Manitoba·Reviews

Homegrown Fringe: 8 more made-in-Manitoba plays at this year's festival

If you're looking for Manitoba's next great playwright, you just might find that person at this year's Winnipeg Fringe festival.

Super spies, Medusa and Bob the determined corn farmer take spotlight in new local productions

So, Do You Want to Talk About It? runs July 19 to 28 in the 2019 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival. (So, Do You Want to Talk About It?/Facebook)

If you're looking for Manitoba's next great playwright, you just might find that person at this year's Winnipeg Fringe festival.

We've already reviewed six new made-in-Manitoba plays at this year's festival. Here are our reviews of eight more new works by local writers.

The Cause

★★★★ STARS

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to go laugh your face off at this gem of a comedy.

It doesn't matter that about five minutes in to The Cause, you'll lose track of who is double- or triple-crossing who and why. With jokes this good, who cares?

A send-up of spy films and their shadowy government agencies, The Cause is relentless in its quest to make you laugh. The five lead actors couldn't be more committed to their absurd spy archetypes, each of them speaking with over-the-top accents that are just the right kind of ridiculous.

As a bumbling secret agent with a love for the "Old Country," Jean van der Merwe is particularly excellent. 

The jokes are unending and come at an impressive clip. Nearly all of the laughs land — save for a handful of fatphobic lines that could have been left on the cutting room floor.

— Reviewed by Andrew Friesen

Heart of Stone

★★★★ STARS

With Heart of Stone, Hailley Rhoda delivers a performance that is raw, timely and a total knockout. As the Medusa of Roman myth, Rhoda boils with emotion. All 45 minutes of this show are cranked up to 11 — but it works wonderfully,  because what are legends if not melodramatic? 

Like she did in last year's Medea and the Argonauts, Rhoda has recast a classic tale in a modern light. This time, audiences are challenged to reconsider their perceptions of Medusa.

It turns out her story is a perfect fable for the #MeToo era. Medusa is the victim of a powerful man (the sea god Poseidon) but it's she who suffers the blame and consequences. Sound familiar?

The Forth Projects venue unfortunately, lets the show down. Sound from the cafe above threatens to wrench audiences away from Rhoda's captivating monologue. And despite its categorization, there are no puppets to be found — just a few sparkly stuffed animals and a ridiculously dressed Ken doll.

— Reviewed by Andrew Friesen

The Big Problems

★★★ STARS

Four teenage girls get together for a sleepover. They talk about boys, makeup, hair, and then each of the characters discloses a major issue that they are grappling with like suicidal ideation and persistent domestic abuse.

It's a lot to digest in one sitting. 

The show is an odd mixture of intensely believable performances coupled with big blocks of stilted dialogue that sound lifted straight from a counselling text book.

I'm not convinced that the Fringe Festival is the best place for this type of issues theatre. Big Problems is a good candidate for forum theatre which makes room for the audience to interact and discuss issues as they are raised. 

On the lighter side of things, I have never seen actors so successfully consume such a great quantity of fizzy drinks, chips, candies, and chocolates without choking or spilling. Great for authenticity and made me jealous for the snacks. 

— Reviewed by Michelle Palansky

The Headliners

★★★ STARS

The Headliners follows the exploits of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven as they hurtle through space aboard the Voyager 1 probe. The premise might sound a bit out of this world, but it actually isn't. A "golden record" of classical recordings really has been launched into orbit for aliens to discover.

The Headliners is a neat idea for a Fringe show, and the charming young men who play the three composers (Duncan Cox, Tanner Manson and Ben Townsley) have as much fun singing and performing their hearts out as they did in their Fringe hit last year, The Ballad of Johnny Boy.

The only problem here is that they seem to be having more fun than anyone else in the room. Watching The Headliners, it's not hard to feel a little lost in space, especially due to the somewhat incoherent plot.

The space where the show is performed also leaves a lot to be desired. The Platform Centre is hot, cramped and stuffy, with uncomfortable seating. 

You're likely to enjoy The Headliners, but only with some patience… and a fan.

— Reviewed by Kaj Hasselriis

Passing

★★★ STARS

Although it's set in 1927 and based on a novel written in 1929, Passing still brims with relevance in 2019. 

