Edmonton’s International Fringe Theatre Festival

By:  Dave Zuchowski

“When the theater gates open, a mob pours inside, and it is the poet’s task to turn it into an audience.” — Franz Grillparzer, 1791-1872

From my window seat at Packrat Louie’s Restaurant in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona district, I could look out on a sea of humanity roaming the midway, buying green onion cakes (a local favorite), watching the street performers and queuing up for tickets to North America’s largest and oldest Fringe Festival. Later, on the sidewalk just outside the door, I was in an enviable spot to watch the Performers’ Parade, a festival tradition that has its artists, actors and performers stream by, hyping their shows to the bystanders.

Although Edmonton is North America’s northernmost city with a metropolitan area population of more than 1 million residents, the weather was surprisingly hot during my mid-August visit, during which I sat in on 10 plays in three days. While that might seem a lot, (they rarely run more than an hour in length), the 11-day festival actually offers over 1,200 shows and performances by 207 local, national and international companies in 27 venues that are close enough to one another to make walking to and from each site a viable option.

The smorgasbord of plays starts each day around noon and some even continue till after midnight. With so much to choose from, be advised to pick up a program guide, which gives a brief description of each play, the times the curtain goes up and the venue location. Even so, a lot can be learned by sitting in one of the festival’s outdoor beer tents enjoying a brew between shows and kibitzing with other theatergoers to find out what’s hot and what’s not.

NOTE: A complete festival schedule is available online at .

Not everything I saw was over the top, so even if you have a fairly low tolerance for the shocking or the abstruse, you can fill up your agenda with enough plays to suit your tastes.

On the other hand, if you prefer the outré and outlandish, there’s more than enough to choose from. Probably the most provocative play I attended was Transcendental Masturbation, a madcap one-man melange of music and mayhem, written and acted by zany Vancouver-based comedian and actor, Glen Callender.

Another unique experience came from a performance of the opera, Pagliacci, performed in a tent in which the cast sometimes mingled with the audience and the orchestra is within hand-shaking distance. Despite the intimate and rustic setting, the production was surprisingly polished, the cast exemplary and the experience quite fun and extraordinary.

Another personal favorite, Bigger Than Jesus, was a mix of comedy, 1930s Berlin-style cabaret and Klezmer, performed by a four-piece combo from the United Kingdom that billed itself as “the biggest worldfolkpunkskiffle band ever,” headed by International Slam Champion, Steve Larkin.

From all indications, both Edmontonians and Fringers from afar are certainly die-hard theater fans. Not only was a total of 77,204 tickets purchased for the indoor performances during the 11-day run with 218 sold-out shows, on a more personal level, my attendance of one of the highest recommended plays, Jake’s Gift, brought their theater fervor to a focus.

Just before the start of the play, the performance was stalled by a power outage after a thunderstorm rolled over the town. When the stage manager announced that the show had been canceled, the enthusiastic audience pleaded that the show must go on — if only by candlelight. After several moments of additional anguished entreaties, the ticket holders listened to reason and quietly filed out of the darkened theater.

New just last year, the festival added sideshow midway tents that featured everything from fire performers and psychics to acrobats, magicians, jugglers and freak shows. This was in addition to the buskers and street performers that helped swell the number of Fringe Festival attendees to over a half million strong.

Even the youngsters had their own Kidsfringe site in Polynesian Park where a series of free performances, games and craft projects kept them busy, interested and, probably, making them future theater buffs.

I have to admit that I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of visiting Fort Edmonton Park. “Not another fort?” I asked myself in a less than enthusiastic mood. So much for preconceived notions. I ended up spending one of my most enjoyable days in recent history there.

Speaking of history, the park began as a Canada Centennial project in 1967 to reconstruct the massive 1846 fort built by the Hudson Bay Company to facilitate the fur trade. However, the project grew to encompass 158 acres and entire streets of buildings of 1885, 1905 and 1920 that depicts Edmonton’s evolution as a city.

The fort (and city) takes its name from an estate in Edmonton, Middlesex, England, home of the deputy governor of the Hudson Bay Company. Interestingly, the fort was never built for military purposes but was a commercial structure used for trading European goods for furs brought in by the local Cree, Blackfoot and other tribes.

Each spring, traders would load York boats with fur pelts and head north on the river to Lake Winnipeg and then to Hudson Bay, where ships carried their cargo to England. The traders would then head back to Edmonton with goods wanted by the Indian fur trappers.

