Megan Phillips, left, and Hayley Sullivan in A Coveted Wife of East Van, part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival, which runs Sept. 9-19. (photo by Marn Norwich)
An all-star Jewish team consisting of poet Marn Norwich, director Ariel Martz-Oberlander, jazz musician Itamar Erez and actress Hayley Sullivan join forces to produce A Coveted Wife of East Van, the post-pandemic dating musical that you didn’t know you needed at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival. Light and fun, this show is the cathartic release we’ve all been jonesing for after months of pandemic isolation and, if you’re single, forced celibacy.
A Coveted Wife of East Van tells the story of Samantha Cohen as she navigates friendship, men and dating apps while making some very bad decisions along the way. Featuring both original music by Erez and familiar melodies from shows like Fiddler on the Roof, the story is set in Commercial Drive’s Café Deux Soleils. Samatha goes on a date with an East Van hippie, don’t forget the crystals; a mansplainer, need we say more; a pimp; and a murderer, who brings her ex’s head as an offering on their date. Just before things go horribly wrong, Samantha is saved by her best friend in this story about friendship, online dating and the search to find “the one.”
Norwich, an independent journalist for the CBC and Georgia Straight, and Erez, nominee for 2020 Instrumental Artist of the Year award, are joined by award-winning director Martz-Oberlander and Sullivan, as well as producer of the Or Festival Olivia Etey; Best of Fringe Award-winning actor Megan Phillips; winner of best comedy at the 2020 Florence Film Awards actor Mostafa Shaker; and set designer Michael Duggan, who has 30-plus years in the industry and has worked on more than 25 film productions.
A Coveted Wife of East Van opens Sept. 11, 3:30 p.m., and closes Sept. 19, 4:30 p.m., with several shows in between. The Fringe Festival runs Sept 9-19. For the full schedule, visit vancouverfringe.com.
Susan Freedman was inspired by her parents’ love letters. (photo from Susan Freedman)
Among this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival offerings are several one- person shows, including Spilling Family Secrets by Susan Freedman and The Inventor of All Things by Jem Rolls – both of which have had soldout performances and received high praise on the Fringe circuit. The Independent spoke with each artist about their creation.
Spilling Family Secrets is Susan Freedman’s fourth one-woman Fringe show. Its basis is love letters that her parents wrote to each other between 1927 and 1937, which she melds with stories of her own “marital misadventures.”
JI: You’ve performed Spilling Family Secrets at other Fringes. What has some of the audience feedback been?
SF: I’ve had terrific audience feedback on this show – and a lot of it! People talk to me about the letters themselves. They are very touched by them. People tell me about how they have seen/found their parents’ or great-grandparents’ love letters. Sometimes the letters have been burned! Sometimes people tell me they’re going to go back and look at them again.
I’ve had many people talk to me after the show about their marital and family issues. It’s an intimate show and people sometimes feel that because I’ve shared my stories, they are comfortable sharing theirs. There is lots of laughter in the show and often some teary-eyed audience members at the end. Yesterday, I had a woman (in Edmonton) run up and give me a huge hug. I’d never seen her before but she was very emotional and positive about the show and felt comfortable coming up to me like that. Pretty lovely!
JI: Sometimes in performing a role more than once, different understandings develop along the way. Have new revelations about your parents, your “marital misadventures” or other parts of the material arisen over the last year-plus?
SF: I am struck by how patient my parents were and how impetuous I was in my love life. More and more, as I do the show, I realize the great benefit in really getting to know the person you are going to marry – before you marry them! I’m more grateful than ever that my parents had such great values, and I realize my good fortune in having had them as parents. I love doing this show and when I mentioned that to my daughter, she said: “Of course you do. You get to spend time with your parents at their best.” It’s true. In their letters, they were young and hopeful and, as my father said in a letter written to Brownie in 1929: “I don’t think we will ever grow old.”
JI: Could you give a brief overview of your creative process, taking the letters from, well, letters, to a performance?
