A few more Hamilton Fringe Shows I caught in the past few days.  These are all thematically what might be called “Thrillers”, so they naturally fit together I think.

BATHTUB GIRLS
Kairos Collective
at Theatre Aquarius Studio
Devised and performed by Nataila Bushnik and Robin Luckwaldt Ross

Inspired by the true life Mississauga murder case of Linda Andersen that dominated the Toronto headlines in 2004, this self devised and yet very intense one act docudrama tells the story of two young teenage girls who are arrested for the homicide of their mother.   In real life the two sisters, due to their young age at the time of the case, remained anonymous.  Their status as Young Offenders, allowed them to fade back into obscurity.

Here the killers are played by two Windsor Performing Arts Alumni Nataila Bushnik and Robin Luckwaldt Ross.  These two women also wrote the thoughtful script which explores the truth of what possibly might have happened the evening of January 18, 2003, into the full light of public scrutiny.

Much of the play, I am sure, is speculation.   I myself have worked on two theatrical projects based upon real life murders, and I can confirm that it is often impossible to know the true circumstances of a homicide.  Evidence is often contradictory, the deceased can’t refute what the killers admit to in a court of law.

Just like the real life detectives on the case, we the audience, have to piece together a narrative of what “might have” happened based upon the story is told to us by those involved – what is true and what is a lie?  It is up to us while watching to decide.  This raises the stakes in performance though as it forces an audience to become actively involved in the play, just by watching it.

On a bare stage, with nothing but a white sheet as a prop, these two young woman draw us deep into a dark and chilling world of conspiracy and murder.   Very effective music was created specifically for this production by Jaroslaw Bester and the Bester Quartet, which added a great deal. Similar to an Edgar Allen Poe short story, this play relies very heavily upon creating a very specific atmosphere of horror, Poe’s TELL TALE HEART immediately came to mind while watching this play.

Their mother, who we only see through the eyes of her daughters, is a self absorbed and abusive recent immigrant to Canada.  The two sisters, 15 and 16 years old in 2003, find the contrast between their unhappy home life and the exciting outside suburban world of school and the mall, intolerable, and so they make their plans murder as if it were some macabre class project.

With a great deal of premeditation, they ply their drunken mother with painkillers, sedatives and alcohol and pour her into a bath tub full of water expecting that she will die on her own.   The horror of the killing though, comes upon discovering that she is still alive, and so one of the two sisters holds her head under water for five minutes until she expires.  It was planned that both of them would take part in the killing,  committing the act together, but in the end it is the younger sister that does the deed, and thus feels more responsible for it.

Flush with $280,000 in life insurance money, the two sisters are very indiscreet about the circumstances of their mother’s death – the younger sister, tormented by guilt, confides the secret at a drug-fueled party. The truth makes its way to the police, who begin an investigation and are able to get a recorded confession using wiretaps, and – no spoilers here as we know this fact walking into the show – the two women are charged and eventually convicted of the crime.

The play only focuses on the events around the killing itself, without getting into the media circus that was the trial and the incarceration and eventual rehabilitation of the two convicted killers.  If the piece is ever expanded to a full length play, hopefully those details will one day become part of the story.

This was a play that I thought about quite a bit in the days following the experience of watching it.  I like that about it a great deal – that it did not give up all of its answers easily.   I hope the audience at Aquarius took as much away from witnessing the production as I did.  Kudos to all involved.

THE FIVE LIVES OF COLBY CARTER
L.M. Magalas Productions
at Hamilton Theatre Inc.

A similar piece to BATHTUB GIRLS, although the case explored here is fictional, is first time playwright L.M. Magalas’ play THE FIVE LIVES OF COLBY CARTER.

This piece too, is an investigation that looks at the circumstances of a crime, in this case the poisoning of a young woman at a party. In this narrative however, the woman at the centre of the piece is Colby Carter, a music agent and promoter.  When the show begins she is in a coma and hovers close to death.

This play’s frame is her friends and family waiting for her to recover in the waiting room of a hospital.  The real meat of this play comes when a police officer named Tyler, wonderfully performed by long time Fringe and Community Theatre veteran Julian Nicholson, arrives on the scene and starts to investigate the circumstances of what happened.

Just like an Agatha Christie “whodunnit”, all of the potential suspects of the poisoning are present in that waiting room, former friends and lovers, and a jealous sister are implicated by each of the characters in turn.

The device that is at the centre of the play are several onstage reenactments of the same events over and over again – (think of the film GROUNDHOG DAY) – a replaying of events at a CD release party for wannabe Rock Star Keith Krocker, that all have been invited to.

Krocker, looking like a larger then life caricature of Irish Rock star Bono, steals the show.  Luis Arrajo plays this part with skill, gusto and sheer evil delight, and as a result gives the most engaging performance of the production.  He is caught out during the course of the party in sexual infidelity and plagiarism, but as he is also “the coolest dude on the planet”, he creates the much needed conflict that leads to a physical altercation.

Much of this play works extremely well, but as a whole, it does go on a bit too long, for my taste at least.  The early scenes in particular, seem like just set up for what follows.  Too much time is spent, I think, in getting us there before the crime scene reenactments start.  Perhaps a fast monologue by Detective Tyler, similar to the voice overs on the old TV show DRAGNET, setting up the circumstances would be a better way to start.

