One person shows are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love them.

They are a staple of the Fringe Festival movement, as one person on tour is by far the most economical way to move a theatre production from venue to venue.

A tangent; there is a one-act Samuel Beckett play that has no actors onstage whatsoever, but as no one has yet figured out how to tour a play that can’t move and promote itself – I think it is unlikely we will ever see it at the Fringe.

A few of my all time favourite plays are one person shows.  BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR by John Gray and Eric Peterson, Tom Cone’s HERRINGBONE, (the early version from Canada, not the later multi-character version that went to Broadway), Joan MacLoed’s JEWEL, and Patrick Suskind’s THE DOUBLE BASS just to name a few that linger in my memory.

This piece will discuss three very different one person shows that are in the 2016 Hamilton Fringe.

SOAR (FREE)
Written and performed by Carlyn Rhamey
Directed by Mel White
Squirrel Suit Productions
at Mills Hardware.

One person plays are often confessional pieces.   A diary can make great raw material for a monologue, as there is a first person narrative voice.

Carlyn Rhamey is personable and affable in a very funny self depreciating way.  She performs a theatrical reinterpretation of her own life, and the stories she tells are often funny while simultaneously embarrassing and sad.   We find it very easy to like her, as Rhamey explains the reasons why she has never been able to find love.   She chats about dead end jobs, and several awful sad (but thankfully short) relationships with men who only saw her as easy pickings.

What is compelling about her story is just how vulnerable she allows herself to be onstage.  The piece is performed directly to the audience, and therefore depends upon some form of reaction from the folks watching her.

She tells us about meeting the love of her life, and a relationship that goes well until her beloved gets a job in Scotland, and she is forced to make the choice between her life in Toronto and joining her boyfriend in the UK.

No real surprise here, she sacrifices her own job, and decides to follow her heart and head off to Edinburgh. The complication of the relationship falling apart just prior to departure, makes things tricky.

Undaunted Carlyn heads off to the UK anyway but she finds herself in Dublin, Ireland instead.   Not being rich enough to be in proper digs, she soon finds herself exposed to authentic Celtic culture, which is open and sharing, for the first time in her life.   Crack (or Craic to spell it correctly in Gaelic) has two very different meanings in each culture.  She finds generous and kind people who welcome her as one of their own.  She finds community. She finds the possibility of happiness.

Eventually she ends up in Scotland, where she runs into a bunch of Canadian Theatre students on tour with a show. (Tangent – Edinburgh’s Fringe founded in 1947 is the largest arts festival in the world – I too can relate from personal experience that there are wild Colonials aplenty doing shows there).  These expatriate thespians, with director Martha Henry in tow, embrace her to their group and as a result Rhamey gets inspired to study theatre as well.  Here too she has found community, but this time with young people who have a passion for something that attracts her.

There is humour a plenty in the show, so much of the play makes you laugh a great deal. Bagpipes, underwear, uncooperative baggage carousels, Jane Austen heros, and youth hostels are just a few of the stops along the way.

Does the experience of her journey change her life?  Does she find love once again?  Does she learn to do some step dancing? Does a career choice as an actor mean that she will one day be touring the Fringe circuit?  Actually strike that last bit, as you know the answer to that one already.

It takes courage to tell so much of your own life story onstage.  I applaud Carlyn Rhamey for sharing her experiences with us.  I enjoyed watching it a great deal – you should see it as well, as I recommend it highly.

AWOKEN
Written and performed by Nicholas Dave Amott
Directed by Brennan Richardson
Fireflood Entertainment
at Mills Hardware.

Ottawa based actor Nick Amott presents a very different one person show.

Amott’s play presents a fractured narrative that seem the internal ramblings of a man in a deep coma.  I apologize that I missed the exact malady/disorder that his character is suffering from – but it is a sleep disorder that renders him unable to sleep until his brain is so exhausted that be becomes comatose. He performs several characters in different voices, and there are fragments of dialogue as his story jumps back and forward in time.

Some of these voices, (specifically those of his mother and of the medical team attempting to save his life are pre-recorded), while the other characters, (in his mind and externally in the real world as well), Amott performs himself.

The central conversation seems to be between a doctor, or therapist, with a thick English accent and Amott’s internal mind – a reference to Freud perhaps the internal and external in verbal combat with each other.   They banter, and the therapist questions the validity of the experience of a mind in a fever.  A great deal of the humour in the show comes from these exchanges back and forth.  There are a few clever one liners to be mined.