To get to the massive reconstructed fort, I boarded a steam train at the main gate pulled by a 1919 locomotive. I got off at the fort and took Bill, the conductor’s advice, to make my way back “by walking through time.”

Fort Edmonton Park is Canada’s largest living history museum, and I got to talk to several of the interpreters who dress in period costume and act as if they lived in a bygone era. After touring the huge, multi-story, log Rowand House, I got to watch a couple of female interpreters show a group of visitors how fire was started using flint, steel, oakum and char cloth. The time-consuming process was enough to make me appreciate the safety matches of today.

Exiting the stockade, I ambled toward the 1885 street, lined with old buildings like a carpentry shop, Methodist church, period hotel, shoe store, doctor’s office, saloon, mounted police outpost, jail and more. After snacking on some truly wonderful pastries at Lauder’s Bakery, I headed for the 1885 Dominion Land Office where interpreter Kevin Shipalesky explained how early settlers could receive 160 acres of free land after paying a $10 registration fee.

Further on, another section of the park showed Edmonton, circa 1892 to 1914, with another set of period buildings. Passing up a chance to take a buggy ride through the area, I explored the Henderson farmhouse and round barn, the Firkins House and various commercial buildings that gave me a taste of what it was like to live in Edmonton at the turn of the 19th century.

One of my favorite stops on the 1920s street is the Hotel Selkirk, a still-operating hotel with 1920s furnishings, architecture and decor where guests can spend the night and enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner in the atmospheric Johnson Café. Befitting a historic hotel, the Selkirk hosted a slew of famous guests including musicians, actors, politicians and authors.

While the Selkirk’s ambiance may be 1920s, the current amenities are strictly up-to-date, and the hotel enjoys a Canada Select 3-1/2 star rating. It’s also a member of the Charming Inns of Alberta, a consortium of privately owned hostelries larger than a bed- and-breakfast but smaller than a hotel.

In a discussion over lunch with Ray Christenson at Murrieta’s Bar and Grill, the 40-year resident of Edmonton told me that the city’s two greatest assets are its extensive theater scene and the North Saskatchewan River.

“We’ve got the second largest concentration of theater in English-speaking Canada and 20 kilometers of park on both sides of the river, good for hiking, biking and kayaking,” he said. He could also have mentioned Fort Edmonton Park as a municipal asset.

Mention the word shopping to me and my first reaction is usually an emphatic ugh! If the economy depended on people like me and my shopping habits, the world economy would have been in recession long ago. Nevertheless, I simply had to make the trek out to see the West Edmonton Mall, what some Albertans like to call “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Okay, I admit … I was impressed. The gargantuan shopping complex actually covers 48 city blocks and draws millions of visitors annually, but the mall’s 800- stores and 100 eateries are only part of the story. There’s also the Fantasyland Hotel with 120 rooms with themed decor modeled after exotic destinations like Hollywood, Polynesia, Arabia and Rome.

Designers have also incorporated into the mall (the size of 110 football fields) the world’s largest indoor lake with a replica of Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, a dinner theater, a film theater with a fire-breathing dragon out front, a comedy club, the world’s largest indoor wave pool and indoor water park, an NHL-sized public ice skating rink and the world’s largest indoor amusement park – Galaxyland.

Oh! And did I forget the themed boulevards with a Bourbon Street and European ambiance? There’s even a Chinatown, a skateboard park, subterranean sea life caverns, the world’s highest indoor bungee jump, a paint ball arena, a rock climbing wall and a haunted castle.

How much did it cost to build this colossal mercantile monster you ask? About CDN $1.2 billion dollars. How many people does it employ? Try 23,000. How many parking spaces outside? More than 20,000 vehicles.

On the day of my visit, I left it up to my fellow visitors to explore the likes of Abercrombie and Fitch, Urban Outfitters and Swarovski while I headed for a tour of Galaxyland with Lozman Patel, park supervisor, who encouraged me to ride the triple-looped Mindbender, just one of 26 Galaxyland rides and attractions. Buckling myself in for an expected challenging ride, I heard him say the triple-looped coaster simulates 5.2 Gs coming out of the second loop. Too late to change my mind. I was off in a flash.

With legs a little wobbly from the experience, I also let Lozman coax me onto the Galaxy Orbiter, a spinning coaster that intertwines with the rest of the park, but I drew the line at the Galaxy Twister, a fast speed, 36-seat ride that moves and twists forwards and backwards with sharp drops and flipping motions.

