REVIEW: Fresh Takes on Fresh Meat, Part 2

Ottawa, Ontario
Jonas McLean catches the second weekend of Ottawa’s Fresh Meat Fest, a self-described “playground” that gives local artists the space to explore new work in a micro-play format. Keeping in kind, here are Jonas’ micro-reviews of the first five of ten new Canadian plays:

Fresh Meat 6’s second weekend offers emotionally raw perspectives on the human mind, with the same variety of theatrical styles that I came to expect from the first round of shows. Between shows there is another immersive experience to take part in. This weekend’s is Metaverse, an augmented reality room created by Liam Mooney. If you’re curious about what the future of immersive theatre might look like just sign up at the bar.

In-between walks us through the stages of growing up the children of Vietnamese immigrant parents. This piece, like its characters, seems to be going in several directions at once. Far from confusing, however, it feels coherent throughout thanks to Helen Thai and Franco Pang‘s skilled physicality and timing.

In Holding Mercury Kristina Watt begins with brain surgery and goes deeper, peeling back layers of intrusive thoughts to reveal the complexities of the human mind. Watt’s nuanced performance combines with a multitude of well-timed sound effects to make the brain under her knife a second character.

Folie is a brilliant piece of clown created and performed by Madeleine Hall and Mitchel Rose. Folie, French for madness, takes on multiple meanings when we meet Hall and Rose’s flirtatious, garishly dressed clowns. They’re foley artists, and most of the sounds we hear are indeed made by them and their assortment of bright orange props. This physical comedy offers a perfect contrast to the more serious tones of the rest of this weekend.

Kelsey Rideout’s anXietywomXn is another one-woman show that puts a mind at war with itself at its centre. Rideout wraps herself and the stage in string while her poetic language draws the audience in, inviting us to follow her thoughts spiral through the onstage web she has woven. When Rideout leaves the stage, she brings her string with her but leaves her recurring question – “Who am I?” – with us.

Finally, InSight teaches us not to take sight for granted, and yet I must encourage you to see it. This paradox is brought to the stage by Geoffrey Dollar who details the experience of living without sight before launching into a captivating dance that will leave you wanting more.

Matt Hertendy and Matt Venner of Two Kind Boys deserve praise for their part hosting the evening. Fresh Meat’s decision to change hosts every night is one that can easily backfire, but these two kept things moving in a charming and professional manner.

If you catch the festival’s closing night this Saturday your host will be Al Connors, who will also DJ the after-party.

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Author Bio: Jonas McLean is an improvisor and theatre creator from Ottawa, Ontario. He holds a BA in Dramatic Arts with a concentration in theatre praxis from Brock University and is currently pursuing an MA in the Theatre at the University of Ottawa. His research explores improvised performance and the role of the audience and audience participation in performance events. If you would like to continue the conversation he can be found on Twitter @TheJonasMcLean.

REVIEW: Fresh Takes on Fresh Meat, Part 1

Ottawa, Ontario
Jonas McLean catches the first weekend of Ottawa’s Fresh Meat Fest, a self-described “playground” that gives local artists the space to explore new work in a micro-play format. Keeping in kind, here are Jonas’ micro-reviews of the first five of ten new Canadian plays:

At Fresh Meat, emerging and established Ottawa artists showcase new works, with 90% of this year’s shows created by artists from underrepresented communities. Five shows run each weekend, plus extras like Gabrielle Lazarovitz’s “I’m Not a Doctor” Sleep Clinic.

La disparition (She’s gone) is presented en Français with English surtitles. Anie Richer and Marc-André Charrette’s reflections on losing a mother will make you laugh and cry even if you don’t speak French.

Honey Dew Me is a story set during the height of 1960s homophobia with Luke Brown and Kyle Cameron skilfully playing several characters each. It’s easy to agree that LGBT+ inequality remains a global problem in 2017, but harder to take an honest look at our own neighbourhoods as this show does.

Before Le Crip Bleu you will be given the opportunity to leave, but I highly encourage you to stay. Frank Hull and Alan Shain’s choreography and performance is hilarious and titillating, getting the audience hooting for safety belts being unbuckled just as they might for a glove peel at any other burlesque show. The show confronts the gaze of privileged groups and challenge conceptions of who is allowed to empower themselves through mediums like burlesque.

Packed with wit and ghost stories, Badges features Lauren Cauchy, Ali Harris and Amanda Logan struggling to complete the trifecta of friendship, true love, and career. It’s a thrill to watch who succeeds, who fails, and who gets to be the judge.

Amongst this varied and powerful selection of performances Beer Buddies still stands out. Michaela Steven unpacks the complexities of the human heart with the help of more than a few drinks, a gift for language, and a captivating authenticity that had me on the edge of my seat and wanting more.

You can still catch these shows this Saturday.

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Author Bio: Jonas McLean is an improvisor and theatre creator from Ottawa, Ontario. He holds a BA in Dramatic Arts with a concentration in theatre praxis from Brock University and is currently pursuing an MA in the Theatre at the University of Ottawa. His research explores improvised performance and the role of the audience and audience participation in performance events. If you would like to continue the conversation he can be found on Twitter @TheJonasMcLean.

 

REVIEW: The Watah Theatre’s Lukumi is a call to action and a celebration of Black resistance and resiliance

Toronto, Ontario

Signy Lynch attends the world premiere of d’bi.young anitafrika and The Watah Theatre’s afro-futurust dub-opera Lukumi, playing now in the Tarragon ExtraSpace:

This review is an experiment. It’s a response to a pattern of theatre criticism that often presents the opinion of one person as an objective measure of a show’s worth. In focusing on star ratings, and seeking above all to define what is good or bad in a production, these reviews often seem more interested in evaluating a piece’s commercial worth than exploring its artistic contributions. To de-centre my experience, and to give readers what I hope is a deeper engagement with the work, some of the cast members of Lukumi have kindly shared their perspectives. These perspectives, which provide a different kind of insight into the show, are to be read alongside my experience and should be considered just as much a part of the review.

Signy, reviewer: One of the first things that struck me about Lukumi, the final installment in playwright/composer/performer d’bi.young anitafrika’s Orisha Trilogy, is its shocking urgency. The dub opera is an uncompromising celebration of Black resistance and resilience, even as it presents a call to action, warning us of the impending environmental disasters facing humanity.

In a post-apocalyptic landscape (brought richly to life by designers Rachel Forbes and Michelle Ramsay), the remnants of humanity are forced to live in caves and hide from the brutal new world order. From this darkness, a hero, Lukumi (played by anitafrika), emerges to fight against the capitalistic forces which have destroyed the planet, razed natural landscapes, and caused an epidemic of infertility through toxic spills. The show follows Lukumi as she undertakes a vision quest to the Ancestor Tree in order to save the world, while resisting .

