Blindness: To Laugh or Not to Laugh

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A review by Cindy Lapeña

I was able to catch a performance of Blindness: A Dark Comedy, a play by Mariève MacGregor, one of several performances in this year’s Charlottetown Fringe Festival. For those who are not familiar with the Fringe Festival, it is a frenzied weekend of one-act plays and one-person shows that have audiences running all over the downtown area with barely 20 minutes in between performances to get to the next venue. Or you can get a schedule ahead of the weekend and plan your 4 days so that you can leisurely stroll to the ones you want to see beginning at 5 p.m. and straggling home around 11 or midnight. Each show is staged at different times on each day of the festival, so it’s quite possible to catch all of them within the earlier hours of the evening. More risqué topics, however, are restricted to much later hours. All performances are free entrance with donations recommended.

Ba2015-08-06 18.07.06ck to the play. Blindness is a biographical piece based on the playwright’s actual experience of blindness from an unusual condition whereby the body produces too much blood, causing it to leak into the retina, which prevents a person from seeing. There was humour, no doubt, as the dialogue made light of a variety of situations encountered by blind people and how others can be oblivious to it or not know how to deal with it. More than just humour, though, the play was extremely enlightening in that it explained a great deal about the condition and the situation from first-hand experience. Something like Helen Keller’s autobiographical stories, but with fun. I have to admit that, while I did find the humour funny and the monologues informative, it was an awkward kind of funny–which was the general feeling I also got from the audience, who seemed unsure whether to laugh or not at times. It’s pretty much like when we make jokes about disabilities, race, and cultures. Political correctness and politeness keeps us from making jokes that might be seen as offensive especially if we aren’t the ones with the condition/race/culture. It’s okay for the Irish to make fun of the Irish, but if anyone else does it, it becomes offensive. In that vein, it might have been perfectly all right for the playwright to make light of her condition, but I thought the audience was not too sure if it was all right for them to laugh at her situation. I guess that’s where the dark comedy part comes in.

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As for the skill levels, one has to remember that the Fringe Festival is just so called because the works are by budding artists, novices, or amateurs if you will. The acting was decent, not bad for a troupe that was put together in a few short weeks. However, I could not get a feeling of passion or conviction from the troupe as a whole. I think the funniest characters were those interpreted by Andrea Filion, until she dove into a monologue. The problem with performing in an open space, is that the space drowns the characters. Even if I was sitting in the first row, I could not feel enough tension holding the ensemble together, nor was there enough projection, so that the acting was not big enough to magnetize the audience. I have to say that Ellen Carol‘s skill at hoops is impressive, considering she does it while delivering one of her monologues as the main character, Emma;  I do wonder if that is something the playwright did as well, although it might have been mentioned during the monologue. Even then, the point of using hoops was completely lost on me. Was it symbolic, perhaps, of her having to jump through symbolic hoops to get through her condition?

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The fact that the main character had three characters playing her psyche, was, I think, not exploited enough. The psyches could be a more powerful vehicle for the comedy. I believe their presence and lines should have been more closely integrated with the main character, instead of being relegated to passively watching her in the background most of the time. There was also quite a bit of monologue, which was really explaining details of procedures or the affliction, which tended to drag. It is a prolixity that could have been avoided by involving the psyche more. Don’t get me wrong, but unless a monologue is as powerful as Hamlet’s delivered as engagingly as Kenneth Branagh would, then don’t do the monologue. Those monologues could have been improved by breaking up the information into bits of dialogue involving the psyche so that they sounded less like lectures and more like a person struggling with coping with her fears and situation.

I have to say that one of the most brilliant choices was in the original music. To set everything to a jazzy beat provided by 2015-08-06 18.45.21   Justin Amador and Charlotte Large with those couple of folksy gospel song-like choruses by Tony Reddin at the beginning and end really set the tone for the comedy. If the pacing and acting had followed that jazz beat throughout, it would have been a great performance. In fact, I would have liked more music interspersed with the dialogue and a more active part of the performance, particularly since some bars were finished before they could even be appreciated. I’m just imagining involving the musicians in the dialogue by making them parts or voices of the psyche.

I would certainly like to see this play developed more and performed to wider audiences, because of its educational value. Here’s hoping that someone will pick up the sponsorship to bring this play all over PEI and elsewhere.

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*A version of this review is available on onrpei.ca

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Come-All-Ye for the Time of Your Life!

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On its second year run, Come-All-Ye opened to a full house at The Mackenzie Theatre, better known as simply The MackCome-All-Ye brings together a stellar cast of five musicians and one comedian for an evening of live island music and, yes, comedy. The show runs for two full hours, possibly a bit more, since I got home really late and I’m sure I didn’t spend an hour and a half chatting with fellow-reviewer Michelle Pineau or Patrick Ledwell, the show’s sole comedian and co-creator or Acadienne singer Caroline Bernard. If I did, I certainly didn’t notice time fly, and fly it does when you’re having fun! What made the evening more entertaining was that Michelle and I were fortunate enough to be seated at the same table as the legendary veteran music radio host Eric MacEwen (the Director’s Notes misspelled it “MacEwan”) who was featured in videos presented during the show. Come-All-Ye is a multimedia show about PEI and its denizens, told through music, songs and witticisms, backed with photographs, slides and video clips that help the imagination and the mood. Except for the first time John Connolly and Patrick Ledwell used the center mike solo and the pickup was somewhat spotty—more likely because they were too tall for the mike’s position, which was rectified by the next number—the show was technically flawless. I just miss the presence of footlights or at least sidelights that would lessen the shadows on performers’ faces—which is what footlights are for.

