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Postcards from the 2012 Fringe Part 2

It happens every year at the Ottawa Fringe Festival, for many reasons some shows fall below the radar and are not as talked about as much as others early on. Usually by this point (with 3 days left to go), word has gotten out that these productions are very much worth seeing.

Here are a few of these below the radar shows:

White Noise: Created by Margaret Evraire and Christina Bryson, tells the story of Nadia Kajouji, a Carleton University student who committed suicide in 2008. The play is largely a movement piece and recounts the last days of Nadia’s life. Originally I was going to give this production a pass.  Plays based on relatively recent true life events can be very challenging to handle with appropriate sensitivity.  The buzz in the beer tent, however, was positive so I decided to go. I’m glad I did. After the performance ended, the audience (myself included) was very slow to get up and leave the theatre; obviously very moved by the play. I was also very impressed by the sophisticated staging and sound design. Make sure you see this one!

White Noise (photo courtesy of the Ottawa Fringe Festival)

Gametes and Gonads:  This one man show created, by Jeff Laird, is a high energy whirlwind of a show in which he takes on a multitude of characters (seriously there are like a couple million sperm alone!). Laird skillfully handles all these roles and the show never loses its coherence. Gametes and Gonads is billed as Star Wars meets your genitals. It’s clever and fun. The last show is at 11:00 p.m on Saturday (June 23). Go see it!

Trashman’s Dilemma: Set in a dystopian future this play by (Bruce Gooch) delves into complicated themes revolving around language. Can agency/freedom exist without the words to express it? As an interesting twist the three member cast rotate the roles for each performance. The last chance to catch this show is 3:00 p.m. on Saturday (June 23)!

There are only three days left in the festival! If you haven’t done so already, buy a fringe pin ($3) and check out a play(s) for ($10/ticket).


2012 Postcards From the Fringe Part 1

The 2012 Fringe festival is well under way. This is definitely my favourite festival of the year.  It’s a chance to see some great theatre, dance, and story telling at a bargain price. It’s also an opportunity to meet new friends, catch up with old ones, and drink plenty of beer outside under the open sky! What could be better?

This year, I intend to see approximately 30 shows and I will tell you about  my adventures over a series of three articles featuring brief postcard reviews.

At Fringe, I spend a lot of time in the beer tent and this year is no exception.  As a reviewer, I get asked this question a lot: “What are your top picks for the festival so far?”

While I haven’t seen everything yet (I’ve attended 11 shows so far), here are two must see shows:

  1. Little Orange ManThis is a brilliantly whimsical one woman show, created by Ingrid Hansen and Kathleen Greenfield. It’s about Kitt, a high energy 12 year old girl who likes to recount folk tales told by her Danish grandfather. Kitt uses puppets in variety of different forms, some of them are even made out of her lunch, to tell her stories. It’s a really special show. Go see it! I recommend getting there early and sitting as close to the front as you can since the sight lines in her venue, St. Paul’s Eastern United Church, aren’t the best.

Ingrid Hansen in Little Orange Man (photo courtesy of SNAFU dance)

  1. Heterollectual: Love and Other Dumb Ideas– This is a contemporary dance piece by an emerging Toronto dance company (Pollux Dance). Artistic Director Leslie Glen describes her show this way “It makes fun of love; it exposes sadness; it impersonates the irrational ways in which human beings behave.” It’s a special treat to be be able to see such a talented group of dancers for $10. I was impressed by this company’s athletic ability, grace, and skill.

Photo courtesy of Pollux Dance

Another show I really enjoyed, but that won’t have as broad appeal as the two shows mentioned previously, Is Garkin productions’ Lonely Bear Written by Ray Besharah, this one is dark, quirky, with a sense of humour. Smart, sharp, eccentric writing. Very much worth seeing.

So there are three shows to get you started. Check out ottawafringe.com to read about the rest of the shows featured in this year’s festival.

Circle Mirror Transformation

Thursday May 24, was the opening night for the GCTC’s production of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation at the Irving Greenberg Theatre. Baker’s script has received high praise from critics and won an OBIE award for best new American play in 2010. I was curious to see what all the fuss was about so I set off on opening night to check it out.

Baker’s play takes place in the small town of Shirley, Vermont, at a creative drama class for adults. Those who have ever played drama games, will be able to get the jokes where Baker pokes fun at these exercises. Many will also be able to relate with one character’s frustration when she asks “are we ever going to do any real acting?”

