Previews & Reviews

Blithe Spirit: A Nostalgic Bag of Tricks

Langham Court Theatre opens its 90th season with Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, a favourite of critics and audiences alike for nearly eighty years. While there’s a lot to love in this particular offering of the old chestnut, there’s a tiredness that suffuses the production, which may leave you wanting more.

For those unfamiliar with Blithe Spirit, it’s an otherworldly comedy of the first order. Writer Charles Condomine (Alan Penty) holds a seance with Madame Arcati (Elizabeth Whitmarsh) in order to get an inside look at how a medium operates for his upcoming book. During the seance, his deceased first wife Elvira (Jackie Rioux) returns in spirit form, visible only to him, and begins sowing discord between him and his new wife, Ruth (Kate McCallum Pagett). After trying to establish a new routine as some sort of “astral bigamist,” a plan by Elvira is confounded, and all the characters find themselves in a trying new situation which demands more hijinks to solve. There’s a lot of fun to be had in this witty, irreverent piece, giving ample opportunity for physical comedy and stinging one-liners.

There’s a lot of talent up on the stage. Alan Penty’s caddish depiction of Charles hits the character’s unlikability on the nose, never tricking the audience into feeling sympathy for the fellow. Kate McCallum Pagett brings a softness to Ruth which makes the audience really feel for her plight as a wife set-upon by the ghost of her husband’s first spouse. Elizabeth Whitmarsh brings an infectious energy to Madame Arcati which is a treat to watch as she flits about the stage. The set feels like the real parlour of a house in the Kentish countryside, a feat of great design (by veteran Langham designer/director Toshik Bukowiecki) and dressing (Drew Waveryn). There is, unfortunately, a gulf between the breezy mile-a-minute nature of Noel Coward’s work, and the presentation of it in this production.

The overriding emotion of the piece is one of nostalgia, almost that because of the storied past (and four previous productions at Langham) of this play, it’s to be treated with the reverence of an old gramophone record. While the talented mainstays of the cast do their best to breathe life into the spectral play, their blocking is static and clunky, with players constantly getting stuck behind layers of furniture, striving to be seen. It seems also, that specific details mentioned by the characters were overlooked, or just plain ignored, leading to some curious incongruities. A drink is spilled on the bare wooden floor, and someone mentions that the liquid will come out of the carpet. A (extremely well done) rain effect stops playing, and then someone mentions how bad the weather is. The details matter, but it’s as if the director got most of the way there to a really funny show, and then adopted Madame Arcati’s refrain “it’s of no consequence!” when presented with the details of transforming a script into a play.

Instead of a tight work, the pacing is languid (punctuated by the peculiar and momentum-sapping choice to pull the curtain between every scene). Instead of seeing some magic, it’s a bag of tricks. This bumpy ride is not helped by the interminably long and unfunny front of house preshow recording, presented with breaks for (presumed) laughter and jokes about how the characters don’t know what cell phones are yet! Disconcerting, particularly to modern sensibilities and sensitivities, is that the territory acknowledgement in the preshow recording is called “a message from the spirits,” undermining the respect of the act of territory acknowledgement and conjuring up images of spiritualists communing with “Indian braves.” Hopefully the tone-deaf message will be re-recorded before the rest of the run.

There’s a lot of artifice on display with Blithe Spirit and it’s a pretty enjoyable show. Just don’t expect to be haunted by it for long afterwards.

Tickets and info at: www.langhamtheatre.ca


A Doll’s House, Part 2: Modern Thoughts on an Old Issue
by Lucas Hnath

Opening their season with Lucas Hnath’s new classic A Doll’s House, Part 2 the Belfry shows off their ample skills at delivering modern drama.

Building on the work and mythology of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, picks up fifteen years after Nora (Martha Burns), the central character of the 1879 original, left her husband and children to forge a new life for herself. Now she’s returned, and is in need of a favour - the divorce from her estranged husband, Torvald (Benedict Campbell), which he neglected to file for. Anne Marie (Barbara Gordon), the nanny to Nora and Torvald’s children comes up with an idea on how to get Nora the divorce she wants, but it does involve her having to meet her daughter, Emmy (Alice Snaden), an encounter which the self-possessed Nora was hoping to avoid. Nora’s presence threatens do disrupt her plans to marry, and she pursues a path that will, hopefully, get everyone what they want, though it requires some moral compromise on everyone’s part.

While the work obviously draws comparisons to Ibsen’s original, Part 2 is more an examination of self-preservation, the inherent and necessary selfishness of it, and what we owe to each other if we profess to care for one another. Nora envisions a life for everyone free of binding obligation, a world without jealousy and pure motivation. This is contrasted most forcefully with what Emmy desires; having grown up in a household without a stable, loving relationship at its core, she wants that relationship more than anything else, finding Nora’s “future where everyone is leaving each other” to be a sad prospect. Hnath gives no easy answers to the questions raised, and by the end has left things in such a way as to leave the audience the choice to come down on one side or another.