Enough jostling for one day, I headed downtown for a look at Alberta’s capital city and parliamentary legislative building. The magnificent domed sandstone structure located on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, is surrounded by 56 acres of beautiful gardens, an immense fountain and lengthy reflecting and wading pools that the populace uses to cool off on hot summer days. Bring along your camera!

Several guided tours of the building are offered daily starting at the Interpretive Center at the opposite end of the reflecting pool. The center serves as a museum of sorts that explores the architecture and history of the legislative building and Alberta’s parliamentary traditions.

The young chap that led my tour pointed out many of the building highlights, starting with the regimental colors, flag-like cloths, hung in the rotunda, and fountain in the center of the reception area built to honor Queen Elizabeth’s 1952 visit.

Be sure to check out the quintet of live palm trees at the top of the dome. They were started from seeds from California in 1932 and seem to thrive in their lofty location. In the northwest side of the rotunda, a statue of Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, for whom the province is named, stands in regal majesty.

One floor up, the walls are lined by portraits of Alberta’s premieres, but the nearby mace case got most of my attention. The legislative assembly cannot pass a law without the presence of the symbol of its authority, and the first Albertan mace (a hurriedly put together amalgam of lead pipe, shaving mug, saw blade and toilet ball) was used for 50 years. It now rests in a glass-covered case on the third floor.

One floor up, pass by the portraits of King George V and Queen Mary, the reigning monarchs when the building was completed, and enter the elegant legislative chamber (whose walls are made from green marble from Pennsylvania). The table in front of the Speaker’s Chair is reserved for the present mace. Understandably, it’s a lot more sophisticated than its forebear.

The 2009 Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival will take place from August 13 to August 23. For more information, phone 780-448-9000 or log on to . For more information on Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, phone 800-463-4667 or log on to. For a place to stay, the upscale but casual boutique Metterra Hotel sits in the heart of the Old Strathcona historic district at 10454 Whyte Avenue (the area’s major street). Amenities include an end-of-day wine and cheese sampling, business and fitness center, morning paper, continental breakfast, in-room, high-speed Internet and free local calls. , Tel: 1-866-465-8150.

For a place to dine, Packrat Louie’s sophisticated menu amazes with dishes like mussels flamed in Blue Sapphire gin and served in a huge martini glass, caramelized prawns served with broccolini and homemade gorgonzola risotto, a seven-ounce Buffalo rib served with blackcurrant sauce and a wonderful dessert that consists of pears poached in Gewurztraminer, chevre cheese shaped like a pear and a cinnamon syrup drizzle. , 10335 83rd Avenue, Old Strathcona, Tel: 780-433-0123.

Another worthy place to dine, Murrieta’s Bar and Grill, located at 10612 82nd Avenue in the Old Strathcona section, has an intimate, romantic ambiance with an urban chic menu and the largest wine list in Edmonton with 35 wines by the glass. Tel: 780-438-4100.

For a truly exceptional place to dine, the Harvest Room at the , (10065 100th Street in Edmonton), was completed in 1915 and stands high on a bank overlooking the largest urban parkway in North America – the North Saskatchewan River Valley. Walk the outdoor patio filled with flowers and exotic plants and soak in the view, then head inside for an unforgettable culinary experience.

Even the bread (three kinds – a multigrain, sundried tomato and Italian focaccia) and butter (infused with organic mint and chives from the garden) is exceptional. The complimentary amuse bouche (a small introductory plate) was an exciting creation of organic baby corn tossed in a lemon-maple vinaigrette served on a bed of microgreens. Restaurant manager, Maurin Arellano, said that the kitchen has prepared a different introductory tidbit every evening for the past two years without once repeating.

You might look askance at my appetizer of veal cheeks, that had the consistency and flavor of slow-roasted beef ribs, but they were delicious. The meal also gave me a chance to try for the first time sablefish, a tender delicate-flavored denizen of the deep served in a lobster sauce with homemade organic spaetzle and organic veggies.

Dessert was equally interesting. Mine, a sticky date pudding, came with a scoop of exquisite vanilla ice cream. Tel: 800-257-7544.

Dave Zuchowski has been writing about travel for twenty years and his articles have made the pages of many newspapers and magazines across the country, including AAA, Pathfinders, West Virginia Magazine, Southsider, and Westsylvania. Currently, he is the travel correspondent for the New Castle News, a daily in the Pittsburgh area. In his spare time, he also puts his horticultural interests to good use on his 15-acre farm located near Centerville, PA.


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