Portrayal of Josephine Baker a must-see at this year’s Fringe

Tymesha Harris performs Josephine Baker, Photo: Roberto Gonzalez

Josephine, a burlesque cabaret dream play
Dynamite Lunchbox Entertainment, Orlando, U.S.A.

Three days into the festival and Josephine is already packing the house. Little wonder: like her subject — 20th-century performer, activist and gourmand of life Josephine Baker -—Tymisha Harris’s portrayal is intelligent, textured and immensely entertaining.

Baker is considered the first African-American superstar, even though she spent most of her adult life in Paris, not her native America where racism was — some would say still is – rampant. A woman who never turned down a chance to enrich her life, Baker sang, danced and acted, married multiple times and had no objection to extramarital escapades, adopted a dozen children, worked for the French Resistance during the Second World War and rallied against segregation when she returned, briefly, to her native country.

“I have said ‘Yes’ to too many things,” Baker tells us in this show. You know, even as she’s saying it, that there was no such thing as “too many” in her life.

Harris captures all this and more in her generous, often very funny performance. The stage loved Baker and it loves Harris, who can switch in a trice from Cab Coloway’s 1931 jazz tune Minnie the Moocher to Strange Fruit, the skin-tingling song made famous by Billie Holiday about lynchings of African-Americans, to an anthemic version of Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’.

A larger production than we’re used to seeing at the Fringe – there’s a set and several costume changes – this original show by Harris and other writers is directed Michael Marinaccio. It’s a remarkable must-see that’s on its way to being the festival’s highlight.

Crowning Monkey, Ottawa

Who knew Ottawa needed a colonic intervention because we’re lugging around so much karmic baggage in our nether regions? Good thing sproingy-haired therapist Susan, exuberant as all get-out and sporting a killer bathrobe and unicorn slippers, is here to dispense her dime-store magic, harebrained colonic solutions and general flakiness.

Susan is Rachelle Elie, premiering her new and highly likeable creation, MAL. It’s a clown show, of course, that being Elie’s preferred route into illuminating the human condition. In 2018, that condition is messed up – hence MAL – and clearly in more need than ever of Susan’s earnest and monumentally chaotic approach to her profession.

Along for the psychic journey is JOE: The Perfect Man, an Elie creation from an earlier show, who makes his appearance with a costume change. He’s Susan’s boyfriend and, in his own perpetually irritable way, as intense as his beau.

Elie plays with the concept of love  – what is it? where do we find it? – throughout the show, but the fact that JOE is cranky despite all Susan’s love and that Susan is so unfocused despite her repeated demands that the audience pay attention to what she says suggests that there’s really no cure at all to being human. 

Elie struggled with some of her of props at Saturday’s opener, proof that chaos comes to even the best-rehearsed clown. No wonder we ordinary folks are so in need of therapy. 

Daters Gonna Date
Good Morning Apocalypse, Midland/Penetanguishene, Ontario

Tightly scripted and well-acted, this four-person sketch comedy show explores dating in all its guises, from a night out with your partner to an online-arranged hook up.

Some skits, such as one involving a married couple who just want a little peace and quiet, are true-to-life.

Others, including one where a young woman blithely accepts the fact that her date is a wizard, are as unlikely as actually meeting your perfect mate in this or any other life. Together, they spotlight everything from relationships to the eternal thirst of a vampire whose hobby is breeding chocolate Labradors.

Some skits are underdeveloped and lame, while others are protracted, inventive and very funny, including a blind date where the guy turns out to be a mime and the entire dinner happens without actually happening at all.

If life is fundamentally ridiculous, sketch comedy like this – or at least most of this – is a welcome celebration of the ridiculousness instead of trying to control it all the time. 

Staying Alive
Awe! Theatre, Toronto

Comedian and recreation therapist Janice Israeloff takes her title from the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, but her show – basically a motivational talk – is unlikely to leave you dancing in the aisles.

Israeloff’s message is that your sunset years needn’t be about just slipping into dementia, isolation and despair. Recounting stories of old, institutionalized people she’s helped recover some of their faculties through song, attention and basic humanity, she employs a peppy presentation style to urge us to keep learning, to take chances, to dress the way we please.

At one point, Dylan Thomas takes a special hit for having the effrontery to counsel raging against the dying of the light when, as a callow 39-year-old, he died without knowing anything of age or, apparently, the preferred, calm acceptance of death. 

Israeloff is well-meaning, but her show, complete with PowerPoint-style graphs and photos of elderly athletes, is awkward, hectoring and, despite her claim to be a comedian, saddled with leaden jokes.

Most of us in Saturday’s audience are edging closer to our own declining years. Some may ultimately decide that staying alive is really not all it’s cracked to be.   

The Ultraviolet Life
Photomirage Productions, Ottawa

Illness, like the impossible standards of body image promoted by those eager to sell stuff, can distance us from who we really are. Think of it as kind of identity crisis rooted in our corporeal selves.

Writer/director Maria-Helena Pacelli explores this crisis in her semi-fantastical, movement-driven show Ultraviolet Light.

Blending snippets of Queen of Hearts-like dialogue with burlesque and a surfeit of sound and light effects, the play draws on 8 cast members to track the story of a young woman undergoing treatment for an unnamed skin problem. Skin being a metaphor for our outer selves, the person the world sees and judges, this patient must learn to face the world in her own skin, not one foisted on her by outsiders.

That learning process brings her face-to-face with other characters, one of them being her hidden self, another appearing to be death. It all gets kind of murky after awhile, a weakness not helped by the script’s stilted elements and Pacelli’s failure to sprinkle her writing with any humour.

Self-determination does triumph in the end, but one wishes it had been reached with less theatricality and more directness.

These shows were reviewed Saturday. The Ottawa Fringe Festival continues until June 24 at various downtown venues. ottawafringe.com, 613-232-6162

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.