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The Watch & Spectacle Puppet Co.
The Playhouse Studio (Venue 3), to July 27

In the beginning ... Asa Nodelman created gothic horror puppet show The Clock in the Lobby for last year's fringe. Inspired by the success of that Best of Fest show -- and by early 20th-century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's references to a mysterious tome called The Necronomicon -- Winnipeg's Nodelman follows that act with this big bang of a Biblical sci-fi chiller.

A cast of 13 marionettes traces the occasionally gory misadventures of over-curious futuristic protagonist Abdolos Hazirinon, whose punishment for reading a forbidden cryptic text is cruel and unusual by any measure. Horribly -- and somewhat gleefully -- disfigured, Abdolos gets a one-way ticket to outer space, but still manages to discover the secrets of all human life on Earth, which he spills in the titular tome. Four puppeteers, accompanied by local musician Erik Larsen's spooky ambient music, help unravel Nodelman's bizarro string theory, which suggests that if a little knowledge is dangerous, a lot is fatal.

The otherworldly marionettes and props are works of genius -- and yes, it's evil genius. However, the visual power of Nodelman's creations is sometimes diluted by excessive showmanship on stage. A trio of primordial beings -- whose appearance gives rise to a truly impressive birth-of-man scene -- wow the crowd with their first water-ballet dance across the stage. By the fourth or fifth pass? Not so much. Given that the mechanics of the show already require a leisurely pace in the storytelling, a little brevity on that score wouldn't hurt. Still, it's hard to complain about getting too much of a good thing.

-- Pat St. Germain


School of Contemporary Dancers (Venue 8), to July 26

Fringe Festival mainstay Erik De Waal brings his larger-than-life self back to Venue 8 with his familiar cast of South African animal puppets and some exciting new fables to share.

In De Waal's first story, Rabbit is crying because a scary creature with a very big voice is hiding in her house. But this isn't just any creature -- this animal claims to eat trees and step on elephants! How ever will Rabbit get her house back when all the other animals of the veldt are too frightened to do anything? And just what kind of creature is that hiding in the house?

The second story concerns not animals, but children. Little Tembhi is left in the care of her older brother. She slips out the back door and loses her doll in the river. She follows the doll right to the edge of the forest where a horrible man (a cannibal who eats children!) is waiting to pop her in a sack! Can Tembhi's brother get her before it's too late? De Waal will tell you -- but only if you promise not to "scream like a baby!"

Always professional, De Waal enchants and engages his audience with his high energy, sense of humour, and genuine love of his craft. The man just knows how to tell a story. Arrive early -- the very first show was almost completely sold out. Great for all kids up to age 10.

-- Wendy Burke


Aspen Comedy Works
Planetarium Auditorium (Venue 10), to July 26

Barry Smith of Colorado returns with a new episode from the colourful life of Barry Smith. It's an amusing piece of autobiography, complete with a slick PowerPoint presentation.

American Squatter tells the story of a teenage Smith, who goes to live with his father in California after his mother is killed in a car accident. Dad is a nagging clean freak, who is seen in actual family video bagging the wrapping as Smith opens a Christmas present.

Smith rebels by taken up skateboarding, dropping LSD and squatting in abandoned London buildings. Smith's hour-long, coming-of-age story wraps with the idea that he and his father are not so different, a conclusion that is only quietly satisfying.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Red River College (Venue 11), to July 27

This occasionally amusing one-hander charts the ups and downs of a 30something Colorado blonde who is desperate to find a man.

Johanna Walker, the show's writer and star, might not put it quite so bluntly, but that's what it comes down to. This being the 21st century, her dating club of choice must be online.

Despite being a free-spirited artist and a gal who is not afraid to get dirt under her fingernails, she can't seem to find Mr. Right. She has been brainwashed by her mother, who cries herself to sleep at the thought of her daughter being alone for the rest of her life.

Walker has an attractive and outdoorsy presence. Her production boasts several clever theatrical devices. She uses classical music as the voice of her mother and a teapot as a kind of romantic oracle.

She also employs a picture frame as a visual metaphor, perhaps of her conscience, but exactly what it signifies is unclear.

The main problem with the 60-minute show, though, is that it treads ground that has been worn to dust by a hundred shows before it.

-- Morley Walker


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Ten Foot Pole Productions
School of Contemporary Dancers (Venue 8), to July 26

Balls is Rob Salerno's theatrical tribute to a close buddy who died of testicular cancer several years ago. He celebrates male testicles with a story about two inseparable boyhood pals who suffer a low blow to their friendship.

The discovery that 19-year-old Paul (played by Salerno) has testicular cancer stuns Bastian, but it does nothing to deter their constant repartee, replete with gallows humour. Bastian (Adam Goldhamer) has a similar health scare but is left to go on by himself to contemplate the nature of masculinity.

What Balls lacks in nuance and subtext is made up for with its heartfelt tone. The image of a saddened Bastian picking up the string-can phone with which he once spoke to Paul as a kid nicely communicates his devastating sense of loss.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Chi Chi Manfred Productions
MTC Backstage at the Mainstage (Venue 1), to July 27

This frothy brew of music and comedy is getting a whole latte love from average Joe fringers, thanks largely to a strong opening number and a hobo who steals the 30-minute show.

The four female cast members -- Katherine Dow, Nikki Duval, Connie Manfredi and Chanty Marostica -- belt out a ballsy rendition of Black Coffee and take it over the top with faux soul-sister shout-outs and a prolonged round of vocal theatrics worthy of Christina Aguilera.

All of the six cast members -- University of Winnipeg theatre students -- get a spotlight song that's at least vaguely in tune with their characters, with varying degrees of success. And each is at the centre of a short scene.

There's a cartoonish villainess who's out to destroy the romantically challenged coffee shop manager (Travis Maclean), a geeky girl who is secretly in love with the hunky latte boy (Tristan Carlucci), and the titular barista who continually drops pop culture references that nobody understands.

The sketches are hit-and-miss, but if a few land off the mark, their short duration is a saving grace.

The one constant in the show, at the fringes of the action, is Phoebe the hobo (Marostica). If the other characters are sugar, she's the cream. A mellow philosopher, the gravel-throated Phoebe is an outsider who knows more about the coffee shop insiders than they know themselves. In a deft performance, she provides sage advice to the characters and narrative commentary to the audience, along with a few slyly funny and profound thoughts about human nature.

--Pat St. Germain


Black Sheep Theatre
Tom Hendry Theatre at the MTC Warehouse (Venue 6), to July 26

Weekly World News (R.I.P.) readers know all about Bat Boy, the half-bat, half-boy discovered in 1992 who made the headlines ever since for all sorts of adventures, from leading police on a high-speed car chase to travelling to outer space. But it's safe to say they've never seen him like this.

The rock opera about his "life" was first staged in Los Angeles in 1997 and now makes its way to Winnipeg courtesy of Ottawa's Black Sheep Theatre. The company gets help from some local talent who only had a week to learn the show, which results in a few bumps along the way.

The plot revolves around the discovery of the Bat Boy in a cave by residents of a small West Virginia town who are convinced the mutant is responsible for the deaths of 23 cows. They want to see the freak of nature dead. The town's veterinarian and his family fall for the strange creature and teach it to speak, dress sharp, do accounting and sing like an angel.

At a lengthy 105-minutes -- and featuring a cast of 12 and a five-member band -- this is one of the most ambitious shows of the Fringe, but it still hadn't found its wings on the second night, as some of the harmonizing and choreography from the chorus was a little off at times. Expect it to get some added bite as the run continues.

--Rob Williams


The Little Opera Company
Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 9), to July 27

WHEN I saw the number of young children in the audience for this 45-minute opera by a six-person cast, I expected a performance marred by squirming, talking and crying. Instead, the tots were quiet and attentive -- a great compliment to this appealing production by the local semi-professional company that puts on chamber operas.

The set, including a castle wall, rose bushes and trees, has a homemade look but does the job just fine. The show opens with a useful educational warmup in which two sopranos give an introduction to opera, singing excerpts from familiar arias that could perhaps be shortened a bit.

The Beauty and the Beast tale, sung in crystal-clear English, moves along at such a clip that it misses a key emotional transition: there's no scene that communicates how love blooms between Beauty and the man-beast who is her keeper. Other minor flaws are that the piano occasionally overpowers the singers, and that some cast members seem to think we won't notice they're wearing sandals with fairy-tale costumes. Some of the singers aren't confident actors.

As the Beast, tenor Martin Duke Wilson strains on some high notes. Micheline Girardin, though, is an entrancing, poised Beauty whose lovely soprano is a treat throughout Vittorio Giannini's accessible opera. Overall, this little show is a charmer, much more beauty than beast.

-- Alison Mayes


Zero-Sum Games
Playhouse Studio (Venue 3), to July 27

'Beth is advertised as Shakespeare's Macbeth as never seen before, but its limp performance is more of a bloody tragedy.

Written by Montreal's Andrea Rosenfield, this hour-long drama follows the recently widowed Elizabeth as she discovers her late husband Harold had a secret life and that his hidden fortune has been bequeathed to another woman. She and her son Andrew embark on a bewilderingly dumb spree of vengeance that is neither gripping or entertaining.

The two-person production seen at the Montreal Fringe Festival was slow and ponderous. The only inspiration in evidence was the use of a mirror to reflect Harold's treacherous double life as well as to allow actors Angela Potvin and Vladimir Cara to carry out conversations with their doubles.

Traditionally, there's a lot of bad luck surrounding the Scottish play and Zero-Sum Games is another unfortunate victim.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Rita Shelton Deverell
Exchange Community Church (Venue 12), to July 26

Former Winnipegger and Order of Canada recipient Rita Shelton Deverell (Smoked Glass Ceiling, 2005) brings another socially minded one-woman show to this year's festival.

The solo performer, who now resides in Toronto, delivers a politically inspired collage of events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Without a glitch, Deverell shapes herself from one Brechtian character to the next, making it abundantly clear that the tragedies of the human spirit transcend age, gender and skin tone.

And when an unlikely friendship develops between an elderly gentleman and a materialistic young woman from Canada, a whole other play unfolds that sheepishly points the finger at less publicized tragedies back home.

Intelligent and thought-provoking, Deverell, under the keen eye of local director Cairn Moore, brings a touch of old Baptist charm to her silky smooth storytelling that is unapologetically seeped in spirited metaphor.

-- Demetra Hajidiacos


The Probable Cast
MTC Up the Alley (Venue 2), to July 26

What we have here is a fine one-hour show that's well-known to experienced Fringers, but hasn't hit its stride this year, at least yet.

This time-honoured Fringe tradition featured a seasoned all-male improv ensemble on its opening night, and included outlandish plot points for which the show's famous, like a vigilante environmentalist gone wild planting trees in suburban Winnipeg and a blind dentist who calls himself the Tooth Whisperer.

Fielding suggestions from the audience, the improv players built comedy that often entertained, but sometimes veered into the incomprehensible.

Some of the impersonations opening night were hysterical -- like a swaggering cop trying to impress two terrified Charleswood residents who found their no-flyers mailbox stuffed with papers.

Others fell flat, like a sketch that involved two heavily accented men trying to grow giant worms. Still, the show's a very worthwhile see that may heat up as the fringe goes on.

-- Gabrielle Giroday


Theatre Anywhere
Ragpickers Theatre (Venue 13), to July 27

Short, sharp and straight to the point, Yvette Nolan's 1990 fringe drama gets a timely remount in the wake of B.C. serial killer Robert Picton's first trial.

The powerful 35-minute production from Theatre Anywhere director Eileen Longfield (So Far From Eden, 2007; Montana, 2006) is a snapshot of a Winnipeg university student who, following a fight with her boyfriend, makes a fatal decision to accept a ride from a stranger.

Blond suburbanite Angela (Stephanie Moroz) knows there's a killer on the loose, but he preys on prostitutes and most of his victims are aboriginal women on the fringes of society. She should be safe, right? But death puts Angela in the same league with the killer's past victims. The media suggest she was a hooker, which seems to imply that she didn't have the same right to life as women in the social mainstream.

A friend visits a local newspaper columnist in an effort to restore Angela's reputation, only to be asked how many men Angela had in her life. And Angela's grieving mother (Cheryl Soluk) wonders if the killer (Dan Gilmour) would have been caught sooner if police were looking for "a man who killed women instead of a man who killed hookers."

Toronto-based Nolan, who was on the original Winnipeg fringe committee in 1988, wasn't prescient when she wrote Blade. But isn't it a sad commentary that the issues she raised almost two decades ago are still relevant today? Discuss.

-- Pat St. Germain


Jump the Shark Productions
Planetarium Theatre (Venue 10), to July 27

Even if you haven't met Yukon comic Anthony Trombetta before, you know him. Trombetta is that guy that just winds up at your table at the King's Head, nursing a pint and complaining about everything.

Unfortunately, that's all this show is, and a pub funny-guy does not a comic make. Trombetta is very likable. You want to enjoy his mish-mash of casual standup and skits, but the material just isn't there. His set-ups show promise, but he scuttles them with toothless punchlines; he promises controversy, but shies away from actually eviscerating his targets.

For instance? The Fringe program says that Trombetta will "put the boots" to the CBC. Sure, if a half dozen repetitions of "I hate the f------ CBC" followed by a stilted impression of Stuart McLean counts as verbal curb-stomping.

His best moments are actually his least controversial -- excuse me, "controversial"-- like a cute routine on comic books. But the uncomfortably overdone bits on oral sex and the just-not-funny closing act with the Messiah leave you wishing Trombetta wouldn't try so hard.

-- Melissa Martin


3 Sticks
MTC Up the Alley (Venue 2), to July 26

Keira McDonald, a 30-ish singer and actor from Seattle, attempts a one-woman musical based on, of all things, the real-life news story about the notorious American woman astronaut-turned-nut case.

Unfortunately, the effort suffers from a failure to launch.

McDonald, who resembles Sissy Spacek crossed with Reese Witherspoon, wears an orange prison suit and impersonates Lisa Nowak, who was charged in February 2007 with attempting to kidnap the girlfriend of astronaut William Oefelein.

It was a bizarre tabloid-style story, filled with kinky sexual undercurrents, and McDonald wants to explore Nowak's delusional motives.

To accompany her confusing monologue, constructed largely from on-the-record transcripts, she employs tape recordings of other voices, glossy photos of the principals, and a few show tunes with goofy lyrics. But she assumes a level of familiarity with the details of the story that most in the audience will not have. What, pray tell, is going on?

As David Bowie might have sung: "Ground control to Major Tom, you are lost in space."

--Morley Walker


The B-Girlz
MTC Backstage at the Mainstage (Venue 1), to July 26

This broad comedy and musical revue delivers a full bawdy blow from the multimedia opening -- a short film spoofing celebrity bad girls -- to the super-sized encore.

Toronto glitter queens Barbie-Q, Ivana K and Hard Kora wrap the show in a loose theme -- fame and rehab -- taking Dame Edna-style potshots at everyone from Britney Spears to Celine Dion and even sainted songbird Rita MacNeil. They spare no one, least of all each other.

When slutty Ivana K croons, "I wanna live forever," Hard Kora snipes, "It looks like you already have." And there are racy references aplenty to Ivana's adventurous sex life.

There's also a heavy dose of Canadian content that includes an audience-participatory game show and comic versions of hits from Anne Murray, Feist and Avril Lavigne.

They're not the greatest singers in the world, but what the Girlz lack in substance, they make up for in fabulous style, performing lyrically altered songs from the musical Chicago, the disco era and, naturally, Queen. Not every joke hits home, but this trio gives good value for your entertainment dollar, and there's no denying they work hard for the money, especially after their energized encore medley.

--Pat St. Germain


Stars and Hearts
PTE -- Colin Jackson Studio (Venue 17), to July 27

Struggling actor Gary Bazman has a $1,000 choice -- pay for his cat's life-saving bum operation or shell out the fee for a talent contest that could kick-start his career and get him out of his lame town.

En route to a decision, he's got to navigate an embarrassing fairy play, a crabby ex-girlfriend and a metaphoric boat captained by a drunk guy that's about to hit an iceberg.

This is the comedic creation of London, Ont., native Jayson McDonald, who brought us fringe fave Giant Invisible Robot last year. It's a one-man-and-a-chair kind of show, a character collage of the people in Gary's dead-end life, and it's a gem. Each character, from his bourgeois parents to the cat, is a precisely drawn little nugget of humanity, and there are lots of laughs and just enough depth to make it moving. It's smartly constructed, especially once it gets really rolling. McDonald weaves all the characters together in a way that keeps the audience just confused enough to stay alert, and there's a funny bit with a cellphone that turns the actor-playing-an-actor-in-a-play-within-a play thing on its head.

Plus, you know it's got boatloads of advance buzz when when fringe gods Keir Cutler and TJ Dawe catch the first show.

