Mtl Fringe: Is That How Clowns Keep You Up All Night?

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Fiona Ross’s sex-ed clown creation Beatrice, aka: Ms. Bea Haven. Photo credit: Pascale Yensen

Mainline Theatre, to June 16, 2019

Following on from last years Is That How Clowns Have Sex?, sex educationalist Fiona Ross returns with her alter-ego, Beatrice the Clown, for another riotous hour of naughty yet sweetly innocent pedagogy.  This time around, she’s even sharper, more consistently funny.

The fun starts in the lobby as Beatrice introduces herself to her audience. An unlooked for moment of hilarity came when a woman queuing, presumably for tickets for a different show, sternly told off the gregarious Beatrice for talking too loud. (Complaining about excessive noise at the Fringe is a bit like going to the swimming pool and complaining it’s too wet). Ross knows a thing or two about reacting to audience reactions, and her look of feigned contrition was a delight, as were the running jokes about the incident throughout the show.

Latecomers also came in for some teasing. The look of wary bemusement as they walked in on the latest bizarre sight was a gift that kept giving, whether it was Beatrice wearing a floppy penis on her head, demonstrating a group scissoring session, or disguising herself as a panty pad during menstruation.

Beginning the show by bursting through a giant vulva like a circus animal jumping through a hoop, Ross takes us on a wacky educational tour of pornography, female ejaculation, anal sex, even the mournful life of an unsuccessful sperm.

There’s lots of audience participation, but such is Ross’s infectious good humour, nobody seems to mind being enjoined to sing a re-jigged version of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing, or being shown how to applaud in a way that sounds like testicles hitting bare flesh – though an audience member yelling “Gross!” as Beatrice spat out chewed-up carrot (used in a demo involving a lovable anal-passage puppet) only encouraged more debris heading her way.

While debates about sex-ed rage on, Ross shows that a combination of utter frankness and a healthy sense of humour about sex is an effective way of preventing future generations from dying of shame or STDs. Her delightful clown persona might hilariously fumble her way through her demonstrations, but this is a show that definitely finds the G(iggle) spot.

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Mtl Fringe: The DK Effect: Overconfident and Underqualified

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DK Reinemer plays a raunchy love song but climaxes too soon in The DK Effect: Overconfident and Unqualified. Photo credit: Jordan Donavan

Performed and directed by DK Reinemer. Playing at Petit Campus to June 15, 2019

The creator of one of last year’s Fringe highlights, Becoming Magic Mike, is back: not, as you might have expected, with a show called Becoming Magic Mike XXL. But there are rippling echoes of that show in The DK Effect: Overqualified and Underqualified in that DK Reinemer rarely forgoes any opportunity to get his kit off.

This year he’s looking at the DK Effect, or the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that fools relatively incompetent people into thinking they’re talented in those areas in which they are specifically rubbish.

I’m not sure whether Reinemer gave himself those initials as a stage name to fit the condition, or whether his parents’ naming him was just an unfortunate coincidence. Luckily, Reinemer’s confidence on stage is entirely in keeping with the fact that he’s an incredibly funny guy.

The one-man show revolves around an experiment presided over by a nervous lab tech to explore the DK Effect. Test subjects consist of a string of comedians and other performers who reckon they’re hot stuff on the stage. It’s a set-up that cleverly provides Reinemer with the perfect safety net. If the jokes go over well – as they often do – great. If they fall flat…well, that’s part of the act too.

Like last year’s Magic Mike spoof, Reinemer’s default state of undress is usually in the service of sending up a specifically American style of machismo, as with the growly rock singer whose love ballad turns out to be about being hopeless in the sack.

Reinemer is particularly funny when he throws wildly incongruous traits into the mix, like the out-of-shape, overdressed stripper who’s also a pushy dad at the school sports day. Or the Rambo-esque Marine demonstrating martial arts to a kindergarten class. Surprisingly, he doesn’t take on the most glaring example of the DK Effect, namely the preening doofus in the Oval Office. But arguably Reinemer is too much of an original to waste his energies on such an obvious target.

