REVIEW! Four Woke Baes by Jonathan Caren @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Teddy Bergman
Produced by Hidden People and Something for the Weekend
Featuring Lyndsy Fonseca, Michael Braun, Matt Stadelmann, Quincey Dunn-Baker, and Noah Bean
Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Button)
1st – 25th August

With its faux-trendy, twitter friendly title it’s clear that Jonathan Caren’s Four Woke Baes wants to present itself as a funny, incisive examination of modern masculinity, its foibles, contradictions and conflicts. What it is instead is a fairly mundane comedy that embraces tropes and stereotypes of the “battle of the sexes” comedies that more belong in a past two decades gone than they do in 2019.

Dez (Noah Bean) is getting married, an occasion being marked by a bachelor party camping trip in the American wilderness with his three best friends, the bro-ish womaniser Boardman (Quincy Dunn-Baker), the neurotic vegan Sean (Matt Stadelmann), and the nine-year-marriage veteran Andre (Michael Braun). The drama comes when Emma (Lyndsy Fonseca), a provocative and beautiful nu-wave author, turns up, informs them that they are in her campsite, and begrudgingly agrees to share it.

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Photo by Karla Gowlett

Over the course of seventy five minutes, the failings of the four “woke baes” are revealed, and the apparent hollowness of their supposed progressive views laid bare. The problem is that the four baes are never shown to be particularly woke in the first place, giving them no high ground from which to fall, and all of their missteps are straw-mannishly contrived.

Credit must be given to Teddy Bergman’s direction of his cast, who make excellent work of the text. The various chemistries, romantic and bromantic, are believable, and the scenes themselves crackle along at a heady pace. Any ten minute snippet of the production could have easily been a pedestrian excerpt from a far more interesting show, but put all together the text is unable to support the skills of its actors.

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Photo by Karla Gowlett

With almost clockwork regularity every character has a twist, revelation or moment of character assassination that supposedly undercuts them or relationships in some way, I suppose to show the futility of attempting integrity in the modern world. The problem is that these beats never feel earned, so the next fifteen minutes of the play are spent justifying them post hoc, just in time for the next revelation to emerge and begin the cycle again. The show creates a cast of cliches and stereotypes, sets them up to fail, and then attempts to pass off passé cynicism as wisdom when they inevitably do.

But for the title and the occasional reference to Instagram or some other artifice of modern life, this play seems like an unwieldy transplant from the early 2000s, replete with manic pixie dream girl. Furthermore, for a show supposedly about “wokeness” it does an excellent job of objectifying its only female character, both in its centring of her as a sex object, and as a narrative one who exists only to facilitate the emotional journeys of the more fully realised male characters.

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Photo by Karla Gowlett

In short this is a play about “wokeness” that seems to be written by someone who has heard of the concept but doesn’t actually understand what it is. One can claim satire, or irony, or provocativeness all one wants, but with such hollow lip service paid to its central conceit, such assertions inevitably ring false. The show is overtly heterosexual, white (the one non-white member of the cast was inhabiting the most cliched, American suburban, white picket fence character), and middle class; the very mention of feminism is almost a punch-line and speedily glossed over, where I was expecting earnest declarations of allyship from the baes, perhaps a misapplied “#metoo”.

I was excited by the idea of the show I thought I was seeing when I went into Four Woke Baes, but the truth of the performance did not live up to the promise of its title or its marketing copy. If you are looking for some idle entertainment, and the chance to recognise faces among the cast from American television, then Four Woke Baes is a decent enough way to pass an hour or so at the Fringe. Indeed, sitting in the theatre I was mostly enjoying myself, but with some distance from the show and the chance to reflect on its text and themes, even the excellent individual performances by the cast cannot hide its manifold flaws.

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Previous review: Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein @ Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Transit by FLIP Fabrique @ Underbelly Festival Southbank

Director: Alexandre Fecteau
Artistic Direction: Bruno Gagnon
Choreographer: Annie Saint-Pierre
Presented by FLIP Fabrique and Underbelly
27th May – 7th July 2019

FLIP Fabrique is a company of young artists from Quebec, Canada, who travel the world performing their circus routines. Their latest show, Transit, is about… travelling the world performing circus routines. From the moment the performers tumble onto the stage out of a road case, it is evident that there is something different about this troupe: they have an infectious sense of fun and mischief, and tangible close rapport with each other. Despite the fact that their show is in a mix of English and French, their brand of humour is both too exuberant to be English and too irreverent to be French. And despite the fact that there was little in the way of story or aesthetic theme, the show felt cohesive and never lost momentum or interest.

