Fringe Binge #9: (in)decision

Tuesday, 26 July 2016
All Hamilton Fringe Festival reviews originally appeared on Raise the Hammer.

Playwright: Kyle Kimmerly, Tamlynn Bryson
Director: Kyle Kimmerly
Cast: Tamlynn Bryson
Stage Manager: Stephanie Taylor
Poster Design: Ariana Sauder
Warnings: Mature Content, Strong Language, Strobe Lights
Show Type: Comedy
Audience: General
Running Time: 60 minutes

(in)decision begins with a ticking clock and an incredibly energetic performer, Tamlynn Bryson, playing the role of Tess. Tess is a statistician in her twenties, and she's facing a big decision. Her boyfriend, Steve, a sensitive paleontologist has proposed, but there's a catch. He wants her to accompany him to Australia where he's moving for work.

In the past few years of attending the Hamilton Fringe Festival, I've attended at least a half dozen one-woman shows with a similar premise: Young woman in her twenties, or maybe early thirties, grappling with her identity, feeling unlucky in love and unsure of her place in the world. These shows usually involve a big decision: Should I get married? Should I travel the world? Should I have children? That said, there's something unique about (in)decision.

In (in)decision, the audience plays an important role, acting as the voices in Tess's brain. She calls this an "impromptu meeting inside my head." Through audience participation, including shows of hands and asking to weigh in, we're tasked with helping Tess make her life-altering decision.

Consumed by anxiety, Tess uses a pro-and-con chart and flips an oversized coin as she imagines her life with or without Steve. A tech-heavy show, it employs heavy use of sound effects and music, propelling the play's tense and anxious mood.

(in)decision is well-executed, funny, and thanks to Bryson's dynamic performance, it's filled to the brim with energy. This may have been the last play I checked out at the 2016 Fringe, but it quickly became one of my favourites.

Fringe Binge #8: Send Music

Sunday, 24 July 2016
Cast: Megan English, Dale Morningstar
Show Type: Contemporary Dance, Physical Theatre
Audience: General
Running Time: 20 minutes

Send Music is made up of two parts, each approximately nine minutes in length. They’re performed by Megan English, who has been “fostering movement experiences for people of all ages for over fifteen years through her performance, education, and dance movement therapy practices.”

The first piece, also called Send Music, begins when English takes the stage with nothing but two computers — a laptop and a desktop. Soon, the sound of an electric guitar fills the room as Dale Morningstar, owner/operator/producer/engineer of Toronto’s Gas Station Recording Studio, appears through a video messaging program. The pair interact with one another, English through dance, Morningstar through music, as the piece asks the question “How is the process of creating affected if the performers aren’t in the same room together?”

The next piece, Intro Shuffle, is “an attempt to hold onto the potency and anticipation inherent in the beginning, the intro, the start.” It’s accomplished through a musical medley made up of the introductory riffs of popular songs, including those by Nirvana, Iggy Pop, Fleetwood Mac, and at least a dozen others. As each new song begins, English’s movements change, revealing her versatility.

The Hamilton Fringe Festival is an excellent way for audiences to become exposed to mediums they might not often interact with, in this case dance. Send Music is the perfect introduction to those (like myself) who have had a limited relationship with contemporary dance.

Fringe Binge #7: The Tragedy of Othella Moore

Playwright: Esther Huh
Director: Jennifer Walton
Cast: Allison Edwards-Crewe, Laura Ellis, Nick Kozij, David Brennan, Annalee Flint, Krista McNaughton
Warnings: Strong Language, Violence
Show Type: Comedy, Drama
Audience: General
Running Time: 75 minutes

Everything about The Tragedy of Othella Moore is ambitious, from its 75-minute run time, six-person cast (unique for a Fringe play), and a script billed as Mean Girls meets Shakespeare. There’s no doubt that this gender-flipped adaptation of Othello featuring high-school cheerleaders is unlike any version of Shakespeare you’ve seen before.

