Fringe reviews: Fairy flies with tight script, fine acting

 Times Colonist reviewers continue their coverage of the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival, which runs to Sept. 1. All critiques are on a five-star rating scale.

Confessions of a
Fairy’s Daughter

Where: Downtown Activity Centre
When: Aug. 31, Sept. 1
Rating: 5 stars

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Occasionally, one encounters a fringe festival show that succeeds absolutely. Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is such a show.
Toronto’s Alison Wearing tells the story of how her father, when she was 12 years old, revealed that he was gay. Dad left home with a new partner in Toronto. The family, of course, was fractured — but certainly not defeated.
Wearing’s father is a highly accomplished man: a university professor who plays the piano on a professional level. She always knew her dad was a bit different. He favoured French silk pajamas, he liked to skip down the sidewalk while singing Gilbert and Sullivan, he wept while reading Anne of Green Gables. However, one tends to accept one’s parents. Wearing  merely thought her father was a touch eccentric — in an arty, intellectual way.
In the 1980s, being gay was less accepted than it is now. So a good deal of her adolescence was spent making up stories about her father’s disappearance.
Eventually, Wearing came to accept her father as he is. But in Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter, she reveals the hurt caused along the way. Armed with a loaf of bread and cans of tuna, her mother spent a lonely weekend camping by herself after her dad’s disclosure. And upon hearing the news, Wearing curled up in a fetal ball.
The show works beautifully on all levels. Wearing is a skilled actress who commands our attention. Her script is tightly written, cleverly constructed and highly literate. She makes excellent use of slides — including many family photos.
 Be forewarned, the word is already out on this show. Line up (or buy advance tickets) early. Do make the effort; you will not be disappointed.
 
Richard Tyrone Jones’s
Big Heart

Where: Downtown Activity Centre
When: Aug. 29, 30
Rating: 4 1/2 stars

When U.K. writer/performer Richard Tyrone Jones turned 30, he was diagnosed with heart failure. He almost died — but didn’t.
Jones not only survived, but transformed his experience into a powerful 60-minute theatre piece.
There are plenty of books (not so much theatre) by people eager to share their medical survival stories. What makes Jones’s story not only palatable but entertaining and compelling is his humour, gift for wordplay and clever use of interactive animations depicting coke-head hospital patients, dullard physicians and more.
A tall redhead who today looks healthy enough, Jones found himself increasingly suffering migraines and vomiting several years ago. Tests revealed he was suffering from idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, leaving him with an enlarged heart that failed to pump properly. He was faced with the prospect that he might die, or be left a chronic invalid.
 In his piece, Jones chronicles his bumpy journey through the English medical system — everything from the indignity of having one’s bottom wiped by a nurse to a near-death experience when his heart stopped for four very long seconds. He discusses everything with honesty and clear-eyed amusement. (At one point, Jones displays the T-shirt that a medical team cut off him in their haste to revive him on the operating bed.)
The show is highly literate — Jones, a Cambridge graduate, occasionally reels off deftly composed poems.
Richard Tyrone Jones’s Big Heart is sometimes horrific, mostly funny and ultimately says something about the fragile joy of being alive.
 

 

Previously Reviewed:

Lightning Bugs

Where: Fairfield Hall

When: Aug. 28

Rating: 3 stars

Jordan Jenkins and Mika Laulainen star in Where Have All the Lightning Bugs Gone? This breezy 30-minute piece by Louis E. Catron is about a young couple who meet at a park bench, spar romantic-comedy style and act out a series of fantasy sequences.

We see, for instance, a Wild West shootout, a roving reporter interview, frolicking kiddies and a composer who frets about losing his hearing. Where Have All the Lightning Bugs Gone? — trotting out one pretend scenario after another — mostly has the feel of an exercise for acting students. There are faint overtones of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, but none of its darkness or depth.

Intended as an offbeat and whimsical look at young love, it’s a bit cutesy and precious, although some might find it adorable.

The show is capably acted; the pair do well at conveying the joie de vivre the playwright intends. Jenkins in particular is a strong, confident performer, although on Sunday, his enthusiasm occasionally slipped into a stridency that clouded nuance.

2 for Tea

Where: Fairfield Hall

When: Aug. 29

Rating: 4 stars

2 for Tea is a surreal physical comedy that has blossomed as a bona fide hit on the Canadian fringe theatre circuit.

The word is already out in Victoria — I arrived 30 minutes early and joined the end of a long lineup for a sold-out performance. So if you’re interested, get there early and wear comfortable shoes.

The show stars bowler-hatted James (Aaron Malkin) and Jamesy (Alastair Knowles), a high-stepping eccentric wearing a bad wig and skin-tight jodhpurs. They meet for their weekly oh-so-English tea party. This leads to plenty of fantasy hijinx requiring audience participation. (Hint: If the notion of cavorting in a general’s uniform seems unappealing, avoid the front row).