Playwright Magalas, has perhaps, also made the error of directing the show herself, which is not a good idea when producing your own play, unless one also has a great deal of experience as a director and dramaturge.

The late Canadian playwright David French, was great at this – his scripts were famously note perfect on the first day of rehearsal without any workshopping beforehand – but most of us who write for the theatre, don’t have that skill set.

Ironically, already involved in the production is Julian Nicholson, who has an extensive track record of directing new plays, so the outside eye/script editor the production desperately needed was already involved in the show.

As to the rest of the cast, Olivia Prunean as Sara, gives a fine performance, and Paddy Skinner as jilted country singer Adam keeps the action going in fine style as well,  Alex Whorms in a thankless “best buddy” role does nicely.

At the centre of the action, is Jenn Magalas as Colby, we only see her character in a series of flashbacks which are the reenactments at the heart of the play, she also has a lovely moment in an epilogue flashback at the very end, that ties together some of the threads quite satisfactorily.  I liked those final moments of the play, a great deal.

I apologize for perhaps being a tad critical about this production, at least about the script, which I think still needs revision.  I appreciate and acknowledge that this is a first time producer mounting their very first play in their very first Fringe Production, so perhaps this is unfair criticism.   Also, I hear through the grapevine that this production is playing to very good houses, so on one level at least, that of finding an audience, it is doing very well.

Artists getting the opportunity to “do their own thing” and learn along the way is core to the philosophy of the whole Fringe Festival movement.  I applaud L.M. Magalas for seizing the opportunity to get her script from the page to the stage, and for putting up the time, effort and money to do so.

Hopefully, the play will go on to have another production when the script can be developed and be taken to the next level.  I am reminded of the fact one of the hit productions in the 2016 Hamilton Fringe, Michael Kras’ #DIRTY GIRL, is a rewritten and better constructed version of the play FOR KIERA, which told the same story but from an entirely different perspective, and was a gallery show last year.

Art in the end is never finished, merely abandoned, as the old saying goes.

And speaking about remounting older work, we come to John Bandler’s play…

CHRISTMAS EVE AT THE JULI-BEE MOTEL
Bandler Corp,
at Player’s Guild Studio

I saw the first production of this play back in 2010, when we both had original plays in the same Fringe venue, and when it was Playwright John Bandler’s very first production of one of his plays – the very same circumstances as is THE FIVE LIVES OF COLBY CARTER now.

Since then, McMaster Engineering professor John Bandler has produced a number of his original plays at the Hamilton Fringe over the years, including a whole trilogy of fascinating science fiction plays loosely tied together around the character of Naomi Verne.

Although his first play, CHRISTMAS EVE AT THE JULI-BEE MOTEL, is actually his most accessible one.  The script is a film-nourish thriller, heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock, that takes place in an out of the way motel lobby in the middle of a blizzard on Christmas Eve.

I was rather fond of the that first production of this play back in 2010, for one thing, it starred a friend of mine Monica Cairney, and while it had a few rough spots, I felt it held up rather well in performance.

I was unsure how I would react to seeing it again in such different circumstances, but I am pleased to report that the show has exceeded my expectations.   This is a tighter and more polished version of the play and features some nicely nuanced work from actors Aimee Kessler Evans (in the role of Cassie) and James Thomas, as multi-millionaire businessman Mick, whose life has collapsed and who finds himself at the end of his tether and stuck in a dead end locale as the Juli-Bee Motel.

Much of the strength of this revival of the play comes from veteran local director Tom Mackan, (who was directing plays here in Hamilton before I was born).   He raises the stakes significantly in this production, and gets sterling technical support from Anne Hogan, Daniel Van Amelsvoort and sound designer Peter Jonasson.

The play at its core relates a number of stories, some of which are true and some of which are not.  It is a play that does not reveal all of its secrets, but leaves some details open ended.  Your guess is as good as mine, as to what happens afterwards to our two characters.

It is also a very sexual play, although it is not an explicit one.  I hope, in the end, that the relationship between the two characters gets, eventually, down and dirty.  Film Noir, which heavily influenced this show, comes from the period in Hollywood when the Hay’s Code of film censorship was fully in effect.  In the Noir thrillers of the 1940/1950s, men and women stare longingly at one another with bated breath, and even married couples slept in two single beds.  I myself, prefer late 1960s films, for their freedom of expression, but I digress…

NOTE:   I have past relationships with Julian Nicholson, and Luis Arrajo in COLBY CARTER, and almost everyone involved in John Bandler’s JULI-BEE MOTEL production, except his two actors.  This obviously colours anything I have written here, and I waffled over I writing anything at all about John’s play because of this.

The idea in writing these articles is to guide you, Gentle Reader, in deciding whether or not to see these productions. If you disagree with anything I have written, then please come up during the Fringe and disagree with me.  I love to hear your thoughts on these shows too.  It is not a one way conversation I trust.

Keep on Fringing Folks – only a few days left now to go, and still so many more productions to see…

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