Curtain up on Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival

What: Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival

When: Opens tonight, continues to Sept. 6

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Where: Downtown locations (see victoriafringe.com for full schedule)

Tickets: $11, $9 (Family Fest tickets $9 and $7)

 

Tonight sees the kickoff of Vancouver Island’s largest theatre event, a kaleidoscopic explosion of live performance over 11 days and nights.

The Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival hosts more than 300 performances of 58 shows. They range from collegiate laugh-fests (Jizz Sock, Do I Have to Do Everything my F---ing Self?) to cheeky spy romps (Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale) to gritty life stories (Sid: The Handsome Bum) to nouveau circus that involves peanut-butter sandwiches (Two).

To provide a taste of what’s on offer, the Times Colonist interviewed three Fringe artists: (1) a University of Victoria student turned director, writer and actor (2) a gonzo comic-poet from Leicester, England, and (3) a soul-searching solo fringer from Boulder, Colorado, who packs her pillow on tour.

Alannah Bloch, 22, performed in her first Shakespeare play, a kiddy version of Macbeth, when she was just four.

“I got to dramatically die on stage,” she said. “I had this blood-curdling, bloody-murder scream.”

The university student is both creator and director of a newly minted Fringe show, The Wyrd Sisters. It’s a Shakespearean mash-up, mixing elements from Julius Caesar, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth and Henry VI, Part 1.

The 45-minute theatre/movement piece, opening Friday at the Metro Studio, features a cast of six, all products of UVic’s theatre department, where Bloch studies acting and directing.

True to its title, The Wyrd Sisters takes a cue from the witches in Macbeth. In this show, the trio are a mysterious force exploring supernatural elements in Shakespearean plays. It’s a bold revamp; however, every word is Shakespeare’s.

Bloch has been a fan since she was a child. When she was in Grade 10, she wrote a script giving the Bard a modern twist. Five Women and Their Men took four Shakespearean heroines, as well as his wife Anne Hathaway, and plopped them in a Greenwich Village nail salon. The Wyrd Sisters marks a continuation of this ongoing interest.

“The idea of revising Shakespeare for 21st-century audiences has always been something that’s captivated me,” Bloch said. In her experience, Shakespeare productions tend to be safe and traditional (“full puffy shirts and puffy pants”) or modern recastings that don’t always work. “What I’m trying to do is show other ways and other methods of bringing it in for today’s audiences.”

If anyone’s a veteran of the Canadian circuit, it’s Rob Gee, a 43-year-old comic-poet renowned for literate, hyper-energetic shows that draw rave reviews. The former psychiatric nurse from Leicester has been fringing since 1999, when he debuted in Edinburgh.

Victoria is Gee’s sole Canadian tour stop (performers in fringe theatre festivals are selected by a lottery system). On Friday night at Langham Court Theatre, he will debut his new solo show, Icarus Dancing, the final instalment of a trilogy of plays investigating the subject of psychiatric care.

Icarus Dancing is about a patient, Simon, who believes he is the reincarnation of Pharaoh Rameses II. He hopes to travel to Egypt to reclaim his crown. Before he does, he encounters a lost six-year-old girl at the 7-Eleven.

His show is, in part, a sympathetic look at bipolar disorder. As a psychiatric nurse for 11 years, Gee dealt with many suffering from the condition, which, he said, is often misunderstood. One stereotype is that those with bipolarism are often “exotic or artistic or a genius” à la Vincent Van Gogh.

“I think that’s every bit as damaging as the stereotype that it makes you a mad axeman. These stereotypes absolutely deny the idea that this can happen to any of us,” Gee said.

His years as a nurse gave him special empathy for patients. Gee intends to show audiences that mental-health problems are universal and that the afflicted should not be excluded from society.

“They may be a personally appropriate coping mechanism to horrible circumstances. Yet these people will often be labelled as permanently mentally ill. And I’ve always had an issue with that.”

Gemma Wilcox, 37, is another Briton, who has fringed since 2003. She, like Gee, is a critics’ darling.

Wilcox now lives in Boulder. She specializes in semi-autobiographical performances, typically probing broken love relationships.

Tonight at Langham Court Theatre, she’ll reprise her solo show The Honeymoon Period Is Officially Over. It was inspired by the breakdown of her first marriage.