-- Mary Agnes Welch


IL Productions
Onstage at the Playhouse (Venue 4), to Sunday

Boom is a curious one-man show about a bomb-maker who is recruited by a devious multinational constructing a futuristic spaceport. Louis is unemployed and faces eviction from his apartment when an old friend, now a CEO, offers him a job as an industrial saboteur blowing up competing spaceports.

With a 50-minute monologue called Boom, a big finish is expected but the surprise is that it fizzles abruptly without the explosive climax. American actor/playwright Andrew Connor appears to have assembled all the potent ingredients for his stage concoction but forgot to light the fuse.

Not that Boom is a bomb in the theatrical sense. Connor, who cancelled his first three performances to appear at Montreal's Just For Laughs festival over the weekend, fills his stage with distinctive characters like Rosa, the precocious, pig-tailed teenage Louis wannabe who really is the bomb.

--Kevin Prokosh


The Roodie Pancake Experiment
Son of Warehouse (Venue 5), to July 27

JIMMY Hogg has committed every petty crime in the book, from shoplifting pesto to breaking and entering a tea parlour to driving under the influence of cider without a driver’s licence. This guy was bad news. And so was his equally awkward buddy Chili.

Fifteen years later, the U.K. comic not only lives to tell the tales of his misguided youth but also finds the hidden humour in his family's history of not always telling the whole truth.

Hogg is a capable storyteller who delivers more than a few laughs on stage. Periodically, however, he breaks out of character to ask the audience questions and to engage in a familiar back and forth. And while this helps Hogg form a rapport with his audience, it sucks the energy away from his already inconsistent story momentum.

Afterwards, the former lawbreaker encouraged people who didn't love his show to meet him in the beer tent at midnight for a fight. I decided to go home instead and turn on my alarm system.

-- Demetra Hajaidacos


Theatre by the River
School of Contemporary Dancers (Venue 8), to July 26

When 19th-century authors Susannah Moodie, Catharine Parr Traill, Anne Langton and Anna Jameson made their way into the wilds of Canada, they left behind a wealth of writings documenting their struggles in the untamed country. The Bush Ladies takes these words and turns them into invigorating, and educational, theatre.

This is nothing like a high school history skit. Thanks to top-notch production and an experienced cast and crew, The Bush Ladies expertly connects contemporary Canadians to our pioneering past. The period costumes are magnificent, and the four actors' strong chemistry shines as they handle a complex script. Lisa Nelson is especially confident as Moodie, while gorgeous Megan Herkert brings a fresh spunkiness to Parr Traill.

One small quibble: while the material is well-edited and usually brisk, some of the closing scenes feel parenthetical, and the 90-minute run time might benefit from some judicious trims. But this is a small stumble in a very strong play.

--Melissa Martin


Penash Productions
Ragpickers Theatre (Venue 13), to July 26

There is nothing subtle about Busty Rhymes, who is apparently big in her native New Zealand and everywhere she takes her R-rated fringe act. To prove it, she fits her entire head into one of the G-cups of her bra. Badda-bing, badda-boom.

It's not the first time that Busty, a.k.a. Penny Ashton, is pretty rude in her pink, full-length ball gown. Much of her spoken-word act focuses on her breasts, her Rubenesque figure or her sex life.

So it is ironic when Busty has to significantly pad her hour-long performance in Montreal with some lame audience participation, in which a couple of goofs are pulled up on stage to audition for the role of man-hos. Now there were a couple of boobs.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Canto Red Productions
Tom Hendry Theatre at the MTC Warehouse (Venue 6), to July 26

Four aimless young adults hook up somehow on the city streets. Two are aspiring musicians who work in a record shop, one is a street musician and the fourth is a junkie trying to recover from her addiction and become a "healer," modelled after some unnamed aboriginal tradition. The vague storyline, which includes the use of video footage and live music, explores their connections to one another.

There's a bit of dialogue in the play in which one character says they need to have some plans -- the other responds, "F--k plans." This pretty much sums up the approach in the direction and execution of this Winnipeg production, which tends not so much toward navel-gazing as actually climbing right into some hippie's pierced bellybutton and camping out for a week or two.

There was a nice snippet of poetry and Ingrid Gatin has a terrific voice, but neither is enough to redeem this purple haze of a production.

--Wendy Burke


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Awkward Moment Productions
The Playhouse Studio (Venue 3), to July 26

Comedic tales of life in the fat lane are Amy Salloway's bread and butter. The Minneapolis-based performer, who brought summer-camp frolic So Kiss Me Already, Herschel Gertz!, to the fringe in 2006, serves up more of the same humour and heartbreak in this well-rounded sequel. Back in pigtails and intentionally unflattering baggy gym gear, Amy recounts a battle of the bulge that began in junior high school gym class and may end on a gastric bypass surgeon's table. As a teen, tormented by a sadistic gym teacher and cruel peers, Amy declares she is divorcing her body, but years later, she still can't shake the fat -- or the self-loathing and public mortifications that accompany it.

Longing for love, but convinced she's unlovable in her current state, she's finally driven to consider an extreme surgical remedy that would stick a knife in the heart of the notion that self-acceptance is the only theatrically acceptable happy ending. But first, she makes a fateful foray to a gym, where she meets a man who is even more physically damaged -- and he's fresh from a coma, to boot. We should all be so lucky. But will this prince save Amy from herself? Will she make peace with her body at last? Stay tuned. The story takes a few side trips, some uncomfortably painful and filled with raw emotion, others painfully funny and filled with raw vegetables.

This is not the most substantial meal at the fringe, but if you're grazing for a tasty one-hour morsel, Circumference is a sweet treat.

-- Pat St. Germain


Saucy Fops
The Gas Station Theatre (Venue 18), to July 27

Sex and the City fans disappointed by the lack of social insight in the recent film, I have some excellent news: you have here an often-witty theatrical play where modern relationships are neatly sliced and diced. For theatre-goers who aren't fans of the romantic comedy genre, however, you might find this overly sentimental and a tad saccharine.

The one-hour play by Cayman Duncan nicely captures a multitude of quirky characters in their quest for coupledom, with some truly comedic moments, like a single woman's sneezing fit when she encounters a pet-loving pediatrician with whom she's smitten. Actress Terri Runnalls is particularly real in her role as a neurotic singleton looking for love with all the wrong men. These winners include a rocker she twists tongues with who promptly forgets her name and a cute journalist who just can't forget his ex-girlfriend, both played by actor Stephen Sawka, who bounced back in Saturday's performance after collapsing on stage earlier last week for medical reasons.

Though the writing is sharp, sometimes delivery of these clever lines by the British Columbian troupe is too quick.

The actors and actresses would be well-served to pause a bit before tossing off the neat turns-of-phrase.

Also, the view of love delivered by the script is an unsophisticated version that lacks the deep complexity true partnerships have.

Oh well, rom-commers, you'll enjoy this guilty pleasure. Too bad you can't watch with a big bucket of buttery popcorn or a bowl of ice cream, and snuggled in your pajamas.

It's that kind of play.

--Gabrielle Giroday


Venus.calm productions
MTC Up the Alley (Venue 2), to July 27

Local George F. Walker specialists (Adult Entertainment, 2006; Problem Child, 2005) are back with another of the prolific playwright's dark comedies, this time his Governor General's Award-winning Criminals in Love.

Junior and Gail are young lovers in Toronto's working-class east end. Junior fears he's doomed to follow in his jailed father Henry's footsteps and live a life of crime. This seems fated to be true when his father informs him that his uncle needs Junior's help with a job, and if he fails to step up, Henry will be killed. What results is partly caper, partly comedy and partly something darker and more desperate.

Walker has a heap of ideas about destiny, class and love that he's trying to cover, and the production doesn't quite get at the heart of all of them. There's something slightly off about some of the portrayals: Eric Magnifico's Junior doesn't really convey his despair at his lot in life -- the sense of "the hanging shadow" of destiny -- while Susan Bohn as criminal mastermind Aunt Wineva neither seems scary nor twisted enough to be the terrifying schizophrenic she's supposed to be. On the plus side, Randal Payne's loquacious turn as the philosophical bum William is uproarious, and Ed Cuddy is utterly believable as two-bit petty crook Henry.

--Jill Wilson


Big Smoke Productions
PTE Colin Jackson Studio (Venue 17), to July 27

Crude Love looks to a future when the American military is occupying Alberta tar sands in the interest of protecting its oil lifeline. It's 2012 when a rogue eco-warrior named Abbie chains himself to a super-sized dump truck driven by former Newfoundlander Phyllis.

The pair are no strangers, having performed in A Streetcar Named Desire together, and they slowly find common ground -- ground that has yet to be destroyed by strip-mining -- to take a chance on love. Just as the tar-sands development is hazardous to the boreal forests and local birdlife, it also proves a romance killer.

While Crude Love is no theatrical gusher, what the plot lacks in sophistication and originality, it makes up for with appealing performances by the Vancouver husband-and-wife acting-writing team of Russell and Gillian Bennett.

-- Kevin Prokosh


The King's Head (Venue 14), to July 26

In the program for their 2008 Fringe Show, renowned local improv outfit CRUMBS thanks the Winnipeg Free Press for "the five star reviews." I'm pretty sure they're being sarcastic, so I almost hate to ruin the joke.

After 11 years together, CRUMBS are indeed masters of long-form improv, pursuing three stories through three different rounds. Their audiences know and love them. And DJ Hunnicutt has a knack for finding the best tunes to fit a scene -- on our night, a moseying country riff for a soliloquy about Safeway and a New Agey soundscape for Steve Sim and Lee White's spontaneous contemporary dance.

If you're lucky, you might meet some of their friends: on Sunday night, Sim and White closed with a bonus improv featuring comic Ryan Stiles. "You are so lucky to have an improv group like CRUMBS here in Winnipeg," raved the Whose Line Is It Anyway? star.

--Melissa Martin


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Theatre on TAP
Onstage at the Playhouse (Venue 4), to July 26

Fringe veteran Talia Pura (Metamorphosis, 2007) is on a precarious footing with this dark drama about madness, murder and religious fanaticism, and not just because she spends much of the show performing aerial acrobatics.

One false move on her silks could send her crashing to the stage. And when she's on the ground, she treads a fine line in her role as a woman whose postpartum depression has escalated to full-blown psychosis.

A few false notes in the script take her sympathetic mad housewife dangerously close to unintentionally funny crazy lady territory. But for the most part, the Winnipeg writer and actor's disturbing story hangs together. A mother of six who home-schools and cares for the kids with no help from her husband -- their fundamentalist religion is big on adhering to strict gender roles -- she's watching TV one day when Jesus tells her to commit an unspeakable act. Her defence lawyer (Harry Nelken) finds plenty of evidence that Marie is not entirely to blame. Her husband has known for years that she needed help and their cult-leaderish pastor is cruelly critical of her skills as a mother.

There are obvious parallels to the case of American mom Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001, but Pura says only that she was inspired by true events. Her story is provocative and at times poetic, thanks largely to her athletic forays. But while they most often serve the play, some of her antics are distracting. We're betting most of the audience couldn't tell you how this case wraps up. In what may well be the ultimate act of scene-stealing, Pura returns to the silks for a daring display of high-flying acrobatics while Nelken performs his closing monologue.

-- Pat St. Germain


MTC Backstage at the Mainstage (Venue 1), to July 24.

This veteran Winnipeg community theatre troupe, in at least its fourth fringe outing, has chosen wisely with American playwright A.R. Gurney's 1981 dramatic comedy about the vanishing American upper class.

With 12 actors, ranging in age from 20-something to 85, playing 40 speaking roles in 12 thematically related vignettes, the 80-minute production radiates ambition and intelligence.

Gurney's original script, which explores both the solidity and creakiness of Episcopalian WASP values, has been pared back from 18 scenes.

But little of its sense has been lost as a series of well-off U.S. Eastern Seaboarders lay out their prejudices and conflicts in the dining room of a grand old house.

MTC did the play in 1984 on its mainstage, which gives you an idea of its pedigree. The acting here is not uniformly professional, but everyone's heart and mind are in the right place. And they've actually found the perfect table to serve as the play's central symbol.

-- Morley Walker


The Little Theatre of the Gray Goose
Adhere & Deny Studio (Venue 19), to July 27

Creepy, homemade dolls playing the Seven Deadly Sins a la Christopher Marlowe is worth the price of admission alone.

But pretty much everything is else is just as inventive and funny in this puppet version of the famous tale of the scholar who sells his soul to Satan for knowledge and power.

Local actors-come-puppetmasters Graham Ashmore, Eric Blais and Carolyn Gray give us the Coles Notes highlights of the morality tale and deliver fine voice performances with some puppet physical comedy that gets all the laughs. The Elizabethan language is dense, so it helps to have a passing knowledge of the play, but you'll get the hang of it.

The puppets themselves are works of art.

A little too high-brow for kids. And, at 45 minutes (not 90, like it says in the program), it's exactly enough Marlowe.

-- Mary Agnes Welch


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Miss Reese Productions
MTC Up the Alley (Venue 2), to July 26

One of the fringe's favourite characters returns to talk about her family, including her gay best friend, her three ex-husbands and her deadbeat dad.

Evelyn Reese, the comedic creation of Toronto's Susan Fischer, is a hoot -- think Roseanne Roseannadanna if she came from Thunder Bay and wore A LOT of lipstick. With a refreshing lack of sentimentality, she whips us through a collection of anecdotes, with the occasional burst into song. As wacky as Evelyn is, she's also non-judgemental about her own messy life and everyone else's, which gives the broad comedy a big heart.

One problem -- the show starts with solid laughs, but it loses a lot of oomph in the middle, and I kept wishing Fischer would speak just a tad faster.

Lots of older folks in the audience, who ate this up.

-- Mary Agnes Welch


The Playhouse Studio (Venue 3), to July 27

Helen Keller's artistic yearnings, seedy encounters in men's toilets and a perverse garbage collector on a mission to create the world's most informative phone book unite in manual animation artist Daniel Barrow's provocative and poignant "magic lantern show."

Colourized and augmented with new drawings since its fringe debut in workshop form in 2006, the show has Winnipeg's Barrow manipulating hand-drawn images via overhead projector while he provides live narration. His soothing voice is sometimes at odds with graphic images onscreen, and the script is, at times, anything but gentle as Barrow spins a captivating tale of isolation.

His garbage collector is the ultimate outsider, picking through discarded scraps of other people's lives to glean intimate details for his life's work. It's an effort at making connections because, as in the case of a phone book, we're all in it together. As he works, the collector shares dry insights about the art school experience -- secretly criticizing others was the only skill he mastered -- along with a harrowing and curiously humorous account of a bullied child and daring commentary on anonymous sexual encounters.

Despite the title, Canadian singer Luba's title hit song makes only a cursory, mute appearance. Amy Linton composed music for the show.

And while his garbage collector admits to a lifelong urge to expose himself to public humiliation, performer Barrow is less enthusiastic about bathing in the limelight. At the end of his show, he remains seated, back to the audience, blushing at the applause.

He really should stand up and take a bow. Intricate and slyly powerful, this moving work of art is worthy of high praise.

-- Pat St. Germain


TLS Theatre
Son of Warehouse (Venue 5), to July 27

This high-concept exploration of evil started with Winnipeg playwright Melanie Murray canvassing friends and strangers for tales of true evil. She turned those stories into (appropriately) 13 shorts that cover everything from an abusive mother to a drug fiend to a troubled soldier.

It's never boring, the performances are polished (if somewhat stilted and actorly) and there's a good variety of humour, drama, creepy tension and little kids, so it isn't all as heavy as the title suggests. The two comic-book parts are a bit tedious and not every vignette makes the audience really think about the moral intricacies of evil doers, but there's enough that's provocative to make this a worthwhile 45-minutes.

-- Mary Agnes Welch


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Third Man
Planetarium Auditorium (Venue 10), to July 26

It's not often you see the Rwandan genocide or dictator Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe worked into a comedy routine, but then again, Toronto-based Nile Séguin refuses to be fitted into boxes.

Séguin's incisive remarks about being a bi-racial entertainer in the Canadian entertainment scene are frank, thoughtful and usually laugh-provoking.

Sprinkled with historical and pop-culture references, Séguin mines his jokes from the unlikeliest of places. (Why is Black History Month the shortest month of the year, February? According to Séguin, it's because there's only so much righteous anger society can take -- a nice zinger.)

Séguin's wry observations on the narcissism of the comedy industry and comedians themselves are superb, but the comedian's bashing of the usual political targets like George W. Bush or Condoleeza Rice is less funny. It's been done before. Also, if you aren't interested in hearing some humdrum penis/sex jokes, then you may tune out on Séguin's riffs on his bedroom experiences. Yawn.

A step away from usual fringe fare, Séguin's brave intellectualism in his routine is the meatiest part, even if it sometimes elicits thoughtful chuckles rather than gut-busting laughter.

