As I was on my way through the crowd to my comfortable front-row couch seat, May Can Theatre’s Madeleine Boyes Manseau approached me with a fan of folded construction-paper cards.
“Do you believe in fate?” she asked.
I won’t tell you what my answer was, or what was written inside the card I chose. That would spoil the surprise.
Surprise is probably the key element in the Fresh Meat Theatre Festival, a three-day cabaret-style showcase of short works by local independent theatre companies. The brainchild of Backpack Theatre’s Jonah Allingham, Fresh Meat features established groups like Dead Unicorn Ink. and improv troupe GRIMprov, as well as emerging solo performer-creators like Tess McManus and Jake William Smith, presenting twenty-minute pieces that they have developed in the timeframe of a couple of months.
GRIMprov served as the hosts introducing each act, an appropriate choice as the order is subject to change each evening. On the first evening, May Can Theatre started things off with Dusk & Dawn, a story about an owl who adopts a deer as her son. May Can’s familiar self-aware style and portrayal of innocence lost with an undeniably Mi Casa (Countries Shaped Like Stars, LIVE from the Belly of a Whale) influenced set consisting of a ladder and backlit silhouettes.
Next up were GRIMprov, with a long-form improvisation based loosely on Requiem for a Dream. It’s difficult enough to keep an improv piece going for seven minutes, let alone twenty, with only three performers and three suggestions, but to their credit GRIMprov manage to keep the energy of their performance increasing, remaining entertaining right until the end. They have a different theme planned—if improv can, indeed, be planned—for each of the three nights of Fresh Meat.
After a brief intermission—which came as a surprise to the hosts but was a welcome chance to escape the crowded heat for a few moments of fresh air—Jonah Allingham and a bicycle took the stage. Summer of ’34, like his debut Fringe show In Waves, is a first-person dramatic narrative set in a particular historical setting. This time, between Ottawa and Kingston in the 1930s. Allingham’s distinct storytelling style continues to mature, probably due in no small part to incorporating top-notch dramaturgical assistance (from Catriona Leger for In Waves, and from Emily Pearlman for Summer of ’34).
With the (intentionally) spilled beer cleaned off the stage, Tess McManus (Little Green Hat) presented the aptly-titled Tales She Tells, which starts as a breakneck crash course in traditional Irish love stories and transitions into a movement-infused re-enactment of one particular tale.
Then Jake William Smith (Rapscallion Diversion), in a bright red jumpsuit, presented his seminar-inspired Henchman’s Survival Guide, a consistently hilarious look at the life of the average henchman in the thrall of your run-of-the-mill villainous mastermind. Smith’s solo performance debut is promising, especially given his gift for switching character distinctly without the aid of props or costume changes.
I was especially curious, when the lineup for this event was announced, to see how Dead Unicorn Ink would adapt their trademark huge, over-the-top production design style to an intimate setting like this. Caution: Do Not Feed the Mermaids did not disappoint. Two stools, a low table, a cloth, and a couple of prosthetic tentacles were all they needed to bring a story about exclusion and betrayal to a satisfyingly ghastly end.
Not only does the cabaret format—and the low-risk $15 for three hours of entertainment in a licensed venue—make this kind of theatrical experimentation accessible to a broader audience, but it also allows for creative cross-pollination between companies whose styles are by nature fiercely independent. I hope Fresh Meat becomes a regular event, and that other groups follow their lead.
The Fresh Meat Theatre Festival completes its three-day run at Pressed Cafe on September 30th at 7pm. Tickets are 15 dollars at the door.