Thursday, 8 August 2013

Fringe 2013 - Day 4

Bottome's Dream (Embrace Theatre, SK)

Bottome's Dream is more ambitious than any Fringe show has a right to be - which makes it all the more impressive how well the play succeeds. It is in the league of Two Corpses Go Dancing: a play which defies the conventions of its medium by aiming for the spectacular, and hits all the right notes along the way.

     A Shakespearean production with a cast of seven: it's not hard to figure out that Charlie Peters is the only person in Saskatoon who could possibly have pulled this performance together. I can only marvel at the masochism which leads him to tackle these challenges, but I can't deny the results. Bottome's Dream is a fantastic piece of theatre which should appeal to both hard-core Bardists and playhouse newcomers.

     This play delivers both a skilful reimagining of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and a fun slice of justice for all those of us who have sat through a bad romantic comedy, wishing the bland leads would disappear and the movie could be about the quirky supporting characters. Peters does just that; he takes Midsummer and removes what the pedantic and tedious among us might call "the main plot". Instead, it focuses entirely on the "rude mechanicals" mounting their own production of  Pyramus and Thisbe for the court of Theseus, and the goings-on of the Faerie kingdom. Whether it is a virtue of Charlie or an aspersion on Will, the play doesn't feel like it is missing anything.

     If you're in need of a refresher, the plot follows four members of the working class in Athens who get the idea to perform a romantic tragedy for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. But while they rehearse in the forest they end up treading into the crossfire of a feud between the faerie king Oberon and his queen Titania. Oberon hatches a scheme to teach his wife a lesson by slipping her a love potion and having her fall for a man with a donkey's head. But first he needs to find a man and transform his head into a donkey's, and that is where our dashing leading man Bottom finds himself unfortunately entangled.

     Of all the vile slanders that have been hurled at Charlie Peters over the years, no one has ever accused him of not getting Shakespeare. He reaches deep into the intestines of the play and pulls out those little icons that most people don't think about. The question of why so much of Midsummer is dedicated to these day-labourers putting on a very bad production of a tragedy is a valid one which Professor Kumaran never gave much airtime in my Shakespeare class. It's a two-pronged satire. One, it seems the Bard was taking a potshot at slapdash country performances, but also poking fun at censorship, reflected in Bottom's concerns about offending the ladies in the audience. Peters builds up the satirical elements with the absolutely ludicrous performance depicted onstage, but he adds another level. The would-be players in this play are so earnest in their efforts, even as we watch them cobble together what barely amounts to a middle-school level production, we can't help but admire the tenacity of the rude mechanicals and their endearing dedication to performing theatre, even if they don't understand it. I think there may be a bit of self deprecation here.

     Casting two of the players as females injects some welcome sexual tension into the mix. Emma Thorpe as the put-upon Snout, rejected as female lead, is adorable. She displays unfailing good intention but a general lack of grace and intellect; her sunny facial expression and sweet innocence evokes sympathy from the audience as she is frequently put down. Chris Donlevy as Flute (playing Thisbe) has a natural gift for Shakespearean dialogue, but in this particular instance his main strength is his capacity for slapstick, with potentially dangerous flailing and a lot of quick facial expressions; plus, his woman voice while playing Thisbe is really something else. Donovan Scheirer is larger than life as Bottom, the unfortunate man who finds himself with the head of an ass (though not displeased about having a faerie queen all into him). His cockiness and bravado owns the stage, and his wide-eyed bewilderment at why everyone runs from him post-transformation creates a brilliant comedic contrast. With his expression he always makes the dialogue land. Kate Herriot is Quince, the feisty director who nevertheless has a schoolgirl crush on Bottom. I can't overstate just how endearing she is, from her general tough girl persona to her tearful lament of Bottom's disappearance to her fiery commitment to putting on theatre whatever the cost.