Unique to my own experience in watching one person shows, the actor here lights the production using several lamps, cell phones and even a BIC lighter – (some of these lighting instruments are on stands and others Amott manipulates with his hands).  This is a brilliant device, as we change focus instantly between these realities in the world Nick creates.   There is also an amazing rhythm to the show – the pace is very quick and it requires quite a bit of dexterity to keep turning on and off all of those lamps in time to the dialogue that is being performed.

One thing I liked very much about this show, was that the narrative it presents was not in linear order.  Like a detective, we the audience, are expected to do some work here piecing together tiny little bits of information to create our own theory of what is happening.

I won’t spoil the show by telling you how it turns out, but this production left quite an impression on me.  Even now, a few days after seeing it, I still have not figured it all out.  It has made me think – which is a good thing – something that the world needs more of these days.

TOLLER
Toller On The Run Productions
At Artword Artbar
Written and Directed by Sky Gilbert

David Benjamin Tomlinson, portrays the Canadian bisexual figure skater Toller Cranston in a stunning tour de force performance that reveals a great deal about the vanity and vulnerability of fame.

Cranston is an icon in Canadian sport, he tells us about the Olympics and world championships.  Figure skating is a performance art and there is a flamboyant theatricality about the character – he needs an audience to listen to him in order to be happy.  Indeed, Cranston as presented, seems to need to be worshipped by his adoring fans.

The play presents a series of stories of cruel figure skating judges, paparazzi stalking him and lovers (both male and female), of early childhood experiences that shaped him in “Swastika, Ontario”, where homophobia was rampant and beauty and sensitivity were ruthlessly stamped out.  Toller endures being different from those around him and vows to become better then the circumstances from which he has sprung forth.

There is a narrative twist to the play which I won’t fully reveal.  But the basic idea is that Cranston in telling this story to us is actually rehearsing the very play that we are watching to an audience of no one whatsoever.    Or perhaps not and our reality is that we are all sitting in the Artbar watching the show.  It is up to you to figure it out when you see it.

I found actor David Tomlinson – who bears no small resemblance to the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch – to be engaging and compelling in the role of Cranston.  He has a wide range of emotions and his need to be heard and understood is what raises the stakes and draws us in.

I am quite a fan of playwright Sky Gilbert’s writing – mostly as it forces me to think about experiences that, while not my own, show me the world around me in a entirely different and new way.  Over the years the body of work he has created is impressive and he has written more then a a few plays that I think are wonderful and have been seen only briefly. THE WHORE’S REVENGE is the one I have wanted to revive myself at some point as I recall the production of it in Toronto in 1989 with a great deal of fondness.   WHY WE TORTURED HIM is also – particularly for a local audience – one of the most important plays that ever came out of Hamilton.  These are plays that need to be revisited I think.   Perhaps if my luck at next year’s fringe lottery holds – I will get the opportunity.  Fingers crossed.

Sky Gibert created HammerTheatre as a local alternative theatre company back in 2007 to produce plays that were meant specifically for a Hamilton audience, and were thus unlikely to be performed anywhere else.  While this particular production is not by HammerTheatre, still the production team and venue recall those shows, in my mind at least.

Sadly, after a run at the Toronto Fringe, the brief run of this play at the Hamilton Fringe has come and gone.  I am grateful for the chance to have seen it, as I missed it in its first run last November.

NOTE  – I have no relationships with anyone involved in the first two productions.  But I have briefly served on a a non profit board with Sky Gilbert – I have also been fortunate enough though to have had a long time friendship with Theatre Aquarius co-founder Steve Newman who stage manages and has designed the set for TOLLER.  I know that anything I have written here about their show is filtered through those relationships – but as the production has now closed I think it more then fair to praise the work of these gentlemen, as it is so richly deserved.

Many of the productions in the Hamilton Fringe are created by young people getting the chance to create a body of work for the first time.  I am happy though that there is also room in the festival for older artists of long standing. The festival itself treats all participants in the festival equally, although as the capacity crowd at TOLLER proves audiences themselves treat senior artists perhaps a bit better.

Once again gentle reader, I find it a great privilege to have the chance to experience these productions and to have the opportunity afterwards to write about them.   More thoughts on the shows I have seen so far in the Hamilton Fringe will appear tomorrow after I have had the chance to have write them up.

Happy Fringing!

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