For those who missed it, those who prefer the rustle of the paper to the bustle of the playhouse, and those who just want something to argue about, here are five retrospective reviews from the 2019 Victoria Fringe Festival. Variety is key in any good Fringe binge, so read on for critiques of a feminist fairy tale, a modern fable, a fictional history, a farcical magic show, and a phantasmal horror.
Stealing the show, ending the silence — The Robber Bridegroom
Nightmare and reality intertwine in Andrew G. Cooper’s dramatic interpretation of “The Robber Bridegroom,” the Grimm fairy tale of a woman betrothed to an alluring suitor who moonlights as a murderer and thief. It’s a tale for the ages with a contemporizing twist — or, in the words of the “Grimm sisters,” the play’s gender-bent storytellers, “a familiar story told a little different each time.”
The play’s all-female cast delivers a metamorphic performance. Alternating between retrospective dream sequences and the dramatic present, the players inhabit both bodied characters and puppets. Through the cast’s impressive dexterity, the puppets display depths of hope, sorrow, and malice most actors are incapable of, and they do so without words.
The set — a meagre collection of boxes, boards, and sheets — is the only part of the show that remains unchanged. But Jared Raschke’s lighting and Lukas Vanderlip’s sound design transform the static setting into a living world. From the eerie polyphony of the Grimm sisters’ repeated omens to the unsettling creaks and whines of the antagonist’s decrepit home, the play’s soundscape is astoundingly atmospheric, and backlit shadow puppetry lends unexpected scale to the stage.
In customary Fringe fashion, we are a part of this world. We are audience, we are congregation, and, through our silence, we are complicit. But Robber Bridegroom offers an opportunity unique to its medium: we can end that silence. The play’s tense finale culminates in an entreaty that we, as witnesses, “stand up” against the abuse and exploitation of the women in our lives. The audience will have no trouble complying — this performance deserves a standing applause.
Around the world in 18 personae — Travel Theatrics
Fresh from the far corners of the globe, this one-woman performance is bursting with jubilant revelations and hard-earned truths. Travel Theatrics is Keara Barnes’s dramatic memoir of her life abroad, spanning six countries and 18 characters. Chronicling her growth from naïve teen to seasoned traveller and her journey from dorm to stage, these six episodes confront perennial problems with tact and grace.
Barnes populates the stage with colourfully realized characters and shifts between them with impressive plasticity. Re-enacting an argument between her parents in her first tale of a childhood vacation gone sour due to illness, she juggles her father’s gruff Irish brogue, her mother’s English lilt, and her own fevered retching into a bucket. Her timing is impeccable and sets the rhythm for the whole performance.
When not mining family strife and adventurous mishaps for comedy, the show employs a delightfully didactic mode. Each episodic travel narrative is accompanied by a candid summary of the wisdom Barnes draws from her experiences. Like modern fables, every one of her six tales is both wondrous and sobering — featuring fairies and ghosts, a steadfast driver and a lecherous cabbie, Travel Theatrics is attuned to the inescapable duality of life.
Miraculously, Barnes has the capacity to use every moment of adversity, every trial passed, and every perceived failure as fuel for her passion to perform. And, somewhere in the performance, that passion becomes our own. Her laughter is contagious; her courage is catching.
Confessions of a knave — Falstaff
Actor and director Clayton Jevne commands the stage in Falstaff, the outstanding one-man adaptation of Robert Nye’s multi-award-winning novel of the same name. With ribald wit and intimate recollections, this performance revives Sir John Falstaff — the boisterous scoundrel of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Jevne’s characterization is redemptive, and his storytelling transports.
In various states of undress, Jevne recounts the escapades of Falstaff’s youth with a puckish grin and a revealing delight in the telling. His confessional pose figures the rogue as an old man repentant after decades of debauchery, but beware: Sir John takes liberties with the past as eagerly as he does with merry maids. His vivid counterfeit of single-handedly winning the Battle of the Slugs (which occurred nearly 40 years prior to his birth) is revisionist history at its murkiest.
Falstaff’s ensemble, designed by the late Margaret McKea, is superbly handsome: a feathered felt cap and matching doublet in sober grey, a billowing linen undershirt, and sleek jackboots over hose. If clothing were emblematic of character, he would be a proper gentleman. But even the rogue’s garments conspire to reveal his falsity, such as when his belt breaks in half during his proud and entirely untrue tale of joining the Knights of the Garter.
Perhaps it’s the hidden depth in his historical mythologizing or the ever-present glint in his eye that makes Jevne’s Falstaff more endearing than ever. Underneath all the bluffing, this Sir John still possesses a sincere appreciation for his profligate past. He’s famed for his lies, but watch closely and you’ll find vital truths, too.
Motley motifs and gumshoe gags — Crazy for Dick Tricks
Settle in for an evening of tricks and tropes with detective Dirk Darrow, the self-proclaimed “emperor of ESP,” as he sleuths out a murderer in a mental asylum. Tim Motley embodies Darrow and four suspect personalities, including an evangelical reverend with a southern drawl and a professor who spits bars. An ambitious amalgam of film noir, magic show, and farce, Crazy for Dick Tricks is a performance where everyone’s a target and the thrower can’t aim.
Equal parts wordplay, Trumpian political commentary, and pop culture nods, Motley’s jokes, though clever, often miss their mark. Fortunately, anti-humour is the true core of the show. He attempts in one segment, while blindfolded, to pop a balloon held by a volunteer using only his cards as projectiles. His ensuing failure to do so is a painfully amusing parody of the classic knife-throwing trick.
But Motley’s commitment to self-satire comes at a cost. In a bid for multilayered levity, he includes himself as a suspect in the murder case, sacrificing the film noir theme’s potential suspense for hollow metatheatre. This decision voids the show’s Shutter Island-esque denouement (in which, you guessed it, Dirk realizes that he’s a patient of the asylum) of its intended shock factor.
With his masterful sleight of hand and brilliant use of situational irony, Motley is a true showman. Yet he can’t reconcile his comedic irony with the mystery necessary for his setting. Despite Darrow’s captive fate, Crazy for Dick Tricks simply fails to captivate.
Dazzled by the light, left in the dark — 13 Dead Dreams of “Eugene”
Eerie dreamscapes, musical interludes, and spellbinding plays of light animate the stage in 13 Dead Dreams of “Eugene.” Based on the true story of an unidentified man found dead roadside and displayed for 35 years in small-town Ohio, this gorgeous horror performance from the minds of Erika Kate Macdonald and Paul Strickland is spirited but disappointingly intangible.
MacDonald and Strickland wield flashlights and lightbulbs like enchanters on stage, conjuring up mundane objects and mortal wounds alike. Alternatingly backlit and engulfed by darkness, they leave spectral afterimages that heighten our unease. The choreography, too, approaches the supernatural: every step, pose, and gesture keeps time with the lighting.
From its first breath to its last, this performance cultivates creeping dread. Eugene’s chillingly monotonous, disembodied voice sets the tone early. At times, however, Macdonald and Strickland’s performances are almost comically over-serious. Their displays of sorrow, fear, and disgust are often so hyperbolic that they drown out the catharsis they hope to evoke.
Though mesmerizing, 13 Dead Dreams ultimately deals in evocative specters of meaning. Inundated with opaquely symbolic language and told that we have been given some incomplete occult knowledge to pass on, we instead leave the theatre with a sense of dull, spooky ambiguity.