Review: ‘Swordplay: A Play of Swords’ at Winnipeg Fringe

This is the first and only non-Winnipeg-based theatre company production I attended at this year’s Fringe. I didn’t plan it that way, but that’s how it turned out – I’m just naturally attracted to local talent, I guess. But after I heard a rep from Sex T-Rex promote Swordplay: A Play of Swords at The Cube as “a retelling of The Princess Bride told through an ’80s video game,” I was sold.  The Princess Bride is very near and dear to my heart. I knew I had to make the trek out to the West End Cultural Centre to see this show.

It’s difficult to be consistently funny – either you’re not funny, or the actors get exhausted, or they start to annoy the audience. But Swordplay, thankfully, does none of these things. They are funny throughout the hour-and-change play, taking every opportunity to make a meticulously-crafted joke. Every line has been chosen deliberately to advance the plot or be funny; every line is important.

This show has been performed and workshopped just enough that it’s in its sweet spot: it’s been through other Fringes and will continue on after this one, but Swordplay is seeing its first Winnipeg audience. It’s still fresh and funny and hasn’t been overperformed.

The DnD Improv crowd will enjoy this one – it’s nerdy and has hints of inside jokes while paying homage to video games and poking fun at fantasy clichés. It’s not so niche that others won’t enjoy it. I consider myself a very middle-of-the-road yes-I-like-nerd-things-but-I’m-not-a-dungeon-master-or-anything kind of nerd and I was able to catch every joke. That’s when you know that the comedy is good: it can still be about a particular thing to a particular audience, but it’s still funny to everybody.

Although Swordplay borrows from nerd culture across the map, it’s still a original tale with just the right amount of camp. I didn’t even want to take notes because I didn’t want my eyes to leave the stage and miss anything. Many of (if not all) the Fringe shows I saw this year left me thinking about vast topics on my drive home, but this one wasn’t. This is just a good ol’ no-thinker funny (without being offensive) swashbuckling adventure. And that’s a good thing.

Swordplay: A Play of Swords and the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival are on now until July 30. For ticket information, show times, and a venue map, visit WinnipegFringe.com.

5/5 stars

Here’s how I’ll be starring all my Fringe reviews:

  • 5 stars = Astounding. I will physically push you in the direction of this show. Must see.
  • 4 stars = Very good! Highly recommended.
  • 3 stars = Well done. People interested in this genre/subject matter will enjoy it, but it may not be for everyone.
  • 2 stars = Only people interested in this genre/subject matter will probably enjoy it.
  • 1 star = Not recommended to anyone.
  • 0 stars = Run in the opposite direction.

Read my other Fringe experiences:

• Review: 4.48 Psychosis
• Review: The Trump Card
• 
Review: Joe Job
• Recap: SLAM!
• Review: Macbeth
• Review: KING

Review: ‘KING’ at Winnipeg Fringe

Napoleon Bonaparte, Henry VIII, Emperor Nero. ’90s grunge. RENT meets Hamilton. What would happen if the biggest dicks in history were together to measure them?

These are all massive, legendary concepts, but you shouldn’t expect a similarly-styled show. It’s DIY. It’s duct tape and cardboard boxes, pickle tub drum kits and burlap and rope. It’s thrift store clothes and ripped jeans, Chucks and cheap beer. It’s not clean or polished; it has frayed edges and tears. It’s the feeling when you have a lunch of mini donuts – are there healthier options? Sure. But indulge yourself. This one tastes good.

Nominated for the Harry Rintoul Award for Best New Manitoban Play (created by stars Duncan Cox, Tanner Mason and Ben Townsley), this quasi-musical (more of a play with songs if you ask me – not that there’s anything wrong with that) explores the trials of these three kings/emperors/rulers if they had been forced to answer for their tyranny. It’s loud (very loud, actually, for the small space) and occasionally obnoxious, but that’s what these men likely were – loud, obnoxious, childish, and utterly human. We forget these imperfect qualities when they become legends.

Henry VIII as a Mick Jagger-meets-Christian Borle-as-Shakespeare type. Emperor Nero as a flamboyantly gay Kurt Cobain (although I would’ve liked to see him with hints of more of a chainsmoking Donatella Versace). Napoleon as a jean-jacketed womanizing-yet-lovelorn Tom DeLonge of sorts. All of these men are obsessed with their legacy, but what does that mean? Does it mean land? Property? An heir? Love? What’s left when you’ve been dead for hundreds of years? In the end, does it even matter?

KING and the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival are on now until July 30. For ticket information, show times, and a venue map, visit WinnipegFringe.com.

