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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Theatre For Thought, May 24, Pre-Fringe Edition

joel fishbane

This column starts a four part series about Fringe shows that I have chosen to endorse based on a subtle combination of instinct, optimism, personal bias or because someone sent me a really expensive bottle of wine.
A Fringe without Keir Cutler is more or less a play without a curtain call: the show will go on, but you’ll always feel like something’s amiss. Like Jem Rolls and Uncalled For, Cutler has become a staple of the Fringe, returning year after year with his latest one-man combination of sharp writing and clever comedy. An obsessive Fringer – he calls the Fringe “one of the nation’s great treasures” – Cutler’s been on the festival circuit since 1999 and the experience has made him something of a veteran. Like the boy scouts, he is always prepared, a lesson he learned the hard way during his early days. Having blanked on his lines during a performance of Teaching Shakespeare, he froze up completely. In a matter of seconds, he had gone from competent actor to a deer in headlights. 

“Nobody realized I had forgotten my lines,” he told me. “They just thought the play was extremely boring.” 

I’ve been noticing Cutler’s work ever since we shared a stage at the Wildside Festival...

I’ve been noticing Cutler’s work ever since we shared a stage at the Wildside Festival (too) many years ago. Aside from the good writing and smart theatrical conceits, I noticed at once that Cutler was an artist unfazed by a challenge. Over the years, his shows have only become more ambitious – last year’s Rant Demon was his most personal, an autobiographical account of his struggles to control a vitriolic mouth. He has continually sought the opinion of outsiders, which resulted in a longtime collaboration with Canada’s resident Fringe god, T.J. Dawe. It’s been a successful partnership – but that isn’t enough for Cutler. 

This year’s entry, Teaching Hamlet, will present Cutler with a twofold challenge. Not only is he working with a new director - Repercussion Theatre A.D. Paul Hopkins – but for the first time in his eleven years as a Fringe performer, Cutler will not be going it alone. When Teaching Hamlet opens on June 11, Cutler will share the stage with fellow actor Brett Watson. Nor will Cutler be struggling to remember his own words: Watson helped develop this comedic piece, which concerns the story of a professor whose academic view of Hamlet clashes with that of an actor he has hired to play the melancholy Dane.

“It’s about the fight between page and stage,” Cutler told me. “I’m intrigued by people who love Shakespeare but can’t connect to it as theatre.” Although Cutler has portrayed  academics in previous shows (Teaching Shakespeare, Teaching Detroit and Teaching As You Like It), this time he’s a much different sort of character. An “obsessed Shakespeare freak”, Cutler’s professor has hired Watson’s out-of-work actor to make a video presentation that will present his own interpretation of Hamlet.

Cutler admits that he never knows who his shows are going to appeal to. But that’s the joy of the Fringe.

Given how much we overanalyze, overthink and generally give Hamlet more credit then it deserves, I’ll confess my own bias up front. I’m a fan of any play that pokes fun at bardolotry (that’s George Bernard Shaw’s word, by the way, not mine). But you don’t need to have my prejudices to enjoy the show. Just as Cutler’s previous works did not demand any knowledge of As You Like It or Detroit, no understanding of Hamlet will be required. 

“Brett is just playing an actor hired to do a job,” says Cutler. “And everyone has had a boss that’s nuts. The challenge is to figure out how to maintain your integrity and still get the job done.” 

Cutler admits that he never knows who his shows are going to appeal to. But that’s the joy of the Fringe. The entire festival is built around the unexpected. Still, I doubt there is little of the unexpected in Teaching Hamlet. Given the amount of talent involved in this production – and Cutler’s own obsession with being prepared – I’m going to suggest that this is  one of the better bets at this year’s Fringe. In future weeks I’ll discuss the newcomers to the Fringe; but there’s equal reason to check out the work of the seasoned performers who are using the festival as a means of trying something new.
Teaching Hamlet plays at the Venue 4, 4247 Saint Dominique. For more info visit

Also see the first-person piece about the art of soloing Keir Cutler wrote for CharPo.

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