2023 Saskatoon Fringe Reviews Part 2: Improv, stand-up, and musical mayhem

The solar-powered sign at the front of the 2023 Saskatoon Fringe Festival. (Photo by Matt Olson)

The Fringe is back, and that means Fringe Reviews are back!

You can count on PodSask to review all of the Saskatoon Fringe Festival’s 18 main-stage shows. Here’s the second batch!

Fringe Reviews Part 1 can be found here.

Commedia Dell’Farte: A Musical

What we loved: This odd conceptual musical manages to modernize the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte, a 17th century Italian form of improv theatre. The over-the-top caricatures from most of the performers clearly capture the style of Commedia dell’Arte. And the actors seemed to be having a fun time. 

Some of the humour lands well and it garnered a few chuckles from the audience. It is certainly silly and absurd. 

What we didn’t love: The silliness and absurdity (and vulgarity) of the show seemed to be for its own sake. The blurb in the Fringe program states that the show will have “crazy characters in even crazier situations.” This is true in abundance, but in the midst of such crazy situations, any sense of plot or conflict is elusive. This makes it difficult to follow or invest in the circumstances of the show. 

It is a musical, and unfortunately there were significant pitch issues from the singers. This may have partially been exacerbated by the quiet and synthesized pre recorded accompaniment. While singing live must be applauded and performing to a track without the use of microphones is always challenging, it was difficult to follow or get lost in the music.

It’s also listed as an improv show, but the songs and many of the lines were clearly scripted. It is unclear what elements were improvised. A concept show like this, brilliant in its inception, would have benefited from an introduction to inform the audience of the point, structure, and references of the show. If one is not familiar with commedia dell’arte, the point of the show is likely to be lost. 

Verdict: This is a massive undertaking with a strong starting idea. Unfortunately, it lacks focus and polish. 

Rating: ★ ★ ✩ ✩

– Bobby Williston


The Cucamonga Hotel and Lounge

What we loved: If you’ve lived in Saskatchewan or have relatives from the rural Prairies, this one is going to hit close to home. 

“The Cucamonga Lounge and Hotel” does an artful job hitting on those well-worn country beats: an old family-run hotel in a nowhere town faces down the reality of change as the owner ages and new blood is brought in. 

There were some solid performances, with Adam Formanek’s hardworking hotel employee Johnathon as a standout with a lovely mix of earnestness and heartbreak as the show progresses. 

This is a show with a sweet story, and one that is handled with care and thoughtfulness. The directing was clever, using the full space of the refinery and a small but colourful set to tell stories around the fictional hotel. 

And once we reach the finale, we get a soft and gorgeous moment that pays off the hints of declining mental health irrevocably tied to the declining hotel throughout the play. 

What we didn’t love: The show is listed in the program as a “Drama” and as a “Comedy” — and it would probably be better served focusing on the former. 

“The Cucamonga Hotel and Lounge” includes a comedic side plot featuring a pair of silly honeymooners, but it mostly pulls us away from the more interesting stories. The beginning sets up a trio of compelling characters that drive the main plot — and the comedic side story bloats the show more than it adds to it. 

This is a script that feels like it’s a couple edits away from being a genuinely beautiful hour of theatre. Since the Fringe is a place for experimenting in theatre and trying new things, the prospect of seeing this show continue evolving is exciting. 

The verdict: A lovely prairie show that reaches for the heartstrings even if it never quite gives them that emotional tug, “The Cucamonga Hotel and Lounge” is a lovely way to spend an hour. It’s cute, charming, nostalgic and well-directed, making for a great addition to this year’s Fringe festival. 

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩

– Matt Olson


The Trombone Guy’s Story

Elias Faingersh features in his one-man show “The Trombone Guy’s Story” at the 2023 Saskatoon Fringe Festival. (Supplied / Photo by Uros Hocevar)

What we loved: How many times has the phrase “top-notch trombone comedy” ever been put to the proverbial page?

Swedish trombonist Elias Faingersh is back after a great show in the 2022 Fringe, and this one might just top last year’s. Combining upper-echelon musicianship (Faingersh did play for the Metropolitan Opera once upon a time) with fantastic comedic timing, and you have the ingredients for a unique piece of theatre. 

It’s a delight to see such a talented musician show off acting and comedic chops. Faingersh’s storytelling is hilarious and heartwarming in equal beats as he trades exploring the birth and raising of his children with laugh-out-loud innuendo. It turns out there’s a lot of sex jokes to be made with a trombone as a prop. 

Musically, Faingersh uses his pedal-powered setup to create looping effects and short songs throughout the show. It’s astounding to watch — and listen to — Faingersh create fantastic little soundscapes with his trombone and his voice. 

It’s compelling, it’s unique and it’s everything you want in a Fringe show. 

What didn’t we love: The show ends on a rather abrupt and serious note — one that, frankly, wasn’t really built to or expected. 

But it’s still a beautifully-crafted scene. Faingersh just kind of hits the audience with it out of nowhere, and it’s a bit of a tone-shift from the otherwise humour-heavy show. 

It’s really the only issue in the show, if it can even be called that. The rest of the show is such high caliber, the audience could have sat through more of Faingersh’s work if it could have set up the finale a little more. 