2 for Tea is clown-based theatre. Jamesy commences with a lengthy sequence in which he painstakingly lays out his tea set with the precision of a bomb disposal expert. James is the straight man. There are echoes of Laurel and Hardy, horror clowns Mump & Smoot and John Cleese peeping out here and there. One entertaining (if not particularly original) sequence has James, at a typewriter, miming to Leroy Anderson’s novelty composition The Typewriter.

At its best, 2 for Tea is reminiscent of Beckett’s clowns — the other-worldly strangeness takes on its own life and provides a satirical mirror on life. On Sunday, the pace seemed slow at times. The show truly came alive during audience-participation sequences. Oh, and there’s free tea. Bring your cup.

Wolf Trek: Alone in the Woods

Where: Wood Hall, Victoria Conservatory of Music

When: Today, Aug. 30, 31

Rating: 4 stars

Yukon storyteller Kevin Kennedy relates a true tale about hiking an abandoned trail in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta.

The adventure was hazardous and rather foolhardy. Kennedy ventured solo with a 75-pound backpack and a broken wrist. Park rangers advised him against going it alone, suggesting it was his “own funeral.” He tells of encountering blood-sucking bugs and close calls with wolves, bears and bison. (At times, his tale is reminiscent of the doomed ventures of Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s documentary, Grizzly Man, in which Treadwell imagined the bears who eventually devoured him were his pals.)

Kennedy is an adventurous sort who strained against the reins of domesticity and the nine-to-five life. He felt so hemmed in, he fleetingly pondered ending it all by driving his van into a river. For Kennedy, the hike is the ultimate grand gesture — all about shedding distractions and finding philosophical refuge in natural surroundings (significantly, his sole reading matter is Thoreau).

The show is appealing. Kennedy, sitting on a chair and presenting himself as an ordinary Joe, is an animated storyteller well able to hold an audience. His script is sharply crafted; he periodically interrupts the tale of his trek to ruminate on various aspects of his life — a construction that works well.

Ultimately, his worthwhile message to us is that of Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Melody Moore

Where: Wood Hall, Victoria Conservatory of Music

When: Aug. 30, 31, Sept. 1

Rating: 5 stars

Ottawa’s Richard Hanna does a beautiful job with his self-penned show about Thomas Moore, the Irish poet and singer.

Moore, who died in 1852, was a pal of Lord Byron and Shelley. Hanna portrays him as a witty, outrageous fop who beds women jubilantly and whose Irish nationalism burns brightly.

Handsome Hanna, plucking an Irish harp and flicking curly locks out of his eyes, plays a dizzying myriad of characters: saucy schoolboys, intoxicated pub patrons, flatulating kings and plummy-voiced matrons. His approach is literate, irreverent and slightly campy — he comes off like a scholarly Russell Brand.

The script is clever, the pace brisk, the audio and light cues sharply executed. This is the sort of accomplished show that surfaces on the fringe only occasionally. Do not miss it.

Keeper

Where: Fairfield Hall

When: Aug. 30, 31 and Sept. 1

Rating: 2 stars

I’m quite certain Keeper is one of those love-it-or-hate it shows. Written and acted by Victoria’s Emma Zabloski, it’s a comedic look at her memories of growing up in a French-Canadian/Ukrainian family in Canada. Many memory sequences are triggered by the brightly coloured items hanging on her clothesline. These range from the time her mom urinated in a plastic bag in a moving car (it didn’t turn out well) to her first kiss to making perogies.

Zabloski is one of the most un-shy performers I’ve ever seen. At times, her performance was so tremendously animated and even maniacal, it seemed positively unhinged. Perhaps that’s what she’s after. Certainly, Zabloski takes a gamble by assuming we will find her gonzo kookiness adorable. Some theatregoers will find this approach spell-binding; others will find it self-indulgent and obnoxious.

Then there’s the audience participation. Zabloski has the most aggressive approach to getting the crowd involved I’ve ever witnessed. Fringers are pulled up to sing childhood songs, enact first dates and create genitalia-shaped pastries. Again, some will find this delightful — and others will be plotting a bee-line to the nearest exit.

Zabloski’s philosophy to viewer participation is of the “oh, be brave, let’s play!” variety. However, there’s a point when yanking people on stage for unusually elaborate hijinx (especially when it appears there’s no choice) seems a touch mean.

 

Vital Signs: The Pulse of an American Nurse

Where: Wood Hall, Victoria Conservatory of Music

When: Aug. 26, 31, Sept. 1

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

The great thing about the Fringe theatre festival is that it gives ordinary folk a chance to tell their stories.

Alison Whittaker is a Toronto-born registered nurse who works at a San Francisco hospital. She tells stories — sometimes gritty, sometimes touching — about day-to-day life is a nurse. We meet a paralyzed young man (motorbike accident) who's patronized by an over-bearing mother who applies cream to his genitalia. Other patients bite, scratch and yell at hospital staffers. The nurses are a motley crew who complain, gossip and work hard. One nurse is half-way through gender reassignment surgery; another takes pleasure in showing pornographic pictures of her boyfriend. By revealing their eccentricities, Whittaker makes them real.

The strongest element of the one-woman show is her story about a homeless, seemingly drug-addicted patient. Whittaker gets to know this obese African-American, discovering that she is a former medical assistant who fell through society's cracks.

