It’s been almost two weeks now since the 2015 Ottawa Fringe Festival wrapped up over 50 performances and closed out the new Courtyard outside SAW Gallery and I have to admit: I am still feeling the post-Fringe blues pretty hard. What is it about the Ottawa Fringe that feels so, for lack of a better word, magical and inclusive for ten straight days? And why are we all so dang sad when it’s over?
Many artists I had the pleasure of speaking with say, often enthusiastically, that the #ottfringe is one of their favourite Fringe Festivals to perform at. Touring performers such as Martin Dockery, Jem Rolls, and Jeff Leard return year after year with much success and can often be found frequenting the Courtyard avidly engaging in discussion with anyone and everyone. Local companies and artists more often than not find themselves involved in the Fringe by performing their own shows or artistically contributing to other productions and sometimes stay involved just by seeing shows and hanging out at the tent because it’s the thing to do. The magnetic quality of the Festival, if you will, is rather difficult to describe.
Could it be the strong community that the Fringe builds around itself during the actual festival? This is undoubtedly a motivating factor. Each year, a slew of volunteers help makes this event happen and when you see the same volunteers every summer, you start to appreciate them on a completely different level. A touching tribute to a long-time volunteer known simply as Jim, who passed away earlier this year, is testament to this feeling of family and community.
Not only that, but the new Courtyard space (previously set up beside the Arts Court building) and the takeover, if you will, of SAW Gallery lends itself much better to the unpredictable June weather which consequently allows for longer social interactions (see: more beer). I realize it sounds silly trying to justify “social hour”, however, I had the opportunity to speak in depth with a lot of artists about their work and their processes and also to patrons about the artistic programming in general and what to see/avoid.
It isn’t only artists and audience members mingling about though. I often bumped into and had the opportunity to chat with employees of the Fringe like Festival Director (and local superstar) Patrick Gauthier, Managing Director Kevin Waghorn, and Media & Marketing Manager Greggory Clarke (amongst others). This for a young critic is a totally invaluable experience.
Oh, and did I mention there was a pig roast? (#Fringegiving2016)
Every June, the people running the Fringe manage to do an excellent job of putting up a festival that for ten straight days allows (and heavily encourages) people to come together and unite under their love for theatre. And this includes everyone. People aren’t excluded because they aren’t working on a show. There is no separation of touring and local artists. There’s one hang out spot and everyone goes every night. Once the festival ends though, this magical spot disappears and everyone goes their separate ways. Cue withdrawals.
On another note, I am proud to say that here at the New Ottawa Critics we managed to publish a solid 50 reviews as a team of three comprised of Wes Babcock, Ian Huffam, and myself. We commented on a “major scandal”, if you will, as emerging critics and I can’t say that we have any regrets. As young theatre journalists I think we hold some sort of responsibility to engage with controversial topics especially if we feel that it enriches and encourages discourse about theatre and/or theatre criticism. All I can really say is that I sense a major shift in attitude towards critics and their work in the near future. Who knows though, what do you think? Comment below!
In all realness, the Fringe can be a marathon for a critic. You are placed in an environment where you are required to see a vast amount of theatre in a short period of time and then expected to comment thoughtfully and intelligently on each piece in an equally short span on time (especially if you are attempting to cover most of the festival). Often times we found ourselves writing in the Courtyard in between shows (though constantly bombarded by friends and strangers who we are only too happy to talk to) or, in my experience, on my lunch breaks or on the bus to and from my full-time job. Not every review is perfect and mistakes get made, sometimes trying to see a large quantity of shows affects the quality of the writing. That is just the nature of the business and we can only live, learn, and strive for better the next time around.
I ended up seeing 22 shows (some of which I paid for and others are required viewing for the Prix Rideau Awards) which is not bad though, admittedly I probably should have booked some more time off of work. My list includes:
The Untitled Sam Mullins Project
An Evening of Sin Presents…(Nerdlesque)
2 Girls, 1 Corpse
Three Men in a Boat
The Elephant Girls
This Prison (or He Came Through the Floor)
Hannah and George
I Think My Boyfriend Should Have an Accent
Sh!t I’m In Love With You
Bursting Into Flames
The Adventures of Red Rascal
Of that 22 I managed 12 reviews and in all honesty I am in bad form because there are some shows I need to take the time to mention, shows that, because of my poor time management (see: reluctance to leave the Courtyard- damn you #ottFringe), I was unable to give the proper attention to**. So, with all that being said, please read on because I would like to discuss three particular performances: Uncouth, Junior Sleuths, and The Elephant Girls.