--Gabrielle Giroday


Red River Collete Princess Street Campus (Venue 11), to July 26

It's not quite a sequel to 2006's FemMennonite, but the material is still pulled from Winnipeg performer Leigh-Anne Kehler's real life. This time, as the title notes, Kehler takes us through her whirlwind romance with a Jewish filmmaker, from her first kosher meal to her "Jewonite" wedding.

Kehler, who was a hit at the 2006 fringe (and with consistently sold-out shows, will be a hit at this one), is a sharp performer. She lovingly skewers her own family, her future in-laws, and even her fiance, throws herself into moments of sassy comic abandon and gracefully mines laughs from her own former naivete. Even better are the more heartwarming moments of cultural reconciliation, like her fiance's hoy-hoy-hoy turn as a Jewish Santa in Japan.

There are quite a lot of Yiddish, Hebrew and Mennonite in-jokes that quite obviously flew right over this reviewer's head, and these earned the biggest laughs of the show. Still, there are enough universal truths about family dynamics and relationships that everyone will find something with which they can connect.

--Melissa Martin


The Charles Nelson Reilly Players
The Playhouse Studio (Venue 3), to July 26

Jim (Clayton Wilchowy), a guy who drives a mosquito fogging truck, accidentally runs over a Wolseley anti-fogging activist while his mopey wife Donna (Amber Anderson) carries on an illicit affair with a TV newsreader over the airwaves.

The synopsis makes the play sound more interesting than it actually is. Playwright Joel Newbury can't even commit to a solid pro or con stance on the fogging issue, leaving The Fogger to play like a sitcom in which someone forgot to include the com. On the plus side, in the role of the offstage newsreader, BOB FM's Steve Thompson does a not-bad impersonation of Will Ferrell in Anchorman.

--Randall King


The Rogue Elephants
Onstage at the Playhouse (Venue 4), to July 27

Relive your headbangin' youth at this original rock opera written and arranged by Winnipeg's Geoff Taylor and performed with gusto by defiantly cool, middle-aged rockers the Rogue Elephants.

As T.R.E. wend their musical way through this two-part show, the audience can follow along with a screen that projects both lyrics and accompanying images. The first half, Frank Einstein, begins with the re-telling of the Frankenstein story. The second half, Tango Fiasco, begins by using the "rocked-out" rhythms of the music and form of the tango dance as a metaphor for male-female relationships.

Both operas eventually morph into something more political, and the lyrics and images start to reflect a (seriously) post-adolescent dissatisfaction with the "establishment" as characterized by capitalism, nuclear weapons, and love gone wrong.

Jo Gretsinger was born to rock, and her voice drives the show, with admirable turns on lead guitar by JT Scavenger (the winner of this year's Jerry Garcia look-alike contest), Matt Chaput on bass, and with terrific percussion by drummer Rodney Struss.

Ear plugs are being handed out at the door. Take them. Use them. The venue is just too small for the Rogue Elephants' big sound and it can be overwhelming sitting that close to the band.

-- Wendy Burke


Dog of Habit Productions
The Conservatory (Venue 7), to July 26

The title of this routinely adolescent sketch comedy show contains two syllables, one of which is accurate.

No prizes if you guess which one.

The four Winnipeg cast members are in their early 20s. They aspire to Judd Apatow country, melding cheerful vulgarity with cheerful idiocy.

As performers, they display signs of incipient talent. The three guys must have something going for them in order to have persuaded such a beautiful girl to stand on the same stage with them.

The hour-long production drags on at least 15 minutes longer than it needs to, even with an amusing end that comes full circle. One skit, which charts a couple's romance on Facebook, is reasonably clever and certainly up to date. But another, about a Mafia hitman hired to kill his best friend, is tastelessly stupid.

-- Morley Walker


Chris Gibbs
King's Head (Venue 14), to July 26

Fringe favourite Chris Gibbs returns in this hilarious sequel to again play his ancestor Barnaby Gibbs, the simpleton sidekick to a suspicious detective named Antoine Feval.

Barnaby is a doltish loser whose limited powers of deduction leave him blind to the fact Feval is the notorious cat burglar terrorizing London.

The 70-minute mystery spoof is all about this Victorian Clouseau, "a man of ample limitations." Not so with Gibbs the performer, whose appeal for his distinctive dry humour and deadpan delivery is limitless. His story is hardly gripping, but the telling is. He will matter-of-factly set a scene and mention an occasional table and then blithely toss off the line, "I don't know what it is the rest of the year."

His abilities as an ace improviser were never more on display than during a recent performance when he had to contend with a baby's cooing and a spectator who fainted on the way to the washroom. The former he gladly ad-libbed into his monologue, while the latter he respectively worked around to the appreciation of the sold-out house.

-- Kevin Prokosh


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Your Face Rings a Bell Productions
MTC Up the Alley (Venue 2), to July 26

This is an Osborne Village version of Sex and the City, wherein a trio of friends struggles with modern feminism, cheating men who are no longer sure of their place in the world and the lack of boyfriends in this town. Too true, ladies.

It starts out with an arty and fun video collage of women through the ages that goes on slightly too long, and then we get to know the ladies -- the tough-talking bitch (Susan Kurbis), the nerdy scientist (Kerri Woloszyn) and neurotic columnist (Meghan Pesclovitch).

There are some tight, funny scenes, like one where a "sweet little urban heterosexual" played by Tim Horton gets rejected by each of the women and another that involves a collage of annoying couples. And the observations about modern women are inventive and cerebral enough to elevate this above the predictable female kvetching over cosmos.

It needs an edit -- especially the overwritten parts belonging to neurotic Cynthia. There's some dirty talk meant more for shock value than real insight. And a fourth female walk-on role is redundant. But otherwise a funny, dishy and energetic exploration of pretty much every singleton I know.

-- Mary Agnes Welch


Crosseyed Rascals
Exchange Community Church (Venue 12), to July 26

This group is as righteous as they come, and that's no small feat, considering there's nothing quite as challenging as an improviser working to keep his head out of the gutter. And while crudity was not at all missed in this squeaky-clean 60-minute set, opportunities to take risks and accept a partner's contribution to a scene were.

One blocked idea after the next made this predictable short-form show difficult to watch after a while. Some enthusiastic performances from this likable foursome, however, helped pass the time and even garnered some warm responses from an appreciative audience.

This is not the kind of improv that masterfully cuts through audience suggestions and hits a home run with collective problem-solving and naughty pimping. Instead, this show offers safe, game show-type humour that is easily forgotten the minute you walk out the door.

--Demetra Hajaidacos


Prairie Boy Productions
The Conservatory (Venue 7), to July 26

Regina writer-actor Rod McDonald plays an aging boxing coach who recalls his youth rising up from the working class streets of East Vancouver to become the only Canadian to fight George Forman, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

This 50-minute one-hander has undeniable crowd appeal, though there is no sentimental cliché that McDonald is too proud to exploit.

His boxer has an idyllic Irish childhood, loyal Italian and Chinese friends, a gruff but well-meaning coach and a saintly wife who dies of cancer to the strains of Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door.

Overall, the soft-hearted piece is much closer to Sylvester Stallone's Rocky than to Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull.

McDonald, a fleshy fellow of about 60, is convincing enough as the boxer. When he's not making his punching bag jump, he milks his share of laughs and tears from what is pedestrian material.

-- Morley Walker


Jolene Bailie
Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 9), to July 27

Winnipeg's Jolene Bailie has earned a reputation on the fringe circuit for solo contemporary dance shows that wow audiences. As always, she brings stunning technique and presence to the stage.

A warning, though, for anyone expecting a show as delightfully accessible as last year's Private i: this year's lies way out there in an edgy no man's land, offering few signposts to help average fringers interpret it.

The Green Zone, a 25-minute antiwar piece by Deborah Dunn, is the only new work in the one-hour show. (Also included is the challenging Switchback, in which Bailie portrays a reptilian creature. It has been overexposed locally.)

In The Green Zone, Bailie is not always audible as she speaks text passages about the war in Iraq. She wears a Second World War uniform that she calls "my war outfit," implying that war is a romantic dress-up game.

At the outset, she unspools three white strings that divide the stage space at waist level, suggesting a giant game of cat's cradle or perhaps fences or borders. When one string ends up on the floor, Soldier Bailie forms it into a human being -- like a chalk murder-scene outline -- kisses it, and tries to embrace it. It's a perfect moment, capturing loneliness and grief on the battlefield.

But much of The Green Zone is cryptic. You're on your own reconnaissance mission when you venture into it.

-- Alison Mayes


Theatre Incarnate
Studio Incarnate (Venue 20), to July 26

IT'S safe to say Theatre Incarnate's production of Guernica will never be as funny as it was Friday.

During the emotional climax of the almost wordless, "illustrative physical theatre" piece, a woman gives birth to a baby, but when the rubber doll is born, its head is missing, resulting in one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments of the fringe and saving this 60-minute piece from being a humourless exercise of movement and guttural noises. The cast continued the best they could, with one of the three characters even breast-feeding the headless rubber doll, and a crown was placed on its bare neck as it sat upon a lengthy umbilical cord to be worshipped by the trio.

Prior to the birth, the three characters awoke following an apocalyptic incident and relearned how to feel, see and smell while bonding by gyrating on the floor, fighting for food and playing with found items from their past. The cast is to be commended for the physically demanding effort required, but ultimately this is niche show for die-hard fans of performance art.

Everyone in the crowd was offered the chance to come back for free because of the baby-head incident, but there is no way to recreate the magic of Friday night and the laughs it generated when the story was retold in the beer tent following the show. A bonus star for a one-time only performance.

-- Rob Williams


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The Spastics
PTE-Colin Jackson Studio (Venue 17), to July 26

There are no original ideas anymore -- not in Shakespeare's time and not in Hollywood. That's the theme of this sketch comedy that melds the Bard with the box-office blockbuster. It's actually pretty inventive, playing off the ancient rumour that playwright Christopher Marlowe penned all of Shakespeare's masterpieces. Fast-forward to a modern Hollywood studio, where a scriptwriter is being bullied into creating a lame Hamlet sequel.

Fringers Karl Eckstand and Mike Seccombe give us lots of nerdy film references, an obligatory Sean Connery impression and some sword-fighting, but it actually hangs together better than most sketch comedy and there are some laughs, if you're in a good mood and don't expect too much. One incongruous surprise: The final scene between Marlowe and Shakespeare is totally touching and finely-written.

--Mary Agnes Welch


Hot Thespian Action
The Playhouse Studio (Venue 3), to July 25

According to the old Saturday Night Live template, men tend to dominate in a sketch comedy troupe.

No such dynamic exists among the five members of Winnipeg's own Hot Thespian Action. The three women in the troupe, Shannon Guile, Jacqueline Loewen and Jane Testar, not only outnumber their two male partners (Garth Merekley and Ryan Miller), they're more physical and bolder in their comedy contributions, especially in sketches that include a mime throwdown, a robotic girls' night out, a glimpse into the tragic downward spiral of air freshener addiction, and a flat-out hilarious staging of The Miracle of Birth. But there are no weak links in the troupe and everyone gets a chance to shine, whether it's Miller's interpretation of a young/old dog, or Testar's choice of a heartfelt, folkie interpretation to ask the musical question: Don't You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me?

If you've blundered into a lot of bad comedy at the Fringe, Hands Off feels -- contrary to its title -- as reviving as a high-end spa treatment administered by caring professionals who know how to rub you the right way.

--Randall King


Chase & Hamill
Tom Hendry Theatre at the MTC Warehouse (Venue 6), to July 27

Some fringe shows push the boundaries on all manner of sex and profanity, but this isn't one of them.

Hey Abbott! is a re-creation of some of comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's best routines from the 1930s and 1940s, played to perfection by Winnipeggers John Chase as straight man Abbott and Kevin Hamill as his hapless partner Costello. With several jokes per minute being thrown out, some can't help but be groaners (they were written 70 years ago, after all), but the majority hit home, and even the bad puns earn laughs.

The impressionists deliver each send-up with perfect timing and impeccable delivery. Who's on First and Hertz U-Drive still sound fresh, and other forgotten favourites are updated and spruced up with local references.

Costello may lose a one-horse race, but there's no chance anyone who sees this show will feel swindled.

--Rob Williams


Run Ragged Company
Red River College (Venue 11), to July 26

HIGH Infidelity starts slowly as a middle-aged woman packs away some of the belongings of her recently deceased husband John. Nancy is alarmed to discover evidence that John might have been carrying on an affair.

That is the first plot twist of many in a storyline that an hour later looks like one of those snake balls during mating season in Narcisse. Just when you think you have it figured out, Winnipeg writer-director Dale Watts springs another outrageous revelation about who has been sleeping with whom.

The local amateur cast occasionally stumbled with the frivolous material but people in the sold-out house were probably laughing too hard at the soap-opera antics to notice.

-- Kevin Prokosh


PKF Productions
The King's Head (Venue 14), to July 26

If you saw Victor on the sidewalk outside the King's Head, you'd probably give him a wide berth. His darting eyes and hostile scowl suggest he's a ticking timebomb. He may be a madman who is off his meds. And what's that he keeps doing with his finger and thumb -- rolling an invisible ball to keep his anger from exploding?

Fringe veteran Jon Paterson gives a brilliantly intense performance as Victor in this Vancouver-based production of Daniel MacIvor's hilarious, sad and disturbing monologue. MacIvor keeps us on edge as he takes us inside the mind of a screwed-up loner who has a literal sh-- job at a company that vacuums out septic tanks.

Victor starts out entertaining us with quirky observations and mocking accounts of his lame therapy group. His ravings turn increasingly surreal -- sometimes going for mere shock value -- until you're not sure what's a nightmare and what he experienced. Like Guy Maddin in My Winnipeg, MacIvor is interested in finding the truth in lies and dreams. And like Maddin, he probes the connections between self and home.

The details of Victor's humiliation, frustration and desperate hopefulness make his pain touchingly recognizable. "I never had any camaraderie," he mourns. Like all of us, he craves connection, acceptance, and the fundamental comfort of a sane house. The word also refers to the theatre audience. House asks questions about theatre itself, and involves the audience in a way that prompted audible gasps and cries from the King's Head seats.

--Alison Mayes


Islet Productions
The Conservatory (Venue 7), to July 27

BEING heavily drugged but wide awake while a doctor performs surgery on your eyes is just one of the exciting adventures a diabetic might have to look forward to during the course of his or her illness.

The funniest stuff often pours out from the darker parts of life, and Elizabeth MacEachern fearlessly splashes around in those depths. She's been a diabetic since childhood and she recounts the frustrations, the fears, and the health professionals she's battled trying to live a whole life. She just wants to be normal -- but what is normal, anyway? Living a life on a rigid sleep/diet schedule to accommodate your blood sugar? Is there more to life than juggling insulin shots and controlling an obsession for chocolate so powerful it borders on lust? Can a woman turn into her father?

This Toronto comedian delivers a moving, funny performance as she slips in and out of her own skin, and those of the people that have aided and abetted her in her quest to live her sweet, sweet life.

-- Wendy Burke


Daydream Productions
Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 9), to July 26

Oregon-bred Steven Marrocco tells us that he moved to Los Angeles to make it as an actor, but got stuck working in a tanning salon. The lack of drive the slacker-ish Marrocco invests in his one-man show suggests he's not likely to make the Hollywood A-list anytime soon.

He could get bigger laughs if he spoke up and delivered his lines with a sense of ownership. That said, his tale of faking depression in order to take part in a paid drug study does land lots of satirical jabs, particularly against the makers of drugs like Prozac, Celexa and Paxil and their sanitized ad-speak about feeling "down, sad or blue."

Marrocco switches characters well, painting funny little portraits of his much-medicated family members and the eccentric researchers. With the running joke of approaching his trumped-up illness as a well-researched movie role, he pokes smart fun at actors' pretentions.

His story turns conventionally touchy-feely at the end, as he learns life lessons about real depression and trots out the over-simplification that people on antidepressants are numbed-out, incapable of feeling emotion. Overall, the show propels one to neither an exhilarated high nor a crushing low, just to a zone of mild amusement. Marrocco needs to up the dosage of fierceness and originality in this prescription.

-- Alison Mayes


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Stupid Gumball Dispenser Productions
MTC Up the Alley (Venue 2), to July 27

THIS well-acted Internet Age relationship drama has a split personality.

Half of it comments on the foolishness of using the emotionally distancing tools of dating websites and the like to find someone to get close to. The other half recirculates old ideas about being 25 and still mixed up.

Winnipeg writer-actor Brent Hirose stars in his own script, taking on the two roles of young men with very different personalities. This works out well because it depicts how the line between not enough self-confidence and too much often can come down to simple attitude.

Caught between the two men is Gwendolyn Collins as a mixed-up waitress who lies to herself when she says she's not looking for commitment.

What makes this cliched triangle interesting is the metaphoric use of computer games like Sim City and the videotaped scenes of the characters posting their online profiles.

