Fringe Festival Blogger, an offshoot of On the Fence
Friday, October 15, 2004
 
The ultimate pub-crawl: Pete McCarthy explores his Irish roots in 'temples of conversation' worldwide
National Post
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Arts & Life
J. Kelly Nestruck

About an hour before the scheduled interview with author Pete McCarthy, his publicist calls asking to change the location of the rendezvous. It was originally supposed to take place at a pub called McCarthy's Bar in the east-end of Toronto, which had seemed an appropriate place to talk about McCarthy's Bar and The Road to McCarthy, the two books in which the half-English, half-Irish writer explores his roots on the Emerald Isle and around the world following the cardinal rule of travel: Never pass a bar that has your name on it.

But McCarthy was the guest of honour at a Ireland-Canada Chamber of Commerce luncheon this morning and, after the meal, they all retired to P.J. O'Briens downtown for a drink. "He says he'll have a little difficulty getting out of there," the publicist explained politely. "Perhaps you could meet him there?"

Upon arrival at the pub, it is immediately clear why McCarthy was having trouble slipping away. The 48-year-old is surrounded by friendly Irish-Canadians, who are pinning him and his pint of Guinness to the bar with animated conversation. He isn't going anywhere.

"Listen to the conversation in this place now," McCarthy says, once his publicist manages to pull him away from the chattering masses. "So many bars in so many countries now, there's loud music or there's gambling machines."

But not in Irish bars like this one, he enthuses. "There is a tradition of them being temples of conversation, and I approve of that."

In McCarthy's Bar: A Journey of Discovery in Ireland, first published in 2000, McCarthy spends several months visiting a number of these Irish temples -- many bearing his family name -- and recording the conversations he has. The book is chock full of anecdotes and characters, most notably McCarthy himself. With a keen ear for the idiosyncratic speech of Ireland's inhabitants, he paints a loving warts-and-all portrait of a changing country, which has become one of the hippest tourist destinations in the world over the past two decades.

"When I was going as a kid in the '50s and '60s in Ireland, the notion that one day it would be an extremely cool place to be or be from would have been laughable," McCarthy says, as a bartender brings him a fresh Guinness. "Economically and socially, it was quite a backward place. The transformation that has taken place is astonishing."

The success of McCarthy's Bar, which hit #1 on the best-sellers lists in the U.K., Australia and Ireland and won him Newcomer of the Year at the British Book Awards, led to last year's sequel The Road to McCarthy. His second travelogue takes the storyteller from Cork and Belfast to Gibraltar, Morocco, New York, Tasmania and finally the remote Alaskan township of McCarthy with a population of just 18 people.

McCarthy has been travelling since childhood, when his family would head to Ireland each year to visit his mother's relatives. Once he had finished school, he left the working-class city of Warrington to spend a year hitchhiking through Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. "It was a key year in my life, because it meant that when I got home, I was temperamentally unsuited to doing the kind of job where you have to be in the same room at the same time every day," he says.

An aspiring actor and writer, McCarthy formed a theatre company called Cliffhanger with some friends and they travelled around Europe and Australia putting on self-written shows. Visiting new places was as thrilling to him as the theatre he performed. "It was like a miracle to get on a plane in England at the beginning of February at the depths of the European winter and step out into the dazzling sunshine of a Melbourne summer," he recalls.

In 1990, when a TV producer heard him being interviewed on the BBC about a one-man show he was performing called The Hangover Show, travelling became a paying job. Impressed by a story he told about being hung over at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the producer asked McCarthy to host a new show called Travelog, which he did for the next seven years, bringing his humorous world view to TV.

All of which led to McCarthy's Bar and the Road to McCarthy, which has just been named U.K. Travel Book of the Year.

While he often misses his family -- he is married and has three school-age children -- McCarthy has no plans to stop travelling and settle down on his hobby farm in rural England just yet. "I still --perhaps this is a sad thing to admit -- I still get excited in airports," he says.

His favourite place to visit remains Ireland. In McCarthy's Bar, the writer encounters a Belgian woman living in a small inlet near Cork, who says to him, "I reckon there's only two kinds of people, the Irish and the wannabe Irish."

McCarthy says he falls into neither category. "I think it's important to embrace and celebrate both sides of who you are," he says, adding that he hopes his books resonate with the multitude of people who are caught between cultures in the modern world.
Friday, October 01, 2004
 
Tweaking the Man, or just fooling around?
National Post
Friday, October 1, 2004
J. Kelly Nestruck

THE YES MEN

The Yes Men are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, two artist-cum-activist superheroes dedicated to fighting the Man. Before they united to combat the supervillian globalization, they battled separately in the gender politics skirmishes of the early 1990s. Bichlbaum, a former computer programmer, spent his time inserting kissing men in Speedos into otherwise macho video games, while Bonanno, founder of the Barbie Liberation Organization, switched the voice boxes of Barbies and G.I. Joes to create toy soldiers who asked, "Will we ever have enough clothes?"