Wilcox plays 20 characters, including a cat, a hamster, a saxophone, someone who plays the saxophone and “some Scottish chickens.”

The play chronicles not only a dissolving relationship, but an old flame’s visit that rekindles the heroine’s suppressed creativity.

A 17-time “best of fest” winner, Wilcox has done The Honeymoon Period Is Officially Over since 2003. She has performed it at least 100 times, but has yet to tire of it.

“It kind of matures, a little bit like fine wine, I find,” she said. “I love that challenge of doing it so many times and having to keep it fresh and having to stay present.”

Wilcox said she finds it therapeutic to write and perform semi-autobiographical shows (The Honeymoon Period Is Officially Over is part of a trilogy with the same main character).

Aside from theatre, she works as a massage therapist and as a caretaker for a man with dementia.

She’s a solo artist who can easily fill a 50-seat theatre at $10 a ticket. This might sound good for one hour’s work (fringe performers keep 100 per cent of the box office), but it’s not as lucrative as it might seem, Wilcox said.

Fringe artists are a one-person-band, paying their way, doing their own advertising. Wilcox figures she handed out 2,000 flyers at the recent Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival.

“There’s so many hours that go into this. I’m starting to re-evaluate and see how I can make the fringe festival sustainable for my life,” she said.

To keep up her spirits, she never leaves home without one essential.

“It’s one thing not to have a good bed,” Wilcox said. “But without a good pillow, I can’t sleep well at all.”

 

An insider’s guide to Fringe festing

The 29th Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival opens tonight. Sounds fun. But, the novice might wonder, how does this fringe stuff work anyway?

Fret not. Here’s a mini-primer — as well as a few fun facts and show recommendations.

1. Buy a Fringe button. They cost $6. It’s a one-time fee; you need it to get into shows. Buttons are available at all venues.

2. Get a guide. Printed programs are available at the offices of Intrepid Theatre (which produces the festival), Thrifty Food stores, the Greater Victoria Public Library and the Tourism Victoria Visitors Centre. They’re online at victoriafringe.com.

3. Buy tickets. They’re at venues starting one hour before the show. Advance tickets are also available, although sales end three hours before showtime. They can be purchased online at ticketrocket.co (tel. 250-590-6291) or visit the Ticket Rocket office at #2-1609 Blanshard St. from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (this is also the office of Intrepid Theatre).

4. No latecomers are permitted. All venues are general seating. No refunds unless a show is cancelled.

5. Get show recommendations from friendly folk in lineups. Wear layers — people-filled venues get hot.

6. Take a chance on unknown performers.

7. Stay hydrated with beer. We recommend the Fringe Club, a.k.a. Tilted Rocket Lounge, on the ground floor of Fort Tectoria at 777 Fort St. (at Blanshard).

8. Check the Times Colonist online and in print for daily reviews.

9. Attend the Pick of the Fringe Awards on Sept. 6, 10 p.m. at the Metro Studio.

10. Don’t forget the Fringekids Fest. They didn’t have it last year — now it’s back by popular demand. This kid-friendly entertainment (shows, bouncy castle, life-sized cardboard castle) takes place Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Market Square.

Some fun Fringe facts:
• the operating budget is $500,000;
• typically, 20,000 people attend;
• there are about 300 volunteers;
• 74 touring artists will be billeted.

And finally, a few recommendations:

1. Sperm Wars: Sperm and eggs collide in outer space. Sounds silly, but this show by Jeff Leard was deemed an “epic masterpiece” by an Edmonton critic.

2. Ha!: Victoria’s Wes Borg is always funny, as his title suggests.

3. The Birdmann in Momentous Timing: Australia’s Birdmann is weird and funny. Expect lineups.

4. God Is a Scottish Drag Queen II: Victoria’s Mike Delamont is a terrific comedian.

5. Pretending Things Are a Cock: Australia’s Joe Bennett is bizarre and hysterical.

6. The Untitled Sam Mullins Project: We hear this might be great, well-reviewed.

7. The Inventor of All Things: Jem Rolls is a brilliant performance poet.

8. Lieutenant Nun: Theatre Skam revive their 2004 smash hit.

9. UnCouth: I know little of this San Francisco show starring comedian Windy Wynazz, but UnCouth was well-reviewed in the U.S.

 achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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