Stage Left: Buy a button and dive into Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival

Longtime favourite Birdmann among highlights of this season’s 47 shows

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Victoria’s biggest and wildest theatre festival roars into high gear this weekend. The Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival, now in its 32nd season, offers 47 shows from around the world at a dozen downtown venues.

The unjuried festival hosts shows on a first-come, first served basis. This allows theatrical newcomers to strut their stuff as well as road-hardened veterans. There’s always marvellous theatre, although so-so offerings (and the occasional clunker) are typically part of gumbo as well. Tickets are a bargain at $11 or less. You must also make the one-time purchase of a $6 fringe button.

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The best way to join the 20,000 theatre lovers expected this year is simply to dive in.

Check out the program (online at victoriafringe.com) and select what’s appealing. Take a chance.

This week, I attended the Fringe Eve Preview in Market Square, in which performers have two minutes each to offer a sample of their shows. These were some of the best:

Kalamazoo by Bema Productions: Victoria actors Ira Shorr and Angela Henry offered a nicely performed snippet of Kalamazoo, a play about a pair of aging baby boomers who meet via an online dating service. This seems a solid bet.

Para Dos by Montreal’s Pointetango: Two dancers impressed the crowd with a remarkably precise display of Argentinian tango mixed with a pinch of ballet. The female partner, in a sparkling gold dress, danced en pointe at times. The performance was capped with a remarkable one-handed lift.

The Boy in the Chrysalis: This dramatic monologue by Liam Monaghan is about a man who’s a schoolteacher by day and a drag queen at night. Produced by a new Victoria company, Hapax Theatre, it stars promising newcomer Vaughn Naylor, who confidently delivered a speech from what appears to be an intriguing and sometimes humorous show.

Fado: Victoria’s Puente Theatre is staging Fado, an evening of drama and music created by Elaine Avila. Fado is a Portuguese music with lyrics that typically suggest melancholia and loss (it can be loosely thought of as European soul/blues). At the preview, singer Sara Marreiros sang with stunning power and beauty.

More fringe: Tonight, Trent Baumann brings his show Birdmann and Egg: Finale to St. Andrew’s Kirk Hall, where it runs to Sept. 1. The remarkable-looking Australian performer, who has dubbed himself Birdmann — six-foot-plus with a towering greased pompadour — is a longtime Victoria Fringe favourite. He is joined, as usual, by his mysterious sidekick Egg, a smiling moon-faced woman costumed as an enormous egg who wields a mean melodica.

While I loved the show, it’s likely the Birdmann’s hipster humour is not for everyone. It’s whimsical and slightly surreal, as though a giant-sized Pee-wee Herman took the stage after a weekend of reading Sartre and Camus.

On Thursday night, Baumann offered oddball jokes worthy of Stephen Wright and Mitch Hedberg, such as “I have a time machine — it’s a watch.” Some of his act was a send-up of show-biz staples such as jugglers, magicians and buskers. He juggles plastic bags; he balances an umbrella and chair on his chin. In between, Baumann did curious, mincing dances and moved in a risibly choreographed manner with elaborate precision.

He offered at least one heart-stopping surprise — involving an audience member called Azula — that had the crowd genuinely mystified. One of Finale’s grand finales is Baumann’s hysterical mime-dance to Cher’s kitsch classic If I Could Turn Back Time, for which he dons a pair of high-heeled shoes. Egg, meanwhile, served as his accompanist on melodica, electric piano and a tiny cornet. Occasionally, she took centre stage, singing a song while clutching a stuffed dolphin.

At his best, Baumann transcends mere weirdo comedy, suggesting that life is mysterious, wonderful and miraculous. For $11, this is mighty good value.

Less impressive was Recovery Show, being staged at St. Andrew’s Kirk Hall until Sept. 2. The 60-minute monologue is written and performed by Clara Madrenas, a young woman from London, Ont.

Recovery Show is based on Madrenas’s experiences visiting Rwanda in the aftermath of genocide while a boyfriend lies in hospital with a life-threatening illness. Along the way, she describes bizarre fantasies — elves emerging from a wall, strange beings with “rainbow-coloured water-colour” wings — that intrude disturbingly. What’s real and not real is unclear.

Some of the raw material is unusually dramatic and potentially compelling. For instance, Madrenas — barefoot and dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt — spoke of seeing corpses in lime still left in an abandoned African classroom (although one wonders whether that was a hallucination). The problem is, the monologue is terribly fragmented as well as being overly dense, abstract and verbose. Half the time I wondered what on Earth was going on.

Theatre examining personal trauma is a sub-genre that appeals to many. Recovery may hold limited interest for those who enjoy such fare; others will find it less enthralling.

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