Plays with something to say

By Monica Prendergast, May 2015

Social commentary abounds in the upcoming UNO Fest.

Intrepid Theatre is launching the 18th year of its spring festival of solo performances, UNO Fest, from May 8 to 24. Conceived in 1997 as an offshoot of Intrepid’s annual Victoria Fringe Festival, UNO has taken on a healthy life of its own. Artistic Director Janet Munsil travels widely each year to theatre and performance festivals to search out solo shows for UNO. Unlike the Fringe that selects shows via a lottery system, UNO is curated by Munsil based on submissions or by invitation. This ensures a high level of quality in the festival, as opposed to the more mixed bag of amateur and professional offerings that make up the Fringe experience. 

UNO Fest has become well known across Canada and beyond. Munsil scouts shows at festivals such as PuSH in Vancouver, Summerworks in Toronto and Magnetic North, this year in Ottawa. Presenters see UNO as an excellent showcase for productions on tour and performers love coming to Victoria. 

This year’s UNO features 16 shows plus two works in progress. The schedule includes performances from Victoria, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, London (Ontario), Portland, and the UK. A busy month of May for local theatregoers!

To help me sort through the lineup and make my choices, I dropped by Intrepid Theatre’s offices and spoke to Heather Lindsay (general manager) and Sean Guist (marketing and development) about their top picks for UNO. Janet Munsil was not available as she is working on a new play at the Banff Centre’s Playwrights Colony. (For my money, Munsil is one of Canada’s best playwrights, alongside her producing skills.) 

Guist, Lindsay and I noted together how often UNO artists have had remarkable success beyond the festival. A number of them return to Victoria in Belfry productions, for example, as with Itai Erdal’s How to Disappear Completely, Hawksley Workman’s The God that Comes, and Cliff Cardinal’s Huff. 

Then there’s local comedian Mike Delamont who has appeared many times at Fringe and UNO. He has developed his standup skills as a homegrown talent nurtured by Intrepid Theatre and now spends much of his life on tour across Canada and the US. But on May 8 and 9 at UNO, he’ll present his new show, God is a Scottish Drag Queen II. 

So what else are Lindsay and Guist looking forward to seeing this year? The first show they agreed upon is Sea Sick by Alannah Mitchell. Created by Mitchell and Toronto’s Theatre Centre from her award-winning book of the same name, this is a lecture/storytelling performance about the death of the oceans. Mitchell is a science journalist who travelled the world documenting the ongoing crisis in the ecosystem. The show has been well received in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver and will be on at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa before coming here. It will be essential viewing for anyone concerned with global warming and the future of the planet.

The next shows Guist and Lindsay recommend both involve creative use of video on stage. Fylm by British performer Simon Munnery is described as “a live-action film” that Munnery shoots and projects for each performance, with a live soundtrack by collaborator Davy Willis. Munnery is interested in exploring, humorously, what he sees as the void between film and theatre. 

On a more serious note is Zoe Erwin Longstaff’s play Half Girl/Half Face, produced by Toronto’s Surplus-Value Theatre and performed by Arlen Aguayo Stewart. This story is of a young girl whose face goes viral as an internet meme. The play makes creative use of video to document her YouTube response to the invasion of her identity and privacy. A topical choice for those interested in social media, surveillance and 21st century threats to individual rights. 

Another very relevant show, and one that I have seen in Vancouver, is Dissolve. The topic is a tough one: date rape using Rohypnol (or roofies) and its effects on one victim. Actress Emmelia Gordon plays multiple roles in Meghan Gardiner’s powerful play. She takes the audience through the nightmare experience of waking up assaulted and injured yet not remembering what has happened. I would make this play required viewing for young people 16 and up, as its warning message, delivered with theatrical force, is such an important one.

The next show the Intrepid duo anticipates will be an UNO highlight is a solo circus act by Montreal’s Krin Haglund. The Rendez-vous is a 1920s cabaret style show in which Haglund distracts herself from the disappointment of being stood-up by a date. While most of us might read the paper or check our messages, Haglund’s character performs various circus acts, including juggling, aerial silks and the exciting Cyr Wheel. The show has been described as a Chaplin-like silent movie with a jazz music score.

Fringe favourite Jayson McDonald (Giant Invisible Robot, Boat Load, Underbelly) returns to Victoria with his new show Magic Unicorn Island. A dystopian parable, McDonald tells the story of a world in which the United Empire has conquered everybody, except the children. McDonald’s imaginative work is reliably equal parts funny, intelligent and inventive. He has many loyal fans who will no doubt be out in force to see what he brings to UNO this year.

Likewise, fans of comedy and music will enjoy Shirley Gnome’s Real Mature. Vancouver’s Gnome sings her original songs about sex that make audiences simultaneously wince and laugh out loud. Lindsay describes Gnome as “incredible” and tells me that her work is feminist in its fearless provocations to the audience. 

Local comedienne Sharon Mahoney will also likely push buttons in these taunting and teasing ways in her show The Lion, the Bitch and the Wardrobe. A standup show with the occasional hand puppet thrown into the mix, Mahoney addresses her own anxieties through a number of different characters. Returning to UNO after premiering at Fringe in 2014, Mahoney’s show was recently well-reviewed at Perth’s Fringe World festival this February.

A handful of other local shows are also on Guist and Lindsay’s radar, and on mine as well. I look forward to seeing actor and playwright Karen Lee Pickett in her new play Slick, directed by Kate Rubin. This show has been developed in collaboration with Intrepid via their You Show and UNOWorks programs and is premiering at UNO. The play is about an oil company publicist, Marlene, who returns to her dying father in Texas to face the reality of the Keystone pipeline invading the family home. 

The Incompleat Folksinger, directed by Ross Desprez with musical direction by Tobin Stokes, will probably be another great show from The Other Guys Theatre Company. I loved their touring production Good Timber, and this one is both by and about American folk singer icon Pete Seeger. Performed by local performer Mark Hellman, this is a must-see, especially given Seeger’s death last year at the age of 94. 

Finally, I look forward to former Victorian Meg Braem’s new play (Braem is now based in Calgary) The Year of Falling Down. Directed by Britt Small as an UNOWorks play-in-progress, it is about a young caregiver tending to a terminal patient. 

An abundance of good theatre ahead for May. UNO Fest passes, tickets and information can be found at www.intrepidtheatre.com or by calling 250-590-6291.

May will find Monica in New York City seeing shows on and off-Broadway before she heads home to catch as many UNO Fest shows as possible and continues work on a number of book projects, including the second edition of her award-winning Applied Theatre and a co-edited collection on Canadian theatre/drama education.