The Undercurrents Theatre Festival, Ottawa’s juried festival for independent theatre, turns five this year. This is a coming of age that sees the festival move out from the loving arms of its birth parents, the Great Canadian Theatre Company, to join the Ottawa Fringe family (who know a few things about independent theatre) at Arts Court Theatre. The festival this year boasts nine shows and over thirty performances.Should you see them?
Far & Near & Here
Far & Near & Here is a symbolic and thought-provoking play about two strangers who, dissatisfied with life, decide to take the leap and meet each other halfway between their two homes, which happens to be in the middle of an ocean. As they prepare for their journey (by rowboat), they are careful to bring only the necessities: non-perishable food, shark repellant, toothbrush, etc. But along with the necessities, they also pack their emotional baggage: fear of intimacy, pride, etc.
When they finally meet at the agreed upon co-ordinates, reality hits. All the emotional baggage they inadvertently packed gets in the way of a friendship that was working just fine via postcard. In person, they force each other to face what they were running from.
The set for this play was fantastic. Two office chairs served as rowboats, while the rest of the stage space was filled with carefully placed empty plastic bottles. The temptation to knock over the bottles was gnawing at me the entire time. But don’t worry – they do get knocked over before the end, in what was one of the most satisfying moments of set destruction I’ve ever seen.
I was also struck by the lighting and sound design. Both elements played a significant role in establishing what is a very distinct atmosphere.
This is one of those productions you need to see more than once to fully grasp. Nevertheless, it is interesting – almost whimsical – and very funny.
Love + Hate
A depiction of civilization at the end of the world, set to music by The PepTides. Love + Hate is a pre-apocalyptic musical that investigates the origins of love and hate and the different ways these impulses affect our existence, be it through war, our dependency on pharmaceuticals to make us happy or our fear of letting others in. The show is based on Ottawa-local band The PepTides’ studio albums Love Question Mark and For Those Who Hate Human Interaction.
Describing Love + Hate is almost like trying to describe a dream. The images are vivid and the themes strong, yet as I attempt to describe it, I realize the story is too bizarre and fragmented to put into any sort of narrative. Indeed, this show doesn’t really have a narrative. Instead, it’s a series of musical vignettes that provide the audience with a brief glimpse into an odd but familiar existence.
This is a musically driven show, and the music is fantastic. Olexandra Pruchnicky, Rebecca Noelle and DeeDee Butters were just beautiful as the three main characters. Their voices, facial expressions and choreography helped make the show a spectacle.
I’m not entirely convinced a traditional theatre venue is the best place for this style of musical, but there is little doubt this show will fill seats.
The most pathetic man ever kidnaps the funniest man alive in order to make the saddest girl in the world laugh. Written and directed by Kat Sandler, Punch Up is an absurd situational comedy that hits all the marks. The characters are well-written and were skillfully performed, the situation itself is delightfully ridiculous and the comedic timing was spot on.
Pat (Colin Munch) is a bitter and recently divorced comedian whose wife – also his former comedy partner – took off with all his material and struck it big in another town. Duncan (Tim Walker) is a gentle, easily misguided bread tester scared of losing his job to a machine. And Brenda (Caitlin Driscoll), who has a lifetime of evidence suggesting anyone she loves will immediately die a horrible death, is terrified to love again.
The three characters’ lives become entwined the moment Duncan sees Brenda for the first time; it’s love at first sight. There’s just one problem – she’s about to jump to her death. So he strikes a deal: he’ll help her kill herself, but first she needs to come over to his apartment for dinner-breakfast. If, during the meal, he succeeds in making her laugh, she has to give up her plan to end her life.
And how do you make somebody laugh when you’re not very funny? Well, you kidnap a comedian and force him to punch-up your material. Obviously.
This play is brilliant. The story is smart and well-crafted. The characters are rich and each is uniquely hilarious. But what I found most impressive was not Kat Sandler’s ability to write a script that is consistently funny, but her ability to incorporate scenes of complete heartbreak that don’t interrupt the flow or tone.
Much Ado About Feckin’ Pirates
Banished to the crow’s nest and bound with rope, two pirates squabble over a missing parrot in what is an almost entirely improvised show. I first reviewed Much Ado About Feckin’ Pirates last March when it was playing at the Gladstone. I loved it then, so I was intrigued to find out if I would be as impressed and entertained by a second viewing.
The show is improvised around six topics voted on (or created) by the audience – topics like pirate twerking, syphilis and cockney rhyming slang. The topics are a mystery to the actors until revealed on stage. Each time a topic is revealed, the actors must somehow incorporate it into the overarching story, which is about a missing parrot.
While the nature of improvised shows makes them especially well-suited for multiple viewings (you’re bound to see something different each time), the novelty of this particular one did wear off a bit for me. Nevertheless, I was still just as impressed by Richard Gélinas’ and Margo MacDonald’s tremendous improvisation skills and their ability to make the audience laugh without relying on physical comedy.