Though more bitty and less ripped, structurally-speaking, than last year’s Soderbergh send-up, this is still an hour’s-worth of rapid-fire fun, with guaranteed belly laughs and a scientifically sound explanation for the jokes that don’t work.

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Bacchantes – Prélude pour une purge

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Produced by P.OR.K. Presented by Festival TransAmériques at Monument-National, June 2/3, 2019

Rarely have I seen a Festival TransAmériques audience go as nuts as the one last night, responding to the closing show of the festival with wave after wave of thunderous ovations. Clearly we’d all caught the Bacchic fever transmitted by the 13 incredibly uninhibited performers and their infectious blend of slapstick, dance, clowning and music.

Bacchantes – Prélude pour une purge, from Cape Verde choreographer Marlene Monteiro Freitas, comes over like an unhinged carnival crossed with an avant-garde punk concert. It’s very loosely based on Euripides’s The Bacchae, that strangest of Greek tragedies in which the god Dionysus tricks uptight King Pentheus into crossdressing and hurling himself into a frenzied dance of death with a chorus of enraptured women.

Those women are here represented by three female performers in shimmering swimmers’ caps who drool, mug insanely and transform themselves into extravagant parodies of womanhood. Playing the rest of the characters, including Pentheus, Dionysus, the blind Tiresias and various guards, are several mostly bearded men who sometimes conceal their facial hair with grotesquely sensuous half-masks.

It’s not always clear in the carefully-calibrated chaos who represents Dionysus and who Pentheus, but there’s some truly wild dancing afoot, including a crowd-riling twerking session and a climactic routine, set to Ravel’s Bolero, with one of the men leading with castanets and furiously sexy hip-thrusting.

Five glassy-eyed trumpeters traverse the stage, and sometimes the stalls, throughout, accompanying the cast which sometimes bashes out a rhythm on drums, sometimes on the music stands which serve as the set’s furniture.

The off-the-charts wackiness of the show is made clear from the beginning when a reggae-inflected musical number is “performed” (actually mimed) by a bewigged homunculus, created by one performer bending over and scuttling around, microphone at butt-level. From there, things get laugh-aloud loopier by the minute. One highlight sees the cast simulating a mass bicycle ride while warbling classical opera before descending into shrieking mania.

Just once, the insane, frenetic pace slows down to something approaching sobriety as a projected image of a woman filming herself giving unaided birth plays in the darkness, perhaps as a nod to Dionysus’s birth from Zeus’s thigh, or perhaps in tribute to the strength of the women so maligned by the misogynistic Pentheus. The somber mood is maintained when the lights come back up and beautiful music evokes a bucolic idyll. But then we’re back into the madness – and the hilarity – as the performers accompany the music with a menagerie of animal sounds, including frogs’ ribbits, sheep’s baas and human burps.

Throughout, the dancers move about like wind-up toys or mutate into hybrid creatures, sometimes descending into the audience to offer hearty handshakes and scare us into thinking we’re going to be recruited into the loony tunes on stage.

The energy of the performers is incredible. All were drenched in sweat (and many of them flecked with saliva) by the end of the swiftly-galloping two hours. And yet, for all the cartoonish chaos, the physical control and acrobatic precision prevented it from becoming a madcap free-for-all. Old man Euripides may well have got his toga in a twist in frustration watching this insolent and irreverent deconstruction of his masterpiece unfold. By the end of it, though, he surely would have been on his feet, punchdrunk with elation at this astonishing game-changer of a show.

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Other Jesus

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Photo: Yuula Benivolski

Produced by EW&FCO Public Recordings. Presented by Festival TransAmériques at St. Jax Church, Montreal, May 29 to 31.

Parallel tellings of the life of Christ on stage and screen have proliferated like loaves and fishes over the years, and Evan Webber’s eccentric parable Other Jesus calls to mind Life of Brian in its use of comically banal anachronisms, while its musings on modern materialism are reminiscent of Jesus of Montreal. There’s also something of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar in its hippy aesthetic and live music (which ranges from folksy hymns to early Pink Floyd-style soundscapes).

But there’s something strikingly unique about Webber’s play and the way it’s directed by Frank Cox-O’Donnell. It’s just a pity that the playing style can’t prevent it becoming increasingly like a soporific sermon throughout its 70 minutes playing time.

