2017 Vancouver Fringe Festival in review

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Vancouver Fringe Festival | various venues | September 7 – 17, 2017

Katherine Ferns is In Stitches

Performance Works

Although billed as a comedy show, Katherine Ferns’ story of domestic abuse, back pain, and pedophiles isn’t funny material on the surface. Ferns inserts darkly humorous commentary into her story, but most of it made me want to cringe and cry as opposed to laugh out loud.

That isn’t to say Ferns isn’t a good comedian — she can find the humour in even the darkest of situations, but I think this material might be better served in a wry memoir or something of that nature. She told us about her boyfriend, Ninja Mike (yes, that’s what he called himself), who physically abused her and likely raped her after putting roofies in her drinks, what finally put him in jail (pedophilia), and her years of struggling with back pain due to Ninja Mike’s abuse and a botched surgery. I’m not sure if this was a comedy show, but it was definitely a moving personal story that left us with plenty to think about.

Hip.Bang! presents Fin

Improv Centre

Comedy duo Tom Hill and Devin Mackenzie have created an improv show about Bridgewood, a fictional town with political rivalries, water shortages, and impending sea monsters. They began the show with Hill handing out Campino candies as Mackenzie sat in the audience and lead a protest about unfair treatment of “the people by the door.” Amidst chants of “yes we campino,” Mackenzie stands up and says “we’re losing track of the issues” and lists off a bunch of conspiracy theories. Another highlight was their commentary on water usage: one of them explains that the greenness of his grass is a direct reflection of his status in society. Another character waters his driveway. This fast-paced, interactive show was full of laughs and intelligent satire.  

Teaching Shakespeare

Waterfront Theatre

For anyone who enjoys Shakespeare, this play is a delight. Kier Cutler is a passionate yet frustrated professor who can barely get through one lecture without having an emotional breakdown. He rants about his teaching evaluations, how he could have been a famous actor, and the demise of his marriage. He is contradictory, melodramatic, and has the air of a brilliant genius who can’t help himself but go off on tangents unrelated to the scene at hand. We never do get to that scene that he is supposed to cover in class, but along the way are wonderful explanations of poetic meter, the difference between prose and poetry, and both Shakespeare’s brilliance and flaws. “Remember,” he tells his students, “whatever we don’t like, we don’t understand.” For him, Shakespeare is the centre of the universe and his words are magical. He recites Sonnet 29, and then says, “sorry, did I do that last class, too?” As he pumps his fist to the rhythm of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, he gradually but brilliantly descends into madness.

Figmentally

Revue Stage

Circus duo Drea Lusion and Eric Parthum have created an innovative show about the power of writing and imagination. Lusion is a writer who struggles to sit down to write — because her chair seems to be alive and keeps moving whenever she tries to sit down. As she writes, her character comes to life and is controlled by her pen. She rips a page out of the book and folds it as he crumples to the floor. Their manipulation sequence using the book was very cool, as it seemed to control Lusion, pulling her to and fro. The narrative of the writer and character seemed to get dropped along the way as they brought out paper bags of cookies and distributed some to the audience. Then came the audience participation segment as they threw imaginary cookies back and forth to us followed by an impressive juggling segment from Parthum. The narrative was finally picked back up by the end as Lusion sat back in her chair and juggling balls fell out of the book.    

Pint of Life

Studio 1398

A pint of ice cream, two spoons, and one willing audience member is all Michael Yichao needs to create a musical on the spot. After talking to audience member Shaun and learning all about his life (married with two kids, former electrical engineer, now PhD candidate in genetics), he used the information to create a musical version of Shaun’s life story. This is like those tourist caricatures on a whole new level. I’m sure it was a very cool experience for Shaun to see his story come to life in song. Along with his guitarist stage left and only two chairs and a table as props he sang his heart out creating a heartwarming love story full of future possibilities. I was skeptical of this show during the ice cream and conversation portion, but the second half made up for that with the clever songs and impressive on-the-spot musical improv. 

Executing Justice

Revue Stage

Every so often the death penalty debate comes up in Canada. It was officially abolished in 1976, but most polls show that a majority of Canadians would support its reinstatement. If they saw Bill Pats’ one man show, I think they would reconsider. Set in 2030, this is the story of Daryl Kane who will be the first person to be executed in Canada since 1962. With one hour to live, he recounts his life story as an orphaned foster kid who fell on hard times, ended up in jail, developed mental illness while in solitary confinement, and was released with little to no support. When he first addresses us, telling us about how he killed a cop, explaining, “it’s fun to kill someone,” the mood in the room is one of contempt. His paranoia got the better of him one day in a Wal-mart checkout line, and he ended up killing a police officer with a can of corn. The story is rounded out by hearing from a few other characters including the wife of the murdered cop and a psychiatric prison doctor who offers disturbing statistics about the lack of mental health care in prisons. As Daryl leaves the stage saying “it’s fun to kill, someone isn’t it,” we’re fully aware of the hypocrisy of killing those who have killed.

