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Fresh Meat Theatre Festival: Fresh To Death (Oct. 17-19)

Brianna McFarlane

In Ottawa there is a serious lack of opportunity for young local theatre creators to produce their own work and experiment with form and story.  The Ottawa Fringe Festival, the arena that offers  the most opportunity also features major out of town artists and sadly comes around only once a year. The Youth Infringement Festival caters to a completely different mandate and set of objectives, where teaching youth how to run a production and the basic elements of scriptwriting are paramount.

Jonah Allingham, founder of Backpack Theatre, has taken it upon himself to create a festival that features up and coming, notable, and local theatre companies and gives them the space and the freedom to expand themselves artistically. In its second year running, the Fresh Meat Theatre Festival is one of the most exciting events to happen to the local theatre scene and easily contends with SubDevision, probably the only other event that promotes predominately local artists who push the theatrical form.

This year the festival has doubled its run length and number of participants by expanding over two weekends at the Lunenberg Pub with fourteen companies, both emerging and established within the community.  The first weekend featured Fresh Meat veterans Little Green Hat, Rapscallion Diversion, and GrimProv while being rounded out by new blood Whimsimole,  FireFlood Theatre, Thunk! Theatre, and solo performer Madeleine Boyes-Manseau. Though I very sadly ended up missing Whimsimole due to luck of the draw (literally- the order of the run is determined the night of!), the rest of the companies really left their hearts and soul on the stage and, for better or worse, each had a story to tell and a strong point of view from which to tell it.

The first company I had the pleasure of seeing was GrimProv, who also doubled as this weekend’s masters of ceremonies. Made up of Joel Garrow, Mike Kosowan, Drew McFayden and featuring slick musical accompaniment by DJ Helicase (aka Austin Vair), these guys are seriously impressive at their improv. I was lucky enough to catch the Friday and Saturday night shows and, honestly, I couldn’t tell you which one was my favourite. Both skits, Everyday Hero and the Cop-out, had me in stitches and I couldn’t believe how spot on DJ Halicase’s soundtrack was throughout each show. Moreover, these guys are quick thinkers, creative and hilarious actors, and look like they are having the time of their lives on stage. I look forward to seeing this company again soon!

The next company was one I was eager to see: Little Green Hat with their piece Who Will Separate Us? written and performed by Tess McManus and also starring Holly Griffith and Victoria Luloff.  I am always interested to see what McManus, founder of Little Green Hat, will come up with because of her strong voice and her unmatched determination to produce theatre. These elements are incredibly clear through the performance that these three women give in this piece, though the text itself is stuffed to the seams with ideas, messages, morals, and trajectories.

Who Will Separate Us? is a story about three Irish women who are linked to a peaceful national resistance and are being held unlawfully in an unofficial Belfast prison. Awaiting their impending execution the women bond over stories of personal struggle, war, violence, and together they sing about the Irish legend of Meesh Laughlin- guardian of the forest- in hopes that she might save them from their doom. In the end, they accept their fates and face their deaths head on, with the strong conviction that they never sacrificed their beliefs.

Overall, this piece has far too many ideas going on to be only twenty minutes long and truthfully, I had a difficult time trying to find something to take away from it. It bombards us with the entire historical and political context of Ireland, as well as the issues regarding women’s’ prisons during this time, and issues regarding women’s rights in general. This is all linked together by the Irish myth of the forest guardian and peppered with moments of character development. It was as though McManus filled the piece with historical factoids and bits of philosophy, but forgot a plot line: there is no inciting incident, no climax, and ultimately no real resolution.

However, performance wise, there are some really strong moments to this show. I thought this piece had the best use of the space, that I’ve seen thus far and I was incredibly intrigued by the stage make-up, especially Griffith’s bloody fingers. The sound design, by Tim Oberholzer, was also very effective; though I wish the sound system itself had been better because it just didn’t do Oberholzer’s design proper justice in that the recording of the female prison guard, an intimidating Michelle LeBlanc, and the punches were not nearly as loud or as intense as they could have been. Not to mention having to play over the ruckus from the lower level of the pub!