This show certainly has strengths. It has the whiff of authenticity; we can practically smell the hospital corridors. At 80 minutes, it does run too long. There's a sense of raw material that, while compelling, needs to be condensed and shaped so higher truths are more powerfully revealed. Still, Vital Signs definitely has a pulse.

The Virgin Mary Had
a Little Lamb

Where: Fairfield Hall
When: Aug. 31, Sept. 1
Rating: 3 stars

Victoria filmmaker and performer Ana de Lara has concocted a quirky comedy about a schoolgirl who wants to star in a nativity play. The show is a touch uneven — however, there are funny sequences. And de Lara’s integration of video into her piece is very clever.
The young heroine is the sort who likes to spy and tattle on her classmates. Virginia sets her sights on playing the Virgin Mary; however, her teacher assigns her the role of a donkey. Things get stranger when the teenager finds herself assigned the role of the Mary in real life — complete with a bizarro-world recreation of the immaculate conception.
De Lara gets in some funny pokes at organized religion. One of her best lines is when a relative tells Virginia: “God has crushed a lot of people’s dreams — that’s what he does.” There’s a certain wit and intelligence percolating throughout. De Lara appears as various characters in video clips, which are interspersed with live action successfully and imaginatively.
Structurally, The Virgin Mary Had  Little Lamb does seem rather cobbled together; perhaps further workshopping is in order. Still, it’s a worthwhile endeavour overall. — Adrian Chamberlain

Something Like a War
Where: Metro Studio
When: Aug. 27, 29, 31, Sept. 1
Rating: three stars

“Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true,” Yogi Berra famously declared. While Corin Wrigley, 17, doesn’t deify his baseball hero Ty Cobb, the Victoria playwright puts his own spin on Berra’s observation, but in reference to the legendary Detroit Tigers outfielder, a.ka. the Georgia Peach, whose ball-playing brilliance was matched by controversy, notably allegations of racism and violence. Portraying this cocky, driven baseball legend with a persuaive Southern accent, Wrigley impressively compresses highlights from Cobb’s personal and professional lives over six decades. Although performances range from one as wooden as a Louisville Slugger to Graham Roebuck’s nice work as teammate Sam Crawford, a compact cast effectively assumes multiple roles. They include Cobb’s mother, who accidentally killed Cobb’s father in 1905; Babe Ruth and Ban Johnson, the American League president who suspended Cobb, sparking a team walkout. Wrigley’s minimalist piece, which effectively employs voiceovers and vintage time cards to put the drama into perspective, crisply addresses many issues under the fluid direction of Brian Wrigley, who also plays Babe Ruth. They include Cobb’s tonsilitis, the impact of being bullied as a rookie, his “persecution complex,” marital strife, alcoholism and alleged racism and violence, includng his infamous attack of a disabled black heckler in 1912, and the “Chicago Black Sox” scandal. A vignette in which a reporter grabs print bites from Babe Ruth and Cobb amid their rivalry, worked particularly well. If Wrigley can address some performance issues that slightly marred Saturday’s production— characters not directly facing the audience needed to enunciate and project more — they could knock it out of the park.
— Michael D. Reid

The Occupied Mind of Mr. K
Where: Metro Studio
When: Aug. 25, 27, 30, 31
Rating: 2 1/2 stars

Ostensibly inspired by an Indian folk tale about students who used their yogic powers to take over the mind of a king, Victoria playwright John Demmery Green draws, with mixed results, amusing parallels to the economic insanity that sparked the Occupy Movement in a surreal satire with enough witty dialogue to smooth out its rough-edges. Between the title’s clever double meaning and the ear-splitting Occupy Wall Street rock anthem that opens his hour-long dark comedy, Green swiftly makes his satirical intentions clear. Billionaires are today’s medieval kings. When one such “one per cent” type dies, Vijay, an unemployed programmer, and his manic buddy Dylan persuade Pericles, a guru, to inhabit the tycoon’s vacant mind and body. Alex Carson, coming across like an Indo-Canadian Seth Rogen, and Alex Judd, ridiculously over-the-top as his scruffy fellow schemer, colourfully inhabit characters who’d be at home in a Hollywood slackers comedy. They’re less successful negotiating the mounting satirical tropes, however. Randi Edmundson as the billionaire’s gold-digging wife also has her moments until her character crumbles under the weight of cliches that combined with an overwrought conclusion makes this romp seem flabbier than it ought to be.
— Michael D. Reid


 

Moose Morals or Hunting Dreams in the North

Where: Wood Hall, Victoria Conservatory of Music

When: Aug. 28, 29, 31

Rating: 1 1/2 stars

Victoria's Brian Adams offers a humorous show about a moose-hunting trip gone awry.

We meet a crew of oddball characters: drunks, fretful bush-pilots, amorous women and Adams’ profanity-loving hunting buddy. Adams, who bears a passing resemblance to Michael "Kosmo Kramer" Richards, obviously has some performing skills. Unfortunately, his script — while funny in several places — is weak and disjointed.

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