The action on-screen is supposed to be mirrored by the action onstage, but the obvious mismatches become distracting. Worse, the second half of the hour-long show ignores its modern premise and becomes just another tale of anxiety-ridden 20-somethings trying to find love.

-- Morley Walker


Planetarium Theatre (Venue 10), to July 27

Their reputation clearly preceded them. On opening night, veteran local improv duo Alan MacKenzie and George McRobb performed to a healthy crowd at Venue 10. It also happened to be their 100th fringe show.

By my estimate, 100 shows with this pair translates to at least a million total laughs. After six years at the fringe, MacKenzie and McRobb are masters of good-natured improv. Both have bang-on comic timing and effortless onstage appeal; nicely paced interactive bits keep the laughs coming fresh and easy.

Every act was uproariously funny, and the duo's good-natured one-upsmanship will have you rooting for one or the other to score the biggest gag. While there's no telling exactly what future performances will hold, the show-closing fast-forward replay was deliciously clever and self-effacing.

Quick tip? If you're too shy to become part of the act, nudging the person next to you is not advisable. MacKenzie and McRobb have eagle eyes for that sort of shenanigan.

-- Melissa Martin


The August Assembly
The Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 9), to July 26

THE road from hell to paradise is only three steps long, but it's a strange and twisted path featuring smoke and mirrors, where nothing is as it seems, according to 19th-century Scandinavian playwright August Strindberg.

In his one-man play about the life of the writer and artist, Edmonton's Scott Sharplin takes us on a mesmerizing trip into a world of paranoia and insanity. His portrayal is nothing short of brilliant as the character tries to distinguish himself from his rivals and solidify the love of his wife by trying his hand at alchemy, turning sulphur, arsenic and mercury into gold.

Sharplin, who wrote the script based on Strindberg's journals, stalks the stage intensely in white face paint, using a variety of props to illustrate the protagonist's methods and what is going on in his fevered mind as he slowly descends into madness.

The journey is intense and fascinating, smoke and mirrors be damned.

-- Rob Williams


Hammer & Tongue
Tom Hendry Theatre at the MTC Warehouse (Venue 6), to July 26

Good, cheeky fun makes for a too-short hour with the Oxford, U.K.-based Inflatable Buddha taking musical jabs at cats, capitalism, the blues and the "fat sex" that is the obsession of all women's magazines.

The band was led by stocking-footed "spoken-word guru" Steve Larkin who, while perhaps not bigger than Jesus, is certainly funnier and more English. Richard Brotherton demonstrated some positively transcendent guitar playing and Su Jordan reminded the audience of just how effectively a woman's voice can be accompanied by nothing more than the chant provided by her own lovely stand-up bass. The very tall Alex Horwill provided holy drumming.

The sound needs a little tweak so that the audience can better hear all the lyrics while the band plays because the words, especially in this instance, are the point. Play along with some totally painless audience participation.

--Wendy Burke


MTC Up the Alley (Venue 2), to July 27

Young local actors need somewhere to acquire some chops.

That's the chief reason for the existence of this sloppy, wholly irrelevant satire on TV news wherein: a flossy co-anchor is expected to look pretty and keep her mouth shut; a weatherman becomes a star on the strength of his right-wing rants; two young lesbian lifestyle reporters capture the pornographic imaginations of the public.

In the age of fake news, Fox News, infotainment and vlogs, a backstage glimpse at a news organization should have yielded at least one pertinent observation.

But this comedy by Deb Patterson and her troupe of novice thespians comes up dry, on both comedic and thematic fronts, although one has to acknowledge that digging up Edgar Allen Poe to function as a doom-saying weatherman is at least somewhat inspired.

--Randall King


School of Contemporary Dancers (venue 8), to July 26

Drag queen Nelly Furtaco, ably abetted by her fag hag buddy Hagatha and prancing minions Twink 1 and Twink 2, offers up a gay-positive spin on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood (It's a fabulous day in the neighbourhood ... ") in this 75-minute cabaret-sketch comedy from playwright Curtis Lowton.

Nelly's bedtime stories include a too-long Emperor's New Clothes variant in which an American head of state is fitted with a designer suit made from material only straights can see. Better is a Cinderella knock-off that sees the entire cast knock 'em dead with an 'N Sync dance routine.

Gayer than a Lance Bass marionette, Gay World is ideal fringe fare for mature audiences of all stripes, assuming hetero attendees live up to the words on Hagatha's T-shirt: "Straight but not narrow."

-- Randall King


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Big Word Performance Poetry
King's Head (Venue 14), to July 26

In his latest power poetry recital, called How I Stopped Worrying and Learnt to Love the Mall, Jem Rolls takes listeners into what he calls the "rat maze of plenty" that serve as a "laggard-archipelago of lego-ego." This fringe vet's superlative wordplay and image-creation remains impressive, displaying no ill effects of spending his first winter in Winnipeg.

This is the first time that the speed-talking Scotsman focuses on a single subject and the result is that his prose is much more accessible and funny. While the impromptu dashes into the audiences to deliver his words have stopped, he is a more lively action figure on stage.

Rolls does takes time to unexpectedly go off on the Kenny Rogers hit Coward of the County, which he calls the most shameful exploitation of sentiment. His only excuse for the national embarrassment of having the tune last six weeks atop the U.K. record charts is that contempt breeds familiarity.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Pushed Productions
Onstage at the Playhouse (Venue 4), to July 26

This one-woman show from Winnipegger Jessica Burleson promises titillation and envelope-pushing, but delivers very little of either.

A mostly unconnected series of sketches with a little burlesque thrown in, Jessica -- Live! never quite coheres into a satisfying show. There are laugh-out-loud moments, especially in the final sketch, where a bitter schoolteacher puts a too revealing personal touch on a grammar lesson. But a pointless rumination on her childhood obsession with a French pop star is bracketed by two painfully long dance sequences (she accompanies a hilarious '70s video projected on a screen behind her, but most eyes will be on the gold lamé-clad dancers onscreen, not on Burleson's mimicking gyrations).

Her imagined conversation between an aboriginal woman and Jewish woman seems to be heading into an edgy, interesting place that's going to explore the idea of homeland and parallel Indian reservations with Israel, but it sputters out disappointingly.

Burleson is an appealing performer who really sells all her characters, especially the frazzled stationery-store staffer with the sexy secret, but most of this 60-minute show leaves those characters high and dry.

-- Jill Wilson


InterVisceral Productions
The Conservatory (Venue 7), to July 25

This edition of The Johnald Slow Show finds the "legend of talk," Johnald Slow (Dean Harder as the titular radio-show host), wallowing happily in his own bombast, seeking a (raisin-free!) chocolate chip cookie recipe, and asking the questions: Is reducing pollution around Bejing just interfering with nature? And wouldn't our French-Canadian Olympians have an advantage in Bejing because public smoking is still allowed in Quebec?

Slow explores these and other stupid questions, bantering with "callers" while accompanied by his guest, a delightfully sleazy wanna-be athlete (Aaron Mercke), who feels he qualifies for the Special Olympics because of his "self-declared A.D.D."

Harder's blowhard delivery as a faux radio host seems to be channelling what might be a cross between Larry King and a young Richard Dreyfuss in either Jaws or The Goodbye Girl. Funny guy -- funny stuff. The tricky bit is that a show like this has the potential to be really uneven, but Harder is smart enough to know that 30 minutes of "hot air" is just about right.

-- Wendy Burke


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Reliquarium Productions

The Conservatory (Venue 7), to July 26

Shakespeare devotees in particular will be intrigued by this 40-minute monologue by a B.C. performer who invents a future for one of the Bard's allegedly abandoned characters.

In The Tempest, Caliban is the only human inhabitant of an island that is otherwise "not honour'd with a human shape." He is usually played as a wild man, a beast or the devil himself.

Providing sympathy for this devil is the goal of Andrew Hamilton, a 40-something actor who resembles an overfed hobbit from The Lord of the Rings.

Stripped to the waist for much of the play, displaying a luxuriantly hairy back, he speaks in dense Elizabethan-style sentences to explain why Caliban, a creature of impressive appetite, is no worse than the humans he encounters in the wider world.

Hamilton's material is reasonably ambitious, though perhaps too obscure for most. On the plus side, he makes cannibalism sound like a tasty option.

-- Morley Walker


Royal Palm Productions
The Conservatory (Venue 7), to July 27

IT'S a familiar story, seen in everything from Fight Club to Office Space: cubicle drone gets some cojones and kicks some butt. This New York duo (one of whom also presents The Movies: Abridged at this year's fest) takes it a step further and uses the movies to trigger one man's transformation. (This production is somewhat abridged too, taking up only 37 minutes of its claimed 60-minute running time.)

Charlie is a going-through-the-motions office worker with a hateful girlfriend and a loathsome manager who suddenly realizes he's playing Kevin Spacey in his own life (the wimpy Spacey of Usual Suspects and Glengarry Glen Ross) and decides to take cues from Al Pacino (the take-no-prisoners Pacino of Scarface and Glengarry Glen Ross) instead. Music from The Godfather cues mousey Charlie's transformation into a tough-talking, open-shirted badass.

The very funny, flick-worshipping duo injects new life into the done-that premise, especially the nine-to-fiver cliches. There were no programs to identify the two actors, but both acquit themselves handily (although the one playing Charlie needs to enunciate more clearly during the rapid-fire dialogue). The other, who plays multiple roles, including the girlfriend and the braying blowhard of a best friend, probably scores the most laughs, but Charlie's bagel-shop blow-up is a masterful show of scene-stealing bravado. Killing Kevin Spacey deserves a solid "Hoo-ah!"

--Jill Wilson


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Ice Time Theatre Collective
PTE Mainstage (Venue 16), to July 27

As a girl hockey player with a learning disability, the imposingly physical actress Megan Leach gives 110 percent in this Kids Fringe entry from Regina's Ice Time Theatre Collective.

Lanni shines in athletics, but fails in academics, a condition that leaves this tough kid feeling vulnerable to her peers and to stupidly insensitive school officials. Overcoming her academic weakness is presented as one big sports metaphor in Janice Salkeld's play, contrived to educate kids about learning disabilities.

Fortunately, the strapping Leach has charisma and energy enough to transcend the "after-school special" flavour of the piece. Even in the cavernous space of PTE, Leach fills the void on the strength of sheer extrovert personality, at one point belting out Stompin' Tom Connors' Good Old Hockey Game with the gusto of a Cossack.

-- Randall King


Magic Toaster Productions
Tom Hendry Theatre at the MTC Warehouse (Venue 6), to July 27

Gene Simmons has always had a bit of a God complex, so it only seems right that he and Jesus -- who both look pretty cool on a lunch box -- battle it out for the soul of Lester when the KISS reunion tour hits town in 1996.

Lester (fringe vet Dan Baker-Moor) used to rock and roll all night, but has stopped partying every day to devote his life to the Lord by working at a Christian supply store, which is next door to a record shop where his son works. The temptation of the KISS concert is almost too much for the tormented convert and he resorts to spitting up Moses' Red Sea ketchup to imitate his hero.

The strong pull of musical nostalgia and religious fanaticism and hypocrisy (along with a side-helping of feminism) are explored in this 75-minute musical comedy that has plenty of in-jokes for KISS fans. The 13-member cast keeps things moving quickly with sharp dialogue, snappy musical parodies and simple choreography.

If there's a lesson to be learned, it's that hard rock and religion can co-exist, because, after all, as KISS famously noted, "God gave rock 'n' roll to you."

-- Rob Williams


R.S.T.N.L.E. Productions
Planetarium Auditorium (Venue 10), to July 26

Letters @ Large is the result of one-man, guerrilla letter-writing campaign by Winnipegger Jeff Sinclair. For years, Sinclair has penned hoax letters, sent them off to unsuspecting businesses and waited for quirky new material for his one-man stage show to arrive by post.

Sinclair's act is essentially reading the responses to his outrageous correspondence and waving his arm to a technician who will change the image on the screen. His best is a reply from the American Philatelic Society, to which he sent a made-up story about acquiring a taste for eating expensive stamps. The serious reply referred to stamps as being like fine wines, with distinctive flavours, and suggested that he consume less costly stamps.

Despite Sinclair's quirky hobby and his brilliantly concocted letters, the hour-long recitation never pushes the envelope beyond the level of a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction side show.

-- Kevin Prokosh


The Comedy Illusions of Greg Wood
The Argue Building Youth Centre at the Calvary Temple (Venue 15), to July 27

The good news: if you're under the age of 12, you very well might be amazed by a ladder that gets pulled out of suitcase, or a walking cane that changes colour with the swipe of a magician's hand.

The not-so-good news: if you're any older, this production's hokey humour and onstage fumbles might seem less like magic and more like fancy props gone wrong.

Jovial Winnipeg magician Greg Wood has put lots of effort into this 45-minute spectacle, featuring tricks sure to catch kids eyes -- like cards that disappear before their very eyes with quick sleight of hand. Too bad the same deftness doesn't apply to all of the illusions, such as a never-ending string of hankies yanked by Wood from a top hat where the false bottom was clearly visible.

He should also lose groaners like when he talks about his wife, a stage assistant, tripling his household expenses.

Atheists, be warned: Wood identifies himself as a evangelistic comedy entertainer on his blog, and tries hard to work Biblical content into his show. He weaves tales, like that of David and Goliath, into what otherwise might resemble a birthday-party performance, sometimes falling flat when the complexities of the story overwhelm the physical performance at hand.

Talk to the little ones, however, and you might get a different take. When Wood asked for audience members willing to help him out on stage, lots of wriggling kids could be seen in the audience waiting for their chance to shine. The content of this performance is definitely family-friendly, even if it leaves some family members rolling their eyes.

-- Gabrielle Giroday


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Screwed & Clued
MTC Up the Alley (Venue 2), to July 26.

POOR Frank can trace his lifelong unpopularity to one unfortunate incident of public defecation. Why this childhood trauma was shameful in his mother's eyes, while soccer star David Beckham vomiting on the sidelines of a game is not, he'll never know.

Hunched, solitary and socially awkward, Frank is out of place in the soccer-loving, lager-drinking England he inhabits: a reader of Butterfly Collector Monthly whose relationships with women are nonexistent, save a dogged devotion to his verbally abusive mother that is touching and unsettling in turns.

Written by and starring longtime fringe star Justin Sage-Passant, Manners for Men traces Frank's attempts to make his way in a society that seems to simultaneously draw and repulse him. The pace is slow and the humour dry, though one sold-out noon-hour crowd had plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.

Ultimately, though, Manners for Men is less a comedy and more a thoughtful drama about familial loyalty, obligations and the way a complex maternal relationship shapes one man, for better or worse.

-- Lindsey Wiebe


Firebelly Performance Poetry
Son of Warehouse (Venue 5), to July 26

Andrea Thompson's spoken-word show is constructed around her public persona as a so-called cougar, the unflattering label attached to older women who date younger men.

Stories about the 41-year-old Torontonian's love life are interspersed with verse and songs. Short-lived relationships are punctuated with the wordsmith's kiss-off: "Got a poem out of it so it's not so bad."

Thompson has an engaging stage presence. She opens with a lovely poem and ends her hour-long performance with a cover of Dinah Washington's They'll Be Some Changes Made. However, Cougar is so laid back that you wish it would show more bite.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Leithelle Productions
MTC Warehouse (Venue 6), to July 26

Shakespeare's comedy about mixed-up lovers gets spun like a disco ball and pimped out in platforms in this gloriously silly local musical, brought back for a booty-shakin' 10th-anniversary remount. Inventive creator Leith Clark stays true to the Bard's storyline and spirit while transposing the tale to the backstage of a '70s Solid Gold-style TV show.

Watch for Clark shakin' his groove thang in a different cameo at each performance. On Saturday he popped up as a foxy backup dancer in silver lamé.

Clark's clever script is a non-stop spoof of '70s culture (Shakespeare's magic pollen becomes a snortable white powder), while his characters range from Puck as a hyperactive little dude in an afro to Titania as the "queen of choreography." Though the opening version of Dancing Queen is anemic and the large cast varies in talent, the 90-minute show picks up steam until it has the crowd in a side-splitting boogie fever.

Gio Navarro's rendition of You Sexy Thing as a pelvic-thrusting Demetrius is a scream, and the guy can really sing. But hefty Bernie Pastorin truly takes it over the top as Bottom, the clueless ham who is transformed not into a donkey, but a Disco Duck. The idea of recasting the bumbling rustics as the Village People is pure genius, and by the time the quintet pumps its way through Macho Man, Pastorin will have you gasping for oxygen. Get down, get down, get down tonight to Venue 6, before all the tickets are snapped up for this disco Dream.

--Alison Mayes


Echo Theatre
School of Contemporary Dancers (Venue 8), to July 26

This 45-minute Kids Fringe outing tells a clever and lively tale of a feisty girl who must save an Oz-like town from a series of comic bad guys.

The Winnipeg company, composed of actors in their 20s, has mounted several other children's plays, including one at last summer's fringe and another at last winter's MametFest.

