The 2016 Ottawa Fringe Festival officially kicked off last night with a number of shows opening their doors to audiences for the very first time. It also marks the start of Ottawa Fringe’s 20th year in production and the beginning of their #Fringe20 Series in preparation for the big anniversary party in 2017. Since the festival’s inception in ’97 the organization has paid out $1.65 million (Festival Program 2016) to the independent artists who have come and performed- a truly notable feat for the Fringe no matter how you choose to look at it. While the buzz has been steadily growing since Preview Night on Wednesday, the shows that will eventually snatch the coveted title of “Fringe Favourite” are still to be determined.
Opening night brought me to three very different shows: Martin Dockery’s The Exclusion Zone, Gary by Hymns in Hearse Theatre, and Best Picture by RibbitRePublic. In between shows I made the familiar pilgrimage to the holiest of holies- the Fringe Festival Beer Tent. Being hosted on the patio of the lovely Albion Rooms throughout this weekend, you’ll find a great selection of local beers (thanks to Dominion City Brewing Co.) and a tasty menu catered specially for the Fringe. I highly recommend the elk burger with a nice cold pint of the Two Flags IPA. Perfection!
My first show of the season was The Exclusion Zone by Martin Dockery, a humorous travelogue detailing his trip into the abandoned city of Pripyat and the quarantined area surrounding Chernobyl. Self-described as being a “show about a book about a movie”, the piece does not set out to offer its audience any sort of catharsis or emotional impact. It is rather a show in which nothing happens and nothing ever develops. Though, as we come to see, this is kind of the point.
The piece features Dockery in classic form- high energy, engaging, and authentic. He’s one of the only solo performers I can think of who can hold his own against, and actually incorporate, all the noise that comes along with being the busy restaurant that is Café Nostalgica. It’s a deep and introspective piece that tries to come to terms with the things that inspire us and what it means to even harness that inspiration to be used in creative self-expression.
Masterfully weaving together seemingly random threads like author Geoff Dyer’s immense admiration for the 1970s sci-fi film Stalker with Dockery’s own admiration for Dyer himself; the new found desire to travel to Pripyat (a place, we learn, is eerily similar to the central location of the film Stalker which was released several years prior to the Chernobyl incident) with a journey to the famous Burningman festival; and also two experiences in which Dockery actually meets Dyer, The Exclusion Zone proves how true the statement “making something out of nothing” can be. While it may not be the most emotionally impactful on the surface, I think that the elements of self-reflection found in this piece run far deeper than what you might expect.
My next stop was the Courtroom at Arts Court Theatre (BYOV A) to see Hymns in Hearse’s Gary. Coming off of their successful 2015 Fringe piece, Pachiv!, the company is back again this year with what they’re calling a “sexistential” comedy-drama adapted from the short film “Trois” originally produced by Wolf Pelt Productions. The piece itself brings up some great points concerning sexuality and relationships; however, the ultimate take away from Gary remains very unclear.
The story revolves around three friends Mel, Shawn, and Gregg (played by Chelsea Young, Cory Thibert, and Tony Adams respectively) who are in the middle of clearing out the house of Mel’s recently deceased uncle following his poorly attended wake. The three friends are all very focused on the apparently obnoxious behaviour of a female character named Avery who was, up until very recently, Gregg’s girlfriend. This further prompts the three to discuss their sexual preferences and the rules and boundaries of monogamous relationships. This eventually leads to a conversation about having a threesome and, well, I’m sure you can guess where the piece goes from here.
Admittedly, there is a lot happening in this show. Cheating, polyamory, differentiating between sexual preferences and sexuality, grieving, and taking charge of your own agency (etc.) are all things that get brought up in the 60 minute run time. Addressing a variety of topics in one show is not in itself the problem, but rather that Gary never says anything conclusively about anything. Nor does it leave things open ended in such a way that encourages individual interpretations. When it does attempt to say something with some profundity, I find that it is then undercut moments later.
Take, for example, the moment in which Gregg asks Mel if having a threesome will change anything between the three friends (also, side note, Mel and Shawn are portrayed as being in a relatively serious long-term relationship). Mel responds that “it would kind of be a waste if things stayed the same”, a line with magnificent depth in that it goes against the familiar narrative where friends having sexual intercourse is traditionally portrayed as negative and damaging. Mel then goes on later to wax poetic, whilst in the midst of sexual pleasure, about how the trio is embodying the new sexual revolution that’s currently happening and how they represent the epitome of sexual acceptance and openness. However, the play then culminates with the three friends looking very disappointed and regretful completely undermining the joy and the freedom we watch the characters find through this erotic expression.
Gary has many moments of great humour but overall I am left feeling as conflicted as the characters within the play itself. I think this production has the potential to be a compelling perspective on contemporary life though it’s not quite there yet.
Last but certainly not least, was Best Picture playing at Studio Leonard-Beaulne. Now, this company not only performed a preview piece for their own show but also made hilarious cameos in the bit for Get Lost by Jem Rolls where they impersonated the Fringe legend himself. While it might not be the most provocative or innovative of shows, it is a good deal of fun even if you don’t get all the film references.
Written by Kurt Fitzpatrick, Best Picture doesn’t really have a story to it outside of the three performers acting out parodies of memorable scenes from every film that has taken home the Academy Award for Best Picture within one hour. To be honest, I made up my own little narrative to fit the piece as the performers started breaking out of the scenes and impersonations to play more individuated characters. It is almost as though they are ushers (played by Fitzpatrick, Jon Paterson, and Rachel Kent) goofing around in the theatre they all work at after close, embodying all the great films and film stars they love.
The impressions are, for the most part, funny and recognizable while the film parodies themselves range from the super familiar (Casablanca, Braveheart, and The Lord of the Rings, for instance) to the little known winners like The Broadway Melody, Cimarron, and How Green Was My Valley. There are more ‘LOL’s written down in my notebook than actual notes, which is a good thing, and I have to say that Kent is responsible for a lot of them. Her physicality and facial expressions really lend a lot of humour to the piece as a whole.
Despite being a show that relies almost entirely on film references, Best Picture is nonetheless recommended for anyone looking for a laugh and something that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
So, three shows down and twenty-four left scheduled. My Fringe journey has only just begun. Next up I will be checking out Love is a Battlefield; Duet, or Pas de deux; and #staystrong. Tweet @ us with your recommendations and post tweet-reviews using #ottfringe!