I fell in love with the city of Montreal a few years ago when I decided to spend a week there experiencing the highly acclaimed Festival Transamériques (the shows I saw, by the way, gave me new life as a theatre critic). A couple weekends later I found myself travelling back, this time to visit a new friend, and as I was exploring St. Laurent Boulevard, closed to traffic and packed with people, I stumbled across the Montreal Fringe Festival. I decided to see May Can Theatre’s Wolves > Boys, which I had seen twice before, and subsequently vowed that I would return to this festival to immerse myself more fully. This year I was only in the city for a minuscule amount of time (a little over 24 hours, no less), but I did manage to check out a grand total of four shows- an easy record to beat when I return in 2017!
Now, admittedly I messed up the first night by trying to squeeze too many events into too little time without consideration for travel time or basic human needs like food and rest. My arrival was set for 6:30pm on Friday evening and I pre-emptively set myself up with the goal of seeing three shows that night, while also needing to check into my hotel room across town, pick up my media pass at Fringe HQ, eat dinner, and find the beer tent; I think I may have taken for granted just how close everything is at the Ottawa Fringe Festival (not to brag or anything). Suffice to say I only made it to one show Friday night, Mutement, though I was late getting in (thanks to Scenographer and Lighting Designer Emily Soussana for guiding my sweaty and flustered self into the venue).
To touch on the show briefly, Mutement (presented by We Say So Ltd.) is a piece that features non-verbal communication or “com-MUTE-ication” as it’s termed in the show’s blurb. A multidisciplinary work including puppetry, I think this piece’s biggest strength is in its video/projection design and execution. The backdrop appears to be so responsive to the performers on stage and the way the screens themselves are physically divided and shaped makes the backdrop an exciting element to watch. Finally, it was nice to see some familiar Ottawa faces within this immense festival with University of Ottawa alumni Soussana and Algonquin graduate Chris Wardell (producer and performer) putting their National Theatre School training to good use.
After checking into my hotel room following the show I decided that my hunger was far too great to ignore and a late dinner proved to be my undoing with the fatigue of the day finally catching up with me. Unfortunately, this meant that I had to miss Bedrock Burlesque (a burlesque show parodying The Flinstones) and a second puppet show titled Does Not Play Well With Others (which had been recommended to me by two separate parties). In any case, Saturday presented me with a whole new world of theatrical possibilities that I was eager to delve into fully rested.
The thing about the Montreal Fringe is that, because things are a little more spread out venue-wise, it’s slightly more difficult to pack 3-4 shows into an evening (unless you’re willing to stay at one or two venues) and you have to be more conscientious with your planning. I tried to stay around the St. Laurent Blvd. area which hosts the Montreal Improv Club, the Mainline Theatre, and the Montreal Arts Interculturels (MAI), all within a 10-12 minute radius. I regret that I could not have spent at least one more day at the festival as Saturday proved to be a such a great time where in between each of the three shows, I got to experience the incredible MURAL festival– transforming almost all of St. Laurent blvd. into a huge street party filled with food and merch vendors, buskers, and all kinds of artistic events.
The shows I ended up picking to see included two personal Fringe favourites and one “wild card”. Jem Rolls and Jeff Leard are no strangers to the Fringe circuit. I have seen them both perform in Ottawa, Toronto, and now Montreal and they are certainly some of my favourite solo performers to watch on stage. Their shows, Get Lost and The Jupiter Rebellion: A Zach Zultana Adventure respectively), both exhibit a strong sense of storytelling though the execution is wildly different.
Get Lost marks the third piece I’ve seen by Mr. Rolls, who is often credited with playing at the most Fringe festivals ever. His fans will gush about his magnetic presence on stage and more than one major media outlet has described his work as being “dynamic, hilarious,[and] riveting”. Critics say that he speaks too fast, rambles on too long, and sweats more than any decent human being ought to. I find myself resting firmly in the former camp. In any case, if you happened to see The Inventor of All Things when it toured last summer I can almost certainly guarantee that you will enjoy Get Lost.
The piece is comprised mostly of personal experiences narrated to the audience in random order and strung together by this beautiful textual thread: “The human race. Don’t you just love it? Yes I do. It’s the only possible way to cope with it.” A thought which feels incredibly appropriate and timely given the recent tragedy in Orlando, Fl. Get Lost offers insight on the benefits of taking the road less traveled and becoming “accustomed to being unaccustomed”. Rolls offers a considerate perspective on engaging with cultural barriers and experiences as a human (or an individual who carries no expectations about the unknown) as opposed to engaging with them as a traditional, or maybe stereotypical, tourist.
The Jupiter Rebellion, on the other hand, sets out to create a whole new universe (literally) for audiences through an incredible use of imagery and scenic description. I don’t think Leard gets nearly as much credit for what he does on stage as he should. The Jupiter Rebellion: A Zach Zultana Adventure is a high energy sci-fi adventure-comedy that plays like a big-budget Hollywood film (Ok-maybe cult film status, but still great) on stage. I’m serious.
Leard takes his audience on an epic journey through space and into the life of one Zach Zultana, asteroid miner who becomes known as “Space Gigolo” after a scandalous affair with the boss’ wife. The other characters we meet along the way are all distinct from one another and memorable in their illustration: the femme fatale Alex, smarmy CEO Harland Sanders, and the charismatic Nikolai. The settings within the piece are constructed by way of detailed verbal description that showcases a deep knowledge of film and how the camera creates narrative. With the fourth wall absolutely nowhere in sight, Leard feeds off of the audience’s energy and uses it to his advantage. Whether it’s interacting directly with the audience or calling out any small hiccups in the show, the self-awareness of The Jupiter Rebellion is what makes it so much fun.
The final piece that made up my Montreal Fringe experience was one I picked purely because the Mainline Theatre was geographically located to the other two shows playing at the MAI. Those Darn Donovans, presented by S.C.A.T. (Sebastien and Callum’s Anglophone Theatre), is perhaps nothing to write home about, though, I appreciate the message of LGBT equality and acceptance that it’s trying to promote nonetheless. Its biggest weaknesses lie in its long and many scene changes that feel rather unnecessary given the accommodating size of the space; and the fact that it’s listed as a comedy when its darker and more dramatic elements far outweigh the comedic ones. The relationship between the two female performers is really quite lovely at times, though, the performances in this production on the whole tend to stray into melodrama and over-dramatics more than is probably necessary.
Ultimately, as anybody can probably guess, 24 hours is not nearly enough time to experience the festival proper. That being said, the warm welcome I received from the #fringeMTL team and my brief, but jam-packed, time at the Montreal Fringe Festival has only whetted my appetite for more. And with the #ottfringe launching today I feel like a starving woman approaching a mighty buffet.