Finally, a lot of the movement on stage was interesting to watch especially whenever Griffith moved around the stage in an almost bird-like fashion or when McManus’ character has her breakdown and throws herself at the barred window. This is where the passion of the performers really shines and what makes the piece engaging when the text, unfortunately, is not. Perhaps it might benefit from being longer with more of a precise focus.

Finishing off my Friday night was FireFlood Theatre’s Wake, inspired by a true story created and performed by company creator Nicholas Amott. This show is very similar to Who Will Separate Us? in that, performance wise, I find this piece to be very interesting to watch, but textually it feels very weak. Wake is a story about a man named Todd who suffers from FFI or fatal familial insomnia, which is a rare disease of the brain that is caused by a mutation in a certain protein strand and involves progressively worsening insomnia. We are taken on a journey through Todd’s past memories of childhood and his initial diagnosis of the disease and into his often unhelpful sessions with his psychiatrist.  Throughout it all Todd begins to think that perhaps this condition represents the next stage in human evolution and attempts to eradicate the need for sleep from his body and soul.

Again, I felt as though this piece did not have a clear plot line or trajectory; it was a series of small scenes that didn’t seem to have a climax or a resolution and I was left unsure of what the playwright/performer wanted me to take away from the show. One question I always ask myself when watching a show is Why this play now? And while Wake certainly contains interesting subject matter there is no immediacy to the piece. This show could use some further development because I think once the story is better refined and combined with Amott’s creative staging, in which the actor solely lights himself with a number of different instruments onstage ranging from an iPhone flashlight to a hanging work light, there’s a strong performance to be had! The lighting elements are so integral to this piece in that the shadow play, the contrast between the light and the darkness, and when the actor chooses to light himself make it much more interesting to watch.

Thunk! Theatre was the fourth company I checked off my list, though they were the show openers on Saturday night. I was looking forward to this company because I had missed them at the Undercurrents festival this past year and had heard nothing but good things about Bread, originally developed in Theatre 4.6999’s Creator’s Lab under the direction of Kevin Orr. For this year’s Fresh Meat Festival, Karen Balcome and Geoff McBride have written a simple little story called Far & Near & Here, with excerpts from Rowboat in a Hurricane, written by Julie Angus, and The Ocean Almanac.

The story is told through the reading of postcards sent between two characters, Ted and Ned, who find themselves unexpected pen-pals after Ted returns Ned’s notebook she left in a café. Innately curious about one another, they arrange to meet in person for the first time in the middle of the ocean, the halfway point between their homes of Far and Near. However, this first meeting it is not at all what they expected and we watch as they try to weather the gathering proverbial storm.

What I liked most about this show was its use of props and the use of the stage space, especially when the rolling chairs doubled as row boats. I also appreciated the simplicity and the completeness of the story. It was well acted and very clear in its questions of what do you do with what things that you find? and how do you deal with your own dashed expectations? An interesting look at the ways in which humans try to connect with one another, the piece explores the lengths to which we go to in order to make those connections.

Unfortunately, Far & Near & Here does not excite me nearly as much as the potential of the previous two companies’ pieces and this convention of story-telling through letter reading is reminiscent of similar short scenes like Love Letters by A.R. Gurney or Post-Its (Notes on a Marriage) by Winnie Holzman and Paul Dooley, and is one that is definitely not for everyone. I liked the idea of the audience participation element, but wish it was interspersed throughout the entire piece rather than just happening predominantly at the end during Ned and Ted’s argument. Often times I strained to hear what the actors were saying which I felt was very integral to the story. Perhaps all of this cacophonous noise was supposed to represent “the storm”, but I noticed that the audience would often stop participating in order to try and hear the dialogue, so it felt a little awkward. While this piece was not my favourite, a vast majority of people seemed to really enjoy it, so maybe it’s safe to write this one off as being a “different strokes for different folks” kind of performance.

Next up, an artist I always enjoy seeing on the stage: Madeleine Boyes-Manseau with her solo piece To Hell in a Handbasket. Boyes-Manseau is an incredibly versatile artist with an impressive resume: a resident member and creative force behind Prix Rideau Award nominated company May Can Theatre, she herself was nominated for a Prix Rideau Award for her performance in The Open Couple directed by Jodi Sprung-Boyd. Moreover, she is an artistic associate with Salamander Theatre for Young Audiences and was the most recent recipient of the RBC Emerging Artist award in which she was given the opportunity to assistant direct alongside Peter Pasyk for Like Wolves at the GCTC.  Not to mention her equally impressive list of dramaturgical and directorial contributions (Sarah Segal-Lazar, Jennifer Boyes-Manseau, Tony Adams, and Fiona Green). Having said this, I had high expectations for this performance and, boy, I was not to be disappointed!