As I watch parallels emerge, clear and often chilling, between the fictional world of the play set in 2167, and the fraught political climate of today. Soldiers of the capitalist super conglomerate The One World Army chant “you will not replace us,” to the Black rebels they fight, echoing the words of the neo-Nazi protestors in Charlottesville earlier this year. Meanwhile, Lucius Dechausay’s film work presents the contemporary political and environmental moment through an affecting montage (featuring Trump, Kim Jong Un, and fracking) that makes current events seem a credible start to the apocalypse. Equally prominent are parallels between contemporary activists and the Ahosi rebels, whose songs – co-written by anitafrika and Waleed Abdulhamid – and movements – choreographed by Dr. L’Antoinette Stines – occasionally sample popular protest songs, linking their actions to an important tradition of Black performance and protest and reminding us that these protest movements might be our only hope facing the oncoming environmental devastation. In recognizing that the same forces that cause institutionalized racism and mass incarceration in the West are also responsible for climate change, the show makes clear that all these struggles are connected, and that anti-racist methods must inform any efforts to confront ecological destruction.

Lukumi is as spectacular to watch as it is politically poignant. The show takes the form of a dub opera, a performance style that mixes Jamaican popular performance forms with a rich dub tradition. The resultant piece is visually and aurally luscious and operates on multiple levels of meaning-creation, for me particularly the sensory, gestural, spiritual and the mythological. There are strong performances from the entire cast, most of whom take on multiple roles including the Ahosi Mino (the survivors and rebels of this post-apocalyptic world); the animals who confront Lukumi on humanity’s environmental impact; and the Orisha, deities in the Yoruba pantheon.

In the second act, after being chosen for the journey, Lukumi makes her way through eight layers of the earth to find the Ancestor Tree. The journey Lukumi takes is not only physical, but also emotional and spiritual and is played by anitafrika with an enrapturing vitality. Through the teachings of the animal guides, Lukumi gains the confidence and assurance to face the lack of clear solutions the Ancestor Tree provides—a journey of personal development that echoes the principles of anitafrika’s own Anitafrika Sorplusi Method. However, her transformation from uncertain hero to empowered leader does not seem to signal a victory for all humankind, but rather serves as a challenge to the audience. As Lukumi leaves the theatre with the Orisha pantheon at the play’s end, she leaves the audience with the weight of our own actions and decisions. Lukumi is a hero, the show seems to say, but she is not our saviour. Instead she models what each individual audience member must do to meet the environmental and humanitarian challenges ahead, a task that the piece makes clear is the individual responsibility of all.

For me, a real source of the performance’s strength and – despite the dark and dire subject matter – its ultimate hope is the way it ties contemporary issues to age-old myth, storytelling, and tradition. One way the show frames Lukumi’s journey is as the mythical journey of the Orisha Oshun. It is this divine scale that allows Lukumi to succeed (where other shows that attempt to address climate change have failed) in both capturing the massive scale of the problem and giving the show enough weight to confront it – and to even imagine possible solutions.

(Left to right) Uche Ama, Savannah Clarke, Sashoya Shoya Oya. Photo by Ahmed Barakat

Uche Ama, Actor (Ahosi/Buffalo/Oya)
Uche is a queer, black performer.

Q from Signy: What does the piece mean to you?

This piece means everything to me because I come from a musical theatre background and my experience with theatre has not always been as spiritual, as connective with my cast, as connected to my history and my heritage—I’ve never experienced something like that doing a show. So this experience changed my world; it’s changed my perspective of art. It’s changed my perspective of what I want to do as an artist because my whole life I’ve been like “I want to be a musical theatre performer,” it’s what I want to do, and I love it. And I still love it but now, because of what this show is, I feel like there’s nothing like this out there. Maybe I need to start writing it; maybe I need to start creating it with some of the people in this cast. So this show definitely means a lot. It’s close to my heart, very close to my heart.

Q: What message do you want an audience to take away from the show?

The message I want them to take away is “Stop, and look”. We as humans in the city are so fixated on the go go go of life, and “I’ve gotta go here, I’ve gotta go here, I have to do this, I have to do that,” and coming here and taking in what that does to the human race really helps us see how easy it is to forget about things that used to be important. Once upon a time, environment and our earth was something to fight for—we wouldn’t be here without the earth—it’s so important so I’m curious as to what happened to let that importance fall by the wayside. So that’s a message that I hope the audience goes away with.

Q: What effect do you hope Lukumi has on an audience?

I hope they’re taken aback. I hope they’re taken aback, and I hope it makes them ask questions. I really hope they stop and they’re like “Wow, what am I doing? What am I doing right now to make this an issue? What am I doing to feed this problem?” I say to myself for the last month, since we started working on the show, “Lukumi is everywhere”. And climate change is everywhere. Especially the weather that we’re experiencing right now. It’s September and it goes from being 30 degrees to today where it’s like 17 degrees and you want to wear a sweater and a scarf, and next week it’s going to be 30 degrees again. So, stop, question. That’s what I hope.

Q: What advice do you have for an audience who is encountering the dub art form for the first time?

Listen. And ask questions, if you have questions. I would also recommend reading that article that Amanda Parris wrote in CBC about what dub is, the history of it, the importance of it in the Jamaican culture and why it is what it is. Even a person who kind of knows dub or has seen d’bi’s shows in the past, that article really brought everything to light and prepares you for what you’re going to experience here, I think.

Q: Do you have anything else you want to add?

Come see the show! Come see it! You’ll be moved, you’ll be excited, you’ll come with questions AND you’ll leave with even more!  There are no answers here. None whatsoever. And you’ll probably find yourself online when you go home, and that’s definitely what we want. Google, find reputable resources, and research things that you’re curious about if you don’t understand something. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand in the talkback because that’s why we have a talkback!! No fear! Break the ice!

Lukumi cast. Photo by Ahmed Barakat

Aisha Bentham, Actor (Ahosi/Crow/ White Mask/Yemoja)
Aisha Bentham is a Toronto-based (Ajax) artist/creator.

Q from Signy: What effect do you hope the show has on the audience?

I really hope that they enjoy it. I mean, we are talking about some really heavy, deep stuff in this show and I pray and hope that people will take that in; but, as well, I just want people to enjoy the show. It’s beautiful. The music is so much fun, and the visuals and the different characters that we all play. I just really want people to enjoy it. And also come into this show with no expectation. Because this type of theatre is not like every type of theatre. And so, just coming in with an open heart, because really that’s the most important thing, having an open heart. And not coming in ready to judge.

One thing that I think is never to be taken for granted is the fact that we all go through change in different ways. Like I said, this is a big show and we’re talking about some really heavy stuff, and even as myself as an actor in this show, I still have moments of like, “oh my god”, and it’s always new, even though I’ve been doing this for so long. And so I don’t take it for granted that some people, it may not land for them right away; but like I said, I think a big thing is have an open heart and come in with the option for things to hit you. With the option. Because when you come in being like “Nope, okay, I’m here, they’re there, this is their experience, this is not my experience,” really coming in with the option of being like, “This could be my experience,” or, “This actually is my experience”. But for some people it takes a little bit longer…We had a talk back last night and we had our director Eugene Williams talking about dub art form, and I’m still sitting with it, too. I’m not of Jamaican descent but that doesn’t matter. The form is still coming out of me in ways that I’m still grappling with, and being like, “Okay, what is this? How am I saying this? Where does this live?” …. Just come in and be open-hearted.

Q: Do you have a favourite part of the show?

