Vancouver Fringe Festival shows shine new light on nerd culture

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      Go ahead, call them nerds. Or geeks. Or fanboys and fangirls. Those are, after all, the labels that they give themselves, those among us for whom their favourite comic books, movies, and role-playing games are as essential as food, air, and water are for everyone else. It’s easy to laugh at someone who is heart-and-soul invested in whether or not Jon Snow lives or dies, but we all have our own pop-culture obsessions, which means that we’re all nerds in some way. It also means that there’s a Vancouver Fringe Festival show for all of us.

      The title character of Andrew Wade’s latest Fringe production, William vs the World, filters all of his experiences through his fandom. Interviewed at a South Granville coffee shop, Wade, who also plays William in the play, says: “He understands things through the lenses of geek culture. He figures out an element of his life doesn’t work—which is complete seclusion in his home—by comparing it to Yoda on Dagobah. Or how he thinks, ‘Oh, it’s kind of nice to go outside and get some fresh air and calm yourself,’ and he associates that with the Firefly theme song [“The Ballad of Serenity”]: ‘You can’t take the sky from me. No matter what else you’ve taken from me, I’ve still got that.’ So this is legitimately me trying to make the geekiest show I can think of; I fully intend every audience member to maybe get 30 percent of the references, and that’s enough.”

      Wade admits that William started out as an exaggerated version of himself. When he first staged the show at the Saskatoon Fringe last summer, though, he had several audience members thank him for creating a play about an autistic man. Rather than dial back aspects of the character that might have led to that perception, the playwright decided to embrace them. The text never explicitly states that William is autistic, but Wade says the character is indeed on the spectrum.

      As a result, William’s interactions with other characters are notably awkward and marked by social miscues. “There are definitely scenes within my show where William is the person in the wrong,” Wade says. “If it was the other characters’ show, he would be the villain, the jerk, the antagonist in that moment. But we’re seeing it from William’s side, and William is just oblivious to what’s going on, that that would not be a socially great thing to do.”

      Sean Amsing as Eugenius in The Antagonist

      Duy Nguyen

      In contrast, the title character of Daniel Galiano’s The Antagonist is an unequivocally rotten apple. Eugenius is, after all, a supervillain plotting (you guessed it) global domination. In a telephone interview, Galiano—who has had a front-row seat to fan culture at its geekiest as both a manager at the Rio Theatre and an extra on the set of films including Star Trek Beyond—says Eugenius is at least cognizant of his status as a world-class jerk.

      “I think he’s aware of what he’s doing, and there’s a lot of regret there,” Galiano tells the Straight. “I always thought he was like a bad guy who wanted to be a good guy, but people keep getting on his nerves or whatever; he’s not too patient with people. Have you ever been rude or mean to someone you know, or don’t know, and perhaps it was just because you were in a bad mood over something trivial, and later you regret it—or immediately after, once you’ve taken a moment to calm down? That’s what the play’s about.”

      Deep down, Eugenius just wants to be liked. “He’s just going about it the wrong way,” Galiano says. “The more antagonistic he is to the people around him, the further away he gets from what he wants, which is to fit in with everybody. So it’s kind of a study on how not to act, how not to behave if you want people to like you.”

      Galiano promises that after watching The Antagonist, audience members won’t be able to view another superhero movie without seeing the villains in a new light. The actors who get to play the bad guys (like Sean Amsing, who stars as Eugenius in The Antagonist) have the most fun anyway. Galiano points to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films as a prime example.

      “Nobody talks about Christian Bale in those movies,” he says. “They always talk about the villains. I mean, The Dark Knight should have been called The Joker, that’s how much he [Heath Ledger] just outshone everybody and everything in that movie.”

      Charlie Ross in One Man Dark Knight.

      Charlie Ross likely agrees with that assessment. In his latest show, One Man Dark Knight: A Batman Parody, Ross tackles all the characters in the Nolan movies—which allows him to show off his impressions of Bale, Ledger, Michael Caine, and others—but he confesses that he takes particular delight in re-creating Tom Hardy’s Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.

      Ross, whose repertoire also includes solo versions of the Lord of the Rings and original Star Wars trilogies, says he’s a big fan of Nolan’s movies but finds them especially ripe for parody. Previous on-screen incarnations of the Caped Crusader, from the 1960s TV show through the Joel Schumacher nipple-suit flicks of the ’90s, have played up the campy aspects of Batman. Nolan, however, brought a grim-faced and deadly serious approach to telling the inherently silly tale of a billionaire playboy who spends his nights flitting about Gotham City in a cape and tights.

      “That’s what made Lord of the Rings so easy to parody, and what made Star Wars so easy to parody, because the films did take themselves so seriously,” Ross says over the phone from his home in Victoria. “I guess it’s sort of like when you get a little kid who gets really, really upset about something that we think is quite trivial, and that makes it easy to make fun of it. The extra layer is that I have the exuberance of the young kid in the man’s body on-stage, so you can laugh at me laughing at my love or enjoyment, in a sort of voyeuristic way. And yet I’m still trying to wear two hats—parody the actual source material and at the same time show how much I still love it. So it’s a very weird kind of tightrope.”

      That sense of parodying the geekosphere while simultaneously celebrating it is a thread that connects Ross’s show to those of Wade and Galiano. If you start to take your fandom too seriously, after all, you risk letting it take over your life, and you become Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons—or Wade’s William, for that matter.

      “When my show begins, William is someone who has burrowed into all of the nerdy passions as a way of hiding, as a way of protecting himself from needing to encounter uncertainty,” Wade tells the Straight. “A person who goes and watches the exact same five movies over and over and over again, they’re the kind of person who uses them as a safety blanket. You know, ‘This is something I know. This is something that’s comforting.’ And it’s important for people to feel discomfort, for people to feel unusual circumstances that require them to make new choices.”

      Fittingly, that’s as good a summary of the Fringe as anyone, self-described nerd or otherwise, could ever hope to find.

      William vs the World runs at the Arts Umbrella, The Antagonist runs at the Cultch, and One Man Dark Knight runs at the Rio Theatre as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival from Thursday (September 8) to September 18.