Help! I’m American

False Creek Gym

DK Reinemer’s sketch comedy show is not as political as expected, but there are many references to his desire to become a Canadian due to the political climate of his own country. He hints that he’s single, and talks about Canada as being a magical place where everyone gets a unicorn. There was plenty of audience interaction as we were encouraged to yell out things like “kiyaa” and “yeehaw” during the sketches. Nicole, a reluctant audience member, joined him onstage a few times, and one audience member got a free banana. Reinemer’s sketches were wide ranging: from a wacky car salesman to the captain of the Titanic, to a divorced karate instructor, to a magician who accidentally ends up stripping at a bachelorette party. The musical sketches such as Canada’s Got Talent (he heard the prize this year was citizenship) got the most laughs. Although there could have been a stronger narrative running through the sketches, that didn’t hinder the comic effect of this collection of sketches.    

Scientist Turned Comedian

False Creek Gym

Armed with a PhD in ecology and evolution, Tim Lee infuses his comedy with scientific concepts while applying them to everyday life. Both educational and hilarious, Lee’s dry brand of comedy was refreshing. Using a Powerpoint presentation with graphs, flow charts, and images to illustrate his points, his show is reminiscent of a university lecture, although much more fun. Not all of his material is science based. There were a couple of interludes of family jokes about his relationship with his wife and kids, and his incredulity at honey dipper reviews on Amazon, but I think the most effective material was that based in scientific concepts such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, inverse relationships, and self-reporting bias. He briefly explained the concept and then gave a creative real life example. While I think his show is accessible for everyone, it will be especially enjoyable for anyone with an interest in science.  

Cry-Baby: The Musical

Firehall Arts Centre

Awkward Stage Productions presented this hilarious romp through 1950s Baltimore based on the film of the same name by John Waters. The cast of 17 talented young artists were full of energy, sang their hearts out, and brought this rockabilly tale to life.

Allison (Katrina Teitz), one of the extremely conservative “squares” falls for bad boy Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker (Victor Hunter), the “most popular loner” whose parents dies when he was young. Hunter channels Elvis Presley for his stunning performance. He meets Allison at the Baltimore Health Department’s Anti-Polio Picnic as Allison sings about being infected with his love. Most of the musical numbers are equally cheesy, but it works in this campy tribute.

At the Maidenhead Country Club’s Safety Awareness Day, Allison decides to run away and find Cry-Baby at Turkey Point, a popular party spot. She discovers her inner rebel, and he discovers his love for her as he sings, “Girl can I kiss you with tongue?” 

Lenora (Synthia Yusuf) is another character who stood out with her extreme antics of obsession over Cry-Baby. Her shining moment was her totally undone rendition of “Screw Loose” where she sings “I’ve got a screw loose for you” and “I just don’t see the harm in carving your name in my arm.” She ends up being the perfect match for the squeaky clean Baldwin who hope to win Allison’s heart. Allison’s grandma (Kelly-Ruth Mercier) was another star who had the best lines such as, “Darling, didn’t I tell you never to have problems?”

The ensemble dance numbers were sharp and energetic, the songs made us laugh, and this silly story was entertaining from beginning to end.   

Roller Coaster

Firehall Arts Centre

TJ Dawe returned to the Fringe with an aptly-titled autobiographical monologue that took us on a ride through best and worst case Trump scenarios, ancestral hunting strategies, Fringe experiences in Orlando, and his obsession with abandoned malls and theme parks, and his love of all things written by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Dawe has a way of weaving these disparate elements together, switching abruptly from one to another, while gradually drawing out the common thread until it becomes clear what it all has to do with anything by the end. By painting vivid imagery, telling detailed historical anecdotes, and inserting plenty of personal narrative, Dawe held our rapt attention as he explained why we may need to prepare to be living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

This show was not only entertaining, it was intellectual. The program was complete with a reading list of source material (many Barbara Ehrenreich titles), and the topics Dawe discussed were relevant and thought-provoking. What would an archaeologist think when digging up the remains of the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios? And what was up with all the occult imagery of the 1970s? These any many more questions were we left to ponder as Dawe ended with an appeal to get political, get involved, and change our world for the better.

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