2017 Year in Review — The Top Plays I Saw
In 2017, I saw around 50 plays, quite a few less than in recent years but still enough to take a survey of the general ‘scene.’ Every year, I’m less interested in traditional plays.
What I am interested in is how trends are set in art. As far as storytelling goes, I believe our trends start in literature, then move to theatre, then to film, and finally to TV. The recent surge in popularity of the podcast as a genre is having an effect.
There’s a move in literature, that exists necessarily in podcasts, towards the human-interest story. As audiences we long for truth but it’s harder and harder to convince us that something is real. Serial (at least season one) is about as real to listeners as anything has been for the last decade. Investigative reporting, despite the death of newspapers, is still going strong.
So where does this exist in the theatre? The fringe festival is a good centralized place to start. Despite the fringe festival’s continued gentle push to the margins by mainstream theatre — I was politely discouraged from applying to the Jessie Richardson Awards by a small theatre jury member who didn’t want me to waste my money — it is where the most exciting and innovative work is happening. Below is my list of the top 15 shows I saw this year and a whopping 10 of them are from the fringe.
They’re not all autobiographical/memoir shows. A lot are comedy. But even the comedies are innovative and self-aware. They dissect the current moment through the hyper-intelligent lens of their unique creators. The fringe festival shows on this list are reliant on style and voice, meaning, in a way, that they have true personalities that transcend the stage and follow their authors into the beer tent and throughout life. They’ve got distinct personalities that inform the (also really good) content.
Ten Shows I Wish I Saw:
The Lonesome West
1 Hour Photo
The Ridiculous Darkness
15. Children of God by Corey Payette (The York Theatre)
A really important and interesting show that I also found to be an extremely inconsistent experience. Inconsistent does not equal bad; there are a few scenes in Children of God that are the most powerful things I’ve seen on stage in a long time. It’s frustrating that the entire show couldn’t remain elevated to that level. The talkback after the curtain was as important and captivating as the piece itself; the night I was there, a woman who had been adopted and only recently discovered her aboriginal roots said it was the first time she’d seen someone like herself on stage. That’s a big thing and a show that achieves that should be celebrated.
14. Watch Out, WildKat by Sex T-Rex (Edmonton Fringe)
Toronto-based action comedy troop Sex T-Rex was my favourite discovery of the year. They’re tireless in their commitment to inventive action sequences that prop-up genre tropes. This one was a Western.
13. I’m Doing This For You by Haley McGee (The Cultch — Revolver Fest)
A one-person show wherein a woman organizes the audience as a surprise for her wannabe stand-up comic boyfriend’s birthday present. It starts off funny but soon becomes very personal, blurring the line between performance and reality and showing a brave, clear picture into a relatably-messy psyche.
12. Tombstone: A Cardboard Western by Ramshackle Theatre (The Cultch — Revolver Fest)
A puppet show happens on stage but it’s also filmed and projected onto a big screen. I saw them do Sci-Fi Double Feature a few years ago and their cardboard puppets have only gotten better. Sometimes the pacing is a little slow but the inventiveness and challenge in their storytelling is massive. Ramshackle Theatre, Vancouver locals, deserve a larger audience.
11. Bendy Sign Tavern by Sex T-Rex (Toronto Fringe)
The second entry in the three Sex T-Rex shows on my list, this was the first I saw and a departure from their typical style. A puppet musical set in a Toronto bar, Bendy Sign has the virtuosic qualities of Avenue Q updated for a 2017 audience. Sex T-Rex are bolstered by their absolute commitment to hard work. If I hadn’t seen this show first I would’ve been like, “what the Hell, you’re also master puppet builders??”
10. The Merkin Sisters by Ingrid Hansen and Stephanie Morin-Robert (Theatre Wire, Vancouver Fringe Pick-Plus)
There’s an interesting thing that happens on the fringe circuit where solo artists sometimes collaborate on duo shows. Morin-Robert is a choreographer/performer and Ingrid Hansen resists definition. I never knew what was going to happen next in this show, a grab-bag of strange images from inside the heads of these strange ladies. It’s dream-theatre, it stirs stuff up in your brain and makes you think about what’s going on in the world without telling you what it is you should be thinking. During parts of the show, they wear full-body hair suits and at one point combine together to make a single creature laid upon a table. Hansen’s face is visible and half way down the siren-esque creature is just Morin-Robert’s mouth. I’ll let you imagine the rest.
9. Swordplay: A Play of Swords by Sex T-Rex (Vancouver Fringe)
The most airtight storytelling of the three Sex T-Rex shows I caught, the jokes come hard and fast and the action is cinched tight with almost non-stop moments that make you go, ‘ah! Good one!’ When I saw the show in Vancouver, Peter Carlone — from Peter n’ Chris — was filling-in for a role, furthering my point of interest in Fringe Festival collaborators. He fit seamlessly into the Sex T-Rex world while retaining his basic character traits as a performer. I don’t quite understand how this works yet but I think it’s something like when Russel Brand is in a movie.