Verdict: Top-notch. Virtuosic. Faingersh’s show is a delight from opening to finale. If you’re going to see only one show to see the depth and expanse of what’s offered at the Saskatoon Fringe Festival, come listen to the Trombone Guy. You won’t regret it. 

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

– Matt Olson


Full Metal Comedy

What we loved: Shannon Mallory and Ryan Moccasin stood out as the funniest comedians among a strong bunch in a fabulous stand-up show also featuring Shawn Cuthand, Danny Knight, and Dakota Ray Hebert. 

The five comedians had the audience laughing quickly, from the host’s reference to Market Mall as “Saskatoon’s Florida” to Ryan Moccasin providing the audience with the opportunity to use the safe word “white power” if they ever got uncomfortable. 

Shannon Mallory has a dry wit, and their storytelling is smooth and consistently laugh-worthy. They are legitimately fun to listen to with a raw and honest heart that never gets too heavy. 

Ryan Moccasin does not hesitate to shock the audience, but his points are made with humour and he mixes powerful messaging with belly-laughs.

The whole show kept the audience consistently laughing, and all five performers are noteworthy. 

There was no lack of strong political commentary, but the show holds just the right amount of discomfort. As a small and intimate stand-up comedy show, this is worth the time and money.

What we didn’t love: There is not much to not like in this show. A small number of jokes were new and didn’t land as masterfully as the performers may have liked. But the vast majority landed well and the few weaker jokes were not enough to change the mood or slow the fun. 

Most of the performers told the audience when they were going to leave them with one more joke. That was perhaps unnecessary in terms of interrupting the flow of storytelling, but it is such a minor critique. 

Verdict: See this show to enjoy some local stand-up comics. It is a great way to broaden horizons and get some solid laughs in. 

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

– Bobby Williston


Breaking Bard: An Improvised Shakespearean Tragedy

Brent Hirose and Lily Beaudoin perform in “Breaking Bard: An Improvised Shakespearean Tragedy” at the 2023 Saskatoon Fringe Festival. (Supplied / Photo by Chelseay Stuyt)

What we loved: The Spontaneous Shakespeare Company from Vancouver improvised a brilliant and hilarious Shakespearean tragedy using words provided by the audience. In the words of one of the actors, it was “both opening and closing night of this particular show,” and they managed an entire tragedy from the words “messy” and “lagoon.” 

Improvising a story takes a bit of an introduction. It is always important for the audience to follow the point and purpose of a show, and the company did an excellent job of introducing the performance. This helped the audience buy into the experience, and we were rapt with attention. 

The performers were all brilliant as they improvised Shakespearean English that was easy to follow, and used modern references with their rhyming couplets. One such reference was a Shakespearean version of “No one puts baby in the corner.” This was one of many brilliant moments that could have been a simple throw-away line. All the actors were quick to pick up cues from each other and find some low and high comedic moments.

For Shakespeare fans, the characters were recognizable, the speech patterns brilliantly mimicked The Bard, and the plot progression was perfect. 

For people who do not like or are not familiar with Shakespeare, the speech and story are very easy to follow and the humour is rich. The audience was laughing non-stop, and there was a standing ovation at the end.

What we didn’t love: There is nothing not to love in this show. The actors are excellent and have honed their talents to produce a hilarious once-in-a-lifetime experience for each audience that they see. 

Verdict: Do not miss this show. Go once. Go twice. Go thrice. It will be different every time, and there is no end to the fun that can be had.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

– Bobby Williston


A Side of Rice

What we loved: It takes a great performer to make the unremarkable, remarkable. Nicholas Rice does exactly that. 

That’s not to say Rice’s story isn’t interesting — but what makes this one-man storytelling show compelling is in the way Rice regales the audience with his childhood and young adulthood memories. They’re not wild and crazy, they’re unique and human. Rice’s strength is immersing his audience in stories both beautiful and tragic, giving us a slice of life that highlights the importance of family, love and the ever-changing human condition. 

Rice’s story is the kind you’d want to tell your kids and share with the whole family. It’s a story of boldness paying off, of finding comfort in family and the importance of hopefulness. The stories are woven in a way that will bring you to tears from laughter and melancholy, and Rice shares himself so honestly you can’t help but feel connected. 

What we didn’t love: It’s certainly a sporadic show, jumping from scene to scene without an obvious through-line. Each of Rice’s tales and scenes are powerful in their own way, they’re just combined in a very varied way. 

On that same note, while Rice says in the show description (and in the early minutes of the show) that he’s drawing on some 48 years of experience being an actor, we don’t get a lot of acting stories. Not that the content was bad by any stretch, just not really expected based on the show notes. 

The verdict: It’s impossible to not love this show, and it’s impossible to not be charmed by the irrepressible Rice. You’ll smile together, mourn together, and maybe by the end you’ll learn a little more about yourself as well as the experienced actor leading the way. 

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

– Matt Olson


The Saskatoon Fringe Festival runs from August 3 to 12. Information for all shows, tickets, and the full festival program can be found at 25thstreettheatre.org/saskatoon-fringe/.

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