We are in the midst of a global pandemic. With death rates on the rise and public gatherings of more than ten people banned to prevent the spread of COVID-19, performance artists and festival organizers are trying to make the best of a bad situation despite cancellations of their events.

One of the artists trying to make the best of things is Amy Blackmore, the Executive and Artistic Director of the Festival St-Ambroise FRINGE de Montréal, The MainLine Theatre, and Ceci N’est Pas un Fringe…This Is Not a Fringe Festival, an alternative, socially distanced theatre festival developed when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the annual Montreal Fringe Festival.

The Fringe was postponed rather than cancelled because this year would have been the festival’s thirtieth anniversary. Given that participants are chosen by lottery, the artists set to participate in the now-postponed festival were offered the option of formally withdrawing along with a refund of their participation fee or have their participation deferred to next year’s event.

I had the opportunity to speak to Blackmore about This Is Not a Fringe Festival on the phone earlier this week. As I suspected, it was developed as an alternative to the regular Fringe Festival.

“The Fringe just means so much to so many folks and we don’t want to abandon our community,” she said, adding that This Is Not a Fringe Festival is not meant to replace the St-Ambroise Fringe. “We’re not pretending to be the Fringe. You can’t Fringe without all the artists. It just doesn’t work,” she laughed.

In the spirit of Fringe, Blackmore and her team, which includes Kenny Streule, the event’s producer, put together a lineup to satisfy fans of the festival and “fill that Fringe need.” Unlike the regular Fringe, the lineup of This Is Not a Fringe Festival is smaller and a lot more curated, selecting artists based on their experiences running past St-Ambroise Fringe Festivals.

Where the Fringe often has over a five hundred artists participating, This Is Not a Fringe Festival only has about 150 artists involved. The festival was developed and curated paying close attention to what’s been happening online since the theatres have closed due to the pandemic.

The artists for the event were found via a couple of calls for submissions as well as through people Blackmore and other organizers met over the years of running Fringe, mainly festival alumni.

Like Fringe, This Is Not a Fringe Festival has a wide variety of programming. They divided it into a series of strains, with the main one being the Signature Series: a series of events in the evening running from June 11th to the 21st with one or two shows a night.

Performances include an opening concert with Paul Cargnello, Crowd Karaoke and Being Brown is my Superpower in partnership with Fringe Live Stream. Another exciting event is the Fringe fundraiser Lip Sync Bingo in collaboration with House of Laureen. Some of the events are free, others are pay-what-you-can.

“It’s very open this year in terms of money because everyone is in a slightly different situation, we’re finding, so we’re trying to be flexible with that.”

When I asked Blackmore how payments to the pay-what-you-can events would be facilitated. She explained that it would vary from event to event, and that in many cases, just like the now-postponed Fringe Festival, audiences will be able to buy tickets through the MainLine Theatre website.

“Every event has its own needs, so instead of having a blanket approach to everything, we’re trying to really honour that,” Blackmore said, explaining that because This Is Not a Fringe Festival is not as large as the regular Fringe, they are actually able to do that.

In addition to the Signature Series, This Is Not a Fringe Festival also has a strain of events called The Daily Dose in which every day at 11am audiences can get a daily dose of Fringe as the festival release a series of videos. Said videos include a contemporary dance video, a magic act, storytelling videos in collaboration with Confabulation, as well a series of online activities and challenges organized by the Festival Tout Tout Court. Blackmore affectionately refers to this strain as “art in small packages” that people can take in when it’s convenient for them.

As a recent participant in Festival de la Bete Noire’s last Sunday Night Live Scream before the summer, I was curious as to whether the event would be a series of videos submitted by artists or whether it would be live streamed events. Blackmore explained that it would be a combination of both, with, for example, The Daily Dose as a series of videos submitted to them, and some of the events are live streamed. The festival will be a combination of Facebook live streams, YouTube, and Zoom Hangouts depending on what they are.

“I think what people can expect is the spirit of the Fringe, the spirit of our event. I’m expecting folks to participate and have conversations with us,” Blackmore said, mentioning a series at This Is Not a Fringe Festival called The Transformation Series, five talks Blackmore is facilitating on the five current topics including what it’s like to make art during a pandemic, green theatre-making, and work-life balance.

When I asked Blackmore what she felt the overarching theme of the event is, she spoke of resilience and hope.

“It’s an ode to a festival that never was.”

Ceci N’est Pas un Fringe / This Is Not a Fringe Festival is running from June 11 to 2020 in participation with Fringe Live Stream, MainLine Theatre, and Festival St-Ambroise FRINGE. Tickets and info available through montrealfringe.ca

Halloween is upon us and in Montreal that means just one thing: fastening your garter belts and doing the Time Warp at the city’s Rocky Horror festivities!

