Aug 23, 2017
   Fringe review: The Life Henri   

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Gordon Kent reviews fringe shows for the Edmonton Journal and seems mad about it. Really, really mad. It's not just that he gives negative reviews, it's that the shows he's giving two or two and a half stars to almost without exception received at least four stars from other publications. Statistically speaking, this discrepancy is a non-standard deviation. Art is subjective or whatever, but as Ian Fleming said: once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action. Presumably the fourth and fifth time count as a grudge or psychological disorder.

Kent's bio page lists his occupation as "Civic Affairs Writer", which may explain why he's lashing out. Either he enjoys writing about proposed bylaw changes and resents being forced to watch weird theatre instead, or else he hates his job and has a lot of pent-up rage that he can't express within the confines of objective journalism. Though if I had to, I'd guess it's both. But rather than just half-assing it like a normal person, Kent meticulously explains why it's the show's fault he's sad all the time. He did claim to enjoy improvised Shakespeare, which I assume is meant to give his character depth, but merely left this reader with the impression that while he doesn't like theater, he does know enough to know that you're supposed to like Shakespeare. He also gave Pagliacci five out of five, because there’s nothing more fringey than 19th century Italian opera.

Kent has written enough negative reviews to staff a busy Starbucks, but I'll only be reviewing two, as I am just one man (who wrote this in a busy Starbucks). First, The Life Henri. Based on the review, you might think it's an illustrated one-hour lecture, because Kent describes the show as "effectively an illustrated one-hour lecture." This is our first clue that Kent doesn't watch a lot of theater, because The Life Henri is actually a pretty typical one-man show. To watch someone running back and forth on a stage, playing multiple characters and weaving together pop culture references and personal anecdotes to tell a story about a historical figure, and immediately think "lecture", takes a certain kind of person. The kind of person who has never watched a fringe show. Or in this case, someone who has watched for years but never enjoyed one. Or perhaps, like a magpie lining its nest with discarded ticket stubs and handbills, he's merely terrible at analogies.

Kent spends the majority of the review describing the life of Henri Rousseau, which for people who're interested is actually a reason to see the show, not to read a review. Rather than continue the cycle and also tell you about Henri's life, I will instead fulfill the purpose of a review and tell you why that's dumb. People read a review to find out whether they should watch a show--they don't read it to find out what happens in the show. That's called an episode recap or plot synopsis or... what's the word... spoiler. People read those when they want to not watch a show. His unnecessary musings on the actual historical events are rendered further pointless by the fact that he's an unreliable reviewer describing an admittedly unreliable narrator telling a story about an unreliable subject. The ambiguity about what actually happened is a big part of why it's interesting. But not wanting to break the chain of unreliability, this review of his review also contains one lie.

His review of Multiple Organism also wastes a lot of words describing the mechanics of the show, but mostly paints a picture of a confused old man watching something he doesn't understand, struggling vainly to decypher what the people around him are laughing about. His first complaint is that the show is described as a surealist comedy, but wasn't funny enough for him to consider it a comedy. This would be a fair criticism except for the fact that at the fringe, you can't choose "fringe" as a genre so you have to choose something else. But this is a truly fringey fringe show; unlike a lot of other acts it wouldn't fit at a comedy festival or a theater festival or anything else unless there was a surealist festival, which there isn't because that's what fringe is for. In fact, if you google "surrealist theatre festival," seven of the top ten results link to fringe festivals and the rest aren't theatre. Which is to say that unlike Civic Affairs Writer Gordon Kent, this show is exactly where it belongs.

Harnessing the power of the elipsis, I will now illustrate the limitations of Kent's understanding: "This self-described surrealist comedy is definitely surreal, bizarre and unusual, but... none of it makes a whole lot of sense." Right, that's what "surrealist" means. One can only imagine what Kent thinks coherent surrealism would look like. Labels explaining the subtext like an editorial cartoon? That mosaic portrait of Hillary Clinton made out of thousands of dick pics? The movie Sausage Party? The difference between the actual show and Kent's description of it is like the difference between a solar eclipse and someone cover a flashlight with their thumb: objectively very similar, just missing the only part that makes it worth looking at.

This show is incredibly self-aware, but unfortunately Kent is not. Which he underscores when he ends his review by quoting the line in the show where the mouth projected on the naked woman asks “What’s the message here?” as if that's some deeply incisive criticism rather than just restating the joke about weird fringe shows that they're already making in their weird fringe show. Despite my obvious linguistic gifts, I do not know how to explain meta-commentary to someone who didn't even understand a one-man show. One might as well try to teach investment bankers about empathy, or a magpie about analogies.

His complaints about The Life Henri are more comprehensible, though still tell us more about the reviewer than the reviewed. Having labeled it as an art history lecture, he then dismisses as "psycho-babble" the other two major threads which make it a show, not a lecture. In other words, the parts that made Kent dislike it are exactly why fringe-goers would want to see it. This fundamental misunderstanding of what he's watching and why infects not only his writing, but also his readers. Because what we're actually reading is not a review, but a beat reporter's article about what happened at a fringe show. And just like Kent, that unfulfilled expectation leaves his readers disappointed.

One wonders what he'd make of a show that truly is an illustrated one-hour lecture? If only there were a show like that at the fringe.

He concludes by saying that "while Bailey cheerfully admits he doesn’t speak French, he should at least correct his grating mispronunciation of such common words as 'monsieur' and 'the Louvre.' That would be a fitting tribute to La Vie Henri." Actually, a more fitting tribute would be to speak French properly. I think you mean La Vie D’Henri.


Unrelated to everything I've just said, I'd like to thank the Edmonton Journal for their very kind five-star review of my show.

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