Magic finds fresh form at the Fringe Fest

A grow­ing num­ber of il­lu­sion­ists are for­go­ing spectacle for in­ti­mate sto­ry­telling and low-tech tricks in an at­mos­phere that lets them get cre­ative

The Georgia Straight - - Fringe Festival - > BY KATH­LEEN OLIVER

> BY JANET SMITH

This year’s Van­cou­ver Fringe Fes­ti­val has an un­prece­dented num­ber of magic shows, but if you’re pic­tur­ing guys in tuxe­dos pulling rab­bits out of a hat—well, you prob­a­bly haven’t seen a magic show for a while. And you def­i­nitely haven’t seen one of the grow­ing num­ber hap­pen­ing at Fringes around Canada and the world.

For Aussie tal­ent Rob­bie T, as for so many other il­lu­sion­ists hit­ting the Fringe cir­cuit, it’s a chance to do some­thing riskier, more per­sonal, and more nar­ra­tive than the cor­po­rate work where they make their bread and but­ter.

“I didn’t want to do my tricks that I do for my day-to-day book­ings and cor­po­rate events. And it’s nice: it’s not as com­mer­cial and I get to be a lit­tle more cre­ative,” says the Perth­based artist over the line from Oz, be­fore board­ing the long flight here to present his largely au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal hit Weirdo. “A lot of ma­gi­cians are kind of awk­ward peo­ple and to a de­gree that’s why they got into magic—it makes them stand out a lit­tle bit if they’re not good at sports or what­ever. And this show is kind of play­ing on that idea.”

Amid the sto­ry­telling, he per­forms some of his low-tech tricks, work­ing in some added el­e­ments you’d never as­so­ci­ate with a reg­u­lar magic act. “I in­cor­po­rate var­i­ous pho­tos of me grow­ing up, just to pro­vide some tex­ture and colour,” he says. “I still have a diary that I kept, and I read from that, and I have a stuffed ele­phant that I’ve had since I was three or four years old.”

Cana­dian ma­gi­cian Keith Brown, who’s a Fringe-cir­cuit vet­eran, also works in some pho­tos—in­clud­ing X-rays—of a trick that went side­ways three years ago, send­ing him to the hos­pi­tal. Let’s just say it in­volves a sewing nee­dle and a stom­ach in­jury, and if you come to see his show Ab­so­lute Magic, you’ll wit­ness him at­tempt­ing it again.

“The trick is great at the Fringe, but not great at a cor­po­rate Christ­mas party where they’re about to start dessert and go­ing, ‘Oh my God! Is he go­ing to kill him­self?’” the artist, who’s been prac­tis­ing magic since he was 13 and works full-time in the field, tells the Straight from Toronto.

The Fringe, it turns out, pro­vides mul­ti­ple ben­e­fits to ma­gi­cians beyond a cre­ative out­let—not the least of which is a vi­able space to per­form out­side of of­fices, con­ven­tion cen­tres, and back­yard birth­day par­ties.

“There aren’t that many magic venues in the world,” Brown ex­plains. “When I saw it [the Fringe], I said, ‘I could fit in here.’ You see open mikes for mu­si­cians and co­me­di­ans—not magic. And magic, in some peo­ple’s eyes, isn’t high art. The Fringe was fi­nally a place where I could say ‘I can fit in here and par­tic­i­pate.’ I think the Fringe cre­ates this very nice op­por­tu­nity where it cre­ates an equal play­ing field.”

An­other ben­e­fit the Fringe of­fers is the chance for au­di­ences to see magic live. Al­though the art form has seen a new wave of in­ter­est, thanks to Net­flix shows like Magic for Hu­mans and Penn & Teller: Fool Us, there’s a special thing that hap­pens when you see it per­formed in in­ti­mate venues like those at the Fringe.

“With TV, there’s al­ways the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, as an au­di­ence mem­ber, that the trick hap­pens be­cause of edit­ing. It’s dif­fer­ent than when you’re face to face with a ma­gi­cian,” Brown says. “The other thing for me is, like, I can’t do magic by my­self; I need your will­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion to in­ter­act with me. I can do my tricks in the mir­ror, but I’m not go­ing to fool my­self.”

Which brings us to the rab­bit in the hat—and any other great-es­cape, body-float­ing spec­ta­cles you as­so­ci­ate with the glitzy Ve­gas magic acts of the past. (As Rob­bie T’s tag line reads: “‘I’ve never heard of you.’—david Cop­per­field”.) Many of the magic shows on of­fer at the Fringe work the power of in­no­vat­ing with small-scale il­lu­sions—in­volv­ing a deck of cards or a bor­rowed cell­phone.

