Vancouver Fringe Festival returns to risk-taking

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      The Straight’s critics saw 14 shows that are coming from the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival to the Vancouver International Fringe Festival this year. It’s a bumper crop.

      But it’s no secret that the Fringe circuit has been losing its edge of late. What started as an opportunity for experimentation has been getting increasingly middle-of-the-road. However, the trend is going the other way this year. Almost all of the shows we saw in Victoria are technically accomplished, and many—including the funniest—take risks.

      Die Roten Punkte: Super Musikant (Super Musician)
      They’re back. Since an appearance at last year’s Fringe, Berlin-based brother-and-sister act Die Roten Punkte (the Red Dots) has been “going through some lifestyle changes”, but Astrid’s stint in rehab and Otto’s resolve to get more fresh air haven’t impaired their music—or repaired their dysfunctional relationship.

      Their songs—which feature Otto (Daniel Tobias) on guitar and keyboards and Astrid (Clare Bartholomew) bashing away at a toy drum kit—range from Otto’s heartfelt acoustic ballad for the girl of his dreams to an arty number that explains how they became orphans. A highlight is “Ich Bin Nicht Ein Robot, Herr, I Am a Lion”, an insanely catchy homage to new wave that has a hilarious extended dance sequence. Delicious entertainment with lots of twisted subtext.
      At Venue 5, Performance Works, on September 5 (6:45 p.m.), 6 (3:15 p.m.), 7 (5 p.m.), 8 (10:30 p.m.), 11 (7 p.m.), and 12 (8:30 p.m.) > KO

      Lou, a bomb maker who aspires to virtue, cites item five from the bomb maker’s credo: “Never use a bomb in anger.” But Lou can’t resist the lure of lucre when a spaceport company offers him a high-paying contract to disable other spaceports. In one instance, he does so by creating a bomb that makes it impossible for the French to pronounce the letter R.

      In this self-penned monologue about moral compromise, Andrew Connor—who often appears as half of a duo, the Cody Rivers Show—embodies a slew of characters, including Lou’s precocious niece, Rosalie. The way Connor slams his scenes together with a relentless sense of rhythm sets the charge, and his virtuosic comic technique will leave you exploding with laughter.
      At Venue 5, Performance Works, on September 7 (1:30 p.m., 7 p.m.), 9 (8:30 p.m.), 10 (5 p.m.), 12 (5 p.m.), and 13 (9 p.m.) > CT

      The Spy
      In Jonno Katz’s solo show, the main character is a British secret agent. I feared an homage to Austin Powers, but watching Katz perform The Spy is more like playing with a really sophisticated kid. Katz invites you to imaginatively create the story with him, then he messes with your expectations, undercutting his own set-ups and twisting reality.

      He tells us off the top that he’ll play every man and woman in his story, then adds: “You’ll notice that they all have moustaches.” Katz not only puts the play back in play-going but he’s such a loose and skilled performer that he takes his time creating moments of skewed poetry, including one in which he almost convinces you that he can disappear.
      At Venue 2, the Waterfront Theatre, on September 6 (6:45 p.m.), 7 (10:45 p.m.), 10 (8:45 p.m.), 12 (10:30 p.m.), 13 (3:30 p.m.), and 14 (7:15 p.m.) > CT

      AfterLife is an exhilarating reminder of the kind of experience the Fringe can deliver. The script, which was written by Chris Van Strander and Candy Simmons, who performs its three monologues, is about an Appalachian midwife in 1928, a Wisconsin housewife in 1960, and a New York executive in 2008.

      From the minute she opens her mouth, Simmons puts you at ease with her warmth and confidence. The housewife character suffers from cliché, but, in the first and third stories, Simmons plays conflicting qualities—such as tenderness and murderousness—against one another with an extraordinarily deft touch.
      At Venue 1, Studio 16, on September 4 (6 p.m.), 5 (8:30 p.m.), 7 (6 p.m.), 9 (5 p.m.), 11 (8:30 p.m.), and 14 (1:30 p.m.) > CT

      Totem Figures
      T J Dawe has patented his own brand of geek chic: standing alone on stage in a scruffy shirt and jeans, he seems humbly ordinary, but there’s an extraordinary polish to his rapid-fire delivery and the structure of his monologues. In Totem Figures, he talks about the archetypal characters and narratives that guide his life.

