If you love theater and want to know play it safe, hit a big Broadway show.
But if you want raw, whacky, compelling, tearful, provocative, funny and sometimes head-scratching theater, check out the 32nd Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival Aug. 15-25, held mostly in the Old Strathcona neighborhood.
With more than 200 unjuried shows by artists picked by lottery, you never know what to expect, and that risk is what lures so many to Alberta’s capital city for Canada’s largest and longest-running fringe festival, said Jill Roszell, executive director.
“It’s one of those events the city has grown up around,” Roszell said about a festival that has featured artists from the little-known to playwriting powerhouses like Harold Pinter and David Mamet, who enter the lottery like anyone else. “It permeates into everything and the visitors. That sense of festival is loved by the community and is the key to its success.”
I went to last year’s festival that shattered attendance records, drawing 680,000 patrons and returning a record $1-million-plus to artists, who get 100 percent of ticket sales. Shows are held in churches, warehouses, galleries and actual theaters, with additional “Bring Your Own Venue” locations where artists seek spaces to perform. Tons of street performers dot the streets as well, passing the hat to earn money.
Stroll around this superbly walkable part of Edmonton and you may run into artists handing out fliers, shilling for their shows. I met Fiona Williams, high-school drama teacher and creator of “Finding Nymma,” and later saw her mesmerizing, one-woman show, portraying a thick-glassed librarian sneaking into the stacks to eat candy, spin her hula hoop with reflective skull stickers, write endless haiku and fantasize about Drew, a geeky shark researcher. No one seemed to mind the venue’s oppressive heat watching this non-stop sweaty bundle of energy playing one lost soul seeking another.
I also saw Chris Craddock, Canadian improv artist, who with fellow master Mark Meer, did “The Harold of Galactus,” long-form improv that took flimsy premises from the audience to create characters like Paperman, who fought Nazis with paper cuts. They earned laughs for a solid hour, the lean, rubber-faced Meer adopting cartoonish voices that interacted seamlessly with whatever Craddock tossed his way, and vice versa.
“Burned at the Steak” was a one-woman show by Texan Carolann Valentino, playing 18 characters about her time working at a New York steakhouse as she pursued an acting career, portraying arrogant customers, a sleazy maitre d’, slutty Jersey girls, and her psychic mother, a draining performance with the overarching message of following one’s dream.
Many in the audience for “Threads” were crying as actress Tonya Jone Miller brilliantly portrayed her mother, an American who married a Vietnamese and her travails working as a teacher, her heartbreaking failure to adopt a deformed baby, and her escape from Saigon. Miller’s performance was subtle, smooth, sad and emotionally engrossing.
“It’s about taking a risk and not knowing what you’ll get,” Roszell said. “That’s what people get excited about.”
(Visit www.fringetheatre.ca for this year’s lineup, tickets from $8, packages available)
IF YOU GO
The Varscona (8208 106 St., Edmonton, 780-434-6111, www.varscona.com, rates from $123), a cozy boutique hotel near most of the theater venues.
Dadeo, (10548A Whyte Ave., 780-433-0930, www.dadeo.ca, entrees from $11), a New Orleans retro-style diner and bar with vinyl booths, mini-jukes at tables, and serving Cajun cuisine, including exceptional jambalaya.
Muttart Conservatory (9626 96A St., 780-442-5311, www.edmonton.ca/muttart, $12 adults), a botanical beauty with four giant glass pyramids, three housing plant species from three biomes and a fourth with seasonal displays.