Vancouver Fringe Festival Reviews (2017 Edition)

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Meghan Bell and Natalie North

Welcome to Room magazine's coverage of the 2017 Vancouver Fringe Festival! We will be posting reviews of shows all week, so check back regularly. The Fringe runs until September 17, 2017, and we encourage you to go check out a play (or maybe twenty). Reviews are in alphabetical order, so scroll down!

7 Ways to Die: A Love Story

As the name implies: boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, girl rejects boy, boy saves girl—both directly and indirectly—from multiple suicide attempts, girl gives in to life and love and kisses boy instead of throwing herself off a building (the seventh and final way to die). Look, it's not like this is a bad piece of theatre—it isn't—but between the predictable plot and a prolonged clowning scene that begins when Irving (Alexander Forsyth) finds Rachel (Joylyn Secunda) unconscious in a kiddie pool after slitting her wrist (the fourth way to die), I don't particularly find myself inclined to recommend it despite gorgeous masks and choreography to match, excellent use of music, and strong performances by two talented actors. In the aforementioned bit, Irving attempts to pick up Rachel to carry her to the hospital, only to have her flop around in a variety of sexually suggestive ways for about five minutes (oh, haha, I get it, it's like she's giving him head!). The choreography is impressive—and earned the laughs the scene was obviously trying for—but I'm a stickler for logic, and wondered the whole time why on earth Irving didn't try to stop or at least slow down the bleeding first (children know to do this!).

That being said: I didn't hate this show (and, for the record, I have no problems with comedies about death and depression in general, I've spent the last two months listening to the suicide-montage song from Groundhog Day the Musical on repeat). 7 Ways to Die is entertaining, and if you excuse the play's premise and execution (*cough*) when it comes to tackling the complexities of serious mental health issues, I would say this succeeds as a piece of physical theatre. But I don't excuse it. There's some very lazy storytelling here, and this is enough to undermine the show's strengths. If you love physical theatre and mask work, and aren't offended by anything described above, you'll probably enjoy 7 Ways to Die. But if you're looking for nuanced writing about mental health, suicide, and, to quote the blurb, "the isolation and absurdity of modern life," I'd look elsewhere.

—Meghan Bell


Beaver Dreams

Take a kid to Beaver Dreams and if you don’t have access to a child, try taking along anyone who likes indulging in their sillier side. Or anyone who appreciates some good physical comedy. Or projections, or puppets, or creative and clever set design, or the seamless incorporation of multimedia and family stories as a way into a broader narrative about sharing the land. Lost & Found Puppet Co.’s “shtick you can sink your teeth into” is fifty minutes of pure joy that will leave you longing for more beaver tales. Mika Laulainen and Maggie Winston make a statement with their oversized teeth and original use of fur, but it’s their incredible timing, high-energy, and ability to involve the audience that leaves a lasting impression. The duo is big and bold, but in a way that doesn’t overshadow all the details that make this show even more of a standout. Their set and key props are expertly-constructed to enliven the story of encroaching development, while adding layer after layer of texture to the visual experience. Maggie Winston’s script includes recorded conversations with her own family members, animated and screened between scenes—and subtitled in French. How did we get this far without mentioning the bilingual aspect to the show? Or the captivating hand, rod, and shadow puppetry? Because there’s a lot happening with these showboat beavers and all of it is totally dreamy. 

—Natalie North
 

Distractingly Sexy

In an energic and informative one-woman show, Victoria triple threat (writer/actor/scientist) Mily Mumford shares the long and frustrating history of female scientists—and how they've been fucked over by the patriarchy. At the same time, she recounts her journey through the application process to become an astronaut, from math problems, to personality questions (playfully riffing off famous sci fi fare), to the terrifying (to Mumford) prospect of training for the swimming test. To open, Mumford sashays on stage in scientific coveralls and seductively strips down to her lab coat and dress pants—and an old-man wig. She introduces herself as Tim Hunt, the infamous lab-douche whose sexist comments about female scientistics inspired a hashtag (#distractingsexy) and, subsequently, University College London to relieve him of his position. "Can you imagine what would happen if every seventy-year-old man who said something sexist lost his job? You millennials might have that job security you're always going on about," Mumford quips. "Somebody else might have the nuclear codes!" Funny, smart, and, yes, sexy, Mumford delights at every turn with wit, fast facts, and some moments of absolutely brilliant prop comedy that I won't spoil here. This show also contains the best advice I've heard so far for how to deal with unwanted male advances. There were a few small hiccups (including a moment where Mumford forgot her line), but nothing out of the ordinary for an opening-night performance, and Mumford had the charm and improvisational skills to play it off for extra laughs.