Performed in the cavernous interior of St. Jax Church, it tells of a charismatic preacher called Jesus, (played with cheerful naivety by Ishan Davé) who, while hanging out with his disciples in the marketplace of a town called Bethanie, falls foul of the local magistrate for selling wooden boxes of his own making without a license.

But when Jesus performs a miraculous healing, he gets a government grant and a new venue (St. Jax doubling as his sparkling new temple). With success comes spiritual crisis. Is he a sell-out? Will the moderately well-off Jesus be able to pass through the eye of a needle? Will his more purist disciples fall away?

The playing style is initially amusing, and there’s something impressive in the way the cast (including Webber and Cox-O’Donnell) commit wholeheartedly to the oddball concept. Characters speak their lines in a sort of bouncy monotone accompanied by exaggerated signing, like a kabuki version of a Robert Bresson movie. It also calls to mind the flat gestural representations of Medieval religious paintings.

There are also some lovely faux-naïve special effects, for instance a rider on a white horse transformed into the majesty of a sun deity. The fact that it’s achieved with cardboard and sticky tape makes the audience’s gasp of appreciation all the more heartfelt.

Yet despite this original way of telling an age-old story, the script just doesn’t deliver. It’s long-winded and needlessly in-the-weeds, and its approximating of Jesus’s dilemma with the problems of modern-day arts funding seems to me a flimsy premise for a full-length play.

Davé’s depiction of gentle Jesus, meek and mild to a fault, yields some belly laughs along the way, but it doesn’t provide for much in the way of dramatic sparks. Not quite the Greatest Story Ever Told.

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Hidden Paradise

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Created and performed by Marc Béland and Alix Dufresne. Presented by Festival TransAmériques at Monument-National, May 25 to 28, 2019

An interpretive dance piece about tax evasion. Sounds fun, right? Surprisingly, it does turn out to be thoroughly enjoyable and often very funny. It’s also enraging, and ultimately rather terrifying.

Marc Béland and Alix Dufresne first performed Hidden Paradise at La Chapelle last year, and it’s not hard to see why this remarkable show was chosen to be part of this year’s FTA.

It begins with the pair walking out with a rolled-up a mat. First they place it the wrong way around. Then they see it’s too small for the performance space they’ve marked out.  There’s something endearingly Laurel and Hardy-esque in this deadpan display of comic incompetence which tells you from the off that they’re not taking thing too seriously.

Not that there isn’t something deeply sobering in the concept of the show. Before they get down to the show’s dance component, the performers listen patiently to a Radio-Canada interview between presented Marie-France Bazzo and philosopher and economist Alain Deneault. It spells out, in clear, concise terms, the devastating effects of tax evasion on the social fabric, whether it’s depriving the government of the means to combat poverty and climate change, or leaving the average citizen to wait in freezing temperatures for a bus that’s forty minutes late.

Then the interview is repeated several times, either through the performers’ voices, or by means of the increasingly distorted recording.

Béland and Dufresne begin by putting themselves in a series of mutually supportive but muscle-popping acrobatic positions while Béland smoothly delivers Deneault’s analysis and Dufresne hilariously reproduces Bazzo’s “uh-huhs” and “ouais” along with her questions.

A 100mph dash through the interview, like a line-run in the rehearsal room, is a miracle of breath control and timing.

At one point, in a weird mix of child’s game and folksy square dance, the pair skip around while wearing empty pockets like gnome hats and beards. I’m not sure exactly what that part of the show means, but it’s great fun

Fun, however, isn’t the main aim of the show. A quote, presumably also from Deneault, predicts we won’t do anything about the destruction wrought by the loss of billions sluiced into tax havens until we feel the fear in our flesh (fear of, for instance, our children developing cancer before they’re twelve.) Dufresne and Béland talk in the program notes of their project being about absorbing the implications of Denault’s words into their bodies.