Brown calls it a re­turn to the “re­al­ness and au­then­tic­ity” of magic—“no flash­ing lights and top hats”. “It’s not about mu­sic or fog or big boxes or il­lu­sions you’ve never seen be­fore,” he elab­o­rates. “I would rather stick to the ba­sics of strong magic and strong show­man­ship. I’m happy with just you and me in a room.”

And there, Rob­bie T would seem to heartily agree. “Magic does get a bit of a bad rap and not ev­ery­one is a fan of it. A lot of it is a lit­tle bit cheesy and copy-and-paste,” he tells the Straight. “It’s a bit of a myth that ma­gi­cians don’t share any­thing. They do—i think there are more books on it than any other area of in­ter­est. And with all this stuff flood­ing the mar­ket, it can be dif­fi­cult to make some­thing your own, to put your own flavour and per­son­al­ity in it.

“I’m not do­ing grand il­lu­sions, but stuff that’s more in­ti­mate, a lot of it in­volv­ing the au­di­ence. They trust the show and I try to do it in a way that doesn’t be­lit­tle them or make them feel un­com­fort­able,” he con­tin­ues. “Right to­ward the start of the show, I tell peo­ple I’m a bit of a weirdo—but I think in a way we all are.”

The 10 shows re­viewed be­low are all com­ing to Van­cou­ver from the Vic­to­ria Fringe; the first three are highly rec­om­mended. You should also watch for Fake Ghost Tours, a slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of which ran in Vic­to­ria; word is that it’s hi­lar­i­ous—no sur­prise, given that one of its cre­ators is Shawn O’hara of Field Zool­ogy 101.

FIELD ZOOL­OGY 101 Join Dr. Bradley Q. Goose­berry, grad­u­ate of Fort St. John Com­mu­nity Col­lege and Bar­beque Joint, for a truly en­light­en­ing hour of in­struc­tion. Shawn O’hara is wickedly dead­pan as his car­goshorts-and-til­ley-hat-clad al­ter ego gives a lec­ture loaded with ab­sur­di­ties like “The panda bear is the only bear ca­pa­ble of true ha­tred” and per­sonal anec­dotes, like the one about stalk­ing “a rac­coon I be­lieved had dis­re­spected me”. O’hara’s deep, pro­fes­so­rial voice with its er­ratic pro­nun­ci­a­tion (lis­ten for “pea­cock”), the hi­lar­i­ous il­lus­tra­tions he slips onto his over­head pro­jec­tor, and his ter­rific tim­ing en­hance his well-crafted script, which never stops sur­pris­ing. De­light­ful. At the Re­vue Stage on Septem­ber 6 (6:45 p.m.), 8 (8:15 p.m.), 11 (5:15 p.m.), 13 (10:15 p.m.), 14 (6:45 p.m.), and 16 (noon)

AWK­WARD HUG In this beau­ti­ful, gen­tle solo show, writer-per­former Cory Thib­ert looks back on his 19-year-old self with ten­der­ness and pre­ci­sion. It’s a time of changes: start­ing theatre school, ques­tion­ing his re­la­tion­ship with his girl­friend, and down­siz­ing the fam­ily home. The move be­comes a cat­a­lyst for a re­assess­ment of the things about his par­ents that have al­ways been nor­mal to him but may not ap­pear that way from the out­side; to give away any more de­tails would be to rob you of the plea­sures of this script’s mea­sured rev­e­la­tions. Thib­ert is a skilled and emo­tion­ally hon­est sto­ry­teller, and his writ­ing is care­fully ob­served. “I feel like I was raised by malls,” he re­flects on the land­scape of his Ot­tawa child­hood. Re­call­ing los­ing his vir­gin­ity on the bed­room floor at some­one’s house party, he says, “My feet are against the door and I can feel peo­ple on the other side of the door pinch­ing my toes.” Well-cho­sen de­tails and an un­hur­ried pace cul­mi­nate in a mov­ing con­clu­sion. Bring some­one you love. At the Cultch’s His­toric Theatre on Septem­ber 7 (8:35 p.m.), 8 (10 p.m.), 9 (1:45 p.m.), 12 (9:45 p.m.), 14 (5 p.m.), and 15 (3:45 p.m.)

ROCKO AND NAKOTA: TALES FROM THE LAND Anishi­naabe writer-per­former Josh Langue­doc of­fers an hour of warm and un­pre­ten­tious sto­ry­telling, play­ing Nakota, a 12-year-old boy who’s try­ing to write a su­per­hero story. He idol­izes the soli­tary Wolver­ine, but his grand­fa­ther wants him to learn the value of vul­ner­a­bil­ity and com­mu­nity, em­bod­ied in riv­et­ing In­dige­nous sto­ries of trees, wolves, wa­ter spir­its, and the Raven, wit­tily de­scribed as “trick­ster, shapeshifter, char­ac­ter ac­tor”. Langue­doc has crafted his tales well, and he brings a low-key charm to his per­for­mance. Rec­om­mended for older kids and adults. At the Water­front Theatre on Septem­ber 7 (6:45 p.m.), 8 (3 p.m.), 9 (7:15 p.m.), 11 (5 p.m.), 14 (10:35 p.m.), and 16 (6:30 p.m.)

