Fringe: Is That How Clowns Have Sex?

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Written and performed by Fiona Ross. Directed by Julie Cohn

Currently playing at the Toronto Fringe Festival, aptly enough at the KINK boutique, Fiona Ross’s “one-woman, Queer clown sex-ed show” can finally give you an insight into that oft-asked question, Is That How Clowns Have Sex?

Actually, there are likely to be more overriding questions than that one, as Ross invites the audience, pre-show, to submit a slip of paper asking everything they wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask.

No need to be afraid though, whatever your position on the scariness or otherwise of clowns, as Ross is a likable, playful and completely frank stage presence. Yes, she wears a red nose, blue lipstick, silly frilly costumes and favours a cartoonish squeaky voice, but there’s an underlying seriousness to the show: Ross is an accredited sex educator and many of her answers, hilariously zany as they often are, are coming from an informed, sensible – and sensitive – place.

That said, there’s one area you might want to avoid, and that’s getting too personal with Ross. Thus one unlucky punter, during a performance at the Montreal Fringe, got called out for submitting a question as to whether she ever uses her clown persona for erotic cosplay. (The questions were anonymous, but it’s likely that whoever that questioner was, he/she was squirming under Ross’s withering response.)

Mostly, though, questioners were tactful enough to stick to generalised queries about, say, masturbation, sex aids, clitoral stimulation and STDs. Ross, clearly anticipating such questions, comes armed with a bag full of quasi sex toys (actually, distinctly un-erotic household objects) and puppets of impish little viruses and bacteria. But as a skilled improviser, she’s also ready to think on her feet and skip off into the surreal, including, at one point, making an imaginary bonfire of Freud’s painfully patriarchal theories on female sexual desire.

The show itself took some time to ignite — I could have comfortably lost at least half of an introductory demonstration which had Ross operating two horny puppets from behind a screen. Once she gets into her stride though, this makes for a fun show with lots of (non-threatening) audience participation from a teacher able to make you sit up straight and often double over.

Ross is a two-time Spirit of the Fringe winner at the Montreal Fringe (2016/17). She was also named Montreal’s Best Kisser in 2015, so, despite that prohibition on questions that get too personal, maybe asking advice on the best way to lock lips might not be too far out of bounds.

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Mtl Fringe: 4’33’’ in Baghdad, Lucky

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Nicolas Royer-Artuso in 4’33” in Baghdad. Photo: Mustafa Hacalaki

Nicolas Royer-Artuso’s one-man show 4’33’’ in Baghdad, directed by Ulfet Sevdi, is like a savage Jonathan Swift satire delivered by an unflappable TED talk academic. It’s also got male stripping in it. Let me try and explain.

Royer-Artuso purports to be presenting the findings of his research into a Baghdad performance of John Cage’s famous silent piece of “music”, 4’33’’. He offers to spice up this potentially dry lecture by interspersing it with some striptease.

Initially, it seems he really is informing us about a music festival created by America as a way of bringing culture to the country they’ve just devastated. But when Royer-Artuso then plays a recording of what he says is a performance of Cage’s piece, we just hear (and see) CNN’s footage of the shock-and-awe bombardment. Further “recordings” of the piece from places such as Libya and Syria turn out to be sounds of a war zone filled with the cries of the dying and of terrified children. Silence, it seems, means different things in different places.

If all this sounds heavy handed, Royer-Artuso delivers it with such disarming ease and good-humour, it comes across as bleakly funny, thought-provoking, charming and distressing all at the same time. The closing moments have Royer-Artuso walking from the stage, leaving us with footage of a war-blinded child singing. How, this quietly powerful show asks, can we remain silent in the face of such things?

4’33” in Baghdad has unfortunately ended its Fringe run, but there’s still time to catch another urgently political piece, Marie Barlizo’s new play, Lucky (at Too Close to the Sun Studio). Directed by Sophie Gee, it revolves around the fall-out of a one-night stand between a young Filipina woman (Katharine King) and a violent skinhead (Christian Jadah) with a swastika tattooed on his chest. Lucky raises questions about the pressures on some Asian women to meet parental expectations of perfection, and the anxiety and rage of some white men over the notion that they’re being supplanted by other cultures and races.

