For the last few years some of my friends have been telling me about the Fringe Festival here in Ottawa, though without enough detail to make me interested in going. I didn't even clearly know where it was held or what it looked like. This time, there weren't enough people around for a RuneQuest game so they were finally able to talk me into going last Friday evening. I'm quite happy that I went; going to the Ottawa Fringe Festival is a lot like going to the Shaw festival but with much lower cost, less travel time and similarly interesting idea plays, though it does have deeper duds and a more addictive property, like popcorn.
The venues are tightly placed around the north part of Ottawa University and the Arts Court. The four main theatres are all pretty close, a 5 minute walk apart at most, with the beer garden tent (live music is scheduled there), tables and barbeque stand in the field inbetween. The two larger theatres themselves are classic rows of bolted-to-the-floor seats (at most around 200) and a stage. The smaller ones are a temporary plywood platform for the actors with generic classroom chairs for the audience. I didn't make it to the Alumni auditorium, the fifth place. There are also some other places outside for busker shows and other events.
All of the theatrical spaces have theatrical lighting systems, which is a bit amazing considering that there are about half a dozen plays in each place, each one needing their own lighting setup. Sometimes this gets a bit complex, judging by the maze of marker tape on some of the stage floors.
Outside each theatre (sometimes outdoors, other times in the corridor) is a
table with the Fringe volunteer ticket sellers for that show - tickets
available one hour before the show starts. There is a one time $2
administrative cover charge, getting you a pin which lets you buy tickets and
that plus a show ticket lets you in. The actual show tickets are $8 (half that
on the opening night - got a few $4 ones shared with my friends on Friday).
The whole $8 goes to the performers, giving them incentive to attract
audiences. The performers get a time slot by paying a several hundred dollar
fee to the Fringe Festival and agreeing to do at least six shows. That means
you'll see them handing out flyers and enthusiastically urging you to visit
their show when you exit from a performance.
So, to really "Fringe" do this:
From best downwards, these are the plays I saw:
Indulgence is a nice twisty complex farce with strong actors. The result is as good as other plays I've seen by professional theatrical groups. The story revolves around a serial killer, killing two nuns (must be a sign from God he thinks!) on the day being depicted. Well, not quite, he's too weak to actually kill anyone by strangulation, instead his wife pays off the people and generates fake news reports to keep him happy. Oddly the nun is played by a man, who sometimes forgets to use the female voice (I incorrectly thought they couldn't get an actress to play her). The nun actually fell asleep rather than dying due to narcolepsy, then had the misfortune to knock on the murder's door later that day and got "killed" again. The wife bribes and threatens an Esperanto-only speaking witness, who later turns out to be the new husband of the wife's sister, and even later is revealed to be the missing swept-to-sea new husband of the wife's gay son, picked up by the Vancouver ferry boat where he met the wife's sister (who is actually her daughter) and had marriage forced on him. There are more than a dozen other interactions that are not what they seem, ending up with the murderer being an actor replacing the wife's missing husband, who's actually the nun. Seeing it a second time helped put it together, where you notice subtle glances from the nun (run-away husband) and understand his annoyance at the murder (replacement husband).
Teaching Shakespear 2 or Teaching Detroit is a one actor production that is quite amazing. The audience is the community college class for a course in literature, taught by a burnt out actor. Today he's covering his own book "Detroit" about how he went there to get killed after being such a failure that he was kicked out of his university teaching post (presumably for last year's Teaching Shakespear parody of a professor teaching Shakespear so badly you never know which play he's talking about). He goes on about various things that went wrong in his life, occasionally stopping to point out academic critical aspects - this chapter in the middle is slow, or Shakespear never went to the places he described while he has been to Detroit, or people called his book Contrived while Shakespear gets away with killing half of Norway in Hamlet's ending. He really brings the characters alive by the use of eyeball whites, good vocal presentation (sit in the second row or later to avoid getting wet), motion and characterisation (switching instantly from the teacher to a native of Detroit - speach patterns, motion and even dancing). There's a mixed ending in the book (maybe a tad contrived) when his native guide dies of AIDS, though it turns a bit happier when the young whore shows him her kids at the Christmas gunfire celebration. The real ending is sadder, with the teacher desperately lowering the price of his book to get people to buy it.
Root of all Squares is a nice thought play, covering the idea of ownership and property between a dupe and his friend Stan, a manipulator. Stan starts by marking off a square on the floor with masking tape, then declares that the dupe shouldn't step in it since it would be like her body - don't touch. Ownership, material value, interest rates, war and other things get explained to the gullible dupe, who ends up owing a pile of rocks to Stan. Well acted, quickly paced, and within my comprehension limits, but somehow a bit flat. Maybe if the dupe had learned something and gotten a bit smarter, perhaps tricking Stan at the end or changing emotional state from baffled friendship to anything else.
S.O.S. Sauvé Our Sunflower is a bilingual play about two small theatrical groups who want to save their cheap rehersal space when their community centre is about to be demolished. One group is Anglo, the other is Franco and they don't get along too well - just one sensible woman in each group gets them to join forces and publicise the need for the community center by putting on a play. There's a nice scene where the English and French lead actors are trying to write the script, each one trashing the other's favorite playwrights, then going on to their cultural stereotypes. Turns out that both can speak the other's language but don't on principle. It helps if you understand both French and English, but you don't need to since major plot points are made in both languages.
Extension is a nice song and dance number, with an actor and actress playing a fading vaudeville couple. They're waiting for the phone to ring, playing gin rummy and reminising about the past. There are a few dance numbers (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers style) which they carry off adequately (but not spectacularly), but then the bouncy plywood floor and the broken heel costume failure didn't help. Oddly they notice their friends only show up when they get free dinner and tickets. They also don't want to call their agent since that never worked in the past. Or call their family. Various issues are chewed over, tempers flair, they reconcile. Finally, when the agent does call with a movie deal (I can see why he doesn't want to talk to them - the deal is almost lost when the actor bargains too agressively for minor perks), they fall back into the rut, and the phone rings constantly - old friends showing up, and even wrong numbers call again.
The Mind of Heinrich von Zuben is centered around the missing two years in a philosopher's 19th century journal, being examined in the framing plot device by a couple of students (one who's more interested in sex than study) in the present. Back to 19th century Germany, we find the philosopher upset by the recent death of his mother and his rebuffed advances to the maid. His fellow philosopher wonders why he isn't at the salon as often as before. Then Jesus Christ comes by and beats him up for being a sinner. Jesus is a Harpo Marx style character - exploding clown hair, never speaks, honks a horn. God (an Elvis impersonator, with the accent down pat) and Moses (native American with braided hair and a patient expression) come by on the trail, looking for Jesus (just follow the blood). Things get more mixed up, the philosopher friend gets mistaken for the philosopher and captured by God, Hitler appears (presumably the real evil) and argues with the philosopher. Then the framing plot device people are drawn in too to help decide who's good and who's not. Some interesting ideas, but they aren't strung together well. Though it does explain the hole in the journal.
Copyright © 2004 by Alexander G. M. Smith.