The Vancouver Fringe returns for its 22nd year, running until the 17th with the Pick of Fringe following almost immediately after, Sept 21-24. It’s a considerably thinner festival, and a little shaky, but filled with a renewed sense of purpose and fun.
David Jordan has taken up the wheel left spinning by departing Executive Director Kirsten Shrader as she leaped off the sinking ship that was the Fringe and started doggy-paddling for any white sand beach she could find. It’s yet to be seen whether Jordan has what it takes to ride the storm out, but so far every indication I’ve seen suggests he has his own supply of sand. Jordan actually seems to care about his staff, the performers and their shows; he’s comfortable making an ass of himself on stage and that is the greatest compliment I can pay any theatre administrator. A willingness to get his hands dirty and his ass wiggling. Gotta love that. He has a lot of leaks to plug, but I am going to suggest that the mere act of admitting his ship needs a bit of corking is miles away from not only ignoring the rising water level but throwing all the corks overboard because they take up space better used for a more executive-looking desk. I have a warm feeling. The Vancouver Fringe has a long life ahead of it searching out new territories where there do be monsters.
There are fewer shows this year at fewer venues. A few beloved regulars have not returned, but many have and there is a wealth of new blood joining the mix. The Art Pit has returned and there are nightly podcasts going on from the Fringe bar at Origins CafÃ©, across the street, sort of, from Performance Works at the eastern edge of the island. Also, in addition to the late night cabarets on Friday and Saturday at 11ish p.m. there is to be a Secret Secret Cabaret. Both are being put on by the performers themselves just for the hell of it, because they wanna. The Secret Secret Cabaret, though, is almost incest. You are hearing about the filth here first. I know this is happening because one of the Pajama Men (I can never tell them apart except one of them has puppies and the other Thomas the Tank Engine) told me so. And they are all about the incest. They just won’t tell me yet the when and where. When I know, you’ll know.
So come down to the Fringe and see the best and occasionally the worst in theatre and stranger stuff. There are occasional stinkers to be found, sure. Don’t be discouraged. Pick yourself up, have a stiff drink, or at least a plastic cup of beer, and march yourself off to another. The rock show and the indie gallery just can’t deliver what a Fringe can. You have to buy a one-off “Fringe Passport” for $5, so the Fringe can support itself somehow (revenues go directly to the performers, though it is $10 at the door and $12 if you book in advance, which gets smarter as the festival progresses and popular shows start selling out).
This year I am more than ably assisted by the lovely Kliph Nesteroff and the delightful Jenny Apps. Both are funny, fabulous people in tight pants, and both are more professional than I. I told them their wordcounts for each review were a hundred words, and then I went and created 250 word blobs. Even my pants aren’t as tight. Except when I look at them in their tight pants. Grab yourself a programme on Granville Island start plotting your course.
As ever, I’ll be at the bar swilling grog, continuing my hilarious but obviously false public image as a cheap drunk with a heart of gold. The peg leg this year is real though, in keeping with the salty, nautical theme of this article.
Sex, Violence and Nursery Rhymes
All children think about is sex. Sex, sex, sex sex. Sex and death. Sex, death and forbidden candy. I know because I never got past 8. Screaming Chicken Burlesque, the semidemihemi-dressed rapscallions who brought you Ed Wood’s Orgy of the Dead last year have plunged themselves into their first Fringe, treating sex and fetishism with the playfulness of prepubescent explorers.
The innocence of childhood is a nostalgic fantasy of adults missing the relative freedom of the past, but kids are more aware of biological realities than most parents who are terrified of the future. This is reflected throughout children’s literature. Chicken have refashioned several popular ditties to focus on the sublimated filth hidden (barely) in Mother Goose, Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and Sesame Street. Well, Fraggle Rock anyway. They make a subtle point, but more importantly, there’s lots of nudity and fun.
Sex, Violence and Nursery Rhymes suffers from being written in verse. Much of it is clever— dirty gags abound as expected— but it makes their usual onslaught of joy feel sluggish and memorised and the charming sense of amateurism, of beautiful folks out having a glorious time being silly, doesn’t work. They have what it takes to be kick-ass professional and will have to find that discipline. Still, this is Screaming Chicken’s first poke, and in years to come they are going to be heroic regulars of the Fringe establishment. — Alan Hindle.