Uncouth Shows Brilliance in Physical Comedy and Clown
Anyone who follows me on Twitter might remember how excited I got when I saw Windy Wynazz perform at the Fringe Preview Night. It was a good three or four days into the festival before I had my chance to finally see Uncouth, so being super eager by that point I was confident in my decision to sit front row at the ODD Box. Some might say that’s a pretty bold choice for a clown show, however, I was not to be Wynazz’s target that evening.
This show is merciless and certainly lives up to its name. There is so much to appreciate in this show, though it is bound to make some people uncomfortable. This, no doubt, is the point. There is no real linear plot line as the show itself is comprised of a number of small vignettes some of which focus on Wynazz’s past and others are comedic skits with social commentary (though sometimes these two are blended together), so I won’t waste time trying to come up with a clever synopsis.
Wynazz is a talented performer. Definitely hedging on the more bouffant side of clown, she not only pushes the boundaries of physical comedy but she also makes a pointed comment about society, most notably the often harsh and unrealistic expectations women are bombarded with on a regular basis (e.g. the scene with the five headed Barbie puppet). One of my favourite moments in particular is when Wynazz makes a dramatic wig change only to place one of the wigs in between her legs to create a…well, I’m sure you get the picture. Sexual organs are a constant source of comedy in this show.
The highlight of the show, however, comes when she invites an audience member on stage to partake in a bit of a tea party, if you will. Now, if you’ve read Wes Babcock’s review on this piece, you will know that the New Ottawa Critics discussed this show on numerous occasions. We ultimately concluded that it was always meant to be (and will continue being) a male audience member Wynazz asks on stage.
Where this suddenly draws a great deal of significance and power is when Wynazz places a long blonde wing on the lucky gentleman’s head and asks him to sit very “ladylike”. She further guides him through the proper motions of drinking tea in a feminine manner (i.e. pinky out, crossing of the legs, hand on the correct knee, etc), ‘tsking’ him every time he doesn’t catch on. The idea that the man gets the comically large tea cup because he’s “big” and “strong” while Wynazz keeps the significantly smaller cup because she’s “only little” is a further comment on gender norms. Finally, the act culminates with a very stylized though obvious act of intercourse where our clown sits on her miniature grand piano, pounding on the keys, whilst making the familiar sounds of sexual pleasure and orgasm.
She never asks the gentleman if he’s cool with it, it’s just assumed that he is because, no matter how uncomfortable he looks, he ultimately consented to coming up on stage. He could technically leave the stage at any time, right? The power of the audience gaze suggests otherwise, and the volunteer suddenly feels obligated to stay on stage and let this action happen to him. An interesting comment on a society where, up until only very recently (and even still that’s debatable…), women almost always felt obligated or pressured to “put out” for a man if he took her on a date.
This is not a show to be missed. It’s shocking, it’s funny, and it’s even got puppets! If you do check out this show, try and go with a group of friends. Seriously, Uncouth is a show that demands a crowd.
Junior Sleuths Overcomes Obstacles
Ok, so this show is one of the main reasons why I am forever grateful for sticking around the Courtyard and talking with the artists, otherwise I would have some different opinions about Junior Sleuths, written by Richard Hemphill. The information that I garnered from individuals working on this show allowed me to recontextualize the performance in a completely different manner. This only proves why dialogue between artists and critics is important.
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the work of Hemphill. While I thoroughly enjoyed Die! Zombie, Die! at the 2013 Fringe, last year’s Wunderjammer was one of my least favourite shows. That being said, I am more or less always curious to see new work from Punchbag Playhouse Productions because I never know what to expect, which is probably a good thing. In the case of Junior Sleuths, while the text is certainly clever, it is the overall production and ensemble work that deserves to be commended.
While waiting for the show to begin in the spacious Academic Hall at OttawaU, I eagerly looked over the fancy-shmancy program/poster that listed a cast full of local talent, all of whom I have seen on the Ottawa stages in various other contexts. However, when the play actually started, notably missing from the group was Ray Besharah, whose roles were being filled in by fellow actor Nicholas Amott and another individual who I recognized from the OttawaU Theatre program (represent!) but whose name I could not recall for the life of me.
I assumed, at that point, that Besharah had dropped out at somewhere along the way (clearly after the programs had already been sent to the printers) and that this was his stand in. I went through the entire play thinking this and upon leaving thought that the piece was pretty decent and was completely willing to write off the few line flubs and awkward silences on stage as being caused by the last minute casting and switching of roles.
But when I inquired as to what the deal actually was when I caught up with the playwright at the Courtyard, I became much more appreciative of the final product. In our conversation, I discovered that Besharah incurred a rather serious injury something like a week or two before opening night. Not having the luxury of time on their side meant that current ensemble members had to take on more roles in a short amount of time, but more surprising is the decision made by Production Assistant and Assistant Stage Manager, Even Gilchrist, to take on such a substantial role in the show despite apparently having little to no desire to act on stage in the future.