SF: [In the program, it explains:] “My parents’ love letters filled 75 pages – single-spaced – when I transcribed them in 2012. I did it because Brownie and Sam’s 80-year-old letters were too fragile to pass around and I wanted a record of their love story for the family. The letters were long, intimate and wonderful to read. But I do Fringe shows, so I wanted to use the letters in a show. Reading letters on stage is a challenge, so I edited – a lot. I hope what’s left gives you a flavor of Brownie and Sam’s personalities and their relationship….”
That’s what happened. And then I started to combine and add the events from my own life (and my daughter’s) that related to love, the letters and the milestones in the letters. I worked with a wonderful dramaturg-playwright, Lucia Frangione, and she pushed me, asked the right questions and helped so much. Everyone needs a great editor, right? She is mine. I worked with her until I had a good “rehearsal script,” a year ago April.
By now, I’ve done 18 drafts … and I’m pretty pleased with it. It’s just 45 minutes (including time for laughs) and it seems to be a very simple show. It took me a very long time to make it look simple!
I have continued to make small changes and, if I do it again next year (I’d still like to do Montreal and Ottawa Fringes), who knows, maybe more changes.
* * *
Jem Rolls’ The Inventor of All Things is based on the life of Hungarian Jew Leo Szilard (1898-1964): “peacemaker, physicist, refugee, celebrity, Martian, and more. And very funny. Hated by generals, first to think of the atom bomb, and too good to flush his own toilet.”
JI: When did you first “discover” Szilard? What went into creating Inventor?
JR: I was stuck in Dauphin, Man., one Christmas with nothing to read but a cheesy book on Nazi science, which led me to [Austrian Jewish physicist] Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch, who have a bunch of great stories I could imagine telling, most notably the famous walk in the snow on Christmas eve of 1938 at Kungälv, where she’s just escaped the Nazis by the skin of her teeth, and Auntie Lise and Nephew Otto discuss the strange results in Berlin and suddenly realize that they have all already been splitting the atom in their labs for years – a massive realization which opened everything up.
And that looked like a great story, but then it led me to the funniest, craziest guy of them all – Leo Szilard … he’d thought of the nuclear chain reaction and, so, the bomb, five years before, when he escaped the Nazis in 1933 and was stateless in London.
If he wasn’t so funny, and so preposterously eccentric, I wouldn’t have a show – it would be too dry and hefty. And the fact he’s forgotten just made it all the better to do, especially as the chief reason he’s forgotten is an antisemitic American general deliberately deleting him from history and the fact it’s such a big story of real historical reach. It’s like Frankenstein’s monster: he is the man who forced the atomic bomb genie out of the bottle – because of his fear of the Nazis – and then desperately tried to get it back in again when the German defeat was certain.
I have been thinking about the show for years, and I would explain my ideas to loads of people on the Fringe tour and they all said, “You should do a show about this,” so, in the end, I have.
I’m a performance poet by trade and, though I’m loath to leave that for awhile, the change has been great and, as it’s storytelling, I’ve had to make myself coherent and completely understandable, which has never quite been a priority before. Plus, performance poetry is a very good place to venture into storytelling from. I have all manner of vocal and physical and linguistic tricks I am thoroughly enjoying deploying in a tight historical narrative.
JI: When and where did you first perform Inventor? What are some of the ways in which you have adapted your performance or the content, if at all, as you’ve performed it?
JR: I wrote the show in Cyprus … having been thinking about it for years, and I edited it and learnt it up the Rio Negro in the Brazilian Amazon, in a lovely small town no one goes to called Barcelos and on the front of the slow boats which ply the reaches of the Amazon…. The journeys take days and I would sit on the front all day watching the unchanging jungle go by and muttering the script to myself as the sun arced the unchanging sky.
The process is a long one: years of thinking and reading/researching, a quick first draft and then a long four-month process of learning and editing to get the story in shape, which involves months of agonizing times, throwing bits out of the show that I really like till I have a tight, coherent thing which still has to be performed.
I always open in Montreal, and only then do I find what the show really is, and then there’s weeks of battle to get a show I am happy with and which my performance is doing justice to. It’s also a struggle to make oneself physically and mentally tough enough to give the show what it needs day in and day out.
