Ottawa Fringe Festival
*The review for this show isn’t starred, because I feel that it is not yet a piece of professional theatre. I am aware that when someone chooses to present a piece in a festival it is open to be ranked and reviewed, however this show is not professional theatre, and it seems cruel to treat it as such.*
“The Date” is the second Ottawa Fringe mounting of a show by Phoebe Webber. She performed a shorter version of the piece last year, and has expanded it for the second mounting. Which immediately raises expectations: The show is at least a year old, and has almost doubled in length. It must surely be worthy of the additional length and second mounting, and valuable lessons must have been learned (and applied to the show) from the earlier mounting.
Except, I can almost guarantee they weren’t. “The Date” is, in essence, two different shows shoved together: The quasi-personal monologue of a woman about to go on a first date, and an opera/song recital. And to write that this pairing, in this context, doesn’t work would be an understatement.
Webber has a pleasant voice. It has clearly had some training, and this shows. However, the songs and arias she has chosen to sing are far beyond her skill. Some were popular opera pieces (I recognized three of them, including Carmen’s Habanera), and others appeared to be modern music. I cannot speak for the Italian diction, however in a city where so many people speak French, and in a song as well-known as the Habanera, it is unforgivable to butcher the French lyrics so much that they are rendered unrecognizable (And the fact that this is clear even to someone who does not know that much about opera is very telling.) During the English pieces Webber was expressive, telling a story with her face as well as with the music. During all of the other songs and arias, her face was blank and she gave the audience no hint of what the song was about, or even the overarching emotion of the piece. Did she just not know? Because I did not know either, and would have appreciated knowing what Webber was supposed to be relating.
Moving on to another huge problem: The backing tracks. At a Fringe Festival, one encounters several different sorts of music tracks: From Karaoke backing tracks, to high-quality music created by the artist specifically for the show. In theory, Opera should be accompanied either by an orchestra, or by a high-quality piano reduction of the score. Webber appears to have chosen to use a personal microphone to record an amateur pianist play the accompaniment to a music lesson. The sound quality was, frankly, awful. The piano was not played well, and during the more difficult vocal passages, the notes Webber were supposed to sing were banged out even louder than the rest of the music. The microphone was audibly bumped several times, with metallic clanging sounds competing with the music. There were also several loud page turns and rustles which were distracting and amateurish. Also, the music was played at such a loud volume that several audience members appeared visibly uncomfortable.
In any show – Fringe or otherwise – where there is singing, the accompaniments are supposed to do just that: accompany. Music is supposed to enhance the narrative, not bring it to a grinding halt. The sheer number of songs were also exhausting. By the last few arias, the audience appeared too weary to even applaud anymore.
But the music was only a part of this show. Webber spends most of the narrative half of “The Date” talking about her cats. She clearly loves her cats, and I don’t know if this is the character Webber is playing in the show, or if she’s just talking about her true feelings. But it doesn’t matter, because this part is hilarious. It is almost brilliant in its absurdity, and is some of the (likely inadvertently) funniest material at this year’s festival. Webber’s almost sexual reverence for her (several) cats was genuinely funny, and if the show had less opera and more cats (and I don’t even like cats), it would transform this piece into a Rocky Horror-type Fringe cult hit.
Webber also talks about how she is about to go on a date. Again, it is unclear if Webber is funny because she is a brilliantly subtle comedienne who is incredibly self-aware, or if she’s funny because she’s completely clueless. But after temporizing whether or not she should go on the date, she begins musing if this man is ‘The One’, and imagines their future life together, with him essentially treating her like a pet cat. She then throws in that they met online just that morning… I can’t make it sound funny. Nobody but Phoebe Webber can make such overused tropes so earnest that they are hilarious. But she does.
So really, this is a show that is impossible to review. The singing was pleasant, but the presentation and musicality of the songs were amateurish at best, and the backing tracks were, frankly, awful. The music did not even closely relate to the monologue, aside from a line here and then about “Samson” or “Don Jose” (which she couldn’t even manage to pronounce correctly). The monologue about being a single woman who adores her cats was genuinely funny, however one gets the feeling that it is less of an act and more of Webber being in earnest.
From the fuzzy and unmarketable program image, to the costuming (who wears plastic thongs and a be-ribboned wig to a coffee date?), this piece both confusing and strangely memorable. After seeing 24 shows at this year’s festival, and reviewing over a half dozen of them, “The Date” is the show that I’ll come away talking about.
To sum up, this is either an absurdest masterpiece or an amateur contribution to the already-glutted genre of personal monologues. With cats.