This part of the show when the Ancestor Tree comes and starts to sing her song—the Ancestor Tree’s played by Najla [performer Najla Nubyanluv]—and Lukumi is about to start her journey, and you have all the Ahosi Mino on the stage, and the Ancestor Tree’s singing to her and she’s saying “Come to me Lukumi” as if she’s serenading her to come to her. And the drums are going and it’s all very—every time it’s different and every time it’s so organic, and real. And it really transports you (at least myself as an actor on stage) into a space of—it’s like you’re not here in Toronto, Ontario at 8:43pm. Your space and time is no longer this solid form, it’s malleable. And it really transports you into this other space, and I love it. I can never anticipate what’s going to happen and I think that’s the coolest part about that moment for me.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Climate change, deforestation, mining is so real. I think that’s the hardest part for people to really grapple with. Because we’re not touching it. We’re not next to a family of trees getting uprooted to put a condo or a building. So just reminding ourselves that this is very real. And the closer that we get to earth, the more that we will really hear its heartbeat. I know that’s very poetic, but we need to do that more. And that’s going to look very different for every person. You know, maybe people, that’s when they go up to their cottages every weekend. Or maybe people just can’t live in the city, have to live in the suburbs or up North. But whatever that means, you need to get closer to the earth to hear its heartbeat because it speaks to you. That’s it.

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Author Bio: Signy Lynch is a PhD Student in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University. Her research investigates how direct audience address in contemporary performance can help audience members and performers to negotiate the complexities of inhabiting a twenty-first century globalized Canada. She is a member of the Centre for Spectatorship at the University of Toronto and is a board member of Cahoots Theatre.

REVIEW: A peek inside WIG IN A BOX’s new work-in-progress

 

Montreal, Québec

Willow White attends a workshop performance of The Gentle Art of Punishment and urges us to keep an eye out for its ongoing development:

When I walked into the the Maison de la Culture Maisonneuve on the first of August, I was expecting to watch a sort of epilogue to the performance I’d seen earlier this summer, Docile Bodies. Performance company WIG IN A BOX advertised this performance, titled The Gentle Art of Punishment, as an extension of Docile Bodies, first performed at La Chapelle Scenes Contemporaines and the St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival. What I experienced was very different. While Docile Bodies was all about the masculine — the cast portrayed soldiers who grappled with their violent acts — The Gentle Art of Punishment is all about the feminine. It’s risky, unsettling, and unexpectedly fun. The collaborators of The Gentle Art of Punishment seek to explore how women can form a sense of self under the systems and institutions that shape them. The program explains: “Here is our love-hate letter to the fucked up ways of living; our essential and unhealthy memories, places and people that make up our lives.”

Photo by Jules Bédard

Like Docile BodiesThe Gentle Art of Punishment is inspired by a chapter of the same name in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and has been created through a process of collective creation and devising. Three of the six original performers remain: Lucy Fandel, Emily Sirota, and Natalie Liconti. Joseph Browne and Darah Miah have stayed on as sound designer and lighting designer respectively. Rather than feeling like a lesser version of Docile BodiesThe Gentle Art of Punishment feels cohesive, concise, and complete. The performance is made up of a series of vignettes woven together with sound, light, dance, and music. The performance opens with Sirota strolling on stage and throwing her arms wide like a presenter at a beauty pageant. The monologue that follows is just the first of a series of hyper-feminine characterizations: the ballerina, the daughter, the child actress. Alternatively, there are characters that rebel against idealized femininity: the female soldier, the boxer, the S&M enthusiast.

Browne has created an eerie and powerful soundscape that includes music ranging from David Bowie’s “TVC 15” to 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.” One of the most powerful moments in the performance occurs when Browne plays a 1990’s TV interview with a 15-year-old Drew Barrymore. Liconti sits on stage in a white, childish dress and mouths Barrymore’s words, while Sirota takes on the role of the interviewer. In the interview, Barrymore has just left rehab, and the interviewer – in a deep, male, English accent – asks personal questions about her struggles with addiction in childhood. Liconti brings Barrymore’s vulnerability to life as she bows her body forward into a smaller shape and is compelled by the authoritative interviewer to apologize for her actions and encourage other youngsters to choose a different path.

Photo by Jules Bédard

Notably, all three performers depict girlhood throughout the performance, emphasizing how expectations of perfect femininity shape young women. At one point, Fandel appears alone on stage wrapped in a plastic garment bag and wearing a 1950’s era, pink prom dress. She frantically prances around the stage, a wide, uncanny smile stretched across her face. She later recalls her childhood dance classes. She describes watching her body in the mirror, trying to force herself into the perfect shape while the dance teacher yells out “good,” “bad,” “mediocre.” You don’t need to have been a dance kid to relate to Fandel’s obsessive pursuit of perfection.

There is an uncomfortable link between the depictions of girlhood obedience, and adult experiences of sex. Near the end of the performance, all three performers congregate on stage. In black lingerie, Sirota recounts her deepest S&M fantasies. She grapples with her preference for being the subordinate. After all, she says, “revolution is exhausting.” She finds being the sub empowering and pleasurable, while at the same time expresses discomfort about how her desire complicates her own feminist politics. Her monologue is a powerful encapsulation of the ideological struggles underlying the performance as a whole.

The Gentle Art of Punishment is a beautiful, tragic, and darkly comic portrayal of the feminine. It has prompted my own internal exploration about what it means to be a woman; the good, the bad, and the mediocre.

WIG IN BOX is continuing to workshop The Gentle Art of Punishment and plan to tour with it this winter. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for more information.

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AUTHOR BIO: Willow White is a Ph.D. student at McGill University in the Department of English with a research focus on eighteenth-century English theatre. A recipient of the Joseph Armand Bombardier CGS Doctoral Scholarship, Willow’s dissertation explores the work of comic women playwrights of the period. Willow is currently working on a project that considers the impact of mentorship on women playwrights at the end of the eighteenth century.

EDMONTON FRINGE: POLITICAL AND PHYSICAL

LISA JEANS offers her take on what to see at the Edmonton Fringe

Festivals offer theatre audiences a particular challenge: hundreds of performances and a limited amount of time to see them. While there is pleasure in the happenstance of half-price tickets or taking a chance on the artist who just pitched their show to you in the line-up for someone else’s show, I prefer to sit down with the listings, a big cup of coffee, and my mobile device to identify a handful of productions that excite me. These are often shows that engage with social and political issues indirectly and provoke a strong emotional response in a visually theatrical way that intensifies the sense of spectacle and the immediacy of live performance.

Ingrid Hansen in a photo by Laura Dittmann

As an artist who has performed at Fringe, I know the technical constraints of the festival format: there is limited space and time to set props and production design elements; the lighting plot is shared by all productions programmed into a given venue, and so on. While these constraints can lead directly to a visual same-ness—the empty stool and microphone on an empty stage comes to mind—that causes the shows to mix together in a slurry of memory, some artists find inventive ways to work with these limitations and produce outstanding work with meaningful imagery that lingers well after the house lights go up. This can be achieved in many ways including through clever, if minimal, production and costume design or through the use of heightened physicality and dance.

I certainly respect theatre that is very explicit about its political content and agenda, and admire artists who dare to produce very serious fare during the carnival that is Edmonton Fringe, but I get most excited about performances that address social and political issues in pleasurable and unexpected ways and are anything but on the nose.

There are several companies producing on the Fringe circuit that, with their talent, skill and ingenuity, address political themes with either subtlety and wit, or pointed largesse and bombast, all the while creating an immediate, magical, sensory experience for audiences.

