Heads or Tails: Excuse me while I kiss the pint

The Ottawa XPress // June 15, 2006

Fringe performer Brendan McNally gets set to go the first round with Heads or Tails.

Photo Credit Peter Knippel: Brendan McNally

Sleek schooners set sail for Ottawa’s urban theatre world with tales of adventure and intrigue.

With this year’s theme being “X Marks the Spot,” get thee ready, matey, for some swashbuckling action at the 10th annual Ottawa Fringe Festival! With more than 50 shows being performed in eight venues over two weeks, from June 16 to 25, no play should go unventured.

For these dedicated artists, it’s more than liquid courage that gets them to walk the stage-plank. It’s about passion and earning those kegs.

In preparation for the festival, artists from all over Canada, England and NYC have been madly trying to steer their productions in the right direction through the rough seas of shameless self-promotion and rigorous rehearsal schedules.

But even with a great platform, competition is fierce. With so many intriguing plays being offered, theatre groups have to do whatever they can to get you to plant your bum at their venue.


This year’s pirate theme has me half expecting to see Ottawa’s Desdechado Productions playwright Brendan McNally and director Ilona Jones storm into the interview in piratical flamboyance, sailing a makeshift vessel crafted out of discounted, soon-to-be defunct Big Bud’s bristol board, ready to pillage the pub (Biddy Mulligans) for pints and nan bread.

But equally theatrically, the two artists turn up dressed in school uniforms with the signature Desdechado logo (a black-circled “D”) emblazoned upon their left breast pocket – all part of the guerrilla marketing that goes hand-in-hook with Fringe.

Jones is dressed in ponytails, a half-unbuttoned shirt and tie askew, looks like a delinquent sultry school girl, McNally reminds me of an obedient British schoolboy from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Or a demure airplane pilot.

Either way, it’s hardly the orderly image most Ottawa theatregoers would associate with McNally, given his acting credits. He’s been the infamous reckless Begbie character in the New World Theatre production of Trainspotting. And before that he was the bare-bummed hitchhiker-taking-a-crap-by-the-roadside (he missed his ride) in the Fringe play he wrote called The One and Me: A Hitchhiker’s Tale.

But while McNally’s new 2006 play, Heads or Tails, revisits the scat theme in the form of rabbit poo-pellets that make their way into a black bean soup, themes are intense this year and exclude pirates.


What is consistent about McNally through his decade-plus writing and theatre career is the professionalism and immense talent he packs into every punch, which always makes for knockout theatre.

The new play should be no exception. The 52-minute Heads or Tails tackles big but basic issues of life and death, suicide and despair, hope and rabbits.

“It’s a dark play,” Jones warns me, but McNally concludes: “But we’re not Morrissey, we’re not ‘woe is me.'”

Heads or Tails is about an ex-junky named June, played by Allison Brennan, who isn’t sure if she should kill herself and, throughout the play, flips a coin to try and decide.

“It’s about consequences, consequences, consequences,” McNally says, and how to make heads or tails of tragedies.

“There’s a dichotomy between either/or, and sometimes it’s both, and sometimes it’s none of that at all,” he explains about the this-or-that combination of circumstances or people that leads a person, like June, to speak with a rabbit or discuss with her alter-ego how punctuation compromised biblical history.

The characters, Dan and Pat, in the play discuss and debate modern psychiatry, pharmaceutical companies and vodka – things society relies upon to treat/deal with/tame sexual abuse victims, artists and addicts.

I don’t ask Jones specifically if people will laugh or cry, but I do ask her how she expects the audience will react.

“You don’t know what people’s reactions are going to be,” director Jones says. “It’s about recognizing things that belong to you,” she says of what audiences could react to.


So what made Jones want to direct a tragicomic play like this?

“Does it speak to me?” is what Jones asked herself about the script. She says it’s a lot like appreciating music: You like it or you don’t. It just clicks, much like the McNally-Jones collaboration itself.

This isn’t the first time the two have hopped into the ring together. They were once neighbours, they were both enrolled at Algonquin College, and they’ve worked with “dark” themes in their 2005 collaboration, the Stigma Busters production Bonkers.

“I was particularly impressed with what she did with Wintersleep,” McNally says of Jones’ directing debut at Algonquin. His appreciation led him to hand the script over to Jones so she could make it more than just ink – a challenging endeavour that Jones called “performing plastic surgery on McNally’s baby.”

“I had to cut it and I had to tell Brendan about it,” she says. “I’ve known Brendan for years, but I didn’t know if he was going to go insane.”

As director, Jones also has to manage the rhythm and pacing of the actors. As with all Fringe plays, it’s important to give the cast freedom to interpret their characters on stage.

“The artists are professionals, they are hard working, they are creative, they can bring something to it,” McNally says of Desdechado’s group.

With Fringe plays, actors breathing real life into the characters means a slightly different version of the play every night. “Like live music,” Jones says, “you don’t know what you’re going to see until you see it.”


Patrick Gauthier tells XPress what they were up to during the pre-performance scramble for Grupo Rubato’s production pygM@ILion in 2004: “We sang to lineups (show tunes, mostly) as we handed out flyers.” Considered the “perfect Fringe show” according to CBC Toronto, Grupo Rubato were also the 2005 winners of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival’s playwriting contest.

To promote this year’s play, The Man Who Went to Work One Day and Got Eaten by a Bear, Gauthier says, “We recently got caught trespassing in a cemetery, taking photos of a guy in a bear suit. In front of the graves of prominent parishioners.”

Silly rabbits.

Grupo is among a few who were unable to score a venue through the festival’s lottery system this year, so look for them as a BYOV, or “bring your own event.” And no, it’s not in a cemetery.

– Sylvie Hill