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Jane Enkin

Winnipeg Fringe Festival 2013: Storytelling

Jane Enkin, July 23, 2013

Many Fringe shows include a strong element of storytelling – and it's almost a given in one-person shows that much of the narrative will be told as well as acted. As a storyteller and a devoted story listener, I was happy to attend some Fringe shows dedicated to this art form.

The Dark Fantastic is an evocative, challenging storytelling piece. Martin Dockery begins in near darkness, so the first moments are experienced like radio. He establishes a lonely, empty desert, a tense car trip, and an old man sitting on the porch of a house in the middle of nowhere. Dockery then uses lighting, expansive, quirky gesture and his supple voice to take us on a weird journey through someone else's dreams. His stories, which all eventually overlap, are delivered in first, second and third person – the story addressed to the audience as “you” is especially disorienting. The stories remind me of the dreamscapes created by authors Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. The effect of Dockery's art has as much to do with poetry and music as with storytelling – the narrative is very strong, and it's delivered with startling images and dramatic rhythms. Many of the images are nasty, even squirm-inducing, so this show is not for everyone, and not for young audiences. But the powerful presence of love and joy, and the intense beauty of the telling, made me very glad to have heard The Dark Fantastic.

South African storyteller Erik de Waal comes to Winnipeg often. This year he is presenting African stories for children and Erik de Waal's Tales from the Twilight for older audiences (the show would be fine for young teens.) We were familiar with the stories he told, so for my storytelling husband and me, the pleasure was in the telling. De Waal has a beautiful, richly modulated voice, expressive eyes and a commanding stage presence. He uses movement and character voices sparingly to emphasize points, keeping the focus on the words. De Waal gave a pitch perfect performance of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Tell Tale Heart,” very self contained, with frightening intensity. He told two elaborate, scary folktales. We felt he went wrong with his “updated” version of “The Monkey's Paw,” by W. W. Jacobs, which seemed dismissive of the characters and not as well constructed as the other pieces. Completely delightful are the personal stories about De Waal's family encounters with ghostly visitors.

In Firewomen,Winnipeg storyteller Leigh-Anne Kehler chose a more physical, acted approach to her selection of disturbing stories of women who engage with fire. On a bare stage, her bright red hair, her brilliant, sexy dress and her scarlet shawl held my attention. The shawl is Kehler's sole prop, used, for example, as a shovel, a baby, and as a hand puppet version of various characters. As she told folktales in the third person, she mimed everything the characters were doing. It took me a moment to accept her choice, very different from my own more straightforward storytelling style, and although I quickly began to enjoy it, sometimes I felt she walked around the stage too much. Playing the characters did allow her to show us the sensuality of the women in the stories.

The choice to act as she told really paid off in Kehler's telling of the traditional East Indian story of Savitri, who follows the death god Yama into the land of the dead to save her husband. Savitri is humble, respectful, but steely-willed, and Yama is a bug-eyed, deep-voiced monstrous deity. I loved watching Kehler go back and forth between these characters.

After the folktales in which women confronted dangers and at least in some way succeeded in protecting the people they cared for came a monologue in the character of a healing witch. In her final story, Kehler stood still, at the back of the stage, and told a disturbing, realistic story in which it appeared that no lasting safety had been achieved. I left feeling challenged, and longing to return to the warmth of the first stories in which the determined love of a strong woman was enough to triumph.

You don't have to wait for the Fringe to hear wonderful storytelling! We are lucky in Winnipeg to have many fine storytellers. For year-round information about upcoming events, visit the Storytelling Guild website,, or better yet, become a member and receive all the info in your inbox.

Stone Soup Storytelling Cafe, a long-time Winnipeg tradition, takes place at McNally Robinson Booksellers once a month.

Storytelling on the Patio takes place at 7 pm selected Wednesdays at the Neighbourhood Cafe in Wolseley.

July 24 – “Fantastical Creatures” From Tolkien to Mother Goose fantastical creatures are at the centre of many stories. What role do these characters play in demonstrating differing perspectives? July 31 – “Wolseley Tales with Playback” Enjoy stories about Wolseley with the special element of playback story telling. Playback actors and a musician will improvise on personal stories as told by the audience.

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