The Yes Men documentary -- by Chris Smith and Sarah Price of American Movie fame -- catches up with this prankster duo in 2000, after they came together to create a parody Web site called www.gatt.org, which sends-up the World Trade Organization and pokes fun at the worst excesses of neoliberalization.

The parody site, however, turns out to be more convincing than Bichlbaum and Bonanno thought and the pair begin receiving invitations to speak on television and at conferences on behalf of the WTO. Rather than explaining that gatt.org is a joke, they decide to appear on the WTO's behalf.

Soon enough, Bichlbaum is on CNBC's Marketwrap Europe as Dr. Andreas Bichlbauer and lecturing in Salzberg as Hank Hardy Unruh, preaching the elimination of trade barriers such as "the grotesquely inefficient system of elections" and explaining how outsourcing is much more cost-efficient than slavery. But no matter how ridiculous their mock corporatespeak gets -- at one point Bichlbaum unveils the WTO's Management Leisure Suit with a giant inflatable phallus -- The Yes Men are never revealed as imposters. Their audiences are either not paying attention or simply think that the WTO is being a little more truthful that usual. Identity theft has never been so much fun!

As a chronicle of how willing people are to believe anything coming out of the mouth of a man in a business suit, The Yes Men is quite funny -- though its pacing is at times excruciatingly slow. Unfortunately, Smith and Price have decided to make yet another anti-globalization polemic -- and one of the weakest ones to date. Facts and arguments are scarce; thin satire abounds. Unless you walk into the cinema with the belief that transnational corporations are enslaving governments and exploiting workers around the world, you aren't going to come out convinced. Even those sympathetic to such lefty rhetoric will likely find The Yes Men's views a tad simplistic.

There are many thought-provoking questions that the filmmakers could have tackled, but choose to ignore. Perhaps the one most relevant to the audience they are targeting is whether The Yes Men's "culture jamming" actually makes a difference in the world. Do activist pranksters help the poor or are they just having fun and entertaining other protesters while assuaging their consciences? Does laughter help the cause or does it lead to acceptance of the status quo?

Michael Moore -- this man must be sunburnt from all the klieg lights he endures -- appears in The Yes Men for about 60 seconds to talk about the plight of the Maquiladoras, but The Yes Men might have considered some of his comments from earlier this summer. "[The right] are up at six in the morning trying to figure out which minority group they are going to screw today," the populist rabble-rouser told a partisan group in July. "I mean, our side, we never see six in the morning unless we have been up all night, you know?"

The Yes Men are the perfect, and embarrassing, illustration of this. All they seem to do is plan little pranks, but they somehow end up staying up all night completing them. At one conference they have been working toward for months, Bichlbaum and Bonanno arrive late because they were under the mistaken belief that all of Europe is in the same time zone.

Perhaps the most disheartening moment -- or most encouraging, depending on your point of view -- is when the two sit down to finally write a serious speech indicting the World Trade Organization and quickly find themselves losing interest. Satire is a lot more fun to write, Bichlbaum tells Bonanno, who nods in agreement.

If The Yes Men and their documentarians think they are helping the world's poor, they should think again. If The Yes Men really want to put one over on the capitalists of the world, they're going to have to get up pretty early in the morning, a sacrifice these smug lazybones clearly aren't willing to make.

1.5 stars.
 
Poet of profanity cleans up his act: But Brad Fraser swears he has not lost his edge
National Post
Saturday, September 25, 2004
J. Kelly Nestruck

Brad Fraser's Cold Meat Party, which opens in previews tonight at the Factory Theatre, could very well be more shocking to the playwright's loyal audience than anything else he has ever written.

That's because the play, which tells the story of a group of Canucks who gather in Manchester for a friend's funeral, features no overt sexual activity on stage, absolutely no violence -- and, perhaps most unbelievably, not a whit of swearing.

"Well, nothing you wouldn't hear on television during family hour, anyway," Fraser corrects, taking a sip from a tall glass of tea in a cafe in Toronto's gay village. "I think maybe someone says 'asshole.' And someone says 'bitch.' That's the extent of it"

He pauses. "I could even be wrong on 'asshole.' "

Originally from Edmonton, Fraser made his reputation 15 years ago with a dark and witty play called Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love that rocked and rolled the theatre world with a serial killer plotline, nudity, simulated sex and cusswords a plenty.

From its subject matter to its ridiculously long title and large cast, it broke most Canadian stage rules. It ended up becoming one of our biggest international hits, picking up a Chalmers Award at home, the London Evening Standard Award in Britain for best new play and the Los Angeles Critics' Award, before eventually being turned into a film by Denys Arcand. Subsequent plays such as Poor Super Man and The Ugly Man only cemented Fraser's reputation as a skilled and profane dramatist unafraid to pick up rocks and look at the creepy-crawlies wriggling underneath.