The Belfry’s production of the piece is well-thought out and lovely to behold. Martha Burns’ Nora is a tour-de-force, an impressive tower of incisive critique of the bonds of matrimony (even if she was stumbling over her own lines a fair bit.) Benedict Campbell’s Torvald is both infuriating in his blindness to his actions and sympathetic in his emotions and reactions. Most impressive, particularly in her thoughtful understatedness, is Alice Snaden as Emmy. She stands with a poise and purpose so clearly derived from the absence of her mother, that when she is standing across the roof from Nora, you can watcher her visibly reacting to a person whose very presence threatens all that she has built herself upon.

There are still some curious choices to the piece, which, while not show-stopping faults, are certainly head-scratchers. Projected over the doorway are the names of the characters, changing from scene to scene based on whose scene it is, or who’s driving home the point of their arguments, as if the audience needs to be reminded who’s on stage at any given moment. In a strange turn, Torvald returns after having been in a brawl, curiously unbloodied and well composed after cracking his head on the ground. While these curiosities appear, they do not dominate the work, and the quality of the relationships between the characters on stage is what really sells the piece.

Thoughtful, complicated, and energetic, A Doll’s House, Part 2 has a lot to enjoy to it. At turns funny, furious, and contemplative, it’s a work that will let you leave the theatre with new thoughts and new questions - the kind thing good theatre is really meant to do.

Tickets and info at: www.belfry.bc.ca


THEATRE INCONNU presents:
Frankenstein by David Elendune

Sept 25 – Oct 13

Fresh from their recent Victoria Fringe box office smashes: Ian Case (War Of 1812) directs David Elendune's (Sherlock Holmes & The Curse of Moriarty) adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, winner of the 2017 Classical Theatre Company’s Playwrighting Competition. Staying true to the essence of the original classic by Mary Shelley, David explores the humanity of the characters, and how this is tested through the moral dilemmas they face during the course of the action. This tale presents a once “unthinkable” concept that many could argue is becoming less of an “if” than a “when.” What defines life? What is the value of life? Does anyone have the moral authority over the creation or destruction of what constitutes existence? These are heady questions, but they can also be the stuff of nightmares, and as a prelude to the Halloween season Frankenstein delivers!

Directed by Ian Case
Starring (alphabetically): Tenyjah McKenna, Michelle Mitchell, Brian Quakenbush, Evan Roberts, Ursula Szkolak, Ken Yvorchuk.
Set Design - Hannah Case
Costume, Lighting, & Sound Design - Ian Case

More Info/Tix: CLICK HERE!


Victoria Fringe Festival: Day 8 & 9

Show 13: A Brief History of Beer @ Venue 1, Victoria Events Centre

Unexpectedly educational and unabashedly silly, A Brief History of Beer is a refreshing pit stop of the Fringe, where you can laugh, learn, and drink! How much more could you ask for than that?

The premise is simple: a la Carmen Sandiego, someone nefarious has stolen the goodness of beer from the timeline, and it’s up to our intrepid guides to lead us all to recovering the glory of the beverage. The timeship Zythos is powered by beer, which requires the audience to occasionally consume their pints in unison, and luckily the VEC is fully licensed and the perfect venue to dive into the malty history of the beverage.

Hosts Will and Trish are top notch in their knowledge of the history of beer, and while they’re clearly not trying to give nuanced performances, their unabashed passion for the rich history and art of brewing is refreshing and fun. That’s not to say that the performers aren’t talented, but rather that their real skill lies in making you care about this oft misunderstood beverage. They still have have moments to shine, though: Will delivers one of the best Carl Sagan impersonations, and Trish captains the ship with campy vigour. It’s remarkable that this show, while billed as a sci-fi sketch comedy, is actually the most enjoyable lecture that you’ll likely attend. At the end of the show, I found that all my notes, usually about performances, design, and the like, were tidbits about the history of beer.

Practically the definition of adult “edutainment,” A Brief History of Beer is a riotously fun hour. Come the end of it, you’ll realize that you both had a great time and learned a few new things, and if you do have a little buzz, so much the better.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

Show 14: The Fitting Room @ Venue 3, Metro Studio

Navigating loss, love, and faith, The Fitting Room is an ambitious ensemble drama by Ellery Lamm. Hitting more than it misses, it’s a really promising piece that showcases a talented ensemble and really tight scriptwriting.

Noah has recently died, and the lives of a number of his friends and family come together around a fitting room in an unnamed department store. Best friend Henry, feeling responsible for his death, listlessly tries things on, encouraged by his mother Amy, seemingly at the end of her rope. Cleo and her friend Sophie are trying on clothes, and Cleo confesses her attraction to Hanna, Noah’s sister. All five of them swirl around the fitting room, encountering each other in novel combinations. The encounter between Amy and Cleo is particularly touching, initially arguing over a blazer before making their way toward a fuller understanding of the wholeness of flawed people.

The real strengths of the piece are twofold: a smart script and talented cast. Lamm’s play is modern and relevant, exploring nuances to queer identity, faith, and the attempts to cope in the face of terrible loss. The dialogue is fresh and natural, and funny at just the right times, never wallowing in melodrama. The cast, similarly shows a lot of skill, bringing their energy down at times before bursting out again. There’s a clear attention to physicality, particularly as Henry slinks about the stage, perfectly embodying a reluctant middleschooler. The only universal pitfall to the cast was that it was pretty difficult to hear them halfway back in the house.

