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REVIEW: Ottawa’s undercurrents festival explores a vast sea of emotions and styles

/By and / Feb 21, 2024

It’s February in Ottawa: the snow is piling up, the sun is setting early, and undercurrents has swept the city out to sea! Curated by Ottawa Fringe, the 14th rendition of undercurrents festival has concluded, having brought fresh, fiery theatre productions to audiences in Canada’s capital. 

Here’s a sampling of the shows we were able to see!

Terminally Ill, reviewed by Amira Benjamin

Written by Melissa Yi
Directed by Micah Jondel DeShazer
Featuring Stefanie Velichken, Jon Dickey, Corinne Viau, Brandon Nguyen, Melissa Yi, Malia Rogers, and Song Wang

What do you do when you watch the world’s most daring Elvis impersonator on Halloween and the show goes utterly wrong (i.e. he nearly dies)? Well, you solve the mystery alongside your medical colleagues to figure out who sabotaged him, of course! Based on the novel by Melissa Yi, Terminally Ill follows Hope Sze, a full-time internal medicine resident and part-time amateur “doctor detective,” as she becomes engrossed in the lives of her patients and each mystery they carry.

The world premiere of Terminally Ill was enticing from the beginning, with well-crafted tension and believable dynamics between the show’s stars, Stefanie Velichkin, who played Sze; and Jon Dickey, who played John “Tucker” Tucker, a registered nurse, Elvis superfan, and not-so-secret admirer of Sze. 

As Terminally Ill thrusts its audience into the investigation, the “whodunnit” bounces between Elvis’ performance team: his brother/manager, Archer; his lover and on-stage assistant Lucia; and the non-physical but ever-lingering stagehand Hugo. But as Sze investigates further, the core mystery — and the number of characters and their problems — expands, including the anxious teenage “Nelvis” (anti-Elvis protestor) Kameron, as well as Madame Berube, a peculiar yet kind palm-reading patient visitor.

The cast and creative team filled the Arts Court Theatre with excitement and intrigue, fostering interaction not only in front of the audience but in dialogue with them as well, making us feel like we were part of the mysteries Sze was trying to solve. The lighting (designed by DeShazer) was another star of the world premiere production, adding both subtle emotion and bold revelations; the harsher lighting imitated the anxious, painfully self-conscious feeling of sitting in a hospital waiting room, while the warmer colours elevated the humorous moments. 

The biggest opponent of the production was its time constraint. Shorter run times are a core element of undercurrents — a possible means of accessibility for newer theatregoers — however, the play clearly wants to cover a lot of ground and didn’t have enough time to do so on this outing. The mysteries and characters of Terminally Ill grow more complex as Sze learns new information, but the cramped time limit this time made it difficult to keep track of how much weight each player carried, making the mystery a bit tough to follow.

Terminally Ill is filled with ambition and heart, covering issues ranging from anxious patients and overworked professionals navigating the healthcare system to a choice between consent and survival. With its witty humour and bright performances, Terminally Ill is a worthy watch.

I Don’t Even Miss You, reviewed by Amira Benjamin

Written by Elena Belyea 
Directed by Emma Tibaldo
Featuring Elena Belyea

It’s March 11, 2020, and Basil Harris has woken up thinking it’s just another day. Instead, it’s the first of hundreds of days of loneliness. Sound familiar? 

I Don’t Even Miss You stages a faux musical autobiography, following the life of Basil, a non-binary computer programmer and seemingly the last person on Earth. The stream concept is unique: Basil occasionally calls out to the sides of the stage, hoping that despite their years of loneliness, someone is waiting out there. That attempt to communicate additionally adds an element of heartbreak — the audience can see them, but Basil can’t see us.

Using ambient projectors and pop-infused musical numbers, I Don’t Even Miss You explores the painful reality of being on your own, recalling extensive COVID-19 lockdowns. Basil, played by the talented Elena Belyea, who also wrote the piece, recounts all 30-something years of their life, such as the first day the world stood still outside of their apartment on what they call “Basil’s Worst Day,” to meeting their first childhood best friend, and every high and low that they’ve taken for granted in between.

I Don’t Even Miss You, having shared its world premiere at undercurrents, is hauntingly personable, beginning with what feels like a solo pop idol concert in Basil’s bedroom and ending with them reflecting on mortality and being left behind — including by their self-constructed virtual partner, Orchid. Belyea embodies Basil with an intense vulnerability; every sigh, every song, every word of the lonely programmer’s story is filled with mourning of the life they once lived, now suddenly gone. 

Developed over a three-year period by Edmonton-based theatre company Tiny Bear Jaws, I Don’t Even Miss You is bright, creative and accessible, integrating the use of projectors (with captions!) and musical numbers to give audiences a multi-dimensional glimpse at a single life. The efforts of technical director and production manager, Liv Bunge, neatly tie together both the more mechanical elements and the emotional centrepoint of the piece.

The props, although small and sparingly used, invoke occasional sentimentality when connected with different people in Basil’s life, such as their brother’s Nirvana hoodie. That said, the biggest star of this production by far is the musicality. I was blown away by the synth-infused opening number, “Tonight,” and each of the subsequent pop performances touched closer and closer to my heart, with choreography by Gianna Vacirca and co-compostion by Belyea and Tori Morrison. 

