Theatre review: Some highs and lows from these five at the Ottawa Fringe Festival

A scene from Rich Potter's God! The One-Man Show. Photo: Bobby Kintz

The 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Fringe Festival is underway. Getting a handle a massive undertaking like the Fringe requires some agility on the part of a theatre reviewer. ARTSFILE’s Patrick Langston is covering as many bases as he can offering his takes on a dozen or so shows in this year’s lineup. As Langston knows, you can never be really what you are going to find at the Fringe. That’s why it’s fun. Here is his take on five of the shows currently on view. These performances were seen on Saturday. For more information on all Fringe shows, times and places of performances and tickets, please see:

House Show
Two Second Push Up, Ottawa

Staged in an older home on Besserer Street, this multi-performer show is more about your reactions to events than it is about the events themselves. Audience members wander at will though six rooms, including the bathroom, where performers enact various scenarios. In the kitchen, a couple argue over whether they should live together. In the front room, another pair work obsessively on crossword puzzles. Upstairs, a woman leans over her balcony railing to argue with a stranger on the sidewalk below who used to live in her home and wants to retrieve something he left behind. The conversations are frequently banal, the actions sometimes with no apparent cause, but, at least initially, there’s something intriguing about it all and your own voyeuristic response – kind of like listening as the neighbours argue over nothing. However, the fascination fades and at the end you’re not left with much beyond the experience of having dipped your toe into others’ lives.

Sparks Street Ballad: A Canadian Tale of Thomas D’Arcy McGee
Fiddleheads Musical Theatre, Chelsea, Que.

Sure, family and friends were abundant in Saturday’s audience, but this celebration of inclusion and community, the importance of the arts, and one man’s generous vision of Canadian Confederation merits applause no matter who’s watching. Written by Cynthia Sugars, the show is set in Mrs. Trotter’s Ottawa boarding house, where Thomas D’Arcy McGee has taken up residence to craft his vision of Canada and where a spirited group of young fiddlers practice weekly. McGee and the musicians initially clash but soon forge a bond rooted in decency, a desire to learn from each other and a love of fiddle music (the show includes tasty renditions of Ottawa Valley, French Canadian and other tunes). The script is occasionally too expository for its own good, but the show remains fine family fare, with the impending assassination of McGee in 1868 adding a bit of necessary darkness to the good-natured proceedings.

Blind to Happiness
Tim C. Murphy, Toronto

“We make decisions based on how happy we think we’ll be,” observes one of the characters in Tim C. Murphy’s economical solo show about our relentless pursuit of happiness. It is, of course, a futile pursuit when happiness, or at least as much of it as we can expect in a fractured world, is at our doorstep all the time. Murphy explores the conundrum of the much-sought-after state from multiple perspectives. There’s the nerdy, mostly buoyant guy who’s been washing dishes in a restaurant for the past five years and would like to be, but never is, an assistant cook, the boyfriend of a pretty server, and a college graduate. There’s his PhD-bound pal who lectures on positive thinking but can’t hang on to his needy girlfriend. Another buddy, Bliss, is a wannabe poet. No one actually advances very far down the road to contentment, but Murphy makes them all so human that you happily go along for the ride.

God! The One-Man Show
Rich Potter, Greenbelt, U.S.

A hit and miss effort, Rich Potter’s show is about a stumblebum God who keeps procrastinating on creating the universe by complaining instead about his lot in life, juggling lightning bolts and doing a magic routine, throwing in bits of audience participation and groaner jokes along the way. Some of it is sharp and funny, and some simply misses the mark. On Saturday, Potter seemed off-kilter, frequently muffing his lines and trying too hard for an audience response. There is a serious side to this satiric show: at one point, God makes a strong case for taking care of the planet and elsewhere pillories the selfishness of humans who besiege him with requests for favours (“Just once, I wish someone would make me a sandwich”). In the end, this show, unlike God, won’t prove immortal.

The Dolls’ House
Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre, Ottawa

If you’re a doll and see one of your kind named Marchpane in the distance, you’d best gather your family and head the other way. That golden-haired beauty spells disaster for you all, at least if your surname is Plantaganet. That’s the upshot of this gentle show, which is adapted from Rumer Godden’s children’s story and features John Nolan, Kathy MacLellan and accompanying musician Russell Levia. At times using dolls as puppets and at others becoming the dolls themselves, Nolan and MacLellan track the fate of the Plantaganets, who are delighted when they can trade the shoebox in which they’ve been living for a lovely Victorian dollhouse but are then displaced when the cruel Marchpane appears. The family-friendly show honours innocence, kindness and hope, and, on Saturday, proved as entrancing for the adults as for the children in the audience.

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.