The Tragedy of Othella Moore is the story of Amy, a bored cheerleader with a knack for creating drama. The target of her manipulation is Othella, the new cheer captain whose “hottie” boyfriend, Des, is the most popular guy in school. The cast also includes “the super basic neighbour girl Riley,” Amy’s “bestie” Cassie, and her sluggish, doltish boyfriend, Emmett, played by local comedian David Brennan, who steals the show.

Set to a soundtrack of pop songs from Omi to Taylor Swift, The Tragedy of Othella Moore is current, using social media and GIFs on a large screen to provide extra comic relief. The polished script by playwright Esther Huh is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, using over-the-top stereotypes to perfection, from the beer guzzling, backwards hat wearing “bros” and boy-crazy cheerleaders downing peach schnapps.

“Know thy frenemy” is just one piece of advice Amy gives in The Tragedy of Othella Moore, but as anyone who has read or seen an adaptation of Othello can imagine, this is not a play that doles out good advice. It is, however, a hilarious romp featuring memorable characters and quick one-liners that had the crowd laughing from beginning to end.

The Tragedy of Othella Moore has become a fast favourite at the Hamilton Fringe Festival, and I won’t be surprised if we see it given the Hamilton Fringe Critics' Choice Award.

Fringe Binge #6: Saor (Free)

Saturday, 23 July 2016
Playwright: Carlyn Rhamey
Director: Mel White
Cast: Carlyn Rhamey
Warnings: Mature Content, Strong Language
Show Type: Comedy
Audience: Mature
Running Time: 60 minutes

Carlyn Rhamey can’t get her life together. She drinks alone. She suffers from ADHD. She’s probably going to die alone. (Her words, not mine.) She’s also prone to mortifying moments, many of which involve exposing her underwear.

“My life has always been a lighthearted trainwreck,” Rhamey says of these awkward moments that are central to her one-woman autobiographical show, Saor (Free). However, this humorous and exciting show isn’t only about underwear fails and the all-too-common sad-in-love trope. Above all, it’s about travel.

Sharing the stage with a bulletin board filled with souvenirs and postcards, Rhamey tells stories she accumulated as a solo traveller in the United Kingdom, sharing experiences with locals and fellow travellers she met along the way. Part Eat, Pray, Love part Bridesmaids, you can’t help but fall in love with Rhamey for baring it all.

Rhamey exudes excitement from the moment she steps on the stage. Her performance isn’t perfect, but it’s this awkwardness that make Rhamey so easy to relate to and so likeable. Audiences can’t help but laugh at her off-the-cuff Irish and Scottish accents and cringe-worthy stories.

“I did this. I did this incredible thing on my own,” says Rhamey in one of the plays more tender moments. Saor (Free) is the perfect play for anyone who is grappling with their identity, and asking themselves, “What’s next?”

Fringe Binge #5: All KIDding Aside

Thursday, 21 July 2016
Playwright: Christel Bartelse
Director: Michelle Polak
Cast: Christel Bartelse
Stage Manager: Nastazja Palonka
Show Type: Comedy
Audience: General
Running Time: 60 minutes

This post originally appeared on Raise the Hammer.

"Do we ever feel ready to have kids?"

This is one of the many questions posed by Christel Bartelse in her one-woman show All KIDding Aside. The play's humorous and thoughtful observations, delivered through a series of monologues, make her opinion quite clear - There is no perfect moment to choose to procreate, and even if there were, biology often has other plans.

Diagnosed with endometriosis, Bartelse was never sure she could have kids, but to make things even more complicated, she was never sure she wanted to.

Set in a gynaecologist's office as Bartelse awaits the results of a pregnancy test, All KIDding Aside explores issues of fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood in a conversational tone.

In some of its more lighthearted moments, Bartelse pokes fun of everything from baby showers to annoying friends with kids (You know, the "Your life doesn't begin until you're a parent" ones).

Endlessly creative, All KIDding Aside begins with Bartelse birthing a gigantic papier mâché baby, a huge umbilical cord tied around her. However, the most memorable moments of this play are tender and sweet.