At one point, Mumford laments the lack of female role models she had as a kid in a society—and more to the point, an education system—that tries at every turn to convince girls that the STEM subjects are a boy's game, and that being smart isn't attractive (it's somewhat hilarious that the women who do go on to STEM careers can then be charged with being, so to speak, "distractingly sexy."). If there are any high school teachers out there reading this—hey, help out the next generation of non-cis-male nerds and check out Mumford's show. It's something I would have loved to watch at a high school assembly when I was a nerdy, math-loving teen.

—Meghan Bell
 

Everybody Dies in December

Some shows are built around tropes that just won’t die and others, like the original premise of Everybody Dies in December, give audiences something new, welcomed for its originality, even if delivered through a slightly awkward script. In a series of one-sided conversations with corpses, Claire, a third-generation funeral director with a penchant for napping in caskets, reveals her relationship struggles. Seasoned Fringe artist Nancy Kenny opens the show by locking eyes with an audience member and calmly, unflinchingly declaring her love for him. The object of her affection, at first taken off guard by the audience participation segment of the evening, answered the proclamation honestly before it became clear that he was a stand-in for one of the dead bodies in the funeral home basement. Even after the reveal, Kenny’s intensity when playing off individual audience members remained one of the show’s most interesting aspects. The setup also pointed to the play’s inherent challenge of not weighing down dialogue with too much exposition when nearly everything we learn about the plot is told to the corpses. Kenny’s a solid actor whose comedy is (mostly) on point. She’s got dark and quirky story to tell and that she does, with plenty of verbosity and embalming fluid. 

—Natalie North


Her Name Was Mary . . .

Exiting the theatre after Her Name Was Mary . . ., someone in front of me remarked: “Wow, there was a lot going on,” and while not the most nuanced review, it certainly is accurate. Flashbacks and dream sequences are the vehicle for a story of two young best friends, both struggling through disordered eating, relationships, and other perils of pubescent life. And there are future children and alter-ego fairy godmothers. A lot, indeed. While the plot may have been a bit of a challenge at points, the relationship between the teens—Mary, anorexic and just 60-pounds and Amy, grappling with her own body image—wasn’t. The illness they shared felt incredibly genuine and will resonate with those who’ve struggled with body image and eating disorders, or anyone who has supported people who have. (Pretty much every woman ever.) The honesty is rooted in playwright Tai Amy Grauman’s personal connection to anorexia nervosa. Grauman’s best friend throughout childhood struggled with the illness for years before, as revealed within the first moments of the play, she died in a car crash. This is not a particularly pleasant story, but it is one that deserves to be told. Fairy godmother characters poised by each of the two leads seem only to underscore how Her Name Was Mary . . . is far from a fairy-tale. All four women are all-in for this sincere piece that takes big risks and asks for a little empathy.

—Natalie North
 

Hyena Subpoena

Hyena Subpoena is probably like nothing you’ve seen before, and definitely very good. Such a ham-fisted reduction of this beautiful, developed piece is a shame, but I’m afraid I’ve just basked in an hour of the richest vocal gymnastics from Montreal’s Cat Kidd and I’ve now come to terms with the fact that I’ll never be as eloquent, clever, or cool so I’m not going to bother trying. The spoken word artist frames her latest work around hyenas: animals of power, resourcefulness, resilience, and reputation—traits shared with the humans in each of Kidd’s six stories comprising the show. She barely takes a breath delivering smooth, surprising, lyrical, and piercing prose while moving her body with total control and creativity across the stage in 60-minutes of finely-tuned theatre that delights from every angle. A key set piece is a small dome tent, used as a projection screen for video elements and as a transformative prop propelling Kidd through time and space, from her days as a punk in East Van to the schoolyard and across continents. Kidd gives 100 percent to her performance while making it appear effortless, especially in the segment devoted to prey—a haunting story that reminds us, but again, who the real beasts are out there. 

