As Theatre Erebus once again has a webpage – and as this one is basically a blog based webpage, I have decided to do some writing during this year’s Hamilton Fringe Festival.
First off, on one level it is completely unfair that I review or criticize any of the other productions in 2016 Hamilton Fringe. I am well aware of this.
The main reason that it is perhaps a bad idea, is that I am an artist with a production in the festival myself. It would be quite correct to say that any opinion I may have about another company’s work is thus likely to be biased – and if I slag every other show in the festival, am I actually just promoting my own show? So indeed I freely admit this upfront. Coming to this site to read anything I write here, you are going to notice all of the show info about MARY I HAVE HIS PANTS. And hey, I like the theatre that I like, and I don’t like others.
Perhaps, this is no big deal? I firmly believe in the end, that there is an audience for every show. That I am not a particular show’s target audience does not diminish my appreciation for other productions. For me, this blog, is a chance to rave about the ones I like, in the hope, gentle reader, that you too may discover something that might not otherwise have attended.
It has been a few years now since I have seen ANY theatre at all, never mind writing theatrical criticism. Last time I had the chance (and in fact the only time I ever got to review any shows at the Fringe was in 2013 when I was a community reviewer – a program I set up after hearing about what the Vancouver Fringe set up after attending the CAFF conference in Montreal). I did 12 or 13 quick write ups of shows I had seen in 5 days. It was fun and yet grueling as well. But I was never asked back to do it again, so I surmise that was too opinionated, or that what I wrote was not what was wanted. And indeed I saw no Fringe shows at all in 2014 and 2015.
My biggest frustration about the Fringe Festival movement (and not just the Hamilton Fringe which I have a long history with) is that there are always, bloody brilliant productions that simply never find the audience that would have appreciated them. Often these productions that failed to find an audience, were ones that I personally loved. While at the same time, some productions that were consistently selling out, were (in my mind at least) worthless crap. Go figure!
So much of what I would like to write about in the mini reviews that will follow in the days to come, are the shows that moved me emotionally, that inspired me, that got me thinking about the art form of theatre itself. Did I immerse myself completely in the production, or did my mind start to wander off, wishing it was over? To me that is success, that the show flew by without me being aware of its length – that I was so engrossed in what was happening onstage, that I lost myself in the experience.
So I promise in whatever I write to focus on what worked for me – rather then pious declarations of what didn’t. I know from my own theatrical practice that a play is merely a 1000 choices that were made in rehearsal, from blocking and creating a good ground plan, to editing (in a new play particularly) and interpretation of the text – its staging, casting, pacing, and use of the technical elements, sound, lighting and increasingly today multi-media technology. Theatre is a collaborative medium, and even a self written one person show has at least a stage manager and a venue technician, and (with luck and more often bitter experience) a director as the outside eye on the proceedings.
I see theatre – all theatre – as a learning experience. From really bad productions I learn a great deal – at the very least I learn how NOT to stage something. And in the back of my mind is always the question – how could I have done any better? How could I have made this better if I had made different choices?
I want to see theatre artist’s skills to improve. My deepest wish is that the worst show in the festival two years later, comes back with the most successful one. Because all of those involved saw each others work and learned from it. The whole point of a fringe festival is to see as much as possible and let it sink in. Love it, hate it, but see it and be part of that wonderful thing called community.
I worked on a production at the 2011 Hamilton Fringe called ESCAPE by a first time playwright named Robert Savoie. He had never read any other plays other then the works of Anton Chekov. So the first draft of his play was a large cast of people standing around talking without much onstage action. But Robert did have a compelling story (drawn from his own life experience) to tell. I patently explained to him the basic rules of a Fringe production – i.e. that smaller casts are better then large, that you have to keep it simple as you only have a few hours to tech, and that a character speaking directly to an audience and story telling eliminates pages and pages of needless exposition to set up your scenes. Robert saw EVERY single production in the 2011 Hamilton Fringe, and he absorbed what he saw – he learned from the experience and his next play which he wrote and produced for the 2012 Fringe was a much, much better piece of writing.
Feel free to read what I write here, share it, disagree with it or ignore it completely. I think we all do this anyway. The few wonderful reviews over the years that I have had of my work I have clipped and pasted in a scrapbook – they get photocopied and added to grant applications. The rest – (and I have had more then a few bad write ups trust me), I have consigned to the dustbin of my mind.
One other thing I will try to consider. I have been involved in theatre in Hamilton since the late 1970s when I took a kid’s drama program up at Mohawk College. Over the years I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of people. Often some of the people in various shows I have some connection to. Where this is the case I think it important to declare the relationship or connection upfront, as it may colour whatever I have written about the show.