Whether you've had children, have yet to have children, are unable to have children, or have sworn off children completely, All KIDding Aside is easy is to relate to, sharing with the audience that both the decision to have children or not to have them are both equally valid and valuable.

Fringe Binge #4: The Cockwhisperer

This review originally appeared on Raise the Hammer.

Playwright: Colette Kendall
Director: Colette Kendall
Cast: Colette Kendall
Warnings: Mature Content
Show Type: Comedy
Audience: Mature
Running Time: 65 minutes

"This is a cock," says The Cockwhisperer's Colette Kendall as soon as she hits the stage clutching a rubber phallus. With that, she instantly sets the tone for a humorous and energetic play billed as the "story of one woman's quest to find the love and penis of her dreams."

The Cockwhisperer is back at the Hamilton Fringe Festival for a second year after quickly becoming a crowd favourite in 2015. Recalling Kendall's tenuous and confusing relationship with the penis, The Cockwhisperer is raunchy and rude, laced with odd bits of Canadiana. Seriously, you won't expect so many Diefenbaker and CBC references in this one!

A word of warning: The Cockwhisperer won't be for everyone, and in all honesty, it wasn't for me. I'm no prude and I can handle a good dick joke, but 65 minutes of dick jokes leave me a little squeamish. That said, the hearty laughs coming from The Cockwhisperer's audience quickly proved I was the minority.

Part stand-up comedy routine, part confessional, The Cockwhisperer shines a light on the many things we might think before, during, and after a romp in the sheets, but don't have the guts to share.

Whether she's sharing the awkward moments of her first sexual encounters or poking fun at aging, Kendall's tell-it-like-it-is attitude is something worth applauding.

Fringe Binge #3: The Bathtub Girls

Tuesday, 19 July 2016
Created, Directed & Performed by: Natalia Bushnik and Robin Luckwaldt Ross
Compositional Guidance: Gina Lori Riley
Show Type: Drama, Physical Theatre
Audience: Mature
Running Time: 60 minutes

This article originally appeared on Raise the Hammer.

In 2003, two sisters — aged 15 and 16 at the time — committed the first known case of sibling matricide in Canada. They made it look accidental, feeding their mother lethal levels of vodka and Tylenol 3s before drowning her in the bathtub.

"It was a mercy killing."

This is the premise of The Bathtub Girls, the most innovative and emotional play I've seen this year, or any other year, at the Hamilton Fringe Festival. Created, directed, and performed by Natalia Bushnik and Robin Luckwaldt Ross, both recent University of Windsor BFA Acting graduates, The Bathtub Girls is the play to see at this year's Fringe.

When audiences arrive at the Theatre Aquarius Studio, Bushnick and Luckwaldt Ross are already seated on the stage, with arms laced, legs crossed, and eyes locked, muttering to one another. The pair rise in unison, sharing the stage with only one prop, a plain white sheet.

"Everyone in our families watched her slowly killing herself," one sister says of their mother, an alcoholic who is numbing the difficulties of being a single parent and recent immigrant. "She wasn't even my mother anymore," one says. Audiences can't help but sympathize with the sisters, who tell us they went hungry and ignored.

"There was no hope for her," they say time and again. This was a "really efficient way to heal her."

The dialogue in The Bathtub Girls is minimal, sparse, and eerily repetitive. Instead, the play relies heavily on facial expressions and purposeful and expressive movement of the body bordering on interpretive dance. Music by Jaroslaw Bester and the Bester Quartet sets the dark and heavy mood.

In just one hour, audiences get inside the minds of the media-dubbed "Bathtub Girls," whose true identities are forever protected by a court order. Smart and inventive, The Bathtub Girls grips audiences from the moment it starts, never disappointing for even a second.

Fringe Binge #2: Perpetual Sunshine Machine

Playwright: Bryan Boodhoo
Director: Bryan Boodhoo
Cast: Carlos Jimenez, Kathleen Dodd
Warnings: Mature Content
Show Type: Comedy, Drama
Audience: General
Running Time: 50 minutes

This post originally appeared on Raise the Hammer.

