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Montreal Fringe Festival 2006

After a slow and rainy start, this year's Fringe has picked up steam as it heads towards the closing weekend. Here is a run-down of what we've seen and what we think of the shows so far.
[NB - Neil Brouillet; JC - Janet Coutts; JK - Janis Kirshner]

drumhellerToronto-based actor-writer duo Darcy Bruce and Leah Bowen knock out three stories in which they play all the characters. The rapidly converging tales revolve around mysterious goings-on in rural Alberta with UFOs, missing people, and peculiar country folk thrown into the mix. Bruce's missing person detective is achingly funny, all nervous tics and bluster as, enraptured by the sound of his own voice, he carries on cluelessly; Bowen is sweet and captivating as a reluctant door-to-door evangelist, secretly in love with the co-worker she calls, with a heavy accent, "Hoe". (Venue 11) - NB

Word Infirmia: The Criminal Perspectives Project  
wordThis was a compelling collection of monologues by and about criminals, researched, developed and acted by Perri Yaniv.
There was a fine moment before the piece really started, as Yaniv wandered in front of the stage, staring down the audience with a grin as if sizing us all up, then settling into the show, an uneasy mood well established.
The work of interviewing and assembling the stories of these people paid off as the dialogue rings true: whether it's the rationalizations of the convicts, the disbelief expressed by the victims, or the social workers and cops who try to explain the cause and effect of violent crime.
Perri needs to trim the story down and connect together the fragments of his characters better. Some of the voices and mannerisms work, some - like the high screechy one - not so much. Still, an interesting play that requires attention and involvement. (Venue 11) - NB

Jesus in Montana  
jeebusSubtitled "Adventures in a Doomsday Cult", Barry Smith is the hapless narrator of this apparently true story about his time spent with a small group of people led by an old man–a convicted pedophile, actually–who claimed to be Jesus...and even lived in his basement for a while. Jesus' basement, that is. It wasn't so much a "let's all drink Kool-Aid!" kind of doomsday cult, but more the "let's sign up the magical number of recruits so we can bring about the foretold apocalypse!" variety. Smith mines the comedy of this idiotic cult to its fullest, recounting the story with amazement at his own gullibility. The goofy, powerpointy presentation that accompanies the monologue is hilarious. Save us, Jeebus... (Venue 3) - NB

Backstage at Da Fonky B  
Fonky BThis is a story written and directed by Alycya Miller, and told by some attractive young women who have travelled all the way from the Big Easy, to bring us a story of heartbreak and death and joy. Mostly, it's a vehicle for them to showcase their singing and dancing. And who doesn't want to see a musical from New Orleans? It's a pleasant enough way to spend 90 minutes, and I'd like to see this company back again next year. In the meantime, I'd urge them to go see some other shows, here and at home, watching for what works and why. And I'd like to give a few pointers: Keep your show short, and you won't need an intermission. Rehearse more. Costume changes should be inconspicuous (and most of them in this show are unnecessary). Work on timing. Realize where the end of the show is; there's likely no need for an epilogue. Please come back, chers. You charmed me with your rough production and you have the potential to deliver a hit. (Venue 6) - JC

The Sum of All Cheers  
CheerleadersSmart, sassy women in short skirts - what could be bad? I love the choreography, the commitment and the great sense of comic timing of The Montreal All-Star Cheerleaders - especially from Glenda Braganza (The Token Indian Cheerleader) and Stephanie McKenna (The Token Verdun Cheerleader). This show is quintessential Fringe—it holds together and holds your attention, is obviously well rehearsed, and has all the other important work for good theatre; it just would never be part of a conventional theatre season. The story is odd enough. Canadian hero Terry Fox’s right sock, the one he dipped in the Atlantic, is missing. In come the Cheerleaders to find the sock and ultimately wrench it out of Stephen Harper’s hand at his underground hideaway in the bowels of Mount Royal. In between we get some stinging Canadian history, learning parts of our heritage and the treatment of various Canadian ethnic groups that they certainly don’t teach you in grade school. The great rant on the West Island is not to be missed. Paul Van Dyke, the director, co-writer, and actor of all male roles, is always fun to watch, especially as the lecherous Dad disguised as a would-be cheerleader. (Venue H) - JK

Big Spender  
Fonky BBig Moves has branches in Boston, New York and San Francisco and are the only dance company dedicated to increasing size diversity in dance. These large ladies have gusto and abandon for what they’re doing and that translates to the audience in a BIG way (sorry, couldn’t resist). More than just dance moves and plus-size sexy costumes, this group is funny. Whether they’re changing the lyrics from West Side Story’s “When You’re a Jet” to “When You are Fat” (about how people don’t give you space on the sidewalk, etc.) or dancing to titles like “Too Much Booty in the Pants”, everything has a knowing nod. They are proud of who they are, though some audience members may not need to see the bare-all of what they’re made of. This group is from Boston and are loving their visit to Montreal where they can be naked on stage as much as they like. You can even buy tit and ass prints made live on stage. I didn’t need the fake little interviews that didn’t really tell me much about anyone (though the MC is charming), and maybe the leg kicks weren’t as high, or the choreography as varied, to bring things to a higher dance level. But, that’s not really what this show is only about. I thoroughly enjoyed the dance numbers and songs and left the theatre feeling good. (Venue 10) - JK

