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Fringe 2019: Brainy, zany ... & rainy

More hits than misses in a frantic, far-flung, eclectic week.

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It’s clearly a labor of love and a music appreciation lesson par excellence; I’ll never hear the Appasionata quite the same again. With a voice more like Mozart’s and a physique more like Brahms’, Jordan – at least when he’s not at the piano – more nearly illuminates, rather than inhabits, the character of Beethoven.

More conventionally Beethovenesque – furrowed brow, unruly frizz of hair, brooding gaze – is Blake Valletta’s portrayal of the iconic Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko in John Logan’s Tony-award-winning script Red. Curiously, this look is a far cry from the historic Rothko, who, by the late 1950’s, when the story is set, appeared more like a bland and balding CPA.

But never mind; the Beethoven glower better befits the autocratic, solipsistic, hyper-intellectual, dyspeptic (and eventually suicidal) artiste depicted in the script. No wonder he so intimidates Ken (Andres Collantes), the callow Midwestern art student, newly landed in New York, whom he hires for studio scut work. Rothko nees a gofer as he tackles his first-ever, make-or-break bigtime art commission: a series of murals to grace the swanky ground floor restaurant of an iconic new Manhattan skyscraper by America’s top architect.

But the kid, scene-by-scene, gradually finds his footing in his new art world milieu and in independent adulthood until at last he dares to challenge Rothko on everything from the affective import of the color palette to what vinyl LP (classical piano or Reihardt/Grapelli?) to play on the studio turntable.

But when Ken challenges Rothko’s sell-out in producing high-end “overmantle” wall décor for philistine plutocrat diners in a swanky restaurant, it’s a bridge too far. Rothko phones up the celebrated architect, returns the fat commission fee (the equivalent of nearly half a million 2019 Canadian dollars, a pittance of what the paintings are worth today, but unprecedented at the time) and claims back the canvasses.

Among Rothko’s many quiddities was a declared aversion to natural light, and the Fringe rendition of Red in the Cultch’s blackbox Lab theatre brings home the claustrophobic “submarine” feel of his studio. The staging presumes that the masterpiece mural-in-progress, invisible to us but vivid to the protagonists, hangs on the proverbial “fourth wall” between the stage space and the audience.

So the two co-stars squint right up to it, reacting – right in our faces –  to every presumed nuance of color and texture.  They’re both incredibly talented young actors who’ve worked mostly in film, so they know how to handle this type of extreme close-up. But rarely does a movie – or indeed any script – call for such lengthy spoken meditations on such abstractions as the relationship of artwork to its creators, viewers, patrons, markets and historic antecedents. Heady stuff, handled with aplomb.

Bodily stuff – a lot of it – is the topic of Madeleine George’s The Most Massive Woman Wins, and it was treated with plenty of aplomb by  a team of talented local co-stars (pictured above) on the Cultch Lab stage. The rather loose-fitting frame story tracks a quartet of women – Hilary Fillier, Joanna Rannelli, Sophia Paskalidis and Cecilia Davis – who meet in the waiting room of a liposuction clinic.

Through a series of micro-vignettes, we get an inkling of their backstories. We suffer with the women  through parental fat-shaming, schoolyard taunts, dismissive job interviews, a gamut of eating disorders, self-scarring, date rapes, spousal abuse – all the many harms that overabundant flesh is heir to.

Director Mika Laulainen frames each sketch with ingenious staging (jump rope chants, cats’ cradle entanglements, volleyball rotations et al). Stephanie Wong’s flexible set facilitates the quick switches with just a couple of moveable benches and some gym gear. Keagan Elrick’s quick-flick lighting and Zoe Wessler’s puncy sound design (the women all wear whistles around their necks) help maintin the brisk, vaguely athletic, pacing. By the end of 45 minutes, you feel you’ve had quite a work out, emotionally and even physically.

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