A birds-and-the-bees message

Field Zoology

Created and performed by Shawn O’Hara

Animalia Productions

Downtown Activity Centre, Victoria Fringe Festival, Victoria, BC

Mon Aug 29, 6:00pm; Wed Aug 31, 8:00pm; Fri Sept 2, 6:30pm; Sat Sept 3, 4:15pm


A leading incubator for Canadian talent of all kinds – think Steve Nash, David Foster, Silken Laumann, Eric Metcalfe – Victoria boasts a fringe festival remarkable as a showcase for emerging artists. Shawn O’Hara, creator of the Fringe show Field Zoology, is a fine example of the above.

Whether it’s because we’ve all had teachers like Dr. Bradley Gooseberry or because O’Hara is a fiend at engaging an audience, he had us at the first “stand up, please” (immediately followed by “now sit down”). All willingly stood, faced east and repeated  the zoologist pledge: a promise to respect all animals – with the exception of the mongoose (“they know what they did”).

In his Indiana Jones hat, fake moustache, polo shirt and all-important cargo shorts (over bare, hairy legs in socks and thick-soled Blundstones), Dr. Gooseberry gives us a quick account of his beginnings as a zoologist in the Amazon. The Amazon central warehouse in Petaluma, California, that is. His zoological career began among the rat inhabitants, a study that included an investigation (don’t ask) of “rat gonorrhea.”

O’Hara’s humour is both physical and cerebral. Using an overhead projector, Gooseberry displays crudely drawn animals and titles sometimes running off the page to illustrate his lesson. (“These transparencies are expensive. Don’t use permanent marker.”) Manipulating them before our eyes, he gives us animated action, slipping transparencies over each other to demonstrate one creature devouring another.

A master of deadpan, O’Hara runs a steady patter that keeps his audience in stitches. You will be marking your own papers, he informs us. “I’ll be damned if I give up my weeknights to grade your horseshit essays. It’s my time to watch ‘Bachelor in Parasdise’.” He veers wildly from sarcasm to the absurd, weaving in a major theme in zoology: seduction. Porn, he advises, can be found “on your father’s laptop in the secret folder called ‘work graphs’.” Admitting to his own proclivities, Gooseberry alludes to the arousing features of “a curvaceous water fountain in my apartment.”

A Q&A session that ends the piece features Gooseberry answering questions submitted by the audience. “Why do female lions do all the hunting?” he reads from an index card. “Because it’s 2016.” Touché.

The Victoria Fringe, featuring 53 shows from all over, runs through September 4 in seven venues.


Lavinia: what’s in a name? Lots


Created and performed by Jon Lachlan Stewart

Uno Fest, Metro Studio, Victoria

May 25 to 26, 2016

The references to Shakespeare’s women in this compelling drama, created by quick-change artist Jon Lachlan Stewart, are simply the underpinning to the contemporary issues the show raises.  Lavinia is a victim of a brutal attack in which her hands were chopped off. She’s the outspoken one in a support group for women who’ve suffered physical and sexual abuse.

Shakespeare’s Lavinia appears in Titus Andronicus. She is the daughter of the Roman ruler, a virtuous woman who is raped. Stewart’s Lavinia is a punkish teen with long, straight, pink-tinted hair under a black wool toque. She introduces us to the other members of the support group (represented in framed silhouettes hung from above): Silvia, her best friend, named for Shakespeare’s character in Two Gentleman of Verona; Helena, blogger and Youtube celebrity, from Shakespeare’s unloved Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Lady Macbeth, who has a streak of violence; and the not-to-be mentioned, now absent Ophelia.

Stewart, a member of the Montreal troupe Surreal SoReal Theatre, is a fascinating performer. Tall and limber, he skips between two wigs mounted either side of the stage, transforming himself before our eyes. One wig is Lavinia’s; the other shiny hairpiece makes him handsome Proteus, best friend of Valentine (the other gentleman of Verona) and pursuer of Silvia, Valentine’s fiancée. As in Shakespeare, Proteus has a girlfriend too: Julia. While in character as Lavinia or Proteus, Stewart also impersonates others, notably deep-voiced Linda, leader of the therapy group, who’s given to dancing Elizabethan jigs and repeating words like conducive, as in “that behaviour is not conducive to recovery.”

Lavinia, an uncontrolled brat in group and a self-appointed voice for her friend Silvia, drives the script. “I don’t want to survive,” she says. “I want to live.” Proteus, on the other hand, is calm, poised and very capable of dissembling, especially when covering up a crime against his friend’s loved one, Silvia.