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Throughout the course of the hour-long performance, the troupe cycled through a number of circus acts and disciplines. Of course, in homage to their name, they started with a series of acrobatic tricks; flips and tumbles and feats of precarious balancing atop a wildly ambulatory road case. This soon gave way to aerial straps performances from Pierre Riviere (once topless and showing off his chiseled physique, and then later as a comical callback performance in a fatsuit, weeping into doughnuts); hula-hoop feats from Jade Dussault; strongman stunts from Jonathan Julien; juggling of various items (pins, balls, knives, etc) from Jasmin Blouin; hair-raising trampoline acrobatics from Cedrik Pinault; and, as a standout performance, diabolo juggling and general wizardry from Jeremie Arsenault. Honestly, diabolos have never been anywhere near the top of my list of most exciting circus instruments, but this man’s skill with the things was mind-blowing. Indeed, I’m convinced that he was controlling them with some sort of otherworldly power, because they were behaving more like perfectly-trained show dogs than inanimate objects. Coupled with this mastery was his sparkling mien of mischief and good humour, which made his every scene into side-splitting comedy.

These acts were interwoven with other short skits and exchanges which ranged from silly (waking up a birthday boy with a faceful of shaving cream), to surreal (live creation of a chalk dust Jackson Pollock-esque painting of the team), to banter between friends (“what’s your next project?” “giving life” “never heard of them”), and back to silly again (an entire routine based in balletic sweet-spitting, because if travelling as a troupe means anything, it means going down as a team if even one of you gets a cold). The trampo-walling finale literally had me on the edge of my seat, torn between awe and horror, and when the show ended I felt like I was saying goodbye to friends.

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This, really, was the atmosphere that made Transit so enjoyable: the feeling that, on stage in front of you, was a bunch of mates who genuinely love each other’s company, who sometimes squabble like children, but support each other on-stage and off, and just have an absolute ball creating and performing shows together. There were a number of fluffed tricks throughout, but they were dealt with so good-naturedly that you couldn’t really hold it against them. There were also times when I felt like artists were performing outside of their skillsets, to the detriment of the performance (when my friends and I went through our skipping-rope phase in primary school I remember pulling off a number of tricks that didn’t land in this show). When these same performers then had shining moments of incredible skill later on, it made me question whether they were being used to their best advantage at all times. That said, I can understand the impulse to have as many of the troupe as possible on stage together as much as possible, because together, this FLIP Fabrique team was dynamite. I would absolutely recommend this show to people of all ages, and anyone looking for a fun and uncomplicated night out.

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Tickets

Previous review: A Winter’s Tale @ The Warren, Brighton Fringe

Harpy by Philip Meeks @ Underbelly Cowgate

Performed by Su Pollard
Written by Philip Meeks
Directed by Hannah Chissick
Produced by Suzanna Rosenthal of Something for the Weekend
At Underbelly Cowgate, White Belly Theatre, 1-26 August 2018

Harpy

Su Pollard is Birdie, the infamous hag of her little village. She sits in her house on the hill, perched like a harpy atop her hoard, and waits for the return of the one thing she ever let slip away – the most important thing in her pitiful, lonely life. Throughout the course of this hour-long one-woman show, we watch her converse with her fish, her social worker, her neighbours (through the intervening walls), the local busybody (and almost-friend), and assorted other characters from Birdie’s past and present.

The play was written for Hi-de-Hi! star Pollard, and she brings warmth and complexity to her eccentric character, exhibiting in turns a shrewd Marple-like observant of human nature, and a fragile, vulnerable lost soul. Deftly handling both comedy and aching pathos, she helps her audience forge a deep and personal understanding of this misunderstood old lady. However, the sudden changes to the play’s various other characters are often confusing and flow-breaking, as Pollard does not always draw enough of a distinction between characters to make it clear who is talking, especially when she is playing both parts of a two-person dialogue. At such times, the play could benefit from another actor – Pollard may be a national treasure and an excellent Birdie, but as an actor she does not quite have the versatility to carry all Harpy’s characters on her own.

The play’s first act suffers somewhat from lack of direction; meandering anecdotes, vague foreshadowy references, and the aforementioned disorienting character changes mean that the story feels cluttered, like the house where it takes place. I found myself becoming restless and checking my watch, worried that I too would be sucked into Birdie’s house and lost amongst its hodgepodge of debris, like the Jehovah’s Witness in one of Birdie’s stories. However, with the introduction of a young woman named Mattie Cleeves (spelling?), the story finally begins to gain momentum, and its various frayed threads come together to weave a compelling tapestry – by the final act, I was absolutely hooked and caught up in the story unfolding in front of me. The central element of that story – Birdie’s compulsive hoarding – is much more interesting as soon as it is hinted that there may be a reason for it locked in her tragic life history, and the play could benefit from setting up this conceit much earlier. As it is, it risks jettisoning its audience’s attention (and consciousness) before this intrigue can be properly established.

