Five times one

Island Fringe Festival 2022 (solo shows)

Review | by Sean McQuaid

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Various venues, Charlottetown, PEI – July 28-30, 2022

With a random drawing determining which applicants enter the Island Fringe Festival (IFF), there’s always an element of chance in terms of what the IFF lineup looks like. Five of this year’s nine productions are one-person shows, ranging from basic stand-up comedy to darker, stranger fare. 

Standard standup includes It’s Going to Be OK (PEI comedian Shawn Hogan) and Up Until Now (Vancouver, BC comic Jeremiah Ukponrefe), both in the Dali Café at the Arts Hotel. It’s an attractive, comfortably air-conditioned venue, though the activity that comes along with a restaurant/bar/hotel space on a busy downtown street does create distractions, notably some aggressively loud unrelated background music. 

The more experienced Hogan mostly rolls with this, while Ukponrefe seems uneasy. Hogan also has meatier material built around moving back home to PEI from Toronto during a pandemic. There’s a lot of comedy specific to that experience or to PEI life in general that helps make his set coherent and distinctive, and Hogan has the timing and confidence to make the most of his jokes and stories. 

Ukponrefe’s rambling set, on the other hand, feels like a disjointed string of oft-generic gags. He seemed daunted by the small, largely listless crowd on opening night, taking jabs at himself (“I shouldn’t be doing standup, clearly”), and too often digressing into largely fruitless audience interactions. That might be just an off night—a few of his jokes weren’t bad and he has an appealing stage presence when he’s not actively undermining it. More measured, deliberate pacing and a less self-abusive approach might help. 

Toronto-based, UK-born comic Jimmy Hogg: the Potato King performing at DownStreet Dance Studio has no pacing problems. Manic, machine-gun velocity is clearly his default setting; but this is a comedian built for speed, fast and funny and fearless and generating more jokes per second than any other IFF act in 2022. Even better, he’s capable of shifting gears into slower delivery and a softer tone when his material needs it, making the more emotional beats of his acerbically clever set really pop.

We wade into deeper, darker waters with Idealistic, written and performed by Steven Andrews of Alberta and directed by Luke Diehl at Havenwood Dance Studio; and Little Miss Sunshine: I Tried to Kill Myself, Spent a Week in the Psych Ward, and My Boyfriend Left Me: A Memoir, written and performed by Hannah McGaughey of PEI at the Beaconsfield Carriage House. Both are thoughtful, funny, intermittently self-loathing self portraits of smart, creative, disillusioned people trying to make sense of their lives via art; and by a weird coincidence, these performers share some day job DNA: Andrews is a professional nurse and McGaughey is a nursing student. 

Idealistic is the most technically ambitious of these IFF solo shows, with shifting lighting and sound cues giving the piece a broader visual and sonic palette; and like Hogan, Andrews engages his audience and riffs on distractions (few and minor since Havenwood is among the best of IFF 2022’s staging venues). He talks about how his early dreams of glamour and glory gave way to a more numbingly mundane existence, even questioning whether he should be alive; but he ultimately finds meaning in everyday life, in his work and the people around him. Because nothing matters, everything matters.

More starkly existential, Little Miss Sunshine (whose full title doubles as a partial plot summary) is infinitely darker yet somehow funnier, working as well as it does largely because of the counterintuitive stage presence of the pixie-like McGaughey, whose radiantly cheerful smile and perky tone seldom waver even when she’s saying achingly sad, disarmingly vulgar or shockingly horrific things about sexual abuse, mental illness, suicide and more. It’s a honey-dipped sour candy of a black comedy memoir dishing up food for thought with a surprisingly generous serving of laughs. 

Sean McQuaid