While strongly cast and written, the piece suffers from some overdesign flaws. There’s a large wall built on stage to show the fitting room, it remains unused the entire time making you wonder why it’s there in the first place, like setting up a Chekhov’s Gun that never winds up being fired. The spaces outside the fitting room are dimly lit, which would be fine if there wasn’t as much action taking place outside of them as there was. As it stood, in flashbacks and scenes adjacent to the room, the stage feels confined and awkwardly small: an impressive (but unintentional) feat on the largest stage in the Festival. Overall, for a play taking place at, and named for, a singular physical location, the piece didn’t really feel like it happened in any particular place, which is somewhat curious.

Despite some design and direction quibbles, The Fitting Room is a solid ensemble drama with excellent writing. Heartfelt and hopeful, it’s the kind of work that ought to be supported, fostering the next generation of great Victoria artists.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

Victoria Fringe Festival: Day 7

Show 10: Field Zoology 101 @ Venue 6, Roxy Theatre

Delivering probably the weirdest “lecture” you’ve ever experienced, Dr Bradley Q Gooseberry gives you a primer on the most important aspects of field zoology: fields, zoology, and seduction. If you don’t think those have much to do with field zoology, and that claims they do don’t seem “credible,” don’t let that stop you from taking in the awkward delight that is Field Zoology 101.

Returning hit to the Fringe, Field Zoology is a lecture and induction into the ways of the field zoologist by local comedian Shawn O’Hara. Using transparencies reminiscent of elementary school science overheads, you learn such things as the life cycle of the bullfrog (which includes a foray into being a toad, not to mention its hideous precursor state, the tadpole), how to identify animals from their silhouettes, and how to best trap raccoons with Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. It’s a mixed bag, but O’Hara’s deadpan John Cleese-like delivery is what sells the ridiculousness and makes the show pop.

The only disappointing thing, really, will not be universally experienced by audiences, in that the show is identical to its earlier incarnation at Victoria Fringe. The beats that worked still work, the ones that were rougher still need the same work, and it’s a bit disappointing that it hasn’t been polished a little more, maybe into some sort of second edition on 102 class. That said, O’Hara really shines when “answering” questions submitted by the audience beforehand. Here, his improvisational skills really take off, and he can really riff on whatever people feed him.

Field Zoology 101 is certainly a crowd pleaser, and a great introduction to Fringe for the uninitiated. Irreverent and witty, it’s the kind of lecture that we all wish we had accidentally stumbled into.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

Show 11: Blood Relative @ Venue 7, St. Andrew’s Kirk Hall

How one defines family, and how you navigate that process of definition while dealing with the persistent need to feel as though you belong is the central question of Blood Relative. While that may sound particularly heavy, and it certainly is, creator/performer Ren Lunicke navigates their travails with grace and openness, making the experience a deeply inviting and disarming one.

The piece is autobiographical, with Lunicke dipping into their past and the pivotal time around the death of their grandmother. Peppered with recordings of Ren’s grandmother, Blood Relative follows Michelle (Ren’s name at the time) as she bears witness to the passing of her grandmother while struggling with a painful condition which may affect her ability to bear children should she want them. It’s a highly personal and specific piece, but in its granular attention to one life it manages to break out into the universal, having echoes which no doubt resonate with anyone who has struggled with the notions of looking for family, history, and belonging.

Blood Relative interrogates the meaning of being related, and how most any embroidered pithy quote fails to contain the contradictions with that big F-word. Family isn’t wholly formed by choice, nor is it entirely foisted upon you. Lunicke explores how blood ties, ancestral land, and personal choice all form a tangled weave of a definition of family, yet still leave crucial elements out. More than all of those, family is a need to bear witness to each other, and a willingness to see people for who they are.

Lunicke’s presence demands leaning in to be a part of their story, to bear witness to a life lead, and to learn and grow from the journey of another. Through Blood Relative, Ren’s family grows for an hour with each performance, and it would do you well to share that tie with someone who exhibits such a generosity of spirit.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

Show 12: Fake Ghost Tours 2: Tour Fast, Tour Furious @ Site E, CRD Square

If you’re after a Shawn O’Hara Double-Bill, you can check out Fake Ghost Tours 2, where Shawn and his brother Abdul Aziz take a group of thirty on a moderately paced walking tour of sites of their haunted past. Delivering anecdotes about the locations of supposed hauntings, punctuated by interactions with people mistaking the tour for a genuine ghost tour, it’s an amusing 45 stroll through Chinatown’s spectral side.

After a brief primer on why O’Hara and Aziz became ghost hunters, the tour sets off to sites of intense paranormal activity such as the phone booth near Centennial Square, Jusu Juice, and the First/Last spike of the E&N Railway. They tell of ghosts of dogs, horse actors, and murder hotels, and you learn dubious facts about their family history all the while. The show really veers off the rails in the best way possible when they have to contend with onlookers offering their own tidbits of ghost lore, or drunken bargoers trying to figure out what this large group of people wearing Fringe Buttons is doing. Aziz and O’Hara’s abilities to banter and make the situations work really keeps the loose structure of the tour together, seizing any opportunity to get a good ghostly riff in.