What begins as a seething and hostile back-and-forth between the two characters turns into a kind crime caper when a third character (Jeremy Cabrera) shows up. There are echoes of the Coen Brothers and Tracy Letts’s Killer Joe in these developments, though without the black humour which might have made the tone of the piece more varied and the unlikeliness of the plot twists more easy to take on board. The play is described as a work-in-progress, and I don’t yet feel it convinces that, say, characters would remain in a perilous situation to deliver long monologues about themselves.

Performed in a stark room with just one overhead light and an anglepoise lamp, there is some powerful up-close acting, especially from Jadah, and a couple of harrowing fight scenes are carried off with brutal efficiency.

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Mtl Fringe: I Think I’m Dead

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Al Lafrance in I Think I’m Dead

Performed and directed by Al Lafrance

Montreal Improve Espace B

Master storyteller and the Fringe’s favorite son Al Lafrance returns with a one-man show about insomnia, parallel universes, near-death experiences and something a whole lot darker.

You know you’re in safe hands from the off as Lafrance plunges into his story without preliminaries and at 100 miles per hour, pausing every now and then to take a swig of water as incidental music creates the sense of chapter breaks.

Referencing several classic films about insomnia (Fight Club, Taxi Driver and, of course, Insomnia), he narrates how the condition has plagued him all his life, which in turn leads him to muse about the bad experiences and decisions in his life which haunted him during those dark sleepless nights of the soul. These include a moment of realization that he might be a bit of a selfish asshole when, during a friend’s wedding trip in Cuba, he gleefully reveled in the prospect of an impending hurricane, leaving his then girlfriend to face her terror alone.  (“Did you like that story?” he asks that very ex-girlfriend who happens to be in the audience the night I catch it. She did.)

Lafrance’s material is far ranging and seemingly freewheeling. But, as with the best storytellers – he reminded me of Spalding Gray and British raconteur Ken Campbell – it all proves to be cleverly interconnected. I won’t spoil exactly how things come together in I Think I’m Dead, except to say that it switches from being a playful litany of anecdotes to something shockingly and movingly self-revelatory.

I laughed out loud a couple of times before we got to that incredibly powerful last stretch, particularly at one wacky detour which demonstrated how Billy Joel’s unfailingly cheerful Uptown Girl is actually a bit of a downer, especially for Joel himself.

But I’ll admit I didn’t laugh a whole lot throughout. I sometimes found Lafrance’s delivery a bit too heavy on the irony — although it dawns that this isn’t just a comedic technique for the stage, it’s a survival strategy in life.

Whether you find this show, which is billed as a comedy, funny or not – and a lot of people in the room did — it’s real strength lies in its being a painfully honest confessional about mental health and the necessity of being there for one another. A fine message for this most communal of festivals.

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Mtl Fringe: Mid Knight

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Laurent McCuaig-Pitre as Little Charming in Mid Knight. Photo: Rahul Gandhi

Written by Laurent McCuaig-Pitre. Directed by Alain Mercieca

Theatre St. Catherine

Local up-and-coming talent Laurent McCuaig-Pitre returns with his swashbuckling ego Little Charming for this show about a 7-year-old dealing with his parents’ divorce by retreating into a fairy-tale world of make-believe. Obsessed with slaying dragons, Little Charming believes he can slay the inexplicable dark forces gathering over the household. And so he sits down to his typewriter to write a play about it and, at the same time, strides forth, sword in hand, to enact his quest. Meanwhile Mom (Lucas DiTecco) and Dad (Gabriel Schultz) argue over who will get custody, continuing to argue as LC’s imagination transforms them into King and Queen of the realm.

It seems as though we’re in for a kids’ show with a strong message of personal politics, Geordie Productions-style. But when McCuaig-Pitre makes a big entrance with a bloodily severed body slung over his shoulder, it looks as though we might be more in Monty Python and the Holy Grail territory.

In fact Mid Knight sprawls somewhere between the two genres, which sometimes makes for an enjoyably messy mash-up, but sometimes means it’s just…messy.

The main mess-maker is Théâtre St. Catherine boss, Alain Mercieca, who not only directs but also provides a running commentary from the upper gallery. And by running, I mean running all over the shop. For instance, he’ll begin by telling us all about Little Charming’s inner turmoil and where his quest for happiness is taking him, then veer wildly off to talk about, say, Theresa May and Brexit, the Décarie Interchange and Donald Trump’s head. At one point, he mischievously kills the timing for the cast’s knock-knock routine, before saying to a visibly irritated McGuig-Pitre: “Sorry…go on…it’s your play.” Of course, McGuig-Pitre is just playing along and is obviously in on the joke…I think?