The play unfolds in short quick scenes that span a five week run of classes. Over this period, many details are revealed about the characters lives. Unfortunately, in Baker’s script these revelatory moments are for the most part fairly banal and the narrative unfolds in a very predictable fashion. Even when Baker attempts to deal with a very serious issue (sexual abuse), it is handled  in such an offhanded manner that it trivializes rather than explores the issue.  I was very disappointed in the script and its trajectory. Baker has very little to offer her audience and after awhile the drama game gags wear a little thin. I found the whole thing two dimensional and rather trivial, but  it had a few funny moments.

That being said, I was particularly impressed with the performance of Catherine Rainville (Lauren) and I look forward to seeing more of this talented actress in future. Sarah Mcvie (Theresa) had some fine moments as well.

For more information on performance times for Circle Mirror Transformation click here.


The show that should have not been included in Undercurrents

Undercurrents 2012 is long over but I’m happy to report it was once again a success. Congratulations to Patrick Gauthier, and the GCTC, for running a great event!  This festival is a great addition to the Ottawa scene.  I would love to see it continue to grow and nurture local talent.

Undercurrents celebrates “theatre below the mainstream” and for the most part it does this very well; however, this year there was one show that I felt didn’t really fit in with the spirit of the festival: Blue Box written and performed by award winning Carmen Aguirre and directed by Brian Quirt. 

This show was sold out early and received praise from critics so why do I think it shouldn’t have been included? What I like most about the Undercurrents festival is that it gives an opportunity for independent and under celebrated artists (independent theatre often flies below the radar) to showcase their work in an established theatre. Aguirre’s Blue Box, however, is not in this category.

Who is Carmen Aquirre? This Vancouver-based actress/playwright is an impressive figure on the Canadian cultural landscape.  She has numerous film and TV credits (30+) including a lead role in Quinceañera  (a Sundance Festival award winner).  She has written/co-written 18 plays.  She was playwright-in-residence at The Vancouver Playhouse from 2000 to 2002 and was also playwright-in-residence at Touchstone Theatre in 2004. She is deserving of all this success and is firmly a part of established theatre/film professionals in this country and has been for over a decade.

Blue Box was directed by Brian Quirt. For those who don’t know, Quirt is the former associate artistic director of the GCTC and the current president of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. In fact, he has directed two shows recently at the GCTC.  In 2011, he directed Whispering Pines  and in 2010 The List. Both these shows played on the Irving Greenberg (GCTC) main stage as part of the GCTC’s regular season.

Quirt’s company Nightswimming has produced over 25 shows and has been in operation since 1995. Perhaps this is why he was able to attract such high profile talent such as Aguirre to work with.

 In every way possible, performer/creator, director, and company, Blue Box is not theatre “below the mainstream.” For this reason I do not think it should have been included in this year’s Undercurrents festival. I think the only question is why did the GCTC not choose to include this show as part of its regular season given the show’s pedigree?

Patrick Gauthier has an excellent eye for theatre and I enjoyed his (and the GCTC’s) programming of the 2012 Undercurrents festival. That being said, next year, I hope Undercurrents returns to the 2011 format that celebrated/promoted the work of independent non-established artists. There is a very real need for this kind of independent festival in Ottawa and it is what makes Undercurrents special.

The Two shows I’m Most Looking Forward to At Undercurrents

Last year, the Undercurrents festival launched at the GCTC and was one of the theatrical highlights of the year. The festival’s aim is to promote independent boundary pushing theatre or “theatre below the main stream.”  Last year’s line up was terrific and I saw every show.  Undercurrents 2012, opened yesterday and I’m once again looking forward to seeing more independent theatre!

In fact, I’m on record, and have been quoted in marketing material, saying this about last year’s festival:

I hope this festival becomes a regular feature of the Ottawa theatre scene and that the GCTC will sponsor even more independent theatre productions in the future.” 

As a strong supporter of this festival, I thought I would take some time to tell you about two of the shows I am particularly looking forward to this year. I think I would be remiss if I also didn’t tell you about the one show I feel should not have been included this year and why, but I will save that for another blog post.