The last stretch of Hidden Paradise becomes positively Apocalyptic as the sound of the interview, and the performers’ physical reaction to it, become hideously distorted. The effect, bathed in green light like a horror movie, is both grotesquely funny and deeply disturbing. Béland, stripped to the waist, somehow makes his torso lipsync to the words (it has to behave to be seen to be believed). As the recording slows down, as though the world’s energy sources are depleting before our ears, he mutates himself into bizarre body shapes, like The Thing in the John Carpenter movie. Meanwhile, Dufresne transforms herself into a disembodied screaming mouth straight out of Beckett, before exploding into a flailing, desperately defiant war dance.

There’s also something Beckettian in the final tragicomic image when the duo wrap things up, literally, with the aid of the rolled up mat.

You should definitely try to see this astonishing show before it or a plundered civilization as we know it ends, whichever comes first.

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Fantasia

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Directed by Anna Karasińska. Presented by Festival TransAmériques at Centaur Theatre, May 24 to 26, 2019

Being a festival that highlights the experimental, sometimes Festival TransAmériques offers shows that blur the line between finished, polished product and something that feels more like an exercise in performance still being worked out. Fantasia, from Poland’s Anna Karasińska, is one such example. It takes six actors, puts them on an empty set in their everyday clothes and with little idea where the next hour is going to take them. There are no props for them to hang on to (except for a pot of yoghurt). The show unfolds from instructions placidly delivered over a microphone by Karasińska who sits in the auditorium behind the audience.

These instructions range from the mundane (“X is playing a person ashamed to dance to a song he likes”) to the bizarre (“X is playing the tail of a snake”), to the profound (“X is playing a Belgian who is reading about the history of the Congo for the first time.”)

There is scope for these experienced actors to really strut their stuff with some of these improv-style suggestions. Yet Karasińska, it seems, has asked them to do as little as possible. Sometimes, there’s barely the shadow of an emotion crossing their faces, or there’s an almost imperceptible shift in their posture.

Often, it’s reminiscent of the famous experiment by Russian silent film practitioner Lev Kuleshov who filmed a man smiling, then edited the shot next to different images (a seductive woman, food, a child playing), leaving it to the audience to ascribe emotions (lust, hunger, compassion).

Here, the actors’ sometimes minimal responses to Karasińska’s instructions leave the onus on the imagination of the audience to interpret what’s going on inside their heads. For instance, one actor barely alters his expression when he goes from being somebody embarrassed about the word “period” to being a man in a crowded place wearing a suicide vest.

At times, it seems a bit of a fruitless exercise that maybe should have stayed in the theatre laboratory. Despite the short running time (just over an hour) I found myself getting fidgety over what came over as an improv show without the freewheeling fun and dazzling physical comedy of that form, and without the bonding experience of audience suggestions. (One nagging question; if as per her Buddhist influences, Karasińska is rejecting hierarchical structures in theatre, how come she’s the only one with the mic?)

Yet at others it feels like an effective, deceptively simple idea that sometimes reveals depths of sophistication in conception and in performance. Sometimes a deadpan shift in expression yields more laughs than the most polished one-liner or the most spectacular slapstick. There’s an informal charm to the whole thing too. Karasińska begins by telling us that she might get the giggles during the course of the evening. The moment when two of the actors crack up over having to deliver crummy porn dialogue was one particularly delightful moment.

And sometimes Karasińska’s instructions rise to the level of wondrous fables, affectingly performed – the chilling yet funny story of a satanically magisterial snake invoked by the cast casually meandering in line from behind the curtain; the sad tale of a wasp sent by the parents of a child to deliver it to the oblivion of death. The image of that child stepping into a cloud which gets thicker as death claims it is one that is all the more memorable for the simplicity with which it is conjured up.

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Tous des oiseaux

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Photo credit: Simon Gosselin

Written and directed by Wajdi Mouawad. Performed during Festival TransAmériques, May 22-27, 2019

This year’s Festival TransAmériques opener, Tous des oiseaux, fulfills all the expectations that come with that weighty position. It’s a hugely ambitious spectacle from a contemporary theatre superstar, playwright and director Wajdi Mouawad. It’s also a bold, deeply humane (and, at four hours, very long) statement about the multiculturalism and internationalism on which the festival is built.

Yet, in other ways, it’s not so obvious a fit. It’s far more conventional in its dramatic strategy than we’re used to seeing here (though maybe last year’s Shakespeare epic Kings of War prepared us). Dancing Grandmothers it isn’t.