Anybody who has caught Mercieca’s often entertainingly anarchic productions at TSC (Fat Man Dancing, ATM the Musical, Dépflies, etc) will recognize the free-wheeling mayhem of this one too, with audience members invited onto the stage for a dance-off to decide Little Charming’s fate, bouts of anything-goes improv, and of course Mercieca’s outrageous, deliberately infuriating interjections.

There’s one really lovely moment where the two incongruent styles come together, when DiTecco appears as a scat-singing moon, with only a pale fedora to hint at his lunar qualities. It’s absurd, funny and strangely evocative.

A local critic (Neil Boyce) once memorably, and accurately, described one of Mercieca’s productions as “a beautiful train wreck.” Trouble is, here the Mercieca express ends up colliding with McCuaig-Pitre’s modest and charming little premise, derailing the simplicity of the narrative as well as any suspense as to what will become of Little Charming’s family.

There’s much to enjoy in Mid Knight, not least McCuaig-Pitre’s performance which is at once heartfelt and knowingly silly. And in many ways, Mercieca’s directorial instincts are right for the crazy topsy-turvy atmosphere of the Fringe season. But if we haven’t heard the last of Mid Knight, I suspect it will return in a more streamlined, more disciplined version.

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Mtl Fringe: How to Be a Dick

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Robbie Dillon showing how to be a three-leaf clover, rather than How to Be a Dick

Written and performed by Robbie Dillon

Montreal Improv Theatre A

If you’re looking for that authentic Fringe disaster to dine out on over the next few weeks, Robbie Dillon’s How to Be a Dick could well provide the money shot. Hardly surprising given its title, plus the fact that it’s a one man-show performed by somebody dressed as his own junk.

On the afternoon I caught it, Dillon admitted, onstage, to not having yet learned his script on account of only just having finished writing it. He spent most of his sixty minutes nervously reading from a lectern.

I’m afraid I finally ducked out of the room when he got to a really egregious sexually boastful rap routine (the only bit he seemed to have learned by heart). So I don’t know whether Dillon went on to reveal that he was exposing male toxicity or reveling in it.

The most engaging part of the show was when Dillon explained that, as a Fringe volunteer (and let’s applaud him for that at least), he’d often fantasized about putting on a show like this, and that his friends had challenged him until he went ahead and threw his name into the Fringe lottery hat.

For all his missteps, Dillon comes across as a nice enough guy on stage, with a kind of Harvey Keitel soft-centred tough-guy thing going on. So this goes out to those friends of his: friends don’t let friends put on Fringe shows called How to Be a Dick.

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Mtl Fringe: Kafka’s Metamorphosis: The Many-Legged Musical!

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Alexander LaBlond plays both Gregor and Kafka in Kafka’s Metamorphosis: The Many-Legged Musical. Photo: Karel Blakele

Performed by The Shylock Project. Directed by Matt Chiorini

Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui

One of the most noteworthy shows of last year’s Fringe was The Shylock Project, a fascinating on-stage “radio drama” about Orson Welles’s failed attempts to film The Merchant of Venice. Staging-wise, it was a lot more accomplished than your average Fringe show (with all due respect to other accomplished Fringe shows) and felt like it could have gone on to be a pretty convincing off-Broadway hit.

Now the same Syracuse-based company are back (and calling themselves The Shylock Project) with a show that is even more polished and potentially off-Broadway-bound. Maybe even Broadway bound? For Kafka’s Metamorphosis: The Many Legged Musical! is a joyous, funny, sad and incredibly versatile show that may well scuttle places where the Spiderman musical and The Fly opera failed to reach.

It’s much more than a musical adaptation of Kafka’s story about the downtrodden clerk who turns into a dung beetle. Taking an entertainingly meta play-within-a-play approach, it also tells of how Kafka worked through his feelings of inadequacy in the face of a disapproving father to create his masterpiece. It feels admirably well-researched, even if one of the songs claims creators Matt Chiorini and Travis Newton only boned up on Wikipedia for the goods on the author’s life.