Writer Charlene Van Buekenhout, who plays the title character, looks like a gamine out of a French art film. She gets able support from her male co-stars, Tom Keenan, Matthew TenBruggencate and Glen Thompson, and director Kevin Klassen.

The production boasts several funny props and some cute musical interludes. The script would not be out of place on some well-meaning weekday morning children's TV show.

-- Morley Walker


Chipped Paint Productions
Planetarium Auditorium (Venue 10), to July 26

EVEN without a big fuzzy suit, Greg Landucci can whip a crowd into a frenzy. The Vancouver performer (Dishpig, 2007) is a motor-mouthed bundle of compact energy, which he uses to great comedic effect to tell what one presumes is the autobiographical story of his days as a mascot for rock radio station CFOX.

Over the course of the 60-minute show, Landucci deftly shifts among several roles -- the no-BS drill sergeant of a mascot-school instructor, the snippy CFOX promotions director -- but mostly, it's on Mr. Fox's shoulders, and the actor works up a sweat demonstrating the mascot full-body nod, the big-footed mascot dance and the never-ending high-fives and six-guns (he informs us that mascots can't communicate much more than "It's awesome!" "You're awesome!" and "I'm hot!").

The play taps into the cheesy sense of semi-celebrity surrounding rock radio, but it doesn't often go much deeper than belly laughs. Dishpig had a poignant underside, a real sadness to it that made it more than just a guy telling restaurant-worker stories. Mr. Fox doesn't quite have that nuance or narrative arc -- it ends with bizarre abruptness -- but Landucci's performance deserves a rousing rendition of The Wave.

-- Jill Wilson


Up Your Nose (and in your toes) Productions
Ragpickers Theatre (Venue 13), to July 27

Oh, to be a teenage girl: Leonardo DiCaprio fantasies, secret diaries, and terrified shrieks of "I'm bleeding from the crotch!"

Puberty's a rough ride, and it's no different when the teens in question are clown sisters Morro (Heather Marie Annis) and Jasp (former Winnipegger Amy Lee). The red-nosed duo is at opposite ends of the hormonal spectrum: tomboy Morro is equally panicked at the thought of tampons or male attention, while Jasp is desperate to be a woman and longing for princess-style romance.

In true clown fashion, half the humour is in the visuals, from Jasp's show of forbidden passion for her favourite stuffed toy to Morro's terrific facial distortions every time the phone rings.

Morro and Jasp Do Puberty is a light and engaging hour, with lots of laughs of recognition from 20-something women in the audience remembering their own fantasies of Titanic proportions.

-- Lindsey Wiebe


Four Humors Theater
MTC Backstage at the Mainstage (Venue 1), to July 26.

Three men from Minneapolis, all in their 20s, play Depression-era snake-oil salesmen in this broadly satiric comedy about materialism and consumerism.

In tone if not content, imagine an anemic version of the movie There Will Be Blood.

Adjusting their script to a Winnipeg audience (save for an easily fixable reference to a newspaper called the Winnipeg Star), the three attempt to bamboozle us into paying $4 for a bottle of green-dyed corn syrup, which they promise provides the taste of immortality.

There are some clever bits in the writing. The title is Latin for "capturing death," and the performances of Matt Spring as the fast-talking Prof. Jonathan St. Miracle, Brant Miller as his thick-headed assistant, and Jason Ballweber as the soulless ringer are nothing if not energetic.

Still, Daniel Day-Lewis does not have to lose any sleep.

On the positive side, this is likely the only production in which an actor holds his breath in a bucket of water -- the actual wet stuff -- for at least 20 seconds. Now that shows commitment.

-- Morley Walker


Wolf Productions
MTC Warehouse (Venue 6), to July 26

THE video store franchise Bigbuster offers a management training film to its managerial recruits with its own corporate revisionist history of cinema.

That wraparound plot device is just an excuse for a series of genre-by-genre sketches on cinema from the Fort Lauderdale-based company that gave us The Bible (Abridged).

Hence, we get Robert De Niro vs. Daniel Day-Lewis in an "act-off." We get all four Die Hard movies distilled to their shared essence. We get Adam Sandler contemplating death as his next career move. (Warning: There is not one viable impersonation in any of these sketches.)

Ultimately, we get a ringing defence of the indie movie as a curative to the money-grubbing Hollywood epic, and if that seems a simplistic raison d'etre for a fringe play, well, it is. It's a good thing we also get a decent share of laughs.

-- Randall King


Undertow Theatre Company
Onstage at the Playhouse (Venue 4), to July 27

THIS half-baked noir has a plot as thick as your grandma's Sunday gravy and takes more twists than a heaping forkful of al dente spaghetti. And you know it's going to get messy the second you recognize the Winnipeg cast that brought you last year's oddball insane-asylum mystery A View with a Room. Writer-actor Chad Heath again appears in dual roles, as rich guy Lawrence and his murdered twin brother Henry, with Carly Kowalski as his simpering wife Portia and Lygia Ramcharan as dangerous dame Adrian. Jason Wishnowski joins the gang as soft-boiled detective Harvey, who spouts lines like, "As I wandered the streets, certain thoughts wandered through my mind."

The first half of the bizarro hour-long show focuses on the murder mystery, and it can be painful to watch. Certain thoughts wander through the viewer's mind. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it just me or is it weird that the troupe obviously took great pains with the set and staging but the actors seem to be winging their lines? Will I get kicked out if I speak up and ask why Adrian accompanies Harvey to interview the dead man's family? Is she a girl reporter? Then, the plot takes a twist so crazy, it just might work. Suddenly, all that wooden acting -- with the exception of Ramcharan, who is really quite good -- starts to make sense. And those gaping plot holes? Why, there seems to be point to all that madness after all. Could it be that this was a work of sheer genius all along and I was just too dense to recognize it?

Nah. But the shaky plot fix holds together long enough to get the cast through to a solid final scene.

-- Pat St. Germain


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Theatre Fix
School of Contemporary Dancers (Venue 8), to July 25

Well, this production by Winnipeg actor Ian Mozdzen certainly lives up to its name -- obscene. It's pornographic. It's horrific. And it involves X-rated acts and thoughts that even the most hardened individual would find intensely disturbing.

The first half of the two-act play focuses on the mind of a serial killer, Gilles, who rapes and kills young boys. Expect gory details. The second half involves incredibly graphic acts that include drinking fake blood, simulated castration, and breaking eggs against naked flesh and writhing in the yolk.

You should know what you're getting into, and the question is why anyone would pay to see for this kind of torture, which is more performance art than typical theatre. Some audience members will wonder why this production then receives a passable ranking. But the redeeming quality of the production, if any, is that Mozdzen has clearly designed his piece for the maximum shock value possible -- and that has its own artistic merit. Mozdzen clearly has a greater vision of the meaning the audience is supposed to extract, evident in thoughtful stage design and precise scripting. For this reason, the abstract subject matter of Act II does its X-rated content no favours -- it's hard to extract the value of such gratuitous acts for such an unclear reason.

For those who want to see the world from the eyes of a pedophile, however, Act I may fulfil that wish.

Attention parents: the warning for this play should be more explicit in the festival guide, and the under-16-not-admitted threshold should be raised. This content is not acceptable for any teenager, and it will probably be unpalatable for most people over the age of 18.

--Gabrielle Giroday


v-Live E
The Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 9), to July 26

This show possesses the weird and utterly original creative spirit that is so often missing at fringe festivals.

It's not the best production in this year's lineup, but Vancouver actor Darren Boquist's one-man comedy, with its talking wig, might be the most seriously wacked.

Boquist plays off the 2004 sleeper movie hit about the outcast life of a nerdy teen who finds redemption by dancing in front of his entire high school. In Dance Class, Napoleon's dance instructor, Bob, wants recognition and his secret move back from his protegé.

The goofy plot is pretty thick, but we can be thankful it is interrupted by phone calls from Dynamite, whose movie voice on tape provides comic relief ("Idiot, I'm such an idiot," he complains). Kudos for Boquist trying to be as loopy as his eccentric source material.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Ragpickers (Venue 13), to July 27

Don't just look at the stars. Read this review. This show is wonderfully fringey, but it's not for everyone.

It's the story of Alex (Alex Eddington) and Aura (Aura Giles), two Toronto eco-warriors who make a pilgrimage to an ancient Haida redwood on the Queen Charlottes that was cut down in 1997. There they make a bumbling, self-important attempt to tap into the tree's soul so they can fight the consumption and waste that threaten to destroy the planet.

Throw in some amateur magic and some haunting flute-playing by the mopey-faced Aura and you'll have just barest elements of this complicated, challenging and quite masterful show.

It's a little preachy and a bit hard to follow at times. Eddington's performance gets overwraught near the end when Alex descends into naked, self-flagellating mental anguish.

But it's also lyrically written, morally ambitious and exponentially more sophisticated and original than most fringe fare. Eddington, the composer and performer who brought us the Fugue Code last year, totally commits.

Warning: Full-frontal.

-- Mary Agnes Welch


Fickle Pickle Productions
The Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 9), to July 26

There's nothing ordinary at all about May -- she just needs a little nudge to see how very special she is.

A great cast of women carry this too, too cute production that teaches children to look within themselves to find that unique gift that makes them extraordinary. Cheesy songs and dance numbers reinforce the lessons unfolded in each one of May's adventures, which include helping a frog queen and a magical mouse realize how incredibly important and well loved they truly are.

If this sounds a bit too sweet for your palate, it just gets more and more adorable. The problem is that there isn't much to keep parents engaged and the local production pigeonholes its target audience as being about 3 to 6 years of age. Having said that, the itty-bitty ones will love watching this charismatic company led by Andrea Rhynard as May, and narrated by Erin Hammond, who could make just about anyone smile.

-- Demetra Hajidiacos


Del Crabbo Productions
The Playhouse Studio (Venue 3), to July 26

THESE six Winnipeg funny folks, though still in their 20s, are allegedly quite the stars on the local improv comedy scene.

You can see why. Confident and cool onstage, the three gals and three guys (one of whom accompanies his mates on electric guitar and piano) make long-form improv almost intelligible.

Long-form improv, for the uninitiated, is where the performers take one suggestion from the audience at the beginning and run with it for the entire show.

The smart part, however, of their 50-minute production is the soundtrack music, which serves to paper over the slow parts in the action.

But their song-improvising skills are impressive, too. They belt out their tunes in key and invent lyrics that occasionally rhyme.

-- Morley Walker


Mur-Folk Productions
MTC Backstage at the Mainstage (Venue 1), to July 26

Mark has a problem. Despite the obvious one of being an overnight DJ for pirate radio, he's also in love with the pizza delivery girl. She, of course, is playing hard to get.

Oh yeah, this is a romantic comedy, if you hadn't already guessed, complete with all the usual elements of a 20-something TV sitcom. But all is not lost. Some snappy writing, a solidly rehearsed cast and a couple of sex-crazed morning show radio hosts keep this melo-comedy afloat.

You won't get tired of watching these spunky Edmonton actors, led by fringe favourite Matt Alden (BoyGroove), bounce from one zany character to the next. What you might get tired of, though, is waiting for the three of them to get to their all-too-predictable conclusion. However, if you enjoyed the movie Knocked Up and the last episode of Friends, well, then you're in luck.

The use of a comical soundtrack and a screen to reveal the silhouettes of radio callers were sound directorial decisions.

-- Demetra Hajaidacos


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Title Pending Productions
Tom Hendry Theatre at the MTC Warehouse (Venue 6), to July 25

Emilene is one hot girl, but her effect on men is downright stifling.

Well, not all men, just Paper Jack, whose emotions affect the weather. When the pair fall in love, it's nothing but blue skies and sunshine in Jack's heart, which means drought, bad crops and despair for the villagers who have been manipulating his emotions for generations as a way of keeping the seasons in order.

The 75-minute show is a cross between a fairy tale and a morality play. Ultimately, it's an exploration of love: should Emilene (played wonderfully by Kami Desilets) follow her heart or do what is right even though it feels wrong?

The story is set in the past, but the talented cast never makes the old-world dialogue seem clunky or strange, even when it is.

Don't be fooled by the boring description in the program, and most of all, don't tick Jack off -- Winnipeg gets enough crappy weather as it is.

-- Rob Williams


Poet Master Production
MTC Warehouse (Venue 6), to July 27

THIS amateur Winnipeg production about teenagers' relationship angst, by performers barely out of high school, is best left for friends and family of the cast.

A group of friends gather at a birthday party and spend the evening drinking, flirting, bragging, smoking and obsessing. That's all that happens in the mercifully short 35-minute time span.

The young actors deserve a pat on the back for having the guts to get onstage, but they are not well served by any aspect of the writing or direction.

Even though the cast is large, the 10 actors seem to take up almost no space on the huge Warehouse stage. Someone should move the couches much closer to the front so when the actors are sitting on them, they can been seen, if not heard.

--Morley Walker


Struts & Frets Players
The Conservatory (Venue 7), to July 26

This is a stage production of the biggest, most tragic, Greek hero epic ever.

And it's hilarious!

Taking their source material from the story of how Perseus slew the Gorgon Medusa, Winnipeg's Struts & Frets Players, directed by Carolyn Gray, have crafted a funny, well-paced, retelling of what is actually a pretty convoluted myth.

A slightly loopy oracle (Jessy Ardern) warns Acrisius (Dan Augusta) that his daughter's son Perseus (Ariel Levine) will be the cause of his death. This sets off a chain of events that leads to the quest to kill Medusa. Shadow puppets, masks, and a "leggy" sea monster add to the goofy adventure.

There are a lot of funnybones on that stage. These actors have great timing and know how to deliver a comic line, which they do, one right after another. S&F Players recommends it especially for kids, but this teenage troupe has pulled off the trick of mounting a production that defies any age limit for the audience.

-- Wendy Burke


Phil the Void
The Playhouse Studio (Venue 3), to July 26

California-based comic Phil van Hest is bound to appeal to Canadian fringe audiences because much of his material in this followup to his 2006 show, Nature Abhors a Vacuum, is about the stupidity of Americans.

Intentionally or not, van Hest plays to a certain smug Canuck sensibility; I know I like him.

But even off the topic of his "I-don't-want-to-think-about-it" countrymen, van Hest demonstrates a comic sensibility as playful as it is smart, on a diversity of topics, including emotionally manipulative bumper stickers, Jesus Camp, and the driving game of putting the word "anal" in front of the make of car in front of you.

-- Randall King


Fancy Molasses Productions
Onstage at the Playhouse (Venue 4), to July 26

"There are not that many guys in Elbow, Saskatchewan, who know where the clitoris is."

But librarian Esther Kirkenchuk (Brigette DePape), the daughter of a fundamentalist Conservative MP, finds one. And their night of secretly videotaped passion leads her to an adult video awards show in Toronto -- in the amateur category. Playwright Chris Craddock's returning fringe fave also features the versatile Anne Wyman as Esther's lover, dead sister and mother (the latter character's lecture on how female sexuality is like sticky tape is a standout monologue).

At 18, DePape is probably younger than the character she plays, but she brings an innocence to her character that serves to galvanize Craddock's heartfelt attack on the devastating neo-puritanism of the religious right.

-- Randall King


Prairie Fire Productions
PTE -- Colin Jackson Studio (Venue 17), to July 27

There's just not enough substance to this low-budget exploration of the Follies -- the cheeky Vaudeville-style skits and over-the-top dance numbers made famous in the first half of the century.

The revue starts with actor Sharon Nowlan twirling around endlessly onstage in a big red dress, and it doesn't get much snappier from there. Nowlan gives us a couple of brief lectures on the history of the Follies from Paris to Broadway, a couple of pantomimes covering the rules for the 1950s housewife and the loneliness of a modern working woman and some amateurish dance numbers. The highlight is a much tighter bit featuring a cameo by stage manager Nicole Olszewski, who plays Nowlan's younger rival at a dance audition.

Nowlan is watchable and charming on stage, but there's just nowhere near enough material for a 55-minute exploration of the genre. That's a disappointment, since Nowlan was part of the Saskatchewan troupe that previously brought us Caberlesque! -- a much more sophisticated and sexy take on the times.

-- Mary Agnes Welch


Horse Trade Theatre Group
Red River College, Princess Street Campus (Venue 11), to July 27

If there were a meter to measure the enthusiasm of fringe artists, Clay McLeod Chapman and Hanna Cheek's score would be off the charts. The young but seasoned New York City performers are tickled to be at their first Canadian fringe. They greet audience members like invited guests to a house party.

At their first show they delivered a strong set of sketches, penned by Chapman, that had the literary quality of short stories. Both are fine actors, but Cheek, a smart Parker Posey type, shows exceptional range and depth.

Their "stories," as they bill them, are not just tossed-off parodies or setups for punchlines. They're intelligent vignettes with full narrative arcs, rich with imagery.

