Saturday, August 4

Rob Reviews Some Fringe

I’ve been on a theatre-watching binge this week. Anne of Green Gables the Musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, and then, Thursday night I dove into an Island Fringe Festival four-show marathon.

These are my thoughts:

First show I saw was Half A Star, written and performed by Justin Shaw and Benton Hartley, playing at the Charlottetown Legion (more on the venue later). Full-disclosure, both have been in Popalopalots Improv Comedy with me, still perform with us sometimes when they’re on the Island, and I even like one of them.

Half A Star is a brisk, quick-paced two-hander about a theatrical best-friendship that goes sour after the duo gets a Half-Star review in the Toronto Star. The show follows the journey as both explain what happened, what went wrong, and asks whether they can ever return to that friendship again.

It’s a smart, fun, snappy, thought-provoking piece of work. Both performers are easily up to task in their roles, and, while the show seems loose (there’s even a segment of improv), the dialogue is tight and quick, the performances effervescent. They are both on top of their roles, and on top of their games.  Some really nice acting moments from both of them, both individually and when together in a couple of more touching moments. And plenty of funny lines and moments too!
I have a couple of small gripes with the production.  Maybe not so small. I did find the blocking to be a bit much. A bit too much frenetic moving around the stage by both actors as they speak to the members of the audience. Often it worked quite well, but for some of it, there didn’t seem to be any motivation behind it, other than “moving for movement’s sake”. I also wasn’t a fan of the choice, when reprising their show that garnered the half a star, of playing themselves as bad, stiff, uninspired actors.  I think it’d have been more impactful if they both went uber-actor, acting the shit out of the dialogue of the play within this play, going way over the top, overplaying emotions rather than ignoring emotions as bad actors would. They went small with the bad acting choice, and I think it’d be much more fun to go big.

Small gripes. And neither took away from what is a really fun and really well-performed fringe show.  You should definitely see it.


Second show I saw was The Satan Show, also at The Charlottetown Legion, written by David Stewart and Laura Chapin, directed by Stewart, and starring Chapin and Nicholas Whelan.  Full-disclosure: Dave is among my closest friends, we’ve created several things together, and he had me do a bit of dramaturgy on this show. Laura is someone I also know, and consider a friend.  I don’t really know Nicholas as a person, but am familiar with his drag persona Whatshername.

The Satan Show is about a woman named Susan who, in an attempt to find out why she’s such a hot mess, visits a psychiatrist who turns out to be Satan.  She blames Satan for all her faults, and Satan spends the rest of this funny play getting her to realize that people have choices and it’s up to us what choices we make.

This is a very funny play. Lots of terrific one-liners and throwaway lines from each character.  It actually has a good message, but isn’t about that message. Laura Chapin is something of a revelation in her role. She plays her wacky, weird, somewhat unhinged woman with balls out, full-steam ahead. She really looks like she’s relishing the freedom to be overtly stupid, smart, sexual, intoxicated, horny, and more. I was struck at how expressive her face is, a wonderful clown-like ability to express the the very apexes of various emotions just with her facial features. She was very funny.  And, when needed, she nailed the smaller moments too. Nicholas Whelan plays Satan much more subdued, as it’s written - the straight-man (so to speak) in this comedy pairing. His character is there very much to facilitate the wild swings of emotion that Susan offers and yet he manages to equal Chapin’s lunacy the couple of times the script calls for it. He does a great job keeping the show grounded, and absolutely nailed the many opportunities he had for funny lines, hilarious asides. The duo really does compliment each other really well.

They did have a couple of line hiccups the night I saw them, but they handled them like real pros, and it didn’t take away from the performances at all.  I whole-heartedly endorse this show and you should definitely see it.