What really makes it work is the way the company use a prodigal but beautifully integrated array of theatrical devices to tell the story – live music, puppetry (stick, shadow and glove), music hall, stand-up, freewheeling pastiche, etc. One of the many glorious moments involves a send-up the revolutionary anthem of Les Miz. Another has poor little Kafka, played with mournful puppy dog appeal by Alexander LeBlond (who also plays Gregor Samsa) trying out some Kafka-esque jokes and limericks which bomb disastrously, and hilariously.

I once caught Stephen Berkoff’s legendary ‘80s adaptation of Metamorphosis in London, starring Tim Roth as the tragic insect. That production eschewed anything approaching insect costuming and prosthetics and instead had an unmistakably human Roth scuttling up and down a climbing frame. There’s something of a similar technique here, with LeBlond using an upturned bed frame to hang upon, swing from, expire under, etc. There’s a simple but brilliantly special effect too, in which UV lights highlight previously invisible face paint to show Gregor’s increasingly ghoulish metamorphosis into a monster.

As memorable as the Berkoff production was, I found this show to be a whole lot more fun, largely because of the deliberately scattershot docudrama approach and, let’s not forget, the inspired and madcap idea of turning Kafka’s absurdist miserablism into what is, deceptively, a feelgood musical.

There are many laughs along the way, many moments of absurd delight. But what isn’t forgotten is that this is a deeply tragic Freudian tale which you can read as a metaphor for a dysfunctional family life, or even a terrible prophecy of what was soon to befall European Jews. The closing moments of the piece, in which the family delude themselves that they’re heading for the sunny uplands of future happiness are genuinely moving and give the show a lot more heart than the earlier comedic approach suggests.

As well as LeBlond’s double portrayal of Kafka and his segmented alter-ego, there’s admirable support from Carleena Manzi as good-natured Mrs Samsa, Morgan Smith as chirpy sister Grete (Gregor’s last hope for humane treatment) and Chiorini as the father who may be the real monster of the family.

Definitely one to catch, this hour-long treat may well metamorphose into something bigger. Run, fly or scuttle for a ticket.

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Mtl Fringe: Fringe: Improvised

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David Kaufman and DJ Mausner in Fringe: Improvised. Photo: Saima Ahmed

Performed by DJ Mausner and David Kaufman. Directed by David Kaufman

Much of Fringe is about taking a chance on an unknown quality with a wacky title. The title for Fringe: Improvised, though, isn’t likely to have you scratching your head over what to expect: it’s an improv show, and it’s part of the Fringe.

If you’re familiar with the fine work that goes on at Montreal Improv, you’ll need no further prompting to go see this show. If you’re not familiar with that venue (and school), or with the pure pleasure of what happens when this seat-of-the-pants genre actually works, this is an ideal introduction.

The cast is made up of two Montreal Improv regulars, DJ Mausner and David Kaufman. The show begins with a tongue-in-cheek intro as the two of them reassure us of their colossal acting skills while pompous Hollywood music plays. Setting out the ground rules, Mausner and Kaufman explain that the next 50 minutes will be completely made up on the spot, following a prompt from the audience as to what the title might be.

As they asked for us to call out titles, the lizard part of my brain came up with The Strawberry Yacht which, bafflingly, ended up being the one to be voted by the applause-o-meter. All quite gratifying, though now I was worryingly an indirect part of the show. Would everything collapse under the weight of such an idiotic and meaningless title?

Thankfully, Mausner and Kaufman proved more than equal to the challenge, cooking up a story about a young girl who lives aboard a yacht — the Strawberry Yacht, so named not only because the girl’s hair is strawberry blonde but also because of her habit of smearing strawberry jam on it. Fed up with spending her life at sea, the girl determines to follow an acting career on land, but a casting agency arranges for her to be shipped to a slave labor diamond mine.

Populated by fun characters, including a jolly life-lesson-dispensing captain and a long-clawed homunculus who represented the young girl’s dark half, it ended up being a supremely silly and often hilarious story. And yet it had some strangely moving moments, moored by cheesy incidental music, the performers’ impressive ability to fake sincerity, and a happily affirmative ending all about following your dreams.

Unfortunately, you’ve missed your chance to catch the instant classic that was The Strawberry Yacht, as a brand new story will be hatched with every performance, depending on the chosen title. But whatever it turns out to be, you’re in safe hands with Mausner and Kaufman, two skilled and naturally funny improvisers. Terrifically entertaining.

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