The Great Canadian Theatre Company‘s Undercurrents festival lives up to its subtitle, “theatre below the mainstream” as it delivers six unique shows, most of which you’re only ever likely to catch on the festival circuit. Six shows means six reviews.
Unfortunately, for the first time, we won’t be giving you reviews in video form. I know. Boo. Logistics meant we wouldn’t have a video until after Undercurrents was over and we’ve learned that, traditionally, not many people watch the reviews after the shows close. So we’ll all have to live with words this time out. And photos. We do have photos.
Before jumping into that, remember that Undercurrents runs until February 19th and you still have a few chances to see four out of the six shows. And you should.
Not sure what Undercurrents is? Check out our feature article.
We’re posting the reviews in the order we caught the shows. Just thought you might be wondering.
AND THEN IT HAPPENS
And Then it Happens is a hard play to describe. At Undercurrents last year, Two Little Birds Theatre Company had an interactive set-up where they tried to find out from theatre-goers what it was they loved about theatre and wanted to see more of. This show, on the surface, is about trying to deliver on the myriad of answers they got and give people what they asked for. To that end, Sarah Conn (who may be my newest theatre crush), Kiersten Hanley, Laura Astwood, and Guy Marsan (who looks kind of like Ashton Kutcher), delve into a series of little skits that feel more improv show than scripted performance.
Where the show rises above amateur-hour antics is where it starts to push its theme – which is whether tis better to try and give an audience what they want or to simply pursue the art and hope the audience follows. How can you entirely satisfy a room of X-hundred different people, and, should you try? They don’t address that this presupposes whether an audience actually knows what they want. What’s that quote about faster horses?
The show morphs from light and airy to a tone serious enough for a Post Secret event as they bring it back to the beginning, and show us that while we’re all different and want different things, maybe, deep down, we’re all the same. It’s all about trying to make a connection. Performer to audience. Person to person.
In the end, And Then it Happens is a very different type of show, and while not for you if you’re looking for straight up theatre, the performers are fairly engaging, and it’s interesting food for thought.
Edit: I just read Patrick Langstone’s review in the Ottawa Citizen. Perhaps proving the point, I’m the other 50%.
Carmen Aguirre’s Blue Box is basically just Carmen Aguirre up on stage telling you her story. Two things to note about that. One, she’s a solid, captivating performer who can easily draw you into her world. Two, she’s got quite a story to tell.
After she tells you the real name of her show, which is too naughty for marketing, the main core of what Aguirre talks about is her *ahem* love life, largely surrounding her repeated encounters with a TV star she calls only “Vision Man” – who’s kind of a douche. Aguirre repeatedly shifts out of this main story to jump into short snippets of her way-more-interesting-than-mine life as a member of the Chilean resistance. She practices the leave them wanting more approach each time she shifts between threads of her story to another time period right at the point you’re most eager to find out what happens next and this is the third way she’s able to easily enthrall you and draw you into her saucy sexy-time story for the full eighty-minute run-time of the show.
If Carmen Aguirre’s name already sounds familiar, you might know her from numerous television roles or you might have heard her name in relation to her book, “Something Fierce” which chronicles her life and time, again, as a member of the underground Chilean resistance during the Pinochet-era. While the show’s now closed out its Undercurrents run, catch it if you can in the future. Or buy the book, which was the very recent winner of CBC’s Canada Reads after a bit of controversy.
LIVE FROM THE BELLY OF A WHALE
Mi Casa Theatre’s Live from the Belly of a Whale is a very long title. And that’s about the most negative thing I can say about this play, which previewed last summer as part of the 2011 Ottawa Fringe Festival. We reviewed it then, but to sum up: Emily Pearlman and Nicolas Di Gaetano have wonderful chemistry, charisma and charm, their theatricality level is ninja, their story was… okay.
A lot has changed between Fringe then and Undercurrents now. The story has been retooled pretty heavily and is a much stronger look at the relationship and ever-changing bond between two siblings. Simply named Sister and Brother, the two share a love of cetacean life until Brother becomes moon-obsessed and it creates a rift between the two.
What hasn’t changed is the charm and chemistry Pearlman (still my biggest theatre crush) and Di Gaetano have on stage. The amount of charm that has me wanting to bring out that old trope about watching them perform the phone book. Fortunately, though, that’s not what they’re doing and instead they have a strong, funny, and touching story to back them up. The two perfectly capture the relationship and imagination of two young siblings. I might have liked a slightly more concrete ending but considering it’s a very metaphorical story and such a minor point in light of the rest of the show, let’s get back to the positives. There’s a lot of laughs throughout the show, some nice self-aware audience interaction, and the two performers know how to take full advantage of the suspension of disbelief audiences adopt as they show off a wide variety of theatrical techniques to create a magical show. Plus, I’d totally iPod the soundtrack if they ever release the songs.
The bad news for you readers is that Live from the Belly of a Whale has already closed out its Undercurrents run after selling out all five shows pretty well before the festival even started. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Mi Casa Theatre mount the show again in the future, so jump on it if the opportunity comes up.
The main through line of Highway 63 is the story of Steve, Chad, and Mary. Steve’s a reclamation scientist and Chad’s a worker bee and good old boy from The Rock. Both moved to Fort McMurray for work and Chad in particular only plans on staying short term. Mary on the other hand grew up in Fort Mac and intends to head to Toronto for University.