As always there are two events in Montreal to partake in: the Halloween Ball at Cinema Imperial and the live musical play put on at the MainLine Theatre. The Imperial ball involves a costume contest and a screening of the film accompanied by actors miming the show on stage. Audience members are invited to yell out call lines, dance, and throw stuff during strategic points in the show.

With scores of drunken attendees and the risk of being hit with a toilet paper roll, the Halloween Ball is not for everyone. If you want something a little tamer but still very much in the spirit of Rocky Horror and Halloween, Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show at the MainLine Theatre is a sure bet.

This is the original musical play the 1975 film is based on. The actors on stage are all actually singing and dancing and the MainLine’s production contains a few artistic changes that may throw off die-hard fans of the movie and former attendees of the Halloween Ball. Though you are not allowed to throw anything during the play, audience members are invited to do call lines and even heckle as many of the actors give as good as they get.

Elyann Quessy reprises her role as Janet from previous years and it’s a role she does well, maintaining the girlish squeak and feigning unease as she becomes more and more comfortable with her sexuality. Though her singing is pitchy at times, it fits the character perfectly.

Adrian MacDonald also reprises his role as Brad this year and he is a talented singer and performer. Though his portrayal of Brad is never hammy enough for my tastes, MacDonald does an excellent job of portraying the stereotypical cis straight male forced to face alternative forms of sexual and gender expression. In the current political climate here and abroad, perhaps this is the Brad we need.

Cassandra Bluethner is once again Columbia and her portrayal this year is a massive improvement. Unlike last year, she offers a lot more of the squeak and cuteness one would expect from the character. Instead of a teenager in the “I hate everyone” phase, we have a more authentic groupie, in love with Eddie but enamored with Frank N’ Furter and addicted to the drugs the latter offers (shown in the play as sprinklings of glitter).

Sarah Kulaga-Yoskovitz reprises her role of Magenta. This year, though, she doesn’t sing on Science Fiction Double Feature, leaving vocal duties on the opener to Lindsay Miller as the Usherette, complete with skimpy costume and a box slung around her neck. Though her part was a bit smaller, Kulaga-Yoskovitz provided one of the biggest laughs I had during the performance.

Kenny Streule resumes his role as the Narrator – the character fans of the film will know as the Criminologist. It’s a role Streule does well, keeping a straight face in even the harshest heckles.

The true star of the MainLine production is Stephanie McKenna, who reprises her role as Frank/Dr. Frank N’ Furter. Though she’s dropped the English accent of previous years, her snark and strut are on point and her physicality is a sight to behold.

She is the first actor I’ve seen in the role to slip seamlessly from lying down, to a headstand before jumping into a standing position. She is also the first Frank I’ve seen with the physical strength to simulate sex positions most people find difficult.

This year’s production features a few newcomers.

This year the role of Riff Raff was cast gender bent, with Meghan Vera Starling in the part. Her portrayal was good; she had the right amount of creepiness and the BDSM vibe they gave her character explains why Frank beats her during the play.

Unfortunately her singing suffered due to her excessive use of the vibrato in which, on a particular note the singing voice sounds like it is vibrating or pulsing. It’s a vocal style that doesn’t suit the character, making much of Starling’s singing sound more like an American Idol audition than part of a musical number in Rocky Horror.

While in previous years the roles of Eddie and Dr. Scott were played by one actor (Kenny Stein for the past two editions), this year they were split. Eddie was played by Mathieu Samson and Dr. Scott by Nicolas Mancuso. Both were good in their respective roles, but nothing outstanding.

David Hudon is also new to MainLine’s production, taking the role of the beautiful creature Rocky, and he was perfect for it. Of all the past Rockys, he is the first one to come close to the physical type the part calls for and Hudon actually does a few push-ups and takes a few poses. Though Rocky has few lines in the play, Hudon manages to portray the character’s just-been-born naiveté with empty smiles and body language.

One of the stars of the production that deserves mention is the band, led by Katharine Paradis on saxophone. The music was always on point and helped further the play’s jokes along through their strategic use of sound effects.

There were a few changes that threw me off. Though all the songs were included, some scenes were changed that put some of said songs out of context. For example (spoiler alert) in the dinner scene, Rocky comforts Janet, causing Frank to get jealous, thus triggering the song Wise Up Janet Weiss. This version does not feature Janet’s interaction with Rocky, giving no context to Frank’s sudden rage against her.

Despite the difficulties, the MainLine show is worth checking out. It’s sexy, it’s catchy, it’s fun, and you’ll laugh yourself silly, if not from the play itself, then from the audience’s brutal heckling.

Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show runs October 25, 26, 27, 30 and 31 (all shows 8pm) at MainLine Theatre, 3997 St-Laurent. Tickets available at MainLineTheatre.ca

Rocky Horror celebrations are a staple of Halloween festivities in Montreal. Revolving around the musical play, Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show and its film adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, every year hundreds of people fasten their garter belts to dance the Time Warp again!

There are generally two Rocky Horror Shows in this town.

