Island Fringe Festival entries often go small, partly for reasons of logistics like financing and travel. This means many shows featuring one or two performers, often in formats that aren’t quite conventional plays: storytelling, music, dance, magic, stand-up comedy.
This year’s all-local IFF slate, however, includes two proper theatrical plays featuring ensemble casts of four or more actors: darkly funny dramedy Deenie’s Exit, and oddball absurdist comedy Playground. Both are clever, funny entries, though the former is comparatively serious and grounded while the latter is a more whimsical confection.
Written by Louise Burley, directed by Francis Bird & Sharlene MacLean (“with special thanks to Jan Rudd” according to the credits), stage managed by Lorna McMaster & Sarah Compton and staged at the Haviland Club, Deenie’s Exit stars PEI theatre icon Barbara Rhodenizer as decrepit and depressed Deenie, a seniors home resident who’s contemplating suicide and trying to manipulate her younger friend Max (played by Robbin Ward) into helping her do it.
When Deenie’s obnoxiously clueless son Peter (Gordon Cobb) gets some inkling of what’s going on, he mistakenly assumes Max is trying to pressure his mother into an early grave in hopes of inheriting her money, pitting son against surrogate son while Deenie’s good-hearted caretaker Ruby (Jessica Gauthier) tries to keep the peace.
Cobb and Gauthier also appear in flashback sequences as Deenie’s late husband and a younger Deenie, respectively. These romantic idylls dial up the poignancy of Deenie’s present-day plight, also making her situation more relatable for the widest possible audience, reminding us she wasn’t always the bitter, broken woman we see today.
Speaking of the widest possible audience, Deenie’s Exit seemed to be IFF’s belle of the ball this year, with big buzz and more sell-outs than any other show. Rhodenizer’s deft take on the wistfully comedic title role is the main draw, a performance full of sadness, wit and dignity. Ward’s and Cobb’s work feels less real at times, occasionally drifting into mugging, but they’re often funny and Ward sells the quieter moments well. Gauthier is charming as Ruby, thanks partly to her sweet singing voice.
The script’s comedy skews a bit broad in spots and some of its resolutions feel a tad pat, but overall it’s a smart, frank yet hopeful take on a dark subject. Cyril Armstrong supplies a detailed set, but execution of the show’s light and sound cues seems a bit abrupt and occasionally erratic, and relatively close-quarters audience seating makes it feel like the least pandemic-compatible of this year’s shows.
Staged in an actual playground at Hillsborough Square Park, Playground (written/produced by Malcolm Murray, directed by Jay Gallant and stage managed by Kim Johnston) is more reassuringly pandemic-friendly with its outdoor venue. Murray’s fun absurdist romp stars a winningly whimsical Amy Lynn as Lucy, who’s come to a playground seeking playmates but finds only bizarre kooks with stubbornly un-playful agendas.
Variously isolationist, obsessive-compulsive, hypercompetitive, insular and/or fanatical, the kooks are played adroitly by local improv veterans MaryAnne Fitzpatrick, Sophie Jane MacInnis, Cameron Bennett MacDonald, Noah Nazim and Graham Putnam. Fitzpatrick’s projection isn’t always optimal, but the quirky quintet does otherwise fine work here, equal parts funny and unsettling.
Nazim’s intense, caustic yet haunted merry-go-round fancier is both fascinating and funny, as are Putnam’s brooding, smug teeter-totter totalitarian, MacInnis’s sourly self-obsessed swing set hog and MacDonald’s crazed, twitchy slide aficionado. Lynn’s playful, childlike Lucy is a great foil for all of them, holding it all together.
There’s no real plot, but it’s a fun, smart series of dialogues, with more laughs per minute than any other IFF 2021 show. The park’s actual playground lacks most of the specific equipment referenced in the script, so the cast compensates via pantomime (the Putnam-Lynn duo’s teeter-totter work is especially great); but we do get the fun foreshadowing of MacDonald lurking in an upstage slide for ages before moving to a downstage slide for his climactic rant, a recreational Chekhov’s gun with MacDonald as the comedic bullet. It’s not quite the “romp and frolic” Lucy is looking for, but it’s fun to watch.