About the Charlottetown Legion as a fringe festival venue: I like the concept of this festival, of putting on plays in unconventional spaces. But they really need to be sure that the spaces want the plays in their space, that they respect what is happening.  This didn’t occur with either Half A Star or The Satan Show at the Legion. It was pretty much business as usual during both performances, with people maybe 30 feet away playing jackpot machines, conversations between patrons and barkeep happening at the bar. Just a real lack of respect (likely out of just not knowing) for the performances that were happening.  During Half A Star there were a couple of minutes where the bartender was counting change or something, which caused a continual clang clang clang of loonies and toonies clinking against each other. During The Satan Show, the karaoke people started to set up their equipment, maybe 20 feet away, dropping heavy equipment on tables, moving tables across the floor, scraping and noisy as they go.  Really, just not acceptable as a proper venue. Fortunately the shows are both very engaging and the disturbances are easier to ignore because of the great things happening on stage. Hopefully the venue improves as the festival goes on.


The third show I saw on Thursday was Cocktails: Olivia Face, written and performed by Olivia Face, a drag personality well-known around our city and beyond.  Playing at The Luxury Market (a lovely Fringe venue), it’s really a story-telling journey through the life of the person who created Olivia - how they became who they are now. (I’m not sure if I’m supposed to share the real-life name of Olivia - if that’s a drag no-no, so I won’t, just in case)
I was not prepared for the seemingly endless stories of this life.  Wildly interesting stories, with many extraordinary mentions merely tossed off as throwaway moments - like the "oh by the way" casualness about living in a trailer at a mini-golf course. I’d love to hear more in depth explorations of some of these asides. The show is full of interesting and surprising revelations, plenty of funny lines and moments and a couple of pretty sober and horrifying stories.  Olivia’s face when she smiles knowingly after she’s said something and then waits for the audience to catch up is eternally charming.
My only criticism of this show is I wish it was shaped a bit better.  While I appreciated the off-the-cuff looseness of “what’ll I talk about next”, I couldn’t help but think how terrific this show could be if the stories were chosen in a structure that created a definite emotional or narrative arc from beginning to end.  I also found some of the stories, while still interesting, were vaguely told and ended without a punch or point. I was also surprised that there was really no insight as to how the personality of Olivia Face came to be. Again, I think if the show was sculpted a bit more, Olivia could find a way to make every moment of the hour very impactful and pointed.
But that’s not what this show is. Olivia stated that each iteration of her show through the festival would likely have different stories, and I really do appreciate that goal. I can easily endorse this show and, like the first two in this review, you really should go see Cocktails: Olivia Face.


The final show of this long night was Realizations, playing at the Charlottetown Yoga Studio. Full-disclosure: My son Cameron is in this play, as are several people I know from, like, living my life.
This show is written by Kandace Hagen and directed by Rory Starkman.  Honestly, I was very wary to see this show. I was nervous about what I might see, based solely on the marketing for this play, which is nicely summed up by this quote: “‘Realizations’ is a transitional story that exposes the politics and negotiation of one’s sexual awakening in a culture controlled by heteronormativity. It explores the blatancies and nuances of rape culture, based on a series of true events.”
I guess I understand the reasons behind the choice to use this kind of language, but, except perhaps to a select group, I would assume for most this description is something of a turn-off.  

It definitely was for me.  It’s a very dry, very carefully crafted statement.  It is not very inviting. There’s no warmth in it. It’s something I’d expect to see in a grant proposal, but not as marketing for a play.  I was afraid I’d see a play full of statistics, long tedious monologues by overly-righteous and angry characters, and more statistics. I also get wary when productions declare themselves “important” - surely that is for others to decide, yes? Based entirely on the marketing, I was expecting to see something a bit tedious and self-important. So, yeah, I was hesitant.