Doing the show has forced the horrible realities of the times upon me. I know all the history, of course, but to follow the life of this guy who escaped the antisemitic reaction in Hungary in 1919, then the Nazis, who did so much to help his fellow Jews, who never finished any work because he’d always already had another brilliant idea … I really like the guy. I tell the audience I think he’s a hero, that I’m going to prove he’s a hero. Everyone likes their forgotten heroes and, when I show the audience that he was the chief wrecker of the Nazi bomb, I get a huge round of applause for the guy. One can make the claim that a Jew doomed Hitler – and that man is Szilard. And the forgotten-ness of the story is shocking – why hasn’t [Steven] Spielberg made a movie out of him?
I’ve had some very nice times with the show. I’ve been blessed in Hebrew by an old singer. I’ve had very respectable, well-dressed young men come up to me and shake my hand and say, “Well, I’m a Hungarian Jew and no one ever told me that story,” and I had a professor emeritus of physics from Toronto literally bouncing up and down in glee after show, Bob Logan, a Brooklyn Jewish guy who actually met Leo in ’57 and loved the show. I’ve had an Einstein scholar who had to go back and check his research and see that, yes, I was right, and he’d never realized certain things about Einstein because I am putting together Szilard’s story in a way that no one ever has – I am going for the drama, for the cliffhangers, for the big moments, and there a number of very big moments from 1933-1945.
Among the one-person shows at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival, which runs from Sept. 10-20, are also:
UnCouth (14+), created by Windy Wynazz with Dan Griffiths, and performed by Wynazz. The show is “a bawdy, campy, comedy cabaret, drawing for inspiration on real-life experiences of being teased in school, falling in with a ‘bad crowd,’ and heteronormative gender expectations,” Wynazz told the JI. The 2014 San Francisco Comedienne of the Year “uses contemporary clowning to dig deeper into the underbelly of humanity, all while providing subversive comic relief on the human condition.” UnCouth is also at the Victoria Fringe Festival till Sept. 4.
Roy Horovitz brings the English version of Benny Barbash’s play My First Sony (which is based on Barbash’s 1994 novel of the same name) to this year’s Fringe. The play is told from the perspective of Yotam, an 11-year-old who records everything on his tape recorder, “my first Sony,” including some of the painful moments in his life, such as his parents’ separation.
Erika Babins, choreographer, and Zach Wolfman, actor, in Awkward Stage Productions’ Titus, written by Andrew Wade and Jenny Andersen. (photo by Corwin Ferguson)
In its sixth appearance at the Vancouver Fringe Festival, Awkward Stage Productions is presenting its first original work: Titus: The Light and Delightful Musical Comedy of Titus Andronicus, written by Andrew Wade and Jenny Andersen.
“Young William Shakespeare wants a hit,” reads the musical’s description. “After cutesy romances and sweeping histories, the young bard is attempting to fold together another blockbuster. He bemoans that no one seems to care for his Titus Andronicus! It seems the violence is not what people want – or at least they won’t admit it. Perhaps it just needs to be presented a little more lightly and delightfully?” Enter Wade and Andersen.
The idea came to Wade when he was acting in a fundraiser production of Titus Andronicus at the University of Victoria.
“I was playing Aemilius and Quintus, and it struck me as so ridiculous how there is a scene where people around him are deciding his fate – accusing him of murder and then sentencing him to be beheaded – and he doesn’t have a single line in his own defence,” Wade told the Independent. “The original play is full of strange, silly moments like that…. During the closing night gathering for that show, I sketched out a one-page brainstorm of ideas if the silly elements to this deeply tragic play were to be highlighted and set to music. I then put that page in a folder and left it alone for four years. And then I pitched the show to Awkward Stage.
“Titus Andronicus has been an excellent vehicle for lampooning [or] sending-up musicals, Shakespeare and our society’s selective obsession with violence as entertainment. The Shakespearean play is so riddled with issues, plot holes and strange character choices, and yet it is also so very, very compelling and touching and human. And what a strange and wonderful musical comedy it turns out to be.”
This is the first writing collaboration between Wade and Andersen, though they have acted together previously.