CC is, as expected, a very funny sketch comedy show and an essential breather from the typical one-person fringe shows about people who were molested as children (I imagine the Canadian Council of the Arts stipulates the topic be covered extensively in exchange for funding). Ironically, CC actually contains no less than three sketches featuring molestation. If you feel ripped off from having seen too many bad fringe shows this is your quick fix. CC is funny, unpretentious, and a sure fire bet. My only criticisms would be that Penelope Corrin’s attractiveness occasionally distracts and that the show is too short.
— Kliph Nesteroff
Down the Drain
Finn is a lonely man who can’t even count on his morning toast sticking around. Could be because he talks like Scooby Doo with a mouth full of tahini and a face that looks like it was scooped out with a melon baller. Miserable, he goes to take a bath with a toaster. Rather than becoming toast himself he is transported to a magic land somewhere between a high school Under the Sea prom (we actually have those in Alberta. Something to do with not having an ocean makes us think it’s classy) and The Muppet Show. There he meets malevolent fish, helpful crabs, belly-dancing pirate’s treasure and the beauty and excitement of the world around him.
Sticky Finger’s production of Down the Drain uses life-sized puppets and household items animated by puppeteers dressed entirely, spookily, in black. One of the most beautiful, and disturbing images in the show is Finn’s electrocution, in which lights flare and crackle and you see in the shadows behind him the figures flinging and thrashing at him more clearly than the actual puppeteers in front of you.
Down the Drain has no plot, it’s just a series of images. Many of the images could be more tightly worked out, expanded upon to use the entire stage better, but for a no-budget show it’s beautifully designed. Drain is a lovely show for kids and grown-ups who never really did.
The Best of the Pajama Men
On their worst day the Pajama Men could put a show on in a morgue and bring back the dead with laughter. That probably would be their worst day, and whoever locked them up in the morgue should be ashamed of themselves. Shenoah Allen and Marc Chavez, lately of Albuquerque, now of Chicago, return to the Fringe with scraps of their past shows revisited— and you are not likely to find anything funnier in your lifetime. Soon you will be dead and buried. With any luck you will find yourself in a morgue awaiting interment and you’ll be able to catch one last show of theirs. That was my thinking when I locked them up in there.
Reeling through each other’s subconscious like Siamese Punch and Judy puppets with as little regard for logic and sense as this sentence, they melt and morph into new scenes and characters faster than adding mercury spoils a pasta dish. Incidentally, know now there is to be a secret secret cabaret put on by several brilliant performers of the Fringe. Allen confided this to me, though he didn’t know where or exactly when. You’ll have to hang out with your ears primed at the Fringe bar to find out. When I know, you’ll know, if I’m still sober enough to speak.
I am not going to tell people “if you see only one show at the Fringe…” It’s a cheap line. But know that soon you will be dead and the queues for tickets to the Pajama Men don’t get any shorter in the cold room.
As a boy Andrew Bailey loved Satan. He loved God, too, but Satan, let’s face it, is sexier. He feels like one of us. He feels local. The Devil CARES. He thinks about you. He may not have your best interests at heart, but at least he shows a little interest in your life and makes suggestions. He chips in. He shows his hand. God, on the other hand, for all his secret and benevolent ways, often seems a mysterious, invisible uncle occasionally sending you flowers on the wrong birthday.
Christian religions invest huge amounts of guilt into children hoping to reap dividends of morality and social decency when they grow up. Bailey absorbed all this guilt but instead of his love of God feeding back to invest a love for himself in himself he became self-loathing. An undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder fermented and fuelled this. Thankfully, because his parents were lovely, funny people, he also developed a sharp sense of humour, or else Scrupulosity would be a horrid bore. Instead it is both thought provoking and extremely funny, often within the same line.
I could criticise the relentless monotony of delivery, but that is an essential element of his character, the driving geekiness which has made him explore his inner reaches so, well, compulsively. This show takes a very specific condition, and by sheer candour, humour and force of will, makes it universal. It’s a beautiful monologue about learning to live with yourself, and say what you like about the Devil, at least he spurs on some great art.
British Comedian Paul Thorne has the business side of comedy figured out. Leave the tacky pub comedy nights behind, tour the fringes cross-country, make money, skip town. Thorne’s act is no better than most Vancouver comics, but he has the savvy to realise that being good is enough to make it on a fringe circuit where most shows are crap and most shows are about people getting molested. The venue, unfortunately, is not cut out for stand up, with the audience given the choice of sitting on opposing sidelines and the performer having to choose which part of the audience to address. Whoever designed the Pacific Theatre was a fool. This is a good show, the venue is bad.