I was the Theatre Editor at VIEW Magazine for a few years, and wrote many reviews. I saw it as a personal mission to get as much coverage of the local theatre scene as we could – and happy were the issues of VIEW where I was able to get as many as 4 or 5 articles covering various productions into the paper. Often though, I was asked to cover and write about shows that I had no interest in, or that were not my personal “cup of tea”. Acting professionally about it, and being fair to the audience who actually support that kind of theatrical work I tried to be fair. Even if I disliked something, I had to accept that there was an audience that indeed loved it, and saw it as what the world needed more of. “Middle of the road” and “Lowest common denominator” are not my favourite starting points in creating theatre.
But with the writing I do here, I can write about the shows that I want to write about. If I don’t write about it mind you – it does not necessarily mean that I didn’t like it. It just meant in juggling the needs of my own show has not yet given me time to see it or write about it. Anything I absolutely hated – I promise – will get no mention whatsoever. And given that there are 47 productions in the 2016 Hamilton Fringe – even in the best case scenario I won’t be able to catch more then 15 of them. So, for those of you out there who know me, I will leave it to you to figure out which is which.
But here, of the productions that I have seen so far, are the shows I have felt compelled to write about. More will be added in the days to come, so check back if I have piqued your interest.
Also I have been asked to take part in a Fringe discussion podcast by Toronto Theatre Artist Phil Rickaby, whose compelling play THE COMMANDMENT is in the 2016 Hamilton Fringe Festival. It is available to listen to at this link
Cheers – and I hope you catch some cool Fringe productions…
Broken Soil Theatre
Written and directed by Michael Kras
I saw a preview performance of this play a week before the festival itself. So I must point out that what I saw may not be the final finished production.
Also SPOILER ALERT!!!! If you have not yet seen the production yet, I would advise you to stop reading this and come back to read it after you have seen the show. I have strong opinions about this piece, and I think it only fair you see it and form your own opinion before you read mine…
So here goes…
Playwright and director Michael Kras is a clever artist, and I myself pay attention to his work whenever I get the chance.
He has woven a tight and compelling drama out of subject matter that is ripped straight out of the reality of today. The stories of BC teenager Amanda Todd, Halifax teenager Rehteah Parsons and the online hacking scandal of female celebrities in September 2014, are just a few of the resonances that the play immediately brought to mind.
#DIRTYGIRL is a tight three hander, although at its core it is really the story about a friendship between two young women, Kiera (played by Claudia Spadafora) and Bridget (played by Cass Van Wyck).
I like theatre that makes me think, something that shows me something about life that I otherwise would not get to experience, something that has a specific point of view. It is within Broken Soil’s mission statement that this is a show for a younger generation. Cleqarly the experiences of twenty somethings are utterly changed by technology then were my own experiences at the same age. Just how huge the online, social media world has become in the lives of teens and twenty-somethings is a central part of the play.
I loved the idea, which Kras explores to the full that the social media “twitter-verse” is some kind of literal monster – a malicious demon living within the internet waiting to pounce on the unwary.
The male actor in the production, Matthew Power in the role of James, was the least developed of Kra’s characters. He comes across as rather shallow and unworthy of a girlfriend such as Kiera. I think it likely though that this choice was exactly the point – that women often are attracted to guys who don’t deserve them.
The core of the play is that Kiera is not ready to have sex with her boyfriend. To appease him as she clearly does like him, (and to fuel his masturbation fantasies), she takes a nude “selfie” of herself and sends it to her boyfriend as a kind of promise of sexual adventures to come. This is her undoing.
There is a meme floating around internet that reads “Trust is knowing that he will never post those pictures we took online”. But trust is earned.
Trust is the key to that word “consent” which is core to any sexual relationship. Kras hammers home the double standard between men and women – articulated by Bridget who points out that if Keira had simply slept with James – instead of taking that picture – none of what followed from that choice would have happened. Hindsight is always 20/20.
Recording sexual images of yourself can be problematic. While on one hand I have admired artists who use themselves in their art, before taking such an image one should always ask the question – “What would your mother think if she saw it?” “What would happen if this became public?” Because as we have seen, with the hacking scandal as a prime example, that what was always meant to be private often becomes very public indeed. And yet as I totally support all forms of artistic expression – why should not nudity be also part of that? The images of Egyptian activist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy in particular come to mind.
There is much to praise about this production; the script is first rate, and its relevance is obvious. It records the very real dilemma of young women feeling they have to live up to the constant stream of porn that young men are exploring – it creates a false expectation of your partner’s willingness to be “good, giving and game” in exploring their sexuality. Sex is core to us as human beings. True intimacy which we experience with our lovers is also. I always used to joke (at least when I was younger), that I disliked porn films, as I much preferred “theatre”, an intimate, interactive and live experience which is the theatre’s very real power is what I crave.
It is that promise of intimacy inherent in the subject matter that makes this such a compelling subject for a play. And the cast is indeed committed to the work, which raises the stakes significantly. The two women dominate, and their very recognizable relationship is very well developed with a great deal of sensitivity. We quickly come to identify with them both.
