By Deborah Rankin
The bilingual 2015 St. Ambroise Fringe Festival de Montréal is in full swing featuring hundreds of theatre shows, dance performances, stand-up comedy, vaudeville and cabaret acts, as well as outdoor music concerts, kickstarting Montreal's festival season with a bang. The non-juried artist-centered festival has been a launching pad for local talent for many years now, a fact of particular importance for English-speaking artists in all gendres. The 'Fringe', as it is affectionately known by 'Fringers' of all ages, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary at the Centaur Theatre, Montreal's oldest English-language theatre.
The Fringe Festival Gala at the Centaur hosted by Catherine Lemieux and Cameron McKinnon brought back veterans of past Montreal Fringe Festival shows to reprise their best-known performances and entertain a new audience, including Catherine 'Cat' Kidd, an award-winning literary author and dramatic performer whose unique creative works weave patterns on spiritual-ecological themes.
Also present: Keir Cutler (Doctor Keir Co.) of Teaching Shakespeare fame - or infamy - for he is more than a bit of a 'Doubting Thomas' when it comes to what he views as undue reverence for 'The Bard'. In real life Doctor Keir is Dr. Cutler, with a PhD. in Theatre from Wayne State University. Those who have been following his career over the years know that he has also written scholarly critiques on Shakespeare, most notably in regards to the Shakespeare Authorship Question.
Jem Rolls (big word performance poetry) also made an appearance. A one-man word powerhouse, his virtuoso wordsmithing has both depth and levity, probing the meaning of everything from social mores to God and the state of the world. He has been taking audiences around the globe on a hilarious roller-coaster ride with him for years, which he did to the delight of the locals at the Centaur.
Holly Gauthier-Fränkel, a versatile performer and darling of the Montreal theatre scene - a singer, dancer and actress with an erstwhile burlesque alter-ego known as Miss Sugarpuss - wowed the crowd with her clothes on with her sultry singing as a burlesque queen in a scene from her much-vaunted 2010 Montreal Fringe Festival hit Miss Sugarpuss Must Die! directed by Paul Van Dyck.
Cat Kidd recited passages from her signature work Sea Peach, a CD/Book collaboration with Jack Beetz. This collection of stories and poems examines the relationship of humans to animals and our place in the natural world, beginning with our embryonic journey in the womb, illuminating a path to recovery for ourselves and the planet. The spoken word perfomance was at once riveting and meditative, providing a mellow counterpoint to the upbeat tone of the evening which focused on comedy, a staple of summer entertainment.
Sea Peach expanded upon themes in Catherine Kidd's first novel Missing the Ark, the story of a struggling single mother trying to hold onto her newborn daughter as she wrestles with the demons of her past. The protagonist Agnes Underhill comes from the proverbial dysfunctional family: her father has locked himself away - literally and figuratively - in a room in the basement where he speaks in tongues while her errrant mother juggles a number of lovers, even as she dares to criticize her daughter's parenting skills. However, Agnes begins to seek and see a deeper meaning in all things when one day, upon following a man home from the zoo, she discovers that he is living with a group of chimpanzees.
Like many other theatrical pieces today, Sea Peach crosses the traditional boundaries between theatre, poetry, and art. However, this imaginative tale about memory and perception is based on an actual sea creature, the Sea Peach of the species Halocynthia Auranthium which performs an often overlooked but essential function in maintaining a healthy eco-system - a fitting lesson for human beings.
One of playwright/performer Keir Cutler's best-known plays is Teaching Shakespeare, a multi-award-wining parody of a college Shakespeare class, told from the perspective of a worried professor desperately trying to hang onto his teaching position despite terrible evaluations from his students who criticize him for idolozing Shakespeare, going off on tangents, and mostly for never completing an assigned scene during class. A frustrated actor, the beleaguered prof always ends up acting out the scene rather than teaching it.
So, it will be no surprise then that his thoughts have taken a more sober turn with his latest offering at the Montreal Fringe Festival. In 2056: A Dystopian Black Comedy, written by Keir Cutler and directed by Jon Lachan Stewart, the Earth has become a wasteland ruled by authoritarian atheists who have outlawed all religion, permitting only one language to be spoken. Now this is truly a doomsday scenario of Shakespearian proportions where the line from King Lear in which Lear laments the state of the world applies: "When we are born, we cry, that we are come to this great stage of fools."
Now some anglophones, hoping for a play that would poke fun at the secular authorities of Quebec for having done everything conceivably possible to erase the English language, may be annoyed when they find out that the one language privileged in this godless apocalyptic vision is their own. Alas, the actual play is taking place in English! Besides, as Keir points out, for strictly practical reasons - the actors are English - it had to be this way. And the reality is that English is the dominant language of the world. Never mind, the analogy still holds up.
The fringe genre is often associated with comedy, but it also gives space to marginalized voices and disenfranchised issues. At this year's Montreal Fringe shows with socially relevant themes include Tuesday Seeds of War: Draft 1: The Hunt, written and directed by Leah R. Vineberg, a play which explores the roots of violence when notions of 'other-ness' and separation become the default-setting, denying the inherent need for connection and love, and making killing possible; Saint Joseph, written by Jason Lebaron and directed by Dale Hayes which explores the meaning of transcendence, couched in everyday terms of flawed relationships and unspoken matters; and Gimpel the Fool, written by Nobel Prize Laureate I. B. Singer, translated by Saul Bellow, and directed by Howard Rypp, a classic Yiddish tale inspired equally by belief in God and the goodness of humanity. Jem Rolls is also back with another quirky but true tale.
The Inventor Of All Things, based on a true story of forgotten genius Leo Szilard, a physicist and peacemaker during the Second World War.
The St. Ambroise Fringe Festival de Montréal
until June 21, 2015
Box Office: (514) 849-3378
Catherine Kidd's books and CDs available from Conundrum Press
Last Night at the Gayete
The Centaur Theatre's 2015- season is drawing to a close with its final production of Last Night at the Gayety, a musical comedy by Bowser & Blue which runs until May 22nd.
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