On stage: the week at Zoofest

Here’s our reviews of Roller Derby Saved My Soul, The Birdmann’s In the Events of Momentous Timing and Underbelly at Zoofest, plus what’s happening this week in theatre.

Nancy Kenny in Roller Derby Saved My Soul.

Theatre arts just don’t stop. Zoofest is rocking another week of small theatre. Some to check out this week include Die Roten Punkte, the Progressive Polygamists and Kuwaiti Moonshine. Just for Laughs has got its knickers in its mouth with Spank! A Fifty Shades Parody. Bunny Bunny Gilda Radner, a stage adaptation of Alan Zweibel’s book, is on at the Espace Freestanding Room. Shakespeare in the Park’s roving production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream journeys on to different green spaces around the city, plus there’s some sort of comedy festival happening in town right now, apparently.

Here are some shows I’ve caught this past week:

Roller Derby Saved My Soul
Amy enters her 30s as meek as a Comic-Con fan who spends her nights eating popcorn and avoiding life with Buffy the Vampire Slayer re-runs. Her younger but taller sister June trash-talks, scales climbing walls while on her cell phone and is a roller derby queen. Amy stumbles into this Amazonian world of wheels and discovers the cure for her lack of confidence: her own set of skates. Too bad she can barely stand in them. Beyond that, there’s a cute Starbucks barista who knows exactly what her favourite drink is (some Frappuccino) and wears a vest just like Han Solo. Eeeeeee!

The constellation of roller derby, comic-fandom and social awkwardness gives this play a millennial ethos — think Girls or anything with Zooey Deschanel. Amy’s challenges largely exist on a small and familiar scale — her workplace has taken away free coffee, she ogles a tattoo on a woman’s breast a little too long. But as twee as the play is, writer and star Nancy Kenny is charming on stage as Amy. Her development takes a satisfying arc. The under-developed super-heroine powers are present long before she changes her uniform, while her sweet friendliness persists as she transforms through the camaraderie of a new team. Nancy gives us an Amy who is both real and sympathetic.

The world of women’s roller derby is shown as a demanding sport requiring athletic prowess, but with an appropriate dose of sexitude. This positive late bloomer story is much easier to enjoy than an elbow to the face.

The Birdmann: In the Events of Momentous Timing
The Birdmann wakes up chained to an ironing board, wearing an ill-fitting suit, the stereo turned up full blast to Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time,” with a single sequined stiletto beside him. He then walks us backwards through the scene to explain how a quest to find love (awwww!) led to this predicament.

The Birdmann’s strength is his signature late-’80s style. Slicked-up Mohawk and confident air bordering on arrogance = dreamboat for new romantics and young punksters everywhere. His mix track and tailored suit recall an era of dot com bubbles, Reaganomics and coked-out Wall Street investment bankers partying at Studio 54. He creatively makes use of mundane props. Juggling plastic shopping bags is much slower than balls or flaming torches, but it’s engaging given the Birdmann’s dramatic flair. But of all his many gifts, the Birdmann can lip-sync with the best of them.

The show starts out a bit tepid but picks up steam as it moves along, getting funnier and weirder with every bit. Cabaret-style one-liners zing past with rapid force. “I have a time machine — it’s a watch.” The ending lip sync: worth double the price of admission.

The Beats are a strange bunch. They’re so angry — at the Man, at hydrogen bombs, at American culture and civilization — and they express it with poetic fluency (or drug-induced hallucinatory ranting). Among all of Kerouac & Co., William S. Burroughs is probably the most difficult to connect with, but heroin addiction doesn’t make for the most lucid authors.

The strange and in/un-sightful ramblings of Burroughs come to life in Jayson McDonald’s Underbelly. Using only a sole line of Burroughs, McDonald recreates lyrical “snapshots” of the elusive writer, along with his pals Al (Ginsberg) and Jack (Kerouac). Each vignette is different from the next — a word cut-up, polemical rants, moments with girlfriend Joan Vollmer. McDonald takes on the personality, voice and mannerisms of all the characters, demonstrating his flexibility and strength as an actor. Fans of Burroughs and the Beats will dig seeing the American folk anti-hero materialize. Those who don’t might find this a difficult show to access. ■

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