What it certainly is is a programming coup, a spectacular homecoming for Mouawad who made his name here in Montreal but is now artistic director of Paris’s La Colline, where this show debuted. It’s typical both of Mouawad’s theatrical audacity and commitment to crossing cultural borders that it contains not a word of French – there’s German, Hebrew, Arabic and English, with French surtitles which served La Colline audiences, as well as the FTA audience. There are no English surtitles, unfortunately, though Linda Gaboriau’s translation, published recently by Playwrights Canada Press, makes for helpful preparation for the francophonically challenged. And English audiences will be able to experience it when it plays at this year’s Stratford Festival as Birds of a Kind.

That Babel of voices is integral to the plot, which takes us — via some wonderful stage imagery involving projections and adaptable sections of a vast wall — to a New York library, a Berlin dinner party and on to both sides of the physical and psychological wall that divides Israelis and Palestinians.

It begins with Eitan, a young Jewish geneticist, imposing himself, with a certain manic presumption, on Wahida, a female Arabic student, in the reading room of that New York library. The book she is consulting, a biography on a 15th century Islamic diplomat forced to convert to Christianity, gives Eitan the pretext to pronounce lengthily on black holes, chance, fate, etc, not because of the book’s subject but because of the coincidence of its turning up on a table most times he visits the library. Now that he’s encountered the book’s reader, he marvels, something must be afoot in the universe.

We are already on notice that Mouawad’s dramatic strategy is not necessarily naturalistic, not least because nobody shushes Eitan. It also, initially at least, seems unlikely that Wahida wouldn’t just up and leave during his 15 minute spiel and head for the nearest security guard.

When Wahida finally gets to speak, it becomes gradually clear that she’s stepping out of the present and into a memory. It’s a fascinating dramatic device that runs throughout, with characters, say, crossing time and space to witness a dinner party to which they weren’t invited.

During Eitan’s unconventional introduction, Wahadi, it seems, has intuited that they’re fated to be together, as per Eitan’s theory that entwined matter split by the Big Bang is destined to reconfigure over the span of billions of years.  So she stays. She listens. She accompanies him to a donut shop, they dance in a disco, they fall passionately, deliriously in love.

They are, in fact, a modern day Romeo and Juliet, though with potentially more devastating consequences. Later, we hear a story about a horrible trend of Israeli and Palestinian Romeo and Juliets protesting the impossibility of their star-cross’d love by blowing themselves up in public places.

Eitan’s father, David, is deeply, in fact, psychotically hostile towards the notion of his genetic line bifurcating over to the Arab side, as becomes clear in that brilliantly staged, and performed, dinner party.

When Eitan is hospitalized by a terrorist bomb on a visit with Wahida to Israel and beyond, all these family tensions rise to the surface in a series of twisting, sometimes hallucinatory confrontations between Wahida, Eitan’s mother and grandparents, a young female Israeli soldier and the ghost of that 15th century Islamic diplomat.

Greek tragedy, always a key influence on Mouawad, makes itself felt not just in the plot’s relentless progress towards a terrible reckoning, but also in the proliferation of long speeches enriched by heightened language and profound metaphors. There are many arresting ones here, for instance the one about the velocity of destructive news (which references Oedipus’s discovery of his true origins). That, though, is part of the problem.  One lengthy speech follows another, all of them sticky with profundity, so that I began to dread a character saying to another things like: “Let me tell you about a mother’s love…” It often makes for magnificent and sagacious flights of beautiful writing, but it doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama.

The fact that Mouawad directed as well as wrote the piece suggests there weren’t enough voices recommending cuts here and there. What would have been lost in the sense of its being an imposing theatrical monument might have been gained in a leaner, more gripping narrative. Something like the Greek tragedies on which Mouawad models his writing, in fact.

In the program notes, Mouawad mentions that, because of language barriers, this time he didn’t, as he usually does, shape the piece in the rehearsal rooms. Maybe there’s a less baggy version in the offing at Stratford. On the other hand, the mostly ecstatic reviews so far are most likely reassuring him that, if it ain’t broken…

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