The thing is, for me, the marketing really, really misrepresents what is presented.
Realizations is a terrifically written, excellently performed, expertly directed piece of work.  Despite the difficult and touchy subject matter, it is a warm, moving, touching, well-paced, engaging play that brings you into Molly’s world as they struggle to find out who they are.  Yes, there are plenty of moments of characters acting horrifically to one another, some scenes of simulated violence and sexual agression, but, again, I thought the marketing - which warned of such things - was a bit overstated compared to what actually appears on the stage.  I suppose that’s because I’m a CIS white male, and personally haven’t been in situations depicted on stage. And while I found those scenes very effective and affecting, I was never in danger of needing to flee the room, or seek counselling, as was offered. In that respect, I realize this play wasn’t written for me. And  I understand that there are whole reams of people who have been in those situations, and the scenes would obviously affect them much more. So, yeah, I just talked myself out of that last point I was trying to make. Still, I’m trying to review this show through the critical eye I am stuck with, and feel it needs to be said.

Enough about the questions about how it was marketed. How was the play?  Like I stated above, I thought it was terrific. Smartly written. I was afraid at times early on that I was watching something scripted to be seen by high-school kids at an assembly, but the play quickly wrote itself out of those situations and found a really mature place to exist. Rory Starkman’s direction made sure the play never lapsed, continually and easily kept my rapt attention. Kudos to them for so successfully pointing this show on track and keeping it moving towards its end goal.

The acting from all involved is so very good.  Absolutely everyone nailed their performance. A play like this could easily be torture if not performed by capable actors (and, honestly, a bit of me expected to be tortured by some of the acting, but it was all so very good!)
Marli Trecartin (sorry if that’s not the correct spelling, but I find the font choice in the program hard to read) as Older Molly is very strong. Easy and affable, her very presence forces us to like her, to feel for her. Through many flashback scenes to the Younger Molly she remains on stage, an omni-present figure in this story being told.  She did a superb job of being present in these moments but not directing focus or attention towards her until the story demanded it. Really a great performance.
Hannah McGaughey (sorry, font issues) was amazing. Like, Oh My God good. Seemingly effortless transitions between wildly divergent emotions, in a heartbeat, and always nailing the performance, always right there in the moment. Honest and true, and charming, and despicable and infuriating.  I’m sure some of that is the excellent character created by Hagen, but it takes talent to translate the words into a real human character, and Hannah proved to be beyond capable.
I’m lumping Kate Dempsey (as Toni), Cameron MacDonald (as Ian, Ryan & Tommy), Sophie MacLean (as Izzy, Jessi & Austin), Richard Haines (as Old Man & David), and Rachel MacLeod (as Mom, Lydia) all together, not because they don’t all deserve their own special recognition for the wonderful performances they crafted, but simply because it would take too long to compliment each.  All of them were wonderfully on point with their performances and should each be commended for their good work. I did feel the male characters that Haines and MacDonald played were a bit one-dimensional (not in performance but in purpose), but that’s what their roles were about, so not really a problem. Well done, guys, in less-than-likeable roles. I fell in love with Toni. Found Izzy, Jessi and Austin to be unrepentantly charming. Was a bit underwhelmed by Mom, but absolutely enjoyed roommate Lydia.  All terrific. Kudos to all!
Which leaves Sam MacDonald.  I’ve performed with Sam a couple of times in comedic roles, and I’m sure he’d agree that he is not that experienced when it comes to acting.  Which is why it was such a shock - a wonderful shock - to me to see Sam’s Marcus enter later in the show and almost steal it. I am struggling to remember ever watching a more honest, simple, true, easy performance on a PEI stage.  I am coming up empty. I thought Sam was absolutely marvelous. Maybe part of it was direction and/or writing, but Sam totally nailed every moment as the jilted partner. I couldn’t get over how he took his time at times, to allow the emotion of the moment to affect him (ha, maybe it was just him trying to remember lines!).  His performance was just so nuanced, haunted, well-paced, honest and real. Was it just me, or do others feel like that too?

There is a tradition I hate in PEI theatre of rewarding a Standing Ovation to any old peice of theatre. I am often loathe to sit there, as those around me stand and applaud and cheer wildly something I don’t think deserves The Stand.  So, I take my Standing Ovations very seriously. This week, I gladly stood and ovated twice. The first was at Jesus Christ Superstar, and the second was at Realizations.
So, obviously, I think you absolutely should see this piece of theatre - not because it’s important, but because it’s great.

