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Inside the Fringes 

As Exodus Theatre launches The Dumb Waiter, Sean Flinn finds that the Fringe is a level playing field for all kinds of theatre.

Challenging the very definition of the term fringe, this year’s Atlantic Fringe Festival includes three established companies: Angels and Heroes, Foghorn and Exodus Theatres.

Alongside Angels and Heroes’s raunchy Hard-On House (a take-off on George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House) and Foghorn’s emotionally raw I Stand Before You Naked by Joyce Carol Oates, Exodus’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter may seem at first glance, to some, the least risky, fringe-y.

But define your terms. Risk in theatre may rightly include the conditions surrounding a play’s production, as much as its story, ideas, action and text. Following this definition of risk, The Dumb Waiter belongs in the Fringe, says Exodus’s Nigel Bennett.

“Jerry Etienne played Gus for us at our previous two venues”—in Antigonish and Wolfville— “but he’s not available now, so I’m stepping in to do the role,” Bennett, who also directs this two-hander, explains. “I have a day of rehearsal. Believe me, there’s going to be a lot of development over the Fringe time period.”

As well, Bennett says, the two actors—the other is David Flemming—bring another twist to the play. “There is a considerable age difference between David and myself, and this is quite intentional. It becomes a conflict of youth with age, of age making way for the new. Normally, if there is an age difference between the two characters, Ben is played older and Gus younger. We have reversed that.”

Those familiar with the play, which Bennett calls a “modern classic” of the 20th century stage, will appreciate this reversal, he says.

The story unfolds as the two characters, who work together for an undisclosed company, await orders in a basement of a building. Their only connection to the outside world, on floors above, is a dumb waiter—a small service elevator basically. Suddenly, the dumb waiter is thrown into action by an unseen user, a disquieting event to actors and audience alike, Bennett hopes.

“I think a festival audience will find so much to appreciate in this play,” Bennett says. “It’s relatively short—45 minutes—yet the play has amazing depth. It can be enjoyed on the surface as a thriller, or on deeper levels, questioning man’s relationship with the elements that control him; whether that’s his boss at work, the strictures of his situation, or his god. It’s similar to Waiting For Godot in this way.”

The single, minimal set makes this production financially viable; the simplicity of the physical presentation fits with the Fringe spirit. “Exodus tends to stage things quite simplistically…to concentrate the audience more fully on the dialogue.”

All three companies have been around several years now. Foghorn put up their first play in 1998 and Angels and Heroes started in 2002. Exodus celebrates its sixth birthday this week. Regardless of the history and commitment, Bennett says there’s no contradiction in more professional companies entering the Fringe Festival.

“I don’t see the Fringe as being for non-professionals only. It’s an opportunity for anyone to showcase their work that otherwise might not be seen in Halifax,” Bennett says, adding, “I’m sure that the visiting Fringe performers don’t see themselves as non-professional.”

The Atlantic Fringe Festival’s director, Ken Pinto, knows fringe festivals are thought by many in the public as havens for “wacko,” amateurish productions and that sometimes they get marketed by some festivals as freak attractions. “It’s an angle they start to use after awhile,” he says.

But he thinks that all performers are on the same level playing field at the Fringe. The festival’s “always been a mix of veteran and inexperienced performers,” he says. “It’s first come, first served. There’s no jury—it’s uncensored. The whole key is to leave it as broad as you can.”

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