4/5 stars

Here’s how I’ll be starring all my Fringe reviews:

  • 5 stars = Astounding. I will physically push you in the direction of this show. Must see.
  • 4 stars = Very good! Highly recommended.
  • 3 stars = Well done. People interested in this genre/subject matter will enjoy it, but it may not be for everyone.
  • 2 stars = Only people interested in this genre/subject matter will probably enjoy it.
  • 1 star = Not recommended to anyone.
  • 0 stars = Run in the opposite direction.

Read my other Fringe experiences:

• Review: 4.48 Psychosis
• Review: The Trump Card
• 
Review: Joe Job
• Recap: SLAM!
Review: Macbeth

Review: Knavish Hedgehogs’ ‘Macbeth’

I love Shakespeare, I love innovative lighting, and I love weird theatre superstitions. After Knavish Hedgehogs reached out to me on Twitter when I was looking for suggestions, I knew I had to make their production of Macbeth (or as you say in the theatre, The Scottish Play) part of my Fringe schedule.

Here’s the elevator pitch: the original text, condensed to an hour or so, seven actors, and no sets, no costumes, and no lights. The cast is illuminated only by each other’s handheld flashlights.

It’s not hard to see or hard to follow. The cast has been expertly coached by director Ari Weinberg to be in the right place at the right time, moving so swiftly and carefully that they occasionally startled me when they flicked their lights on. Theatre doesn’t scare me a lot – it was a nice change. I actually purposefully moved closer to the stage so I could see faces, and I’m glad I did.

Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play and the Hedgehogs did it well. Daniel McIntyre-Ridd as the titular character was wonderful, not serving up the typical power-hungry-into-paranoid Scotsman, but instead making him anxious all the way through (which, admittedly, reminded me a little of Evan Hansen – which is a great thing; don’t give me an opportunity to talk about how much I love Evan Hansen because I won’t stop), giving new depth to the ancient character.

Lady Macbeth always steals the show, but Miranda Baran slayed. Pun intended. Also portraying one of the witches, she showed why Shakespeare ladies continue to be dream roles for any actor. She commanded the stage, commanded your attention, and got it. Deservedly.

I appreciate Shakespeare much more as an adult, and much more when acted instead of read, like it was intended. When you were first exposed to the Bard, you probably read it aloud in your ninth grade English class with kids who couldn’t pronounce “Fleance” without stumbling. This production is the opposite. The ending left me speechless. It is a masterpiece.

Macbeth and the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival are on now until July 30. For ticket information, show times, and a venue map, visit WinnipegFringe.com.

5/5 stars

Here’s how I’ll be starring all my Fringe reviews:

  • 5 stars = Astounding. I will physically push you in the direction of this show. Must see.
  • 4 stars = Very good! Highly recommended.
  • 3 stars = Well done. People interested in this genre/subject matter will enjoy it, but it may not be for everyone.
  • 2 stars = Only people interested in this genre/subject matter will probably enjoy it.
  • 1 star = Not recommended to anyone.
  • 0 stars = Run in the opposite direction.

Read my other Fringe experiences:

• Review: 4.48 Psychosis
• Review: The Trump Card
• 
Review: Joe Job
• Recap: SLAM!

Recap: SLAM! at Winnipeg Fringe

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 10.43.00 AMI didn’t want to call this a “review” because I knew it couldn’t be: the poets rotate, the poems are different, the audiences are different – it would be impossible to give my thoughts on any given night because they are all different.

I’d never been to a poetry slam before, although I’ve always appreciated the art, I hadn’t built up the courage to sit in an audience and look performance poets in the eye as they bared their souls. My only exposure to poetry slams was that scene in An Extremely Goofy Movie (which is still an incredible modern-day classic, by the way). I figured that Fringe would be a risk-free opportunity to get exposed to some poetry. It felt excellent to dip my toes in that pool.

Here’s the way it worked: each performance that Winnipeg Poetry Slam has at the Fringe will feature four poets (out of eight, in a round robin tournament). Picked in a random order, they all perform one poem. The judges (picked from the audience) give scores out of 10. At “halftime,” the audience takes turns writing haikus. Here’s mine:

A haiku for Winnipeg Fringe:
Sweet mini donuts
I could eat two buckets, man
Wait, no. Big mistake.

The poets then each perform another poem, and are again scored. Depending on their standings, they each earn points, which determines how they rank. The top four poets will perform in the final, and will earn a real prize – money from ticket sales. You can check out the tournament standings on their website.

It was difficult to take notes during performances, because the rhythm and smoothness and passion that the poets exert is so difficult to describe in a word other than “poetry.” I wrote that down in my notebook: “How do I use a word that isn’t ‘poetry’ to describe poetry?” It’s an artistic expression of the human spirit, combining words and emotions and occasional rhymes and body movements to attempt to convey inside gut reactions that can only ever truly be felt, but the poets came close to portraying them effectively, as close as possible.

