The Stranger at the Fringe

To make my experience of the 2010 Winnipeg Fringe Festival more interesting, I decided to write mini-reviews of some of the plays I saw, with an ear for perculating 'Reign of God' themes that whispered to me. I also attempted to come to the productions without wanting to make snap judgements about whether they were 'good' or 'bad' -- with a sort of meditative 'not knowing' attitude. I'm not sure how well that went, but I think the intention itself was good.

The Fringe Festival is not the 'Reign of God' fully embodied -- nothing really is -- yet there is something truly enjoyable and inspiring about the event. It's hard to put my finger on it, yet 'it' is the reason I keep coming back every July. I even arrange my holidays around it. Constructed around low-budget productions of experimental theatre -- comedies, tragedies, musicals and improvs -- and staged by low-paid actors in Winnipeg's historic Exchange District, the Festival feeds a hunger not only for entertainment but for social communion, and a sharing of deeper meaning.

And there is loads of theatrical talent on display, from Fringe circuit veterans all the way from South Africa and the UK to aspiring local youth theatre graduates. I particularly enjoy the good will among the actors, volunteers and play-goers I meet, even while putting up with performers soliciting your attendance fir their productions! They are usually good sports, fortunately. Some find creative ways to enlist you to buy tickets. One farcically-costumed comedy troupe last year sang random Happy Birthday songs to unsuspecting patrons waiting in ticket lines before handing out promotional handouts!

These Fringe Festival plays, off from the mainstream industry, are put on, generally speaking, for the love of it. And it shows. I think that's why hundreds, if not thousands, of people come down to the Exchange night after night. Granted, it is a hit and miss experience, but there is usually more hits than misses in my experience. Pssst. This year I also managed to stay away from the four-dollar bags of total sugary mini-donuts. A plus for sure!

 No mini-donuts, but some of my mini-reviews follow:

Jem Rolls - On Man Riot

My son Joel and I came to see Jem Rolls -- yeah that's his name -- a veteran Fringe performance poet up in his usual spot -- second floor, King Head's Pub. Departing from his regular fare of serial performance poetry, Jem tried a longer form, an autobiographical story of discovering his gift for public poetry (with his wonderful thick English accent) during a 1990 London riot protesting Margaret Thatcher's poll tax. (It was a much-maligned new tax that was forced upon the rich and poor without any conditions or exceptions.) After a long lead-up Jem proclaimed that he never felt more alive when he taunted armour-shielded policemen at Westminster, a stroll incidentally my wife Lydia and I took just a few years earlier during our European bike trip.

Like a madman, Jem ran up to policemen, unarmed except for the sharpness of his tongue, and shouted directly in their faces: "Were you a bully when you were a kid? If you weren't, what are you doing now? When the authorities confiscate people's last possessions because of this tax, it will be because of YOU!" The policemen would sometimes react angrily, just what Jem wanted. He lost himself in the frenzy. His politics till then was repressed and filtered by the media he consumed. Now it was just him versus the authorities, in the flesh. And he could do 'something' about it; it became real. Afterwards, Joel and I wondered whether we liked his more conventional poetry better. Was this just an idiosyncratic story of an individual, that didn't reach up to the level of being universally applicable? And we weren't sure of the value of rioting, which seems like such a regressive form of protest. But then it dawned on us that maybe he was saying something we could all relate to. About how our true vocations grab us and call out of us something more than our usual wanderings. Vocation, lived in service of God, involves all of us. And it feels like we are truly meant to do this, whatever 'this' is. Have we found our true vocations yet? Have I? Jem seems truly invigorated when he's on stage. And he makes you think. Not a bad combination!

Nomadic Players - Oleanna

Oleanna is a remake of David Mamet's famous play about a once idealistic university professor falsely accused of rape by an insecure but bizarrely-emboldened female student. The liberal professor initially questioned the regurgitation method of normal university education. He wants real thinking and legitimate discourse to happen. However, by the time the play begins, he is anxiously awaiting his tenure announcement while maddeningly trying to secure a larger home for his family. He's beside himself as he tries to focus on answering his young student's queries about what the heck is being taught in the classroom. (She's a freshmen.) He thinks. Why not offer a personal tutorship in his office. However, when the student's feminist friends get a hold of this idea, she is persuaded to think that she is a victim -- of rape no less -- although it probably was only an arm around her shoulder. She complains to the university's administration, and soon the defeated professor is seriously looking at the kaboshing of his career! One last tense meeting with the student leads him to become physically abusive -- ironically almost the situation of which she had accused him earlier. 

This hard-to-watch play pulsates with the intransigence of a power struggle between student and professor, woman versus man, Them versus Us. Both feel victimized and helpless. Both seem responsible in their irresponsibility. Wow, talk about a being between a rock and a hard place. The Kingdom response that whispered to me was the 'comma' quote about God that I saw printed on a giant banner at a church in Chicago. It said: "Never place a period where God has placed a comma. God is still speaking" (Gracie Allen)." 

