2022 Fringe Festival Adventures

The Fringe Festival is one of my absolute favourite things to do in Edmonton, and I was delighted to be able to experience it this year for the first time in an age. Between the food trucks, street performers and cornucopia of shows on offer, it’s a delight I’ll always treasure. This year was particularly marked because of its long absence due to the pandemic, my own absence from participating in public events, and the fact that I’d just gotten over Covid and was aching to emerge from isolation. I was therefore able to go to shows without the fear that I was putting myself in harm’s way — a luxury I know won’t last, but I’ll drink in as much as possible.

Planet B: Stories From Beyond the Stars

Our first show of the year, Planet B was a sci-fi improv put on by Grindstone Theatre. I hadn’t seen improv in approximately two decades by pandemic years, and it was great to be fully back in the uncomfortable awkwardness that improv can often entail. I’ve only dipped my toe into improv a tiny bit, enough to know how challenging it is. This performance suffered a bit from one or two performers not fully running with ideas their colleagues were putting forth, and so the story stalled a bit. Self-referential awareness on the part of some of the actors saved the show for me, keeping sufficient heart and giving enough of a wink to the audience that it was enjoyable. Improv is challenging, and the cast made do with what they could into a satisfying performance.

Away, Now – The World’s Most Desired Destination

Paul Strickland and Erika MacDonald shone in what was probably my most anticipated play of the Fringe. Having absolutely loved his punny-yet-heartfelt Ain’t True and Uncle False and Papa Squat of several years ago, I longed to be brought back into his whimsical-yet-purposeful and sincere worlds. Away, Now delivered on that front but was of a slightly different beast, being a travel guide and therefore constructed as a variety show and framed in a much more playful manner. While it didn’t quite strike me as deeply as Ain’t True and Papa Squat, I still loved the performance, ideas and play. The take-home message of recovering and empathizing after pain was sorely needed and greatly appreciated after the pandemic.

Plays by Bots

Rapidfire Theatre decided to feed an AI and let it come up with the starts of several plays. The actors were then given the AI-generated scripts and costumes at the start of the show, and had to act out the script as written until it stopped midway through a story. They’d then have to improv their way toward a satisfying ending.

The premise itself was hysterical, and a fair bit terrifying as we discovered the story was about a machine revolution, with a protagonist who loves machines more than humans. This is how it starts, people.

The writing was jam-packed full of non-sequiturs, illogical nonsense that was grammatically correct but wildly inconsistent plot-wise. It was full of sentences and exchanges that carried a hefty amount of emotion, but would swing wildly from one notion to another. It felt like watching a play written by a toddler who was just throwing things in willy-nilly with no real sense of plots or character arcs.

The actors did an incredible job executing the nonsensical melodrama. When the gloves came off and the AI’s part of the script was finished, they had to pull together a satisfying conclusion out of a deeply flawed premise.

They did so with aplomb and hilarity. This was one of my favourite performances of the Fringe, and is in no small part due to the world-class calibre of Rapidfire Theatre’s improv.

Epidermis Circus

A show by another of my favourites, SNAFU Dance Theatre, Epidermis Circus was an incredibly inventive puppet cabaret replete with physical comedy and captivating vignettes. Ingrid Hansen leads us through puppet displays using her hands, face, stockings, bodysuit, breast, mouth, and a disturbing can’t-look-away-from combination of a baby doll face named Tyler perched atop her dexterous hand.

It’s hard to describe the genius at work here, and I feel like describing it would rob you of the joy of being surprised by all the creative ways Ingrid presents puppetry. It is a shocking delight of a show that will leave your head reeling while a smile is plastered on your face. Visions of the insane worlds will float through your mind for hours afterward.

It’s held over this year, for very good reason — go see it if you have the chance!

Charlie and the Siberian Monkey Goddess

Charlie Chaplin is dead, but the protagonist in this story thinks they are Charlie Chaplin. This two-person performance is a long-winded argument between a therapist and a deluded patient. While there were some quirky and cute anecdotes shared along the way of this existential exploration, the play had one-note that was overplayed and ultimately went in circles. Its resolution was unsatisfying, and unfortunately the therapist’s attempts to expose their patient as a fraud resulted in some uncomfortable scenes that could arguably be perceived as gender conversion therapy and sexual assault. Those facets made a tiring play into one that was slightly offensive, even if I try to take a liberal and forgiving interpretation of the story’s events.

Let’s Go Back to the Phones: We Need to Talk

Put on by Peter Brown and much of the cast of the former Irrelevant Show on CBC, this improv show was set up as an old radio program where listeners could call in and ask experts questions on an audience-proposed subject. It was a riot to watch masters of improv at work, and a delightful mechanism for augmenting audience participation with the use of telephone-attached microphones roaming throughout the crowd. We listened to experts talk of Lloydminster, a town bordering Alberta and Saskatchewan, and air travel. Among the highlights were the origin story of the sister towns of Lloyd and Minster uniting after the tragic Romeo-Juliet murder-suicide (also providing the reason for the border’s red posts), a minister named Lloyd receiving all of Lloydminster’s mail, and Koala airlines using genetically bred marsupials for air travel in a manner even David Cronenberg would find disturbing.

Such a great way to finish off the Fringe, and the best part was that this format is likely going to reappear at some point on the Edmonton Theatre scene. It’s definitely one I’ll be keeping a pulse on. I felt so strongly pulled into the improvisation that I was wanting to call in and ask questions as alter-egos — a sure sign that the “Yes, And” philosophy had been deftly transmitted to everyone in the room.

Thank you again for an absolutely wonderful Fringe, Edmonton.

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