Undercurrents 2016

A Man Walks into a Bar: Uncomfortable, true to life exploration of gender politics

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

Photo by Tanja Tiziana courtesy of the Next Stage Theatre Festival

Photo by Tanja Tiziana courtesy of the Next Stage Theatre Festival

A Man Walks into a Bar is a well written, funny, and well-performed feminist show about a woman (Rachel Blair) who tries to tell joke and a man (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) who “helps” her tell is properly. It’s a simple enough premise, but playwright Blair infuses the text with complexity and an exploration of gender politics. The humour is in the delivery and interaction between the two characters. The punch line, when it comes at long last, only serves to underscore the conditions women are groomed to accept and the fear with which they live.  The play holds up an uncomfortable mirror to real life.

Both Blair and Bigwood-Mallin are terrific actors. Blair has great comedic timing and her delivery is spot on and her acting range is impressive. She has the ability to draw attention to her characters, even when they stand at the back of the stage or draw into themselves. Indeed, some of the most powerful moments of the performance were the moments she doesn’t speak. Although Bigwood-Mallin took some time to really settle into his character, toward the middle of the performance, he really comes into his own and sends shivers of disgust and annoyance through the audience. (more…)

A Man Walks into a Bar’s appealing staging distracts from a heavy-handed script

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

Photo by Tanja Tiziana courtesy of the Next Stage Theatre Festival

Photo by Tanja Tiziana courtesy of the Next Stage Theatre Festival

A Man Walks into a Bar does a lot of things right. It was doubtlessly a popular offering during its premiere at the 2015 Toronto Fringe, where it received many awards including the coveted Best of Fest award. Now, during its run at the undercurrents festival until February 20, Ottawa audiences can experience a play that wields humour like a weapon. Produced by Circle Circle Productions in Toronto, the play takes its lead from the popular kicking-off point of a joke, “A man walks into a bar.” But as the two actors approach the punch-line, the joke unfolds into a metatheatrical and cutting story that sets its sights on misogyny and harassment.

Created by Rachel Blair, who is also one of two actors in this performance, the script pulls its audience into two worlds. Blair has arrived to tell the audience a joke, and insists, “I’m not very good at telling jokes.” Performer Bigwood-Mallin convinces her that they should step inside the joke; he only wants to help. A small bar and two barstools allow them to clearly indicate when they are within the sketch, and when they are outside of it. The actors straddle these two worlds, and as Blair’s “joke” starts to reveal its true nature, a growing tension permeates both the play within the play, and their metatheatrical narration.

Approaching a gender discussion under the guise of humour, A Man Walks into a Bar gives its audience the opportunity to laugh its way through discomfort. What’s more, Blair as the Waitress and narrator was able to be genuinely funny and then genuinely sincere, making these turns on a dime. It’s convincing, and showcases Blair’s versatility as an actress. Bigwood-Mallin as “the Man” and the co-narrator also manages to strike a balance being obtuse, funny, and loathsome in turn. Here, the audience can also see David Matheson’s handy work who orchestrates swift staging between moments of outright cruelty before they swept under the rug and the “joke” regains its footing. (more…)

Monstrous, or the Miscegenation Advantage, an important piece in undercurrents 2016

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

MG_8317The lights bathe a vast, empty stage. A massive projection screen is mounted along the back. Performer Sarah Waisvisz enters the stage from the audience, singing along with French singer Chantal Goya’s “Adieu les jolis foulards”, a version of the Martinique folk song, “Adieu foulard, adieu madras”. Waisvisz evokes a sense of nostalgia and longing, singing the song out to the audience with open arms. It isn’t until later that the audience will learn the full impact of this saccharine anthem.

Monstrous, or the Miscegenation Advantage is in part theatre, in part dance, and in part social provocation from Calalou Productions. It’s a true piece of auto-ethnography, inspired by the artist’s own Ph.D. level research into colonial interference in Caribbean literature. The script finds its footing in creator and performer Sarah Waisvisz’s own story. It is in part Sarah’s personal history as a multi-racial woman who traces her heritage back to the slave coast of West Africa. Here, dance plays a large role as Sarah embodies dance styles that reflect that history. Yet, the script also sets its sights on Sarah’s modern-day, lived experience as someone whose skin colour has been an unavoidable topic of discussion since birth. Waisvisz moves with intention and fluidity on the stage, though sometimes under-vocalizes her lines. Overall, she is dynamic and even a little mischievous. (more…)

Getting to Room Temperature and Mouthpiece at the undercurrents festival

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

Robert Bockstael in Getting to Room Temperature by Arthur Milner. Photo: Ashley Fraser, Ottawa Citizen

Robert Bockstael in Getting to Room Temperature by Arthur Milner. Photo: Ashley Fraser, Ottawa Citizen

Getting to Room Temperature
A Room Temperature Collective Production (Ottawa)

What do we do now? That’s playwright Arthur Milner’s thorny question in Getting to Room Temperature which asks whether we have the right to die – and explores the roles and responsibilities of others in that death – when we’re not terminally ill but, being old, have simply reached the end of life as we choose to live it.

The provocative one-man show, told in storytelling/lecture fashion, is a world premiere. Directed by Milner, it features Robert Bockstael telling what is, essentially, the playwright’s own story.
Some time ago, Milner’s 93-year-old mother Rose, who was not gravely ill, asked her doctor to help her die. He refused. That got Milner exploring the murky politics of old age and dying in contemporary society. He asks us to consider a lot. Some of it, including the financial burden on families and societies of a growing number of lingering elders kept alive by incessant medical intervention, targets our sense of right and wrong.
Milner, through the accessible voice of Bockstael, wraps his questions in warm anecdotes about his family, sprinkles the show with humour, and lovingly depicts his vital, opinionated mother whose life is slowly limited by aging even as her son’s inquiry into dying expands to take in ever-larger ethical and personal territory.

The inquiry, says Milner/Bockstael, is “a conversation I’m having with myself. I’m trying to figure it out.” (more…)

Particle is a playful and complex homage to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

Photo: Stéphanie Godin

Photo: Stéphanie Godin

A woman creeps her way onto the stage, holding a tattered book in her hands. The pages are so well-loved that the book is falling apart. She extends it to her audience and her mouth curves into words that might explain the book. But how can you put into words something as nuanced as our reaction to a piece of great literature?

Particle, co-created by Kristina Watt and Martha Ross, is a rumination on inspiration itself. This year, audiences have a chance to capture the World Premiere of this production at the undercurrents theatre festival.

At the centre of the play is Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, but where you might expect a straight-forward adaptation, 100 Watt Productions sets its sites on the impossibility of wholly capturing the impact of art. Yet, through the lens of this cleverly conceptualized, metatheatrical production, Particle succeeds in inviting the audience to experience a delicate moment of shared understanding.

The stage layout features a prominent projector screen to its right where images of rolling waves are projected—a nod to the book that is at the heart of this production. The play features some basic set pieces, for example, a desk with a small bell and some clutter directly center, or a coat rack that stands at stage left. It’s all intentionally vague; the set is simply a play-ground for the characters. And these characters aren’t what they seem.

Actress Kristina Watt uses costumes (including exaggerated noses, lab coats, glasses and more) to take on various characters, and yet, these characters are heavily symbolic in nature. They are exaggerated and far from realistic—they are characters that Watt wears like a coat as she tries to home-in on the meaning behind Woolf’s enigmatic novel. Underneath the characters is another nameless, tenuous character that is just as present on stage, finding moments of silence to simply stare back at the audience. There’s a complex balance between what’s real and what’s not that Particle manages to capture, a credit to director Martha Ross. (more…)

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