Lesbian Speed Date From Hell

 

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Performed at La Ministere as part of Montreal Pride, Aug. 10 to 16, 2019

First presented at the Festival de la Bête Noir at Mainline Theatre last February, Lesbian Speed Date From Hell is getting a return visit, courtesy of Montreal Pride’s theatre strand, via a sold-out run at OFF-JFL last month.
As you can possibly tell from the title, it’s a deliberately schlocky slice of camp horror, partly inspired, say its creators, by John Waters’s Serial Mom. In tone, aesthetics and gloriously bad taste gags, though, it reminded more of the earlier works of Baltimore’s Pope of Trash, before Hairspray made him kind of respectable.
The simple but effective story revolves around Jackie (Katherine King So), whom we first see, ominously enough, reading a copy of Stephen King’s Misery. Jackie, whose first tentative toe-dipping into the speed dating scene, courtesy of her neighbour Regina’s weekly event, results in some bloody payback. For Jackie isn’t new to the lesbian dating scene, and a previous encounter online with the sexy but possibly psycho Ashley (Kate Hammer) ended up with Jackie ghosting her, ie, cutting all communications, after Ashley started to come on too strong.
After following Jackie home and breaking into her apartment, Ashley ties her to a chair (that rather overused post-Tarantino dramatic shock tactic) and proceeds to devise horrible tortures, all timed to the two-minute ding of the speed-dating clock.
The violence Ashley visits upon Jackie is genuinely horrific, but how seriously we’re supposed to take it is indicated by the fact that the latter bounces back from every injury like a cartoon cat. For instance, soon after Ashley pours boiling water on her crotch, Jackie is soon back to verbally jousting without any visible signs of physical discomfort. She even engages Ashley in a Kill Bill-style face-off after wriggling out of her constraints. The choreographed action scenes (including Ashley’s first attack, soundtracked to — what else? — the shrieking violins from Hitchcock’s Psycho) are amusingly over-the-top, director Mariah Inger further assuring us we shouldn’t be taking things too seriously by including a few deliberate play-that’s-gone-bad bloopers.
The writing team of Christina Saliba, Lorna Kidjo and Adam Kolodny clearly had lots of fun devising bad puns, rude references, and sassy come-backs, and the mostly LGBTQ crowd whooped it up throughout (the room was filled to capacity when I caught the show last Saturday). The fact that it’s performed in a bar adds to, you could say, excuses, the informality, with its frequent moments of scrappy staging and sloppy timing.
The performances are variable — I liked Martha Graham’s nerdy and compulsively apologetic prospective date, and Kathy Slamen is enjoyably brassy as Speed Date hostess Regina. (Brit soap Coronation Street gets a namecheck, and I wondered if Slamen was perhaps channeling that show’s legendary barmaid, Bet Lynch). Some of the actors, though, have trouble projecting. That one of these is King So takes the edge off some of her scenes with co-star Kate Hammer.
Hammer, though, mostly kills it as the slinky, explosively mercurial Ashley. There’s a definite touch there of Serial Mom’s Kathleen Turner, though she arguably comes off more like Jessica Rabbit, whom Turner, of course, voiced. And, in fact, for all the underlying seriousness about the dehumanizing effects of online dating, the show is perhaps best enjoyed as a cheerful and gaudy cartoon. The occasional slapdash moments, dramatic inconsistencies and groan-worthy jokes aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just drawn that way.

 

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The Drawer Boy

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Curtis Legault, Michel Perron and Brian Dooley in The Drawer Boy. Photo credit: Michael Green Photography

Written by Michael Healey. Directed by Dean Patrick Fleming. At Hudson Village Theatre, July 4-21, 2019

 

Theatre often pats itself on the back for being a purveyor of truth telling. But there’s also a long tradition of plays which warns that the truth will not so much set us free as plunge us into existential freefall. Michael Healey’s Governor General Award-winning The Drawer Boy stands in line with that tradition which includes Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

Healey based his play on a real-life theatrical project called The Farm Show, an early proponent of what’s now known as verbatim theatre. In 1972, Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille sent a group of actors to a farming community near Clinton, Ontario, to discover the realities of living off the land. The resulting docudrama met with great acclaim, novelist Michael Ondaatje describing it as the first genuine Canadian play.
Yet the process clearly raised some ethical questions about, for instance, appropriating other people’s stories for entertainment, or exposing private details to the public glare.

Healey’s The Drawer Boy runs with these questions and spins a cleverly constructed yarn involving two farmers with a decades-old secret, and an enthusiastic young actor intent on putting their lives on the stage.

The actor, whom Curtis Legault plays with the appealing giddiness of an off-leash puppy in the countryside, is called Miles. That’s also the name of one of the Farm Show actors, Miles Potter, whom Healey consulted while researching his play (to make things even more meta, Potter directed the first production of The Drawer Boy in 1999).

The two farmers whose door Miles knocks upon are Angus, who suffers from brain damage inflicted during the London Blitz, and Morgan, who cares for his old friend and nightly soothes him with the bittersweet story about their doomed love affairs with two tall English women.

The similarities with Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are unmistakable. Angus is slow-witted and child-like, and Morgan looks out for him with a mixture of devotion and canny self-interest. The plot also follows a similar plot in that the pair’s best laid plans go awry. Angus, the Drawer Boy of the title, is a dab hand at architectural draughtsmanship and the two men longed to live happily ever after with their loved ones in a home Angus had designed. But Fate intervened, the women died, and they’re now buried on a hill close to the farm.

One night Miles overhears this story and turns it into theatrical gold, its physical reenactment on the stage seemingly liberating Angus from his dependency on Morgan, while also plunging him into panic and confusion. But is the story even true?
Healey’s play skillfully juggles with these elements so that it works on several layers, all the while throwing up yet more questions.

At times it veers into sentimentality. Perhaps inevitably, given the play’s 20 year-old-provenance, its depiction of a mentally disabled adult behaving like a wide-eyed child has the retro feel of, say, a Rain Man. And given Angus perceives his own mental age as being close to the twentysomething Miles, this infantilising hardly makes sense anyway.
Thankfully, Michel Perron, who played the part at Centaur Theatre some years back, gives a characteristically precise and powerful performance, suggesting the simmering rage of the ill-fated Angus. Brian Dooley has the less showy role of the stoical, hard-bitten Morgan but brings to it a quiet gravitas that counteracts the irrepressible enthusiasm of both Angus and Miles.

Dean Patrick Fleming, directing his first play here since taking over as artistic director (he guest-directed Art last year), finds a nice balance between the raw pain in the lives of the men and the comedy inherent in their interaction with a naïve townie excitedly playing at farmers. Much of the rich humour comes from Morgan’s guying Miles into carrying out phony chores, such as having him wash gravel one rock at a time – though Healey has a delightful surprise in store for us regarding Miles’s gullibility.

As well as being robustly performed by its three-strong cast, the production also looks gorgeous. Peter Vatsis’s design provides an impressionistic sense of the farmhouse’s rustic simplicity and the starlit expanse beyond, while his lighting design glows through the wooden slats to mark the changes in mood.

 

The Drawer Boy plays to July 21. More information at villagetheatre.ca

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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 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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