“While a part of that show,” said Wade, “she mentioned how she might want to write music for a musical at some point.” He made a note to follow up on that discussion and, when he started the first draft of Titus with a different composer and it wasn’t working out, Andersen came aboard, “and our styles clicked.”
“For most of the music, I started by writing some lyrics and sent them her way,” he explained. “Some songs, I added a little voice recording of what it ‘could’ sound like. For others, I included little taglines like ‘sounds like an instructional song from The Sound of Music, but sexier.’ A few of the songs, all I sent her were the words, and Jenny created musical masterpieces from those words, which blew me away.
“And then we would massage the lyrics back and forth for musicality and staging purposes, her telling me I need to cut or add a stanza here or there, me realizing the character needs to elaborate more here and there – a solid, near-egoless workshopping experience. We both dearly treasure what we have created, but we are also both willing to get rid of whatever isn’t working, or fix whatever needs tweaking. I am super-happy with how the collaborative process has gone thus far.”
When Andersen came on board, she said, “a first draft of the book/lyrics had already been written, and I was asked to set it musically.” So, she had no input into the musical’s topic and, she admitted, “a work from the Shakespearean canon would not have been the text I’d have settled on for my first foray into musical theatre composition.”
However, as she has worked with the story, she said, “I’m increasingly realizing the genius in picking this specific play. I think if we had made a musical comedy out of any other Shakespearean work, we would have received polite nods and moderate interest. When we say we’re setting Titus Andronicus as a musical, however, the (nearly universal) response is, ‘That play? How do you make a musical comedy out of that play?!’
“The fact that it’s widely recognized as Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy gives us a few advantages. Of course, people are curious to see how the original text is turned on its ear. More importantly, I think it serves as a statement of what we as a society find funny, what we find acceptable and what we still find as gruesome as we did in Shakespearean times. Why can we often find ourselves laughing at violence, mutilation, murder as comedic tropes, when other issues are still off limits as comedic fodder? Why should any of it be funny, really? What does that say about ourselves as a society?”
Since Andersen came later into the creative process, she said, “For the most part, in my first musical draft, I took Andrew’s lyrics, edited them slightly for smoother musical form/phrasing/syllabic purposes and tried to capture the overall mood of plot and character. We then sat down and parsed out the lyrics to make them universally relevant, to clean up the form and to make sure they were saying what we needed them to say about each situation. For the music, that meant everything from small lyrical tweaks to brand new sections and complete rewrites of certain songs. We went back and forth after that point (often electronically; I think we were in the same room a total of three or four days!) to finesse the flow of the piece. (We literally wrote one of the songs two days before rehearsal started for Fringe!)”
Awkward Stage was created in 2010 “to fill a perceived void of real-life performance and production opportunities for youth in that awkward transition from play acting to professional employment.” As with all its productions, Titus features a cast, crew and creative team “aged 15 to 30ish.”
“Titus has a wide range of ages and experience levels in the show and it’s great to be able to watch them all come together as a cast,” said Awkward artistic associate Erika Babins, who choreographed the musical. “The teenagers in the show are fearless and dive right into the comedic and dramatic high points in the text. During any down time in the rehearsal hall, you’ll find cast members lending their strengths to each other to bring up the overall level of the show.”
When asked about any highlights she could share, she said, “It’s hard to describe some of the funniest moments of choreography without giving away a whole bunch of spoilers but there is a super-serious rhythmic gymnastic dance (as serious as you can be while flitting about with a ribbon), communication through tap dancing, and both life-size and miniature deer prancing around the forest.”
Zach Wolfman plays Bassianus, the late emperor Caesar’s son, younger brother to Saturninus. For the role, he said, “I definitely draw inspiration from my relationship to my brother Jake, who is two years younger than me, and into everything that I’m not – he’s the athlete, sport guy, and I’m the theatrical one. We are both kind of fighting for attention from our parents: my parents divide their time between watching him and my sister in sports games, and me in theatre.
“Professionally, I had a fair amount of Shakespeare training at UBC and through Canada’s National Voice Intensive. It’s fun to examine the Shakespearean qualities that permeate through Andrew Wade’s script, and then go back and look at Shakespeare’s original play.