When building my shortlist, I seek out the new, which for me means productions that are premiering this year or those without more than a couple of past productions at other festivals on the other side of the country. With that in mind, the following are my selections for the 2017 Edmonton International Fringe Festival.

THE SHORTLIST:

Interstellar Elder
The Merkin Sisters
SNAFU Dance Theatre
www.snafudance.com

SNAFU is known for inventive physical performances full of heart and wit. This year they are bringing two different shows to Edmonton.

Interstellar Elder takes place in a dystopian future. I’m giddy just watching Ingrid Hansen dance in the promo clip.

The Merkin Sisters, co-created and performed by Hansen with Stéphanie Morin-Robert (Blindside), is about a pair of “formerly-famous sisters (who) leave the house for the first time in a decade as they risk everything to present their Ultimate Work of Art.” It promises to be a master class in physical theatre.

Ingrid Hansen and Stéphanie Morin-Robert in The Merkin Sisters

Multiple Organism
Mind of a Snail
mindofasnail.org

A woman, sick of being objectified, steals a magic paintbrush and must decide whether to keep the status quo or change her life and love herself as she really is. Chloé Ziner and Jessica Gabriel use shadow puppetry, clown, physical comedy and original music in their surreal performances.

You Fucking Earned It!
Bouffonatrix
nakedempirebouffon.org

Bouffon has the power to get under your skin and fester uncomfortably in your subconscious mind all the while provoking raucous laughter. These anti-clowns don bright bulbous costumes and promise to take aim at Western economic imperialism–nothing is safe or sacred.

SCUM: a manifesto
Scantily Glad Theatre
www.scantilygladtheatre.com

SCUM tackles an explicitly political subject: Valerie Solanas, the author of the late ‘60s radical feminist SCUM Manifesto, a.k.a. the woman who shot Andy Warhol, while examining the feminist movement today. It’s a bold and ambitious choice of subject and the emerging artists of Scantily Glad workshopped this show with Vern Thiessen after the show’s premiere at Saskatoon Fringe last year.

S.E. Grummett and Caitlin Zacharias in a photo by Kenton Doupe

THE LONGLIST (and why I think these shows are intriguing):

Animal Farm Treatment (Alice Nelson/Underdog Theatre) : a fresh take on Orwell’s novel

Drunk Girl (Thea Fitz-James) integrates performance art and theatre and questions cultural norms

Executing Justice (Bill Pats) : a look at the criminal justice system

Gemini (Louise Casemore/Defiance Theatre), a new play by an award-winning emerging playwright

Ship of Dreams (Grasshoppa Dance Projects) : dance and women’s history

Souls (Multicultural Theatre) by Syrian playwright Aksam Alyousef, about a Canadian lawyer who finds herself drawn emotionally into the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine. Full disclosure, I participated in early table reads for this play.

Szeretlek: A Hungarian Love Story (The Grand Salto) : Hungarian culture, dance, mask

The Milky Way Express (In Arms Theatre Collective) LGBTQ2SIA+ themed and inspired theatre art

With Glowing Hearts (Send in the Girls) : smart, sexy, and body positive burlesque theatre

Showtime and venue details are available on the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival website.

AUTHOR BIO

Lisa Jeans is a theatre artist and writer. Her writing has been published in FASHIONThe Globe and Mail, and in a smattering of Canadian literary journals. One of her current projects in progress is a performance text about violence against women in politics. She recently profiled issues of equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility at The Edmonton Fringe Festival for Alt.theatre.

 

SummerWorks Round-Up: Cassandra Silver reviews 6 shows closing this weekend in Toronto

 

Review: White Man’s Indian presents a new take on the coming-of-age narrative

Darla Contois’ tour-de-force writing and performance are supported by some of the most polished design and staging that I have seen at SummerWorks this year. White Man’s Indian is about Eva, a Cree teenage girl who moves off the reserve to live with her absentee father after her mother dies. It is simplistic to call this a coming-of-age story because the issues that Eva deals with go beyond the kind of fare you would expect in a play about adolescence. That said, all of the issues about identity that Contois, through Eva, negotiates are mapped onto precisely those usual narrative suspects—navigating high school friendships, gossiping about boys, planning for graduation, and more.

Contois pirouettes through multiple roles, subtly and impressively changing her posture and voice to represent characters as diverse as Eva’s alcoholic father and the ditzy popular girl at school. Standouts are “the twins,” an uncool (and hugely funny) pair of Eva’s classmates at her new high school who scoop her up into their social circle shortly after she arrives. Even Eva, Contois’ performative home base, evolves through the duration of the play, moving from moments of childhood vulnerability to a determined clarity in the show’s final minutes. On a very spare set, Contois’ virtuosic performance is deeply praiseworthy.

Photo by Peatr Thomas.

Eva struggles acclimating to her new urban environment because, although her life’s experiences have been significantly different than those of her peers at the white high school, she urgently wants a normal life. Of course, normal here is determined by the lives she sees her peers living. Her classmates and teachers are clueless (and likely don’t care to be clued in) about Eva’s heritage, and yet Eva feels disconnected from the identity that is, in the eyes of those around her, meant to shape her. In one scene, after being assigned a school project on her family’s history and traditions, she laments that she doesn’t know the story of her people. It has been erased by the brutal colonial policies and practices of Europeans and their descendants that deliberately sought to eradicate Indigenous cultures.

She calls herself the perfect ‘white man’s Indian’ because she can’t remember her past or speak her language. She even sometimes craves assimilation with the white world she inhabits because she is exhausted by others’ expectations about her identity. And yet, she can’t. Toward the end of the play, while she readies herself for an end-of-school party, she dons a blonde wig. She is so frustrated with being marked as ‘other’ because of her skin and hair-colour that she obscures her own looks to be, in her terms, ‘beautiful.’ These feelings are compounded by the often frightening instability in her home life, with a father who is too disengaged (and sometimes malicious) to help her at all. Eva feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere.

This play poignantly presents what it means to live a cultural identity that has been rubbed out within the society that perpetrated that erasure. Eva’s sense of loss is devastating because there is no way to restore that which was taken from her. Because her personal traumas are compounded by historical and cultural wrongs, she is lost.

White Man’s Indian has one more performance, tonight (Saturday, August 11) at 7pm at The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator.

Review: Spawn offers a return home

Cheyenne Scott’s very smart play intertwines Coast Salish stories and symbolism with the charming narrative of Theresa and Mikey who, after a casual encounter, are having a baby together. It is a story of transformations and returns. Theresa (Samantha Brown) is a young Indigenous woman who lives in Victoria and works as a dance teacher. Mikey (Dillan Meighan-Chiblow) lives on a reserve, which is where he first meets visiting Theresa. He offers to follow her back to Victoria after he learns that she is pregnant. Neither of them have particularly supportive families, so their efforts at establishing their own family unit are difficult. They know that they need each other, but Theresa is reluctant to become too reliant and Mikey doesn’t know the best way to support her.

