For the first week of Fringe, I was volunteering at Theatre Aquarius. It was great to meet some of the artists, greet enthusiastic audience members, and see some of the performances. For those I was unable to see, the enthusiastic banter from audiences as they left the theatre said it all. 911, a self-described “whodunit” comedy, had some audience members exclaiming it “felt like a movie!” while others commended the talents of the young actors involved. Love With Leila, a performance I am looking forward to seeing tomorrow (with great anticipation!) leaves audiences in stitches. I have heard rumours of an impromptu audience-dance-party and distribution of personal hygiene products before the performance. Romeo & Juliet: An Escapist Comedy is a modern (and funny!) take on the well-known Shakespeare play. After seeing Bridezilla vs. The Apocalyse at last year’s Fringe, I am excited to see Laura Ellis in this new production. Make Art Theatre has also churned out some impressive pieces in the past so it will be great to see what they do to add humour to the bleak tale of star-crossed lovers .
I was able to attend the other two performances completing the roster at Theatre Aquarius: Life Through Fire and Bootlegger’s Wife. Both are beautiful interpretations of incredibly strong women that thrived in some of the most defining eras of Canadian history. In Life Through Fire, Camilla MacIntosh (Heather Baer) relives painful memories through extended interaction with the ghost of her deceased husband. For Camilla and her husband Henry (Dan Sanderson), the bombing of Dresden was the bittersweet moment that brought them together— Henry is a patient in Camilla’s hospital ward. For Camilla, this interaction blazes in her memory as a tender moment that changed the course of her life. For Henry, the dark secrets of his past resurface in an homage to the bombings that destroys the life the couple later builds together in Kitchener—what he does is heartbreaking and serves as an unexpected revelation for the audience.
Set of Life Through Fire
Baer demands attentive silence from the audience as she transforms the small studio space into her personal place of reflection. A handful of props combined with emotive acting appropriately serve the challenging script. While Baer’s interior monologues are the foundation of the show, Sanderson’s depiction of Henry gives depth and dimension to the supporting character. Baer’s solo interactions with an imaginary-Henry conceive him as angry and impatient—Sanderson’s earnestness stirs empathy for the pain he has gone through.
The reveal of Camilla’s most painful memory—what Henry does to destroy their family—was underwhelming on stage and did not stir as much emotion as was probably intended. A floor spotlight and red gobo characterized the reveal but did not support the intensity of the scene. The choice of technique was understandable under the perceived constraints of the small performance space. Fortunately, Baer and Sanderson give performances that, in and of themselves, carry the heavy material of the script with reverence and authenticity.
Paying homage to another strong woman in unusual and painful circumstances, Bootlegger’s Wife delivers a particularly enthralling depiction of Bessie Starkman (Victoria Murdoch)—the common-law wife of rumrunner Rocco Perri (voiced by Luis Fernandes). As conceiver, creator, and performer, Victoria Murdoch creates complexity out of a figure from the pages of history. It seems that Bessie Starkman had quite the life: elegant parties, high-end shopping sprees, bootlegging, infidelity, and murder. Murdoch’s portrayal is a unique reminder of how the devastating highs and lows of being in love never really change.
Happening Hamilton with Victoria Murdoch of Bootlegger’s Wife
Bootlegger’s Wife helpfully fills in the historical details of the performance with well-placed audio clips. A radio announcer provides accurate dates and general plot points that give structure to the more abstract interior monologues that Murdoch delivers. The depiction of Starkman’s husband Rocco is also contained in voice-over interactions with Murdoch on stage. In this way, Rocco is rather static as a character and does not seem to develop beyond being charming, aggressive, and stereotypically-Italian-American.
Given Murdoch is the sole performer with a script full of descriptive material, the elements of mise-en-scene and sound had to fill in a lot of blanks for the audience. For example, Murdoch’s costume changes throughout the performance accurately correspond to her growth as a character from a simple girl in a modest dress to a heavenly vision in a white nightgown. Similarly, lighting changes signify the majority of the transitions and are perfectly placed— Starkman’s confessions in court are appropriately top-lit to cast menacing shadows. The use of music during the performance thoughtfully complements the story rather than only signifying the time period to the audience. For example, at a low-point in Starkman’s life, as she orders the murder of her husband’s mistress, Billie Holiday’s “Tain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do” plays in the background. For the man she loves, Starkman is willing to do anything—and it “tain’t” no one else’s concern what that might be.
While lighting serves to signify some of the transitions during the performance, the remaining transitions are blunt as Murdoch weaves in-and-out from behind an on-stage partition. Some transitions are not marked with either signifier and it is confusing when Starkman is suddenly in a new setting speaking to new characters. A uniform transition choice, or even a motif to join differing transitions, would have served the story well. Overall, Murdoch gives an honest and versatile performance and audiences will enjoy dabbling into a neat bit of Southern Ontarian history.
There is still plenty of time to see many of the impressive performances Fringe is offering this year. All shows at Theatre Aquarius (as well as most shows at other venues) continue into this upcoming weekend. Visit the Hamilton Fringe website for detailed show schedules and synopses.
Make sure to let us know which shows you have seen so far, or which ones you are looking forward to!