Here are two recommendations!:

At the 2011 Ottawa Fringe Festival, Luna Allison premiered Falling Open in a very original venue (her bedroom.) Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to catch this one at Fringe. Her home was a little off the beaten path and, to be completely honest, the play’s subject matter (one family’s experience of sexual abuse) scared me off a little too. That being said, those who saw it raved about this show. I’m told Allison treats the subject matter with appropriate sensitivity and puts in a powerful performance. While I’m sure this one will be challenging, Falling Open is top of my list to see at Undercurrents 2012.

Highway 63: the Fort Mac Show, looks like an interesting piece of verbatim/documentary theatre, bringing to life the stories of the people who live in Fort Mac, Alberta. I love when communities use theatre to tell their stories. I’m also a fan of the verbatim movement so I’ll definitely be checking this one out.

So if you don’t know what to see, those are the two shows in the festival that I am most excited about. Get your tickets soon!

Sleeping Dog Theatre’s Blood on the Moon

Pierre Brault as Whelan- photo by Lydia Pawelak

Last Thursday, I set off to see Sleeping Dog Theatre’s (in association with the National Arts Centre English Theatre) Blood on the Moon  at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre (GCTC).  Written by Pierre Brault, this show was selected as a last-minute replacement for You Fancy Yourself by Maja Ardal cancelled due to Ardal’s severe illness.  Blood on the Moon features Brault as the ghost of James Patrick Whelan, an Irish  immigrant who was found guilty of assassinating D’arcy McGee, retelling the story of his trial. Those who are familiar with Brault’s work will not be surprised that this is a one man show with Brault playing all the characters.  Brault has built his reputation with these kinds of performances and once again does an admirable job juggling all the roles.

I am always pleased when local writers make an effort to tell Ottawa’s stories and Brault has done a nice job of telling Whelan’s story in Blood on the Moon. I particularly enjoyed the way he weaves in modern local references that Ottawa residents will relate to along with the historical facts of the trial.

Martin Conboy’s lighting design is also quite effective. The various scenes in the play from jail cell, to courthouse, and finally the gallows are all depicted through the use of clever lighting techniques.

Blood on the Moon is a local story skillfully told. It’s a show definitely worth seeing.

It’s important to remember that this show started 13 years ago as an Ottawa Fringe Festival show before touring Canada and Ireland extensively.                                                                      

This is not surprising, in fact, with so few opportunities to catch independent theatre on main stages, the theatre festivals have become the breeding grounds for the best of independent theatre in the country.

On that note, I’m very pleased that the GCTC is once again offering the Undercurrents festival in February. It’s a perfect opportunity to check out more independent Canadian theatre. Perhaps, some of the shows featured here will move on to main stages or, like Blood on the Moon, tour internationally.

For more information on show times and ticket prices for Blood on the Moon click here

Oliver! at the National Arts Centre

Cast of Oliver! photo by Andree Lanthier

Friday, December 9, I set off to the National Arts Centre (NAC) to check out the opening night of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Ticket sales have  been doing very well and, I’m told, many performances have already sold out in advance.  This kid friendly musical adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist was certainly a good choice from a marketing perspective and audiences are  buying tickets based on the title alone.

In one key way I’m sure many will be disappointed. This version of Oliver! has cast an adult (Thomas Olajide) in the title role of Oliver Twist.  Unfortunately, much of the pathos of this particular story comes from the fact that the audience is meant to sympathize with a tiny child left alone in a harsh, well Dickensian, world.  A tall adult actor simply cannot evoke this kind of sympathy the way a child actor can. More importantly, the vocal parts are clearly well out of Olajide’s vocal range. On opening night he was quite often off-key.

While Olajide’s lack of singing ability stood out, there were others in the cast who clearly were not professionally trained singers either. This is clearly problematic for a professional musical production.

That being said, there were many moments that worked in this version and some fine performances as well.  Jennifer Waiser does a nice job as the “Artful Dodger.” Julie Tamiko Manning (Nancy) has a particularly strong voice. In fact, her microphone failed on opening night and yet her voice rang true. I also enjoyed Joey Tremblay as “Fagin” and Kris Joseph as “Mr. Sowerberry.”

If you can get past a few uneven vocal performances and the unfortunate casting of the title role, there is much to like in the NAC’s version. I’m sure that many will be reasonably entertained, but I can’t help but feel an opportunity has been lost for the NAC and professional theatre in Ottawa in general. Large audiences are being attracted to this show;however, with a mediocre product on stage will they go on to see more theatre in Ottawa?

For show dates and ticket prices click here