Montreal Fringe 2017
half way through
Byron reports on some of his Fringe Festival theatre picks
By Byron Toben
I was gratified that a number of attendees at this year’s Fringe mentioned to me that they were using my annual Sight Unseen Picks as a rough guide in their play selection.
As of June 13 morning, I have now managed to actually see eight shows, comments below. I hasten to reiterate that these are according to my taste only for, as with restaurants, tastes are relative, rankings are not an absolute measure. À chacun a son goût.
Top two so far
Orson Welles/Shylock at the Black Theatre Workshop
As a long-time Welles fan, I was pre-sold on this fast paced show. And boy, did it deliver! In 70 minutes, the quartet of Brittany Fayle, Fred Pienkoski, Vincent Randazzo and Matt Chiorini trace Orson from his emergence at age three as a child prodigy, through his tour of Ireland at age sixteen as a self proclaimed Shakespearean actor, to his famous radio play The War of the Worlds at only 26, to Hollywood with Citizen Kane, and beyond in Europe.
All this is strung along the theme that Orson, who had played key Shakespearean roles (Othello, Macbeth, etc.) never was able to raise money to produce his long wanted wish to do the ultimate outsider, Shylock.
A wonderful blend of ensemble acting with some clever multi media. Much more than a mere biopic.
As a long-time Welles fan, I was pre-sold on this fast paced show. And boy, did it deliver!
The Morning After the Life Before at the Black Theatre Workshop
Fresh from the top award at the London, Ontario Fringe, this Limerick, Ireland production features author Ann Blake in her real life tale to becoming a partner with Jenny Hannon while same sex marriage was not recognized in the Emerald Isle. Ms. Blake acts herself and Lucia Smyth portrays Jenny and many minor characters… relatives, bureaucrats, etc.
While some coming out shows tend to become histrionic, this one engages in its low key but serious subject matter, infused with gentle humour, as Ann admits that despite her feelings, she is still bothered by her Irish Catholic upbringing that this is wrong.
However, the 2015 referendum in Ireland legalizing same sex marriage brings a resounding majority (62%) enabling the two to up their civil partnership with a formal marriage, white gown and all.
Three outstanding solo shows
Berlin Walz at Petit Campus
Again, I was pre-sold on this super show by Vancouver’s Devon More. I am a Brecht/Weil groupie who has actually visited East Berlin while the wall was still standing. While this show does not incorporate that Cabaret style music, it does feature a number of original songs by Ms. More, who besides being a cyclist, is a multi instrumentalist, incorporating guitar, flute, a mini xylophone and even a harmonica into her act. She also accompanies herself in song with a recorded loop.
She has obviously done a ton of research on the famous Berlin Wall and the Cold War in general. Like Orson above, this is not a documentary, but an entertaining and audience interactive event that uses multi media informative material as the double walled brick barrier is finally torn down and remains transformed into the world’s longest mural gallery.
Hint to Centaur scouts for Wildside – this show would be a fine addition to that January special.
‘… Ms. More, who besides being a cyclist, is a multi instrumentalist, incorporating guitar, flute, a mini xylophone and even a harmonica into her act.’
At the Edge of the World at the Black Theatre Workshop
Dr. Barbara Newman, M.D., born a “red diaper baby” transfers that social concern for others into volunteering for service at developing country sites. She has transformed eight of her tales into separate one person shows, aided by advice from a San Francisco spoken word Mecca.
The episode here involves her stay in a rural village in Haiti, isolated from hospitals and even transport. Crisis develops with a obstructed birth, threatening both mother and child’s lives. Dr. Newman does not have the knowledge or special training to perform a Caesarean but remembers a simpler way to remove the obstruction. However, cultural beliefs present obstacles of their own.
Dr. Newman’s clear voice and earlier experience as a dancer, coupled with her empathy and humour, make this a rewarding hour. Hopefully, she may return sometimes with other episodes in her repertory.
‘Dr. Newman’s clear voice and earlier experience as a dancer, coupled with her empathy and humour, make this a rewarding hour.’
Poet vs. Pageant
It’s not often that you see a 45-minute show spoken in poetic cadence that holds your attention for that period. However, Melbourne, Australia’s Telia Nelville manages to pull it off in a style not seen often since Homer or Shakespeare.
In a series of sequences, she evokes an awkward but intellectual girl entering a beauty contest, enjoying the attention, but bemoaning the superficiality of such events. To my ear, there seemed to be a bit of Dr. Seuss in the background, as with our own wonderful spoken word wonder, Cat Kidd.
Besides appropriate vocalization, she incorporates slick body movement to enhance her presentation.
Something truly different and really good.
‘It’s not often that you see a 45-minute show spoken in poetic cadence that holds your attention for that period.’
Two shows great for the laughs
Unlike the above five, the following shows do not have redeeming social messages within the humour. But they are funny and good for some belly laughs.
The Ballad of Frank Allen at the Petit Campus
Penned by Australia’s Shane Adamczak, who is a frequent performer at the Montreal Fringe, this Theatre of the Absurd piece concerns a janitor, Shane, who somehow gets whooshed and miniaturized into living inside Al Lafrance’s beard, recently fully grown just for this show. Al, a frequent Fringe performer as well, is this year’s host of the late night 13th hour caper.
This transformation, aided by sound and body movement, actually seems credible as Shane adapts to his thick new home by manipulating certain hairs. Shades of Quasimodo tolling the bells of Notre Dame!
Jon Bennett vs. Jason Donovan at the Petit Campus
Jon Bennett, another of the growing number of frequent Australian performers at the Montreal Fringe and a former Just For Laughs guest, kicks off his latest Canadian tour at our fair city.
His silly antics are made endearing by his immediately likable persona. Here he introduces us to the popular Australian soap opera actor turned singer turned board game promoter with a Jason Donovan board game. Talk about an audience interactive show as Jon calls out questions about Jason as the audience tries to guess the answers. The night I was there, fellow Aussie, Shane Adamczak chipped in as a scorekeeper.
Donovan, and I may be wrong, seemed to me to be a cross of the self promoting Canadian Justin Bieber with the nicey nicey trappings of American Pat Boone. Anyway, the whole is like a bustling home party with a gimmick.
Cheating is allowed, so you can bone up on your Donovan trivia before or, if possible, in the rapid fire format at the show.
‘His silly antics are made endearing by his immediately likable persona.’
One show worth a peek
SCUM: A Manifesto at the Mainline Theatre
Saskatoon’s S.E. Grummett and Caitlin Zacharias teamed up for this take on Valerie Solanges’ 1967 pot shot wounding Andy Warhol for not producing her play, charmingly entitled Up Your Ass. Valerie had done so on behalf of a group called S.C.U.M. or Society for Cutting Up Men, of which she was the only member. Inspired by her, these two 2017 ladies embark on a path leading to the shooting of a friendly acquaintance.
Lots of anti man talk. At one point, they asked men in the audience to agree to their lowliness by announcing the worst thing they had ever done. One wisecracker replied “Coming to this show”, evincing great laughter.All in all, a worthwhile Fringe show, full of sound and fury, signifying something… an extreme reaction against a patriarchal society.
Note: Not to be confused with another Fringe show called SCRUM.
The St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival continues until June 18.
Read also Byron’s Fringe picks 2017 sight unseen
Feature image: The Ballad of Frank Allen
Images: courtesy St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival
Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.