The show deftly raises issues familiar from the case against former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi: what constitutes assault and how sexual assault is handled in the courts. A talk-back session is scheduled to follow the Thursday 8 pm performance of Lavinia. The play and the performance provide much  material for discussion.

Also recommended  ̶  before Uno Fest’s close: ana, from Victoria’s Impulse Theatre, on from Thursday through Saturday,  and  A Chitenge Story, a work-in-development  by Makambe K. Simamba of Calgary, at Intrepid Theatre Club on Saturday at 4:30.





Telling it like it is: inside the joint

Circus Incognito

Created and performed by Jamie Adkins

Intrepid Theatre’s Uno Fest, McPherson Playhouse, Victoria

May 21, 2016


Written and performed by Patrick Keating

Uno Fest, Metro Studio, Victoria

May 24 and 25, 2016

Jamie Adkins was trained in the clown tradition, and so was Patrick Keating. But Adkins didn’t have to go to jail to find his calling. A native of San Diego, where he became a street performer at 13, Adkins added a lot of skills to his repertoire as he made his way from California to Montreal, where he joined Cirque Éloize.

On Saturday night, he delighted youngsters and adults alike with Circus Incognitus, a show of astounding variety. Adkins  is one funny guy, with a talent for surprising us. From an opening scene with a flashlight in the dark, to the “grande finale” involving a tightrope and a pair of ladders used like stilts, Adkins never skipped a beat, rolling from one routine to another with a light heart and true engagement with his audience.  It takes a great performer to look like a klutz doing things worthy of a trapeze artist.

A deft mover, Adkins  made a dance partner out of a wooden chair, over-balancing and tipping it on its edge. He juggled with ping pong balls that he later pushed into his mouth to make grotesque faces. He caught oranges thrown at him — on a fork held in his mouth. He dressed up and dressed down in his Buster Keaton suit and borrowed a few expressions from Charlie Chaplin in a mostly wordless act. One word Adkins did announce, with a child’s expression of wonder: “magic.” And magic this show was, from beginning to end.

When he was 13, Patrick Keating was a speed freak, on his way to heroin addiction. His first time behind bars was in juvenile detention, a hell hole for children. Keating was in and out of prisons in Quebec and British Columbia for nearly 10 years. Gallows humour informs his amazing monologue, as revealing a depiction of prison life as any memoir, but much more entertaining. His timing is impeccable.

Keating enters bearing a banker’s box of belongings, like a man just released from the joint. “It was my choice,” he says. Incarceration, that is. A judge offered him the choice of rehab or prison and he chose sentencing. “Life on the instalment plan,” is how he terms his lengthy stint.

A shy kid from an Irish Catholic background who grew up in east-end Montreal, Keating first earned respect after a school yard fight. Not yet a teenager, he became the drug dealers’ guard with a 12-guage shotgun aimed at the door. Soon this rather slight man was getting big sentences for armed robbery that meant penitentiary time. There he needed all his smarts just to survive. Keating’s tales bring to life characters such as the transgendered Madot, who sews her boyfriend a three-piece suit out of prison greens; Noel, the fearless Rastafarian; or Buddy, the car fanatic who had his pedal  foot nearly blown off by a cop.

There’s much wisdom in Keating’s show, about how loyalty and generosity are developed in prison and how the arts, theatre in this case, can be a way to true rehabilitation. Keating performs Inside/Out again at 8:30 Wednesday in the Metro Studio.

Zingers drive The Summoned

The Summoned

By Fabrizio Filippo

Tarragon Theatre, Toronto

April 27 to May 29, 2016

The dialogue in The Summoned – and this play is nothing but dialogue – moves at the speed of electrons; appropriate considering the subject is digital technology. Fabrizio Filippo, the forever-young actor and playwright, wrote the heady 90-minute play and stars as Aldous, the son of Annie Mann (Maggie Huculak) who partly presides over this whirlwind production.

A collection of eccentric characters has been summoned for the reading of the last will and testament of Khan (“not Mr. Khan; Khan, like Cher”) a billionaire technology proprietor. Think Steve Jobs, Steve Bezos or any tech giant. It’s the striving of all the egos in this Silicon Valley simulacrum that propels The Summoned and makes the piece, ably directed by Richard Rose, a wearying watch.

“How far from our nature will technology take us?” is the leading question in this comedic sci-fi entertainment that spins on the theme, will humans overcome mortality? Emblazoned on the blue screen before the show begins is the statement, If It Can Be Done It Will Be Done.