At the core of the play though is a single central image. You don’t need a PhD in drama to figure out which one.
The photo that Kiera takes to send to her boyfriend hangs over the onstage action for much of the play. And the particular image used is nothing that Kiera’s mother would be upset over.
Now I totally get that the actress involved in the production has no need to relive in real life the experiences of the character that she is portraying onstage. So I am not suggesting that she should have taken a more provocative image of herself. Rather, that if the choice was to actually show the image of Kiera, that a better one could easily have been found online – a quick look at Shutterstock reveals a few possibilities that might have worked with some digital editing… (The female nude gets used in ads all the time).
Or perhaps an even stronger choice would have been never to have showed us the picture at all, leaving it to our imaginations as to what it contained.
This is a minor quibble, mind you, in what I feel is a brilliant production. But I love things that are authentic – the more authentic the better. So much of this play had me totally engrossed in the piece. My congratulations to all involved and I hope they have great audiences.
4.48 PSYCHOSIS by Sarah Kane
Skipping Stones Theatre
at Hamilton Theatre Inc.
Cast: Kate McArthur, Breanna Maloney, Dylan Mawson
Director: Sean O’Brien
A talented trio of actors from Windsor University’s Performing arts program present a rarely seen play by the alternative English playwright Sarah Kane.
Right up front, I should mention that I ADORE the plays of Sarah Kane. I have owned a copy of the anthology of her “Collected Works” for a decade now – the five plays that she wrote in an 4 year span before her tragic suicide at the age of 28 in 1999. Her plays are visceral and “in your face” and for me represent everything that I love about live theatre. (If anyone ever wants to do a production of BLASTED in Hamilton please let me know – I have been itching to do it for years now).
Kane has been quite correctly called ‘the voice of her generation” now silenced too soon. Her work is rarely performed in Canada, sadly, which is a real shame as her plays are articulate, detailed, poetic and emotional powerful. Enormously effected by the war in the Bosnia and the parade of human destruction and suffering, she artistically reflected the world around her in her brief life.
This is actually the very first of her works I have ever seen performed – although I understand this particular play – which was her final work – has actually been staged before in Hamilton as part of Black Box Fire’s Emerging Artist Series about 6 years back. I missed that production, so while I have read the play and have some knowledge of the text, this staging of it is the one I will remember.
The play is performed on a bare stage with just the three actor’s bodies as set. There are a few broken mirrors, that reflect the action back at us. Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish Theatre Director wrote a book back in the 1960s called “TOWARDS A POOR THEATRE”. In it he argued that productions staged such as this force an audience to focus just on the performances – the actors and their bodies moving in space. I have no idea if Director Sean O’Brien has read Grotwoski, but his staging of the play certainly followed all of the rules of “poor theatre” – it allowed us – just like in Shakespeare – to focus on the words we hear, and the images that form in our minds as we listen.
The play creates a multitude of stunning images. The story it tells is of a group of in-patients in a mental hospital all of whom are being treated for depression and for the fear that they will do themselves harm. They talk to health professionals and plot their own demise, they are medicated “chemically castrated”, and one of the funniest moments in the play is a list of all of the medications they are prescribed and the effects on them of each of the medications.
While performers present a play to us, an audience absorbs it and responds to it. I was emotionally a wreck while watching this production, some of which I know is the after effect of the death of a friend about two months back from mental illness.
The title of the play comes from the time in the small hours of the morning, when suicides (statistically at least) tend to occur. I once watched a young woman end her life by jumping in front of a train in the Montreal Metro while I was a student at NTS back in the 1980s. Unless you are suffering from this kind of mental illness it is impossible to understand the reasons why someone attempts to end their life. Kane, who was clearly suffering at the time she wrote this final play, attempts to explain and give us some reasons we can understand. Parts of it read like a plan, which indeed perhaps it was.
The most poignant scene – two women as therapist and patient (Kate McArthur and Breanna Downey) share a sad moment in which the therapist claims that she won’t actually kill herself because “I like you, and likeable people can’t kill themselves”. The irony is palpable.
One of my favourite theatre critics, once coined a phrase that has always stuck in my mind. “People who like this sort of thing, will find much to enjoy”… Myself – I love this kind of theatre. Raw, visceral and seared into your memory with a red hot iron, never to be forgotten. The Fringe is one of the few places you can find it. Trust me, 4.48 PSYCHOSIS pulls no punches – it hammers its message relentlessly. It presents a stark journey into the heart of darkness, that only those afflicted will ever experience. It ends bleakly and in death, but is full of truth and meaning. I commend this company for bringing it to us, and hope they find an audience for the piece that enjoys it, and was as emotionally effected by it, as much as I was.
NOTE – Kate McArthur and I once acted together in a production of KING LEAR about ten years ago. I have no other relationships with anyone involved in this production.
More reviews to follow when I am able to type them up!