Words cannot describe how much I Don’t Even Miss You touched my heart in different ways all at once — from its questioning of gender identity and relationships in a world without people to its tender exploration of love and affection between friends, family, and even former lovers, made all the more heart-wrenching by showing the possibilities of being all alone in the world. 

Blood Offering, reviewed by Aisling Murphy

Written by Vishesh Abeyratne
Directed by Jacqui Du Toit
Featuring Danish Gupta, Mo Memon, Jessie Bergeron, and Geoff McBride

Though programmed for undercurrents festival well before the ongoing war in Gaza, Vishesh Abeyratne’s Blood Offering, in its world premiere at Arts Court Theatre, feels unnervingly relevant.

Set in a U.S. high school, the play traces the aftermath of a mass shooting, one that tragically took the life of a student named Kayla. Before she died, she had a best friend — and maybe even crush? — named Farid, played by Mo Memon. In the aftermath of her death, Farid is sullen and combative, especially towards his teacher, Mr. Naqvi, played by Danish Gupta.

Before long, Farid’s afternoon in detention with Mr. Naqvi turns into a matter of life-and-death, when their conversation on Muslim extremism morphs into a volatile hostage situation, with Kayla’s parents, Frederick and Lynn (Geoff McBride and Jessie Bergeron), adding fuel to the fire and misconstruing violence as a means to an end for their grief.

It’s a difficult, timely play that condemns gun violence and Islamophobia, speaking to the present moment with razor-sharp teeth. Abeyratne’s script paints these individuals — flawed in their own ways, and wrestling with debilitating grief at all times — with nuance and grace, even when they choose to do the unthinkable. Blood Offering runs a disturbing gamut of hot-button topics — suicide, violence, religion, coming-of-age — and for the most part, Abeyratne’s text avoids cliché or stereotype with impressive pace.

It’s in its production where Blood Offering nearly fell apart for me. Some of director Jacqui Du Toit’s choices were simply genius: the choice to use finger guns instead of fake-looking props comes to mind, a gesture Du Toit further solidified in a post-show talkback, when she pointed out that a finger gun “points three fingers back at the person holding it,” thus adding another layer of culpability to the people wielding the weapons. 

But other interpretations of Abeyratne’s script didn’t always work: deaths in melodramatic slow motion, for instance, and conversations between Farid and Mr. Naqvi that quickly reached one level of intensity and stayed there. Blood Offering seems to have room for further thoughtfulness in the delivery of its text, and as the project continues for future runs, I hope the cast and creative team consider different ways to portray anger, without depending on yelling.

All in, Blood Offering is a promising new play for Abeyratne, and full of possibility for future runs. With what it has to say about Islamophobia and mass violence in today’s society, we’d be wise to take heed of the warnings it has to share.

Malunderstood, reviewed by Aisling Murphy

Written and performed by Kenny Streule

Oh hell yeah.

Since seeing Malunderstood at Hamilton Fringe last summer, I’ve maintained that it’s close to a perfect Fringe solo show. It comes in at a tight 45 minutes, it has a specific story to share with lots of possibilities for movement, and it plies its audience with Crispers as an end-of-show treat. What more could you want?

When I saw Malunderstood last year, I was totally charmed by Kenny Streule’s tales of growing up with a Swiss-German grandmother in rural Québec, along with the linguistic intrigue that collision of cultures might imply. In Hamilton, he performed the show in English, with brief retreats into Québec-tinted French and Swiss-accented German, and his play made it feel as if his enigmatic grandmother was there in the room with us, barking “gang ga veck!” (or “go away!”) every time he came onstage.

Well, thanks to undercurrents’ admirable attempts at making the festival bilingual, Streule’s play has been translated into French. And hey! It’s still great!

While I speak a decent amount of French, I appreciated that undercurrents provided projected surtitles on the curtain behind Streule as he told us about the woman he grew up calling “Beaver,” pulling back the curtain on his childhood and adolescence as articulated in a mishmash of languages. To my ear, the jokes still work in French — some are perhaps even better, particularly those poking fun at growing up in rural Québec, complete with backroads driving lessons and trips to Montréal. 

Streule is a gifted orator with a keen sense of comic timing, and his show, while simple, explores a complex range of emotions, from nostalgia to guilt to contentedness to pride. Folks creating solo shows of their own could do worse than to take Malunderstood as an example — it’s that rare autobiographical solo show that doesn’t feel like a TED talk or personal essay.

All in all, if Malunderstood visits a Fringe circuit near you, it’s earned a strong recommendation from me in either language. 

You can learn more about undercurrents festival and Ottawa Fringe here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Amira Benjamin

Amira Benjamin

Amira Benjamin is an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa in sociology and anthropology. She is interested in all forms of journalism, especially arts and community reporting. You can find them critically analyzing Marvel movies or filling up a Pokedex. They are a member of the 2023 cohort of the IBPOC Critics Lab, supported by Intermission Magazine and the Stratford Festival.

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, CBC Arts, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.



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