Here’s a sampling of Fringe reviews from the Festival’s opening weekend:
— Production poster
MRS. SINGH & ME
Munish Sharma and South Asian Arts have put together a Fringe show that’s both audience-pleasing funny and a serious account of intra-cultural, intergenerational tensions within what might be called “the South Asian community.”
The opening few minutes are uncomfortably farcical. The discomfort arises from a kidnapping scenario; the farce tells us not to worry about the situation. Playwright Sharma is the kidnapper, Raj. His victim, Mrs. Singh (Nimet Kanji), is his girlfriend’s mother.
The two have lots in common—a love for chai and cookies, Bollywood movies and Mrs. Singh’s daughter, Sanya. Trouble is, Mrs. Singh has ordered her to break off with Raj. Why? Because they’re Sikh and he’s Hindu.
About midway through the hour the farce gets set aside for a serious debate between the two. Mrs. Singh is the traditionalist, the first-generation immigrant who believes in total parental authority, arranged marriages and the importance of remaining within one’s narrowly defined culture and religion. Raj is the modernist, the second generation who believes that love and liberal western values should trump ethnic and religious differences.
Sharma gives them both strong arguments. Mrs. Singh: “You want me to give up the only identity I ever had?” Raj: “You are Canadian!” Raj’s position resonates more strongly with me, and he has what is for me the play’s most powerful line: “I didn’t know I could be the wrong kind of brown.” But the play doesn’t trivialize either one.
One of the things I took away from the show was the realization of how easily we tend to essentialize communities other than our own. This play suggests that the differences within the “South Asian community” are as significant as those between it and non-South Asians.
The physical comedy is mostly fun, though it tends to get silly as such comedy does. The actors and director Kathleen Duborg work hard at keeping up the momentum, but the play spends too much time being coy about what Raj is doing with Mrs. Singh. Kanji is a very good comic actor who cracks up the audience with lines like, “You are a gangbanger – it’s not a healthy lifestyle!” She also provides a strong, committed sense of Mrs. Singh’s convictions when the argument gets serious. Sharma’s Raj matches her line for line in those latter sections, which is where this piece really sizzles for me.
— Production poster
SMALL TOWN HOSER SPIC
This is another show about cultural and ethnic tensions within Canada, except in the case of this solo performance the tensions are at play within a single character. Pedro Chamale recounts to the audience what appears to be his own story: the child of Guatamalan immigrants growing up as the only Latino boy in small town Chetwynd, BC, pop. 3100.
With the lights up on the audience, Chamale chats informally with us, inviting our responses as he chugs back beer after beer. He describes how he grew up as a typical small town blue collar Canadian kid – a hoser, in the style of SCTV’s Bob & Doug Mackenzie – in a world of drinking, hockey and Saturday night fights. As the town’s only “Spic” (other than his sister and parents), he managed to avoid the fights between the whites and First Nations guys, neither group lumping him in with the other. He grew up considering himself simply Canadian: “I squeaked in under the racist radar,” except for the one time he got called a “fuckin’ Paki!”
But Chamale’s life got more complicated once he left Chetwynd and people started asking him the question Canadians of “ethnic” appearance regularly get asked: “Where are you from?” That got him rethinking and questioning his own identity. “They see me how I didn’t see myself. I call myself a coconut because deep inside I feel white.” But, he says, looking in the mirror he’d see a brown face staring back at him. In the end he doesn’t feel himself authentically Canadian nor Guatamalan, white nor brown, but something ambivalently and uncomfortably in-between.
Once again a comic performance about ethnicity raises fascinating issues that audience members (naïve ones like me, anyway) might not have considered. In this case my big surprise was Chamale’s insistence that he sees a “brown” face reflected back at him in the mirror. His face doesn’t look brown to me at all.
Chamale is a charming actor, and Derek Chan directs the show in a loosey-goosey manner so the serious ideas sneak up on you through the casual comic chatter. Plus you get to sample Chamale’s mother’s delicious homemade guacamole.
— Production photo
OH THE HUMANITY! AND OTHER GOOD INTENTIONS
Composed of five short playlets, two of them monologues, this show is an absolute knockout. New York playwright Will Eno is a genius with language, and Staircase Theatre’s three performers—especially Brad Duffy—are simply terrific.
Eno has his characters speak in a kind of existential stream-of-consciousness, the words sparking off one another. In the opening monologue Duffy plays a coach addressing the press after what sounds like the world’s worst, most depressing losing season. He tells of his “punishing, crushing, nauseating sorrow,” and flagellates himself with comments like, “I couldn’t coach a gallon of water out of a paper bag.”
Director Brian Cochrane has his actors maintain a remarkably naturalistic conversational style and muted tone throughout, most notable in the second piece where a man (Duffy) and a woman (Maryanne Renzetti) sit in separate chairs and address the audience in turn as if they were introducing themselves through a dating service. (“I enjoy not traveling,” says Duffy matter-of-factly). It’s a stunning duet, with great help from lighting designer Stephen Bulat and whoever is running the board, switching the light from one chair to the other in perfect sync with the rapid-fire dialogue.
Renzetti shines in the next piece as the hapless spokesperson for an airline that has just suffered a crash, addressing the families of all those who died in it. She beautifully captures Eno’s darkly hilarious absurdist take on weasly corporate empathy. “Gravity, we trust, was a factor.”
The fourth piece embodies the richest scenario as a photographer and his assistant attempt to pose the audience (“people in a building, seated, breathing”) in order to reproduce a photo of American soldiers in the Spanish-American War. The two bicker over whether the original photo was taken before or after a battle, but in the end their instructions to us are clear: “Try to be more mortal, as much as you can stand.”
The final playlet is absurd, metatheatrical and brilliant. A man and woman (Duffy and Renzetti) are driving to what she thinks is a christening, but what he assumes to be a funeral, when he stops, gets out of the “car” and points out that it’s not a car at all but just two chairs on a stage. He has been talking about his father’s death, and when another man (Tom Pickett) enters and just stands there silently, I assumed he was the father’s ghost. But this is how he explains himself: “I’m the beauty of things, the majesty of the universe.”
Wow, what writing. What acting. Oh, the humanity!