So what's with the new PG play Cold Meat Party? Fraser is visibly irked by the suggestion that some of his fans may believe he has lost his edge.

"I don't know that I'm really losing my rebelliousness," says the playwright, who turned 45 this summer and sniffles from autumn allergies during the interview.

"I made a conscious decision to do this for myself as a challenge as a writer. I don't think I'm any less brutal in my assessment of the world."

Fraser decided to write a play without any of his trademark "poetry of profanity" two years ago, after Snake in Fridge, his "bluest" play to date, premiered in Manchester. A gothic horror story full of severed body parts and freaky porn producers, it is a play Fraser regards as his best -- but it also made him wonder if his plays could walk without the usual shock crutches.

Though it won the Manchester Evening News Award for best play of 2002, no theatre in Canada has yet dared to add Snake in Fridge to its season.

"I can't even get them to read it," Fraser sighs. "Honest to God. It's been sent out to everybody and I don't think anybody even read it. I've never got a response from a Canadian theatre saying 'yes' or 'no.' "

This is nothing new for Fraser. Squeamish theatre companies have long shied away from putting on his work. But Fraser, who has disposed of the John-Waters moustache of his youth and shaved his head, was surprised that the Canadian reception for Cold Meat Party -- which premiered in at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester last year -- wasn't any warmer.

For example, CanStage, one of the original commissioners of the play, took a pass. "It was illuminating for me, because I've always been told that it's because I swear too much and have too many naked people on the stage," Fraser says. "Well, I took all those things out and people still have just as big a problem, which leads me to believe that maybe its actually just the basic message of what I'm saying that disturbs people."

And what is that message exactly? "That the world is a place where you have to work to find hope, where life doesn't offer it to you like we're led to believe by television, but, in fact, it's only won in very small increments by very, very hard work."

Of course, there are other reasons Fraser is a bit of an outcast in Canadian theatre. He is known for expressing his opinions tactlessly and without regard his career. In 1999, after seeing Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian's Dracula at Stratford, he wrote a memorable piece in the National Post hilariously eviscerating the play, its writer and the critics who beat around the bush in reviewing it. ("It has basically ruined me at the Toronto Star for the rest of my career, but I don't care," he says now.)

Similarly, the forewords to his plays are full of revelatory remarks about backstage machinations and blunt assessments of how this or that director screwed up his work.

Fraser is like that in person, too, shooting off his mouth about productions without a trace of politesse. The revival of Unidentified Human Remains at Buddies in Bad Times last spring? "I think it was a mistake ever licensing that production," he snipes casually.

Those looking for controversy in Cold Meat Party will undoubtedly find it in one character, a right-wing politician who has been described as Stockwell Day-esque. Fraser, however, denies Day was his model.

"My character, I think, is a better politician and because of that may be slightly less immediately interesting." So, more of a Stephen Harper then? "Yeah, although with some testosterone. My character is much more of an Albertan. Stephen Harper, he's one of those people that I always think looks halfway through a sex change and still hasn't made up his mind which sex he's going to change to."

The George Washington of theatre, Fraser cannot tell a lie -- not even a white one. But while this trait has hampered his career in the past, it is the same audaciously funny truths that have won him fans around the world.

"I always end up going, 'Why do I do that?' " he says. "But if you don't speak out, it leads to a kind of internal negativity that comes out in inappropriate places."

There were rumours going around that Cold Meat Party was to be Fraser's last bow in the theatre, but the playwright says they are false.

"I haven't written a new play since this play and I have no immediate plans to write a new play, but I'll write something for theatre at some point, I hope," he says. "It's very odd, because this is the first time in 25 years I can say I don't have a new play sitting in my typewriter or computer."

For now, Fraser is focusing on television and movies. Early next year, he plans to film Snake in Fridge as a follow-up to his directorial debut, Leaving Metropolis, which was an adaptation of Poor Super Man. Currently, he's in Toronto working on the upcoming season of Queer As Folk, the popular gay-themed drama he co-writes that airs on Showcase. After the fifth season wraps, Fraser is not sure if he or the show will keep going.

"The numbers have been really good," he notes. "But my personal feeling is that we should go out on a high note." Cold Meat Party was written from the impulse that many artists have at mid-life to look back on what they've done, where they are and where they're going.

Looking back on his career from middle age, what does Brad Fraser see? "It's been great, I couldn't ask for a better life," he says. "Since Unidentified Human Remains I haven't had to take a job or do anything that I didn't want to do, didn't want to do passionately. And I don't know a lot of people who say that about their life."

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