2014 Edmonton Fringe Festival review: Die-Nasty at the Fringe

After years of attending the Fringe, I finally went to go see what all the fuss is about: Die-Nasty, the weekly "improvisational soap opera" that catapulted Nathan Fillion to stardom, runs nightly shows at the festival. One of the problems of course with improv shows in general is that they are by definition changing all the time. Improv groups tend to have to practice just the art of improv itself, that's all those Theatre Games involving buckets and shouting out words from the audience or changing the genre of the piece mid-scene are designed to do. Even more than scripted works, improvisational shows vary greatly from performance to performance. Indeed, I could tell you line by line every bit of what I saw in Die-Nasty and if you loved it and thought it was great, you could buy a ticket that very day and go to the next show to find...completely different characters and scenes and lines and performances. To illustrate, here's the review for Die-Nasty on the Fringe website:

This year’s Fringe edition of perennial fan favourite Die-Nasty features a few of the same characters from last year along with lots of new ones. It’s set during the Fringe, of course, but from the artist’s perspective: expect the likes of ongoing (and hilarious) horror stories of naked and cannibal billets, falling in (and out) of love during the festival, and beer tent antics with the mentalist act. Also making an appearance is Alison Redford, who is mounting an aptly-named play called Mistakes Were Made; Danielle Smith is there to review it while Vue arts editor Paul Blinov is reviewing all 211 plays stoned on a different drug. Opening night set up several gags which should have good payouts throughout the run.
—Mel Priestley
I never saw any of those things. There were no naked cannibals, no mentalist act, no Red Redford. Blinov wasn't there either. Neither of the major papers even review the show for pretty much this exact same reason. The things I liked and didn't like about this performance won't make much difference to you: again, I can't even talk about the performances since those keep changing. Will Morgan Cranny be making an appearance in your production? Probably not. Some of the characters are certainly semi-regular and recurring, but as a review this will be exactly that: a review of the specific set of circumstances I was there for. Tune in next week when I "review" the people walking past the patio at Julio's.

What this show did highlight, of course, was that there's a very rigid conformity among Fringe performers. From clowns to burlesque, from overly sensitive dance theatre productions of phone sex operators to improv sketch artists, from zombie buskers to one-woman shows, and from fags pretending they have real vaginas to all-kid casts putting on a school play at $12/pop there is always one single identifying theme that none of them have ever escaped or even contemplated a world outside of: people who vote for people further to the right than Rachel Notley.

Oh come off it, you know it, I know it, and anybody who sees how these poor artists react in my comments section knows it. They simply don't understand that world. Which is why most of the joy I got of the silly scenes where Danielle Smith talked about putting uranists on every street corner was realizing right there I was watching an entire stage of performers who failed the famed ideological Turing test of Bryan Caplan. You just know with all your heart that these people don't know or understand the slightest thing about Wildrose, or its pro-sodomy libertarian leader, or right-wingers in general, or right-wing Albertans in particular. I mean c'mon, these people are semi-professional joke-makers and they can't even get the crux of their joke right! As Douglas Adams noted years ago, if you don't understand the basic premises behind the world, all your jokes do are make the ignorant laugh who don't know any better. A stage full of far-left entertainers making cracks to a crowd half-full of other fringe artists aren't even playing on base stereotypes at this point: they're just making jokes as if strawmen were actual people. That's just incredibly simplistic and lazy...none more perfectly encapsulated when "Ken Olah" talked about building a bunker for "when you [Danielle] run the place." If you want the most prescient recent example of what happens when a Danielle Smith takes over from an Alison Redford, it looks pretty much exactly like this. Yup, look at all them farmers building bunkers.