Spawn is at its best in its quick and intelligent writing. The production is polished, with beautiful projections that play across a diaphanous sheet that the actors manipulate to create the illusion of water. The set is more robust than most at SummerWorks, featuring a central ramp that Theresa runs up (as though a salmon swimming up stream) and movable blocks that create the interior of Theresa’s apartment. The quick repartee between Theresa and Mikey is utterly delightful, and Cathy Elliot, as Theresa’s grandmother, is surprisingly complex given her limited stage time. That said, there are a few choices that seem a little too on-the-nose: Mikey occasionally appears in a salmon costume to wordlessly ‘swim’ around the stage, and the singular appearance of his tough-guy brother Travis feels redundant.

Photo by Blair Bouskill.

Even without the occasional salmon literally appearing on stage, it is clear that salmon and their journey act as a central metaphor, with several moments serving to underline the titular action: spawning, or creating something new by going back to where you came from. Theresa and her estranged father used to fish together; although he is at first unable to contend with the idea that his daughter is pregnant, they slowly stitch their relationship into form by returning to their tradition. Mikey presents Theresa with a reef net, a traditional method of fishing, as a way to bring himself into the fold with her father; all three have the means to move forward if they take up a very old practice. Theresa reconnects with her maternal grandmother who had disappeared from her life after her mother drowned; their connection is renewed through their shared memory of Saskatoon berry pie. In this way, as they all prepare to welcome the new baby, they find their way back home.

Spawn has two more performances: Saturday, August 12th at 9:30pm and Sunday, August 13th at 3:45pm, Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Review: The Chemical Valley Project and the art of storytelling

Storytelling is a venerated part of many Indigenous nations; their oral traditions are a tool for teaching histories and imparting important life lessons. In The Chemical Valley Project, written and performed by Kevin Matthew Wong, I am struck by the sensitivity and respect that Wong and co-creator Julia Howman show to their Indigenous subjects in adopting a storytelling voice. With an earnest mix of self-awareness, raw facts, and virtuosic projection and puppetry, Wong weaves his own story by touching on the past and positing better paths for the future.

The play is a kind of documentary: Wong shares with the audience how he came to care about Aamjiwnaang, an Indigenous community near Sarnia, Ontario. He anchors his larger message about the urgency and importance of Indigenous-led land and water protector movements in the stories of sisters Vanessa and Lindsay Gray. The Grays have been agitating, advocating, and educating people about the so-called Chemical Valley, an area near their home outside Sarnia where 40% of Canada’s chemical industry operates. The sisters served as dramaturges for the play as well, lending their own experiences in activism to help shape how they and their work are represented.

The facts presented in the play are shocking. I learned that Sarnia’s air is the most polluted in Canada. I learned that nearly 40% of women from the reserve report having experienced a miscarriage, and that the birth rate in Aamjinwnaang skews female; for every two girls born there is only one boy, where the expected rate is almost exactly one-to-one. Residents report breathing difficulties, skin irritations, and other symptoms that can be traced to their exposure to chemicals in their air and water. And then there is Enbridge’s troubling Line 9, a forty-year-old pipeline that carries diluted bitumen between Sarnia and Montreal and passes not far above the heads of commuters on the platform of Toronto’s Finch subway station.

Photo by Julia Howman.

Wong’s careful way of placing himself in the narrative that he is weaving is smart. He manages to sidestep the chance that his work might seem sanctimonious by reflecting on his own skepticism as he once regarded protesters, and by considering how his own family from Hong Kong are colonizers in Canada. He shares his anxiety about telling a story that he cannot claim as his own. He talks about his own attempts to educate himself, and how he finally came to understand the centrality of land in first nations communities when he learned that the Ojibwa word for Earth (aki) is literally embedded in the word for everything (akina gegoo).

Significantly, Wong isn’t only a good storyteller; he has a charming sense of theatricality and is a skillful stage performer as well. The stage is set with two projectors, the larger of which provides contextual backdrop for many scenes. The smaller projector is focused on a sheet draped over a table placed centre-stage. Wong manipulates the sheet by lifting, folding, and flourishing it like you might when hanging laundry out to dry. As the projections on the sheet change, the sheet becomes a puppet for two other characters, the backdrop for a bus trip, the Canadian flag, and more. This inventive staging is delightful, in spite of the play’s very serious subject matter.

I left The Chemical Valley Project with a sense of the value in stories, and with a model for what it takes to really listen and come to understand others’ lived experience. I really do admire Kevin’s stage-craft, but more than that I respect his approach to the material. His performance is compelling because it is earnest, accessible, and very well told.

The Chemical Valley Project has one more performance, on Sunday, August 13th at 6:30pm at the Pia Bouman Studio Theatre.

 

Review: Professionally Ethnic perpetually relevant

In a program note, Bobby Del Rio explains that Professionally Ethnic is a decade old and that he is dismayed that its themes are still relevant. I’m not entirely sure that its issues can entirely be resolved.

Del Rio plays William, a theatre actor who dreams of lead roles because he is constantly cast as an “ethnic” supporting character. When Gerrard (David Sparrow), the director of an unnamed major theatre company, taps William to be at the centre of a campaign to revitalize and diversify his organization, William is overjoyed. Tracy, played with whip-smart alacrity by Chantel McDonald, quickly points out to William that his ethnic identity is being monetized by Gerrard. She urges William to turn down the position. As Gerrard’s ambitions for William grow, he proposes that William can serve as a symbol of diversity itself. The play runs with this idea to its most extreme and absurd end, with William wearing a smorgasbord of “ethnic” costumes, none necessarily representing who William actually is, performing for an assembly of theatre board members.

Photo by Ian Brown.

This brings the central concern of the play to the fore. In a funding climate that celebrates companies with a diversity mandate, multiculturalism becomes a box to tick for money. Although most companies will have the best intentions, are they not then using actors’ ethnicities to increase their cut of granting agencies’ pies? Conversely, should a non-white actor say no to potentially lucrative and interesting roles because they are tokenized and included in a production for the funding their inclusion portends? Tracy presents a possible solution by insisting that cultural institutions need to include more diversity in their leadership and not only on the stage. In the real world, the potential for money does beget change, but the play asks whether this is the right kind?

William ultimately wonders why he can’t just be himself; why does he have to represent anything other than his own unique experience? To drive his point home, the characters end the play in an argument about hockey, their passion for the Habs and Leafs being the only cultural marker that identifies them all.

Each performance of the play concludes with a long-table discussion of the issues presented, and I imagine that every one of these conversations has been very rich. This strikes me as a particularly important play for Toronto, where the city’s diverse languages and performance cultures are so often either isolated or tokenized. There aren’t easy answers, but Professionally Ethnic asks really key questions.

Professionally Ethnic has one more performance, on Sunday August 13th from 6:00pm – 7:15pm at the Theatre Centre BMO Incubator. The listed run time includes a 30 minute Long Table Discussion that will take place after every performance.

 

Review: What do you see? demands recognition

When Jasmyn Fyffe asks the audience “what do you see?” she puts her whole self on the line to discover our earnest answers. This piece is the result of Fyffe’s own exploration into what and how black female bodies signify. She draws on a rich catalogue of historical and contemporary tropes about blackness to weave a performance that is both devastatingly uncomfortable and immensely beautiful to watch.

