My Big Fat Fresh Meat Review

Brianna McFarlane

When I walked into Pressed Café three years ago I wasn’t sure what to expect from the first ever Fresh Meat Theatre Festival. What I got, however, was a demand from the local theatre scene. They insist on being seen and being taken seriously. And boy, have they ever been. Since its inaugural year, Fresh Meat has housed twenty world premieres from local theatre companies and many of its alumni have gone on to create quite a stir within the community on a larger scale. Most notably, THUNK! Theatre and their 2013 Fresh Meat piece, Far & Near & Here, received the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s Creator’s Reserve Grant; and Little Green Hat’s Tales She Tells will find a home at NAC’s Fourth Stage this coming year.

The current mandate of the festival is to “support and showcase local theatre artists”, but for me the best and most impressive parts of this festival have always been about these artists pushing themselves and experimenting: trying out new things without being afraid to fail. High risks have been known to yield high rewards at this festival and this year’s festival is no exception. While the first weekend of shows left me slightly underwhelmed (with the exception of one), weekend number two showcased three works that really knocked it out of the park and brought Fresh Meat to a whole other level. (More on Weekend 2 to come shortly)

The opening weekend of #freshmeat3 featured new and returning local companies Backpack Theatre, Cart Before the Horse, Forstner & Fillister, THUNK! Theatre, and Traced Theatre with their newest offerings. The topics ranged from strained relationships between two superhero partners to the same between two woodworking brothers; to dealing with our internal monsters; to how to break the chain of living a dangerously monotonous life; and to a comedic journey from innocence to experience via mild drug trafficking. The shows themselves are well executed, if not a little safe. With the exception of Forstner & Fillister there doesn’t seem to be a desire to transcend merely executing a show for pure entertainment’s sake and it doesn’t feel as though the majority of the pieces are able to create something new or, in other words, fresh.

On the other hand, where Forstner & Fillister prevails is in its ability to draw the audience into the world of the characters and, consequently their dilemma, through the lens of a woodworking class, which treats us to a unique integration of audience participation. The use of real tools practically on stage is just dangerous enough to be exciting. More importantly, getting a real live wood working demonstration from two theatre practitioners cum woodworkers makes Forstner and Fillister join us in the real world. Further, through the way in which the piece uses metaphor and subtext, we are able to see the two brothers’ relationship degrade implicitly through the text rather than explicitly through actions or situations. It was also nice to see the company incorporate the changeover time into their piece allowing the characters to gain some credibility as woodworkers by building their own set. Most importantly, however, when combined with its exciting staging, Forstner & Fillister appeals to a bigger picture. That is a comedic look at a power shift between two siblings and its effect on therelationship between them.

The other four acts all have some strong elements to them certainly but across the board there is what feels to be a lack of that depth; that pizzaz; that je ne sais quoi that makes a piece truly special. Me and My Monster, created and performed by Megan Carty, focuses on a young girl dealing with her inner monster and is interspliced with audio recordings of interviews with people defining ‘monster’ in their own terms. Arguably better served perhaps as a purely movement piece set to these recordings.  Carty’s dialogue is cliché, superficial, and doesn’t address anything new about this heavily explored topic.

Smash.bam.kapow presented by THUNK! Theatre puts a tense relationship between two long serving superhero partners on stage and seemingly asks the audience for counsel, yet the piece doesn’t take it much further than that. Withoutreal stakes, the piece becomes two characters on stage bickering. Moreover, this is the most static and disappointing staging I’ve seen from THUNK! with the two characters occupying ladders on either side of the stage for a good chunk of the show.

Traced Theatre’s The Big Weed is a fast paced comedy about two naïve girls who find a rather substantial stash of weed in their new apartment and then attempt to dispose of it only to later learn they need it all back. The performers, Allie Harris and Lindsay Van Der Grinten, try exceedingly hard and succeed most of the time at being funny, but neither the story nor the character archetypes being portrayed are anything new or exciting. Also, I am a little astonished that it took six individuals to write this twenty minute piece…

Finally, My Cardboard Life, created and performed by Fresh Meat’s own festival founder, Jonah Allingham, is a story about a man trying to break free from the regimented routine that dictates his everyday life.  This is (you may have guessed it) symbolized by the ever-present cardboard box, which occupies the stage with him. The concept might seem a trifle banal, but the writing and the metaphor of the cardboard box give it potential. Despite directorial contributions by Katie Swift, the overall execution of this piece leaves much to be desired. Allingham appears to be rather nonchalant throughout most of the performance and the addition of audience participation towards the end of the piece is awkward and unmotivated by anything within the text itself. Overall, while the first weekend certainly managed to support and showcase local theatre artists, it remained just that: a showcase of new short works that are a little past their ’best before’ date.

Weekend number two, on the other hand, turned out to be a completely different experience with three out of the five shows really defining what it means to be ‘grade A’ fresh meat. FG[squared], Strange Visitations, Seedling Theatre, May Can Theatre, and Norah Paton all took to the stage Thursday night to premiere their new works. While FG[squared] and Seedling Theatre put forth an admirable (yet, again, safe) effort, Tusk Turns One!FASTER THAN THE SPEED OF DATING, and Burnt Out are clearly a cut above the rest at this year’s festival.

