Manitoba·REVIEWS

Going solo: 11 one-person shows at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival

Read reviews of some of the many solo shows at the 2018 Winnipeg Fringe Festival, from rough-around-the-edges 'Cranbourne' to heartfelt 'Awkward Hug'.

Solo shows abound at the 2018 Fringe, from rough-around-the-edges 'Cranbourne' to heartfelt 'Awkward Hug'

Awkward Hug is a true story from Fringe mainstay Cory Thibert, about navigating adulthood and having two parents with disabilities. (Pascal Huot)

One-person shows can be intimidating: it's just you and the audience.

Our CBC review crew checked out some of the festival's many one-person productions. Here's what they have to say. 

Awkward Hug

★★★★ STARS

There's nothing awkward about Cory Thibert's carefully plotted and deeply personal autobiographical solo show.

Thibert relates his journey from late adolescence into adulthood, touching on his own romantic life but focused mainly on his relationship with his parents — both of whom live with a disability — and how they navigate a world that is often not made for those who are different.

He covers a lot of territory — sometimes perhaps trying to cram in too much detail — but smartly and carefully chooses when and how to reveal key details in a story that is compelling, and sometimes brutally frank. 

Thibert is an energetic and natural performer, who makes a genuine connection as he leads up to a beautiful and tender ending.

You'll leave wanting to give the people you care about a hug — awkward or not.

— Reviewed by Joff Schmidt

Andrew Bailey presents Brain Machine at the 2018 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival. (Natalie Watson)

Brain Machine

★★★★★ STARS

Andrew Bailey's solo show is about the fascinating (and little-known) people and stories behind creation of the internet — and much more. It's also about how he accidentally went viral, and how the web has the power to connect — or destroy — all of us.

That he's able to tie all of this more or less seamlessly together is one of the things that makes Brain Machine so remarkable. That he's able to bring something fresh to the well-hashed "interwebs might be good, might be bad" theme may be even more remarkable.

Much of this comes down to Bailey's skill as a storyteller. He's got the timing of a seasoned stand-up and a scriptwriter's sense of when to reveal information — particularly a bombshell he drops well into the play.

It's personal, it's smart and it's also very funny. Check it out. Your brain will thank you.

— Reviewed by Joff Schmidt

'Stewart's note-perfect performance drives Cranbourne home, as he fully embodies the character, becoming someone we can't help but like — even as we're not sure we should.' (The Naked Eunuch)

Cranbourne

★★★★★ STARS

As performed by Fringe veteran Jon Lachlan Stewart, Quebecois playwright Fabien Cloutier's Cranbourne is a searing, haunting and utterly remarkable piece of theatre.

Cranbourne takes us into the dismal and narrow world of our narrator, who lives in small-town, working-class Quebec. Though he's crass (there's language here to offend just about everyone) and more than a little Islamophobic, he's also self-aware enough to know his life could be better — and so could he. ("I live alone in my house that smells like bachelor," he says.)

Cloutier's script (translated by Marie-Claude Plourde), is smart and pointed (think Daniel MacIvor at his edgiest, with a dash of David Mamet). It's also, in spite of its sadness, surprisingly — if darkly — funny.

Stewart's note-perfect performance drives it home, as he fully embodies the character, becoming someone we can't help but like — even as we're not sure we should.

It's theatre that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and doesn't let go for 75 minutes. Not for the faint of heart — but not to be missed.

— Reviewed by Joff Schmidt

​Daddy's Boy

★★★★★ STARS

Within five minutes of the start of Daddy's Boy, one feels the inexorable approach of tears. Eric de Waal's voice spins us a warm comforting cocoon and he deftly selects precise detail for each of his anecdotes. This treatment gives us the comfort and support we need to face his father's decay and eventual death from Parkinson's disease.

De Waal has been called "the the South African storytelling machine," a reputation he lives up to in Daddy's Boy. By turns it is sweet, funny, sad, and finally, affirming — of all of the things that make a child think beautiful things about a parent that has gently helped him become a whole human being.

The overall effect on one is gratitude, for this story, and for the people in one's own life who have meant so much.

— Reviewed by John Sadoway

In Death — A Romantic Comedy, Rob Gee 'weaves together seemingly unrelated tales of loss, love, and drinking into one amazing narrative.' (Submitted by Rob Gee)

​Death — A Romantic Comedy

★★★★ STARS

Rob Gee is a powerhouse of a storyteller. He's smart, wicked funny, and makes it all look effortless which it most certainly is not. Did I mention he's wicked funny?

Gee weaves together seemingly unrelated tales of loss, love, and drinking into one amazing narrative. I want to say so much more of what happens, but I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

This is a new show, being performed for one of the first times in front of an audience. There was the odd hiccup, which Gee made work for him. And there were a couple of moments that weren't quite the gut punches his writing provided, but it will only get stronger.

I can't wait to see it again next week.

— Reviewed by Bradley Sawatzky

The F Words: Fab, Funny, Fierce!

★★★ STARS

"The truth is always funny," says Yvette Dudley-Neuman, channeling her Nana at one point in her solo show.

But it's not always — sometimes because the truths she reveals here are actually quite painful, and sometimes because they're just not quite as funny as intended.

Dudley-Neuman's semi-autobiographical show doesn't tell an especially remarkable story as it takes us from embarrassing childhood incidents to facing self-doubt, ageism and body-shaming as an adult.

She isn't the most polished performer, but she works hard to make a personal connection with the audience, and for the most part she succeeds.

It is, frankly, far from the finest fare at the Fringe. But it earns a cautious recommendation for the fact that the story here is so highly relatable.