You almost gotta be sorry for these Fringe artists: these evil right-wing "others", the philistines at the gates crashing on their doors mentality, those gags lost steam after Stockwell Day retired. They try some Stephen Harper gags, but you can tell their hearts just aren't in them: they even mention Harper being "from Calgary" which is probably news to the faculty of John G. Althouse Middle School in Etobicoke. (see? they can't even construct a joke out of the actual facts, and hope that the audience remains as ignorant as they do). Wildrose was supposed to give this back to them, but then (over my objection, mind you) they went and elected a libertarian broadcaster (who of course was also involved in the arts, another lazy joke made on stage which made it clear they were hoping an actor could play Jeff Willerton), ruining everything. Rather than modify things for the new reality (could anybody imagine Rush Limbaugh trying to do Bill Clinton gags when he's trying to make fun of President Monkey?) they just think it's all the same and move along.

Again: Ideological Turing Test? Epic FAIL.

This is probably why the Ken Olah character's constant jokes about rape(seed) fell a little flat too, since a Venn Diagram of the audience ended up looking something like this:

We're told that art is supposed to "hold a mirror up to us", but half that mirror is missing and they don't even notice. Do you think they could even consider having a Mason-the-Moron up on stage being told that if his party won Alberta would end up in the toilet? Could they consider doing that to their idol? You know the answer is no, but maybe a better question is why isn't anybody asking it, both inside their isolated world of local theatre and without. (It could be, of course, too many fingers burned: I showed you already what happens when you start asking those sorts of questions). For all the talk about how "edgy" and "outside the mainstream" they are, they don't live in that world. As many of you know, Mark Steyn has written endlessly about that topic.

So they put Danielle Smith into their work but, try as they might, they couldn't actually name any of her policies or actual statements. They at least watched the Trivago Guy enough to have some of the basic mannerisms down. They've clearly met Liz Nichols, and who doesn't know what Hunter S. Thomson sounds like? The rest of the audience wasn't aware of this discrepancy as far as I noticed: I wonder how many of them have actually met Danielle Smith? For the future reference of the writers/actors, Danielle Smith goes to cultural events, is in favour of sodomites having their fake marriages, and also believes in the right to private property including the rights of people for reasons religious or otherwise to control the activities of their own persons and their own organizations and exercise their freedom of association. But they needed a name to affix to the dusty old box of anti-conservative jokes they had in storage, and thus the awkward fit remained.

I suppose it behooves me to talk at least a bit about the remainder of the show: when I was told what Die-Nasty was years ago, it was supposedly literally the improvised soap opera its name described. In retrospect, it sounds to me like the person who told me what Die-Nasty was may have never actually attended. It's either that, or the format has vastly changed over the years, or is totally different for the Fringe: it's likely one of the latter ones, since the Wikipedia page describes it as:
Die-Nasty's improv comedy format features a continuing storyline and recurring characters, live music, and a director who sets up scenes for the audience (and performers) in voiceover.
This certainly sounds just nebulous enough to possibly cover both concepts. I was going in expecting more of a soap opera format, though, so it took a moment to realize it was a lot more like traditional improv: a variety of skits, only a few of them connected with each other and none apparently on previous 'episodes', based on scenarios read out by a dungeon master (it doesn't use the audience participation variant of improv). The characters are recurring within the play in the sense that the same bank of characters is used throughout, rather than long-beloved characters constant to the show and always one-to-one mapping between the actor and the character. As with any performances of this type, the actors are generally hit and miss depending on personal taste and indeed how they play out in a specific scene: the same actor can nail their character in one scene and then have difficulty figuring out how to play the next one. Again this is typical to the improv format and probably no surprise to anybody who has watched or acted in one. There are also a couple in-jokes that are obviously for the other performers: if he hadn't been running his mouth on Twitter, for example, I'd have had no idea who "Donovan Workun" was supposed to be.

Final word: An improv show that's already for a niche audience deciding to play to the back of the room, Die-Nasty at the Fringe succeeds for the masses only as mild entertainment, so long as you don't notice how horrendously it fails the Ideological Turing Test.

(for more reviews of the 2014 Edmonton Fringe, click here)