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

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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

I Love New York

I really do, you guys.

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The view from just outside our hotel. That’s Times Square down the street.

About a month ago, I went to New York City – my favourite place in the world. And I finally have time to tell you all about it, because holy god, I saw a lot of theatre, and that was the best money I’ve ever spent in my life.

On my wedding blog, I talked about going on a pre-honeymoon, because a honeymoon after your wedding isn’t always an option – sometimes you have to work, or deal with immigration visas, or maybe you just don’t have the money to go on a sweet vacation right after you get married. This trip was sort of those things, but honestly – I just wanted to go to New York. And I had Hamilton tickets. Hello!

Over our six days in the Big Apple, we saw four shows (I entered some lotteries to fill our Wednesday matinee but to no avail, so we spent our afternoon in Central Park instead). Let me talk about them all while showing you semi-related photos.

Tuesday, February 21: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Imperial Theatre
Understudies: None

This show is a trip from the very beginning. I was in this theatre three years ago to see

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Outside the NYPL. Jeremiah called it a “knowledge palace.”

the Les Misérables revival, and it has been completely transformed. You walk in just having been in 2017 New York, and the box office and lobby are communist Soviet Union, coated in anarchist posters and spray paint and exposed concrete and brick. But then you walk into the theatre, and you once more are transformed to 19th century Russia, where dreamy red curtain and tea lit mirrored tables intersperse with the seats. You’ll hear people talk about how interactive this show is, and they’re not wrong – cast members stared into my face and I sat in the very back row. They threw perogies at me and they were incredible. Girls in the rows below me got egg shakers and papers and a front-row seat to some crazy club scene domination. I’m predicting it for the Best Musical Tony already, simply because this is the most interactive, innovative experience I’ve ever had in a theatre ever in my life, and I doubt anything will ever come close again.

I’d listened to the cast recording before, and I knew the story was only so-so, but the incredible set, choreography, and overall spectacle make it worth the trip.

Wednesday, February 22: Sunday in the Park with George
Hudson Theatre
Understudies: None

This show holds a very special place in my heart. As you know, I wrote a book heavily featuring Sunday, and it was an absolute dream to get to see it in person – and not just in person, on Broadway. With Jake Gyllenhaal (who was the PERFECT George) and Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford. What is my life, you guys?

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The Broadway Theatre, where Miss Saigon is currently playing. Eva Noblezada has a shot at a Tony too.

Sunday has always been troubled in its productions, but this one was absolutely perfect. Every time I think about it, I get misty-eyed. It was precise, dreamy, and story-driven, not set-driven like it’s often mistaken for. This production finally gave the story the spotlight it so desperately needs, and it was perfect.

I went last preview, and Sondheim went the next night for opening.  I never saw him in the street or anything but it somehow still gives me chills knowing that we were in the same city at the same time.

Thursday, February 23: Dear Evan Hansen
Music Box Theatre
Understudies: None

Ben Platt is going to win a Tony Award or I’m going to do something dramatic. Everything you’ve heard about his performance is true. He is breathtaking in the title role. So much so that I think once he leaves, this show will suffer.

That’s not to say that it isn’t an incredible show – it completely is. It’s a beautiful story

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Central Park.

that I know I’ll go back to over and over again in my life because I’ll be able to relate to a different character in different stages of my life. But the story is kept secret, and for good reason. It’s better to find out when you’re there. But without his outstanding performance to brag about, I’m not sure it’ll be as big of a sell. But tickets are on sale through March 2018 right now, so I think they’ll be fine.

A totally original show, and totally unmissable. If you can get tickets, go. Don’t hesitate.

Friday, February 24: Hamilton
Richard Rodgers Theatre
Understudies: Jevon McFerrin as Hamilton

You all know how Hamilton goes, so let me talk about the new cast members (new from the cast recording) that I got to see.

Three words: Brandon Victor Dixon. Oh my God. Leslie Odom Jr.’s Tony winning performance is a calm, composed Burr, but BVD is the opposite. He’s sassy, he’s annoyed, and in the second act, he’s ready to get his. He pushes the role vocally and physically, and was undoubtedly the star of the show.

Mandy Gonzalez was a commanding Angelica. She also pushed the role vocally and when she was on stage, all eyes were on her. I started crying during “Schuyler Sisters,” that’s how good she was.

Jevon McFerrin, son of Bobby, gave a new approach on Hamilton. He wasn’t as silly or sly as some interpretations are, but being (probably) one of the youngest people to play the title role, his naïvety came across in the first act, perhaps more than full-time Ham Javier Muñoz (who was out because of a back injury at the time), known as the “sexy Hamilton”, brings to the role.

I spent a lot of money on this trip, but I would do it all over again. New York is my soul city. I feel so renewed when I’m there. After we saw The Great Comet and we were walking back to our hotel room (side note: stay at the Wellington Hotel when you go to NYC if you’re all about location), I told my fiancée that going to theatre to me is like going to the spa – and Broadway is the biggest and best of all.

Review: Fighting Chance Productions’ American Idiot

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The cast of American Idiot. This looks suspiciously similar to my high school’s Grease cast photo.

Like every other person who was a teenager after the nineties, Green Day was part of the soundtrack of my angsty rebellious years (which, in my case, was mostly staying up later than my bedtime and wearing a lot of black). The album American Idiot has become a rite of passage in learning how to stick it to the man, and it also, ironically, skyrocketed Green Day into the commercial spotlight.

In 2009, the album was turned into a Broadway musical, using the music from the album, as well as selected tracks from Green Day’s next album, 21st Century Breakdown, as its soundtrack. It won a pair of Tonys (for best scenic design and best lighting design), but to be frank: the show itself is weak. It’s hard to make something out of nothing. There’s very little story, but someone desperately wanted to try to thread together unconnected songs until they made sense. The show begins with three best friends wanting to get out of their one-horse town (as every punk song ever describes): one gets his girlfriend pregnant and stays, one joins the army, and the last goes on a drug-fuelled romp through “The City,” finds the girl of his dreams, screws up the relationship, and comes back home. The protagonist never learns anything, no growth really occurs, and the audience is sort of lost trying to make sense of all the characters and how they weave together. It’s clear that the show was only open for a little over a year on Broadway because of its name.

But I digress. Fighting Chance is producing the western Canadian premiere of American Idiot, a feat they should be proud of. The young cast swings off of ladders and wheeled staircases (which, admittedly, distracted me as a former warehouse employee – none of the staircases were ever stabilized throughout the show and someone could have been seriously injured had they slipped) wearing rock n’ roll t-shirts and ripped jeans. This show definitely encapsulates the feeling of being young and only afraid of one thing: becoming your parents.

What impressed me most about this specific production was how multitalented the cast was – a number of times throughout the show, a character will stop to not only sing the song, but accompany themselves on guitar, drums, violin, or even the accordion. At the end, all of the cast came on stage to sing the friends-forever anthem “Time of Your Life,” all holding and playing (or at least, pretending to play) acoustic guitar.

Although the three leading men are the ones who get the most stage time, the real standouts were some of the ladies in the cast, specifically Allyson Fournier as the pregnant teen Heather and Tiana Swan as the Extraordinary Girl.

All in all, the show does a good job of reinterpreting its source material. This specific production is how the show should be seen: performed by kids full of piss and vinegar in a non-profit couple hundred seat theatre. If I had watched it in a multi-thousand Broadway house, I probably would have gagged at the irony.

American Idiot runs until August 27 at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island in Vancouver. Fighting Chance is simultaneously performing Heathers: The Musical at the same theatre until August 26. You can get tickets for both here.