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Catharsis and craziness collide at Fringe Fest

Docks, dogs, whiskey bars prove enlightening

The Vancouver International Fringe Festival runs until Sept. 18. More info at vancouverfringe.com.

The Surprise

At Waterfront Theatre

Sept. 14, 17 and 18

Brooklyn writer/performer Martin Dockery is all hands, elbows and long legs, and hes on fast forward all the time. But just when you think you cant keep up with his high-octane confessional for one more minutesurprise! He drops a bombshell, goes quiet, has a drink of water and lets the moment sink in. In his late 30s, Dockery is still agonizing over the poor relationship he has with his father, an emotionally distant N.Y. lawyer who throws it all away, goes back to Vietnam where he served, marries a much-younger Vietnamese woman and has another family. None of which he bothers to share with Dockery. The Surprise is shot through with painful betrayals, including one with German girlfriend Elka, all delivered with a bat-outta-hell pace, and Dockerys reflections on tempus fugit. Marriage? Children? Tick-tock. I left the theatre almost as wired as Dockery and thinking maybe he should put off making babies until he puts his demons to rest.

JL

Houdinis Last Escape

At Waterfront Theatre

Sept. 15, 16 and 18

Just like Houdinis career that zigzagged from circus act to spiritualism, Houdinis Last Escape zigs and zags erratically from slapstickat which Tara Travis, as Houdinis wife Beth (and a zillion other characters) excelsto pathos. Written by Ryan Gladstone, its an odd mixture thats entertaining but awkward: part magic show, part vaudeville, part biography. Christopher Bange, a Seattle magician, clown and actor, pulls off some sharp card tricks and a torso-twisting escape from a straightjacketall of which lead up to Houdinis famous Metamorphosis: handcuffs, bag, rope, trunk, padlocks and all. But the story feels protracted and these two have to work their butts off to make it work, which it does intermittently.

JL

Wreckage

At the Ferry Dock

Sept. 14 to 18

Created and performed under the Granville Island ferry dock by Nita Bowerman, Wreckage is so personal, it hurts. If its a true story, its a terrible tale of sexual abuse. F--k father, f---ing me is a fury-fuelled refrain. The site is spooky with water lapping at barnacle and mussel-encrusted pilings. The audience is seated in a row in the dark and the action, eerily lit, is on an unstable floating contraption in the water. Theres pity and fear, but it ends well. Wreckage is cathartic for Bowerman and it obviously touched her audience who, unanimously, either hugged her or shook her hand after the show.

JL

Every Story Ever Told

At Carousel Theatre

Sept. 14 to 18

A lot of us have had to deconstruct stories as an exercise in lit or writing classes, but no one does it as creatively, hilariously or energetically as Ryan Gladstone. By the time hes done, it seems theres only one story worth telling: a hero, a villain, a conflict, a resolution. Tolstoys War and Peace is put to bed in short order. Gladstone both celebrates and demolishes Charlie Chaplins City Lights and Bizets Carmen. Wagners The Valkyries is trashed. Cinderella, Deep Throat and Fox News are all ground up in Gladstones mill. The second half of the showthe construction of a story based on audience suggestiondoesnt go as well. Gladstones ever fertile brain went bananas on opening night with a plot based on audience callouts: a trapeze artist with a prehensile tail comes to grief with Siamese twin monkeys who just might be Nazis. The first half of the show is crazy/brilliant; the second half looked like TheatreSports. Gladstone, however, is amazing.

JL

Cabaret Terrarium

At Performance Works

Sept. 15 and 17

This is one of the funniest shows I have ever seenbut it might be an acquired taste. Richard Harrington is Gustave, found still alive but suffering memory loss in a block of ice at the North Pole by a couple of Belgian anthropologists. Chris Kauffman is his imaginary friend Nhar. Gustave is a geeky cabaret singer doing a show for us but, get this, he thinks someone is out to murder him for some crime he might have committed in his unremembered past. He needs us to be very, very quiet. No clapping. No laughing. Instead, he gives each of us a stick and a ridge-backed wooden frog to stroke when were happy or sad or entertained. Its auditory camouflage, he tells us. Moon-faced Nhar is, Gustave tells us in his French accent, a pantomime (pant-oh-meem). Performance Works becomes an Amazon jungle of ribbits as geeky Gustave tries to regain his pre-ice block memory. Is he Belgian? He likes Belgian chocolate and Belgian waffles, after all. The impulse to laugh is overwhelming; the show is bizarre, completely offbeat. And, because its cabaret, theres music in the style of Brecht: The Song of the Happy Archaeologists, Dance of the Migration of the Goose of Colombia and other weird and wonderful songs. I loved it. But, hey, I like raw octopus, too.

JL

Oh, That Wily Snake!

At Waterfront Theatre

Sept. 14, 15 and 17

Martin Dockery (also writer/performer of The Surprise) pairs up with Vanessa Quesnelle in Oh, That Wily Snake, a manic romp through a rapidly dissolving relationship. When every trick in the book fails to get her into the bed he has brought along with him to the apartment she shares with her controlling, 10-foot tall fiancé (whom we never see), the wily, rejected beau takes her on a magic carpet ride aboard his bed. Shades of Peter Pan until they both pop a Brussels sprout (oh, sure) and Oh, that Wily Snake! goes Adam and Eve on us. They both go on another kind of trippy trip but, just like the Biblical pair, things dont turn out the way they had hoped. Terrific performances and a crazily inventive way of looking at a breakup.

JL

Whiskey Bars, a Kabarett with Songs by Kurt Weill

At Studio 1398

Sept. 15, 17 and 18

Too many 10-ounce shots of vodka or maybe flagging interest in the music of Kurt Weill have put the cabaret singer in Whiskey Bars on the skids. Written and performed solo by Bremner Duthie, the piece is set in a cabaret dressing room (downgraded from the headliners digs) where the singer, preparing for his self-financed comeback, is visited by an (unseen) unsympathetic critic. Say nice things about me in the paper, the singer pleads. Studio 1398 is almost too small to contain Bremner, his huge presence and even bigger voice. Add the sometimes furious music of Weill to the mix and it feels like g-forces battering the body. And Bremner delivers the best Mack The Knife Ive ever heard. Powerful material, powerfully delivered. If you think Weill is vile, dont go. Me, I wished I had my Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill in the car so I could keep the music coming all the way home under a moon that surely rivaled that old Bilbao moon in Weills famous song.

JL

Since You Left Us

At the Firehall

Sept. 15, 16, 17 and 18

Dysfunctional families other than our own make us feel so good; they make ours seem comparatively sane. First time playwright (but well-known actor) Susinn McFarlen gives us a doozy: Denny talks to her ancient Jack Russell, feeds him in a highchair and keeps him in Pampers. OK, so maybe thats not all that weird. Dennys 70-year-old mother Dolly is getting it on with 20-years-younger Chuck, an alcoholic fireman with a wife and kids. Dennys brother Mike, another fireman who cracks way too many beers before the sun has crossed the yardarm, is a guy with a dangerously short fuse. When very normal Fanny (Denny and Mikes sister) arrives with her very sweet 17-year-old son Danno for Dollys birthday, everything goes hilariously sideways. A lot of booze and two deaths later, Dolly delivers the message: you dont choose your family so you may as well love the one you have. Directed by Allan Morgan, its a feel-good show despite the accidental deaths. Makes you want to rush home and, uh, cook a steak up for your pooch. And phone your sister.

JL