Two friends, Claire and Irene, reconnect after a long time apart. One embraces her African-American identity, while the other pushes it aside and builds a life based on "passing" as white. These two light-skinned women quickly become entwined, each of them looking upon the other with judgment, jealousy and admiration. 

Scenes between the pair of excellent leads crackle with energy. Seeing two mixed-race women speak honestly about racial "boundaries" was rare in 1929 and remains so in 2019.

While the lead performances are laudable, little else about the production is. The supporting actors do not project and are hard to hear. Missed cues and flubbed lines happen often. For some reason there's an distractingly adorable chihuahua on stage.

But audiences who can look past these rough edges — and the chihuahua — will find plenty of thought-provoking material to chew on.

— Reviewed by Andrew Friesen

Cob Bob

★★ STARS

There's a kernel of a very good show in Cob Bob, if you'll forgive the pun. But unfortunately it never quite pops. 

The premise is a promising one. Bob is on a mission to save his struggling family corn farm, lest it resort to becoming a — *gasp* — corn maze. 

His harebrained scheme is to set up a corn on the cob stand at a music festival.

What follows are a lot — and I mean a lot — of corn puns. But even more tiring than the wordplay is the name-dropping of every obnoxious hipster obsession of the last decade. Kombucha, astrology, adding CBD oil to everything, Netflix and chill — the show spends its time taking down trends, rather than developing characters or building a compelling narrative.  

It's too bad, because the performers are enthusiastic and the comedy is ripe for the picking. But, aw shucks, Cob Bob doesn't give you anything to sink your teeth into. 

— Reviewed by Andrew Friesen

My Frozen Heart: A Comic Tragedy

★★ STARS

A trio of friends with complicated relationships — and one creepy sound guy — set out to make an indie movie laced with autobiographical elements in this new play by Winnipeg's Hannah Foulger.

Unfortunately, neither the movie they're making nor the behind-the-scenes drama are all that interesting.

Rather, there's a lot of repetitive bickering and angst over the integrity of art — and over the complex history and ongoing relationships between the characters.

While the four onstage performers all do solid work, we don't know or like any of the characters well enough to be fully invested in those relationships.

There is, too late in the play, an interesting turn to explore #MeToo issues in the arts industry — a topic which, if it were more the focus of this piece, might make for more compelling material.

— Reviewed by Joff Schmidt

So, Do You Want to Talk About It?

★★ STARS

Mia and Ingrid are two young women whose friendship appears built on a shared commiseration about their respective mental-health struggles. Together, they talk a lot about the importance of "doing the work," but don't seem willing to stick it out with any of the various therapy techniques they attempt.

Bless its heart, the script is so earnest, so determined to Confront Important Issues. Unfortunately, it falls victim to several classic playwriting mistakes: too much telling, not enough showing; too many pop-culture references in an effort to seem hip and current (real coolness doesn't have to try); and an ending that doesn't resolve — which may be realistic, but does not make for a satisfying viewer experience.

Compounding the problems, the actors playing Mia and Ingrid do not have strong enough chops to salvage the good parts.

This show has lots of potential but is in desperate need of a few rounds with a good dramaturge.

— Reviewed by Marlo Campbell

Stephen Hopwood Is Not Dead

★★ STARS

The concept of Stephen Hopwood is Not Dead is the best thing about it. 

The titular character, a heartbroken, hard-drinking schlub, is given a chance to redeem himself and re-create moments of his life through a magical room. Think the holodeck on Star Trek or the room of requirement from Harry Potter.

But the audience is given few reasons to really care about his journey. The character of Hopwood is a tiresome antihero, an overgrown frat boy motivated by his desire to win back the woman who left him for good reason.

By the time the crocheted penis puppet comes out, it's clear that this production has missed the mark entirely. 

For this reviewer, the comparison that comes to mind is A Christmas Carol — except somehow Hopwood is an even less sympathetic figure than Scrooge. 

— Reviewed by Andrew Friesen

With files from Kelly Stifora, Michelle Palansky, Marlo Campbell and Joff Schmidt

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