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Little Death Club @ Circus Hub Edinburgh

Hosted by Bernie Dieter
Presented by Underbelly and Dead Men Label
3rd – 25th August 2018, 8pm

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Bernie Dieter in Little Death Club (background: Jess Love and Myra DuBois). Photo from berniedieter.com

Little Death Club bubbles along with easy good humour and sly winks, buoyed by the delightfully naughty charm, raucous wit, sultry Weimar-punk-jazz vocals, and wildly careening pseudo-Euro accent of its black-clad hostess, Bernie Dieter. Her flirtatious banter with the audience brings a sense of intimacy (so important, darlings! we don’t get intimate enough these days!) to the large-scale Spiegeltent, and her acts – from an aubergine-heavy emoji song to an ode to dick pics to a demand for cunnilingus – exude exuberance and an unapologetic female sexuality which never sacrifices its own pleasure for the male gaze. (I may be a little enamoured of this larger-than-life mistress of havoc.)

The show’s strongest acts – aside from its fabulous compere – are, interestingly, those which are most traditional and least subversive: fire eater Kitty Bang Bang and Oliver Smith-Wellnitz on the double bar trapeze. The former is classically, coquettishly sexy, despite the luxuriously curling merkin which pokes out amongst red mesh lingerie – watching her brandish, twirl, roll, swallow, spit, jiggle, and breathe fire was absolutely enthralling, especially since I was half-convinced her synthetic victory rolls and tumbling wig might go up in flame at any moment! Smith-Wellnitz, on the other hand, glided onto the stage as a tall, slim, almost elfen androgyne, slipping out of a long black gown to perform an achingly beautiful aerial dance, accompanied by a haunting self-penned ballad from Dieter, Cracks in the Mirror.

The Underbelly Circus Hub To Celebrate 250 Years Of Circus

Oliver Smith-Wellnitz in Little Death Club – photo source

The show’s other acts included glam granny drag queen Myra DuBois, fed-up and disillusioned mime Josh Glanc, and Jess Love performing hula comically under sufferance. Each had a unique comedic appeal based on self-aware genre parody and subversion of circus/cabaret expectations, however their acts seemed lacking in energy and cohesion, which meant the show sometimes struggled with pacing and momentum. This may have simply been penultimate-week slump, or simply because this is a collection of artists who are all at the Fringe with their own solo shows; they are marketed as a “family of freaks”, and it is true that they are all dramatically different in appeal and style (although for a club where “difference” is welcomed and celebrated, there is a distinct lack of racial diversity). However, their easy self-confidence in their acts and their disabilities also made it seem as though they weren’t quite challenging themselves or their audience.

Little Death Club may not be breaking new burlesque/kabarett/circus ground, but they certainly command the existing ground with expertise and ebullience. I would recommend this show for you if you are a Fringe-goer who wants some light and sexy fun after a day of hard-hitting shows, and wish to use it as a sample taste so that you can then pursue the solo shows of your favourite acts.

Tickets

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Angry Alan by Penelope Skinner @ Underbelly Cowgate

Written and directed by Penelope Skinner
Starring Donald Sage Mackay
Presented by Francesca Moody Productions in association with Underbelly
2nd – 26th August 2018, 3.20pm at Cowgate

Donald Sage Mackay in Angry Alan

Donald Sage Mackay in Angry Alan, photo by The Other Richard

Angry Alan is not actually about Alan; it’s about Roger, a thoroughly average American guy. Roger is established as an unremarkable everyman from his very first line: “You know that feeling, when you think to yourself, I should really go for a run…” from which he then leads us through a familiar process: getting your phone out to check the weather, becoming distracted by an interesting article, and next thing you know you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of Internet links and you definitely don’t have time for a run now. We’ve all been there! But for Roger, the rabbit hole leads somewhere more sinister than your usual clickbait – he discovers Angry Alan, a prominent figure in the online Men’s Rights Activism (MRA) community. As Roger is “red pilled” and ventures deeper and deeper into this movement, we follow his story of how it changes his relationships, decisions, perceptions of society, and his self-esteem.