LA PALABRA EN EL TIEMPO There’s vir­tu­os­ity to burn in this hour of dance, mu­sic, and po­etry. I know next to noth­ing about fla­menco tra­di­tions, but the sen­sual plea­sures of this show are many: Denise Yeo’s danc­ing, by turns sin­u­ous and fe­ro­cious (not to men­tion her ex­quis­ite cos­tumes); the rich voice of poet Garth Martens, and his fleet­ing im­ages of travel to an un­spec­i­fied Latin-amer­i­can lo­ca­tion; the soulful singing of Veron­ica Maguire; and es­pe­cially the mu­sic. Gui­tarist Gareth Owen plays like he has a hun­dred fin­gers, and the foot stomps, hand­claps, and clack­ing cas­tanets of other cast mem­bers en­hance the ex­tra­or­di­nary rhythms of the piece. Let it wash over you. At Stu­dio 16 on Septem­ber 6 (5 p.m.), 9 (6:05 p.m.), 10 (6:50 p.m.), 12 (7:15 p.m.), 15 (9:50 p.m.), and 16 (4:45 p.m.)

THE ADHD PROJECT Car­lyn Rhamey is as open­hearted and gen­er­ous a per­former as you’ll see at the Fringe. Here, she shares her ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing with Adhd—from be­ing bul­lied and shamed as a child to nav­i­gat­ing the bu­reau­cracy of the med­i­cal and ed­u­ca­tional sys­tems as a young adult. Some of the heroes that emerge in this story—be­sides Rhamey’s up­beat out­look—are her fam­ily and school drama classes; we’re lucky that Rhamey found her way into the theatre, and that this show will be go­ing into schools next year, where its pos­i­tive mes­sage can reach younger peo­ple. At the False Creek Gym on Septem­ber 6 (6:30 p.m.), 8 (8:20 p.m.), 12 (5:15 p.m.), 13 (8:25 p.m.), 14 (6:35 p.m.), and 16 (1 p.m.)

AN­GELS & ALIENS Who’s re­spon­si­ble for the mess hu­mans are al­ways mak­ing of our lives: an­gels or aliens? That’s the ex­is­ten­tial ques­tion play­fully ex­plored in Jeff Leard and Sydney Hay­duk’s tight two-han­der. It’s also the ba­sis of a video game that room­mates Jeff and Sydney are play­ing to deal with the awk­ward­ness of hav­ing slept to­gether the night be­fore. The game al­lows for a witty, sped-up per­spec­tive on hu­man his­tory, and Leard and Hay­duk give tight per­for­mances, mak­ing the tran­si­tions be­tween re­al­i­ties seam­less. Once the cen­tral con­ceits are es­tab­lished, though, there’s plenty of zip and tex­ture but few sur­prises. At Stu­dio 1398 on Septem­ber 6 (8:30 p.m.), 8 (1 p.m.), 9 (9:30 p.m.), 11 (5:15 p.m.), 15 (6:30 p.m.), and 16 (3 p.m.)

UNSCRIPTURED Travis Bern­hardt leads the au­di­ence in an im­pro­vised church ser­vice: the ob­ject of wor­ship is de­rived on the spot from au­di­ence sug­ges­tions. There’s a hymn, a ser­mon on scrip­ture, some prayer and rit­ual—how wacky these get will de­pend a lot on the au­di­ence. Bern­hardt is fear­less and quick to ride the as­so­ci­a­tional wave, but per­haps not as far as he could; on the night I saw the show, his im­prov skills were de­cent, but not tran­scen­dent. So Unscriptured is a fun di­ver­sion, but not quite a re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence. At Carousel Theatre on Septem­ber 6 (8 p.m.), 7 (6:15 p.m.), 8 (7:30 p.m.), 9 (1:30 p.m.), 11 (6:15 p.m.), 14 (8 p.m.), 15 (3:15 p.m.), and 16 (1:30 p.m.)

RED BAS­TARD: LIE WITH ME This piece prom­ises more trans­gres­sion than it de­liv­ers. In his Red Bas­tard cos­tume, Eric Davis looks like he has a belly full of tu­mours—or maybe is one. But his per­sona as a growl­ing, snort­ing provo­ca­teur is in too-short sup­ply in this show that ex­plores love’s rules and monogamy’s lim­i­ta­tions. There’s some fun au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion—we are all liars, af­ter all— but for a long chunk in the mid­dle, Davis takes off his red la­tex to en­gage in a repet­i­tive, shape­less lec­ture about how “the stan­dard rules of love” run counter to hu­man na­ture and there­fore com­pel peo­ple to cheat. Davis is of­ten charm­ing and some­times spon­ta­neous, but his point could be made more com­pellingly. At Per­for­mance Works on Septem­ber 8 (5:45 p.m.), 11 (8:35 p.m.), 12 (5 p.m.), 14 (8:25 p.m.), 15 (1 p.m.), and 16 (7:20 p.m.)