To Hell in a Handbasket is something of a stream of consciousness stemming from a very conflicted character, Joy, who struggles with the moral codes of today’s society, the concept of choice, and what it means to be whole. All of this is embedded within the Joy’s experiment in which she hypothesizes that our focused negative or positive intentions have the ability to physically change the subject, specifically in this case two jars of rice labelled “You Fool” and “I Love You”, which our intentions are focused on.  Whether or not the jars of rice are a symbol for children, it is never explicitly made clear, and by the end she becomes increasingly frustrated by the lack of answers and ultimately gives up on her experiment. Though a lot of the content matter revolves around the uterus, one thing must be made clear: this is not a play about the pro-life/pro-choice debate; this is a piece about an individual who is unsure of where she fits in within the fabric of ‘normal’ society and her attempt to figure out what it all means.

That’s why I felt this show was so strong, because, for lack of a better phrase, it didn’t bash you over the head with its politics. Furthermore, the show itself is engaging to watch and Boyes-Manseau is a strong presence on stage. When she first enters the space, I got flashbacks of her performance in Sacred Sites for Suburbia, presented at the 2010 Youth Infringement Festival, but after the first two minutes I realized that this character was nothing like juvenile, adolescent Jocelyn and that this woman was embittered by life and haunted by the choices she had made.

The use of the stage was kept minimal, the performer restricting herself to a table and chair kept centre stage, though there was enough variety in levels and movement to keep it from feeling too stale. The use of the props, for example the eerie looking uterus in the jar, certainly added an extra visual element to the performance while also enhancing the storytelling experience. Although certainly this show is strong enough as it is, I would also be interested to see it developed into a slightly longer piece because it seems as though this character has a lot left to say!

Last, but definitely not least, Rapscallion Diversion, returning for their second year, showcased their piece Manimales, starring company founder himself Jake William Smith and Tony Adams with directorial contributions by Martin Glassford. The play focuses around friends, Sam and Bob, who attempt to take a relaxing camping trip and in the process begin to question their roles as men in society and consequently come to learn more about themselves and each other. This piece is supremely hilarious while also having the stones, pun definitely intended, to question today’s socially accepted gender roles and what it means to be a man.  This was an excellent follow up to Hell in a Handbasket, and, similarly, is a show I think could work as a longer piece.

The most interesting thing to note about this show is that although Sam and Bob attempt to recreate moments that are supposed to make them feel manly (i.e. drinking in the woods, camping, and hunting), they fail miserably at each one and in the end feel out of place. Smith plays a strong reasoned Bob, who clearly doesn’t camp very often, showing up to the campsite in dress-pants, a vest, and tie, and acts as a stark contrast to slightly irrational Sam, confused by these gender roles, but desperate to fit it, played by an equally strong Adams, who keeps his character from becoming a caricature.

The ‘flashback’ scenes in which the characters act out stereotypical manly behaviour or situations are definitely done effectively for this short piece, however, if it was to be developed further these scenes have potential to be explored in far greater depth as, like Handbasket, it feels like these characters still have things to say. In sum, from seeing last year’s show to viewing the publicity material for this year’s piece, I was definitely expecting something a little more on the silly side from the gentlemen at Rapscallion Diversion, though I was pleasantly surprised and ultimately pleased that this comedy had some mature and poignant undertones that hold great resonance within our community.

To conclude, the first round of this festival has gotten me even more excited for the second round (if that was even possible) and I still maintain that this is one of the best events to happen to the young and local theatre scene in a long while. This coming weekend (Oct 24-26) you can check out seven new companies including familiar Fresh Meat faces May Can Theatre, Backpack Theatre, and Dead Unicorn Ink and introducing Fresh Meat first-timers 2 ½ Women, Here Be Dragons, Norah Paton, and Obviously, a Theatre Company. You don’t want to miss out on this seriously fresh festival.