—Natalie North


Katharine Ferns is In Stitches

While some of us strive to destigmatize mental illness, to support victims of domestic violence and to empower women in embracing their sexuality, Katharine Ferns is out there doing the work, one theatre at a time. Ferns, an Alberta export now living in Manchester, U.K., earns the audience’s trust (and laughter) within the first few minutes of her expertly-crafted show. Stool, spotlight, Trump jokes: this is stand-up. This is comfortable. This is all about to change. Katharine Ferns is in Stitches soon reveals itself for what it really is: a brutally honest and often hilarious tale of domestic abuse, addiction and gut-wrenching healthcare struggles, with enough allure and depth to climb inside hearts and stay there, hopefully carving out a little more room for those less capable than Ferns in escaping the violence in their lives and speaking up against their oppressors. Laughing yet? It’s heavy stuff, but Ferns is a comedian and she doesn’t let us forget it. Each disclosure is punctuated by a one-liner, a well-timed tension release to help ease her audience through what could have been a horrifically depressing monologue and turned out a stigma-smashing triumph that gets real about the endemic issue of domestic violence and rises above tired expectations holding women back from being who they want to be and making what they want of their lives. Trigger warning: repeated references to domestic violence and prolific recording artist Prince.

—Natalie North


Lovely Lady Lump

Lana Schwarcz is fucking fantastic and everyone who has boobs or knows someone who has boobs should go see this show. Schwarcz, a stand-up comedian and puppeteer, delivers a fast-paced, hilarious, poignant, and unabashedly feminist one-woman show about having her life "held hostage" by breast cancer (note: NOT a "journey"). Lovely Lady Lump mixes narration, stand-up comedy, and skits, framed by recurring scenes of radiation appointments (shown through clever use of a projector and stellar lighting and sound design), featuring some of the most hilariously inappropriate music for the occasion that you can imagine (think Ke$ha's "Die Young"). But perhaps Schwarcz's most impressive achievement is how informative this show is without sacrificing entertainment value; the almost full house at Studio 1398 was captivated at the performance I attended, and I don't think I was the only audience member who actually wanted the flyers handed out at the end (spreading awareness about "dense breasts", which I did not know was a thing.) Let me put it this way—it took all of my self-control not to start massaging my own tits in search for potentially-cancerous lumps in the middle of this show (I mean this as a compliment but am aware it might not sound like one. I'm a generous "C" cup (does this mean I have dense breasts?), and both of my paternal grandparents died of cancer, so some healthy-as-in-I-WILL-ask-my-doctor paranoia may be at play, and you know what? I'm grateful for it—maybe it'll save my life). Schwarcz is a charismatic performer, and Lovely Lady Lump is an excellent—and important—show. Bring cash because she's selling handmade boob earrings at the end (studs for the young'uns, drop earrings for older women), as well as buttons that say "Fuck Cancer", because fuck cancer. 

—Meghan Bell


Multiple Organism

With mind-blowing projections, a perfectly-played original soundtrack, and two nutty puppeteers at the helm, Multiple Organism is an insane explosion of creativity that’ll you’ll never forget, like the first time you had something stuck up your butt. Uncomfortable with the butt stuff comment? Then you’ll probably be uncomfortable with some of the crass humour in Multiple Organism, to which the name alone should have tipped you off. Let’s just say that in the aforementioned creativity explosion, some of the debris landed in unexpected places, places where toilets talk and women embark on surreal adventures with toothbrushes in love. Confused? The audience at the packed Firehall Arts Centre wasn’t. They were more than ready to accept the rules of Mind of a Snail Puppet Co.’s game from the moment Multiple Organism opened on one performer’s mouth projected against the other’s nude body. The resulting sassy humanoid face, the embodiment of their innovation and tight teamwork, set the tone for an incredibly entertaining use of transparencies, shadow puppets and illusions that I don’t want to forget. These two also wrote and recorded a soundtrack that more than carried its weight in delivering punchlines. The Fringe stage was built for taking risks and experimenting with the medium. Mind of a Snail did that in multiple ways before arriving at their standing O.

