Victoria Fringe Festival: Dive in, see what you find

Adrian Chamberlain mugshot generic

The Victoria Fringe Festival is our city’s wonderfully lunatic love-letter to theatre. The best way to tackle it is to stuff as many shows into an evening as possible. Don’t be afraid to take chances — that’s half the fun.

The festival runs to Sept. 2. Here’s a sampling of what’s on offer. All reviews use a five-star rating system.

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Dear Samantha

Where: Wood Hall, Victoria Conservatory of Music

When: Continues Aug. 24, 30, 31, Sept. 1

Rating: Four stars

Nimble-witted Charles Adrian Gillott is an award-winning spoken-word artist from Britain. For his one-man Dear Samantha, Gillott dons sensible-shoes drag (skirt, white gloves, etc.) to play a skittish spinster who reinvents herself as an advice guru.

The self-made agony aunt is sort of a low-boil Dame Edna. Samantha chatters a mile-a-minute, seemingly all in a fluster. Her patter is peppered with back-handed bon mots. “That’s alright,” Samantha says solicitously, “I’m not here to judge anyone’s ignorance.” And elsewhere: “Should one be supportive… or honest?”

Her satirical sense is dryer than a vermouth-free martini. Poking at political correctness, Samantha primly rings a mini-bell and says: “It’s very important to create a safe space. And that’s what that was.”

The best part comes at the end, when Samantha responds to written questions from the audience (cards and pens are dispersed before the show commences). A veteran improviser, Gillott shot off lightning-fast responses like a gun-slinging Buster Scruggs. My favourite: Question: “Can you love someone without liking them?” Answer: “Yes, of course — I think of my parents.”

A good director could improve the sometimes monochromatic pacing of the show. And one must listen hard to catch Gillott’s swift delivery. That said, this is one nifty little comedy worth seeking out.

Battery Operated Boyfriend

Where: Victoria Event Centre

When: Continues Aug. 24, 28, 31, Sept. 1

Rating: Two stars

Hard-core sci-fi aficionados may find something to enjoy in this unconventional love story about a woman who designs artificial-intelligence systems. Others will leave scratching their heads.

Nicol Gabe plays Sam Hudson, a shy and lonely young woman who invented an AI helpmate she names Bob (portrayed by Steve Brady, who wrote the show). Bob is oddly similar to Sam’s flesh-and-blood boyfriend who died in a tragic hang-glider accident.

The problem is that techno-boyfriend Bob can’t go for walks, share meals or make love (other than in a battery-operated manner, wink-wink). This sci-fi romp makes a not particularly original point about society’s increasingly intimate relationship with technology.

The show has its moments — for instance, Sam ultimately assumes a new form that’s rather intriguing. Yet overall, Battery Operated Boyfriend is stymied by fundamental problems. Gabe is a so-so actor, Brady seems a stage novice. And the script is clunky.

Mel Malarky Gets the Bum’s Rush

Where: Roxy Theatre

When: Continues Aug. 24, 25, 27, 30, 31

Rating: Two stars

Dressed in a platinum blond wig and tails, Toronto performer Charlie Petch opens by singing Ain’t We Got Fun while playing a musical saw. The saw playing wasn’t particularly tuneful — still, it seemed the show could go either way.

Mel Malarky Gets the Bum’s Rush soon devolved into a well-meaning mish-mash. It stars Mel Malarky, a lisping MC overseeing the final performance of her variety show in 1931. The Depression is in full swing, cinema is gaining popularity and vaudeville is dying.

Poor Mel must bind her breasts to impersonate a man in an oppressively patriarchal society. She hosts a cornucopia of kooky acts we never see (which is a shame, they sound entertaining). Instead, we get her onstage introductions and dressing-room scenes in which Mel chugs a snake-oil elixir.

Occasionally accompanying herself on accordion, harmonica, ukulele and saw, Petch strives to create a mysterious, yesteryear world populated by eccentrics, outcasts and others who fall between the cracks. She has a warm-hearted stage presence. Unfortunately, the show is a dog’s breakfast. The narrative is loose and uneven — sometimes it’s hard to even tell what’s going on.

Best bets

The Victoria Fringe Festival’s preview showcase was staged in Centennial Square on Wednesday. It provided performers two minutes to provide a sample of their shows. Here’s what seemed promising:

Dissection of a Mixed Heritage Woman — The Fringe guide write-up for Vancouver performer Nyla Carpentier’s show about investigating her Métis roots looks rather earnest. Yet on stage, Carpentier came off as a strong performer who’s funny and self-deprecating.

Diagnose This! Tales of a Medical Actor — Donna Kay Yarborough is a Portland improv comedian who sometimes works as a “medical actor.” This means she lends her body for educational sessions for medical students. Sounds irreverent and intriguing — at the very least it’s unusual fodder for theatre.

Tuesdays with Morrie — Mitch Albom’s oft-staged play about a young man visiting a dying professor is a war horse. However, the play is popular for a reason — and the mini-preview suggests it will be well acted.

Fool Muun Komming! — It looks silly in the Fringe guide. Yet Minneapolis performer Sam Kruger’s mini-performance in white tights and matching turtleneck was engagingly weird, funny and very confident.

Leash Your Potential — Ryan Gunther’s show about the soul-killing mundanities of office work tracks well-trodden territory. Gunther is a good understated performer — I suspect there’s considerable fun to be had.

How to pull your heart out through your throat — Terrible title. Looked funny, though. Something about fairies.

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