8. A Peter n’ Christmas Carol by Peter n’ Chris (Toronto Fringe)
Speaking of Peter n’ Chris, their latest: a Summer retelling of the Dickens Classic had a lot to like about it. Their jokes are solid in this one but it’s their montage sequences that take a step forward from their previous work, including a Home Alone tribute that’s right up there with their best.
7. Drunk Girl by Thea Fitz-James (Edmonton Fringe)
A hyper-intelligent memoir/essay about feminism, alcohol, and the complicated, psychological dance between the two. Fitz-James is another great example of a strong personality on stage, instantly relatable and recognizable, real, unpacking something bigger. Peter n’ Chris and Sex T-Rex keep their common ‘authorial brand’ and investigate the worlds of comedy and genre, while Fitz-James takes on more serious subject matter. All of them do this through the perspectives of their own self-identity. Fitz-James in particular makes this messy-humanism stick with you, particularly in a brilliant subversion where she leads the audience — by now completely on her side — in an old college chant that ends with a sexually aggressive tag that leaves us all complicit.
6. The Elbow Room Cafe by Zee Zee Theatre (The York Theatre)
Ok ok ok, it’s not all academic. I had as much fun watching this show as I’ve had at the theatre in a long time. An absolutely joyous trip to Vancouver’s seminal west-end diner. The show isn’t perfect but it’s a raucous toast that barrels forward until everyone’s laughing and standing and drinking together.
5. Roller Coaster by TJ Dawe (Vancouver Fringe)
The common theme I’m discussing here is the author’s true identity — whether that be through a character they’ve crafted or their actual self — deeply investigating the topics that mean something to them. TJ Dawe’s shows are this thesis boiled down. TJ’s essential formula is to take four or five disparate things that he’s interested in and to probe those topics exhaustively for what they say about humanity. And they must say something about humanity, otherwise he/we wouldn’t be interested in them. He goes further and finds what those subjects have in common with each other and what that commonality says about where we are now and where we’re going. This one is about American Politics (of course); Barbara Ehrenreich; Marvel Comics, Star Wars, and Harry Potter; and the collapse of civilization.
4. Multiple Organism by Mind of a Snail (Vancouver Fringe)
Mind of a Snail makes the edgiest kind of shadow puppetry. I’ve seen three of their shows now and Multiple Organism is the edgiest. It’s personal, feminist messages are abstracted through the kind of expression that manifests itself in a toothbrush sex scene. It’s pretty hard to put what Mind of a Snail does into words, their shows are colourful, ground-breaking, and filled with things to unpack. They express their politics through imagery and you’re probably either going to be completely offended or completely entranced but I promise you won’t be bored. They won the Cultchivating the Fringe prize in Vancouver this year and will be remounted at the Cultch.
3. Brain Machine by Andrew Bailey (Vancouver Fringe)
A show about the functions of the brain amidst a world of noise and the advent of the internet and smartphone. Andrew Bailey’s real life neuroses are always a central theme for his shows, and what makes it all work so well is how endearingly human they are in their specificities. One of the set-pieces in Brain Machine is Bailey’s recollection and reflection on the time he went viral on the internet. He made a video of a monologue he’d written about a man telling the story of why he thinks rape is hilarious (trigger warning, but before you pass judgement on the subject matter, give the video a watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ikd0ZYQoDko). I remember the day it went viral, I think it was on the Daily What back when I was checking the internet aggregator every day. His message box was flooded with congratulations from his friends — myself included. It was also flooded with messages from strangers who related to the video… and trolls of course too. The pressure of it all got to Andrew but he felt like he had no one to talk to about it because he didn’t want to complain about this new-found celebrity we all seem to hope for when we post something online. The video he made is beautiful and so is the show that recollects that period of his life. As the messages piled up, he did his best to reach out and respond to as many as he could. Eventually all he could write back was, ‘you are not alone.’ The author’s presence is so important in art because without it, that statement can easily be doubted. We live in a skeptical era. We are lied to nonstop by the media we consume. We are manipulated. But when someone is standing in front of you telling their story, there is hope for truth. Even if Andrew’s viral monologue is not exactly his own story, his message, ‘you are not alone,’ resonates through at least 2.3 million views.