The piece begins with a literal representation of the titular question. Fyffe presses herself, face first and naked from the waist up, into a wall. As spectators enter the performance space, we are invited to take labelled stickers and affix them to her body. The labelled stickers range from descriptive (ie. the names of body parts, shades of brown), to evaluative (ie. dollar amounts, words of attraction or repulsion), to declarative (ie. instructions, including some very racist ones). About half of the spectators at the performance I attended actually labelled Fyffe. When the show begins, Fyffe pulls up the fabric that has been covering her lower half, uses it to cover her breasts, and moves into the middle of the stage.

Photo by Michael Priebe.

The first movement in this three-act dance piece collapses centuries of racial stereotype into a frenetic pastiche of tropes. Fyffe first adopts the persona of a game-show host and, with a miles-wide smile and bright and brassy music playing, invites two spectators to stuff some batting into the rear end of her shorts. This creates the silhouette of Sarah Baartman, a Khoi woman who was put on display in the United Kingdom and in France in the early 19th century because of her large buttocks. Baartman was at the heart of heated debates on the abolition of slavery and she also served as a model for “scientists” who wanted to “prove” the difference between white and black bodies. After her death, her body was dissected and displayed in Parisian museums until the mid-1970s. In adopting Baartman’s silhouette, Fyffe positions her own body in the historical context of black female bodies-as-objects of the white Western gaze, and simultaneously aligns herself with other late 20th– and 21st-century thinkers and artists who have been exploring Baartman’s exploitation as an example of racism (including Jacqui du Toit’s The Hottentot Venus – Untold, reviewed in Alt.theatre by Brie McFarlane). Fyffe-as-Baartman explodes through different social dances; I spotted things as varied as the cakewalk, Charleston, and even twerking. Although social dances have historically been about creating community, they have also been parodied and commodified, making Fyffe’s performance all the more complex.

Fyffe turns into the second movement of her piece with a grin that slowly distorts her face to the point of pain. She removes the batting and enters into a wrestling match with the oversized white shirt that had previously been tied around her waist and used to cover her breasts. The symbolism of a black body being held down and distorted by white fabric was not subtle, and Fyffe’s performance was so virtuosic that it was heartbreaking to watch. Her struggle against this overwhelming and controlling force is made more urgent by the emergence of her own brown skin. It looked a bit like drowning.

The sound score then shifts to the sound of water and in this third act Fyffe begins a kind of cleaning. She tears off the stickers that had been placed on her and transforms the white shirt into a head wrap. In this final section, her dance becomes liberated; instead of struggling contortion, her movement is lyric and rhythmical. The transformation between the first moments of the piece and this closing act bring Fyffe’s initial question back to mind: what do we see? Although I’m reluctant to speculate what she wanted us to see, I see that Fyffe’s naked body is no longer objectified, classified, or the object of scrutiny. She is in her own skin, and there for / therefore herself.

what do you see? is part of a double bill with Mother Sea / Manman la Mer. The last chance to see both shows will be Sunday August 13th from 12-1:15 at The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator.

 

Review: Mother Sea / Manman la Mer promises safe passage

Djennie Laguerre weaves Franco-Caribbean storytelling traditions with theatrical staging to tell a tale of mothers and daughters and what we pass down from generation to generation. The set is sparse with only one chair placed centre-stage; this choice facilitates Laguerre’s many jumps between locations and characters in her narrative and also draws focus to her words.

Mother Sea/Manman la Mer traces Laguerre’s journey as a child and a young woman in Canada through to a kind of re-birth with her grandmother, the eponymous Maman la Mer, in Haiti. There are two conflicting forces in the text that, to me, express some of the frustration and struggle that can characterize life after immigration. On the one hand, Laguerre was shaped by her mother’s wish to Canadian-ize, and on the other, Laguerre felt a spiritual lineage that drew her closer to her family and traditions back in Haiti. Ultimately, in the cathartic reunion with her Haitian family, Laguerre feels whole.

I had the sense, even though this was listed as a “workshop” performance, that Laguerre has spent considerable time crafting her words. Her storytelling is precise, marking her as a well-practiced teller. Although most of the story is told in English, she moves in and out of French and Haitian Kreyol to reveal the geographic diversity of her roots. She also takes on the roles of several other characters, including herself as a child, her mother, her grandmother, and her three ‘aunties’ from Cuba, Trinidad, and Canada (with all of their attendant accents). Together, Laguerre’s many voices stitch a kind of vocal rhythm that makes it feel like she is dancing between them.

Photo by Glenford Laughton.

In fact, it is the play’s rhythm that makes the performance stand out. Beyond Laguerre’s own carefully crafted language, she coaches the audience through one aspect of traditional Caribbean storytelling. Near the top of the play we learn a call-and-response technique: when Laguerre says “cric?” (Are you ready?) we say “crac!” (Yes! We are ready!). Variants of this pattern are peppered through the piece, like é-cric é-crac and misticri misticrac. Admittedly, the spectators were sometimes so engulfed in Laguerre’s story that some of us forgot to participate, but these instances nonetheless flagged most of the pivotal moments in the piece. If we can imagine that the story had a score, the moments of call-and-response changed the time signature.

Further, musician Loucas Café framed Laguerre’s storytelling with rhythmical punctuation on his beaded maraca. He rarely enters into the playing space of the stage; instead he walks its periphery and intently watches Laguerre’s performance. His interventions seem most conspicuous in moments when Laguerre is agitated, though he pulsed his maraca behind her narration as well. There are carefully chosen excerpts from recorded music too. These drift in and out to help establish time and location, but also serve to distinguish between the rhythms of life in Canada and life in Haiti.

In a sense, all these rhythms used as storytelling devices underscore the fact that Laguerre’s story is, itself, about rhythms. She explores generational rhythms, where daughter becomes mother, and how perspectives shift in these adjustments. She also explores a kind of rhythm of self; she describes a moment of personal crisis in terms of “stopping” completely, and she is then restored to movement by Haitian music and dancing. In some ways, Laguerre’s journey is one of discovering her own pulse.

Mother Sea / Manman la Mer is part of a double bill with what do you see? The last chance to see both shows will be Sunday August 13th from 12-1:15 at The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator.

 

Author Bio

CASSANDRA SILVER is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies. Her SSHRC-funded dissertation explores the dramaturgy of participatory spectatorship in video games and gamified theatre. She is the founding Director of the Centre for Spectatorship and Audience Research, has taught at the Universities of Alberta, Waterloo, and Toronto, and at the secondary level as well, and has previously published in TRIC, TDR, and in Theatre and Learning.

Photo by Calvin Thomas

 

Review: these violent delights interrogates how we bear witness to history

By Rachel Offer

“Who gets to decide which events are commemorated, and why? Are monuments capable of bearing witness to history? What role does a monument play in its current history?”

These are the questions writer-director Cole Lewis and her Vancouver-based company, Guilty By Association, asked at the beginning of their creative process. Inspired by Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and the aftermath of their deaths, these violent delights, now on at the Summerworks Performance Festival, certainly goes beyond the conventional in attempting to answer them.

The piece finds its roots in the final scene of Romeo and Juliet, when a monument to the lovers is proposed by Capulet and Montague to memorialize the tragic events surrounding their suicides. these violent delights deconstructs this moment by telling the story from the perspective of the Nurse, an absent voice in this scene in the source text, now exiled after being blamed for the tragedy. The core conflict is fairly simple: should the Nurse attend the unveiling of the lovers’ monument or not? But colour and stakes are added to this ‘simple’ problem as she struggles with her place in Verona and regret over her past.

