If the Winnipeg Folk Festival is Manitoba’s soothing balm, the Fringe Fest is its wake up call. Sure, the warm welcome to all sorts of characters — real and literary — still abound, but gone is the whimsical yearning for a political oasis dreamed up by generations of acoustically glazed melodies. The green shrubbery and overarching trees that gently guide the Folk Fest through its lyrical journey is replaced by the gloriously foreboding Chicago-style architecture of Winnipeg’s downtown Exchange District. The strum of a mandolin morphs into the cathartic climax of a re-imagined Greek tragedy. Meditative introspection becomes the motivated exorcism of demons, from the self and from society.
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The atmosphere here is still carnivalesque, but where the Folk Fest is lined with circus-like frivolity, the Fringe is tinged with carnal spirits. A Folk Fest singer-songwriter’s comfortable silky wear that flows loosely over bends and curves is not sexualised; the substantial amount of skin shown is a representation of freedom, of what life outside a provincial park does not so easily allow. But on a Fringe stage the actor’s naked upper body is explicitly about that body— the stage light casts shadows along lines that tease and challenge the audience. Fringe analyses, dissects, and sparks emotions that may or may not comfort you, that may or may not leave you content with your own understanding of yourself. It is theatre— Life In Front Of Us, and it will not be tamed.
By Monday afternoon the weekend’s moody weather had still not perked up. Patios around Old Market Square that had expected an ever expanding mass of people were seeing a steady trickle of only the most passionate Fringers. This reviewer sat on a corner street swallowing oysters. Because, you know, that’s what theatre reviewers do. Clouds of white, grey, and black passed by overhead, daring the festivities to stoke the temper of Manitoba’s weather gods. But, thankfully, by early evening the best of Shakespeare’s nymphs had cast a calming spell on whatever bad dreams may have spoiled the party, and a happy sun oversaw the arrival of bicyclists from all over the city.
Live entertainment on the go, food trucks on the sell, and happy campers filling the outdoor Liquor Mart-run beverage gardens, the lines began to form. Tripping and spilling out of heavy Exchange District doors, the lines of people waited for doors to open. Performance spaces filled nooks and crannies throughout the area, and like a gigantic game of collective snakes and ladders Fringe-goers threaded themselves into their seats.
Shows had been going on since noon, but the palpable intensity of mass story telling and listening became salient with the evening performances. A few stories started at 7:00pm in dusty rooms with comfortably creaky wooden floors, while others began half an hour later a few blocks west under surgery-room-like white lights. Across downtown Winnipeg, from the Exchange to the Winnipeg Art Gallery to Portage Place, people sat in all sorts of spaces to watch and listen and think and laugh and walk out and applaud and dismiss and praise and reexamine the meaning of their lives.
Oysters happily digested, this reviewer settled in for a buoyant improvisation performance by a duo from Vancouver. They go by the name of Lorax Improv, and drove the packed audience to the sort of laughing fits that make taking notes a useless exercise. One simple suggestion from an audience member initiated their story, and from there they created three separate plot lines, each of which they revisited throughout the 45-minute long show, building their respective arcs, climaxes, and satisfactory conclusions. If you think that Wal-Mart personified, a Freudian relationship between a turtle mother and son, and a German Olympic duo have nothing in common, think again- Lorax Improv can make it happen (although be aware, the story lines will be different when you go see ‘em). Sweat-dripped and wide-eyed from pure creation as they finished, they humbly thanked the audience for our boisterous support before suggesting an array of other shows to enjoy.
Another worthy mention — I believe that’s the theatre reviewer’s vernacular — is a show that goes up in the same location as Lorax Improv. Quickies with Chekhov is a jumbled affair that is, nevertheless, splendidly executed. The best part is that you don’t need to know anything about the famous Russian writer Chekhov to enjoy the show. It begins as a well orchestrated university students’ production, with young actors feverishly working at a craft they would love to perfect. The concept, ever-changing set, and meticulously planned inter-scene chattering suggests a level of experimentation, self-reflexivity, and over-intellectualisation all too common in plays produced on university campuses.
But about halfway through the play the ensemble relaxes. They become grounded not in actualising their theory, but in the immediate artistic moment, and the result is theatrically delicious. The scenes move from poignant to absurd at a breathless rate, giving full due to both. Actors lurking in the shadows add to the central scene without distracting from it. The comedic timing becomes pitch perfect, allowing the audience to be haunted by the frightful metaphors painted of What It All Means while laughing at the face-value situation the characters are in. This group has a while to go before they reach a skilled comfort in all their scenes, but they’re on their way there in a mightily pleasing fashion.
Lorax Improv plays every day until Sunday, and so does Quickies with Chekhov except for Tuesday. Exact times can be found on the Winnipeg Fringe Festival website. It should be stressed that they are but two gems on a circuit of many gems.
Coincidentally, both these shows have both been well received by CBC Manitoba Scene’s influential star-system. This system does provide one bar of quality that Fringe goers with limited time and/or funds can use to make their selections, but it should be stressed that reviewers don’t always get it right. Some publications even review the shows on how they performed at previous Fringe festivals throughout the country, which does not do justice to the way the show might have evolved or improved since those performances. A harshly reviewed Fringe show may deserve avoidance, or it may be the best show you never saw. It’s a jungle out there, and ultimately the best person to navigate it is you.
Johanu Botha is a student of public policy and political philosophy. His hobbies include the mandolin and intermittent bouts of existential angst. You can reach him at email@example.com