Fruit Machine Premieres at NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival

 

FruitMachine

Fruit Machine is one of two Mainstage productions at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival. Pictured, left to right: Lucas Tapley, Samuel Crowell, Kira Chisholm, Esther Soucoup, and Dustyn Forbes. Photo Credit: Matt Carter.

Alex Rioux and Samuel Crowell began working on Fruit Machine in 2017. At the time, Rioux and Crowell were members of the Solo Chicken Productions’ the coop ⁠— a platform for contemporary artists to create original works of physical theatre. In May of last year, a work-in-progress showing of Fruit Machine ran before another production from the coop, A Record of Us.

Fast forward to this summer: Rioux and Crowell, in collaboration with members of the coop, have developed Fruit Machine into a full-length production, and it is one of two Mainstage productions at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.

Presented at the Black Box Theatre, Fruit Machine explores the decades-long purge of gay men and lesbians in the Canadian military and RCMP. The ‘fruit machine’ was a device designed in the 1960s by Frank Robert Wake, a psychology professor from Carleton University, to detect homosexuality in subjects, who were unaware of the machine’s true purpose. Cold War paranoia motivated the witch-hunt as officials believed gay personnel could be blackmailed by Soviet spies, effectively making them threats to national security. 

What unfolds in Fruit Machine, which uses physical theatre to interpret historical texts and quotes, is a story of betrayal. We meet men and women who are betrayed by their peers, their families, and their country. We enter a world of secrecy, of coded language, and hidden intentions. It is a dark chapter of Canadian history that is almost too hard to believe, especially from the perspective of a young millennial.

Rioux and Crowell present moments that express the same kind of disbelief. These are moments that could appear in any episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle. One standout moment is when the actors shuffle across the stage while holding newspapers to their faces (no eye holes). It is entirely comical, again straight from a cartoon, because this period of history seems so outlandish from a young person’s point-of-view. Seriously, a man couldn’t drive a white convertible car or wear a ring on his pinky finger without people thinking he was gay? We are soon reminded that these seemingly trivial actions had life-altering consequences.

Fruit becomes a powerful image in the play. It is an object that holds a lot of significance for the characters and their relationships with others. Fruit is something to be discarded. Fruit is something to be destroyed. Fruit is something to be embraced. Fruit is something that connects people. The inanimate objects are transformed into characters, and the actors respond to them accordingly. The result is beautiful storytelling told through eloquent movement.

Rioux’s direction smartly crafts an intimate atmosphere with characters weaving in and out of the action on stage. There are moments where the connective tissue seems loose, leaving the play and its network of characters feel a bit disjointed. Still, the scenes manage to be effective on their own. The director stages scenes of palpable heartbreak and tightening dread.

The company — Lucas Tapley, Dustyn Forbes, Kira Chisholm, Esther Soucoup, and Crowell — proves versatile with every scene. The actors jump effortlessly from the physical demands of the play to its segments that are more documentary-style. 

Fruit Machine is emotionally devastating. A must-see.


Fruit Machine ran July 23 -25 at the Black Box Theatre as part of the 2019 NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival.

For more information about the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival:
https://nbacts.com/

A Record of Us Drives Through the Heart of New Brunswick

Two years after premiering at the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival, A Record of Us is back for a New Brunswick tour, beginning here in Fredericton at Saint Thomas University’s Black Box Theatre. A Record of Us is the inaugural work created and performed by Solo Chicken Productions’ the coop. The touring production features the original cast — Jean-Michel Cliche, Kira Chisholm, Alex Donovan, Ian Goff, Alexa Higgins, and Lexi McCrae.

Directed by Lesandra Dodson and Lisa Anne Ross, who created the work in collaboration with the coop company members, A Record of Us blends physical theatre with the texts of author David Adams Richards. So, yes, bleak is one way A Record of Us could be described for its reflections on loss, isolation, and family violence.

In one episode, the question on everyone’s mind is — what did you do, Ben? A cacophony of public suspicion overwhelms Ben (Cliche), a young man dealing with alcoholism. His father (Goff) meets him in a physical confrontation where dinner plates slide into the scene behind them. Later, Ben’s sisters (Higgins and McCrae) attempt at ignoring the damage in their family — while cleaning the mess left behind —  fails when their conversation breaks down.

Elsewhere, a young woman (Higgins) falls apart while no one seems to care or notice. Her worries are drowned out by the noise of men playing pool, aggressively, in the background. Another round of beer. Another night of pool. Another face in the bar.

In another part, two men (Donovan and Goff) slinging coffees try breaking away from their scripted customer interactions to have a meaningful conversation between themselves. Earnest human emotion in the wake of tragedy surfaces after much difficulty, leaving the men vulnerable to each other under the store’s harsh fluorescent lighting.

A Record of Us suggests the New Brunswick experience is rooted in a spirit of perseverance that, despite all odds, endures across the province — demonstrated most recently in last month’s record-breaking flood. Yet, failure has managed to find its way into New Brunswick’s fabric: high unemployment, low literacy, and continued youth out-migration. And so, in these reflections, A Record of Us depicts the fallout of continued personal hardships.

Unfortunately, the show suffers from a narrow perspective of living in New Brunswick. What about bilingualism? And the aging population? The indigenous population? The steadily increasing number of visible minorities? Sure, the social issues mentioned earlier can affect everyone, but not in the same ways; it’s called intersectionality. Since Richards’ works were only used for inspiration, there was room for the creators to develop their own contributions for the project. So, it’s not as if A Record of Us is a firm adaptation of anything that could explain the gaps. 

Under the direction of Dodson and Ross, the production stages stunning images that effectively expand the work’s themes. The movement language, elevated by impressive lighting work, is almost cinematic. In one such moment, Higgins performs in front of strobe lights (lighting design & technical direction by Trent Logan), producing a motion blur effect that looks as if a film reel is spinning out of control. That film reel consists of nothing but different versions of her character, different outcomes based on other people’s expectations. There’s also this intensity that continues from segment to segment, an intensity mixed with an unexpected, kind of morbid sense of humour. Dodson and Ross explore this intensity through brute, yet calculated movement that is performed with great vitality by the cast.

A talented ensemble and articulate direction help distract from the limited narrative presented in A Record of Us.


The New Brunswick tour of Solo Chicken Productions’ the coop’s A Record of Us runs June 1 – 8 in Fredericton, Saint John, Moncton, and Sackville.

For more information about the show, including performance dates and ticket information, visit: http://www.solochickenproductions.com/a-record-of-us-june-2018-tour/