Friday, August 3

Rob’s 828 Word Review of Jesus Christ Superstar

I had never seen any production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I had heard some music from cast recordings and I didn’t care for it. Too fake-rocky or something. So going into the theatre to see the Confederation Centre of the Arts Charlottetown Festival production of JCS, I was prepared to not be impressed.


From the first note from the orchestra - which was amazing and brilliant and tight (and totally rocked when it was called for) - to the wonderful use of the beautiful set, to the last fade out from the exquisite lighting design, I was absolutely, totally, entirely transfixed and hooked and absorbed. I was surprised by how much I loved this production.
Seriously, it is the most impressive piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.  (And I’ve seen the Star Trek episode snippet from Raised on TV 2!!)

I cannot imagine the cast performing any better than they did. I was wondering whether the Wednesday night performance I saw was one they high-fived themselves for afterwards, or was it simply run of the mill for them. At absolutely every moment, everyone on stage, absolutely everyone, seemed to be one-hundred percent invested in what they were doing, totally committed to what they were doing in each and every moment. I kept watching the players in the ensemble, amazed at how “into it” they constantly were. When performers who are playing characters who may not have names are busting their asses so hard and adding so much to every scene they are in, well I truly appreciated that.

Lee Siegel as Judas was the first to knock my socks off. (At the beginning of the show, I was wearing maybe two dozen pairs of socks in my sandals, and by the end I was barefoot). First of all, his voice is beyond incredible. My words cannot do it justice.  His personality on stage is magnetic, you are drawn to him. He is a fierce performer. So impressed.
Aaron Hastelow as Jesus Christ is terrific. Again, what a voice!  There are a few times when he reaches notes that must be at the extreme end of his upper range, and I got goosebumps. He was great throughout but really shone during the second act. I can’t believe I’m about to write this, but in this performance as Jesus Christ, Aaron Hastelow absolutely nails it.
Greg Gale as Caiaphas has an impressively booming bass voice, perfectly suited for the character, whose domineering presence is supremely enhanced by costuming. He was my wife’s favourite. One of my problems with genres like rock opera is that sometimes people have to sing lines that just don’t sound like they should be sung. Lines of dialogue that don’t scan into any musical rhyme scheme, but nonetheless must be sung. His character, I think, perhaps has the most lines like that, and he does an excellent job with them.
Brendan Wall as Pontius Pilate was great, and every line and movement from him hinted to me at some sort of mischievous backstory for the character. That Pilate guy has a lot going on, I’m guessing, and I appreciate Brendan’s talents to make me wonder more about the character (as portrayed by him).  That he looks a bit like Morrissey only adds to the character’s mystery.
Cameron MacDuffee as King Herod - and his accompanying posse - is wonderful and fun as the show takes a bit of a left turn into burlesque and comedy.  A friend of mine said they wished this portion of the show could be performed twice in a row so they could catch all the wonderful action that is going on, and I agree.
Hailey Gillis has some really lovely moments as Mary Magdalene, especially when alone with JC.  
(The female voice is vastly under-represented in this show, but that’s the problem when history is written by men. Kudos to the casting for finding ways to bring women into more roles than the writers - or history - probably intended.)

I cannot stress enough how wonderful absolutely everyone in the cast were in the performance I saw.  Honestly, I cannot imagine the production being performed any better than what I saw.

Which brings me to its director, Adam Brazier.  This guy! I don’t know how he does it. He seems so casual and relaxed when I speak with him.  Then he turns around and creates another production that blows me away with artistry, beauty, emotion and power. We really do have someone special in our midst here, and I am humbled by his artistry.
This production raises the bar on what we should expect from the Charlottetown Festival going forward.

I know PEI doesn’t have any awards for theatre, but if we did, what Adam Brazier and all the creatives involved in putting this show together would easily win all the awards.
Except for the Top Pop Award for Improv - that would go to someone from the Popalopalots - not me though, I never with Top Pop.