When spectators of Perpetual Sunshine Machine arrive at the Theatre Aquarius Studio, they're greeted by chaos. On the stage, strewn with gadgets and books, they find Xavier, a constant tinkerer, who moves from experiment to experiment with an expression of worry fixed on his face.

Equally as worried is Xavier's sister, Emma, who tries all she can to convince her brother to leave his home to comply with psychiatric appointments. "You seem so lost," she says, in one of her many moments of distress. However, Xavier is focused on only one thing. He's building a perpetual sunshine machine, a contraption that mines sunshine like gold, rendering gold markets obsolete.

It's easy to write Xavier off as a mad scientist, but Bryan Boodhoo's thoughtful script reveals the complexity behind Xavier's obsession: His parents were killed while working in the gold industry. Xavier believes his perpetual sunshine machine will spare others a similar fate.

Steeped in loss, Perpetual Sunshine Machine is unique from start to finish thanks to a memorable script and two actors who share obvious chemistry. It may be a two-person show, but it's dominated by a third, invisible character — Xavier's mental illness.

Perpetual Sunshine Machine is billed as a comedy and drama, but the comedic bits are few and far between. Rather, it's an emotional play about the dynamics between two siblings each grappling with the loss of their parents in their own way.

Fringe Binge #1: Faith

Monday, 18 July 2016

I'm thrilled to be once again reviewing the Hamilton Fringe Festival for Raise the Hammer. To read my posts from the 2015 Hamilton Fringe Festival, click here.

First up on this year's Fringe Binge, Faith, which played at Hamilton Theatre Inc. on MacNab.

Playwright: Ben Hayward
Director: Brandon Gillespie
Cast: Lindsey Middleton and Ben Hayward
Warnings: Mature Content, Strong Language, Nudity
Show Type: Drama
Audience: General
Running Time: 60 minutes

"Life is just the shit you remember," says Faith, the abrasive and self-absorbed lead in a play aptly named Faith. Clad in a leather jacket and torn jeans, Faith is a self-righteous and unlikeable teenager, with a tough exterior, but it doesn't take long for audiences to see that there's more to her than what meets the eye.

Faith is clearly struggling — with her father's death, a lack of trajectory, and a feeling that she doesn't belong anywhere, not even in church.

Faith, played by Lindsey Middleton, strikes up a friendship, and eventually an infatuation, with her calm and generous pastor — played by Faith's playwright, Ben Hayward — who is everything she's not. It's the polarity of these personalities, coupled with Hayward's sharp and pithy writing, that makes Faith memorable.

The characters' dialogue moves seamlessly between mindless banter over McDonald's burgers and heavy topics, including fatherhood, fidelity, and above all else, religion, eventually culminating in a delusional Faith breaking into her pastor's bedroom while his wife and children aren't home.

Faith is visceral and raw, employing shock value through vulgar and uncomfortable language. If you prefer theatre that's politically correct and you don't want to run the risk of being called out by Middleton's "horny and rude" character, this likely isn't the play for you.

However, if you're looking for an exuberant two-person show that's tense in just the right places, Faith's combination of physical comedy and wit will be for you.

Joseph Boyden, Lee Maracle, and Thomas King at the Toronto Reference Library

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

I feel so remarkably lucky to have been in the room while Joseph Boyden honoured Lee Maracle and Thomas King at the Toronto Reference Library last month. The memorable evening plays a big role in my latest article from the Hamilton Arts Council's Living Arts blog:

“We are in a blessed moment of history,” said Joseph Boyden last month while hosting Celebrating Canada’s Indigenous Writers at the Toronto Reference Library. “Our royalty is still with us,” he said, motioning toward the other two writers on the stage — Thomas King and Lee Maracle. King and Maracle were the guests of honour at this evening of celebration which was part of the 7th annual Indigenous Writers Gathering.

Boyden, King, and Maracle shared many anecdotes about their experiences as writers, especially as Indigenous writers, but there’s one anecdote that stands out to me above the others. Thomas King, who told the crowd of 500 that he tends to be a “painfully private person,” was often quiet, shifting the focus to the other writers in the room; however, when he spoke, he spoke with great power.