“I’ve played a lot of wimpy, ineffective princes, who are fighting to prove themselves in some manner or another, and that helps,” he added. “The idealism of Bassianus and the fantasy world that he lives in remind me of a lot of other roles I’ve played – characters falling in love for the first time, young love in a really tender, awkward stage. That kind of new romance seems to breed a certain over-optimistic viewpoint, or rose-tinted perspective in people. Things are new and fresh and awesome, so it’s easy to forget that everyone around you wants to kill you.
“The most challenging aspect of this show is finding the balance between truth and comedy. The show is so fast and funny that you have to fight hard to keep up while you’re laughing. It helps a lot that Andy Toth, our director, is on the side of finding the real heart and truth in this show. Andy opened a rehearsal one day by showing us a great TED Talk by Peter McGraw called What Makes Things Funny. McGraw basically says that, for something to stand out as funny, it needs to step outside of the norm, or background of normal, everyday reality. This show is a roller coaster that goes far off the rails, but is still grounded in characters with real wants, desires and ambitions. Although the show is very dark, at the core, it is a delightful comedy.”
About the most fun aspect of the show, Wolfman said, it “lies in the people I get to work with. Working on this show with three other classmates from UBC is a treat. I feel lucky to be learning so much from Jenny Anderson and Andy Toth every day in rehearsal. Andy drops wisdom bombs left, right and centre and is the perfect person to be directing new work because he asks the tough questions. Andy, Jenny and Erika Babins really bring Andrew Wade’s script to life. Everyone is crazy talented, and I am often in flux between laughter and utter shock.”
Titus is at the Firehall Arts Centre Sept. 10-20. For times, tickets ($14 plus one-time $5 Fringe membership) and the full Fringe schedule, visit vancouverfringe.com.
Naomi Steinberg debuts Goosefeather. (photo from Naomi Steinberg)
The Vancouver Fringe Festival starts next Thursday, Sept. 4, and runs until Sept. 14. There are many shows from which to choose and five of which, at least, include members of the Jewish community. In order of first appearance, here are the highlights of those five shows, garnered from their press material:
HappyGoodThings presents the première of …didn’t see that coming, Beverley Elliott’s funny and moving collection of autobiographical stories that take the audience on a romp from small-town Ontario to Vancouver’s gay bars and red carpets. Directed by Elliott’s friend and colleague of 30 years, Jessie Award-winner Kerry Sandomirsky, who has been close by holding the tissue for many of these life-changing events, musical direction is by Bill Costin.
Inspired by her live performances at the Flame, her writing group Wet Ink Collective and years of entertaining crowds gigging in various bands in a parade of bars, … didn’t see that coming reveals unexpected blessings and uncomfortable epiphanies. These range from catching a bouquet, being called Smelly Elliott, attending a Guess Who concert, growing up with Presbyterian morals, a generous Greek admirer and a yellow dress, the highs and lows of singing at weddings and funerals, relationships with straight men going nowhere and relationships with gay men going to the grave – all held together with the galvanizing salve of songs, the lifeboat of music.
… didn’t see that coming takes place at Performance Works on Granville Island, 1218 Cartwright St., with the first show (of six) on Sept. 5 at 6:45 p.m. For more information on Elliott, visit beverleyelliott.net.
Naomi Steinberg’s debut performance of Goosefeather will be at the Fringe, after which she will set off to go around the planet with no airplane, carrying the story in which she weaves together traditional storytelling with movement and clowning to tell you about the time her grandfather sent her on a wild goose chase in the south of France.
Steinberg is an accomplished performer, storyteller and site-specific installation artist. With more than 13 years experience, she knows how to seduce audiences through a provocative mix of political thought and artistic content, telling her stories in a unique voice, with an evocative gestural language.
Past highlights of her work include storytelling events in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Paris and Zurich, among others. Steinberg was the artistic director of the Vancouver Society of Storytelling from 2009-2014, steering large-scale community engagement initiatives and producing three international festivals. Grants awarded include from the City of Vancouver, B.C. Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts.
Goosefeather begins its nine-show run at the Toast Collective, 648 Kingsway Ave., near Fraser and 16th, on Sept. 5, 8:30 p.m.
