cellos), I got songs of burning hot passion and just plain fun. Poetry, love, death, religion, sex: I got it all with music I could dance to, sing to, feel through, that was at once totally irreverent and totally sacred.

At one point, I remember seeing the band onstage, with all their fey and sweaty fans dancing below, listening to a song about love that sounded like a cry from the most wounded man in the world, and thinking that THIS is exactly where I should be. This is exactly the kind of place and show I should be at when I am 25. I am idealistic, I am full of romance, I am nostalgic for a history I never had, I have energy and sensuality and a thirst for a performance that’s so damn good it makes me grit my teeth.

Maria in the Shower is so damn good they make me grit my teeth and fantasize about running away to join a gypsy caravan. I’m pretty sure I left the Waldorf pregnant through immaculate musical conception (totally appropriate pre-supposed-Rapture) and through the raw sex appeal being created all over that stage by musicians who are very good at what they do (and is anything more magnetic than that? No.).

I just hope the baby plays the trumpet. Fingers crossed.

June 2011: East Van Culture In the House

Music. Dance. Circus sorcery. Puppets. Beautiful East Van homes in the Commercial Drive area opening their doors to the public. Is this some eccentric real estate fantasy? No, it’s the return of the In the House Festival invading living rooms with its unique brand of community and magic in East Vancouver.

I have spent so much time lamenting over the hard knock life of those working in the arts that when Mads, an intern from the festival, asked me on Twitter if I would be interested in writing a piece about this year’s In the House Festival, I jumped at the chance to help promote a festival I have enjoyed in the past. I asked Mads if I might be able to ask a festival representative some questions for the post and was immediately put in touch with Myriam Steinberg, the Artistic Director of the In the House Festival, who has been involved with the festival since its inception in 2003. Myriam was so obliging and her answers so detailed I’ve included them here. [My questions are in bold, Myriam’s answers in italics]

The idea of an entire festival dedicated to bringing performers and audience into people’s homes is quite unique. What particular Vancouver cultural needs do you feel the In the House Festival addresses? There are a couple. Vancouver has a dearth of venues that are either financially accessible, or that are open to a variety of disciplines. It’s also difficult to find a venue where people will have focused attention on the performer. At In the House, we provide the space where the audience is 100% paying attention to the artists, the artists can do their thing, explore their genre, test out new material, interact directly with the audience and get paid more than the average “pass the hat” situation that they encounter in lots of bars and coffee shops. On a community level, In the House brings people together in intimate settings which create a trust and hopefully builds friendships and dispels stereotypes about neighbourhoods.

Photo credit: Diane Smithers

Are acts chosen for the festival based on the East Van homes available to the festival, or does the festival recruit homes based on the artist line-up already determined? We recruit homes based on the artist line-up primarily. Of course because some houses are smaller than others, we have to make sure that we don’t put the circus acts in a narrow living room, but instead put something like spoken word or other one person acts [in that space].

How does this year’s festival differ from years past? What are you particularly excited about this year? What have you learned from past years?
This is the 2nd year where we’ve added a 3rd night to the festival. We’ve [therefore] been able to add four more shows to the line-up. This year, we are featuring a bunch of upcoming youth in amongst the seasoned performers. Travis Lim does a killer Michael Jackson. I’m really excited to see him perform. At age 9 he’s already won 13 medals for dance! The Whitridge Brothers (11 and 15 years old) are jazz musicians who are included in the already stellar line-up. I think it’s important to give a voice to kids who have amazing talent. Age is no marker for talent.

I’m excited to watch the Cabaret so Mignon (magic, bellydance, music, clowning), to learn how to swing dance in Swingin’ Times, and of course I’m always looking forward to the finale. This year it’s a Blues Circus.

I guess the most valuable lesson I have learned from organizing the festival is to plan and organize well ahead of time and to keep expanding the network that surrounds the scene. It is thrilling to see so much great talent out there, but also to see how many people are willing to help volunteer during these festive days.

Tell me about the performance spaces (the homes). Are audience members permitted to use the washrooms? Are many of the homes wheelchair accessible/can arrangements be made to accommodate an audience member with disabilities? Any other amenities offered by the spaces (food available to buy, etc.)?
One of the most important parts about the shows is the fact that they are taking place inside people’s living rooms. It gives the shows an intimate and much more engaging atmosphere you would not find in a lot of other places. We do have port-a-potties available by Festival Central [Napier and Victoria] which we encourage festival goers to use, instead of the house washrooms, but of course people are generally allowed to use the washrooms of the houses during a show. However, they are not allowed to go explore the rest of the house outside the performance space and the bathroom. It’s really important to respect the privacy and safety of the homeowners who are so generously donating their space to a show. The backyards are generally wheelchair accessible, and about half the shows are in a backyard. Some of the houses are as well, but less so. We do have a ton of volunteers though who are available to help [or] we can also install a ramp if we have enough notice of someone in a wheelchair coming to a show. We certainly don’t want to exclude anyone from the In the House experience. In terms of food, there will be snacks and non-alcoholic drinks to buy, although we encourage people to use the “dinner hours” to explore the nice restaurants around Commercial Drive.  

If I were a Commercial-drive area home owner interested in opening my home to the festival, where could I go/who could I contact for more information? You can contact me, Myriam, at info@inthehousefestival.com or 604-874-9325. The website also has information about the shows we put on and what it means to open your home to a show.

How can artists apply for/submit their work for consideration for inclusion in In the House? They can email or mail me a demo of what they do. I prefer to hire performers from the Lower Mainland.

And finally: Do you have any important information/tips for audience members to make their In the House experience go as smoothly as possible? If you want a guaranteed seat, buy your tickets in advance. Shows tend to sell out. Also, if you’re buying your tickets on site or have a pass, get your tickets from the box office [Napier and Victoria] as early as possible. Seating is first come first served so if you want a good not squishy seat, get your place in line early.


I am a big fan of the idea of meta-theatre, and the idea that the experience of a performance is not confined only to what is happening on the stage space. The concept of this festival suggests an openness of spirit on the part of performers and audience and a huge amount of trust on the part of those who have turned their homes into a venue for performance. Is this the kind of experience you wish to participate in/support? Check out the festival.

The 2011 In the House Festival runs June 3-5 in the Commercial Drive area.

To purchase tickets through PayPal, click here.

For schedule information and to learn more about the Festival’s performers, click here.

Thanks Mads and Myriam for giving me the opportunity to learn about and promote this special kind of East Vancouver culture. It sure beats the hell out of whining over the sorry state of the arts. 🙂