King told the audience about House Made of Dawn, a 1968 novel by Native American author N. Scott Momaday, which won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. King spoke not of the book’s content, but of the impact of seeing an Indigenous writer receive international acclaim. King spoke of the “little wee bookshelf” he filled with writing by other Indigenous authors to support their work.

“I had to build a bigger bookcase [as most Indigenous authors published books],” he said. “Then I had a room.” Eventually, he couldn’t keep up. King is encouraged by today’s climate, and he’s excited about the voices to come. “Get ready,” he said. “I won’t be around to see it, but I can imagine it in my head.”

As a child, I took seeing myself reflected in the books I read for granted. I still do, but I’m far more conscious of it when I choose books to read.

The book I’m reading now — Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts by Esta Spalding — is for young adults, and, as Spalding shares in her author’s note, was written from a desire to write a book that reflects experiences not often seen in children’s books.

“… It was strange to realize — as I became a more mature reader — that there were very few books that looked or felt like my world,” Spalding writes. “They all seemed to take place in cities or suburbs and to involve families much more traditional than my own."

I recently interviewed Jael Richardson, author of the new picture book The Stone Thrower, for an upcoming issue of Hamilton Magazine, and she spoke to the importance of diverse picture books. Richardson recently launched the Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD), which has a mission of creating a vibrant community of readers and writers by celebrating diverse authors and literature. (The inaugural festival took place in Brampton’s downtown core in May).

I won’t spoil my Hamilton Magazine piece, but I’ll leave you with a quote from Richardson that didn’t make the cut: “It means so much for a kid to see an author from their community, writing about how much they like themselves and how proud they are of their heritage. It’s a small way to counter all the negative things a kid will hear about themselves growing up if they don’t fit into the very narrow boxes that are used to define them when they are far too young to take that on.”

Below, I've also included a handful (Well, a few handfuls) of photos from my evening in Toronto, which, prior to arriving at the Toronto Reference Library, included a lot of bookstore and stationery store browsing. 

 Just You Sarah & Tom is a recent discovery for me in Toronto, and both times I've visited I've left with heaps of letter writing accoutrements!

 A terrible photo, but worth posting because that's $%&# Joseph Boyden walking right by me!

 I still haven't washed my neck.

Toronto Reference Library pods

Hamilton Haunts: Durand Coffee

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

“I'd rather take coffee than compliments just now.” 
― Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Just a few years ago, it was tough to get a good cup of coffee in Hamilton. My Dog Joe was far away in the west end, and Mulberry was a brand-new hot spot on James North. Since then, so many trendy coffee shops have popped up across the downtown core that it’s difficult to keep up with them. A few weeks ago, I finally visited Durand Coffee at 142 Charlton Avenue West (at the corner of Charlton and Caroline) and I instantly fell in love. I ordered a Paris Fog (The barista explained that it’s like a London Fog, but infused with lavender!) and sat quietly, enjoying the atmosphere and the wonderful collection of books. Durand Coffee has quickly become a favourite, but a quick word of warning, they don’t have night-time hours, closing at five on Monday-Wednesday and Sunday, and seven on Thursday, Friday, and, Saturday. Stop by soon for a Paris Fog! You won’t regret it. 

Quotable: Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Saturday, 2 July 2016
"After talking to so many girls, I now know what to hope for — for my own daughter and for them. I want sexuality to be a source of self-knowledge and creativity and communication despite its potential risks. I want them to revel in their bodies' sensuality without being reduced to it. I want them to be able to ask for what they want in bed, and to get it. I want them to be safe from disease, unwanted pregnancy, cruelty, dehumanization, and violence. If they are assaulted, I want them to have recourse from their school administrators, employers, the courts. It's a lot to ask for, but it's not too much. We've raised a generation of girls to have a voice, to expect egalitarian treatment in the home, in the classroom, in the workplace. Now it's time to demand that "intimate justice" in their personal lives as well."
Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein
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