Filippo, in hoody, jeans and sneakers, sets the pace with a machine-gun delivery to introduce the scene: a budget hotel near the Toronto airport where participants await the announcement from the grave (or cyberspace) of Khan’s legacy. High security is required. Tony Nappo is a goofy security type called Quentin who carries a large shoulder bag from which he pulls out numerous flip-phones, crushing them to bits as he grows frustrated with the proceedings. He sprays the room with odoriferous air freshener, later revealed to be nanno-robots with some ill intent. Annie Mann comes on, mike in hand, as if giving a TED talk; she is owner of the hotel, a possible Khan liaison, which makes Aldous his possible son.

John Bourgeois plays an explosive Gary Alameda, president of Khan’s tech empire. Kelli Fox is Laura Kessler, a sassy, sexy lawyer who has been handmaid to Khan’s ambitions and has a tendency to break into uncontrollable giggles. Rachel Cairns is Isla, a sparky airline stewardess who had some pivotal mid-air encounter with Khan.

Security is the big concern here, because apparently Khan (voiced by Alon Nashman, listed in the program as Walkie Talkie) built his empire on the creation of cyber security, with mechanisms such as “Log Secure System Refresh”. Sounds vaguely like a toilet bowl cleaner, says one wag.

Pronouncements are the order of the day, spoken rapid-fire and aimed to kill, as the characters spar over the big stakes, a fortune worth billions. Khan authored a quote that went down as real Shakespeare quote: “It is not in the stars, our destiny, but in ourselves.”  Annie laments, “nature lost its grip on us.” And there are lots of zingers, along the lines of “the Internet is the best thing that ever happened to the exclamation mark.”

Kurt Firla’s video design and Jason Hand’s lighting and set design place the whole event in a wacky world of infinite possibility, i.e. cyberspace. Much of the dialogue is cleverly synched to text-style utterances running across the blue screen.

Not very much of lasting import is under scrutiny in The Summoned, but Filippo’s show makes a showcase for some terrific performers, including the playwright himself.

Top: Rachel Cairns and Fabrizio Filippo. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann





Wunderbar play-acting from Wunderbaum

Wunderbaum Looking for Paul (c) Steven A. Gunther 06

Looking for Paul: Inez van Dam vs. The Buttplug Gnome


World Stage, Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto

April 27 to 30, 2016

The buttplug in the title of this show is not entirely a red herring, but enough about that for now.

First, about Paul. He is Paul McCarthy, a 70-year-old Los Angeles sculptor and performance artist. His work often bears an implicit critique of American consumerist society.Quite a few of his works can be found in public spaces in Europe. The “buttplug gnome” is the name given by Rotterdammers to “Santa Claus,” a sculpture McCarthy made in 2001. For some years, it has stood prominently in the Eendrachtsplein square in Rotterdam. The dwarf-like Santa bears a Christmas tree in his right hand, shaped like a – there is no mistaking it – buttplug.

Needless to say, some citizens take offence at this work, innocent though it first appears. It’s a particular issue for Inez van Dam, who lives in a sunny apartment above the bookstore she owns on the Eendrachtsplein, where the sight of the buttplug gnome is absolutely unavoidable.

Wunderbaum, the Dutch Flemish company from the Netherlands, is as cunning as Paul McCarthy. The show opens when Californian Daniel Frankl introduces himself – awkwardly – telling us how he got involved with Wunderbaum when the collective was awarded a $20,000 residency in Los Angeles to create a theatrical piece. He is the middle man between the Netherlanders and Paul McCarthy, who is to be the subject of their production.

Frankl calls to the stage Inez van Dam, who is sitting in the audience. She bears a sheaf of notes that she reads from, rambling on about herself as images appear on the screen above her, not always in synch with her talk. The message: Inez hates the big black gnome with its big black anal dildo, it’s inappropriate, it spoils her view and she resents the American intrusion into her city’s culture.

Beside her, five white chairs with microphone stands foretell a dreadful evening. What transpires, after three more actors come on stage, is a reading of emails comprising an account of what happens after the troupe goes to LA, with Inez. Threaded through this discussion is a mind-numbing debate on the merits and demerits of the arts funding model in the US and in Holland.

Walter, Matijs and Marleen, along with Daniel and Inez, take their seats, each bearing a sheaf of printouts. At first the email messages, along the lines of Daniel’s “I’m extremely excited about this project. European theatre is edgier and richer because you have the money to spend on the process,” make a tedious exercise in revealing the creative process. Then things heat up: Marleen bursts out with a message to Inez:  “Are you willing to show your cunt on stage?” Inez has professed an abhorrence of even being on a public stage.