This is a one-person show, told in first person present tense, with virtually nothing to distract the audience from its narrator – the only two items brought onstage are a chair and a lanyard. A projector screen forms the backdrop, and various (real) MRA videos are interspersed throughout the narrative, along with various supporting images such as an email screenshot, or a text message conversation. Donald Sage Mackay is superb as Roger, portraying a character who is very believable and sometimes even relatable – a guy who means well, but whose weaknesses, his feelings of insecurity and impotence, allow him to be preyed upon by more sinister forces. While Roger claims that the movement inspires him to be “proud” of his identity and to “change the world” for the better, he also unwittingly admits to the truth: where he had previously blamed himself for his perceived inadequacies and failures, the MRA movement offered him an absolution from guilt, and a different target for all his pent-up rage and resentment instead.

Skinner’s decision to minimise the amount of outright misogyny in Roger’s character – there was nothing about “women’s place” or any gender-fraught slurs – meant that Roger was not the two-dimensional caricature of a socially challenged, greasy-haired weirdo hunched over his laptop and spewing out hate speech, which many feminists would usually associate with the “MRA type”. All Roger really wants is a better self-image, a better relationship with his son than his with his father, and a return to a time when he knew and understood his place in the world. When his girlfriend discovered feminism, he explains, she found it “inspiring”. But the main feelings Roger finds in Men’s Rights Activism seem to be, as declared in the play’s title, anger.

In a world of Elliot Rodgers and “incels”, alt-right terrorists and #metoo, Angry Alan certainly fulfills the proscription of theatre to ‘hold up a mirror to society’. However, my only criticism of the play is that it stops there; there is no urge to action, or even suggestion of how we, as a society, can counter this anger and (self-)destruction. As Roger laid out the logic of the MRA movement, the “alternative facts” of a “gynocentric” social structure in which it is men, not women, who are systematically oppressed, I felt a dull sense of helplessness and hopelessness set in: how do you fight this sort of cultish indoctrination, and blind, rage-filled world-view? At what point could anyone have stepped in and talked Roger away from these beliefs, when he clung to them like a drowning man to a life raft? As the story hurtled inevitably towards crisis and/or tragedy, there was a total lack of hope, of the possibility of redemption. I feel this is doing Roger, men, and humanity a disservice, and meant that Angry Alan fell short of being truly groundbreaking. Diagnosing and warning against a widespread disease in society is important, but trying to treat it is what we really need our innovators to concentrate on.

This last gripe notwithstanding, it is fair to say that Angry Alan is fully deserving of its Fringe First award and fully sold-out status: this is a piece of raw yet elegant theatre which packs a real punch, and when further runs are announced throughout the UK – of which I have no doubt – I would strongly urge all Theatre Box readers to make seeing it a priority.

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Donald Sage Mackay in Angry Alan, photo by The Other Richard

Peepshow, Circa @ Underbelly

27th June – 18th August 2018
Directed by Yaron Lifschitz
Devised and Presented by Circa Contemporary Theatre
Performed at Underbelly Festival’s Spiegeltent

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Images courtesy of Kurt Petersen

This was, quite simply, phenomenal cabaret circus. I sat transfixed in Underbelly’s Spiegeltent for 60 minutes and forgot the world outside existed, as the six performers – four women and two men – moved fluidly and gracefully through a series of acts encompassing dance, hoops, physical comedy, aerial silks, and superb displays of acrobatics. Unfortunately on the night I was there, the trapeze artist pictured in promotional materials was not performing, but he was barely missed amongst the rest of the extremely talented cast.

According to director Yaron Lifschitz, Peepshow explores the concept of “looking and being seen”; the performers navigate through light and darkness, visual effects and illusions, and the states of observer and observed. Classic cabaret tropes and techniques are twisted and subverted – I was pleasantly surprised to see that two of the acrobatic bases were women, and it was wonderful to see a break from the usual convention that only male acrobats must be strong and muscular while their female counterparts are small, lithe, and sexy. (Side note: one of the performers looked for all the world like a fourth Hemsworth brother and the most attractive, not to mention the most physically talented!) Which is not to say that the women in this show weren’t sexy – at times they were, but they were not confined to this. And although there were some classic displays of performative masculinity, including a gracefully choreographed dance fight, there was also a feeling of gender and sexual fluidity, not to mention homoeroticism. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the objectification of the performers was equal, deliberate, and self-aware, all of which only made it more devastatingly effective. The style flirted with the seediness of a burlesque peepshow, but poked gentle fun at it as well. And the music was phenomenal!

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Images courtesy of Kurt Petersen

My only criticisms of this production are mild, and are actually focused on some of the more traditional acts in the show: the miming and juggling were not quite as seamless and engrossing as the more innovative acts. In addition, the lack of any stronger through-thread, plot, or theme, meant that in the very few weaker moments, the show lost momentum somewhat. However for the most part, this production was absolutely exquisite and breath-taking. I would highly recommend making your way down to the Southbank in time to see Peepshow before its run there ends in August!

Tickets

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