Because of political correctness, personal insecurities, and careerist pursuits, these two characters have created a living hell from which they cannot extricate themselves. The ending truly seems hopeless. I have no idea what Mamet was thinking, but it seems that the impasse is an opportunity for something transcendent to come to pass, in the play's imagined future. There is essentially no hope from within regular human experience. But only hope that something from the really real, from the 'Reign', can enter here and liberate both accuser and accused. Human desire has reached its limits, but as the Gospel of Matthew writer says, "with God anything is possible." Is that line of thinking a cop-out? I hope not, but it will take eyes of faith.

7 (x1) Samurai

I like the byline of this well-attended one-man show at Manitoba Theatre Centre's Main Stage. "An epic tale told by an idiot." This is a cartoonish, clownish remake by one David Gaines of the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" movie, which was later turned into the American western "The Magnificent Seven". An amazing (and popular) performance! With minimal spoken lines, Gaines acts out the entire story -- maybe 12 different characters -- through movement, sound effects and two masks, including one of a traditional samurai. With marauders on horseback threatening, a Japanese peasant farmer enlists the help of samurai to help defend the town. The deadly yet humourous samurai come to the aid of the townspeople, killing all intruders. The drama has comic simplicity at its root. A modern Charlie Chaplinesque performance. I don't know what a Kingdom perspective would say to this story. Without any preachiness intended, I think one critical response would have to concern the tribal violence that is at the core of the action. What would the peasant say and do if he heard Jesus' call to love your enemies? The plot would take new imaginative twists, and a different tone for sure.

The Bike Trip

St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century mystic, said: "We do not know God by thinking, but by encountering." This is certainly true, isn't it? A belief isn't worth beans until it is tested in real life. Martin Dockery's play 'The Bike Trip' comes to mind in reflecting upon the whispered urge we sometimes get towards achieving unitive consciousness with God. A tall order for sure, and often maddeningly ellusive.

Dockery is a '60-ish spiritual seeker and a wonderful, thoughtful storyteller from Brooklyn. He is masterful in articulating his particular idiosyncratic experiences that move towards the universal. His last year's play, 'Wanderlust', a comic tale of his eventful yet almost disastrous North Africa pilgrimage was about as fun as it gets at the Fringe.

'The Bike Trip' cycled around, and then dove into Martin's actual re-creation of Dr. Albert Hofmann's bicycle trip around Basel, Switzerland while on LSD, the drug he accidentally discovered in 1943 as a chemist. A trip on a trip! The backdrop of this peculiar adventure: his girlfriend (in real life) has recently told him that he doesn't really know how to love another human being. He reflects upon how since as a kid he had developed psychological walls that kept people away from his inner self. So the adventure of the trip (that could be turned into a play) seems like a challenging response. With an engaging, fast-paced delivery, Dockery exudes someone who really wants to know himself, including others. He doesn't use God language per se, but I got the sense that that's who he really wanted to know, the Source of All. Having swallowed a small pill of LSD, and on a rickety bicycle driving around Basel in the dead of winter, Dockery's trip imitating the doctor's excursion seems at a dead end. He has recreated Hofmann's movements, but there is no psychic or spiritual 'aha'. And he feels foolish, this being winter, in Switzerland no less. Was this just a hokey idea for a story? He's cold, and looking through windows into the warm houses of residents. A serious letdown he feels is coming, until something what we may call Love mysteriously floods his personhood. He stops, and is grateful for the love that he feels, and thanks the universe for the human creator of this mysterious drug that has helped him find a deeper source. In what could be considered a communion moment, he finishes off his 'prayer' with eating an ordinary sandwich.   


The play was staged by recent youth theatre school grads in a troupe called 'Struts and Frets Players' whose aim is to 'share ancient stories that deserve to be better known than they are.' What a wonderful vision, particularly for young adults who are probably just experiencing these ancient texts for the first time! 

This new-to-me story is largely about coming to terms with human death and limitation. Gilgamesh, an ancient Babylonian king, has a profound identity crisis. He is so insecure his sole goal is to find a legacy that will outdo his predecessors. An Icarus-type story in the making. He meets a hairy man whom he duels with, but who surprisingly becomes his best friend. Together they try to understand what it will take to secure a superhuman legacy for historians to write about. Gilgamesh is a brutal leader, and never accepts no for an answer, so the legacy will undoubtedly concern the realm of war. After his best friend dies, however, Gilgamesh is absolutely devastated. He travels across the river of death to meet a god from whom he demands the secret of Life and Death. He doesn't get the answer he thinks he desires, and is sorely disappointed. Yet when he returns to his kingdom he starts ruling with greater justice and mercy. I think he realizes that to have an enduring legacy he needs to exhibit human values, and not just start wars with his neighbours. This ancient story seems strangely applicable today, doesn't it? To me it speaks of the universality of the human search for meaning. Often our initial ambitions in life are wide of the mark, and, after experiencing failure and loss, we come to a deeper experience of life. Mmm. That reminds me of Jesus' disciples who felt betrayed and lost when their fearless leader was crucified as a Roman criminal. That also reminds of my own youthful, ambitious dreams that have turned into something entirely different...

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