—Natalie North
 

Periscope

In what she affectionately dubbed the “Fringiest” of venues on opening night, Megan Phillips reached out a hand, sometimes literally, and led a yoga studio of willing Fringers through an MDMA-fueled night of self-reflection, public humiliation, and the meaning of life at a time when her own wasn’t going quite as planned. Even with yoga mats where some might have been afforded theatre seats, a technical glitch or two, and a handful of opening night flubs on her end, it seems Phillips‘s undeniable charisma and command of the stage won’t allow her to put on a bad show. Phillips draws her audience in to a heartfelt and often hilarious confessional worthy of your admission with her powerful physicality, spot-on comedic timing, and the kind of acting chops that’ll take you by surprise. She makes it look easy. At times in the first half, maybe too easy. Periscope’s tiny tangents—on Disney, Buddhism, false eyelashes, whatever—come off as colour or non-sequiturs, but she picks each thread up again as casually as she first wove it into the narrative and proves we’re all in good hands. Between simple but effective lighting and audio design, Phillips sees to it that she remains the likeable butt of all the jokes: the white girl in a yoga studio with “Expect Miracles” tattooed on her wrist. She’s so relatable throughout her misadventures that anyone else who also fits the description may laugh at themselves along the way. Periscope is all about shifting perspectives enough until you’re able to see the comedy when the miracles stop and the personal problems begin. It offers a deeper meaning if you’re looking for one, but you don’t have to be to enjoy the show. For those satisfied simply with a rather charming performer serving up jokes, Periscope more than delivers both.

—Natalie North


Setting Bones

This strange, clever show completely subverted all of my expectations: tackling subjects such as queer identity, diaspora and cultural erasure, sibling rivalry and family estrangement, loss and healing, and, in a wonderful, unexpected twist (at least a twist in the sense that I did not expect this based on the blurb), the complexities, responsibilties, and sometimes ridiculousness of storytelling itself. I don't want give too much away, because this is the sort of show that pulls the rug out from under its audience a few times, that builds its humour slowly—that introduces elements that might seem out of place or odd at first, but pay off later in unexpected ways. The performances are strong (lee williams boudakian in particular is great), but this is a play that stands out for the quality and originality of the script (penned by Anoushka Ratnarajah, Kamee Abrahamian, and boudakian, and the winner of PTC's Fringe New Play Prize). I think it might take a while for some people to get into the rhythm—like any piece of art that defies formula and genre—but by the halfway point I was completely mesmerized. Based on the enthusiastic applause from the audience on opening night, I wasn't the only one. Smart, nuanced, and self aware: go check it out.

—Meghan Bell


Your Princess is In Another Castle

A rare show that's both on-the-nose and off-the-wall, and utterly entertaining, Your Princess is In Another Castle is an absurd parable for an equally absurd world. Princess Polly (Nancy Kenny, excellent) gets a second chance to run for Miss Leader of the Free World after losing to a mannequin (about half the population in this story, roll with it), in part thanks to the social-media shenanigans and Trumpian political strategizing of the mansplain-iest Male Savior #ally to ever expect kisses in exchange for forcing his heroism (and poetry) on unwilling damsels-"in-distress" (Wes Babcock). This bizarre show is worth going to just for the hysterical one-liners ("You're a woman, you should see that I'm just being a good ally!") and the auto-tuned "fucks." 

—Meghan Bell

Meghan Bell is the publisher of Room, and a recovering playwright with three Fringe Festival scripts under her belt. Her fiction, poetry, and comics have appeared in literary magazines across Canada. She has two degrees from the University of Victoria (a BSc and BA, earned simultaneously), and is currently finishing up her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC.

Natalie North has worked in journalism for a decade, both in British Columbia and South Korea. She has a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Victoria. Much of her writing focusses on life and art on the west coast; she used to include comedy in her bio, but then she got shy.

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