64 and No More Lies
Susan Freedman is getting on. Chest pains, sore bones, hearing’s going, mind wandering— no, wait, that’s me. Susan’s actually still kinda hot. However, mortality is encroaching, and when she begins suffering “twinges” in her chest she finds herself sitting in the cardiac ward of the hospital with a lot of free time to consider things. Like wondering whether somebody remembered to take the meatloaf out of the freezer for dinner tonight.
64 is a sweet and sweetly observed and funny show. My problem is that I’m not 64. Yet. And it’s no use pointing out that one must take a show on its own merits because a show can be perfect, by whatever standards are being applied, and still not connect because the audience is not right. On the night I went there was, sensibly enough, a good number of senior citizens in the audience for whom a rather sharp-looking, mature woman addressing their concerns made for a brilliant show. They had a lot of fun. And I enjoyed myself, too. My enjoyment, however, was academic. It was a matter of recognising ability, appreciating structure and clarity of observations. Oh, and there are a few good humdingers in there to laugh at regardless of age. The fact I can use the word “humdinger” suggests I am not so far out of the age bracket, after all.
I can happily recommend this show to anybody already getting free rides on the bus. It’s less likely to appeal to younger audiences, unless you are one for considering the realities of living earlier than most of us.
The Package It Came In
Rubbish wrapped in rubbish is the major product our society now manufactures. We build crap (well, we contract and outsource other countries to do that) we sell crap, we buy crap (in the future these will be combined so that consumers can work from home calling and convincing themselves to buy stuff, eliminating salespeople, whom we will outsource as well) and we dispose of crap. Occasionally we recycle crap into other crap and sometimes clever businesses gather up that old crap from the dump, paint it blue and sell it back to us again. Adam and Eve didn’t get chucked out of Paradise. They just let Sanford and Son move in.
The Awkwards, all the way here from London, England, know a thing or two about crap. In fact, they know entirely too much. Their show, The Package It Came In, collapses under the gently simmering pile of refuse they shovel onto it. In the form of a lecture preparing Canada for the imminent invasion of United Supermarkets, the U.K.’s largest grocery conglomerate, Package crams in so much thinly satirised information it really does feel like a lecture. Except there isn’t actually that much information, either. Just thinly satirised cramming. Harriet Plewis as the duplicitous Annie Upsom, the rep from United touting her corporate agenda is a hoot to watch. She’s the only one who seems in control of her material and character. The heart is there for this show, but relevance of subject matter is not enough to make it worth watching. They don’t seem to be having much fun. All heart, no fun. Maybe they could rework the show, paint it blue or something. The problem with this show is that the package it came in isn’t glossy enough to care what’s inside.
British spoken word man, Jem Rolls, has been the darling of the fringe circuit for some while. In a perfect world he’d be the darling of everyone else too. Spoken word often gets a deservedly bad rap, but if JR were used as the prime example of the genre, the phrase “spoken word” wouldn’t be so tainted. He is a brilliant, captivating, writer/performer. Anyone who has ever suffered a night of amateur pretension at Cafe Deux Soleils or Thundering Word Heard can finally go see this show and get back that one night of their life they claimed “they’ll never have back.”
The Gong Show
How can I criticise the Gong Show? It’s supposed to be being awful! If something’s good it’s wrong. Performers from other acts at the Fringe— and anybody else who wants to— fling themselves onto the frying pan sized stage at the Fringe Club Bar Place and shimmy their artistic/spiritual ass until some jerk in the audience gets bored enough to gong them. The night I saw it Melody Mangler staggered drunkenly on stage, brutally groped a Madonna song while swigging tequila and when idiots started gonging her she shoved her breasts in their faces. Granted, one of the gongers was a woman, so that wasn’t going to work. And the two guys might have gonged her, hoping she would drop the tequila and put the Mexican nectar in play.
Presided over by Jacques Lalonde, the spirit of Fringe Past, Present and Future, if he’s not arrested first, and assisted by a rather attractive woman whose name I missed but whose gonging technique I couldn’t help admiring, the Gong Show is, well, a gong show. You go in knowing that. The real fun of it is joining in with the madness and make your gonging as entertaining as the stuff being gonged.