Similar to Field Zoology however, the show is probably best enjoyed if you’ve not seen last year’s Fake Ghost Tours. A few of the jokes are recycled directly from it, and the anecdotes delivered aren’t quite as tightly told as they need to be. It’s a really great premise, and perhaps early showings before the sun goes down and the craziness comes out are grounded, but at a late night tour, a lot of the bits seemed to be getting away from them, jokes getting muddled, and some sites of haunting jettisoned at the last minute because the structure had broken down beforehand.

Fake Ghost Tours 2 is a solid bit of comedy, though it’s not as much of a home run as its original incarnation. Still, if you’re in the mood to laugh at some clearly ridiculous stories while meandering the downtown, it’s hard to go wrong with this work.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

Victoria Fringe Festival: Day 6

After a short sanity break from shows (plus stage managing two performances of The Boy in the Chrysalis) it’s time to get back to reviews!

Show 8: Bennett: How I Learned to Hug @ Venue 2: Downtown Community Centre

If you think that hearing the story of his first love from a diminutive Australian man wearing a pink princess dress doesn’t sound like a good time, you’re dead wrong. How I Learned to Hug features more of Jon Bennett’s hilarious telling of his own history, mixing side splitting hilarity with the right amount of pathos.

Without delving into the details, How I Learned to Hug chronicles Jon’s relationship with love, and more specifically public physical affection, from his first love letters from Emma-Lee at six years old, to his transformative romances as a young adult. Delivered with his characteristic breakneck speed and exasperation, How I Learned to Hug is equal parts funny and awkward, providing continuous moments where we can laugh at a ridiculous situation from his life, usually because he’s connected it to the universal and given the audience something to identify with, and therefore be able to laugh at themselves just a little bit.

It’s difficult to praise the show enough, because Jon is such a gracious and inviting raconteur. Self-deprecating but not pitifully so, there’s a vulnerability in making the scars of his life visible for all to see and laugh at which is really quite touching. The moments where Jon stops talking, or at least slows down to a normal human pace of conversation, buy the performance instant gravity, letting the emotional beats land with power. The only quibble would be one that, to be truthful, is not really fair to the work, in that it’s not as strong as previous hits Fire in the Meth Lab and My Dad’s Deaths. While there’s still an emotional through-line, the heart of the piece, coming to terms with it being alright to show affection, doesn’t quite land with the same gravity as his other performances. Still, there’s a lot of heart on display, and it’s quite possibly the funniest thing you will see this Fringe.

Breakneck and uproarious, How I Learned to Hug should be top of your list if you’re looking to laugh while taking in the festival. Jon Bennett will not disappoint with this mile-a-minute trip down memory lane.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

Show 9: Rocko and Nakota: Tales From the Land @ Venue 2: Downtown Community Centre

Nakota needs to write the greatest story for his grade six class, but with the pressures of superheroes and comic books pushing from one side and his precarious health pressing from another, where will he find his story, and where will his story be able to lead him? Rocko and Nakota: Tales From the Land explores the challenges of intergenerational storytelling, the power of myth and legend, and the universal need to speak from the heart and let your truth be known.

Nakota has been confined to hospital due to repeated fainting spells which are threatening his life. He is alone when another one comes on him, but out of the blue his grandfather Rocko, also in the hospital, comes to his aid. Rocko tries to lead Nakota through legend and parable to finding his voice, telling stories of great heroes of his tribe, yet these are not the indomitable superheroes of comic books, but rather fire-eyed champions who, crucially, knew when to ask for help. Rocko helps Nakota explore what he thinks of as heroism and how he can find the hero in his own story of healing and growth.

It’s clear that writer/performer Josh Languedoc has a deep understanding of what makes myth so powerful, and its central role in culture and identity. While the tales that he brings to life are generally variations on a theme of “speak from your heart,” the repetition underscores the stylistic similarities to worldview-shaping myths and fables: tell the same story in different ways until it’s in someone’s heart. Languedoc’s telling of how Raven stole light when the world was covered in darkness is particularly striking, the stage wonderfully evoking the time before time of shapes moving in darkness. The only thing that feels off in the production is a drop in tempo and rhythm in the transitions between Nakota’s framing story and his encounters with Rocko. That said, his ability to breathe new life into traditional Indigenous stories (complete with seamlessly inserted Metallica and Blue Rodeo lyrics) is a gift to see in person and more than makes up for any pitfalls in pacing.

Rocko and Nakota is a testament to the power of storytelling, and giving yourself the time and space to look, listen, and breathe. Josh Languedoc weaves tales together in a thesis on the fundamental purpose of storytelling: to remind you that you’re not alone in your struggles, and to give you the strength to go forward.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

Victoria Fringe Festival: Day 3

For show times, venue info, and tickets, visit www.victoriafringe.com

Show 5: The Last Garden @ Venue 6, Roxy Theatre

What do you do if you’re the last florist on Earth, tending the last garden, as quite possibly the last human? Probable options include singing, dancing, telling stories, and living through a dreamlike trance, all of which happen throughout The Last Garden.