2. All the Way by OOOO (The Russian Hall — Revolver Fest)
The show opens with a wrapped present sitting on stage. A voice manifests, amplified from somewhere behind the closed stage curtain: “Go all the way,” it whispers. It continues until someone from the audience builds up the gaul to get on stage and open the present. From there the curtain opens and the world of All The Way — some kind of trans-dimensional game show — blossoms before our eyes. OOOO take the theatrical-personality I keep talking about to its absolute extreme — similar to how professional wrestlers exist both in the real world and a world of fiction at the same time. What makes All the Way special is the same thing I’m trying to capture with my semi-regular game show nights at the Biltmore (not-incidentally, I have Sean Marshall Jr from OOOO as my cohost for these evenings). This strange genre of Game Show Theatre attempts to put the contestant into the role of the protagonist. When this is achieved the element of truth becomes so real that the experience cannot be questioned. If the story is different every night, and the main storyteller is a new member of the audience — trying to overcome the odds and navigate a strange world where they don’t quite fit — the cracks in the armour of fiction can never be penetrated. All the Way works more like a video game than a game show and each contestant runs the risk of ‘dying’ and being expelled back to their seat. But, as in video games, losing a life is not the end, and the game starts again with a new hero who has learned from the last, a little savvier, a little quicker. Each new hero’s confusion and attempt at understanding can’t be anything other than engaging and relatable to us as viewers because they’re not just a stand-in or surrogate for the audience, they’re also the audience themselves.
- Brain by Brendan McLeod (Edmonton Fringe)
On the night I saw Brain, about two minutes into the show, Brendan McLeod lost his place in the script. Throughout the show he tells us he’s not a good actor so rather than taking a moment to mentally find his place, he asked if he could start again from the beginning. He redid the two minutes he’d already spoken, sharply and swiftly repeating all we’d heard in roughly half the time. He got back to his spot and, three and a half minutes into the show, had completely won over the entire audience. After the show he was a little embarrassed but I don’t think I saw a more human moment all year. And Brendan McLeod might not be a good actor but he’s a phenomenal writer. The show is about his obsessive compulsive disorder. Because this is something he actually suffers from and not just something he’s writing about, there is a total and immersive universality found in the specific. He mentions that he’s not concerned about washing his hands or stepping on cracks, all the tropes we already know about OCD, and instead takes us into the compulsions of his own brain. His story resonated with me deeply. Though I never laid in bed with a voice in my head repeatedly going through a system of proving I’m not a pedophile (the specifics of his own disorder), I’ve certainly laid in bed with that same voice repeating other things. People have jokingly remarked that I might have OCD because of these blogs and statistics that I keep every year. I never saw them that way — those statistics are things I’m interested in knowing about, not things I need to calculate. But when I listened to Brendan’s story I felt as though a lot of my biggest disappointments in the last year have come from this other, quieter, more insidious form of OCD. So Brain sheds a light on a subject that many of us think we know about, through the filter of an entertaining storyteller/philosopher, and achieves a sort of holy grail of artistic endeavour: enlightenment. If I hadn’t seen Brain, I wouldn’t know certain things about myself that I know now.
My favourite types of shows are personal, specific, and raw; bold and brave with something real at risk for the performer standing in front of you struggling to overcome the constant defeats being a human brings. These things can be achieved in traditional theatrical form, as seen in the closing moments of Children of God, but are too often passed over in favour of something that is easy to sell. So next year when the Fringe Festival comes to town, save a few bucks, and look into the ever-evolving world of the theatrical memoir, of the one-person essay, of the inventive, serializing sketch groups. They’ve got raw truth to share. And be sure to see a few because small things run together to create something larger; the philosophy and environment of the fringe festival feeds this axiom. When I was in Edmonton this year doing my own show, not many people saw it. But a few of my fellow performers did, they fed-back, they bore witness, I saw other plays on the circuit and kept thinking and speaking live every night with the permission to say different things as I discovered more about life and my own story. I can’t see how anyone wouldn’t find this more exciting and alive than another take on some broadway classic.
The Full list of shows I saw this year: The Elbow Room Cafe, Refuge, Vancouver Theatre Sports, Angels in America, Red Patch, Children of God, Tombstone, Vampires in Barcelona, All the Way, I’m Doing This For You, Hand to God, Bendy Sign Tavern — Sex T-Rex, About Time — Templeton Philharmonic, Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party, A Peter n Christmas Carol, Watch Out WildKat, Merkin Sisters, Brain, Peter ‘n Chris Present their best bits, The Canada Show, Pig, Wallaby Way, Forget Me Not an Alzheimer’s Manifesto, Drunk Girl, Multiple Organism, Fin, The Devil, Scum: A Manifesto, Hyena Subpoena, War: Improv is Hell, Jon Bennet: My Dad’s Deaths, Beaver Dreams, Tragedy + Comedy = Time Served, Vasily Djokovich, Interstellar Elder, Everybody Dies in December, Swordplay: A Play of Swords, Executing Justice, Euphio Question, Brain Machine, Roller Coaster, Ain’t True and Uncle False, Soldier’s War, Silent Sky