Living Shadows: A story of Mary Pickford  
PickfordTracey Power wrote and performs in this very earnest story about Canada's most famous actress, pouring on the poor lil' rich girl treatment shamelessly in one of most beautifully designed productions at the Fringe. The play attempts to track the Toronto-born star's rise from child actor to "America's Sweetheart" and Hollywood's first millionaire. Power is determined to wring every drop of pathos from Pickford's life, yet the script does little to show how this immensely driven, dedicated, powerful, and singular woman could actually come to be. Pickford's increasing dissatisfaction at being typecast in childlike roles is the heart of this play, and is used to explain nearly every failure and disappointment, in the end reducing Pickford to a pitiable Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-like caricature. Power is a talented actor and writer, however, and were the play to be rejigged and the subject given a fuller treatment, it could work. (Venue 7) - NB

LewisSinger and songwriter Barbara Lewis lays bare her heart in this autobiographical cabaret-style performance, covering her early life as a young singer, her years in rural splendor and in New York grit, and several high points and tragedies along the way thus far. Her classically trained voice didn't work with every song - operatic singers have a powerful jet engine of an instrument to control, something that only rarely works with lighter pop material - but the bits of opera were most impressive (and eardrum-testing), while the ballads were lovely and affecting. This narrative interspersed with tunes (and a few quick costume changes) had a touching and confessional quality, and though Lewis' voices and characterizations can sometimes verge on the corny, it is clearly a honest and deeply personal story. (Venue 2) - NB

My Little Rant  
rantStephen Pietrantoni's got an amazing voice that fills the Mainline Theatre space and sends smiles and nods throughout the audience. He is warm and charming and just when you think you know where the show is going, you're surprised and taken out of yourself. My Little Rant is fresh and the irony runs deep. Don't be off put by the title - wouldn't you want to rant some if they were making a movie about your life but found someone better to play the part of you? Pietrantoni retreats to his "popcorn place", soothing himself with great old-time characters and meaningful movie theme songs. In this show, clothes make the wo/man and the costumes keep on coming, along with Pietrantoni's search for identity. If I've made this sound at all cliché, forgive me - the lack of it is what makes this little gem shine. (Venue 6) - JK

The Chinese Clown Cabaret  
Chinese ClownJane Chen and her mom Tair put together a loose collection of sketches that wander all over the place, but it doesn't much matter. It centers mainly on a nervous and overly dramatic young girl's battles with her strict mother. Sporting a little red clown nose throughout, Jane describes the journey of her Taiwanese immigrant mother and the torture of piano lessons. Her ukulele-strummed numbers about lost lambs and tearful racehorses, especially one where she is made to emote as she plays, "OK, now, happy, sad, angry, scared!", are very funny and sweet. The show stops and starts a lot with many asides and explanations as the pair talk to the audience and ask for food, compliment someone in the front row on their outfit, or drag a small child on stage. All of which keeps the show off kilter and goofy-weird for a hour. They could maybe cut it down by 15 minutes and give the show more focus - or not. It is, after all, the Fringe. (Venue 7) - NB

It's Not You...It's Me  
Solid StateMultiple influences have always been evident in the shows by all-female breakdance company Solid State. Their latest production, It's Not You...It's Me, is their closest yet to a true contemporary dance/street dance hybrid, and it's a beauty. All the popping and locking the crowd loves is still there, but the work is showing an increasing and welcome maturity, including the segment, Slow Freeze, that would fit in any so-called dance venue. This smaller scale set—just five dancers compared to the gang of B-Girls in earlier works—starts at a high level and keeps it there for a too-brief 45 minutes. Their sound, visuals, and straight dancing skills—all are getting better with each production. In particular is the astonishing JoDee Allen (don't know if she's dropped the "Feisty" moniker). A founding member of Solid State, Allen has played a major part in the look and feel of their shows for years, and her attitude and high-kilowatt energy define the company. As always, an essential stop at the Fringe. (Venue 10) - NB

The Montreal Fringe Festival continues to June 18, 2006

Get tickets at the Central Box Office (Parc de Amériques, Rachel/St-Laurent) or at each venue from one hour before show time.

Consult the Fringe program (available throughout the city and at Fringe Central, Parc de Amériques) for show times, ticket prices, and information on multi-show passes.

Info: (514) 849-FEST

[ photos courtesy Montreal Fringe and individual theatre companies ]

- Neil Boyce

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