In The Pool Witch, Chapman masterfully recounts a puberty tale set at a water slide as if it's a sea-monster tale of epic proportions. In the clever Suicide Bomber, the ponytailed Cheek is a cheerleader on a sacred mission to martyr herself for the team.

The duo can do touchingly serious material, as in Oldsmobile, in which they play an elderly couple. And when Cheek gives a drunken toast to the bride in Bridesmaid, they venture into extremely dark -- but riveting -- territory.

Their gimmick is that they have 14 stories prepared, and only perform four or five per show, based on a random draw. That will undoubtedly entice some fringers to go back for seconds of Pumpkin Pie.

-- Alison Mayes


The Conservatory (Venue 7), to July 26

The farm has been sold to an evil agri-business conglomerate run by ogres, the farmer has decided to pack it in and head for the retirement home, and his teenage son is out on his ear. All is not lost, however. The lad has a talking cat who only needs a hat, a sack and a pair of boots to help his master find his fortune.

Written by Sue Proctor and Paul Langel, Loonissee's cast includes four confident teens who can act and carry a tune or two with enthusiasm. Langel's charming original songs put the "folk" into this re-imagined telling of the folk tale Puss-In-Boots.

Veteran performer Proctor is so very comfortable on stage, and she has a gas doing turns as the daffy narrator as well as other minor characters in the play. The rest of the troupe is well-rehearsed, but Loonissee's overall style is relaxed, and everyone on stage is clearly having some fun being there.

The script really needs a couple of re-drafts, though. There are just a few too many loose threads, and the ending needs to come to a more resounding conclusion.

All in all a nice performance, and kids up to age 10 will quite enjoy this Winnipeg production.

-- Wendy Burke



The Playhouse Studio (Venue 3), to July 25

After a beer-drinking binge, Bev (Laura Whyte) and Tonka (Emiko Muraki) realize that a dead end awaits their existence in a northern Alberta trailer park, with Tonka especially fearful that she'll end up working in a Saan store "selling people ill-advised culottes." So they decide to head for the big city of Calgary -- sorry, make that Winnipeg (a transparent attempt to localize the comedy) -- to realize their dreams of ... whatever.

Lampooning "trailer trash" is a condescending venture at best, and this Calgary-based duo exacerbate the problem with a half-formed, slipshod script that includes a rap routine and a video segment in which Tonka punctuates every other sentence with the phrase: " ... to the extreme." Muraki and Whyte would probably do well to turn their satiric attention to the '90s, as they seem to be stuck there anyway.

-- Randall King


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Peg City Kitty
The Conservatory (Venue 7), to July 27

Smart writing carries this two-hander from locals Libby Lea and Theresa Fawcett, penned by Jeremy Bowkett, much farther than its funny but slight premise might otherwise warrant.

It's the 8th century BC and Tarpiea (Lea), a vestal virgin, and her BFF Amelia (Fawcett), the daughter of the king of Rome, are the original (toga) party girls. To pulsing dance music, the two indolent, entitled bad girls do drugs, shop and sleep around (well, not the V.V, who attends "veev" functions instead), all the while engaging in very modern, hilariously obscene, bitchy banter (with the occasional Latin lesson thrown in). Little do they know, these Paris Hiltons of Rome are about to change history.

Fawcett is a commanding stage presence -- her talk-to-the-hand way with a diss is enviable -- but Lea is less so (her many little line flubs add up). The hour-long play is divided into too many short little scenes, which disrupts the flow, but the climax has surprising emotional heft, coming as it does from two such shallow girls.

-- Jill Wilson


Erik de Waal
The Conservatory (Venue 7), to July 26

This hour-long story based on Cervantes' classic novel is a surprising misfire from perennial fringe fave Erik de Waal, the South African storyteller who's been captivating local audiences for years.

Setting aside the mush-mouthed delivery, hesitations and muffed lines as opening-night kinks (although one doesn't expect them from such a seasoned vet), de Waal's story of the windmill-tilting Don Quixote, as told from the perspective of his faithful servant, Sancho Panza, largely fails to transport the listener into another world. Alone on a stage that's bare except for a chair, a bucket and a mop (props that could get a little more use), de Waal recounts the adventures of the dreamer knight errant and his more grounded squire. But their mishaps are mostly less than captivating, told in quotidian language and with a lot of huffing and puffing for nought -- instances that should be humorous fall flat. The moment when Sancho fully enters into Quixote's deluded world is magical, but it doesn't last.

The twist de Waal puts on the tale is clever, furthering the moral that it's better to see the world as it might be than merely to accept it as it is. It would be nice if the rest of the production lived up to that enchanting premise.

-- Jill Wilson


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Shrimp Magnet Theatre Company
The Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 9), to July 25

Lots of really physical comedy, really cool talk of aliens, and really fun costumes and sets makes this a really, really good Kids Fringe show.

Join Scott and Will as they set off on a mission to solve the mystery of what is really real and what is just plain imagined. This Toronto powerhouse troupe really (OK, I'll stop now) knows its stuff and could entertain even the most discriminating audience member. And what's refreshing about this show is that the adults were laughing just as hard as the kids.

Leslie Halferty, Kate Keenan, Scott McCallum and C.J. Schneider are outstanding in this adventure story that's appropriate for families with children of all ages. A baby was cooing throughout and it didn't bother these guys and gals one bit. In fact, this zany bunch often fed off of the audience and included the kids in their mission.

Very smart and full of twists and turns that I won't ruin here. But if your kids are saving a place for their new imaginary friend at the dinner table afterwards, you'll know why.

--Demetra Hajaidacos


Aztec Theatre
Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 9), to July 26

Emily and Eddie, who have been living together for over a year, are growing irritated with each other. He's a nerdy academic who finds himself vulnerable to an affair with a student who worships him. She's a fretful creative type who is tempted to get re-involved with a sensual artist. The handkerchief of the title is a scarlet symbol of possible adultery.

As they prepare for a costume party, Emily and Eddie separately confess to the audience, with the opposite actor taking the role of the seductive outsider. The most appealing aspect of this hour-long relationship comedy is how it plays with truth, as each partner amusingly fibs to the audience.

Real-life Winnipeg couple Alison Vargo and Chris Sabel are confident actors, and Sabel's switching between geeky and sexy characters is especially fun to watch. As the playwright, though, Sabel has bitten off a little more than he can chew. The tense dialogue between Emily and Eddie often rings false, and the ending is perplexing in its attempt to say something about fantasy, disguised desire and coupledom.

-- Alison Mayes


Moving Target Theatre Company
Rudolf Rocker Cultural Centre (Venue 22), to July 27

Negative nebbish Fred Mandelbaum (Andrew Cecon) lives alone, visits his absent-minded mother at the nursing home and is sweet on Cyndy (Clare Therese Friesen), the working girl he's hired to "sleep over" on a regular basis. For Fred, this is as good as it gets. But it all goes to hell when a cop shows him a picture of a murdered girl in a warehouse. Fred's natural predisposition to anxiety goes into overdrive in this tense, curious murder-mystery.

Director Arne MacPherson maximizes his use of the venue space with creative staging, and keeps Daniel Thau-Eleff's dark, funny script moving steadily along at a beat cop's pace -- not too fast and not to slow. Solid performances are delivered by all seven members of the cast. Doreen Brownstone is especially endearing as one of the slightly-out-of-touch residents of a Jewish retirement home, searching for her "Herschel," and Jeff Strome's tightly wound, smart-mouth cop is pretty much everything a prairie citizen both wants and fears in a "law enforcement professional."

-- Wendy Burke


M.P.M.M. Productions
Planetarium Auditorium (Venue 10), to July 26

The trouble with Retail is that it doesn't have much to sell.

Writer/performer/director Joel Passante promises to swing open the staff-room doors in stores to expose what's really going on. What we learn is what we already suspected, that working in retail can be crappy if you have to clean up after slovenly shoppers, be verbally assaulted by idiot customers or hunt for anything in the stockroom.

Passante proves to be a pleasant people person on stage, probably the result of seven years in the retail trenches. But his act, despite some funny moments, comes across as a 40-minute bitch session that is hard to buy into.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Outport Productions
Son of Warehouse Venue 5, to July 26

Maritime writer-actor Wanda Carroll turns up the Corner Gas shtick full blast in this comic monologue about growing up rustic in the outback of Newfoundland in the '60s and '70s.

Her 75-minute show, a combination of the old Codco TV show and a Wayne Johnston novel, consists of a non-stop series of anecdotes about the lack of plumbing, jobs and other civilized amenities one must live without in the Canadian version of backwoods Tennessee.

If there was a hatching, matching or dispatching that took place in her outport village during her first 18 years, the now 42-year-old brunette, a gentle version of Mary Walsh, gives us the gory details.

Much of it is charming and funny. Without music, props or any real staging at all (besides a table with two glasses of water), she declaims in a broad Newfie brogue about her "mudder," her "fadder" and her auntie's lime-green "bat'room" in the metropolis of Cornerbrook, which she drove to on an actual paved road.

She could cut 15 minutes without noticeable loss. She also muffs the odd line.

But even if her delivery were impeccable, her monologue would still be missing any conflict and tension. Coming from Newfoundland is not drama enough.

-- Morley Walker


Fergus Rougier
School of Contemporary Dancers (Venue 8), to July 27

He's a mime who plays the accordion. While wearing Spandex.

If that isn't enough to warn you away from this bizarre one-man washout, Fergus Rougier also sings in a grandiose, high-pitched style that crosses Berlin cabaret with rock's androgynous Freddie Mercury.

Rougier comes from England with obvious vocal and physical-theatre training. He's an expressive mover with great control over his muscular body. He's able to make us see a turbulent ocean by flailing his limbs beneath a sheet of stretchy blue fabric.

But his hour-long retelling of the Robinson Crusoe tale is a desperately awkward mishmash of weird, accordion-accompanied songs, unfunny comedy and often-tedious mime. Sometimes it seems Rougier must be targeting kids. What adult is going to laugh at the castaway salvaging a microwave oven from his ship, or find it hilarious when he tries to start a fire and asks the audience, "You don't have a lighter, do you?"

On the other hand, the show is rife with kid-inappropriate references to smoking and drinking. "Drink's only a problem when it runs out, right?" Rougier asks.

Sadly, there's no rum passed around to make this shipwreck bearable.

-- Alison Mayes


Ruthable Productions
Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 9), to July 26

Carolyn, who is in her 40s and desperate to be a mother, is running out of eggs -- and money to pay for in vitro fertilization attempts. Jenny, a naïve teenager from a religious family, is running away from terrifying responsibility as she finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy.

Winnipeg's Ruth Baines, the creator of this well-paced hour-long solo show, alternates between the two characters in a poignant exploration of the cruel ironies of fertility and timing. Her portrayal of the older woman is more believably fleshed out, tugging at our heartstrings with Carolyn's yearning to feel life inside her. Baines expresses that longing in dance interludes, giving heartfelt physicality to the jumble of hopefulness and emptiness felt by women who are trying to conceive.

Baines's writing and acting could both use more emotional poetry, and more character depth to avoid caricature. But there is aching truth here. Baines taps into the anguish we all feel when our bodies don't stick to the life script we've laid out. In that sense, Running Out is universal.

-- Alison Mayes


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Otherwise Productions
Red River College (Venue 11), to July 27

Vancouver writer-actor Tina Teeninga accomplishes an impressive feat in this 60-minute one-woman drama -- she makes us care about the fates of two young women who lead parallel lives of disenchantment in the big city.

The first is Mary Tyler Moore-style innocent trying to make a go of it as a salesgirl in a high-end jewelry store. The second is an engineer from the former Yugoslavia who is haunted by the ghosts of her homeland and is forced to work as a janitor.

Teeninga, a gorgeous brunette of about 30, expertly delineates the two characters, switching between them every few minutes. She also plays several supporting characters, most notably the jewelry store's haughty female manager.

But it might be her writing that is Teeninga's strongest suit. She wrings actual suspense from her humanistic story and displays a poet's gift for simile. Stars shine in the night sky "like a million tiny opals" and a dying crow lies on the pavement, its wing "like a slick of oil."

She employs little music and only a few props. She wastes no time on corny romantic subplots. She holds our attention with her talent alone.

--Morley Walker


Rapid Fire Theatre
Ragpickers Theatre (Venue 13), to July 27

You need only to prompt Rapid Fire a bit to get the Edmonton improv troupe to embark on an outlandish, 50-minute comic lark.

At a recent fringe performance, the duo of Kevin Gillese and Arlen Konopaki took three audience topic suggestions -- a kitchen, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and the movie Tombstone -- to create, on the spot, a crazy yarn about a heroine-addicted cat named Condor, a cancer patient whose treatment turns him into a giant Hulk-like creature and a lab mouse into Chris Farley, as well as a sick gunslinger named Doc Vacation.

The agile improvisers proved to be quick on their feet, but their ad-libs were not as inspiring as they attempted to being the dissimilar threads of the three storylines together for the climax. They also improvised the ending at the 50-minute mark, 25 minutes earlier than the stated show length.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Imagine That Productions
Son of Warehouse (Venue 5), to July 27

JODIE Sadowski is "Bob ... Roberta ... Bob," a hitchhiker with the nebulous goal of heading east "to the water" in Daniel MacIvor's downbeat one-hander.

From the makeshift confessional of the passenger seat, Bob slowly reveals the horrors of her life to random drivers, including childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her father, who transmutes into a "big weird animal" in Bob's fevered imagination.

The structure of MacIvor's play is like an intricate puzzle box, and Sadowski confidently manipulates its shifting pieces to demonstrate how ultimate parental betrayal can devastate the emotional life of the adult survivor.

-- Randall King


Magic of One Productions
Aqua Books (Venue 21), to July 26

Now there is a lot of theatre at this year's fringe involving special lights and sound and some wonderful running around on the stage. Don't expect to see any of that here, though, because what this established Winnipeg trio performs is called story-telling. You know, the kind of thing people used to do before iPods and TVO. Still lost? Well, this is the place to come and see master story-weavers at work. From the moment Tom Roche, Mary Louise Chown and Kay Stone took the stage, I knew I was going to be thoroughly entertained. Maybe it was the live Celtic music that charmed me, or perhaps it was the age of the performers (over 20 and under 70) that caught my attention. But one thing's for certain, after Roche finished the opening yarn of this six-story set, I was hooked.

These global tales of sinning are timeless ones that you might find yourself re-telling the next day at work or to your kids. In fact bring your kids, and someone elderly that remembers life before television. This show is a treat for anyone old enough to sit through a 75-minute show and young enough to still enjoy juicy tales of lust, greed and wrath. Unplug your teenagers from their electronics and, trust me, you'll have something to talk about on the car ride home.

--Demetra Hajaidacos


Three Sheets Productions
MTC Up the Alley (Venue 2), to July 26

This Toronto production offers up a slice of post-SARS endemic paranoia in a speculative look at an entire city placed under quarantine lockdown.

Here, the citizens infected by a strain of avian flu transform into birds. Given that fantastic conceit, you might think the play is satiric or comic in intent, but in fact the trio of actors keep the tone dead serious, bouncing between the varied coping mechanism of a brother and his agoraphobic sister, a pair of Platonic roommates on the cusp of a deeper relationship, and a survivalist vlogger who goes online to tell the blogosphere, "I told you so," before embarking on a more radical campaign of survival.

At 90 minutes, this might have seemed a strain on the patience of fringe-goers, but the three actors are capable, the avian musical soundtrack is effectively unsettling, and the staging is clever. A less solemn tone might have really made this play take wing.

-- Randall King


PTE - Mainstage (Venue 16), to July 27

This summer marks the second run for Shades of Brown, a play that earned high praise when it was debuted in 2002 by producer and writer Primrose Madayag Knazan, whose numerous plays have earned her a fringe following. The new cast members turn in near-flawless performances as three young women grappling with what it means to be Filipino in Canada.

There's Sienna (Diana Dizor), born in the Philippines but raised in Canada on a diet of Baywatch and 90210, Malaya (Tiffany Ponce), a later immigrant to Canada who struggled to fit in, and Sandy (Keri-Lee Smith), a Caucasian girl whose penchant for dating Asian guys developed her love of FIlipino culture, but earned raised eyebrows from skeptical parents.

The women dissect racial slurs and examine stereotypes in a fast-paced script that at times feels more like a spoken-word performance.

During scene changes, audiences are treated to brief, beautiful dances by a troupe from Magdaragat Phiippines Inc. -- a clever touch in a script that also offers some tongue-in-cheek commentary on the nature of cultural performance.

Although some stereotype-busting scenes feel a little hackneyed, ,em>Shades of Brown is, on the whole, an interesting look at the Filipino experience in Canada, with a heartfelt message of belonging and acceptance.

-- Lindsey Wiebe


Gemma Wilcox
MTC Backstage at the Mainstage (Venue 1), to July 26

Fringe favourite Gemma Wilcox (Best of Fest show The Honeymoon Period is Officially Over, 2007) inhabits another full cast of characters -- most of them human -- in this one-woman finale to a semi-autobiographical quintet of connected but stand-alone plays.

