Fringe Fest reviews: Reinvention of Lear a bit of a muddle

The Times Colonist is reviewing the Victoria Fringe Festival, which continues to Sept. 3. All rating are out of five.

 

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LEER

Where: Metro Studio

When: Today, Aug. 27, 28, Sept. 2, 3

Rating: three stars

 

With his new play LEER, Victoria playwright David Elendune aims for a sexy, subversive reinvention of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

There’s some cleverness at work here. Music and other sound effects are used deftly; some of the costumes are terrific. Yet despite strong moments — mostly provided by actor Wendy Magahay — this 70-minute show is a bit of a muddle.

LEER pivots on two bold twists. It’s an all-woman cast of female characters, so the Lear-like character, played by Magahay, becomes a despotic ruler wearing a long red wig and a wee crown.

Not only that, this pastiche is set in hell. Lear is now Satan. And Satan’s three daughters (Regan, Goneril and Cordelia in the original play) are transformed into devilish types. There’s the Cordelia-like Lileth (Ellen Law), Beelzebub (Amber Landry) and Asmodeus (Wendy Cornock).

LEER retains King Lear’s central plot premise. Satan divides her kingdom based on each daughter’s remarks regarding their devotion to her. Lileth/Cordelia’s response is curiously reserved. This annoys Satan who decides to bestow her favour on her remaining daughters, etc. As well, also in keeping with King Lear, Satan is slowly losing her marbles, a deterioration portrayed convincingly by Magahay.

Yet overall, the narrative becomes difficult to follow. Elendune’s decision to toss handfuls of elements from Shakespeare’s other plays is confusing. Yes, one can make an argument for flinging in the three witches from Macbeth, given that fate is a central theme LEER. Other slice ’n’ nice ingredients seem more arbitrary. Inserting snippets of Hamlet (“What a piece of work is man!” “Frailty, thy name is woman”) seem more like hip-hop sampling than thoughtful pastiche.

There’s plenty of irrevent pop culture references. Some are heavy-handed, such as playing AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (get it?). For those who like zombie/monster flicks, we get Satan gobbling a bowl of politicans’ brains (“seasoned liberally with false pride”) and chowing down on a basket of kittens. The fabulous costumes — imaginatively designed steam-punk creations — may be the best part of the show.

Ultimately LEER comes off as an ambitious mish-mash that sometimes clicks and sometimes befuddles.

 

The Gift

Where: Metro Studio

When: Today, Aug. 27, 29

Rating: two stars

 

A performance such as John Aitken’s The Gift is difficult to review. His dance-theatre piece (created with fellow Mayne Island resident Gail Noonan) reflects the terrible suffering he underwent as a child. His alcoholic father used to regularly beat his mother, a First Nations woman. Aitken, also physically and mentally abused, was so profoundly traumatized he didn’t speak until he was 18.

The Gift, performed with Shelley MacDonald, is Aitken’s artistic response to his shocking past. For 70 minutes the pair offer a mysterious movement performance, mostly non-verbal, with virtually no music (there are moments of drumming and singing). It’s like witnessing a ritualistic ceremony. The bare-foot Aitken, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, alternates between fleeting moments of joy and, more often, sequences in which he appears anguished, sometimes curled up on the stage in a fetal-like position.

A few scenes are literal. At one point the pair play ball; there’s a cleansing sequence; elsewhere a handful of change is scattered on stage. Yet more typically The Gift is abstract, replete with portentous heavy breathing and slow movement.

Viewed strictly as an artwork, The Gift succeeds only partly. In technical terms, the level of dance is rudimentary. The show is too oblique, too slow-moving — and too long. Tellingly it only made sense (or at least more sense) afterwards, when Aitken — a gracious and genial fellow — explained his background in a question-and-answer session.

That said, some attending Friday’s show were obviously moved by The Gift. One woman left in tears half-way though.

You might have the same reaction. Here’s my (admittedy strong) bias: I believe dance and theatre should succeed primarily as a work of art, regardless of the therapeutic value they may provide. Others will adamantly disagree and may find The Gift a powerful experience. (For those interested in the debate about art as therapy — try reading Arlene Croce’s seminal 1994 New Yorker article Discussing the Undiscussable).

 

Beaver Dreams

Where: Metro Studio

When: Today, Aug. 27, 29. Sept. 1, 2

Rating: three stars

 

Montreal’s Lost and Found Puppet Co. offers a goofy puppet show with a deliberate thrift-shop aesthetic.

Set in bucolic cottage country, Beaver Dreams is a comic romp chronicling an ongoing battle between vacationers and beavers. The beavers want to build dams. The cottagers aren’t keen on this, as it makes the river run too high. Meanwhile, commercial developers are intent on ruining paradise.

There’s some clever puppet-work here. The Lost and Found duo — who play purring beavers in a neo-vaudeville manner — make use of shadow puppetry and cutouts. There are also animated video segments in which family members muse on the beauty of cottage country.

In the manner of traditional clowning, the laughs are broad and good-natured. Beaver Dreams has scored plaudits in other cities. No doubt kids will enjoy it. And if the notion of puppeteers sporting giant beaver teeth makes you giggle, you may well love it as well.

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