That’s Just Five Kids in a Trench Coat! (A-)
I didn’t take too many notes during this sketch show because it’s really funny. The Dame Judy Dench troupe (composed of Jessica Greco, Claire Farmer, Chris Leveille, Shannon Lahaie, and Gavin Pounds) are a smart and confident group that know how to execute funny and occasionally inventive scenarios with wit and energy. There are a predictable number of sketches partially premised on bewilderment at progressive notions of sexuality and gender, like one where a bunch of park moms (Greco, Farmer and Lahaie) subtly undermine a new member of their group with feigned surprise at her failure to adopt their stereotypically crunchy granola approach to raising her kids, such as giving them gender-ambiguous names. The joke is I think more about how the mothers have uncritically absorbed whatever in-vogue ideology will make them feel superior to one another rather than being motivated to adopt an approach that will be useful for their children, but the whole sketch is a little old-fashioned all the same. For the most part though the troupe produces scenes that are sharp, funny, sometimes quite dark, often weird and usually well-developed, whether they last five minutes or thirty seconds (the tragic dilemma of a sentient pizza slice is the most bizarre and hilarious thing I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe, and it lasts less than a minute). The energy abates slightly in the middle section, but only in comparison to its strong opening, a prologue that has the cast resignedly settling in to watch a Fringe sketch show of all things. This is followed by a very funny interview between Fred Jones (Leveille) of the Scooby Doo gang and a bewildered FBI investigator (Pounds), a gag which comes full circle at the very end of the show in a great final punch-line dependant on the creative use of an audience member. If you’re looking for dependable laughs and a breezy sixty minutes, jump in the Mystery Machine and head on over to the Helen Gardiner.
The Inventor of All Things (A-)
Jem Rolls returns to Fringe, this time with a dynamic history lesson on Hungarian-American physicist Leo Szilard, credited with being the first to conceptualize the nuclear chain reaction which scientists working in the U.S. would eventually execute via the Atom Bomb. Rolls, an immediately engaging storyteller, relays the alternately fascinating and tragic tale of Szilard’s life and innovations with a compelling energy that holds attention for the whole show. This is my first experience watching a Jem Rolls work; research suggests that his past material has ranged from the more personally anecdotal to his thoughts on the modern world. This show is, by contrast, a lecture on one man’s life; Rolls allows few personal anecdotes or asides to interfere with his story (though he does nicely lay out the structure of the evening for us in the first ten minutes of the show). Also, like a surprising number of the one-person shows I’ve seen at the Fringe, there is little interaction or improvisation dropped into the piece. This is obviously not a requirement of a solo work, but it has been interesting to watch performers deliver great swaths of learned text directly to their audience, often in character as themselves, while for the most part avoiding spontaneity. But regardless of the straightforwardness of Rolls’ approach, what does come across in spades is his genuine enthusiasm and long-held curiosity for his subject and the field he worked in (even when some of the nitty-gritty elements of Szilard’s work are too incomprehensible, as Rolls humorously admits several times). And as the hour unfolds, it becomes clear just how much his enthusiasm is justified (if you have any doubts, read the introductory section of Szilard’s Wikipedia page). He elegantly balances Szilard’s story with parallel developing narratives about nuclear innovation and the maneuvering of various powers (Germany in particular) to gain access to this crucial information which Szilard initially kept to himself to avoid its being violently exploited, before trying to develop it under controlled, ostensibly humane circumstances in the U.S. after it became clear that Germany was aware of the theory. What emerges from the story is the sheer range of Szilard’s intelligence matched by a strong ethical drive that resulted in his working desperately to prevent the massive nuclear reaction from being wrongly implemented, and his being haunted by his associations with the A-bomb. Aside from its charismatic performer and well-composed narrative, The Inventor of Everything is a unique Fringe offering simply by virtue of being an unashamedly and surprisingly engaging history lesson.
NB: This review is coming quite late, but it should still be noted that as a last-minute replacement, The Inventor of Everything is not listed in the published Fringe calendar.
Pretending Things Are a Cock (B+)
An initially unsatisfying show that gradually assumes greater size and substance as it goes on, Pretending Things Are a Cock is both exactly what it advertises itself as, and more enjoyable than that description might suggest. Jon Bennett has spent the last few years touring the world with this one-man show where he shows his audience a slideshow of pictures he has taken around the world that depict him positioning himself against some object or famous landmark so that it appears to be his penis. Yes. That is where we begin, and it is not promising. Indeed it is underwhelming, and you brace yourself for disappointment. However, the sheer charisma and surprising moments of creativity that Bennett brings to the proceedings ultimately make the experience a more pleasurable one than they might have been in less sensitive hands. We learn how his early shots, once posted online, created a growing surge of interest that propelled him to internet fame, and his quest as a result took on a broader, firmer shape. The slideshow is broken up with spurts of biographical information, including penetrating analysis of how Bennett’s poor and slightly repressive upbringing lead to him growing such an overwhelming fascination with pretending that people and objects are penises. The show climaxes with a lengthy re-telling of a trip through the Inca Trail following a premature break-up with his girlfriend. There, he forges a deep connection with a Swedish tourist with whom he thrust himself into a series of dirty yet emotionally intense adventures. All in all, despite an uninspiring initial appearance, Pretending Things Are a Cock proves itself to be surprisingly substantial – it lasts an impressive sixty minutes.
Mixed Chick (B+)
Coko Galore is wry and engaging in her biographical one-woman show about her childhood, much of which was spent being shepherded between London, Toronto, the Ivory Coast, and Hong Kong, all while trying to make sense of her identity as a half-Chinese, half-African girl. On a superficial level the story may seem to lack for much drama – there is no inciting traumatic incident or great final revelation in Galore’s telling of her life. What there is instead is an articulation of the constant self-questioning Galore put herself through throughout her entire childhood. At her school in Hong Kong amongst mostly Chinese children, she was the black kid. In Toronto, black students didn’t see her as black at all – only Chinese. Appropriate for such a quietly engaging performer, Galore’s entire adolescence appears to have been a series of deliberately executed performances as she negotiated being in the role of perpetual outsider. All the while, she was absorbing aspects of the different cultures available to her, forging her own unique identity that she has carefully preserved for herself. The stage is bare, but Galore uses it well, aided by some witty lighting cues overseen by director Leslie Seiler. She is always engaging and in possession of a dry charm that nicely complements the story she tells. There were a few moments of hesitancy at the performance I attended, and a resistance to improvising her way out of a tripped-up script. But it’s clear that it’s a story she wants to tell with care and precision, so this is understandable. The play opens with Galore as a nineteen-year-old Bell employee told by her co-worker that her being a black woman is a double whammy that is likely to hinder her ambitions as a writer and performer. At first this seems like it’s an inciting incident for Galore’s self-reflection, but by the end of the end of the play we realize that, for her whole life, such ruthless self-awareness has been a necessary component of being a “mixed chick”.