Besides the music being an excellent representation of island music, the singers were top-of-the-line professional performers—stars in their own rights who, nonetheless, worked marvellously well together. I completely agree with Director Wade Lynch that there is so much talent on the island and to see it put together so magically is always a treat. Kudos to Music Director and performer John Connolly, who wove together a program of well-chosen songs with the right mix and mood that kept the audience clapping and stomping and singing along alternately with swaying and quietly listening to more introspective numbers.

And then there was Patrick. Most of my encounters with Patrick are of a more serious nature, although he manages to slip in some humour here and there, mostly tongue-in-cheek. The first time I saw him “at work” was when he emceed a mixer for Culture PEI. I thought he was quite the funny man there and his accompanying slides helped to emphasize the humour. This show was the first chance I had to catch him in full glory and all revved up in performance mode, bounding up the stage on his daddy-long-legs and keeping the audience charged and rolling with laughter after every two or three songs in the program. I guess the best thing about being a comedian is that you don’t really have to act and be someone else you really aren’t, and that’s just what Patrick was on stage—completely himself and at home, well, I’d say ninety-eight percent at home on stage—and only because he once in a while tripped over his own tongue or almost said something he didn’t mean to say, or seemed to be trying to recall a thing or two. Still, it was all very natural and very endearing as well as entertaining. Since he was also plugging his new book I Am An Islander, I’ll help him along and say that if the jokes in the book are as funny as the jokes he told in the show, I’m definitely buying that book and hoping he’ll sign it for me someday.

Kidding aside, Patrick Ledwell’s spiels explored various aspects of PEI, from history to geography, Charlottetown, the Acadian influence, the pros and cons of living on PEI, the Confederation Bridge and all the peculiarities of the typical islander, along with the unavoidable gibe at government. But only, in his words, “about what I know.” His penultimate spiel was a recitation of the poem “John of the Island” by his poet father Frank Ledwell, which pretty much summarized what PEI is all about. Without doubt, Come-All-Ye is the best and most entertaining way to learn as much as possible about this gentle island and its islanders. It is music and humour that will be appreciated by everyone, whether you are from here or away, as islanders would say. To quote my new friend Eric MacEwen, “it was a beautifully inventive celebratory show.” And to that, with a little intake of breath, I say “Amen!”

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So Glad for the Plaids

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by Cindy Lapeña

                  Once again, director Catherine O’Brien delivers an outstanding production of a show that can only be one of the most entertaining trips down memory lane in Forever Plaid. In tandem with musical director Patrick Burwell, who cameo-ed as the “pianist that came with the room” and requires a union “smoke” break every hour or so, O’Brien has brought together an astounding quartet of male actors to deliver standards from the 50s with the same hip, hurray, and huzzah of the “guy groups” of the 50s, reminding us of the clean cut and harmless ivy league look that our parents or grandparents preferred.

Rather than being a play, however, this performance is really a musical revue with a bit of talking between the 29 songs, during which the audience learns bits and pieces of the quartet’s lives before their fatal accident. The humour sometimes borders on the hilarious, picking up more as the show goes on, while the reminiscing and sentimentality are very well handled and never quite become maudlin.

The four cast members, while very youthful, bring an impressive wealth of stage experience to the Harbourfront Theatre. More than that, they bring amazing voices that blend in perfect harmony punctuated by originally funny choreography that highlights the comicality of missteps and forgotten steps that were most certainly practiced but were delivered with natural spontaneity.

Mark Allan, performing in PEI for the first time, plays Frankie, who seems to be the leader and the main motivator of the quartet, and sings in a beautifully clear tenor. Since I first came to PEI and began watching performances, I have watched Ian Cheverie mature as an actor and a singer and as Jinx, his baritone/tenor voice can be soft and sweet or powerful and belting. Nathan Carroll is another borrowed talent, whose energy and expressiveness stand out in the character of Sparky. I must say his stage antics and tenor remind me of another excellent actor who is a friend of mine, and it almost felt like I was watching my friend when I was watching Nathan. Last, but not the least, Sam Plett is also a visitor to the PEI stage who will always be welcome with his amazing baritone/bass voice, in the role of Smudge, who could very well be dyslexic. Besides being a magnificent singing quartet, each of the players brought other curious talents to the stage—from juggling balls to playing a mouth organ, to playing the piano. Needless to say, each song is an act in itself and extremely entertaining. Too bad that some of the wit and humour in the dialogue and stage business was lost on the audience. My favourite number? The Ed Sullivan show in 3 ½ minutes, because of the skill, perfect timing, energy, and enthusiasm it was performed with.

The only thing that might have helped create better focus was, perhaps, to reduce the size of the stage a tad bit—possibly drawing the curtains in up to where the legs ended so that it would seem like a more intimate set, especially when the quartet separated into different corners of the stage, preventing the viewer from seeing all the actors at the same time. Nonetheless, the majority of numbers did make the use of most of the stage, and the lighting helped concentrate the audience’s focus on the actors.

It’s too bad that the show doesn’t draw a full house every performance, because it is the type of show that would be great fun with a larger audience. Still, I would definitely see this show with this particular cast again and again because their music will never get tiring!

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