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vancouverplays review


by Betty Lambert

by Suzanne Ristic

by Katie Hartman and Nick Ryan

Vancouver Fringe Festival
Various venues
Oct. 4-14
$14 at

There are certain things you come to expect as a regular attendee at fringe theatre festivals. Always lots of silly comedy, sex--not the literal kind but funny tales about sex and sex talk galore--dramatized solo memoirs, musical satires. This year's Vancouver Fringe Festival is no exception.

At every new Fringe, though, certain distinctive moods and themes also seem to emerge. After all, what happens in the theatre is just a reflection of what's happening in the world.

Given North American popular culture's current obsession with zombies and the dark tone of hit TV shows like Breaking Bad, it shouldn't be surprising that dark and apocalyptic, done straight or tongue-in-cheek, runs through this year's festival like a fault line. But as I continue my random ramble through its numerous offerings, I've come across another common thread, one I didn't expect but maybe should have: shows by women about women in bad marriages.

This may be just a coincidence. If I had seen three other shows at random a different theme might well have appeared. But maybe, too, as we watch that video of the NFL player punching his fiancée and hear of yet another aboriginal woman found murdered, the social anxieties surrounding such events resonate for women theatre artists in the work they choose to present.

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The Good of the Sun

Vancouverite Betty Lambert was a major Canadian playwright whose career was cut short by her premature death in 1983. Her most significant plays, Jennie's Story and Under the Skin, both concerned evil men who preyed on vulnerable young women. The Good of the Sun is an earlier, lesser-known Lambert play, resurrected at the Fringe by Tanille Gelb and Elizabeth Kirkland. Gelb directs while Kirkland plays Mary, the central figure in a disturbing triangle set in 1950s Mexico.

While nursing her bitter husband Max (Jordan Schartner) as he convalesces in a tropical Mexican village from an unspecified disease, Mary volunteers to work with the local doctor treating him (Brent Hirose). Mary is a goody goody, prim and proper and prudish. Max baits her, calling her "the perfect wife" as she puts up with his nastiness and sarcasm without complaint.

But Max has a perverse need to experiment with her virtue, pushing her into ever closer quarters with the doctor, encouraging their relationship while speculating whether marital "unfaithfulness" means the same thing in Mexico as in Canada. The sordid fate of a local peasant woman at the hands of her jealous husband puts things into even more uncomfortable perspective.

Heavily indebted to D.H. Lawrence and Tennessee Williams, Lambert's play suffers from some ham-fisted writing, particularly in its overuse of symbolic references to the sun. It's a compelling story, though, with good acting and fine Spanish guitar accompaniment from Liron Man.

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Suzanne Ristic's new play Poor is a one-woman comedy of manners set in present-day Vancouver where über-rich Shelley (Lisa Bunting) develops a burning need to experience what it's like to be very poor. The poor, after all, have so much character, make do with so little, and unlike poor little rich matron Shelley they don't have to keep up with the Joneses.

But what really motivates Shelley, we learn, is her loveless 25-year marriage to her vicious CEO hubby.

So she dresses like a bag lady and has her chauffeur take her to the Downtown Eastside in the Jag. There she dumpster dives, gets into a fight with a real bag lady, visits a public health clinic, and has wild and frequent sex with a street guy in an abandoned building. Shades of Lady Chatterley yet again. And while Shelley revels in her slumming, her young son becomes collateral damage. Or maybe not, the twisty ending suggests.

The satire here is extreme--Shelley's idea of helping the poor is to litter the sidewalk with Holt Renfrew gift cards--but Bunting's performance is nicely nuanced and utterly fearless. Ironically, Poor is directed by actor Jay Brazeau, happily married to the playwright.

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The Legend of White Woman Creek

Another husband-wife combo, New Yorkers Katie Hartman and Nick Ryan, is behind The Legend of White Woman Creek, a folk song-cycle narrative co-created by the two, directed by Ryan and performed solo by Hartman. In the manner of Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad album, the story is sung by the ghost of a pioneer woman who lived and died in 19th century Kansas.

In a period dress, standing in a circle of candles, Hartman sings and tells Anna's tragic tale, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. Anna headed west from Virginia after the Civil War, married a harsh, stolid German-Catholic sodbuster, and settled into a joyless marriage on their hardscrabble farm until she was captured by a war party of Cheyenne and married to their chief.  The contrast between her two marriages is extreme. Suffice to say that things don't end well for her, largely due to husband number one.

Hartman's eloquent, powerfully restrained performance is punctuated by howls of grief and rage. At the end of the show she thanks her husband who joins her onstage.

Jerry Wasserman


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