     Local theatre staples Matt Josdal and Cheryl Jack do double-duty as Oberon and Titania and Theseus and Hippolyta. They had trouble injecting vitality into the lengthy monologues the faerie couple exchanges toward the beginning of the play, but as it went on their emotions bloomed and they really dug into the petty bickering and eventual reconciliation between them. Plus, their experience in the field really helps lend them the booming dominance needed for playing the immortals. Then as Theseus and Hippolyta they got to kick back and have fun by spending the final scene cracking jokes about the play the artisans are putting on; the ease of their conversation helped to set the atmosphere.

     And as much as it seems absurd to choose a stand-out element in this production, Elizabeth Nepjuk as Puck takes it. I have not really seen her act before (her previous major role was in the version of Into the Woods that I didn't see), but she was captivating the moment she came out onstage. I was immediately struck by someone who would be just as comfortable in Vaudeville as on HBO. Her embodiment of the character was amazing, with her light-footed physicality bouncing her around the stage like a sprite. If ever there is a dull moment onstage, one only needs to find her and her facial expression will be radiating 1500 Watts from wherever she is.

     And now it occurs to me that I haven't done nearly enough to describe how eye-wateringly gut-tighteningly funny Bottome's Dream is. Every line from the Shakespearean text which could possibly be considered funny is cranked up to 11. It's a testament both to the understanding of the play and the phenomenal chemistry of the cast. Then the final scene, the climactic performance of the tragedy, is a melange of slapstick, dry wit, and half a dozen other types of comedy I don't even have a name for into one spectacular explosion of hilarity. There are not many things in this world that have made me laugh quite that much.

     And because everything else in this play wasn't complicated enough, Peters also incorporated live sound effects (remember what I said about the masochism?). The actors make full use of their talents by operating a number of instruments to make the whole symphony of sound effects offstage, and sometimes onstage. I spent quite a while trying to figure out where this strange trumpeting sound was coming from, then I discovered it was coming from Kate Herriot's lips.

     This is a play that gets everything right, and possibly even gets a few things it didn't even think of right by accident. On one hand, it won't knock Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan off its pedestal, but on the other hand, that's a really fucking stupid observation to make. This is one of those shows that transcends the Fringe; transcends Shakespeare, if I may be so bold, because after this I don't think I could sit through a proper performance of Midsummer again.

     Best of the Fringe? Yes. Best of all Fringes? ... No, that's still Two Corpses Go Dancing, but that's another discussion. The point is, Bottome's Dream is one of those things you just have to see. Seriously. See it.

OK, that last review was a bit exhausting. This one will be short.

Unpossible! (Travis Bernhardt, BC)

One day in the not too distant future, the human race will discover that sorcerers have been living among us. And we will wonder how they could brazenly flaunt their abilities right in front of us for so long without us being any the wiser. Travis Bernhardt is one such wizard.

     Unpossible! begins much in the way you would expect from a magic show. There are fancy tablecloths, a deck of cards, some audience volunteers. It starts off simple. Oh, yeah, that trick is pretty obvious. Oh, well he just did that while I wasn't looking. But I was looking. Wasn't I? Oh, there's clearly a trap door in the top of that table. Oh, that's easy. He just taps the deck of cards and then ... I don't know. He might have done something with magnets on that one. I think I saw it go up his sleeve, but I'm not sure what sort of gravity manipulation was required to get it up there. OK, how the fuck did that deck of cards get in his pocket? It was in his opposite hand literally one second ago. IT'S UNDER THE GLASS OF WATER??? HE DIDN'T EVEN GO NEAR THERE!

     But Travis Bernhardt isn't just a magician; he's also a gifted comedian. He charms his audience, using self-depreciation to lull us into a false sense of security before blind-siding us with something crazy. He also strikes me as a man of science, caring not just about the ostentatious display of magic but also of the subtle math behind it. It makes me think that manipulating numbers is as much part of his act as manipulating objects. And manipulating people - that's a whole other story.

     A word of warning: Unpossible! requires patience. It starts out as a typical magic show, but the middle section of it gets quite strange. It focuses on audience volunteers doing things that don't make a lot of sense and which seem to be going wrong a lot. But keep focused, because all will be revealed in the end. The final moments of the show will make you utter a "Whoa" worthy of Keanu Reeves.

     Because the truth is, it's not a show of magic tricks. It's just one magic trick.

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