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Out on The Fringe

The arts in Whistler still sit uncomfortably on the fringe of society. They’re viewed with the same skepticism as a drunk poet arriving uninvited at a formal ball.

The arts in Whistler still sit uncomfortably on the fringe of society. They’re viewed with the same skepticism as a drunk poet arriving uninvited at a formal ball. Men keep a close eye on their wives and lock up their daughters; women sneak coy looks to see whether the madman will trip into the punch bowl or make a pass at their neighbour.

Last week, that drunk poet of art rolled into town in the form of the Pick of the Vancouver Fringe Festival. For the approximately 50 people who attended each of the eight performances, the strange guest proved to be charming, thought-provoking and hugely entertaining – nothing to be afraid of at all.

The first of the three plays showing at Millennium Place on Wednesday, Sept. 18th was Sabotage III. The metaphor of the drunk poet could never be more aptly used than in describing this rollicking work of theatre. Mark Chavez and Shenoah Allen came on stage in pyjamas, their expressions conveying utter lethargy as they painstakingly measured the distance between two chairs on the set. It was the silence pervading the scene that gave it its poignancy. Mime lies at the heart of all good acting and these two players could convey emotion through physical gesture to the uppermost seats of the theatre.

Following the silent prologue, they burst into an energetic off-the-wall song about beer babies, then morphed through a series of characters, from two English brothers named Nigel, to a father and daughter, to European standup comics with jokes that can literally "keel you." What kept the audience laughing for the majority of the 60-minute performance was not only the bizarre characters and situations, but the continual veering off from the expected and the shattering of clichés. In a western gun fight, the dying man has trouble finding the right words for his death scene (they’ve got to be good, after all) until the other gunfighter helps him compose them.

"We work with the rhythm," Chavez told Pique after the show. "It’s perpendicular to where you expect it to go."

Along with these continual unexpected twists, the element of silence is used effectively in many scenes to build suspense. At other times, non-verbal sounds morph briefly into language or, conversely, a conversation descends into squeaks and grunts. Everything is open to sabotage in this show, including language itself.

While a few elements brought in early on, such as Hitler’s ghost and the arrival of babies, are not carried through to the end of the work, the subtle human observations informing the many characters and the brilliant acting made for an entertaining and thought-provoking show.

In Patti Fedy... Be Prepared to Fall In Love, Emilia Symington Fedy has created the clown persona of Patti. Arriving at her dance recital, Patti explores the space between the hilarious and the pathetic. Doing her warmup exercises on the bar, the unlikely dancer wastes no time revealing her insecurities as well as her warm heart to an audience that is pulled gradually, and at times physically, into her world.

"Clown work is dealing with your alter ego," Fedy told Pique in an interview after the performance. "Patti thinks no one will love her. She reveals her biggest fears and passions because the clown soul is fearless."

And in her exploration of love and life, the clown’s soul resonates with the audience because those same fears and passions reside in each of us. Patti’s dance at the end of the show is not only hilarious, but somehow triumphant as she transcends the pathetic and wins us over. (And I’m not just saying that because I was dragged from my seat to be her boyfriend in the scene of her first date).

The final play on Wednesday night was The Disappearance of Janey Jones, written by Jennifer Fawcett, and performed by the playwright with Kathleen Phillips. The meager 20 people in attendance were treated to a very accomplished piece of theatre. Locked in the bathroom at her telemarketing job, Janey has disappeared not only to her work world but to herself in her battle with depression. In the refuge of the bathroom, she confronts all manner of characters, from her mother, father and grandmother, to her pill-pushing doctor and her boss – all of them brought skillfully to life by Kathleen Phillips.

Exploring the dark world of clinical depression, Janey Jones is leavened by humour in the midst of the darkness. The character of the Child Within, for example, is an exuberant kid ever itching to go out and play. When one of Janey’s phone clients pours out her life story, the emotional state of the two characters is revealed through physical gesture as they alternately lean on one another’s back.

In the end, Janey Jones is more than a topical play about depression – it is a look at fear and isolation and the struggle for self expression, issues that are relevant to each one of us.

All four of the Fringe shows (I didn’t see The Canada Show but heard it was hugely entertaining) worked with sparse costumes and set designs. These plays rely instead on solid writing, good acting and innovative ideas.

Whistlerites, however, are still more interested in deep powder than deep thought. The ski movie on the night following the Pick of the Fringe sold out to 240 people for two showings. Exploration of the human condition – love, life, fear and passion – doesn’t stack up in our society next to one more extreme descent film.

Still, the drunk poet of drama gained some new listeners, and by the time he stumbles into town again they’ll have told their friends just how spellbinding he really is.