This time out, the Colorado-based British performer moves her main character, Sandra, to London to be close to her sexy sax-playing boyfriend Pete. Two weeks later, the relationship is on the rocks. Pete's daughter, Lou, hates her, and Sandra is jealous of some of the adult women in Pete's life. With her 30th birthday approaching, her biological clock is ticking and Sandra wants Pete to make an official commitment.

She may get a happy ending, but the journey here is more important than the destination. Wilcox pulls off a deft display of character-hopping, bouncing among a multitude of roles, from a comic gay houseplant named Kevin to a sultry nightclub singer and even a pair of doomed lobsters, without ever dropping the story's thread.

The external action is impressive enough, but the most powerful scenes are the physical depictions of Sandra's inner turmoil -- she mimes sticking a knife in her heart when Pete makes an insensitive comment and, later, a moment of visceral rage paints a picture so realistic, it has the audience cringing in horror. It's quite a feat, and sure bet for your fringe budget.

--Pat St. Germain


Monster Theatre
PTE Mainstage (Venue 16), to July 27

Much like Rick Chafe's Shakespeare's Dog, The Shakespeare Show poses a theory as to how an illiterate son of a glover could become the world's greatest playwright. Monster Theatre's Ryan Gladstone takes the contrarian view that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford wrote all those plays, using the name of a dopey house-handler named Shakespeareso that the nobleman could keep secret his lowly pastime.

While de Vere ruminates about whether "to write or not to write," Shakespeare is characterized as a dim-witted opportunist who discovered the script for Hamlet in the stables and believed Chester the horse wrote it.

Gladstone brings the bawdy world of Shakespeare, whoever he might be, to life with a verve that is entertaining throughout. While he plays Shakespeare as a dimwit, Tara Travis is impressive as the forgotten de Vere and most of the other characters.

The Shakespeare Show stands out in the festival for having something to say, and saying it with purpose and humour.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Petit Pont Productions
Onstage at the Playhouse (Venue 4), to July 26

One day, we'll be bragging that we saw Winnipeg's Brigette DePape back when she was an 18-year-old who attempted a risky baton trick -- a one-girl show -- and managed to catch it with an abundance of charm, heart and talent.

Supported by some adult artists who helped her shape her ideas, DePape brings more poise and writerly skill to the story of Sophie, a lonely baton twirler, than many fringe soloists display at twice her age. And though it would help if she projected her voice a little more, she manages it at a venue in which the audience is stretched out in extremely long rows and there's a lack of intimacy.

Drawing on her own background as a twirler, DePape pokes affectionate fun at this "very serious sport" while showing off some nifty tricks. Sophie's baton sometimes speaks to her in a taunting voice -- a device used sparingly to underline her shaky sense of self. She's so over-identified with baton, and so desperate for a friend, that she "made a sparkly bodysuit for her hamster."

There's a boy twirler in the story who carries physical scars that mirror Sophie's emotional ones. Sophie loves him from afar, but she is a prisoner of self-doubt and grief who hides under the bleachers at competitions.

There's nothing earth-shattering about a teen who feels like a freak, nor about the revelation that many girls who throw themselves into smiley activities are hurting on the inside. But DePape puts a lovely spin on a universal adolescent story, tossing out a challenge for everyone to get out from under their personal bleachers.

--Alison Mayes


Sound & Fury
Gas Station Theatre (Venue 18), to July 26

Richard Maritzer, Shelby Bond and Vinny Cardinale had a large first-night turn-out of Sound & Fury fans in uproarious laughter before they even began their performance. In turn, the three were having a hard time stifling their smiles and giggles as everyone on both sides of the footlights at the Gas Station Theatre enjoyed themselves.

As they have done to much hilarity with the Bard's plays, the Los Angeles-based troupe lampooned Sherlock Holmes and give it a typical Sound & Fury twist. Leading man Martizer got tricked out of playing Holmes by Bond, who dons the great fictional detective's deerstalker cap and portrays him as a dim-witted goof. "The game is afeet," enthuses Bond. Maritzer is demoted to the role of Dr. Watson, but plays his character as the much sharper sleuth.

Throughout the show, the local favourites added asides (a joke about Confusion Corner brought down the house) and generally had a ball with sexual double entendres and Sherlockian satire.

-- Kevin Prokosh
Space Warrior Players
Son of Warehouse (Venue 5), to July 26

IT'S elementary, dear fringer. If you relish the idea of seeing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective spoofed, your faithful critic has made a startling deduction: You must go directly to the OTHER Sherlock Holmes show at this fringe, the one by comedy veterans Sound & Fury.

Should you stumble, unaware, into this clunky display of amateur theatrics by Pinawa's Space Warrior Players, you'll be yawning through a two-actor version of the 1892 story The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

The female Ashley Toews plays Holmes low-key and straight, with her deerstalker hat half-hiding her face -- probably out of shame over Alan Fehr's script. Fehr, who wears jeans, gives himself the running gag of being forced to don ludicrous costumes and play all the supporting roles. That's mildly amusing, and there are a handful of chuckles, like the line about a woman who died "of a mysterious illness while underneath a speeding train."

But for the most part, the duo plods through the creaky story straight. At one point, when Holmes and Watson are doing a nighttime stakeout, there's a long, long, long scene in the dark, with no dialogue. That sound of a ticking clock? That's 45 minutes of your life that no sleuth will ever be able to recover.

-- Alison Mayes


Chanting Raven Productions
Planetarium Auditorium (Venue 10), to July 26

If you missed this grippingly honest autobiographical tale of musician Randy Rutherford's battle with congenital hearing loss at last year's festival, don't make the same mistake again this year.

The San Francisco native, donning a digital ear piece, serves up a lyrical 80-minute performance driven by powerful storytelling that pops with unexpected humour and the kind of music that makes your hair stand up.

Rutherford transports the audience back to his carefree youth in the 1970s when love was in the air and being paid to play the acoustic guitar at Alaska's Fancy Moose Saloon was like having died and gone to heaven. When the music starts slipping away, so does Rutherford's perfect life, and it takes one last visit from someone he cares deeply about to appreciate the importance of dreaming no matter what life throws your way.

Heart-rendingly beautiful. A must-see.

-- Demetra Hajidiacos


Brother Mycroft Productions
Red River College (Venue 11), to July 26

OH, yes, yes, yes, oh yes! Yes, some fringe troupe foolishly thinks it can give fringe-goers some bang for their buck by offering a titillating peek at the adult film industry. Not unlike typical porn, Skin Flick is a lot of heavy breathing and dirty talk that is anything but arousing.

Cory wants to shoot his first skin flick, which spurs pal Austin to apply to be the stud in it. The female star turns out to be Alyssa, a former co-worker at Safeway. Predictably, the taping does not go well as the pair, renamed Awesome Austin and Vikki Vixen, fumble unsuccessfully on the darkened stage.

This flaccid, adolescent offering written by Gonzalo Riedel appears to be a cautionary tale, a warning that people can get screwed in the porno business and that it is run by scumbags. Oh, yes.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Prancing Pickle Pony Productions
School of Contemporary Dancers (Venue 8), to July 26

Pharmaceutical account manager Lily likes to keep a positive attitude. She has her power song, she can tap-dance her sorrows away and she's looking forward to a wonder pill that can cure loneliness (just don't ask about the side effects).

Naturally, there's more going on underneath the surface, and as this solo show progresses, Lily's fragile house of cards begins to fold in on itself. This could be old hat, but writer-performer Nicole Ascroft is so vivacious and gleefully physical that it becomes fresh again. As a flighty woman nervously navigating a rigidly constructed world, Ascroft hones in on Lily's essential goodness, and makes her character glow. (She also has a knack for hilariously spontaneous comic bits.) Ascroft hits the end message too hard -- the theme of humanity versus consumer anxiety isn't so subtle that we need it laid out for us -- and you can accurately predict the script's crisis point in the first five minutes. But it's the character more than the script that charms here.

--Melissa Martin


Onstage at the Playhouse (Venue 4), to July 26.

FROM an Edmonton company that has mounted several best-of-fringe efforts, this 90-minute Second World War drama boasts a superb script from veteran playwright Kenneth Brown and first-rate performances from a three-member cast.

The story is a staple of Canadian war dramas. An innocent young man joins the air force, leaves his girl back home and confronts experiences overseas, both good and bad, that will him last a lifetime.

Blake William Turner deserves full marks for his portrayal of the prairie-born flyboy, and his co-stars, Caley Suliak and Bryan D. Webb, who essay several supporting roles each, are every bit his match.

It's amazing what they do armed with a few simple props, real acting technique and Brown's brilliant narrative skills. Life always seems more intense in periods of war -- when duty and death, courage and passion are all around -- and this production brings them all into sharp focus.

-- Morley Walker


Ko-peeka Jo-sla
Exchange Community Church (Venue 12), to July 26

This low-key, one-woman monologue orbits a Jewish-Russian family called the Sputniks. The narrator, Katusha, the daughter of two academics, relates how after her father is pressured to join the Communist Party, the trio decides to leave Russia and begin a long, soul-sapping search for a home.

Written and performed by the barefoot Elison Zasko, formerly of Moscow, The Sputniks mixes an authentic voice with a bittersweet flavour that is quite winning. It is hard not to empathize with any refugee who would agree to a one-month sanitorium stay in order to land a visa for Sweden.

The bumpy road to freedom for immigrants is not a new story, so Zasko ups the ante by injecting a last-minute plot twist that is more unsettling than satisfying.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Epicworlds - Jonno Katz
Exchange Community Church (Venue 12), to July 27

Even the unshakeable James Bond would likely have a heart attack (or laughing fit) if he saw this giddy parody of 1970s British Secret Service intrigue.

Australian Jonno Katz is hysterical as a member of the Secret Service who's on a global chase of a mysterious Russian double agent, sending up every cheesey stereotype and gratutious fight scene he can along the way. Most of Saturday night's full house was in constant uproar over Katz's exploits as spy Seymour Fogg, and you'll especially enjoy the show if you're a fan of physical comedy and miming, at which Katz is undeniably great. Suited up in ultra-suede and sweating profusely, Katz plucks out his material from the audience and tosses it into the mix.

Unfortunately, then, that mix sometimes became incoherent as the spy plot veered off track and small side sketches became completely incomprehensible.

While some material might be funny due to Katz's improvisational delivery, it didn't always make sense. Spy films have never been totally about plot, but they need some semblance of a story arc -- and Katz could use more of one here. A performer can't let his audience get away from him, even if he's got them in stitches.

--Gabrielle Giroday


Classic Us! Productions
Ragpickers (Venue 13), to July 27

Speak up, people!! There were probably three dozen good lines and funny, Winnipeggy moments in this energetic jumble of a show, but I just couldn't hear most of them. And that' a shame, because the bits I did hear were a cheeky romp.

It's the story of eight strangers stuck on a rooftop with a dead lady on Canada Day -- kind of a Breakfast Club thing. They scream and fight and break up and confess and get drunk and try to remember the Superman theme song.

There's too many characters and none are particularly well developed. There's too much aimless shuffling around on the tiny stage, and too many scene changes. And the dead-lady device wasn't needed at all.

But it just barrels ahead full-tilt with a hip cast that is well-rehearsed and really gives 'er. The painted skyline backdrop is cool, and rickety old Ragpickers is the perfect urban venue.

If the cast members could just quit mumbling and speed-talking their way through their lines, they'd have a pretty fun, post-beer tent show on their hands.

-- Mary Agnes Welch


Sugar and Spice Productions
MTC Up the Alley (Venue 2), to July 26

From a throbbing soundtrack to pitch-perfect acting, this drama takes distasteful subject matter -- pedophilia, child porn and suicide -- and keeps audience members squirming until a dramatic conclusion.

The play, based on the movie Hard Candy, opens with a 14-year-old honours student, Haley, sitting in a cafe with a seductive 32-year-old photographer, Jeff, after the duo have met up the Internet.

Let the stomach churning begin.

From the play's opening minutes, actor Karl Thordarson handles the slimy character of Jeff with such ease that audience members visibly cringed when he slowly wiped a crumb of chocolate cake from Haley's cheek. Soon, both head back to his apartment, where they start downing screwdrivers.

Then, a manic pyscho-social guessing game begins for audience members about who's hunting whom.

Gislina Patterson is thoroughly believable in the cheeky role of teen Haley, a not-so-innocent teen gifted with dark comic delivery who had the audience chuckling as gruesome events start unfolding. Never mind the cartooned back-pack she's carrying -- Haley's conniving use of modern technology to torture others provides a sheen of sympathy to Jeff's own cruelty.

This is no easy feat.

Steel thyself for this one-hour production: it's full of graphic and sexual content and bloody imagery that will haunt you long after the theatre lights have gone up.

With that warning aside, the production by Debbie Patterson is remarkably tight, from stage design to music to the wonderful young cast. See it, if you think you can handle it.

--Gabrielle Giroday


Die Roten Punkte
MTC Backstage at the Mainstage (Venue 1), to July 26

Otto and Astrid Rot, Berlin's prince and princess of punk parody, make another Winnipeg concert stop after sweeping the best production honours at fringe festivals in both Montreal and Ottawa.

Super Musikant (German for Super Musician) offers another sonic barrage and more sibling squabbling from Die Roten Punkte (The Red Dots), a pounding two-piece that sends up the White Stripes. Much of the fun is the improvised interplay between the self-indulgent brother and sister, who are back on tour after taking time off to deal with her excessive drinking. The creepy sexual tension between the randy drummer Astrid (Claire Bartholomew) and the lipstick-smeared guitarist Otto (Daniel Tobias) is deftly maintained.

The pair can play and are firm believers that it takes only three notes to make a great song. Expect to join in on Astrid's drinking song, which boasts the refrain, "Don't be pains in the asses/Let's fill up our glasses/You'll be dead for a very long time." Rock on, Die Roten Punkte.

-- Kevin Prokosh


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Solid State Breakdance
MTC Warehouse (Venue 6), to July 25

Anyone who enjoys breakdancing should check out this show from Montreal. Three dancers -- one female and two male -- mix tricky footwork with impressive displays of the street-bred style that includes spinning on heads and shoulders, tireless dropping to the floor, flipping around and popping back up, bits of gymnastics and feats of strength, flexibility and balance.

The show is supposed to explore the question, "Why don't we dance in couples anymore?" It does deliver, as indicated in the program, a fresh mix of the partnering style of swing dance with the movement style of breakdance. The music is well chosen, often merging vintage swing with hip-hop beats. There are some great gender-reversing moments.

But it's not always clear what choreographers JoDee Allen and Helen Simard are getting at in terms of their theme. There are mystifying stretches and static bits. It appears that the show was meant to feature two couples, and that the unexplained absence of the second female may have forced last-minute reworking.

Although the three are strong movers who can surely tap, funk and lindy hop, they never bust out in a show-stopping, blow-the-roof-off number to really wow the crowd. The talent is there, but the show's structure could use some refinement.

-- Alison Mayes


Doctor Keir Co.
Planetarium Auditorium (Venue 10), to July 26

Montreal's Keir Cutler wreaks his theatrical revenge against a Winnipeg fringe-goer who accused him in a letter last year of using his play Teaching As You Like It to promote the seduction of underage girls.

Enraged that he was being defamed and tarnished for the sins of his stage character, Cutler responded with Teaching the Fringe, in which he comically trots out a kooky chorus line of rogue audience members.

While the wide-eyed Cutler appears to be a bit of a nut magnet -- he once chased a guy out of a New York theatre who kept yawning loudly during his show -- he mostly concentrates on the letter sent to then-fringe festival executive producer Nick Kowalchuk and Child Find Manitoba charging him with legitimizing the sexual misconduct of students by their teachers.

In his first autobiographical work, Cutler analyzes each word of the letter to much comedic effect. He has great fun at his accuser's expense and the audience is the grateful beneficiary.

-- Kevin Prokosh


North Country Cinema
Son of Warehouse (Venue 5), to July 26

Lost among the almost 139 plays at this year's Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival is Telegrams, a screening of new works by emerging Canadian filmmakers. Each evening a different selection of movies, ranging in length from a 60-second short to a 42-minute work, is presented with live introductions by the filmmakers.

The central movie -- because at 42 minutes, it is by far the longest -- is Alexander Carson's Lucy James Part 1, which focuses on the young revellers at a wedding reception and the late-night game of hide-and-seek they play in a hotel. While the craft is competent, the story is hardly compelling, which doesn't bode well for Part 2.