They covered topics like love, death, inner demons, and even Batman. It can’t be predicted what could come up next, but take my word for it – I’m hooked on poetry slams.

SLAM! and the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival are on now until July 30. For ticket information, show times, and a venue map, visit WinnipegFringe.com.

Read my other Fringe experiences on ChrisD.ca:

• Review: 4.48 Psychosis
Review: The Trump Card
Review: Joe Job

‘Really terrifying… but also really freeing’: 4.48 Psychosis and Portraying Mental Illness Onstage

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Liz Whitbread performs in Theatre By The River’s production of 4.48 Psychosis. She is also rocking the shit out of those high-waisted shorts. Photo: Giovanni Navarro.

You can go to any fringe festival in the world, throw a stone, and hit a poster for a comedic show. I promise. Fringe is often a time for improv-ers and sketch-ers to stretch their legs for a ten-day or week-long performance schedule and roll around in audiences looking to have a good time on a weekend. And although that’s all fun and good and you can definitely find quality theatre productions while wading through knee-deep pools of laughs, fringe festivals are about more than that. They’re about experimenting – for both the theatre companies and the audiences. Trying new things, going to something that might make you uncomfortable, or seeing a show on a subject you know nothing about. That’s what Fringe is – getting out there.

I had the joy and privilege to sit down with the luminous Liz Whitbread (and you should too, given the opportunity) about this very thing, regarding her performance in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, about to begin at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival. 4.48 does not have a linear storyline, nor is the script written like a traditional script (“One page is just blank. It’s part of the script, but it’s blank,” she told me). Whitbread performs by herself, with the audience surrounding three-fourths of the “walls,” and – oh, yes, the author of the play killed herself shortly after finishing it. 4.48 is Kane’s swan song.

Whitbread said she “wouldn’t call it [Kane’s] suicide note,” but that kind of thing still carries a lot of weight, especially when you’re alone onstage. “It’s unfortunate that [the play] is in this context, but you can’t ignore it,” said Whitbread. “Because of the way it’s written, it’s easier to separate myself from the words. It’s affecting, but because of the writing, not the context.”

Whitbread is a Winnipegger, but now lives in Toronto, where she just performed in 4.48 (the last performance was Saturday) at the Fringe there. She was last seen in the River City as part of the ensemble in the WSO and Rainbow Stage’s South Pacific in April. She said doing a one-woman show is a little different. “In some ways, it’s really terrifying. If I forget a line, no other actor can save me. I can’t look over and be like, ‘give me the line!’ But it’s also really freeing. If I forget a line, I can go to the next part of the script I know. I’m in control of this.”

The staging is different in Winnipeg than it was in Toronto – with a venue change comes a staging change. The audience will be seated in a horseshoe-shape around Whitbread. “I’m speaking directly to the audience, I can see the audience,” she said. It’s vulnerable being up there alone. “I had to learn to be comfortable with having silence, and be comfortable with having laughter. I have to let them enjoy it, let myself enjoy it.”

I asked her, straight up: why should people come to this likely-depressing show when they could go see some improver make poop jokes instead? “It’s a really important – small, but important – discussion on mental illness and how it’s portrayed,” she said. “It portrays mental illness in a really personal way, an open and blunt way. It doesn’t dance around anything.” That’s a conversation worth having. “This is what it could be like,” for someone with mental illness, she said. But mental health never fits a specific mold. “Not everyone will identify with it, and that’s okay.”

“Sarah Kane had such a revolutionary idea of what theatre should look like,” she said. “If people want to challenge themselves, this is a good show to see.”

Theatre by the River’s 4.48 Psychosis opens on Wednesday, July 19, and runs throughout the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, playing venue #11, Red River College. Check out showtimes and a venue map here. See you at the Fringe.

Diana’s 2017 Tony Predictions

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Tom and Donna voice: It’s the best day of the year! Image via BloxImages.

It’s not an understatement when I say that predicting this year’s Tony Awards is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. After the Year of Hamilton (and its inevitable sweep of awards), this year has produced an incredible number of new musicals and equally incredible talent backing them all. I’m confident in saying that I have no confidence in any of my predictions, because really, anything could happen this year.

Best Musical
Nominees: 
Come From Away
Dear Evan Hansen
Groundhog Day
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Will win: Dear Evan Hansen
Upset: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 or Come From Away

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Remember when Groundhog Day opened in London and it generated so much buzz about being the next big thing? Me either. It’s a perfectly fine show, and might win any other year, but the other three are far more likely. Now that Come From Away won the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical, it might even seem like more of a frontrunner – but then again, its competition for that award was slim to none (out of the five nominees, three of them were Off-Broadway, hence ineligible for Tony nominations, and the other one was Anastasia, which failed to garner a Tony nom. None of its actual competition in the Tony race).