Slowly, from gestures and looks that pass between the email correspondents, drama begins to erupt. Marleen is the most vociferous: she wants to do a real show, maybe Streetcar Named Desire. Walter gets a wild notion of involving Lady Gaga. Daniel shuts him down, warning that Los Angelinos are fed up with celebrity-stalking. They get laughs from the audience as things grow more intriguing, Marleen flirting online with Daniel; others suggesting a meet in the hotel pool. Drinking becomes a running gag. Inez looks for a way out of the project.

Just when it appears that no show will materialize, stagehands are called to remove the chairs and mikes and the cast exits stage left. The crude bunk and bed, an open toilet and the child’s wading pool that have been lying in darkness throughout the email reading are now highlighted. The time-lapse video of  an LA intersection that has been running on the screen is now projected on the back wall of the stage. Women with cameras are summoned, to create live video of the action.

Matijs enters in a long t-shirt, wearing big ears on his concealed face, a ratty blond wig and huge puffy hands. He makes for the toilet and pulls down his underwear. Walter comes in with a wooden sword in a pirate outfit, yelling “room service” over and over again, as he too de-pants. Marleen is in a skimpy black dress and high heels. Daniel is a chef wheeling a cart with bottles of ketchup, mayonnaise, chocolate syrup and a bowl of spaghetti. Inez is collared and chained to a post.

What follows, in this makeshift hotel setting, is a piece of performance art that resembles the sort of thing Paul McCarthy might do. You know you’re not in the real Hollywood, though, because the men are frontally nude and the women remain dressed. It’s a food fight writ large as the stage and the actors are covered in fake feces, ketchup, whipcream, spaghetti  and liquid chocolate. The Wunderbaum collective – Walter Bart, Yannick Noomen, Matijs Jansen, Maartje Remmers and Marleen Scholten – has pulled off a wonder.  And yes, there are actions with dill pickles that bring to mind that infamous buttplug.

Photo: Santa Claus and Looking for Paul: Inez van Dam vs. The Buttplug Gnome.

Credit for Wunderbaum photo: Steven A. Gunther

On the road with a flipbook artist

Portraits in Motion

By Volker Gerling

World Stage 2016

Harbourfront Theatre Centre, Toronto

April 13 to 16, 2016

As viewers take their seats, Volker Gerling lurks in the shadows near the stage, where a podium with an overhead projector is prepared for his performance, a woman’s face already projected on the screen. This is a photographer, one thinks; he must be closely observing us all – are we potential subjects for his latest wanderings?

Gerling is more than a man with a camera; he’s a flâneur, that poetry-inclined stroller whose observations transcend external reality and become a work of art. It all began, he tells us in rather stilted English, with his purchase of a camera that snaps a series of photos in 12 seconds for processing into a flipbook. He experimented with a friend, a young woman in a red coat with lots of curly hair, whom he instructed to walk between two trees and hide behind them. The shoot was a failure, but out of that came the concept of the dropbook: Gerling flops down under the projector lamp a series of colour prints that reveal the sequence of the peek-a-booing friend, her disappearing shoulder and a couple of close-ups of tree trunks.

Around the same time, Gerling, whose show has toured 16 countries and won an award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, got into long-distance walking. His first big walk was from his home in Berlin to Basel Switzerland, a distance of 1,300 kilometres. Walking led to more subjects for his flipbooks, as well as the concept of the travelling exhibition, which consists of Gerling walking his route bearing a large backpack and a tray strapped to his front. The flipbooks are arrayed on the tray for the curious, who are invited to flip through them.

As for the photographs themselves, they are nothing remarkable, but for the way the subjects respond to being snapped multiple times. As Gerling remarks, 12 seconds can be a long stretch. On stage, Gerling thumb flips his books under the projector three times each so we can notice the sometimes minute changes of pose on the big screen. A man who looks like the artist Christopher Pratt barely moves, but appears to give a small sigh. A mother and daughter confront the camera and then turn to each other. A shirtless boy in front of a canal outside Münster wipes his nose.

Some subjects get into the role with gusto; a woman at a bar pulls up her sweater to show us her breasts, daring the camera to keep shooting. Others try defiance. In one flipbook where the portrait of a man and a boy appears unchanged over 12 seconds, Gerling asks us to notice a moving blade of grass – proof that the sequence is authentic.