When you come across something billed as “absurdist” in a programme, you might be under the impression that the work might be just a little bit weird. It’s refreshing that The Last Garden takes its absurdism seriously, poetically weaving together a series of songs, thoughts, stories, and movement pieces that reminisce on what it means to try to accomplish something at the end of the world. Performer Tanner Manson’s movements and actions are so precise that it’s impossible to not look for meanings in a work that challenges the notion of trying to build that meaning up in the first place.

The Last Garden’s real centrepiece is an examination of the power of storytelling. At first, counter to the industries of destruction wrought by science and engineering, the worst thing stories can do is make you waste eleven dollars on a Fringe show. Over the course of the performance, this notion is challenged and torn apart. Stories are what have motivated people to perform acts of love and hate. Stories are what have helped people come to terms with the world around them. Stories have kept people alive long after they have died, granting them the kind of new life that a fallow field has when spring comes and it fills with blossoming flowers.

It may not be the kind of piece that is “for” everyone, but everyone should take the opportunity to be challenged by The Last Garden. Funny, sad, confounding, and hopeful, it’s the kind of work that will plant seeds in your mind - let them grow into something wonderful.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

Show 6: Fool’s Paradise @ Venue 6, Roxy Theatre

Swordplay! Romance! Renaissance France! The promise of Fool’s Paradise is that of a story about a transgressive love and the fallout from your own past. It aims high, though falls wide of the mark.

Fool’s Paradise shows a fictionalized account of the early life of Julie d’Aubigny - la Maupin, a scandalous French aristocrat who dressed as a man and duelled her way across France. During her exploits, she finds herself in a convent, seducing the young Mathilde. They elope after some corpse thievery and arson, and set off through the countryside, one step ahead of the law and la Maupin’s reputation.

The work is somewhat of a curate’s egg - parts of it are excellent. Actors bursting into the house with gossip about la Maupin’s exploits was an inspired choice, snappy and immediate. The choice of Renaissance France as a setting is ambitious and interesting. Unfortunately, the central premise, that is the relationship between Julie and Mathilde, doesn’t live up to the promise of the piece. Both are divorced from their motivation, waxing expository rather than showing us with concrete, animated actions. All the most interesting bits happen offstage, a fire, a duel, a murder, while onstage Julie swears like a character from Game of Thrones while the rest of the cast speaks in a manner more suited to the century in which the piece is set. Curiously, the theme of two women falling in love against the backdrop of a less tolerant time is left unexplored, leaving a rather curious hole in the production.

Fool’s Paradise shows a lot of promise, and Fringe is the right venue to swing for the fences and explore works in a style or about a subject which otherwise may be overlooked. While there is some good writing at times, this work will really shine after a few revisions and another kick at the can.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

Show 7: Bullet With Butterfly Wings – Hapax Theatre’s The Boy in the Chysalis takes flight

“I feel like fucking up,” says the man on stage as he strips down to his underwear in the first four minutes. We watch him in his 400 sq foot Ottawa apartment embark on doing just that as he builds his own myth for a trauma he’s just faced. And that’s exactly the duty of myth – to bridge the gap between reality and fantasy. And what better bricklayer than Bacchus - a bottle of red - to ready the journey of the mind. (Side note: Favorite anecdote: an audience member saying “He’s gonna be drunk by the end of this!”)

“Getting off on being contrary,” he uses his real life experiences with his mother and his lover to push against to build a fortress in his mind against the real-life horror he’s just experienced as a Grade 2 teacher. We can almost see the scaffolding as he physically rebels – wrapping himself in a red satin robe he’s used for drag that is woven with Paris fantasy, putting on lipstick, imagining the Eiffel Tower so intensely that it appears as a projection on his drapes.

His absent lover David plays antagonist by proxy, blamed for trying to keep him in the world of the mundane, showing him “how ridiculous the charade” of being a drag queen was. “To fake it and never be?” he asks, “No thank you.”

Really what we’re witnessing in this 40 precious minutes is a human self-actualizing and the pain of that. He wants to be left alone in the more beautiful world he’s imagined. He wants to be born in Paris, not Medicine Hat. He wants to be in a bigger apartment, he wants to be everything he’s not.

Kudos to lighting design as it goes from Apollo yellow to blue at the inevitable but beautifully timed turning point. Apparently writer Liam Monaghan’s second play for stage, this is a perfectly plated first course. And bravo to actor Vaughn Naylor, who didn’t skip a beat – I’d be interested to see it at the end of the run to see him sink in even more.

The tragedy leaves no room for fantasy, aside from a drawing that’s been left that eerily mirrors his favorite Happy Meal toy. And that 5 x 7 sheet of bond paper with colored wax, along with the idealism of hating hypocrites, is all he’s left holding at the end of the soliloquy.