      Dawe’s totem figures include his dad, Bilbo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and Charles Bukowski. The way Dawe draws seemingly disparate threads together in his 1998 script Tired Clichés is a wonder. Here, though, the dovetailing produces more of a “Hmm” than a “Wow!” That’s partly because some of his observations are less than revelatory: it’s not exactly news that many fictional heroes are outsiders, for instance.

      Still, it’s always a pleasure to be with Dawe and, when he hints at the end of this piece that this may be his last Fringe show, it feels a bit like you’re watching Prospero burying his books.
      At BYOV D, Havana, on September 4 (8 p.m.) 5 (10 p.m.), 6 (7:45 p.m.), 7 (5 p.m.), 9 (9 p.m.), 11 (9 p.m.), 12 (6:30 p.m.), and 13 (9:30 p.m.) > CT

      Who’s Afraid of Tippi Seagram?
      If you missed Tippi Seagram when she last graced our shores two years ago, you’re in luck: the aging Hollywood starlet has again deigned to rescue us from our dreary Canadian lack of glamour.

      This time, she’s even more outrageous. “I adore stalkers,” Tippi (Colette Kendall) rhapsodizes, “the obsessed kind, not the stabby kind. They make the best personal assistants. They’re already keeping track of everywhere you go, so you may as well employ them.”

      Tippi’s humour is associative and brazen; she takes on everything from American politics to the unfortunate gravitational effects of aging: “Last week, I gave myself a surprise mammogram when I shut my laptop too quickly.” Be prepared to be shocked—and to laugh yourself silly.
      At Venue 5, Performance Works, on September 6 (10:30 p.m.), 7 (3:15 p.m.), 9 (10:15 p.m.), 11 (10:45 p.m.), 12 (6:45 p.m.), and 13 (5:15 p.m.) > KO

      Mr. Fox
      Greg Landucci has a knack for finding humour in the joys and humiliations of entry-level work. In Mr. Fox, he’s an aspiring radio announcer who lands a job as the CFOX mascot. He nearly blows his first gig, then blossoms when he discovers that the suit gives him licence to do things he can’t do in his normal life.

      This show, directed by T J Dawe, boasts many of the strengths Landucci displayed in last year’s Dishpig: his innocent charm, his energetic presentation of visceral details (in this case, how sweat and other bodily fluids permeate a suit worn by several mascots), and his distinctive characters. Here, they range from the station’s effusive promotions director to a deadly earnest mascot recruiter. Mr. Fox feels a little underdeveloped, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
      At Venue 5, Performance Works, on September 4 (5:45 p.m.), 5 (8:30 p.m.), 6 (5 p.m.), 9 (6 p.m.), 11 (8:45 p.m.), and 14 (1:30 p.m.) > KO

      The Sputniks
      Lately, few shows on the Fringe circuit have aspired to depth and beauty. The Sputniks does. In her solo offering, Elison Zasko embodies a family of intellectual Russian Jews. The daughter, a girl named Katya, leads us through a maze of flashbacks, some of which are drolly funny. We see her father introducing himself to her mother by yelling, “Don’t sew a pocket on your vagina!” “It’s witty in Russian,” Katya explains.

      Ultimately, however, the play is about the family’s tough experience as refugees in Austria and then Switzerland. Much of Zasko’s storytelling is straightforward, but she throws in a poetic twist that will have you rethinking the show long afterward. Zasko is a charmer, and her show is generous.
      At Venue 4, the False Creek Gym, on September 5 (6:45 p.m.), 6 (3:45 p.m.), 7 (5:00 p.m.), 8 (9:45 p.m.), 11 (5:15 p.m.), and 12 (9:15 p.m.) > CT

      Busty Rhymes with MC Hot Pink
      Get ready, she-pimps and man ’hos, to take a frank, fresh look at sexual politics with Auckland comic Penny Ashton. A bachelorette in a city where single women are said to outnumber available men by 35,000, Ashton has had more than her share of shitty dating experiences, but she mines this material in refreshingly daring ways.

