Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region   ,

The Fresh Meat Festival returns to Arts Court theatre for its fifth instalment. Were an unsuspecting audience member to stumble upon this event, it’d be one for the books. Fresh Meat is for fearless audience members who are looking for a taste of the experimental, unhinged and up-and-coming. The festival distinguishes itself as one that presents unbridled artistry from local theatre makers in the early stages of their careers. That these works are unpolished and presented with minimal set or costuming only adds to the atmosphere; the DIY aesthetic is met by truly experimental performances by Ottawa’s next generation of creators.

The Fresh Meat Festival runs two weekends, the second of which kicked off on Thursday October 20. During the second weekend of Fresh Meat 5, five shows run the gamut of theatrical styles, from self-reflective storytelling, to scripted sketch comedy, physical comedy and more. Across the board, the performances are comedic in nature. That’s where the comparison ends.

The evening opens with a performance by the winners of the 2016 Prix Rideau Awards for Outstanding New Creation for their 2016 Ottawa Fringe offering, Rideshares and Ropeswings. Catch Matt Hertendy and Matthew Venne’s succeeding show, Boy vs. Chair at Fresh Meat 5. The show is a disorienting stand-off between a man in a propeller hat and a not-so-inanimate, black chair. It’s a kind of parody of the common narrative convention that “things are not what they seem,” delivering to its audience a silly, peculiar and awkward story that is more rooted in the physical comedy of the two performers than it is in making itself understandable. What starts as a power struggle soon becomes a Bop-It! duel, then a reconciliation, then a choreographed pas-de-deux. Just kidding, they obviously aren’t dancers. Hertendy and Venne are advantaged by their awkward physical presences on stage, and this show will undoubtedly give you the giggles.

Earlier this year, Ottawa audiences were treated to a one-man show written and performed by veteran performer Pierre Brault entitled Will Somers. It’s a historical and comedic piece about actual, real-life jester, Will Somers, who served and survived many monarchs including Queen Elizabeth I. In an odd twist of fate, Ottawa happens to have an up-and-coming performer actually named Will Somers. At Fresh Meat 5, Will Somers (the 2016 Will Somers) responds to Pierre Brault’s work and offers a show called Pierre Brault that has nothing to do with Pierre Brault. Borrowing from Somers’ show, “this is what it feels like to have your name on something that has nothing to do with you.” Provoked by the response from friends and family to his name being the title of a show in which he had no part, Somers plays guitar and sings between self-reflective monologues that are existential and honest in nature. The lines between comedy and heartfelt confession blur, sometimes in an uncomfortable way. At one point, Somers recounts the story of his painful divorce during which he played Romeo over fifty times in parks across Ottawa. “Every night I fell in love and watched my love die,” (I paraphrase,) and the Fresh Meat 5 audience erupts in laughter that feels misplaced. Yet, the performance manages to churn up a strange reality about our nature as humans: We are constrained by solipsism, and yet, measure our actions through the eyes of others. A cruel truth.

Two of the performances follow a more conventional form but fit nicely into the playbill. Comedian and actor Deborah Ring, under the direction of Gabbie Lazarovitz, performs a scripted, sketch-style parody of TED Talks presenters in a show called TEAD Talks. Taking on three distinct characters, Ring is deadly funny and brings audiences to the brink of discomfort, where all the best comedy lives. On the Fresh Meat 5 bill, you’ll also find Ottawa theatre company Rapscallion Diversion who you may recognize from their 2015 Ottawa Fringe show, The Adventures of Red Rascal. Here, writers Danielle Savoie and Jake William Smith bring to life the story of Donald Crowhurst who competed in the first round-the-world sailboat race in the 1960s. Crow’s Nest follows a recognizable narrative that attempts to shed light on the mysterious amateur sailor but leaves big question marks in its transitions; it casts a too-wide net for its twenty-minute Fresh Meat spot. Smith’s charisma as Crowhurst manages to sell the story, though the character progression is abridged. This is a case where a longer story arc is essential.

The stand-out of the evening is a modern take on a pantomime by theatre company Aplombushrombus.  The show, titled “OH NO!” said the parrot, features Madeleine Hall as an Airbnb patron who has escaped a storm and stumbled into her oddly pink rental apartment. The owner leaves her one instruction: Do not touch the mysterious object under the grey-covered sheet. What follows is near impossible to describe without ruining the surprise, but the performance, written and directed by Mitchel Rose, calls to mind the cartoonish antics of Scooby-Doo, the physical high jinks of I Love Lucy and the strange, surreal tension of David Lynch. All of this in a mere twenty minute vignette!

Fresh Meat 5 delivers. You’ll find work that seeks to push the boundaries of performance and storytelling. It’s the type of place that promotes a culture of creativity in Ottawa and nurtures burgeoning artistry. Moreover, it’s a downright bizarre rabbit hole in which you’ll be pleased to find yourself lost.

Fresh Meat 5
October 13-15 & 20-22
Arts Court Studio