In reality, the production that I saw was quite good and despite the previously mentioned hiccups the show appears to run smoothly. The comedic talent within this cast is clear and they manage to draw a lot of laughs from the audience. The women in this show are particularly strong: Victoria Luloff as Nancy is sharp, fast, and proves she can roll with the punches whenever there’s the odd line flub; Patrice Forbes as Joe plays her character so moronic and oblivious that you can’t help but chuckle any time she’s on stage; and Allison Harris shows her versatility as a performer through her brief appearances as a variety of secondary characters.
I can’t leave out the boys, however, because they definitely hold their own on stage. Leslie Cserepy is hilarious as Frank especially when he tries to restrain himself from swearing out loud; Amott provides ample entertainment as he traverses from eager beaver (and slightly neurotic) Leroy to the sleazy, way-too-interested-in-his-students character called The Coach; and last, but certainly not least, it’s hard to argue against the fact that Gilchrist kind of nails it as The Inspector and Fenton considering his limited rehearsal time. I genuinely laughed out loud at his performance as Frank and Joe’s ghost dad and how he bobbed around on stage.
I further enjoyed the overall concept of Junior Sleuths with the juvenile slide productions of children’s drawing gently reminding us that the characters are, in fact, children. This gives the show a bit of an edge, considering its more mature humour, and adds a bit of a “South Park” flavour to it. Directed by Gabrielle Lazarovitz, this show moves at a great pace and packs a lot of comedy into an hour.
Overall, though I am sad I did not get to see Besharah reprise his role in one of the final performances I think I am more interested and inspired by the final product that I got to see which could have ended up an absolute disaster. This way I got the chance to see just how adaptable and dedicated theatre people can be and what they can come up with under pressure. Kudos to the whole team.
Why The Elephant Girls is One of the Most Important Shows to Come Out of Ottawa
Ok, no lie: this was my favourite show at the Fringe this year. Heck, it’s probably one of the top professional shows I’ve seen come out of this city. Period. Is it perfect? Of course not, but let me explain why it is one of the most important shows you will see from a local professional artist.
First, some context: I saw this show opening night and had been eagerly anticipating the piece since I initially caught wind that Margo MacDonald was doing a solo show at this year’s Festival. MacDonald is generally considered by most in Ottawa to be a force on stage whether that’s with A Company of Fools as clown ‘Restes or showcasing new work with company Parry Riposte; so it’s really no surprise that this show completely sold out its run in advance ticket sales (the first show to ever accomplish such a feat) and is now being held over for two encore performances at Arts Court Theatre on July 9th and 10th. I was lucky enough to actually see this show twice because immediately following the first performance I knew I needed to see it again.
For the sake of space and time (since this article is racking up a serious word count), I will touch only briefly on the two major elements in this new production: the physical performance and the text. The physical performance, of course, is reason enough to purchase a ticket and I, for one, had only seen MacDonald in comedic roles up until that point. The text, however, is the most interesting aspect to this show because of its female driven story that doesn’t give in to literary tropes that are becoming more familiar and expected from women solo artists. Overall, though The Elephant Girls is still in its development stages, it has already premiered some high calibre stage craft.
Directed by Mary Ellis, MacDonald takes the stage as London gangster Maggie Hale who, with a couple of rounds in her, tells us about her notorious exploits with the all-female gang the Forty Elephants as their “enforcer”. The set is minimal featuring only a long wooden table, a few chairs, and the obligatory pints of beer. Like most solo productions, the audience is directed to focus their attention on the performer herself, who certainly says a lot about the character without even saying anything at all.
The costume design, by the excellent Vanessa Imeson, is on point. Head to toe, you can infer a number of things about Maggie Hale from her costuming alone. For example, you might assume from her 1920s styled no-nonsense three piece pinstripe suit, that this chick probably carries a couple of weapons on her person. And she does…like, eight.
Most notably, however, is that she’s a woman who chooses to don traditionally male garb in a time when it was still considered to be shocking. Even more than that, the suit is well-tailored and almost luxe, suggesting that the individual wearing the garments likes to feel confident, rich, and strong. Again though it was unusual and controversial for a woman at that time to dress thusly, the suit is a sign of power and dominance in Maggie’s life.
Once MacDonald starts speaking the audience can sit back and let her weave her story around us. She has managed to find a great balance in her character’s energies, in particular, in between the times when she becomes totally overtaken by the thrill of her own story and the moments where her countenance cracks and we see the deep dark undertones of her soul. Despite never faltering when it comes to keeping up the London accent, there are a couple of times when the breakneck speed of the text (e.g. when she describes the actual process behind looting the shops) combined with the accent itself causes her to stumble a few times, however, I should also mention that opening night MacDonald hit every line and there were no unexpected breaks in momentum.