Anyone who has ever felt ugly or unappreciated or simply not good enough — meaning, pretty much everyone — will find something to connect with.

Fab? No. Funny? Fitfully. But it's certainly got a fierce heart.

— Reviewed by Joff Schmidt

I Think I'm Dead

★★ STARS

Al Lafrance's story will be an eye-opener for those wondering what it's like to deal with chronic insomnia and depression. Without having experienced it, I can't imagine anyone better describing what it's like when the lines between consciousness and dreaming begin to blur, or your body begins to shut down from lack of sleep.

LaFrance's anecdotes are often harrowing. So is his performance. He paces frantically and talks so fast that at times he can barely breathe, pausing only occasionally to guzzle water. It occurs to me that if he just slowed down he wouldn't need these breaks, and if he didn't take these breaks, he'd have time to slow down.

Lafrance definitely knows how to spin a yarn and land a good joke, but overall I Think I'm Dead is less funny to me than discomforting. It doesn't help that I can't be sure whether that's what Lafrance intends.

— Reviewed by Kelly Stifora

​Inauguration Vacation

★★★ STARS

If you are a Trump supporter, this show is not for you. If you are anti-Trump, you've heard everything here before. So, I'm not sure who the show is for. In the present climate, if you're going to tackle Trump you need to have a new angle, a new take, a new voice.

The show covers protests and inaugurations, articulating thoughts and fury and trying to find the humour where it can.

The first time I saw Annette Roman perform was in her Fringe play Hitler's Lil Abomination, and she was sensational in that. That show, and her performance in it,  were rock solid. If you wish to support a good performer —  or you can't get enough of Trump — then absolutely check this out.

— Reviewed by Bradley Sawatzky

​Irena Sendler: Rescuing the Rescuer

★★★ STARS

This sleeper hit of the 2018 festival nearly sold out its first performance in the small Venue 5, and went on to sell out its next two shows.

The buzz is warranted for the subject matter far more than the show itself.

Writer/performer Libby Skala takes on a series of characters in telling the story of Irena Sendler, who established a network to save 2,500 Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto from the Nazis.

Her story remained largely unknown until the late '90s, when a group of Kansas high school students wrote a play about it — and made international headlines.

The fascinating story isn't done full justice here. Skala delivers a halting performance and only really shines when she steps — too briefly — into the character of Sendler herself.

Her sometimes repetitive script spends far more time than it needs to on the high school project and too little with Irena herself.

But it does bring an incredible — and still under-recognized — story to the stage, and Skala succeeds in conveying just what made the woman who insisted she wasn't a hero so heroic.

— Reviewed by Joff Schmidt

'Susan Jeremy brings considerable charisma to She Was a Great Dad, but ultimately can't overcome the broad characters and problematic elements of the script.' (Susan Jeremy)

She Was a Great Dad

★★ STARS

It's 1940, and Billy Tipton has found success and fame in jazz clubs across America.

It's 1989, and tabloids have a field day after his death. They posthumously announce — in the boldest of headlines — that Tipton was assigned female at birth.

It's 2018, and She Was a Great Dad brings Tipton's story to the Winnipeg Fringe. Unfortunately, it fails to move the conversation beyond the sensational.

In Dad, Tipton is fictionalized as "Johnny Swinton" and portrayed by actor Susan Jeremy. She brings considerable charisma to this one-woman show, but ultimately can't overcome the broad characters and problematic elements of the script. This show fails to paint a picture of a full human being, forcing Swinton/Tipton into a plot laced with binary tropes that leave little room for the nuance of gender expression.

Yes, it's a period piece. But that's not an excuse for holding up a tired stereotype of what it means to be "masculine" or "feminine" — and I think Tipton would agree.

— Reviewed by Andrew Friesen

Thom Pain (based on nothing)

★★★ STARS

The writing of Will Eno is not for everyone. It's bleak and beautiful, it rambles, and it's delightfully dark. Thom Pain is a monologue of life experience — it's one damaged soul reaching out.

I've been looking forward to this show.

Sadly, for opening night the rhythm felt a half-beat off until about a half hour in. There were parts when the performance was connecting but then he would flit in and out of being present. Parts felt like there was nothing behind them at all.

This was all surprising and disappointing as Ivan Henwood is a seasoned performer and the show is a remount. The show wasn't rushed but it ended 22 minutes early. Something was off kilter. I hope it can get back on track soon.

— Reviewed by Bradley Sawatzky

Traveltheatrics is 'a nice collection of travel tales lacking that ineffable sizzle.' (Keara Barnes)

Traveltheatrics

★★★ STARS

Solo performer Keara Barnes shares tales from her travels around the world. As a child visiting the seaside in England she learns how to construct tiny fairy houses. In British Columbia she meets her first ghost and then meets him again in Australia. In Germany her trust in strangers and herself falters which she rediscovers on a long, dark road in Morocco. Barnes skinny dips in Malaysia and ends up arms-deep in cow plops in Ireland.

Linking her travel tales together is her search for the magic concealed just underneath the surface of everyday existence, and the connections forged between people which can unite us all.

Barnes is a charming performer. She skilfully enlivens her characters and shows a strong facility for accents. Traveltheatrics is well structured, beautifully written, and well performed. It's sweet but not terribly astonishing. A nice collection of travel tales lacking that ineffable sizzle.

— Reviewed by Michelle Palansky

With files from Andrew Friesen, Michelle Palansky, John Sadoway, Bradley Sawatzky, Kelly Stifora and Joff Schmidt.

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