All the right moves

Review by Sean McQuaid

Island Fringe Festival 2023

Havenwood, Charlottetown

August 5, 2023

Jinny and Jack VS The Thoughts in Their Heads

One of the finer additions to Island Fringe Festival (IFF) venues in recent years is the Havenwood Dance Studio: downtown location, ample seating for an IFF audience, good lighting, few distractions, and a long playing space suitable for a variety of shows—including, not surprisingly, dance. 

Both of this year’s IFF Havenwood shows include dance content: PEI dance/percussion ensemble Rhythm Collective’s impact-fest Rhythm Fusion, and the quirky theatrical comedy Jinny and Jack VS The Thoughts in Their Heads (JJVTTH), written and performed by a couple of young actors from Chesterville, Ontario. 

Rhythm Fusion features four tap dancers, step dancers and percussionists—Janelle Banks, Marius Lavoie, Molly MacEwen and Dante Toccacelli—in eight musical numbers designed to showcase the rhythms found in everyday life. Concepts and choreography are crafted jointly by the Rhythm Collective and their curator/director Michelle Banks. Various dance styles (mostly tap and step) appear, as do multiple musical genres, background settings (achieved via sound/light tech Spencer Knudsen’s projections), assorted props and percussion instruments, and a shifting array of tones. 

This music-based, variety-pack approach evokes Walt Disney’s 1940 animated musical anthology film Fantasia, especially in terms of its opening. The film’s first, largely abstract musical segment starts off featuring its orchestral players in shadow, and Rhythm Fusion opens with its initially seated dancers tapping out beats in the dark until the lights come up. 

The anthology format’s success varies here in terms of how effective each piece is, but the climactic stepdance party of “The Barn” is a highlight, and other memorable bits include dances with brooms, frisbee antics and a bit where one dancer is lifted up and her tap shoes used as drums while a couple of wooden stage boxes used for standing or drumming are likewise held aloft and converted into suspended tom-toms. 

All four dancers are impressive, appealing performers. Banks and MacEwen might be the most crisply articulate and rhythmically surefooted tappers, Lavoie is lyrically graceful, and Toccacelli has a charmingly goofy comedic flair. Together, they craft an energetic and diverse sonic spectacle, albeit a fleeting one: at around 30 minutes, Rhythm Fusion is one of the briefest candles in IFF 2023’s chandelier.

Created by and starring Chantalyne Beausoleil and Ryan Sutherland as Jinny and Jack, JJVTTH is a coming-of-age relationship comedy romp in which two troubled neurodivergent teens bond in a support group, become friends, then sabotage it by attempting a romance—this despite hints aplenty that Jack is gay and Jinny’s a lesbian, though each is slow to realize or accept same. Hijinks ensue. 

Heartfelt hijinks, to be sure—both kids are going through some difficult self-discovery here, and they care about each other—but a whimsical tone persists, partly because the teens and their voice-over narrator repeatedly acknowledge that they’re in a stage play and have some recurring meta fun with that.

The whole thing has the feel of a dream (including some literal dream sequences) or a live-action cartoon, with broad acting, oddball props, over-the-top music and sound cues, and lots of big, bold physical movement—some of it actual dance sequences, but also lots of random dancer/gymnast moves just sprinkled into otherwise conventional physical action. 

The surprisingly agile Beausoleil is especially good at injecting bursts of fluidly showy physicality into routine activity, like a live-action version of the oft-cartwheeling Yzma from The Emperor’s New School (2006-2008)—my second Disney animation reference in this live theatre review, yes, but we all have our vices.

With two such skillfully executed, satisfying shows, Havenwood probably has the strongest lineup of any IFF venue this year. JJVTTH in particular is one of 2023’s funniest and most endearing Fringe entries, even winning some well-deserved awards from their peers: Staff Pick of the Fringe and Artists’ Pick of the Fringe. Or as they say in JJVTTH, “Everything always works out for the gays.”