Leanne Allen

Victoria Fringe Festival: Day 2

For show times, venue info, and tickets, visit www.victoriafringe.com

Show 3: Ernie & Bethy @ Venue 2: Downtown Community Centre

What would Sesame be like if the puppets were secretly sapient? Not the characters, no, but the physical puppets themselves. Think if Oscar the Grouch was tired of having a hand inside him, didn’t want to do educational work, and was fomenting revolution with the rest of his felted kind. More or less, that’s the premise of Ernie & Bethy and it works in its own weird way.

E&B basically tells two stories. First, the Puppets, led by Leo the Lemur (NOT a raccoon) and his friend Allie the Alligator, are planning a takeover of the educational show to be performed for sick children. Leo wants some “real art” and is sick of the asinine anti-smoking schtick. Meanwhile the titular Ernie and Bethy are two new hires to the puppet company, tasked with putting together the show to put on for the kids. Madness ensues when the puppets begin their takeover, but the two sides come to an amusing reconciliation. While not breaking totally new ground, E&B is a fresh take on what an adult-oriented puppet show could be. The puppets are all well made, have fun characterization (the simpleminded and earnest Toad is a hilarious standout), and lend themselves to some great physical comedic moments.

The human story attached is less successful, though, not confidently landing on personal growth or change, but more just showing what the flaws of the two central characters are. Tying their struggles to the show that they ultimately put on would be more dramatically satisfying than the (admittedly charming and funny) finale which they do perform. In fact, the humans adapt to the situation of having puppets which can talk (and move the humans’ arms around) remarkably quickly, and seemingly without a second thought. Between the incongruity of their situation, and the sometimes too thick schtick, there are some opportunities to massage the script into something tighter. As it is, it’s quite funny, with a little more dramaturgy, it could be really good.

Ernie & Bethy is probably the weirdest puppet show you’ll see for some time. It’s got some opportunities for growth, but don’t let that stop you from seeing a well produced work of comic madness. Smoking puppets, existential angst, and the need to create art have never come together in a better package.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

Show 4: Carey, OK! Volume 1: Timeless Timely Tunes @ Downtown Community Centre

Bursting with talent and energy, Carey Wass builds a one-of-a-kind music show for the audience one track at a time, busting out tunes about anxiety, pro-wrestling, and Tom Cruise running. Carey, OK! is catchy, fun, and surprisingly touching.

Carey is a superb performer, and that’s the greatest underlying strength of the show. A la Reggie Watts, he builds, sample-by-sample, multilayered tracks to back his songs, both silly and heartfelt. Carey started making music this way a number of years ago at a time when he felt oppressed by a lack of creativity in his life, and out of working on that music, this show has come together. While certainly a little tongue-in-cheek there’s an earnestness and generosity to his performance: he just wants to help build people up, so they can in turn build each other up. Spreading a little joy and light in the world is his mission which he accomplishes with ease.

Carey, OK! is a show that demands an audience, hooting and clapping while watching a great performer do what he does best. You’ll laugh, you’ll get a tune stuck in your head, and you’ll maybe try to make the lives of those around you a bit better. You can’t ask for a performance to do much more than that.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw


Victoria Fringe Festival: Day 1

It’s Day 1 of the Victoria Fringe Festival, which means it’s time to catch the explosion of live performance happening all over town. Every day of the Festival I’ll be giving my thoughts and impressions about a few works and letting you know what you need to know to enjoy the best festival of performance Victoria has.

For show times, venue info, and tickets, visit www.victoriafringe.com

Show 1: The Session @ Venue 4: VCM Wood Hall

The Session, written and directed by Tien Providence, is the confessional story of an eighteen year old woman, Leslie-Haydn Burke, and the events that have unfolded for her after an awful fight with her mother. She finds herself living on the street, working as a hooker (her preferred word for her profession), before finding herself implicated in a brutal crime.

Unfortunately, those bare facts are the whole of the show, and there is a hamfistedly on-the-nose quality to the storytelling. The play comes across like the backstory to one of the characters on Orange Is The New Black, but shown as a Blaxploitation version of Roxanne by The Police. Leslie-Haydn’s speech sounds less like a streetwise, jaded-but-hopeful, tough-but-scared woman who’s spent two and a half years working the streets, and more like what a middle-aged man thinks that kind of person would sound like. Contradictions abound in the piece, one character being knocked to the ground nearly senseless, before being described as angrily watching Leslie-Haydn walk away. A second set of eyes on the script might have caught these flubs, but sadly the piece seems to have escaped serious editing.

Rais Clarke-Mendes as Leslie-Haydn is left to twist in the wind on stage, which is a pity. With a predictable rhythm she reaches a crescendo of anger, laughs maniacally, disconsolately sobs, tries to seduce the unseen person to whom she’s speaking, petulantly rolls her eyes, and continues the story. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. There are moments of real talent poking through as Clarke-Mendes shifts characters from time to time, and the fact that she is able to keep revving up to a frantic fever pitch shows a well of energy which is a boon to have on stage. As it is, the performance feels untethered, never grounding the action in a real place before zipping off again, amps to eleven.

