Sarah/Frank (Minmar Gaslight Productions)

One of the best parts of What the Fest?! so far has been experiencing performances that may not succeed in a traditional Fringe Festival, but are incredibly engaging as a performance in a different type of medium. In a Festival where online content is so heavily featured and digitally consumed, Sarah/Frank as a podcast or audio experience works perfectly. Similar to a radio play, the performance featured sound effects well-balanced underneath an expressive performance beautifully executed by Rebecca Perry.

Based on a true story and set in pre-civil war rural New Brunswick, the opening lines of the narrative paint a clear picture of the central character’s (Sarah’s) primary conflict of a young girl growing up while struggling with her identity, gender and father’s validation. Reemphasized throughout the story in a number of ways, this struggle is the motivation for the plot points that follow, including Sarah fleeing her home to escape a traditional fate and transforming herself into Frank Thompson.

The script is well written and focused. Although the audience never learns every detail about the character’s life in the years the performance follows, Sarah/Frank’s driving motivations are made clear, as are the key aspects of the character’s personality that drive the plot forward. It is easy to feel invested in Sarah/Frank’s story and root for them to succeed, no matter the obstacle ahead. Despite a number of sensitive issues covered within the story (domestic violence, slavery) and elements of the narrative describing active battle scenes, care is taken in the depiction of violence, and the playwright (Steven Elliott Jackson) draws a clear picture with his words without glorifying the gore.

While the ending feels a little rushed given the amount of time spent establishing elements of the story, it is still a satisfying conclusion (or as close to one as can be expected). While Sarah/Frank’s last words of the play, “someday, but not today” are meant for a civil-war era context, these words, like the central challenges and messages of the narrative, still ring true today.

< inboks / outboks > (Porch Light Theatre / Hamilton7)

A co-presentation between Porch Light Theatre and the Hamilton7, < inboks / outboks > offers a number of firsts to What the Fest?!. It is the first piece that does not utilize dialogue to move the emotional intensity of the production forward. In fact, < inboks / outboks > barely uses words at all. It is the first performance where the entire production is shot in a single, wide-angled frame and the character makes use of the space outside of the limited camera angle as an active part of the story. It is the first piece (so far) in the Festival where lighting is really highlighted as a key component of the performance (similar to a traditional-style theatrical performance). While only one performer (Anthony Raymond Yu) appears onscreen, much of the success of this work relies on its successful production (executed by Karen Ancheta).

< inboks / outboks > opens with Yu trying to organize his physical space. His gestures are immediately intriguing and encourages the audience to question the journey he is entering. As much as a movement piece as it is dramatic, this puzzle continues throughout the duration of the performance. Yu is very conscious of this, and utilizes it, and the physical space available to him, well. Whether he is off camera or on, there is a clear consideration of the limitations and advantages associated with both and Yu utilizes each moment, wherever he is, to its full potential.

As there is minimal dialogue, the performance relies on music and physical movement to advance the emotional climax of < inboks / outboks >. The choice of music- a popular song that conveys melancholy (7 years by Lukas Graham)- worked well within the work’s context; however, with such reliance on that one piece of music, it would be interesting to see how another song choice could change the meaning or tone of the work so completely. As the movement slows and the puzzle is more fully realized in the end, the audience is left wondering whether they were a part of a memory, watching one in progress, or something more. It’s a careful, but impactful ending, that doesn’t fade the way a memory might.

NOW (HCA Creation Collective)

The concept of NOW is ambitious- a group of young theatre artists from the Hamilton Creation Collective (Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts) spend twenty-four hours over the course of ten days to develop, create and execute a performance, focused on a central theme. As is evident by the title, the theme is “now.” Given the current status of the world, it’s no surprise that the theme translated into stories of physical distancing, Zoom calls and anxiety around the development of a global pandemic- all very relevant to the “now.”

The context in which the piece was created is extremely important in the understanding of the piece. Instead of being presented as a cohesive storyline, a number of small vignettes are presented. This is completely understandable, and a clever approach given the time constraints to create and execute a full theatrical work (and any post-production editing that was undertaken). However, the result of presenting multiple vignettes is a disjointed story and an ending that doesn’t quite feel complete, enhanced by editing that feels clunky at times. The theme itself was also very broad (likely in consideration of the minimal time to put together this piece), but an additional thematic focus or physical element could have been added to the performance to really tie the stories together in another way, other than this very broad theme.

While the completed version of NOW as presented leaves much to be desired, the young creators who conceived, developed and executed the performance should be applauded for all of the work that was undertaken to make this show happen. The time constraints were immense, and to complete a performance in such a short amount of time is a demonstration of the dedication, ambition and teamwork of the HCC.

Lullabies for Tiny Spaces (Tiny Bill Cody)

Tiny Bill Cody (Tor Lukasik-Foss) is joined by his Hamilton7 collaborators Lisa Pijuan-Nomura and Karen Ancheta to react to the global pandemic and their individual worlds feeling a little smaller as they are forced to isolate and physically distance.