When I left the Imperial after seeing Great Comet, I thought for sure it had Best Musical locked up. It is the definition of a spectacle, and it’s hosting a theatre experience that no other show on Broadway is doing right now. Its lighting, staging, interactive experience, top-tier performances and the most interesting score make it an ideal frontrunner – or at least, so I thought. I would love for Great Comet to win any category, even if I didn’t pick it to win, because that means it’s a step forward for innovative, diverse theatre.

Best Revival of a Musical
Nominees:
Falsettos
Hello, Dolly!
Miss Saigon

Will win: Hello, Dolly!
Upset: Falsettos

I recently listened to the new Hello, Dolly! cast album and realized that when people say they don’t like musicals, this is the kind of musical they don’t like. Belting divas, a big chorus, feather headpieces, and classic numbers. A.K.A. heaven.

Leading Actor in a Musical
Nominees:
Christian Borle, Falsettos
Josh Groban, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Andy Karl, Groundhog Day
David Hyde Pierce, Hello, Dolly!
Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen

Will win: Ben Platt
Upset: If anybody but Ben Platt wins, I will burn this place to the ground.

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Christian Borle should be applauded for two leading roles in a single season (he’s currently playing the candy man himself in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a show that garnered 0 nominations), and he’s always a Tony favourite, but this is more a thank-you for doing Falsettos, and he won’t clinch his third trophy this year, although it would be well-deserved.

I love Josh Groban!! That’s not an exaggeration. I’ve been a fan of his music for years, and he’s perfect in Great Comet. He might be the nicest guy on Broadway right now (at least for the next month-or-so until his last performance on July 2), and this nomination is saying thank you for this great performance – please come back soon.

If it weren’t for Ben Platt, Andy Karl would be the favourite. He’s worked hard on Broadway for years, he earned the Olivier for the role of Phil Connors earlier this year, he just won the Drama Desk for the part, and he literally tore his ACL on stage and continued to perform. He’s due to become Broadway’s next Susan Lucci. You’ll get ’em one year, Andy.

David Hyde Pierce already stole Raúl Esparza’s Tony in 2007 (somebody PLEASE explain to me how his Bobby was not Tony-winning. I still don’t understand), and although I haven’t seen the show in person, how could he not be upstaged by Bette?

Leading Actress in a Musical
Nominees:
Denée Benton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Christine Ebersole, War Paint
Patti LuPone, War Paint
Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!
Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon

Will win: Bette Midler
Upset: Denée Benton

I would love to see my personal Jesus Patti LuPone take home her third, but it’s basically a sure thing that Bette’s taking home the trophy this year. Even if she MIGHT NOT PERFORM.

Even if it wasn’t the Year of Bette, Patti and her War Paint counterpart Christine Ebersole would likely split the votes and it wouldn’t go to either of them.

The youngest Tony nominee this year Eva Noblezada (she is 19!!!!) is absolutely killing it in the titular role of Miss Saigon – her Broadway debut. Denée Benton is also killing it playing opposite two male powerhouses – Josh Groban and Lucas Steele in Great Comet. For supposedly playing a naïve ingenue, Denée’s performance is powerful as hell.

Featured Actor in a Musical
Nominees:
Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!
Mike Faist, Dear Evan Hansen
Andrew Rannells, Falsettos
Lucas Steele, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Brandon Uranowitz, Falsettos

Will win: Gavin Creel or Andrew Rannells
Upset: Lucas Steele

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I’m the most unsure about this category, so I’ll let the two formerly-nominated Elder Prices (with their third and second nominations, respectively) battle it out. I genuinely want this whole category to win a five-way Tony. I’m giving Andrew Rannells the edge because I think the Tony voters want to give Falsettos SOMETHING.

Featured Actress in a Musical
Nominees:
Kate Baldwin, Hello, Dolly!
Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos
Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen
Jen Colella, Come From Away
Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia

Will win: Rachel Bay Jones
Upset: Jenn Colella

Jenn Colella’s been making the press rounds with the Come From Away cast and been performing “Me and the Sky” on every talk show, which might garner up some votes. But is her performance big enough to triumph RBJ’s heartbreaking, phenomenal, truly supportive role?

The creative categories are even harder to choose, and the play categories are even harder still (because I haven’t seen any of them and I don’t pay as much attention to plays as I do musicals). But let’s get real – the real winner on Tony night is me.

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