The walks introduced Gerling to some colourful characters, including an old widower he met on the road who took the photographer into his home. But Gerling is not a born storyteller and his sing-song delivery and awkward phrasing make one feel he’s merely making fun of this charming old German. When he found that by creating bigger time gaps between shots he released “power and poetry,” Gerling embarked on some epic projects: photographing a building over many hours so that the moon appears to fly across the sky; shooting a scene from his Berlin building over four seasons; or following the movements of men using the urinals in a public washroom over an evening. In some cases, like the woman who posed for seven and a half hours while a candle burned down, we grow weary with this work.

By the end of the 75-minute show we’ve seen enough, although Gerling does get laughs and maybe even some customers. Viewers are invited up on stage to see the flipbooks, priced at $30 each.


Volker Gerling with his travelling exhibition of flipbooks.  Photo by Susanne Schule

Crackwalker reimagined, with all its original punch


By Judith Thompson

Factory Theatre, Toronto

March 22 to April 10, 2016

Judith Thompson’s plays are poetry for the stage. As such, ungovernable, a bit messy, exhilarating, affecting at a level beyond the intellect. All the better, then that she should direct this latest production of Crackwalker, a play she wrote in 1979, shortly after graduating from theatre school. Her inspiration came from work she’d been doing in Kingston with the provincial Ministry of Community and Social Services.

But the language ­– the stories – came from some deep well that only Thompson knows.  Don’t expect any neat resolution at the end of Crackwalker. For Factory’s production, the last in its Naked season, Thompson has reimagined the role of the Crackwalker. Played by the Anishnaabe performer Waawaate Fobister, he is a storyteller, a spirit guide, a reflection of the demons that haunt the others and a redeemer. Crackwalker opens the play, doing a grass dance on the bare stage, the floor painted with shapes in primary colours pieced together in a circle. Throughout  the play Crackwalker weaves in and out of the action, sometimes wearing a mask, delineating different, sometimes opposing, realities.

Enter Theresa, played by Yolanda Bonnell, speaking in infantile fashion to herself.  The first words out of her are enough to get our attention: she’s been accused of “suckin’ off queers.” Theresa’s only friend, Sandy (Claire Armstrong), arrives to accuse Theresa of having sex with Sandy’s husband Joe (Greg Gale) in their home. Theresa accuses Joe of raping her: “I didn’t want to,” she whines. The two women patch it up, until Joe appears to assail the “retarded whore” in the language of this doomed urban landscape of generational poverty — words such as “poke”and “hole” – to deny any wrongdoing. As if Theresa was everyone’s property, to do with as they will.

Theresa is wanted and loved, though, by Alan (Stephen Joffe), a car-crazy barely employed friend of Joe’s, who looks up to him as would a man in need of a father. Alan calls Theresa his Madonna. They will marry and have a child – in defiance of the “cock-sucking” social workers’ order to have Theresa’s tubes tied. The second half of the play concerns the death of their baby and a reconciliation of sorts between the warring Joe and Sandy.

The physical and verbal violence of Crackwalker is relentless. (Fight director Casey Hudecki did her job well.) Only Theresa finds any non-combative way to behave, giggling at inappropriate moments or withdrawing into her fantasies. Everyone else wants only one thing –“We gotta get out of this place,” Joe sings. Anger over threatened masculinity (Joe), sexual betrayal (Sandy), control by government or doctors (Alan) simmer close to the surface at all times. Peace, calm, salvation are but receding goals.

Offsetting the shouting, thumping and nightmarish visions (a tumour like a cauliflower emerging from a woman’s vagina) are moments of sick humour: Theresa feeds her baby baloney; a knock at the door could be Charlie Manson.

The interplay between the Crackwalker and the other characters gives a spiritual depth to this production.  Confronting Alan with his own demons, he alludes to the Ojibway story of two rivers flowing in different directions, one a river of poison, the other clean, clear water. Crackwalker is sometimes a guardian angel, giving away a fossil – a kind of talisman to protect one on a journey. Finally, he seems to embody the spirit of Theresa’s dead infant. All of the roles present challenges for the actors. The surprisingly agile Yoland Bonnell has to gain our sympathy as Theresa,  doomed but not entirely guileless. Greg Gale asserts a moral authority despite his obvious shortcomings as the drunken, disappointed Joe. Claire Armstrong projects Sandy’s meanness, but eventually has to convince us of true feeling for her husband. And a bristly Stephen Joffe has to transform from innocent boyfriend to vengeful son and husband.

A crude painting hangs above the stage:  a naked woman, her womb highlighted, flanked by two vivid orange spheres. It isn’t clear what function this sole prop serves. This production is so well directed as to transport us to various hells without need of set or properties.

Photo: Stephen Joffe and Yolanda Bonnell. Credit: Joseph Michael