The Hamilton7 is a well-established storytelling collective, and it’s clear that these three storytellers are well within their element; in front of an audience (even a virtual one), sharing stories in a way and format that has been well-manipulated to convey exactly as much of a narrative as is needed to tell their stories in an impactful way. The three stories told (one by each character) are vastly different; at times, some are more comedic; others more centered in reality; but all are charming. Although the three individual journeys by the storytellers don’t actually intersect (although the characters do at one point), their stories intersect through the power of post-production editing and the focus of the concept is so clear that the connection between the three is apparent. It is difficult to know if each individual story would be just as strong on its own without being shared alongside the other two.

The storytellers are all unique and accomplished artists in their own right, and they bring these strengths to Lullabies for Tiny Spaces. Stories aren’t just told through whispered words or narrative; instead, it weaves performance art into the work, combining elements that are highly visual, musical and multi-disciplinary. All of this is created by the perfomers themselves to enhance the story- they use found objects and their own bodies to create sound effects and music that lays the foundation for the Lullabies, and clever and unique camera angles to convey the chaos of the world around them. The audio syncing between video and audio isn’t consistent- as significant care has been given with other parts of the editing process, it is possible that this was purposely done to enhance the effect of an uncertain and chaotic world; however, its inconsistency comes across as distracting instead*. However, Lullabies for Tiny Spaces is the Hamilton7 doing what they do best, and it’s a pleasure to be welcomed into their tiny world, at least for a few minutes.   

*Editor’s note: After publishing, it was clarified that the inconsistent synching between audio and video was not an intentional part of the viewing process. The Hamilton Fringe Festival has provided an updated link to those who have purchased tickets to watch the story with this element fixed and the story as initially intended.

Prairie Odyssey (Bon Mots Productions)

At its core, Prairie Odyssey is about adaptability. Taking place in a depression-era North America, the plot focuses on a family’s journey to, and experience living in Saskatchewan for a brief time before moving again. Performed in a large physical space, there is no backdrop or meaningful set, and with few props, characters often mime what they need. One actor (Alison Chisholm) takes on multiple roles, using just a scarf or hat to distinguish characters. Yet, despite all of this adaptability, the presentation of the production is uninventive. Rather than considering how this performance could lend itself to a digital format, the work is simply presented in a large space as a staged reading with actors distanced while they read their lines from music stands. Presented as a true story based on the memories and journal of a family member, it would have been incredibly meaningful for pictures, momentos or letters to be edited into the visual elements of the production, rather than the focus to maintain at all times on the stage itself.

Perhaps because the story is based on an individual’s journals, it feels as though the audience never gauges a full understanding of the setting, other characters or the main characters intentions. The audience learns about incidents of grief in passing, friendships that are presented as significant, and numerous characters casually noted- but none of it ever explored, making the plot feel disjointed and the audience feel as though they are not fully immersed in the story without the same familiarity or establishment of characters as one would have when these individuals are a presence in day-to-day life.

The journey of a family- physically, emotionally or otherwise- is always great content for a story, and while Prairie Odyssey is meaningful and interesting, it requires a greater focus and connection with its audience if it is to continue its journey as a performed work.  

Bad Ideas Too (Notapom Productions)

The original concept for Notapom Productions Bad Ideas (which premiered at the 2019 Hamilton Fringe Festival) was simple: a compilation of original sketches that allowed the collective to try out a variety of ideas. Thus, it seemed safe to assume that this year’s Bad Ideas Too would serve as a sequel with a similar premise.

However, the company opted to focus on a single idea for the duration of its thirty-minute play, and shifted its format to audio-only, which is described as a radio play. For a Festival that is about digital content, it is delightful to see a company make this shift to present its production in this way. The description as a radio-play may be incorrect, though, as much of the reading is dedicated to the announcement of stage directions, creating an atmosphere of a radio play reading, rather than the actual play itself. While focusing on the sole element of audio is a great idea in this format, the sole means of delivering the production needs to be presented in a heightened and polished format. Unfortunately, the acoustics of the production were not strong and the balance was often off, with sound-effects occasionally drowning out characters, and the actual presentation lacking audible variety in tone. The narrator of the story (who is reading stage directions, providing details and setting scenes) speaks very quickly, so much of the contextual information is lost as soon as it is spoken.

Bad Ideas Too (Episode one) tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world (somewhere on or near Jupiter) that is set in the potentially-distant future with a President Biden and facing many of the same social justice issues that exist in today’s current society. There is a lot of disbelief that the audience needs to suspend for this story; however between the inconsistent pacing, excessive and detailed stage directions and uncertain context, it is difficult to feel invested in the characters and story.

As a sequel, Bad Ideas Too suffers from many of the same flaws as its predecessor, in which a greater focus on the production, rather than just script could have created a more meaningful piece. However, there is a clear evolution from the first iteration that shows a movement towards greater focus. Notapom Productions has contributed signficantly to this year’s What the Fest?!, demonstrating their commitment to art and Hamilton. Hopefully, they’ll continue to evolve and share more.

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