What I value most about this show is the experience itself. It’s fun and entirely engaging – even before the theatre doors open. Fully in character, Gélinas and MacDonald mingle with the crowd in a boisterous and crusty pirate manner. Audience members are invited to vote on their favourite topics, create their own pirate nametags and are encouraged to participate in a pirate toast using the most pirate-y drink they can get at the bar.
All things considered, Much Ado About Feckin’ Pirates is most certainly a production worth seeing.
Directed and choreographed by Aharona Israel, this physical and emotionally driven performance piece explores personal and societal issues in Israel. Marathon isn’t just a play – it’s a “metaphor for Israeli lifestyle,” according to the playbill. And what a beautifully executed metaphor it is.
The action begins even before entering the space. Three runners jog in a large circle, with the audience taking their seats around the performance space (theatre-in-the-round). For several minutes, we watch as they run, the hypnotic act occasionally disrupted by directives called out by the runners.
You are slowly lulled into the performance, and then the stories begin to emerge. These stories aren’t told in a literal sense, start to finish. Rather, they are expressed through fragmented dialogue, movement, lighting and sound effects. They communicate different themes prevalent in life, not just Israeli life. The search for belonging, the search for meaning, questions and doubts about the society one lives in, etc. All the while, the central action – the running – continues as tension builds both between the runners and within themselves.
The performances by Ilya Domanov, Merav Dagan and Gal Shamai were nothing short of astounding. I was amazed by their ability to perform and act while running for an hour. But even more so, I was amazed by Aharona Israel’s choreography and direction. All the elements – the lighting, the sound effects, the acting, the dialogue and the choreography – came together to create a uniquely beautiful and emotionally charged piece of theatre.
The performance ends the way it begins: with running. And just as there is no clear start, there is no clear finish. What better metaphor for struggle is there?
Created and performed by Evalyn Parry, with Brad Hart on bicycle, Spin is an informative piece of theatre that tells the story of the bicycle, its impact on the 19th century women’s rights movement, and how it shaped our current culture. Too often we take modern-day conveniences for granted. The bicycle is no exception. We don’t think twice about its importance; it’s just another way of getting around. To say the bicycle made an impact at the time of its invention, however, would be an understatement. Back then, the bicycle was life changing. It reshaped society. Suddenly, people had access to a personal form of reliable transport and recreation. It was an iron horse – an opportunity for freedom and control. This was especially true when it came to the emancipation of women and the beginning of the women’s movement.
In this fascinating play, Evalyn Parry presents us with the history of the bicycle told through the lens of women’s liberation. Consisting of historical anecdotes expressed through a combination of song (in an impressive feat, Brad Hart uses different parts of a suspended bicycle as an instrument) and spoken word, Spin demonstrates how the bicycle sparked changes in women’s fashion, provided independence and ultimately allowed women to break from the confines of the home. With the extraordinary story of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to cycle around the world, Parry reveals an inspiring piece of history that has since fallen into obscurity.
But this show is so much more than a history lesson. Somehow, Parry manages to weave in the story of our continuing search for liberation and convenience and how this reflects itself in our present-day consumer culture. Towards the end, the production takes on a personal edge as Parry relays her own struggles as an independent female artist in an honest reveal that echoes the story of Annie Londonderry.
This show was not only fascinating (I’m a sucker for history), but also inspiring. It honours not only the bicycle, but all the women who had the courage to take a chance and break the mould for liberation.
Jerk It: A Collection of Masturbation Stories
Spanking the monkey. Flicking the bean. Stroking the one-eyed snake. Diddling your skittle. Jerking it.
There are dozens of euphemisms for masturbation – the act of self-love many of us seem shy to talk about yet is so often used as comedic fodder. Going into Jerk It, I fully expected to witness a series of low-brow jokes and tales of masturbation. Instead, the quality of the material took me by surprise.
The stories, which were all anonymously crowd-sourced, were consistently well-written and structured. Each story was authentically hilarious in its own way, with some touching on heavier themes of self-acceptance, self-reliance and the pains of growing up. Each took the subject of masturbation – typically the one-dimensional butt of a joke – and transformed it into compelling first-person accounts of…well, life. The hilarity of each story was further strengthened by a fantastic line-up of readers who were all introduced to the audience with a “fun fact” about their masturbation habits. For instance, one reader was introduced as the man who only masturbates to holistic poetry he translates into English himself.
Each instance of the show features different readers and stories, so the quality could differ. However, given the strength of the material read on the night I attended, it’s likely they have a wealth of quality stories to choose from.
Nevertheless, the four stories read when I attended made for a highly entertaining show that had me – and the rest of the audience – in stitches.
But that’s just my opinion and I’d love to know what you think. Did the improvised content of Feckin’ Pirates have you laughing the whole way through? Did Spin give you a new appreciation for the importance of the bicycle to women’s rights? Did you enjoy The PepTides’ unique blend of music and theatre? Join the discussion and let me know in the comments below.