High energy at the Montreal Fringe – Blink, Blink, Blink and Hedwig and the Angry Inch

At first glance the performances of Blink, Blink, Blink and Hedwig And the Angry Inch share no similarities. The former is a one woman show focusing on a motivational speaker, while the latter follows the life and struggles of glam punk rock trans performer Hedwig. The similarities, however, became more evident as I sat in the audience. Both shows involve the audience in the experience, rely on a small number of actors to play various roles and, most noticable are carried along by the intense energy of their lead actors.

Blink, Blink, Blink, written and performed, and I suspect wrestled into existence, by Montreal Improv’s Kirsten Rasmussen. The play is seamless, with music and sound effects meticulously synchronised with the actress’s manic comedic performance as motivational speaker Sara Tonin. I would say that Rasmussen’s fingerprints are all over the entire piece, except that I am sure, given the professional nature of the show, that even metaphorical fingerprints would undoubtedly be wiped clean before anything was shown to the public.

Rasmussen plays Sara Tonin, a motivational speaker whose aggressive approach to casting aside one’s fears is not playing out as well in her personal life as her on stage persona might suggest. This story lines runs parallel to that of Benjamin Bunny, a timid rabbit, also played with brilliant physical comedy by Rasmussen, as are several other rabbit characters. Rasmussen switches seamlessly between characters with a change of facial expression, voice and stance to such effect that there was never any doubt about who was on stage or who was speaking to whom. Her portrayals were almost cartoonish in their exagerated nature, but also completely believable and generally hilarious.

The writing is sharp and funny, but, as with the best comedies, does not rely strictly on humour. It builds relationships, struggles and character evolution, showing us a side of Benjamin and a side of Sara that we recognize and can relate to, even while we are laughing.

The music, composed by Jeff Louch and Kirsten Rasmussen, melds well with the rest of the play and continues in the comedic vein. At times the pianist could not help giggling, but I really can’t blame him. I was snorting with laughter myself.

Blink, Blink, Blink was a fabulous experience, marked with professionalism, humour and what seemed to be a genuine enjoyment by all involved. I made an effort to see this piece because Kirsten Rasmussen was so engaging at the preview at Fringe For All, and she did not disappoint. She will be taking over co-hosting the Fringe Festival’s 13th hour next year, which I feel will be a good fit and an additional reason for me to check out the late night review show. In the meantime I will be sure to look her up in local shows and Montreal Improv. She won me over and I can’t wait to see her on stage again.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not a one-man play, but don’t tell that to Hedwig. The German-born rock transexual sensation is a show of her own, and Antonio Bavaro’s performance is front and center as it should be. This cult classic is known for it’s entertainment value and the Montreal Fringe Festival performance delivers.

Unfortunately, the show I attended started almost 20 minutes late. After waiting outside and then inside I was not as receptive as I may usually have been, but after a couple of numbers I warmed up to the performance. The play is presented as a rock show. The Angry Inch back up band is drunk, hairy and disgruntled, Hedwig is bitchy and fabulous and we the audience are playing the role of audience. Between high energy punk rock numbers, and through them, Hedwig recounts in extended monologue her life, from a pretty boy in early 1980s East Berlin to her operation that left her with her “angry inch”, to a life in America and her desperate search for her “other half”. Rejected and angry she vents and laments and sings her ass off.

Unfortunately due to the nature of attempting to present the band as an actual punk band I found the play element of the musical somewhat hard to follow. This is in keeping with the history of the play, which was developed in the club scene versus in theatres in an attempt to keep the rock energy. Although the Katacombs is ideal for this play, the sound was loud to the point that I wasn’t able to follow all of the lyrics. In a club show this doesn’t matter. In a musical I am left feeling that I may have missed story elements.

Adding to my confusion was the fact that the leads did not have quite the physical skills necessary to project multiple characters as often required. This was really only slightly problematic, as Bavaro generally could switch characters by accent and Peggy Hogan, who plays almost everyone else, was able to rely on context and props. In the few scenes where props and costumes did not switch to suggest different character I found that the scenarios were muddled, leaving me slightly unsure of my own interpretations of what was happening, particularly as the play wrapped up.

Still, given these technical issues, I really enjoyed the show. Hedwig is a complex and highly damaged character whose search for identity and love, and identity and power via love, was understandable and intriguing. The script was tweaked to match the venue and the city, a local nod that kept up the illusion that we were at a rock show and that these characters were in fact real, and, in fact, larger than life.

Antonio Bavaro as Hedwig draws on all of his drag performance background to deliver high energy, stylish camp over a wounded, bitter interior, and all in sky high heels. He takes over the stage and the entire room with angry energy, stomping his feet, dashing back and forth, doffing and donning outfits and belting out songs that are cult classics. Bavaro’s voice matches the songs perfectly, both the rock hits and the softer ballads. Penny Hogan’s vocals are underused by her character, but when she sings it is worth the wait. Overall it is a strong presentation of a cult classic, engaging, energetic, touching and rocking out.

Both Blink, Blink, Blink and Hedwig and the Angry Inch wrap up their final shows this weekend, as does the Montreal Fringe Festival. With only three days left to enjoy the smorgasboard of live small theater I encourage Montreal to hit the streets and the small venues where these shows are still being showcased. My appetite for live theater has been whetted. I won’t wait until 2012 to see more live theater, and neither should you.  montrealfringe.ca