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
BIG EASE, BIG SLEAZE
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
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. 1/2
-- Pat St. Germain
ORDINARY MAY'S EXTRAORDINARY WAYS
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
WHAT HAPPENED WAS...
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