Every city has its sacred cows, institutions that are so established and so revered, that they are beyond genuine criticism. Edmonton has more than its share. The folk fest is invariably praised to the skies, regardless of the quality of its lineup. The Heritage Festival is always lauded despite the fact that is is always the same. The river valley is considered Edmonton’s great gem, despite the fact is it inaccessible to most people, and generally ignored by almost everyone.
But there is no holier sacred cow than the Fringe Festival, Edmonton’s annual orgy of theatre.
Now, don’t get your panties in a knot (whatever that means). I would not criticize the Fringe as an event: I think it’s fantastically cool. It’s a great Edmonton success story, an example of how a fairly isolated northern city (as Ralph Klein once said, Edmonton isn’t the end of the world, but you can see it from there) makes its own fun, and turns it into something quite wonderful. The public clearly loves it, and the city is justifiably proud of it.
However, in my mind the Fringe productions have become almost unassailable. I am convinced that the normal standards of criticism do not apply to Fringe productions.
Check out the reviews of Fringe productions in the Sun and the Journal. They are overwhelmingly positive, often gushing. As of Tuesday, the Journal has given out four-and-a-half stars and above to a whopping 49 productions. Another 53 have scored three-and-a-half stars. Only 19 have rated two-and-a-half or lower, with only three total bombs. The Sun is roughly the same proportion, declaring only ONE play to be a bomb.
Think about this. What are the odds that of the dozens and dozens of Fringe shows — some seasoned professional productions, some by first timers, some by amateurs — would be overwhelmingly good to great? Hollywood’s entire film production year doesn’t score remotely as highly, despite multi-million dollar budgets and the best talent the industry has to offer. Could it be, perhaps, that Edmonton Fringe reviewers apply a different standard to Fringe shows? The answer is obviously yes.
The best reviewed play by both papers so far is (ready for this?) Propylene Glycol, Maltodextrin, Retinol Palmitate, and Other Words I Don’t Understand Like Love, which is some sort of modern dance rubbish (shudder). On the other side of the spectrum, how does one explain how two plays (Dr. Frightful Presents: Dead Air, and Running on Stilts) are placed on the opposite sides of the spectrum? The Journal gave Dr. Frightful four stars (The Journal gives out four-star reviews like candy at Haloween), while the Sun gave it a half-‘sun’. Running on Stilts got four ‘suns’ from the Sun, while being slagged as sexist and misogynist and worthy of just one star in the Journal.
My point is that Fringe reviews should be read with a heaping teaspoon of salt. Sure, use them as a rough guide to something you might like, but don’t put too much stock in them.