Some of the briefer pieces, like Daniel Beirne's Beth, work up more interest. Somehow for his first post-graduate film, Beirne landed Cara Pilko (TV's This Is Wonderland) to star in his five-minute character study about a woman who has just found out she's pregnant. It shows promise, as does Telegrams, as a welcome break from all the theatre.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Meow Mix Tango Productions
MTC Backstage at the Mainstage (Venue 1), to July 26

The life of the party in 2004 fringe hit The Year of the Panda, funny girl Vanessa Macrae is in relationship rehab this time out. Her actress character comes home to Winnipeg after a breakup and invites the audience to follow along on her road to recovery. Despite a recurring zen theme in which she repeatedly fills and empties a bathtub, the ride gets a little bumpy at times. But Macrae's gift for mimicry makes it worth the trip. She literally puts herself into other characters' shoes -- mocking a student therapist, a hapless life coach, quirky co-workers and even her long-suffering mother when she offers encouraging if unhelpful advice. There's plenty of self-mockery to spare -- she can't help wondering if she looked good to a peeping Tom, and her need to perform for the camera trumps her misgivings when her therapist wants to videotape their sessions. And Macrae tosses in a passionate tribute to idol Barbra Streisand for good comedic measure, dropping to her knees to lip-synch a scene from Yentl. She yearns to be like Babs -- "utterly tragic, yet still fabulous."

But the heart of this tale -- that failed relationship -- is missing a beat. Maybe it's because the scorned lover is the one character who is not subjected to Macrae's full range of insightful mimicry. Sure, we had a few laughs, and you can't help loving the gal. But in the end, the audience is left, like our heroine, wanting something more.

-- Pat St. Germain


Big Sandwich Productions
PTE Mainstage (Venue 16), to July 27

Raconteur extraordinaire TJ Dawe (The Slipknot, Labrador) spins a new tale about personal mythology and how we all create our own symbolic totem poles out of our heroes, whether they be writers, musicians or parents.

Much of his 90-minute Totem Figures monologue is taken up by the 33-year-old Dawe fast talking about himself and the VIPs worthy of the cover of his personal Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. He makes the case that we look for patterns in other people's lives that can be helpful in finding direction for our own epic journey.

Dawe could cut his Totem Figures down to size -- say, 60 minutes -- without sacrificing much impact. There's too much personal information, which is only useful if he hires you to be his official biographer.

His free-flowing delivery is flawless as he darts from subject to subject without a breath -- "I don't do segues," he says, in a moment of understatement. Among fringe performers, he rates top of the totem pole.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Heart & Eyes
Red River College (Venue 11), to July 25

American Martin Moran's powerful memoir maps his painful journey after he is sexually molested at age 12 by a male counsellor at a Catholic boys camp. Moran performed The Tricky Part off-Broadway in 2004 but it is South African actor Peter Hayes who is introducing this deeply moving one-man show to the Canadian fringe festival circuit.

Moran chronicles his early upbringing as a Roman Catholic in Denver before proceeding to a candid account of the affair and a confrontation he had 30 years later with his abuser, an ex-seminarian. Although emotionally broken to the point of two suicide attempts, Moran endures to find forgiveness for his victimizer and himself, while at the same time finding a measure of redemption.

The visceral performance by Hayes captures all the victim's emotional confusion, feelings of spiritual abandonment and desperate need to take back his stolen soul. Despite its 90-minute length, The Tricky Part requires further contemplation, so you might not want to hurry off afterwards to some mindless comedy.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Eyewitness Theatre
School of Contemporary Dancers (Venue 8), to July 27

It's often said that fringe audiences prefer frivolous comedy to meaty drama.

The appreciative packed house for this undeniably heavy Greek tragedy proved otherwise.

England's Eyewitness Theatre gives an engrossing, gutsy performance of Euripedes' antiwar classic. The play is a still-relevant exploration of the plight of women who are treated as spoils to be raped, executed or spared, according to the whims of brutal men.

In this 75-minute adaptation, three captive princesses await their fate after the fall of Troy, igniting dramatic sparks as they rage and lament, forming a kind of death-row sisterhood.

Through their fierce performances and evocative language, you can almost hear the city screaming as the Greek conquerors leave "marble floors slimy with Trojan blood."

Teenage Cassandra is faced with becoming a disposable concubine. Half-mad with fear and shame, she is cursed with the ability to foretell the future. Widowed Andromache is crazed with grief, but steels herself by clinging to duty and dignity. Helen, the regal beauty blamed for the Trojan War, has known real love, but also knows how to manipulate men for the sake of survival.

There's no program to identify the performers. Red-haired Cassandra and blond Helen are terrific, while Andromache is often difficult to hear and becomes a bit tiresome in her one-note recriminations.

Still, for those seeking real theatre at the fringe, Trojan Women delivers.

-- Alison Mayes


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Pot of Jam Productions
Onstage at the Playhouse (Venue 4), to July 26

If you take Lindsay Burns' word for it, women are in big trouble these days. According to the Calgary-based writer/performer, we can blame Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues, for that one. Ever since the hit off-Broadway production started a revolution 10 years ago, women seem more troubled by the state of their privates than they are about the state of their other very important organ ... their brain, that is.

And if you're expecting to get a crash course on feminism in this 90-minute one-woman show, think again. The word doesn't even come up in the string of exemplars and monologues that point to our more important priorities, like Paris Hilton's purse-sized pet or Nicole Richie's baby stroller. And let's not forget our fascination with everything Britney.

Funny and well-paced, this scathing commentary on the female race should make women very, very concerned about our state of affairs, in particular if we have young daughters with a collection of various shades of lipstick and have never heard the term "lipstick party."

Don't bring a date to this one. Burns is clearly speaking to the women in the audience who need to pull up their socks and re-evaluate how invested we all are in pop culture and where we're heading in a world that's capably dictated by the Church of Oprah.

-- Demetra Hajaidacos


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Zinnia Productions
Red River Community College Princess Street Campus (Venue 11), to July 25

This one-woman show explores the reasons why some women do not marry. Toronto actress Jennifer Gillespie met with 30 single women of different ages and recorded on tape their explanations for why they chose to remain unmarried.

The play is an interesting series of character studies, and Gillespie gets to show off her stage chops as a character actress. She has strung all the interviews together and simply becomes each person in turn with virtually no segues between. The interviews themselves offer no new revelations (unless a woman is a lesbian, remaining single, for the most part, seems to boil down to not finding the right man) but would provide some really good raw material for a more conventional play.

Otherwise, is like sitting in a coffee shop and overhearing various conversations. It's fascinating but not challenging enough to allow the audience to come away with something new.

-- Wendy Burke


Press Play Players
Gas Station Theatre (Venue 18), to July 27

Poor Motorcycle Mel died in a collision with a moose, and his favorite trio, Blunderstruck, show up at his funeral. Unfortunately, Father Ed doesn't, and these red-nosed punk clowns, literally, conduct the service.

The clueless Truckstop Trevor, Pittstop Pete and Doorstop Dave follow the traditional religious program and give Mel and his ashes a kick-ass sendoff. They mumble Latin prayers, recite a reading from the book of Rage Against the Machine and perform a musical selection that includes Wipeout, Stairway to Heaven and, of course, Mel's Bells.

The character work of Saskatchewan trio of Alan Long, Garett Long and Jules Mercer is seamlessly threaded through their raw musical talents to bring alive the funeral home. There are moments when the Blunderstruck boys' thick-headedness gets tedious, but they made sure none of the mourners sheds a tear.

-- Kevin Prokosh


The Crosswalk Players
The Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 9), to July 27

HARRY'S had enough of life and is about to jump off a bridge when he meets his old college buddy Milt, who happens to be on the same bridge to kill his wife Ellen so he can run off with a colleague with whom he's having an affair. Milt sets Harry and Ellen up and everyone is happy for a year, until they realize the grass isn't always greener on the other side.

Harry is played with a goofy charm by Mitch Krohn, while Scott Plett is perfectly smarmy as Milt. But it's Alana Penner as Ellen who steals the show with her dynamic soprano and the ability to switch from uber-bitch to sexy and sweet in mere moments.

The show is an adaptation of a New York musical, but there are some songs that could have been dropped and replaced with a line or two of dialogue to cut the show from 90 minutes to a leaner 60-to 75-minute production. Still, fans of musicals will want to give Luv a chance.

--Rob Williams


Ross McMillan's Large Successful Theatre Co.
MTC Backstage at the Mainstage (Venue 1), to July 27

A painfully awkward first date takes a hilarious wrong turn in this comedy from frequent fringers Ross McMillan (The Ingrates, 2007) and George Toles (Shock Corridor, 2006). When stiff paralegal Michael (McMillan) is invited to secretary Jackie's (Jane Walker) Manhattan apartment for Friday dinner, it's quickly apparent that their easy workplace camaraderie is not transferable to an intimate setting. His stilted conversation -- "You like science?" -- and her misguided conviction that he's intentionally funny at work point to a disastrous evening ahead. And make no mistake, this is a night to remember -- it's just not so clear at the beginning which character is going to provide the most memorable moment. The pair inevitably talk shop, but a few glasses of wine smooth the way to more personal subjects. He admits he's writing a tell-all book about the justice system and she is embarrassed to confess she writes children's stories, a revelation that leads to a screamingly funny scene that includes lurid references to incest, a headless topless dancer and a vengeful baby. Not safe first-date subjects by any means.

By the time this misbegotten duo say goodnight, it's clear Monday is going to be a very bad day indeed. But hey, there's always a ray of hope for next Friday. Penned by New York playwright Tom Noonan, this must-see is directed by Toles and Jeannette Heinrichs (Notes From the Underground, 2002).

-- Pat St. Germain


Theatre Serendipity
Son of Warehouse (Venue 5), to July 26

Winnipegger Rachelle Fordyce takes on this one-hander by Fringe favourite playwright Daniel MacIvor: a series of dark and sometimes darkly comic vignettes from the life of Steve (or as Fordyce plays her, "Stevie") who shares thoughts on love (it's fear in a nice neighbourhood), disillusionment, and the sweet promise of death ("everyone needs an option").

There are a few laughs and some raw moments in this 65-minute show, but the fresh-faced Fordyce is jarring as the bleak and cynical loner, and her dialogue sometimes just doesn't ring true.

Especially when she's confessing to secretly torturing the cat, so it will learn to appreciate what it has.

--Margo Goodhand


Spectacle Crutch Productions
Playhouse Studio (Venue 3), to July 26

THIS unusual children's story uses The Wizard of Oz as a starting point and veers far from Kansas, Toto.

Down the yellow brick road we follow a bent, old man named Frank who is being ill-treated by his son's future wife. She has put down his little dog Judy and forced him into a retirement home, where she works as a nurse. There he finds three other patients who are short on courage, heart and brains, and together they set out to find the Man who can let them go home.

The children in the audience were attentive to the Oz-like tale Calgary's Neil James was telling and performing by himself. They giggled when over-medicated patients were revived with a shot of Red Bull energy drink, as well as when the cane-carrying Frank and the wicked broom-wielding nurse fenced. It's good fun.

-- Kevin Prokosh


Sansregret Productions
MTC Backstage at the Mainstage (Venue 1), to July 27

Certified fringe goddess Alex Dallas has star billing in the official program, but she's been a no-show on the fringe tour, leaving Winnipeg producer, playwright and -- thankfully -- actress Celeste Sansregret to take this show on the road. Stepping up to ably perform her own monologue, Sansregret adopts a German accent to weave a rags-to-riches-to-rags tale about a middle-aged woman who is, coincidentally, also the author of her own fate.

Born in a German refugee camp after the Second World War, Katrina suffers hard knocks early and often, but still wants to believe in fairy-tale endings. She marries at 18 and moves to Canada where, a few decades later, a series of tragedies and tawdry twists of fate leave her divorced, childless, penniless and seriously envious of wealthy women she meets at her job in a designer clothing store. Enter a rich Prince Charming, who whisks her off on an extravagant vacation in France and Italy, and it looks like Katrina's dreams have finally come true. There are hints aplenty that her lover is trouble with a capital T, but like a modern-day Marie Antoinette, Katrina loses her head, ignoring glaring warning signs as she wallows in her lavish new lifestyle. Her blind love of luxury may be understandable, given the depravations she's suffered, but a few too many meticulously detailed descriptions of expensive gourmet meals, jewels and designer swag betray a greedy heart. In the end, the lovers may get what they each deserve, but after an overlong 90 minutes, the dramatic payoff for the audience is on the meagre side.

-- Pat St. Germain


Theatre Bagger
Son of Warehouse (Venue 5), to July 26

Vancouver's Thomas Jones wrote and performs in this one-hour portrait of the tragedy-laced life of folk legend Woody Guthrie.

Jones's only co-star is a big acoustic guitar bearing the words "This Machine Kills Fascists," a la Woody. But with his decent impersonation and his versatility, he still manages to fill the cozy venue with big drama, recounting Guthrie's early years in Oklahoma, his radio stardom in New York and Los Angeles, and his final years, spent in paralysis in a hospital bed, at one point visited by early acolyte Bob Dylan.

It's illuminating stuff, and sometimes terribly sad. After seeing this, Guthrie fans will never be able to listen to his kids' song Howdja Do the same way again.

--Randall King


By the Book Productions
Red River College (Venue 11), to Sunday

Fans of P. G. Wodehouse will appreciate John D. Huston for bringing to the stage the foppish man-about-town Bertie Wooster and his unnaturally all-knowing valet Jeeves.

Huston has a well-earned reputation for creating sterling character sketches (Underneath the Lintel, Shylock) and is on top of his game in his new solo show, Wooster Sauce. His jowl-jiggling Uncle Willowby and his demanding fiance Florence are almost as good as his spot-on Jeeves, who always saves the day.

What is lacking in Wooster Sauce is some spice to mix in with the meagre plot, the dry humour or to counter the overwhelming restraint that reigned in upper-class England in the early 20th century.

-- Kevin Prokosh


The Rep Company
Gas Station Theatre (Venue 18), to July 27

Fast, funny and filthy are the watchwords of this sketch-comedy show from The Rep Company. As one might infer from the title, no taboo is left unfondled in the 45-minute show written by Merry Lang and crisply performed by the fearless local troupe.

There's barely a bit longer than two minutes in this collection of blackout sketches, save for the excellent longer series of skits about a woman who has a monstrously bad dating history. Even the ones that are more puzzling than punchline-oriented still score performance points -- this company can deliver any absurd line and make it zing, (witness the Mayor of Monkey Island piece).

There are a few too many sketches that end up taking the easy route to laughs through obscenity, but as a gentleman in the lobby afterwards said, "Well, that was good fun." Just not good clean fun.

--Jill Wilson


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No Small Pigs
Son of Warehouse (Venue 5), to July 26

Alas, poor Yorick! Hamlet didn't know him very well at all, or so the unhappy owner of the most famous skull in theatrical history claims in this frenetic one-man comedy.

And frenetic is the operative word for this 75-minute barrage of jokes, intrigue (who killed the poor fool, anyway?), and frenzied one-man snippets of famous Shakespearean scenes.

Alas! poor opening night audience at this promising new play by Mark Leiren-Young. Talented Victoria actor Graham Croft tried hard, but his timing was off, and he stumbled over his many many clever lines.

Tough gig, being a brand-new "regulation size fool." Give this production some time to settle down.

-- Margo Goodhand


School of Contemporary Dancers (Venue 8), to July 27

It's a universal question: Should I stay or should I go?

Melissa, at age 16, is in a bus station, struggling to find the answer. She has a shot at going to a summer program for young writers -- the first step toward fulfilling a dream. But strong ties to the farm and the people she loves (and who love her) make going away, even for the summer, a lot more difficult than you might expect.

Ron Blicq has written a very good adaptation of Veronica Steele's novel You Will Write, Won't You? for the Winnipeg-based company RGI International Productions. It speaks directly to its target audience (ages 12 and up), without a trace of condescension.

The production rests on the shoulders of its two young leads, Megan Wilson (Melissa) and Kevin Carruthers (Pete), who both deliver good, natural performances. Ron Robinson, who brings considerably more experience to the stage, does a nice turn as Pete's pragmatic, sympathetic, farmer dad.

-- Wendy Burke


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Porcelain Penelope Productions
Planetarium Auditorium (Venue 10), to July 26

THIS one-woman show by L.A-by-way-of-Toronto actor Precious Chong (Tommy's daughter) is a daffy romp with a ton of heart. The wide-eyed Chong radiates energy, whether it's as Zdenka, the wildly blue eye-shadowed cable-access host from the former Czechoslovakia, or as Barb, the tightly wound GM auto show pitchwoman with some issues to resolve.

On the downside, the hour-long performance was plagued with technical difficulties, and the videos that give Chong time to change between characters need to be a bit more engaging. She has impressive chameleonic capabilities and startling flexibility, but a couple of the characters, like the Inuit boy from Arctic Bay, don't really resonate. However, her luminous portrayal of the wife of a man with amnesia is singularly touching, and she's quick on her feet during funny improv sections.

About that improv -- shy folks, beware: the gaudily clad Zdenka likes to pull people out of the audience and give advice "for love problem, for health problem." This reviewer came away with some self-affirmation about her sex life and a nutritious snack.

-- Jill Wilson


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2004 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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