Theatre by Committee
at Hamilton Theatre Inc.

Cast:      Lindsey Middleton, Ben Hayward
Director:  Brandon Gillespie

Phil Rickaby Productions
at Mills Hardware

Cast Phil Rickaby
Director:  Richard Beaune

As both of these productions are thematically similar, I thought I would write about them together.

I have seen eleven productions now in the 2016 Hamilton Fringe.  But, as of this point, these are only the third and fourth productions that I have been able to write about while juggling my own production in the festival.  The whole point of this writing is to direct audiences towards good work that should not be missed, so I am feeling the time pressure intensely of getting these written and posted.  Apologies for that Gentle Reader – but I will try to get my notes into some sharable form as quickly as I can.

So here we go again…

FAITH is an original play by playwright Ben Hayward, about a remarkable young woman and her experiences with a United Church youth group – experiences which ultimately lead to her rejection of God, or at the very least rejection of organized religion.

Although a two hander, it felt very much like a one person show as Lindsey Middleton, in the role of Faith, delivers much of the play to us as a monologue, speaking directly as though the audience was another cast member. This young woman has a powerful story to tell us.

Faith is both a character in the play, as well as its major theme.  What EXACTLY do we believe in?  How does organized religion help us become closer to God?   Is love, even love for a married man with children, but still love nonetheless, essential to us as human beings.  Who are we to judge what is moral?  Can anyone choose who we fall in love with?

I love “long dark night of the soul” stories about redemption.  Rod Serling and the TWILIGHT ZONE were full of them.  The alcoholic nobody who becomes Santa Claus, the aged salesman who barters his own soul for the life of a child, to cite two excellent examples from the original sixties TV series.

But back to the play…

Faith is a very intense young person, desperately seeking connection.  She shares her family history telling us about a father who abandoned her at a very young age, and a mother who had no interest in having a daughter.   Despite this she tells us of her few happy memories of her childhood, and of her sad attempts to find and reconnect with her dad.

Like many vulnerable people, she finds a substitute for the family she never had by forming an attachment with an older and stable person, in this case, with the pastor at her church.   He is kind and funny, and listens attentively to her problems.  I myself was surprised by how this relationship was dramatized, and what followed in the narrative was unexpected.

Coming in to the theatre, I thought the story would be about sexual abuse, as the history of the some churches in Canada; as the examples of the pedophile Brothers of Mount Cassell in Newfoundland and the Residential school system perpetrated upon the indigenous population have amply demonstrated – this exploitation of the vulnerable is all too common.

So my preconception of this production, coming into it, was that it was about a predatory priest looking to exploit a vulnerable woman in his care, but that is not the direction that this production went in.  The story it tells is more complex.

The pastor is this production is David, played by Ben Hayward.  He spends much of the play as a kind of human prop for Faith to vent at.  He listens to her and attempts to understand her, without much success.  It is a hard role to handle, requiring stillness for much of the play and Hayward gives a balanced and nuanced performance in the role.

Using the biblical example of the story of King David (and that the pastor in this play shares the same name David is clearly no coincidence) and Beesheba, a young virginal woman in the bible that he falls for.  We explore the morality of teenage sexuality, through the viewpoint of a decent man desperately trying to do the right thing despite the temptations of the flesh on ample display before him.

Much of Faith’s value in herself comes from men who desire her sexually.  She is desperately seeking some connection that she can hold onto in her fractured life.

One of the most powerful moments in the play, was when Middleton delivered a sexually charged monologue directly to a member of the audience – (and in the particular performance I saw, the person she picked to perform that bit of the play to was me).  It was an intense experience I can tell you.

Middleton is attractive woman, and her energy onstage is palpable – you could power an entire city with the energy she uses.  She also spends much of the play in ripped jeans revealing more of her then is typical outside of a strip club, and her physicality is in-yer-face.   There is some disrobing in the play I should warn you.  But it is the “emotional nudity” – the bearing of one’s soul – which is what is so memorable about this production.

Indeed, I feel that this is what the theatre does best, showing us intimacy in a simple, immediate and direct manner.  What I took away from the experience of watching it, is that all of us are worthy of being loved and connected to someone.  At the end of the play, we sincerely hope that one day Faith finds love for real in her life.

In a similar vein, although with a bit more comedy in performance, was Phil Rickaby’s one man show THE COMMANDMENT.

God is, in this play, a self depreciating, yet all powerful deity who speaks to his chosen prophet.  Phil, however, is an atheist and spends the first half of the play desperately avoiding listening to the message that God wants him to share with humanity.

The frame for the play has Rickby’s character crashing on open mike night at a local pub.  Seizing the microphone, he shares an intense and personal story of redemption, feeling compelled to find an audience to tell his tale to.

The song sung by Joan Osbourne about God being a “slob like one of us, a stranger on the bus trying to finds his way home” was running through my head while watching this play.  In this case though, God is the one driving the bus.  He advises the his chosen prophet to get onto the empty bus, as “the next three buses are full already”.  How can one argue with that?

Much of the humour, comes from God’s attempt to tell his new 12th Commandment to a man that desperately does everything he can to avoid listening to it.  It is only tragedy that forces him to become humble enough to listen to the message.

I have spent some time of my life in 12 Step fellowships.  The people in these meetings “share” their experiences, often dark and disturbing memories about surviving unimaginable pain but also about ultimately healing and coming out the the other side.

At the end of ones endurance we hit a “bottom” – when the pain of staying the same, becomes less then the pain of changing – it is often only then that recovery is possible.  People find it in jails, rehab hospitals and in the basements of churches.

It is often said in those rooms, that we “carry the message”, and that is the feeling I got from watching this play.   That hope and redemption is possible was the message Phil is sharing with us.  That the stakes were very high in his need to tell us this particular story.

One person shows depend very heavily upon audience reaction.  Story tellers depend upon someone to tell their stories to.   I was very lucky therefore to have caught Phil Rickaby’s show on one of those magical nights when there was a tangible connection between audience and performer – for whatever reason we all felt a strong connection that has coloured my experience of seeing the play.

Some credit naturally goes to Director Richard Beaune, it is easy to forget that great productions depend on an outside eye to shape and edit the experience of a play.

The beats – changes in tone and mood – in this play were incredibly precise.  It felt to me that this was a play that Phil had been performing for a very, very long time, and I was astonished to learn that the show that I caught was only the third performance EVER of the play. It is having its debut at the Hamilton Fringe.

I do hope that THE COMMANDMENT goes on to have a long run, as there is a real and sincere message at the heart of this production.

A tangent here unrelated to these productions here being discussed – I often get frustrated at Fringe plays that often have no point at all, other then the performers desire to get an agent or future work.   Perhaps that is another post to come in the days to come after the festival  – shows that seem to belong only to the person onstage rather then being meant to share with an audience.  But I digress from the point of this particular bit of writing.

Again, I must assure you, neither of these plays are about religion, they preach no particular creed, but they are both dark and personal journeys.

We seek light out of the heart of darkness – spiritual journeys are sometimes described as journeys through the desert.   At the end of a long journey, a cold drink with friends is a great way to end my day of fringing, as well.

I have no affiliations with anyone involved in any of these productions outside of meeting  and drinking with them at the Fringe Club this past few days.  That is one of my favourite experiences of a fringe festival – the chance to meet and interact with other performers.

More thoughts to come tomorrow, including some very cool one person shows I caught this weekend.  11 shows seen so far – off to another one in 15 minutes.

Go see these shows!

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