Review: Island Fringe Festival 2019

Fringe Femmes

Reviews by Sean McQuaid 

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The Island Fringe Festival’s selection of shows via random drawing tends to produce an eclectic mix, but this year’s slate yielded an interesting pattern: most of the 2019 shows feature all-female casts. The all-gal offerings include Artisanal Intelligence (covered elsewhere in my best-of-Fringe review), The Bessie Carruthers Study Club, How to Be a Lady, That’s Not How It Happened and Worldly Women.

The Bessie Carruthers Study Club by local company Pirate Jenny Productions stars Suzanne Campbell as the titular suffragette with Jennifer King as English composer Ethel Smyth. Both characters were real-life early 20th Century advocates for women’s right to vote, Carruthers having pushed for women’s suffrage here in PEI. The play has Carruthers bringing Smyth to Charlottetown in 1919 as a special guest speaker/performer to advance their cause.

The historic Haviland Club is an ideal venue for this piece, which feels oddly timely now as women’s hard-won political and societal gains face growing hostility in Trump’s America. This production is a playfully thoughtful and amusing look back at women’s earlier struggles, made more appealing by the Campbell/King duo’s fine singing and King’s formidable piano skills. Their slate of period tunes includes several audience sing-along numbers, making the show more immersive and fun.

Speaking of fun, That’s Not How It Happened is full of it. This one-woman show from New York directed by Rachel Eckerling and written/performed by Colleen Hindsley is a personal memoir of a sort often seen at Fringe, but more polished and consistently entertaining than most. Hindsley sings, plays guitar and tells vivid, often hilarious stories about growing up in a big, colourful Irish-American family, as well as her personal struggles and triumphs regarding romance, food, music and an endless quest for self-esteem.

Hindsley’s humour is self-deprecating verging on self-abusive, and her stories take some dark turns; but she’s always a warm, engaging narrator of her own life, and a charming, compelling presence. As Hindsley herself impishly put it when greeting her opening night patrons, “I’m Colleen. I am the show.”

A bigger, weirder show is How to Be a Lady by local troupe Canvas Collective, a set of short vignettes directed and curated by Brittany Banks, stage managed by Samantha Bruce and starring Maggie Andersen, Jessica Burrett, Claire Byrne, Marlene Handrahan, Julia Sauve & Dawn Ward. This newly assembled sextet of widely varying ages, skills and backgrounds teamed with Banks in a month-long brainstorming session built around the word ‘lady,’ exploring its meanings, interpretations, connotations and associations.

The result is a multidisciplinary potpourri of comedic and dramatic bits ranging from pleasant (a guitar-strumming Handrahan’s Que Sera, Sera sing-along) to moving (Burrett’s lyrically anxiety-charged dance number) to laugh-out-loud funny (the cast’s loopily awkward take on female grooming). Some of the pieces are a bit slight and the show’s overall running time is brief, but Banks’ crew pack in a lot of content with an impressive focus on physical movement, whether it’s the liquid grace of dancers like Burrett & Sauve or the comically goofy physical antics of – well, pretty much the whole company, though Burrett & Ward seem especially good at the kind of kooky physicality that gives the show much of its charm.

Similarly physical but more coherent and intense is Worldly Women, “a new genre of dance theatre” staged by Toronto, Ontario company Dance Fashin. Choreographer/creator Emma Bartolomucci stars as Namid, an eagerly curious, impressionable wanderer who visits a series of strange lands and immerses herself in their cultures only to reject them or be rejected by each of them in turn, until she finds her first real emotional connection in a doomed romance with Aki (played by Chenise Mitchell).

Backed by recorded music, Bartolomucci, Mitchell and their co-stars Beatrice Kwan, Julia Molnar & Alex Morris (all playing multiple roles except for Bartolomucci) tell Namid’s story almost entirely through dance, with no set, minimal props and hardly any spoken words. Lucid choreography and powerfully expressive physical acting give it all clarity and potent emotional heft regardless, such that it’s not surprising Worldly Women was voted the audience favourite of this year’s festival.

Read more reviews from this year’s Island Fringe Festival here and here.

reviewSean McQuaid