Arguably Fresh Meat’s most recognizable company, May Can Theatre presents Tusk Turns One! a deceptively innocent first birthday party organized by Tilly (played by Cory Thibert) for his adopted brother Tusk (played by Tony Adams.) Continuing May Can’s exploration of the darker side of human nature, there is a clear and unmistakable undertone of malice and animosity in Tilly’s interactions with Tusk. Violently, we see Tilly’s walls break down to expose the shards of a broken childhood symbolized by his tormented yearly birthday parties.  The events of this initial vicious party eventually give way to Tilly’s ultimate and poignant discovery that violence doesn’t always breed violence.

Director Adams places this piece in the round, playing with not only the physical theatre space but also the very atmosphere of the party that May Can is attempting to create. By moving the piece into the courtroom, and consequently having the action take place around the bar, the piece is easily able to transition from ‘social gathering’ to feeling implicated in something sinister. A strong piece from the boys at May Can, Tusk Turns One! has more than enough potential to become a fully-fleshed one act play.

Double Duty by FG[squared] is a play set in outer space and follows space janitors Glerg (played by Brooke Cameron) and Blip Blork (played by Deseriee Connors Warmington) as they discover evil plans, that they naturally assume are from senior management, to start an intergalactic war. A comedy that seems better suited to an improv show, given that the play’s structure and content make clear reference to a long form style of improvisation. This style is par for the course for Cameron and Connors Warmington who also have strong backgrounds in improv.

The piece itself plateaus way too early. The evil mastermind is revealed half way through the piece and, as such, the rest of the play feels like filler material.Doubly Duty is a decidedly immature offering at this year’s  Fresh Meat, a festival that seeks to capture and expose the magnitude of creativity and innovation found within the local independent theatre community.

Next, Norah Paton takes the stage with Burnt Out: a solo performance about Paton’s experience at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada.  Paton explores the contradictions and hypocrisies that come along with adopting the ideals of this famed temporary city. A verbatim piece of sorts with the characters and the text drawn directly from recordings of actual Burning Man participants by Paton herself; it poses the question of whether the festival’s creeds of radical self-expression, decommodification, and gifting (among others) are realistically viable or whether they amount to just “standing in your underwear, really high.”

What stands out about this show is Paton’s determination to create the same sort of sensory overload on stage that we are told is experienced at Burning Man itself. She is arguably successful by engaging most of, if not all of, the audiences’ senses through a variety of ways such as passing around an iced tea meant for every audience member to take a drink or letting the audience catch a whiff of the fake, but incredibly realistic, vomit the artist produces on stage. While we let our senses become overwhelmed we realize that in Paton’s universe the festival’s principles are unnatural and the contradictions manifest themselves in very physical ways such as vomiting, anxiety attacks, and even sexual violence. An exploration of this particular experiment in building community, in radical self-expression, and in radical self-reliance, Paton doesn’t supply her audience with any answers, only questions about what it is we truly value when participating in any given society.

Following Paton, was Seedling Theatre’s Garden in the Sky, written and performed by Lily Sutherland and directed by Leslie Cserepy.  A quaint story about a young girl’s frustration with her parents who separate her from the country (and her grandparents and gardens) by moving to the strange and noisy city. A lesson in keeping your chin up and leaning to adapt to one’s circumstances, this piece seems a more appropriate work for younger audiences. However, this particular seed needs a little more time to grow as the concept, content, and mise en scene need polishing before meeting with discerning audiences of all ages.

Sutherland is a whirlwind on stage, though not necessarily always in a good way. In moments of high intensity the text is often slurred and transitions between characters become confusing and almost nonexistent. Quiet moments are characterized by overly poetic language that does nothing to advance the plot or develop character.

The directing, unfortunately, is also found to be wanting. Little to no variety in staging, combined with some awkward and unnecessary lighting cues has Sutherland crossing horizontally stage left to stage right and back for the vast majority of the show. Perhaps a few more set pieces could have given Cserepy and Sutherland more to play with.

What seems to be missing from this piece (and most of the shows programmed in the first weekend as well) is passion. This isn’t to say that the artists involved are not passionate about theatre or were not passionate in creating their piece, only that Garden in the Sky, and its protagonist, young Josephine, have no fire in them, no raison d’être. I ask: what is the heart and soul of this piece? What is the significance? If it’s somewhere in the play, I had difficulty finding it.

Last but certainly not least, local theatre reviewer turned performer, Kevin Reid, and costar Madeleine Hall gave us FASTER THAN THE SPEED OF DATING: a physical clown inspired piece that focuses on one man’s adventures in speed dating and the various characters he meets along the way. I have to say, even though it needs a little tweaking, this is easily one of the strongest shows I’ve seen at Fresh Meat. Ever. A serious and much needed breath of fresh air: Reid and Hall tell their story almost completely non-verbally using gestures, costume props, facial expressions, and a variety of utterances to denote character and to progress the narrative.

The various personas are true to life though exaggerated just so to make them humorous without being ridiculous. The piece is full of wonderfully clever moments, beautifully sentimental ones, and yet the ‘Dreamweaver’ moment is probably worth the price of admission alone. Reid and Hall work well together and I, for one, would enjoy seeing this piece and these characters (the man and the fairy) developed even further.

To conclude my big fat Fresh Meat review, I stand by my statement that the Fresh Meat Theatre Festival is still the most exciting event to happen to the local independent theatre community and it seems, this year, more people are starting to believe it. Taken under the wing of the formidable Ottawa Fringe Festival and given a proper home in it Arts Court Library, the independent artists have certainly been successful in their demand for attention. Given a platform, some tech resources, and (most importantly) publicity, it is now up to the artists who represent this festival to uphold its core values and standards of quality. You’ve got our attention, Fresh Meat, and now we’re watching.

 

[Edited by Caitlin Gowans and Wesley Babcock]