Through their story and a series of intercut verbatim testimonials, the performers show us what life and living is like on the Athabasca oil sands in Northern Ontario. The interviews and research that went into the creation of Highway 63 sets up a strong foundation but it’s thanks to performers Georgina Beaty, Brendan McMurty-Howlett and Jonathan Seinen that the show is so good. They’re all three hilarious and great in their roles, making the show a riot – though there are also some nice emotional beats like Chad’s nightmare, which was very well-staged.
And overall, Highway 63 delivers both on the promise of showing what life is like on the oil sands, and also the promise of –without going all neo-hippy– informing you what’s happening out that way, making you think about our relationship to the Earth, and wondering whether our terraforming Northern Alberta is worth it. There’s a very poignant scene where Mary’s character tries to explain the reclamation process with a cake. Messy business.
Having seen all but one show so far, this is easily my choice for second best show to run at Undercurrents, and since you can’t see the other one anymore, Highway 63 should be the top of your list. Plus, because this show comes from an out-of-town company, the likelihood of seeing it out this way again is low, meaning catch it while you can.
When you go into a show and you’re encouraged to drink and to leave at any time you like to get another drink, because the actors fully plan to be drinking during the show, you know this is going to be a show that will make theatre-puritans cry.
After kicking off with a screening of YouTube’s safety video, WeeTube 5400 takes a playlist of the most absurd, random, worrisome, and pointless viral videos on YouTube – the kind you wonder, “why does this exist” – and plays the ones the audience chooses to see, working their way through three categories of video. Then, creators James Long (who looks much less like Joss Whedon in person than his photo would have you believe) and Maiko Bae Yamamoto perform four minutes’ worth of the comments posted to the videos. This, aside from generating a lot of laughs, shows the absurdity of treating the comment stream as if it were real conversation. The point this hammers home is that these are things you’d never say in person. Ever. Yet people post them online behind the veil of anonymity time and again.
Going into sidebar territory, one of the videos on their playlist was flagged enough based on community standards that it was taken down just before the show. A quick search turned up a re-upload so we were able to watch but that means all the original comments now only exist as part of this show. When you go, remember to ask for the Tiger video. I think it was in the second category.
Long and Yamamoto are fun performers with great timing and so this is a super fun show for mindless laughs – and beer – but it’s more stand-up comedy than theatre. And fun though it was, I’m glad it was only eightyish minutes because unless you do intend to get drunk, it starts to get a bit tired after seventy.
I was thinking of posting one of the videos from their playlist but that would spoil it if it comes up during your show.
EDIT: Now that Undercurrents is finished, here’s a link to one of the videos we were treated to. Chicken Police?
Falling Open starts off in the eyes of a child whose brief encounter with a doll in a toy store creates an ideal in his mind and sets him on a path that culminates in his sexual abuse of a young girl representing that perfect ideal of what a girl should be. To his now adult mind, she needs his love. The story then transitions into the mind-space of the young girl, growing up having suppressed actual memories of the abuse but having it still deeply affect her life. Then, her eventual discovery of what happened. The entire one-woman show, created and performed by Luna Allison, is told by a living doll, first representing the abuser’s ideal, then the abused herself.
With Falling Open marketed as a play about sexual abuse, I went in expecting it to be an uncomfortable bordering on disturbing experience, which I also thought was the point, which would be perfectly valid given the subject matter and how we’ve all seen it portrayed before. Instead, what Falling Open was, was a compelling, thoughtful, poignant look into how sexual abuse profoundly affects the life of the abused.
The play pulls back from forcing you hard into the world of an abuse victim (or subjecting you to recreations of the abuse), while still capably conveying the affect the abuse, even unknowingly, had on her life. It doesn’t portray her as a woman who needs to be pitied so much as someone just trying to understand who and why she is. On the other side of the abuser-abused relationship, Falling Open shies away from trying to make the abuser sympathetic, nor an outright villain, while making the point that his appetites were different than the norm and that he both knew what he was doing was wrong at the same time as knowing it was right. Falling Open, in fact, makes no judgment at all, instead leaving that up to the audience’s silent conclusion.
And there’s no happy ending here. Just life going on.
Falling Open is well-acted, well-staged, and well-deserved of the critical and public acclaim it has received both at Fringe, where it was performed in Luna Allison’s bedroom, and at Undercurrents.
And Undercurrents as a whole? To anybody expecting a series of straight-up theatre plays, they were probably terribly disappointed. I know from conversation with people that this happened. But those people missed the point, didn’t they? Undercurrents subtitles itself as theatre below the mainstream. The promise is shows you won’t ever really see in a mainstream venue (or much of anywhere off the Fringe circuit or similar festivals) because the audiences for them wouldn’t be big enough. These shows generally aren’t for mainstream audiences. Or really intended to be.
While they may only appeal to a specific subset of theatre-goers, that in no way makes the shows bad. Each of the six Undercurrents shows was as different from the next as it was from the average theatre experience, which was the fun of it. While I certainly enjoyed some more than others – heck, a couple were completely forgettable after the fact – they were all entertaining. They were all worth checking out.
In that respect, Undercurrents was a resounding success.
Please, tell us in the comments what you thought of any of the shows. How many did you catch? What would you see again? Not only do we really want to know what you think, the show creators might be lurking out there somewhere waiting to hear, too.
AND – if you haven’t checked out some or all of these plays yet, four of the six still have shows left between now and Sunday the 19th. Check them out. Full schedule posted to the GCTC website.
*Photo credits: Natascha Nikeprelevic (And Then it Happens), Itai Erdal (Blue Box), Andrew Alexander (Live from the Belly of a Whale), Layne Coleman (Highway 63), Gunter Gamper (WeeTube 5400)