5-STEP GUIDE TO BE­ING GER­MAN 2.0 Don’t let the ti­tle fool you: this show won’t make you Ger­man. But if cul­tural stereo­types are your thing, you’ll have lots of fun. Ger­mans: up­tight lovers of or­der, still guilty about the Nazis. Brits: self-cen­tred col­o­niz­ers. Cana­di­ans: po­lite. Standup comic Paco Erhard has lived in sev­eral coun­tries, and he has a ge­nial stage pres­ence and good comic tim­ing, but too much of his ma­te­rial re­lies on these overly fa­mil­iar gen­er­al­iza­tions to be gen­uinely sur­pris­ing. It’s crowd­pleas­ing en­ter­tain­ment that has been pack­ing houses for years, though, and Erhard notes how things have changed in light of the cur­rent U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion: “For once, it’s not us Ger­mans who are the world’s big­gest ass­holes.” At the Water­front Theatre on Septem­ber 6 (6:15 p.m.), 8 (8:15 p.m.), 12 (5 p.m.), 13 (10:40 p.m.), 14 (6:55 p.m.), and 16 (1:15 p.m.)

A BRIEF HIS­TORY OF BEER Given Van­cou­ver’s dy­namic craft-beer scene, this show should have no trou­ble find­ing au­di­ences. If you love beer, this one’s for you. If not, this drink­ing game wrapped in a cheesy sci-fi premise doesn’t have a lot to of­fer. Will Glenn and Tr­ish Parry ham it up as in­ter­ga­lac­tic time trav­ellers on a quest to help the drink be less mis­un­der­stood. There are some in­ter­est­ing his­tory lessons, rang­ing from the female-dom­i­nated arena of beer pro­duc­tion in the an­cient world to the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion– era Lon­don Beer Flood, but if you’re not drink­ing along, the hour will feel long. At Per­for­mance Works on Septem­ber 7 (9:15 p.m.), 8 (2 p.m.), 10 (8:20 p.m.), 13 (6:45 p.m.), 14 (5 p.m.), and 16 (12:15 p.m.) -

eq­uity, and in­clu­sion. “We re­ally want to dive into that and make the Fringe more re­flec­tive of that at ev­ery level,” she stresses.

For now, though, she’s fully im­mersed in the pro­gram­ming at this year’s mas­sive event, a typ­i­cally widerang­ing, wild ar­ray—though she has no­ticed some big themes for 2018. And as ever, she says, they cap­ture how art re­flects so­ci­ety. Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, a clus­ter of shows ex­plore #Metoo is­sues, while an­other few take on Big Brother–type pri­vacy ideas.

But there are also far-flung per­sonal sto­ries and ran­dom jour­neys. Amid all this, Efron has learned the best ad­vice for tack­ling the scores of of­fer­ings: “I en­cour­age peo­ple to trust their gut.”

Still, pressed to choose, she dishes on three buz­zwor­thy shows— one na­tional, one in­ter­na­tional, and one lo­cal.

TALES (At the Water­front Theatre Septem­ber 7 to 9, 11, 14, and 16) “It’s a show from Al­berta with a

ROCKO AND NAKOTA: FROM THE LAND FOR­GET ME NOT—THE WHO­DUN­NIT

(At the Re­vue Stage on Septem­ber 6, 9, 11, 12, 15, and 16) “It’s a mur­der mys­tery set on a de­men­tia ward from the U.K.,” says Efron of the work by comic, slam poet, and psy­chi­atric nurse Rob Gee. “And it’s be­ing so well re­ceived, it’s be­ing used as a train­ing aid for men­tal health.”

POLY QUEER LOVE BALLAD (At the Re­vue Stage Septem­ber 7 to 10, 14, and 16) Of the work per­formed and cre­ated by lo­cal spo­ken-word artists and singers Anais West and Sara Vick­ruck, Efron says: “It’s the lat­est Fringe New Play Prize win­ner, and it’s an edgy new play with slam po­etry. It ex­plores how chal­leng­ing it is to know some­body else’s ex­pe­ri­ences, even when you’re re­ally in­ti­mate with them.”

Clock­wise from left, Josh Langue­doc in Rocko and Nakota; Field Zool­ogy 101’s Shawn O’hara; La Palabra en el Tiempo.

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