Full of rage and contradiction, The Session has the kernel of a solid piece of theatre, some tantalizing premises, but needs some work. Some serious dramaturgy, maybe cutting from two or three villains down to one, and an outside eye on direction would make this piece really pop.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

Show 2: The Birdmann & Egg FINALE @ Venue 7, St. Andrew’s Kirk Hall

Back from down under, The Birdmann and Egg return to one of their favourite places with another entry in their unique, bizarre, and charming series of comedic cabarets.

If you’re unfamiliar with The Birdmann, you should get familiar with his weirdness while you still can. The show defies easy definition, but can best be thought of as a kind of madcap variety show, with lip-sync dances, groan-inducing puns, balancing acts, anti-humour, and a live death on stage. One shouldn’t forget the charming, awkward, and captivating Egg, who backs up Birdmann on keyboard and trumpet, and even delivers a song of her own. It’s the kind of piece which, while it may have a thread connecting it all, you’re better off just letting yourself be blown on the wind, and not getting too caught up in trying to figure things out.

If anything, that’s the central message of the piece, and it has a touching, almost bittersweet quality to it. Creator Trent Baumann has been touring The Birdmann for a decade, having come to Victoria multiple times and leaving a mark on the city’s Fringe history. While there’s forward momentum to the piece, it’s really a bit of a retrospective, a warm reminder of the fun that we’ve had with The Birdmann over the last ten years. It’s telling of the love for Victoria that Birdmann and Egg have, that they have come back time and time again, just to share some of the magic that happens when great performers get on stage in front of a crowd that’s happy to be there. The dedication to sharing an out-there performance that is equal parts weird and wonderful is the perfect example of what the Fringe Festival is about.

Wacky, wonderful, thoughtful, and thoughtless, The Birdmann and Egg FINALE is the kind of show that you can only see at the Fringe. The world may be a time machine that only goes forward, but let The Birdmann turn back time and bring a little more joy into your life.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw


The Comic Highs and Lows of Middle-Motherhood

Retreading their tried and tested form of mom-centric comedy (momedy? Seems like a genre worth creating) the women of the hit series return with Mom’s the Word 3: Nest ½ Empty, sharing their stories of mothering today’s millennials.

Mom’s the Word 3 follows the five moms (the same performers which originated the first Mom’s the Word in the 90s) as they recount stories from their emerging lives as empty-nesters. Somewhere between storytelling and standup, they recount with varying degrees of wryness stories of children moved out but moving back in, dissatisfaction with partners, anxieties over aging and health, and the general travails of being a middle-aged middle-class woman in today’s society.

There’s a lot of heart and humour as these women bring up all the good-and-ugly parts of mothering adult children. The joy of having your children come home turning to frustration as you come to think that they might be “the worst possible combination of your DNA.” The realization that, with the kids out of the picture, you and your partner may not have much uniting you, a marriage of separate bedrooms and lives. The real emotional heavy lifting of the piece happens as unquestioningly real elements of the moms’ lives come through: the aftermath of a child having near-fatal accident, an aging parent who’s becoming increasingly incapable, a spouse with a deeply challenging medical diagnosis. These snippets bring a depth to the performances and ground the madcap antics and produce some really touching theatre. There’s also a lot of laughter to be had, depending on your comic taste and whether or not you’ve raised children who are now in their mid twenties to thirties.

The choice of the word “antics” is, unfortunately apt for the piece. The anecdotes shared come out with such a speed and from all directions that picking up the heart in them is nigh-impossible. The delivery of these bits have has polished so highly that it’s nearly impossible to tell if they happened in the first place. Doubtless there’s a lot of truth to it, but the facts of the events have been so deeply covered with a veneer of comedy that it’s hard to see them as real events that happened to real people. This distance between performer and performance is most explicit in the flashy act one finale, a mashup of parodies of current(ish) Top 40 hits detailing the ridiculous elements of modern middle-motherhood. The entire vocal track of this admittedly clever and well choreographed piece is prerecorded, the performers lip-syncing and dancing around the stage, which, given the opportunity of the intimate space at the Belfry, feels like a lazy choice.

Mom’s the Word 3 may not be entirely for everyone, but there’s certainly something in it for anyone. While a lot of the humour may come across as an ensemble delivering menopause jokes and complaining about the way kids are, there are some real moments of heart, touching on family universals: feelings of fear and hope, vexation and, most importantly, love.

Playing till August 12 at The Belfry, tickets an information available at belfry.bc.ca

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw


My Funny Valentine: Important, well-written, but missing something

The kind of show that really makes you want to feel, think, laugh, and cry, My Funny Valentine, written by Dave Deveau and directed by Cameron Mackenzie, manages to almost do that, frustrating the emotional needs created by a well-written and important piece of theatre.

My Funny Valentine is an examination of the 2008 murder of Larry King, a 15 year old student in Oxnard, California, who was killed by one of his classmates, Brandon McInerney, 14, apparently because Larry asked Brandon to be his valentine. This solo piece, performed by Connor Wylie, tells the story of a community coming to terms with this tragedy from the points of view of community members. In a series of monologues, Wylie moves from being a local reporter, to a fellow student, to teachers and parents, with each story being a tight little arc, telling personal accounts of coping in the face of terrible events.