I’m curious how many times I can use the word “gong” before folks get bored of this review and gong me. You still there? Sucker.
The Chinese Clown Cabaret
Jane Chen wants to play. She squirms behind her big red nose, writhing with frustration, desperate to leap about and have some fun. Iron Mum, however, demands she practice. Practice practice practice! Sing your song! Dance your dance! Whack your tiny, tiny guitar! Again, ten times! You want to be good don’t you? The perversity of a mother relentlessly demanding her child rehearse being silly is beautiful.
The story is that Jane was in her hometown of San Francisco struggling to devise a show to tour the Fringe circuit and her mother kept helpfully getting in the way. Mother and daughter shouting at each other about placing props and chairs and the best way to follow the clown maxim of “getting things wrong” had the director howling. Mum was immediately conscripted to be part of the show. And, I don’t know for sure, I think they may have slightly reinvented certain notions of clowning.
If you are hate clowns, read no further. Go drink Boric acid, it’s your only chance at happiness. The trendy line of I’m Scared Of Clowns, or Clowns Are Creepy holds no weight with me. Ever watch Seinfeld? Or the Marx Brothers? Or the Simpsons? Ali G? Didja like what you saw? Congrats, you love clowns. Now stop with the Boric tonic already, there’s new hope for you. You may yet learn to laugh and love life. Now practice! Practice practice, practice! See the Chinese Clown Cabaret and get a headstart.
Tippi Seagram’s Happy Hour
Swathed in fur and swilling gin, Tippi Seagram, somewhat faded but still razor-sharp cinema goddess, struts and swans for an hour, spouting filth and offering no apologies whatsoever. Plucking audience members out for a kind-hearted ravaging— and occasionally ravishing— she explains why wearing fur is natural, sex and marriage not, and demonstrates her spectacularly undeveloped “gay-dar”.
Most shows that are improv are actually 90% rehearsed, but if they are good you can never tell. With Colette Kendall’s Tippi it’s harder to tell because she invites so many reactions from the audience, which she in turn has to react to, her store of applicable responses must be stretched pretty thin. I have a feeling her brain is moving faster than the cheetah whose pelt probably graces the lawnchair by her pool like a beach towel. I have a feeling a greater proportion of her show really is improv. I have a feeling it doesn’t matter, but it’s damn funny.
There are themes hidden deep in this show that seem designed to outrage animal rights activists almost as much as it is about getting Tippi laid after the show. Getting older gracefully or ungracefully, the foibles of trying to live up to expectations and the meaninglessness of social boundaries in the face of mortality maybe. The character is, nonetheless, basically two-dimensional. She’s a grotesque in the tradition of Absolutely Fabulous and Joan Crawford on any given Tuesday. This limits the potential richness of the show, but not the laughs, and that is the only standard by which any Fringe show can be judged.
I have to be honest. It’s hard to watch this show and not become fixated on David Mott’s balls swinging about his flimsy cotton underwear.
Moxie, a show remounted from Upintheair Theatre’s repertory, is another dark tale from Jason Rothery, who also wrote Wedgie. Pill, a man convicted of spitting, but who had dedicated his incarcerated life to planting pretty purple flowers and bleaching unsightly piss stains out of his fellow prisoners’ flimsy cotton underwear has received his death sentence for no good reason at all. In this prison, however, set in a not-so-unimaginable near future, death comes not gently from a sanitised needle but via a shrieking, howling meatgrinder. But Pill was so good! He did everything expected of him to make the best of his worthless life. He went above and beyond the call. What sense can be found in a society in which a man can be rendered sausage even when he has debased himself in every way the world has demanded of him, reducing himself, by his own will, to being little more than a walking sausage?
Moxie is a bleak story about betrayal and moral non-equation. It’s a play for men who like lots of screaming, noise and fatty meat. There’s violence (though admittedly none of it well done) and there’s anger and there’s lots of Deep Issues. There’s also a good dollop of comedy, black and sticky, and some great performances. Not all great performances, but enough. The relentless intensity of the play, running a full hour, I found exhausting, but these poor fuckers are in jail, doomed to die at any moment, there’s not a lot of time for frivolity.
Moxie is what it is, a fine show, but girlfriends should go in knowing it’s a guy play. At least you can relax and enjoy the balls. Mmm. Maybe that’s a guy thing, too.