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
> 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.