There are some areas for development, if I might be so bold as to even suggest, that seem apparent to me when watching this show. The first would be the transitions that happen as a means of suggesting that a span of 24 hours has passed in the universe of the play. The audience is then left to assume that the voiceless secondary character comes to visit Maggie over a period of three days. But why? This story is so nicely and neatly told in an hour in real time that the transitions seem only to lengthen the tale for no real reason. Are these transitions at this point in the development process necessary and/or effective? It is difficult to understand what they accomplish in the grand scheme of things.
The second area for development might be this anonymous secondary character themselves. Is there room to better flesh out this character who Maggie addresses through the entire play? We’re not ever sure who exactly this character is, how they even found Maggie (or why), and why they even care about her story at all (let alone keep coming back over three days). Of course, their story is secondary to Maggie’s and the Forty Elephants’ but there may be opportunities to make some more links in this regard.
Speaking of the text, I don’t think I can stress enough just how crucial it is to have a work like this come out of Ottawa. Admittedly its substance doesn’t necessarily focus on Canadians and Canadian values, but what makes The Elephant Girls so special is that it presents a fictionalization of history from a woman’s perspective about an era that is traditionally dominated by men. The British gangster culture during the roaring twenties isn’t something we normally associate with females (unless they’re flappers), yet MacDonald has done a superb job of putting women at the forefront of this story and using men as simply geographical context or party accessories.
What is more is that this text serves as an exploration of a woman’s accumulation of power and notoriety and offers a dark journey through female sexuality. There are two scenes in particular where the text accomplishes this to a great degree. The first is when Maggie describes watching the girls coming back “fat” from their heists and how they would strip off all the stolen garments for her which would more often than not inspire a violent desire within Maggie and she would “have her way” with the girls right then and there on top of the piles of looted goods.
It’s almost too perfect a reference to Al Pacino as Tony Montana and his famous face-plant into a small mountain of cocaine in the classic film “Scarface”, where gluttony, lust, and ambition have overtaken the “protagonist” and the audience begins to sense the eventual downfall. In Maggie’s case, she is at the pinnacle of her power at this point in her story as enforcer in Diamond Annie’s infamous gang and has no problem exploiting that influence. However, it isn’t long after that when things start to go awry from within the Elephants itself.
The second moment looks at the night where Maggie encounters a woman like her for the first time: a woman who likes other women. A rapid succession of thoughts leads Maggie to decide that this would be a dangerous liaison because it would cease being a game and she would lose her dominance. Quickly becoming disgusted with herself she takes it out on the other woman violently despite having been only just previously locked in a passionate embrace. I appreciate MacDonald creating a female character that has such complex and ugly nuances that don’t always stem from interactions with men.
The final thing I’d like to mention before finishing off is that the commentary in this piece is also quite compelling. The discussion between Maggie and Annie about how some women suit men’s clothing better, the moment when Annie cuts Maggie’s hair, and Maggie’s point about how the female prisons at that time were in much worse conditions than those of their male counterparts, are all important social and cultural statements that further enrich the show.
This is certainly one of the cleanest professional shows to come out of the Ottawa theatre scene in a long time and it’s exciting to know that it is only just starting its development process. MacDonald and her team of competent female theatre artists deliver a solid production that sets the standard high for future local professional theatre practitioners and for new work coming from local playwrights. I mean…what else is there to say about The Elephant Girls? Well, actually, there is a lot more to say although perhaps it is best saved for conversation over multiple pints of a nice amber ale. What I will say is that I don’t give a lot of shows in this city standing ovations, but opening night I happily joined everyone else on their feet.
The Fringe Festival is easily one of the highlights for every member of the Ottawa theatre community. Artists and patrons, volunteers and staff members, and even critics alike relish in the ten days where we have more than enough reason to centralize and come together to create long lasting communities and connections between local and touring individuals on both a national and international scale. This year in particular the Festival featured a number of high quality shows that created a lot of demand and subsequently garnered high ticket sales overall notwithstanding the two dollar ticket increase. Next year, who knows! But I am already counting down the days.
Until then, the New Ottawa Critics will be planning our strategies on how to best attack the Festival (or Festivals…?) in 2016. I know already I will be organizing a better work schedule for myself so that I can dedicate even more time to the festival and writing reviews. I also know that I will be looking to expand the team in terms of writers, editors, and website administrators because keeping up with everything that’s happening at the Fringe Festival in a timely manner can be a lot of work!
I look forward to the professional theatre houses starting up their new seasons in the Fall, but my heart will continue to pine for those magical ten days in June.
**Author’s note: in the case of a missed review my policy is to personally reimburse the company/performer the full price of admission and issue them a heartfelt apology.
by Brianna McFarlane