      Her pieces range from a compilation of bad pickup lines (“Can I floss with your pubic hair?”) to a tango number, a washboard hoedown, and some hip-hop parody. Ashton is a clever rhymester and a strong singer, and she’s equally unafraid of vulgarity and self-revelation. Her candour and her fighting spirit make her an engaging performer.
      At Venue 5, Performance Works, on September 4 (7:45 p.m.), 5 (10:30 p.m.), 6 (8:45 p.m.), 10 (6:45 p.m.), 13 (10:45 p.m.), and 14 (5:30 p.m.) > KO

      The Mechanical Bride
      Great premise, terrific execution, but this show doesn’t feel quite complete. Graham Newmarch and Ming Hudson play He and She, two humans whose every action is determined by a Master Operating Mechanism (aka MOM), who speaks to them from a bank of video monitors. Apple-cheeked and physically awkward, the performers are charming embodiments of innocence as they fumble around trying to master the basics of falling in love, from using the phone to kissing.

      Director Quinn Harris effectively incorporates the technology she’s critiquing, and draws delightfully inventive physical work from the actors. The piece is technically polished, but it peters out before coming to a satisfying conclusion.
      At BYOV B, Carousel Theatre, on September 4 (11 p.m.), 5 (9 p.m.), 6 (9 p.m.), 7 (5 p.m.), 8 (9 p.m.), 9 (7 p.m.), 10 (11 p.m.), 12 (5 p.m.), 13 (3 p.m.), and 14 (7 p.m.) > KO

      Jem Rolls: How I stopped worrying and learnt to love the mall
      Jem Rolls’s new show is a departure from his previous Fringe outings, which were essentially poetry readings. The poetry is still here, but this time it’s structured as one sustained attack on “an experience that human evolution has not prepared us for: the mall”.

      Rolls moves through the temple of consumerism using multiple points of view. His relentless, rapid-fire delivery can make it tough to wrap your head around some of his abstractions, and it has him dripping with sweat by the show’s halfway mark. But hang in there: I found the show’s last moments its strongest, because Rolls offers some concrete personal anecdotes—and they’re hilarious.
      At Venue 2, Waterfront Theatre, on September 6 (10:30 p.m.), 7 (3:15 p.m.), 9 (9:45 p.m.), 11 (10:30 p.m.), 12 (7 p.m.), and 13 (5:15 p.m.) > KO

      The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
      It’s no surprise that this show contains the line, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” What is surprising is their speaker: this adaptation of three Sherlock Holmes stories recasts the famous detective as a woman.

      Susannah Coster is a confident Holmes, and is supported by Garry Boon’s solid Watson and Ben Dudley in a variety of colourful roles. The three have a firm command of the text’s old-fashioned rhythms and carry things off with a competently minimalist style. Mystery buffs and literary types will enjoy this pleasant diversion.
      At Venue 1, Studio 16, on September 6 (4:45 p.m.), 7 (12:30 p.m.), 9 (7:30 p.m.), 10 (5 p.m.), 12 (5 p.m.), and 13 (8:45 p.m.) > KO

      Charles Ross rocked the Fringe world with his One Man Star Wars Trilogy and One Man Lord of the Rings. In Sev, he tells the story of a character he calls Lot Boy, an ordinary 16-year-old who works at a 7-Eleven in Nelson.

      The mythic element is still present: Lot Boy imagines himself as a knight who is struggling to impress Princess Tina and Queen Severin (his coworker and his manager). Ross possesses an expressive voice and body, and he works hard to please. But too many of the antagonists look and sound alike, his script wanders too long before developing Lot Boy’s interest in Tina, and the story, though sweet at times, never accumulates much heft.
      At BYOV D, Havana, on September 5 (8:15 p.m.), 6 (6 p.m.), 7 (9 p.m.), 8 (9 p.m.), 9 (7:15 p.m.), 10 (7:15 p.m.), 12 (10:30 p.m.), and 13 (7:45 p.m.) > CT

      Old Growth
      Xander and Aura, two alternative types, perform a woodland ritual to celebrate Grant Hadwin, the logger who cut down the Golden Spruce in Haida Gwaii. Xander takes the view that Hadwin was making a legitimate statement: people care about one tree but not ecosystems.

      Sometimes, Old Growth manages an odd tension between naivety and irony. But the script is repetitive, melodramatic, and—in the end—preachy.
      At Venue 6, the Granville Island Stage, on September 6 (1:15 p.m.), 8 (6:30 p.m.), 11 (7:30 p.m.), 13 (7:15 p.m.), and 14 (3:30 p.m.) > CT