These performances were reviewed June 16. The Ottawa Fringe Festival continues until June 23 at various downtown venues. Tickets & information: ottawafringe.com, 613-232-6162.
Pinter Stew (Third Wall Theatre, Ottawa)
You leave this show feeling as if you, too, have been chucked into a stew, one whose main ingredients — disconnection, isolation and indefinable menace — are seasoned with a dash of grim humour and ominous politics. James Richardson, John Koensgen and Laura Hall have blended four short Pinter plays and added snippets from a fifth to create a chilling, cogent whole that encapsulates the playwright’s abiding concern with the limits and dangers of language and the use of communication to control rather than to free us. Some segments are very funny, including a debate about linguistics between two thugs engaged in a torture session. In a fascinating addition, Pinter Stew includes the very short The Pres and the Officer, an unknown play until Pinter’s widow Antonia Fraser discovered it in 2017, nine years after Pinter’s death in 2008. The play is about a dim-bulb U.S. president who nukes London, England because “They’ve had it coming to them for a long time.” The play, said Fraser at the time, was an answer to the often-asked question, “What would Harold have thought of Donald Trump?”
Entangled (Quantum Productions, Almonte)
John Koensgen isn’t the only veteran Ottawa actor at this year’s Fringe fest. Paul Rainville, well-known from the Great Canadian Theatre Company and other stages, is also on board, working with David Frisch in the densely scripted Entangled by Almonte playwright Jacob Berkowitz. Rainville plays early 20th-century psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and Frisch is the dying, Nobel prize-winning quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli, Jung’s patient and friend. Each man in his own way has attempted throughout his illustrious career to integrate into a larger whole the disparate elements – be they psychological or physical – that comprise life, and yet the one mystery that actually unites everything – love – has fallen by the wayside until now. Cathy Clark directs this astute and moving show, with fine performances by both men.
52 Pickup (Blackbox Theatre Company, State College, Pennsylvania)
It’s too replete with concepts, and the voiceovers of multiple characters get tiring, but Katie Nixon’s solo show about learning to deal with the world and oneself after being sexually abused as a young teenager is a story that needs telling. She uses intermittent music, including her own, fine voice, and physical theatre to unveil the enduring trauma and her strategies for coping with it. Nixon also subverts expectations with her frequent playfulness, setting up tension between presentation and reality of self while making the show hopeful. Male entitlement, parents’ well-intentioned but misguided efforts, the terrorizing effects of a person who refuses to leave her alone all conspire to trap her in a state that she has to navigate mostly by herself. In the end, though, there’s too much going on here to make a lasting emotional impact on us.
Magnificence (Doctor Keir Co., Shawinigan, Que.)
Because Canadian fringe festivals use a lottery or other system rather than a juried process to select productions, the quality of shows varies from year to year. This is a particularly good edition for the Ottawa festival, as evidenced by yet another strong performance: Keir Cutler in his one-man, storytelling piece, Magnificence. Using as the show’s through line the award-winning memoir of 1930s life in a small Laurentians community written by his late mother, May Cutler, he explores the question of whether humanity was better and more willing to do things for the greater good in an earlier time than in our own. A cowardly parish priest, a trenchant grandmother, a magnificent Indigenous woman, Madame Dey, are all part of Cutler’s generous, insightful monologue. Paul Van Dyck directs.
Becoming Magic Mike: An Action Adventure Comedy (DK Reinemer, Portland, Oregon)
A cop who goes undercover as a male stripper, a frenetic pace and a bevy of characters, high-wire walking by including audience participation (always a risky business): Becoming Magic Mike is classic fringe material. The solo show is also extraordinarily funny and has a strong enough narrative to make sense in a lunatic, crime-novel-spoofing kind of way. Reinemer throws in practically every trope known to the modern detective story, from the stressed-out cop who’s told to get counselling to the tough-talking chief of police and the politically driven commissioner. Sunday’s packed opening night audience was totally onside with the whole thing, and the tangible sense of community in the room was typical of the Ottawa Fringe, where audience members know – or make the effort to get to know – one another. One suspects that performers are doing more than paying lip service when they say how much they enjoy being here.