The real strength of My Funny Valentine is in the humanizing of the community’s grief, and its reminder that the reactions of people to these events are not monolithic or uniform. Breaking the story is a boon to the reporter’s career, but forces him to contend with having gotten ahead because of an awful act. A teacher is catalyzed by the slaying to champion work for LGBTQ rights, but also stymies her own life, making her unable to move past this tragedy after a full decade. Rather than fall into an easy hagiographic portrayal of the children involved, My Funny Valentine points to the murky details of reality which complicate our responses: Larry had a history of disruption, sought attention, and deliberately provoked other students, and Brandon came from an exceptionally troubled home, where gun violence had already laid a finger. Nobody denies the tragedy, nobody thinks it’s a good thing, but the responses are varied, ranging from righteous fury to sardonic acceptance of the new norms. It is a testament to Deveau’s writing that these all come off as genuine, considered ideas, and provoke the audience to talk about, and more importantly act on, ways to foster a world where children do not shoot other children.

There is, however, a problem with the piece as presented, and it’s rather hard to pin down precisely. Put it this way: after seeing a work about such a tragic and senseless event, and the grief which follows, it’s fair to expect to be emotionally drained, and this production didn’t manage to make that connection. Wylie is clearly a very talented performer, but there’s something missing from the portrayal, the characters appearing on stage coming across more as characters than as living people. While saying all the right words, the mannerisms of each character are more like caricatures thrown at an improv sketch than those of real people. There’s the valley girl, there’s the resigned teacher, there’s the angry conservative dad. By the third time the audience sees Helen, the teacher who is most deeply troubled by this, her appearance is as tiresome as a Fred Armisen character overstaying its welcome. The gap between performance and connection may be with the direction, though, failing to ground these people as people before moving on to staging and more exciting things. Without that, these speakers come across just as tropes, well spoken, well meaning tropes, but tropes nonetheless. Ultimately, it may benefit from being taken on by a different team, letting a new set of eyes see the piece for what it could be, rather than what the writer and the director have created it to be.

My Funny Valentine is a great play, and a work which deserves and demands reexamination and repeat performance. Though this incarnation may not punch at the level that the play requires, it is an important piece which must be seen and talked about.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw


Chorus of Disapproval: The Perfect Ending

Langham Court Theatre

Langham finishes its 89th season with Alan Ayckbourne’s comedy A Chorus of Disapproval, directed by Langham regular Wendy Merk.

Chorus is an extremely fitting play for an amateur society to take on; it follows the travails of everyman Guy Jones (Evan Roberts) after he joins the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society (PALOS for short) for their production of the 1728 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera. The production, directed by Dafydd ap Llewellyn (Jaymes D. Goodman), is taking a long time to make progress and actors are dropping out and getting canned all over the place, providing Guy ample opportunity to rise through the ranks from lowly Crook-Finger’d Jack to leading man Macheath. On his rise to the top, Guy manages to seduce the director’s wife, Hannah (Kelly Vanderswan), and Fay Hubbard (Kristin Pickup), one of the members of the company and the wife of resident lothario Ian (Wayne Yercha). Much of the second act centres around Guy juggling the affections of these women, as well as some political intrigue over ownership of a piece of land adjoining Guy’s employer’s property. The ups and downs of Guy are largely reflective of the conflicts of The Beggar’s Opera, transposed to a community theatre.

The piece is perfectly suited to the regulars at Langham, providing a sort of meta-theatrical examination of community theatre and the British amateur theatre tradition in particular. Little details will be immediately familiar to anyone who has worked on a community production of any sort: actors working their way back out of position after being placed in the right spots, an exuberant (and somewhat maniacal) director (played with perfect fervor by Goodman), and a rehearsal process which can seem to drag on when an overambitious amateur keeps bungling their lines. Highlighting the strength of a good community theatre, the ensemble features both returning regulars, talented newcomers to Langham’s stage, and brand new actors as well. Like the people of the PALOS, the players are clearly engaged in a labour of love, both loving the material, and the culture that it exemplifies.

The show, for all its strengths, is a little uneven, with a much stronger first act than second, and somewhat bumpy pacing. While there’s a sense that there must be some sort of time crunch (characters do repeatedly refer to the number of months left) there’s no sense of this on stage, as the two leading men never vary in their costuming, while the women do. Roberts’ Guy is also hard to pin down, without a real sense of who the character is. When performing as the characters which Guy is cast as, he shines, but when back in the role of the mild-mannered am-dram newcomer, the character doesn’t come off the page. While there’s a clear affection for the material, there’s a roughness to it, a lack of attention to detail, taking the form of repetitive props (those same pewter steins that have been making their way through Victoria’s theatre scene for the last two decades) and a set that only really works for two scenes throughout the piece.

Overall A Chorus of Disapproval is a fitting end to Langham’s 89th season, and a good work to go out on. There’s plenty of humour and heart in this piece, and something to love, particularly if you’ve ever found yourself volunteering with a society like the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society.

Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw

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