Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ottawa Fringe Reviews 1 and 2

Every Story Ever Told and Einstein's Bicycle

Telling stories within or - similarly - about stories is a trope as old as the hills. From the more modern examples of Inception and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged!), back to Hamlet's play-within-a-play, the Thousand and One Nights, and that one whole season of Dallas, storytellers seem to agree that, when it comes to layers of narrative...

Both Every Story Ever Told and Einstein's Bicycle fit into this spectrum of meta-fictional/meta-referential storytelling. True to its name, Every Story Ever Told is a one-man show in which the protagonist (?) attempts to rattle off, uhh, every story ever told. Starting, of course, with War and Peace. Ryan Gladstone makes a heroic effort to remember an interminable litany of Russian names, even if he stumbles once or twice. Since he's playing overambitious/insecure, it's hard to tell to what extent any of the slip-ups in the show were scripted or not - and therein I think lies a certain genius. Gladstone is, to some extent, trying to communicate the futility of his own enterprise, any mistakes he does (appear?) to make seem to underscore the message, rather than contravene it. As for the 4th wall, it's never really there to begin with, so there's nothing for him to break.

About halfway through the show, he decides to make the switch from telling every story to telling one archetypal story ("the perfect story"), in the vein of Campbell's monomyth (which he does mention - albeit briefly). This is, I think, the weakest part of the show. Gladstone solicits input from the audience, and weaves a tale of heroic adventure starring a fictionalized version of an audience member (in this case, the young woman sitting to my direct left). He inter-cuts this story (actually quite deftly) with examples from fiction of each of the many stages of the hero's journey. He has a really funny part here where he uses EVERY ROCKY MOVIE to explain a different segment of the monomyth. The didactic interludes are all, in fact, quite good; it's the audience's story that's weak. Gladstone's improv-fu needs work; he'll stumble over the details, and his story didn't always cleave to the very promising premise of Love amid Chaos (inspired by that viral photo of a couple kissing amongst the recent Vancouver riots). To his credit, Gladstone does know when and how to keep things going if there's an awkward pause.

Every Story Ever Told almost feels like it should be a lecture, instead of a show. That's something I'll say about Einstein's bicycle, as well. Maybe a TED talk/performance is closer to the mark. Both seem to be an awkward balance of education and entertainment. Both deal in a measure of fact and fiction (or, in this case, facts about fiction), but neither seem to draw much of a conclusion on either front. In any show - I think - either the facts or the fiction should serve to make a point. The most powerful Fringe shows I have ever seen have been centered around the emotional deconstruction of one or more characters. They (and we, the audience), get to discover who the characters really are as their worlds are turned upside-down, and their illusions are stripped away. This is a principle well-known in science and technology: destructive testing/analysis. Both ESET and Einstein's Bicycle have a specimen clearly in their sights, but refuse to scrape off the skin to find what lies underneath. Gladstone's conclusion - factually- seems to be that our stories are both multitudinous beyond count...and yet reducible to sets of common themes and plot elements, but it says nothing controversial. On the emotional side, he doesn't really delve too deep into the psychology of the storyteller, specifically himself. Beyond "wanting to end his Fringe career with a bang", he doesn't examine his own desire to tell all these stories, nor even the reasons behind the (very human) need to tell stories in the first place.

Einstein's Bicycle is actually a collection of 6 short plays. Taken together, they're the stage-play equivalent to the all blue entry on TVTropes. Practically every line is a quote from somewhere, or a reference to something - to the extent that the program contains copious footnotes for three or four of the sub-plays. All in all, it's an enjoyable experience, but in being a synthesis of so much information from so many sources, it sometimes runs the risk of saying nothing itself.

I think the first two short plays are my favourites. In the first, a science reporter and a manhattan project engineer have a chance encounter on Bikini Atoll - just prior to a nuclear test. The dialogue is fun and flirty, but slowly reveals a more sinister underlying reality. In SF, it's often altogether too easy to examine the impact of new technologies in alarmist, reactionary ways. What I like about this first play is that it seems to address the fundamental change to our reality wrought by the development of atomic weaponry without bludgeoning us over the head with symbolism and the spectre of mass human suffering (all the while conveniently omitting the fact that the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden were, by far, worse atrocities in that regard). The second is a young Lois lane and Clark Kent preparing to canoodle in a Rocket '88, as Sputnik ("Spoot-nik", they say) orbits overhead. "Can they see us?", the young Americans ask each other, repeatedly, as if Stalin himself has become a cosmic voyeur. I admit I have less of a solid grasp on what this one is supposed to mean, but the innuendos stay on the thin line between funny and sexy, and the leads have the chemistry to sell it all.

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