Following the Fringe performances, Steinberg heads down the West Coast to board a cargo ship in Los Angeles. She will arrive in Melbourne, Australia, near the end of December, completing the first leg of her journey around the planet. See goosefeather.ca for more information about the project.
Charlie Varon brings his new solo show, Feisty Old Jew, to the Vancouver Fringe. Feisty Old Jew is a fictional comic monologue about a 20th-century man in a 21st-century city. At age 83, here’s what Bernie hates: yoga studios, tattoo parlors, boutiques of all kinds, $6 cups of coffee, young techies and what they’re doing to San Francisco.
The story takes place entirely on one hot October day. Bernie gets tired of waiting for a cab, sticks out his thumb and is picked up by three 20-somethings in a Tesla with a cappuccino maker in the dashboard and two surfboards strapped to the roof. By the time they get to the beach, Bernie has convinced the kids to let him surf for the first time in his life, and bet them $400,000 that he’ll ride a wave.
Varon has been making theatre for 23 years at San Francisco’s Marsh Theatre, in collaboration with director David Ford. In addition to Feisty Old Jew, his other shows include Rush Limbaugh in Night School (1994), The People’s Violin (2000) and Rabbi Sam (2009). Of Feisty Old Jew, Varon says: “This is a show about a city in flux. When I moved to San Francisco in 1978, my rent was $70 a month. Now people pay $70 a month just for lattes.”
The Fringe presents six performances of Feisty Old Jew, beginning Sept. 5, 8:45 p.m., at Performance Works. To read a Q & A with Varon about the show, visit goo.gl/doYJ7h; more information at charlievaron.com.
As part of the Vancouver Fringe, Dirty Old Woman Artists Collective presents Dirty Old Woman, a new play by Loretta Seto, directed by Lynna Goldhar Smith.
After her divorce, Nina, a 50-something-year old, decides to venture back into the world of romance. But when she meets Gerry, 20 years her junior, the sparks fly in more ways than one. Judgments, double standards and comedy ensue, as Nina tries to navigate the dangerous world of dating a younger man.
Dirty Old Woman stars Jessie Award-winning actors Susinn McFarlen, Robert Salvador, Emmelia Gordon and Alison Kelly; with lighting design by Michael Schaldemose, sound design by Dylan McNulty. It will have six shows at Studio 16 (1555 West 7th Ave., between Fir and Granville), starting Sept. 6, 6:15 p.m. For more information about the show, visit dirtyoldwomanplay.wordpress.com.
From the twisted mind that spawned South Park and Book of Mormon, Trey Parker’sCannibal! The Musical comes to the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Among the cast of this Awkward Stage Productions (awkwardstageproductions.com) show is community member Henya Rosen.
Cannibal! The Musical is the true story of the only person convicted of cannibalism in America – Alferd Packer. The sole survivor of an ill-fated trip through the Rockies, he tells his side of the harrowing tale to news reporter Polly Pry as he awaits his execution. While searching for gold and love, he and his companions lost their way and resorted to unthinkable horrors … with music!
It’s unique every time. Originating as a film, the licence includes no script, only a guide, so each production really is a new show. Care is taken to preserve those fundamental elements to please the cult following, but the rest is up for grabs. The blended offering in this year’s Fringe includes a human campfire, a tribe of Amazon war princesses, a multi-media format with animation, a giant Cyclops, a lesbian biker gang of fur trappers, puppets, a massive saloon fight, some cross-dressing and sexual confusion, the classic “Shpadoinkle” and “Hang the Bastard” musical numbers, offensive language, a human horse and, of course, a healthy helping of gore and cheese.
For this, its fifth year in a row at the Vancouver Fringe, Awkward Stage presents another all youth cast, crew and band of emerging stars aged 14 to 25 who are eating up these roles! There will be eight shows, the first being on Sept. 6, 7:15 p.m., at the Firehall Arts Centre, 280 East Cordova St.
For the full Vancouver Fringe schedule, ticket and other information, visit vancouverfringe.com or head down to the box office at 1398 Cartwright St. (after Sept. 1).