There’s the Halloween Ball at the Imperial Theatre on Bleury, which features a costume contest, a screening of the film, actors miming the film on stage – with a few amusing ad libs – and audience participation complete with props and call lines. The other show is the play: Richard O’Brien’s musical playing at the Mainline theatre on St Laurent.

It was the latter show that I had the privilege of enjoying this year. Those who have been to the Halloween Ball but not Mainline’s play are doing themselves a disservice as it is truly something.

The Mainline production features actors that do more than mime. The cast is doing all the singing and dancing and speaking of lines. The only audience participation is the yelling of call lines, something the production openly encourages. The actors give as good as they get from hecklers without missing their stride.

There is no throwing of rice or toilet paper, and no one will squirt you with water. The band is live and the “phantoms” who act as backup singers, dancers, and extras, are clearly all skilled performers.

I was at The Rocky Horror Show this past Saturday night and I was not disappointed. The cast was top notch as ever, the music spectacular, and the ambiance was not that of a play so much as that of avid listeners watching the lively telling of a very fun story.

Elyann Quessy reprised her role this year as Janet, the innocent, newly-engaged virgin who gets corrupted over the course of the play. Her pipes were impressive as ever while maintaining the squeak and squeal her character required. Despite the teal hair suggestive of a more rebellious nature in the actress, she was convincing as the innocent girl seduced.

Adrian MacDonald played her fiancé, Brad, replacing Anthony Schuller of last year’s performance. A regular attendee of Montreal’s Rocky Horror celebrations, I have very particular expectations when it comes to Brad. The Brad I know is a fumbling virginal dork trying to assert the aggressive masculinity he doesn’t have.

MacDonald is a great singer and he can clearly do comedy, but he was too masculine for the part. Rather than a fumbling dork, he came off as an irate but otherwise average guy. Here’s hoping he finds his inner geek and hams it up a little more in future performances.

Franco De Crescentis’ Riff Raff is a sight to behold. He was in the play last year, and in the role he manages to surpass the play’s creator, Richard O’Brien, who played Riff Raff in the film. Riff Raff is an Igor-like butler, but in most portrayals he’s just creepy. De Crescentis gives the character a sexy intensity you do not expect from the character, and it works.

Sarah Kulaga-Yoskovitz reprises her role this year as Magenta. As she did last year, she opened the play by singing Science Fiction Double Feature with one of the phantoms, and Kulaga-Yoskovitz can sing. Magenta’s Eastern European accent was consistent throughout the play as was her chemistry with Riff Raff.

Cassandra Bluethner played Columbia, replacing last year’s Maxine Segalowitz. Segalowitz is a tough act to follow and unfortunately Bluethner’s portrayal didn’t do it for me. Columbia is a groupie and in my experience she’s supposed to be feisty and almost childlike. This year’s portrayal reminded me more of a petulant teenager in that “I hate everybody” phase. Her dancing and singing were good, but I wanted more from the character.

Kenny Streule played the Narrator, whom die-hard Rocky fans will know as the Criminologist. His bits are some of the most heavily heckled, and Streule handled it well despite the fact that English is clearly not his first language.

Not sure whether his costume changes between bits were his idea or that of Director Amy Blackmore, but it did help keep the audience on their toes.

Sam Boucher’s Rocky was good, but once again I found myself wishing to see a portrayal that was a lot more physical.

Dr Scott and Eddie were played by Kenny Stein, who also played the roles last year. His Eddie is always good, but his Dr Scott was even better than last year, channeling Dr. Strangelove in his performance. It’s an addition to the character that makes perfect sense, and Stein does it well.

I’ve saved my review of Frank n’ Furter for last because the character is so important to the film and play. Stephanie McKenna is playing the part again this year and she is great, proving that a woman can play Frank as well as any man. Her replies to heckles were seamless and her physicality was indicative of an above average strength and agility that made her performance acrobatic in all the right ways. The one thing that was disappointing about Frank had to do with wardrobe and makeup.

The Frank n’ Furter I know and love wears loud makeup and costumes reminiscent of 70s and 80s glam rock. Frank’s costumes this year were more conservative and the makeup was lacking the garish androgyny of his signature style. It is McKenna’s sass and strength that saved the character from its otherwise boring look.

The band was amazing and Katharine Paradis on saxophone gave the music a more gritty sound suited to the show’s sexual content. The choreography of Amy Blackmore, Holly Greco, Patrick Lloyd Brennan, and Jessica Rae was almost flawless and the phantoms’ execution of it was a sight to behold.

If you don’t like musicals, heckling, or sexual content that embraces all orientations, stay away. If you’re an open minded soul who can behave at a play, see this show. It’s worth it.

The Mainline Theatre’s production of Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show – Live Montreal Musical is happening from October 19 to 31. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Seniors, students, and members of the Quebec Drama Federation pay less. For more info and tickets go to mainlinetheatre.ca