A chorus member in these violent delights. Photo by Patrick Blenkarn

The otherworldly, dream-like quality of the staging and movement brings the audience into the Nurse’s decision, allowing us to fill in gaps where needed and think critically about what the piece means in a larger context, but it also makes the story difficult to follow at times. The disembodied recorded voices contribute to the supernatural atmosphere, but they become distracting when overlapped with performers speaking onstage and some lines are lost.

Multiple actors voice and embody the Nurse, coming in and out of a chorus masked in unnerving tall, cylindrical, smiley faces, and addressing the same chorus with much of the dialogue. This creates an eerie picture of a faceless ‘other’ that could be seen as an extension of the Nurse’s inner self or perhaps the people of Verona, who presume to tell and celebrate Juliet’s story with a gold statue and a plaque.

The commentary about women and their worth in a patriarchal society is rooted entirely in the world of Romeo and Juliet but equally resonates today. In a direct address to the audience, the Nurse questions her identity as a woman and a nurse, highlighting how her value is linked to her maternal abilities. She is speaking of Verona, of course, but is that all? The biting text and fourth wall breaking in this speech hold everyone present accountable for perpetuating these constraining gender roles.

The final scene is truly a spectacle, as the Nurse witnesses the unveiling of the statue of her beloved Juliet, praised by the townspeople, senators, Capulets, and Montagues alike. In a haunting moment, the Nurse breaks down in front of the plastic covered Juliet, who is singing “who’s laughing now?”. The Nurse’s final speech returns us to the  questions of the program, specifically, ‘Are monuments capable of bearing witness to history?’. She seems to think not. But whatever the perspective of the characters on stage, it compels us as an audience to examine our own thoughts on the matter.

these violent delights succeeds in demanding an altered perspective on our view of history and who writes it–an especially relevant take-away in an era where more and more, other sides of history are finally being revealed after centuries of the narrative being controlled by a specific few in power.

these violent delights continues tonight (August 11) at 7:15pm and August 12 at 5:00pm at the Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst Street, Toronto ON). http://summerworks.ca/artists/these-violent-delights/

Author Bio

Rachel Offer is alt.theatre‘s editorial assistant. Born and raised in a small town in Ontario, she is cultivating her passion for theatre by going into her third year of the BFA – Acting program at the University of Windsor.

 

Work in progress: cultivating inclusion and equity during the Edmonton Fringe Festival and beyond

Lisa Jeans profiles the 36th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival
August 17 – 27, 2017
Various venues—visit www.fringetheatre.ca for ticketing, time, and location details.

As I follow Edmonton International Fringe Festival Executive Director Adam Mitchell through a sun-drenched open workspace to a private office, the room positively hums with focus and urgency. It is less than one month before opening day. Edmonton is home to the oldest and largest Fringe in Canada; these year the festival is presenting 220 shows created by 1,300 artists. The festival will welcome 550, 000 guests (making 850,000 visits) for ten days in the heart of Edmonton’s historic Old Strathcona neighbourhood.

This year’s theme—A Midsummer Night’s Fringe—aptly evokes the chaotic magic of this Edmonton festival, which impresses theatregoers with its array of indoor shows and the sheer mass of crowds gathered to watch fiery outdoor acts while sipping beer and scarfing down green onion cakes. This festival is a point of pride for the city—its arts community and the broader public—and it is thriving.

According to Mitchell, Fringe theatre thrives both during the festival and the regular season because their team facilitates creative risk-taking and cultivates a robust sense of inclusion and community for artists and audiences alike.

Accessibility is a core value that includes the physical space. The ATB Arts Barn has an on-grade front entrance (no wheelchair ramp required) and Fringe Theatre has partnered with CRIPSiE and the Sustainable, Political, Accessible Communities of Edmonton Project to provide detailed accessibility information for primary Fringe festival venues, and this year the information will include a few BYOVs as well.

Starting this fall, regular season productions will include one relaxed performance. Pay What You Will ticket pricing started at the recent Chinook Series and will continue with Fringe Theatre’s regular programming: 25% of tickets to all shows will be Pay What You Will to remove economic barriers to theatre attendance. Partnership with Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre and Azimuth Theatre on the Chinook Series, which included BAM! (Black Arts Matter) and SOUND OFF (a new Deaf theatre festival), is expected to continue, as is future collaboration with indigenous artists and organizations.

Brenley Charkow for FringeFemmeYEG

But Mitchell and Fringe Theatre Artistic Director Murray Utas aspire to further serve and connect artists with new audiences. A glance through the 2017 Program Guide suggests that Edmonton Fringe, like many mainstream theatre organizations in Canada, and despite its lottery selection process, is missing a portion of the theatre/performing arts community: indigenous people and people of colour.

While the first hundred Fringe productions are selected by lottery, there are numerous Bring Your Own Venue shows that are completely administered by the venue producers, which adds complexity to the implementation of accessibility and diversity initiatives across the whole festival. The odds of being selected in the current open lottery system may also limit participation of artists for whom there are ongoing racial, cultural and socio-economic barriers.

“Murray (Utas) and I are committed to creating space within the lottery system for equity seeking artists, and that translates to a number of different models across the world… Toronto had two separate lottery spots for equity seeking artists. Chicago Fringe has a very complex lottery system with even more categories.” Adds Mitchell: “We are trying to make sure that when we roll this out we have done it in a way that doesn’t exclude anyone and opens up as many possibilities as we can, which is why I say we are working on it, we just don’t know what it is going to look like.”

While Mitchell could not confirm a timeline for change to the structure of the lottery process, there is every reason to be optimistic that those changes are in the works.

Edmonton Fringe leadership is also enthusiastic about grassroots community-building initiatives as well: #FringeFemmeYEG is a community-driven social media movement led by theatre artist Brenley Charkow, who curates the @FringeFemmeYEG Twitter feed and Facebook page. The goal of the movement is to celebrate and amplify the work of female and female-identifying artists leading creative teams presenting at the Edmonton Fringe, and it supports the work of all artists—non-binary, femme, or otherwise.

#FringeFemmeYEG echoes similar movements that have emerged, such as #FringeFemmeTO, and will inform audience members who are keen to attend female-led productions. While the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is proving to be an ally and engaged community facilitator, it, like many other Canadian theatre organizations, has men in the key leadership roles of Artistic Director and Executive Director, something that Adam Mitchell acknowledged with wry self-awareness at the midpoint of our conversation.

As #FringeFemmeYEG curator Brenley Charkow notes, “Parity is still a huge issue on our stages, and while we are moving forward, there’s still a long way to go.”

The Festival Program Guide is now available for purchase. Tickets go on sale on August 9, 2017. www.fringetheatre.ca

Author Bio
Lisa Jeans is a theatre artist and writer. Her writing has been published in FASHION, The Globe and Mail, and in a smattering of Canadian literary journals. One of her current projects in progress is a performance text about violence against women in politics.

