“I don’t remember what I saw that day, only that I didn’t like it, and I wanted my $5 back. But that didn’t stop me from coming back to Fringe the next day, and the day after that, and the day after…” – Patrick Gauthier
New work makes up a large part of the Ottawa Fringe Festival programming (though this extends to any Fringe really) and this is usually the major reason why critics of Fringe Festivals will call them a “mixed-bag,” in that you can never guarantee the quality of the theatre you are about to see, particularly when it’s a new show. However, for a vast majority of us, this is what makes the Fringe exciting. Having the ability to see something less than inspiring only to later stumble upon excellence is a significant part of the essence of the Festival. This is exactly the experience Festival Director Patrick Gauthier speaks to in his Director’s Message in the official show program (as quoted above). In this spirit then I write this review as a way of exploring my engagement with two brand-new works from two brand-new companies: The Liquid Word’s I’d Snap That: The Scandal that Rocked Hometown and Division161 by PUSH.
There are some similarities between the two companies, namely that this is their first Fringe experience as independent and emerging artists, which is further contextualized by the fact that they’re all recently out of (or still in) university. The Liquid Word hails from Carleton, which does not have a theatre program as it stands, however Sock’n’Buskin Productions keep the culture alive and active; and PUSH is a collective of University of Ottawa theatre students. Despite sharing these qualities, the companies’ approach to theatre is wildly different. Whereas I’d Snap That feels chaotic and confused, Division161 displays maturity and shows great promise for future development.
First, it’s interesting to note what topics each theatre company decides to address on stage. I’d Snap That: The Scandal that Rocked Hometown is set in modern times, in a world not so unlike our very own, and attempts to poke fun at political scandals by using just about every character stereotype imaginable. The parallel to a certain American election is very on the nose and the unsubtle and often poorly delivered jokes at the expense of Vegans, which appear to dominate over those of other characters, detracts from the overall message this show is trying to get across. I’m sure this show would benefit from having a dramaturg, however, without substantial rewrites I’m afraid dramaturgy won’t be enough.
Division 161, on the other hand, tries for something a little more abstract and profound. Categorized as being sci-fi and mystery PUSH isn’t here to spoon feed you, and the show’s non-linear narrative structure is distinctly interesting. When a mission goes horribly wrong and exposes the top secret Division 161, the two remaining members meet looking for answers and resolution. The drama of this show unfolds expressly through the way in which the characters’ choose to reveal or withhold information to the other person, selectively giving the audience “clues” to the mysterious event the two characters keep alluding to. This piece reminds me a lot of the 2009 film Watchmen (though not nearly as graphic mind you) in that it presents us with flawed superhumans, or superheroes if you prefer, who want to be the pillars of good in the world but are failing because they are ultimately human and imperfect. It further reminds me of the common translation of Juvenal’s famous quote that asks, “who will watch the watchmen?”, that is to say: what are the future implications if Division 161 had been successful? Who is watching the people watching over us?
The second element I’d like to address is the physical productions themselves (i.e. what we see on stage) and how they, again, differ completely in the type of experience they want to give their audiences. I’d Snap That works as a traditional theatrical event: the audience sits in a theatre space and remains behind the fourth wall and completely separate from the performers for almost the entire show. There are a lot of visual elements on stage for the spectator to engage with and the variety of set, props and costumes are mostly responsible for illustrating both physical setting and character. The actors deliver their lines dutifully but a lack of strong direction results in a mess on stage where there’s almost never any stakes or dramatic tension between any of the characters, and the actual stage blocking leaves much to be desired (like that cringe-worthy balloon sex scene for example). I don’t believe the performers themselves are untalented, but rather in need of some substantial directorial guidance.
Conversely, PUSH brings the theatrical experience to the other extreme by using the intimacy of the Royal Oak’s basement to close the distance between spectator and performer. By being seated around the performers themselves, we come face to face with feelings of menace and foreboding that the text seems to inspire. It’s a difficult challenge to create a piece of theatre where its only characters sit around a table for the majority of the piece and make it interesting, but for the most part I think this company has done a nice job breaking up this monotony by incorporating things like switching seats and moments where they talk in synch.
I also have to commend the two performers, Cullen Elijah McGrail and Cullen Petersen, on the level of professionalism they showcased on the night I saw the show. At almost the very top of the show McGrail reaches across the table, knocking over a very full glass of ice water all over Petersen. Given how close the audience is to the stage, I was almost certain that the performers were going to break. Only they didn’t…like at all. It got to the point where venue tech (and good friend of mine who was in the same audience) Carolyn Barnes had a very intense conversation about whether or not that was supposed to happen given the way the text and performance played into it post-spill (there’s a couple lines, for example, that make reference to getting another drink and being owed another drink). I have since confirmed that this was, in fact, not supposed to happen and the two Cullen’s played it off remarkably.
In another instance, towards the end of the piece we are gifted with this strange yet wonderful scene involving salt and pepper shakers (FYI if you choose to sit at the very front the smell of black pepper is visceral). At one point McGrail shoves the salt shaker which slides off the table and shatters everywhere on the floor. On one hand, I have to be that guy and remind this company of how dangerous using glass props can be especially if you’re working in a more intimate space. On the other hand, I can see how this moment where the salt shaker breaks could become useful to the production in the dramatic sense where it might serve to remind the characters that they are still very much in public.
The Fringe is an incredible festival simply because it’s one of the only theatre festivals that is not curated by a single artistic director or governing committee. It’s a testing ground for artists and subsequently the genre of “new work” fills up the majority of the programming. In this sense, you’re almost guaranteed to see more than a few misses. This shouldn’t scare you, though, because how else are you supposed to appreciate the gems? Where the testing ground has shown that I’d Snap That needs a lot of work, Division161, I think, proves itself a hidden treasure.