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The Merchant, and the Women, of Venice

In a first for alt.theatre, a dynamic duo takes on a review! Here Marie Horgan and Eric Danis share their impressions of Bard on the Beach’s production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

The Show: The Merchant of Venice

The Venue: Howard Family Stage, Bard on the Beach Vanier Park, Vancouver BC

Returning to Vanier Park for the fourth time in twenty-eight years, Bard on the Beach’s 2017 production of The Merchant of Venice features a modern and feminist reimagining of the 16th century play. While our conversations in between acts began as discussions of whether the “Venice 2017” setting worked, by the end of the play we noted how strongly director Nigel Shawn Williams chose to highlight gender politics almost more so than religious strife.

Intermission:

            “I love the set! I’ve never seen them lay out the Howard Family Stage this way. Usually, the stage comes down the middle of the theatre, sort of like a catwalk. But this time they’ve gone for a more ‘theatre in the round’ feel, which I think works really well. And I like how they opened with graphics of the stock market. I’m finding, though, that it can be a bit hard to see and hear, because the cast turns their backs to the audience a lot. The only thing I’m not really getting is the point of modernizing Merchant, apart from what’s obvious.”

“What’s obvious?”

“The religious tensions and the patriarchy stuff. In the program they say that those are what the focuses will be, and of course both issues are relevant today, but it seems too obvious, like it’s been done time and time again.”

“And it doesn’t quite fit, I thought. The kinds of blatant hate we see in Merchant happen in many places, and certainly could happen here, but why this show, now, like this? I feel like the director (Nigel Shawn Williams) is trying too hard to be edgy, and I feel like all of the characters are angry, all the time.”

“I’m not a huge fan of the modernization. I don’t know what the director could have done instead, but he’s obviously got a certain vision for the production, which is cool. How he wanted that vision to translate is another question, but I don’t think it’s coming across very well.”

“I think he’s trying too hard. There are certain parts of the show that feel like bad jokes. I was offended, and, don’t get me wrong here, I like being offended, but only when there’s a lesson to be learned. Maybe I’ve missed the lesson.”

“Right, and it could just be us. Others can choose for themselves. One thing that felt out of place – which for a modernization really shouldn’t – were the cellphones. Only two characters really used cellphones, and they just seem to function as throwaway props. And while we’re still on the topic of time period, it feels like the Belmont scenes are staged back in Elizabethan times while the rest of Venice is in 2017. But that’s purely based on the sets, with Belmont’s columns, chests, and drapes. Everywhere else has wire chairs, glasses, and, heck, even cocktails.”

“Alright, so we’re a bit confused…”

Post-Show:

“I want to start off by saying that Olivia Hutt stole the show as Portia. The director made it about her, plain and simple. I’m not certain from memory but I think they even changed some things around to paint her even better than she was in Shakespeare’s original. Even if they didn’t, it certainly felt different. I thought she was weak in the first act but I was deceived.  At first it was unclear what they were doing to ‘crush the patriarchy,’ and I’ll say no more except that tone changes everything. Bravo Olivia Hutt for that character arc!”

“She was very strong. In the first act her character was stiff, which, for me, didn’t translate as weakness. I felt that it worked, given how suitors were constantly being forced upon her. But her strength carried into the second act with a different, perhaps much more obvious strength. She commanded the show at that point, and that definitely seemed deliberate. Especially in the trial scene, wow that was tense!”

“I was sweating. But the abruptness of some of the characters’ anger still bothered me. Sometimes they would yell and it felt contrived.”

“I agree, but I’m also not a fan of sudden loud noises.”

“Again, the director seems to want the show to be flashy, fast, and loud. I think most if not all of the issues that we’ve had probably come from some choice made by the director. It seems as though he made a conscious effort to ensure that every character was a downright awful person except for Portia, and maybe Nerissa too (Luisa Jojic). The focus, then, turns this show into somewhat of a feminist retelling of Merchant. We didn’t get as much religious tension, apart from what’s obvious from the text.”

Olivia Hutt and Charlie Gallant in The Merchant of Venice

“I can see why Williams (the director) chose to do that. The Jew vs. Christian angle is the obvious one to take, and likely the expected one too. It’s been done and done again. So it would be difficult, from the director’s perspective, to do something so radically different with that angle that he’d get any attention for it. But hold on, if we’re following the feminism angle, what about Jessica (Carmela Sison)? She didn’t come off as strong as the other women. Nerissa, for example, isn’t supposed to be a forefront character, but even she sticks out as strong, if only in presence. What I’m trying to say is that Portia is the only character that one could make the feminism angle obvious with, given how many lines she has. And they gave her the last line! It changes the script; in the original, Gratiano has the last line.”

“Don’t forget Saleria (Adele Noronha) and Solania (Kate Besworth), as opposed to Solario and Salarino. Their characters were feminized, and they were just as (if not more) brutal towards Shylock than many of the men. While neither was painted as a likeable character, the production’s feminist backbone came through them in a different way.”

“Definitely, but apart from its feminist undertones I still don’t understand why Merchant was modernized. It could have been set in an older time period with the same focus on and renaming of the female characters. I guess, at the end of the day, Bard needed a fresh take on Merchant, or Williams had his vision and went with it.”

“And, again, the way they’ve rearranged an old space for a new show helps with that. The actors also did a great job of performing group mentality, especially with the men and their ‘locker-room talk’.”

“In that way the modernization does work, because we continue to see that sort of dialogue victimizing women, which only furthers the play’s feminist stance. It might just be that we both know Merchant from before that makes the modern adaptation confusing. I heard quite a few people saying they liked the updated take, so we’ll leave that open ended.”

“Overall, it’s worth seeing if you have an open mind. If you’re familiar with Merchant, some of the tackier modern elements might bother you, but there are some truly stellar performances up on that stage.”

-by Marie Horgan and Eric Danis

Luisa Jojic, Nadeem Phillip, and Olivia Hutt in The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice, produced by Bard on the Beach

Artistic Director: Christopher Gaze

Director of Merchant: Nigel Shawn Williams

Run: June 22nd – September 16th 2017

Cast (in program order): Edward Foy, Charlie Gallant, Chirag Naik, Kamyar Pazandeh, Adele Noronha, Kate Besworth, Carmela Sison, Olivia Hutt, Luisa Jojic, Paul Moniz de Sá, Nadeem Phillip, Warren Kimmel, Andrew Cownden

Costume Designer: Drew Facey

Scenic Designer: Marshall McMahen

Lighting Designer: Adrian Muir

Sound Designer: Patrick Pennefather

Projection Designer: Conor Moore

Head Voice & Text Coach: Alison Matthews

Fight Director: Josh Reynolds

Stage Manager: Joanne P.B. Smith

Assistant Stage Manager: Ruth Bruhn

Apprentice Stage Manager: Jennifer Stewart

Directing Apprentice: Wendy Bollard

 

Author Bio(s)

Marie Horgan: When she isn’t out catching some local theatre, Marie is pursuing her MA in English Literature at Simon Fraser University with a focus in law and literary criticism. She has just moved back to Vancouver after four years in Nova Scotia and abroad. Where her studies will take her remains to be seen (and she likes it that way), but, for now, she enjoys striking up conversations about how we read and write, and allows for just enough precariousness to keep things interesting.

Eric Danis: Eric is currently studying for a Masters degree in English Literature at SFU and hopes to be finished by January of 2019. In his spare time, Eric has imaginary conversations with imaginary people, which he then writes down with imagined faithfulness to an imagined sense of truth.  He calls the result a novel.  No one has yet to agree with him.

 

Digital Issue 13.3

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