In a profile of Nora Ephron in a recent issue of The New Yorker, Ariel Levy wrote about the challenge of writing about people you know:
Ephron’s pieces were vivid and cunning and crackling with her personality; she began an eviscerating profile of Dorothy Schiff, the publisher of the New York Post, where she had worked for a time, with the words “I feel bad about what I’m going to do here.”
While I make no claim to words of vivid crackle, and while I’ve no plans to eviscerate anyone today, I do recognize the challenge of writing inside a closed system. Like the closed system that is Prince Edward Island.
Take Patrick Ledwell for example. Here is an incomplete list of the connections I have to Patrick Ledwell:
- His sister Jane took on the job of Executive Director of the L.M. Montgomery Land Trust after I held it.
- I have a painting by Jane’s partner Stephen B. MacInnis hanging on the wall of my bedroom.
- Okeedokee, a company I co-founded, once employed Patrick’s cousin Andrea Ledwell.
- Patrick’s brother Thomas Ledwell used to work at CBC Montreal with my brother Steve.
- We bought our current house from realtor Paula Willis. At one point (and maybe to this day) there was a yearly tradition that say the Willis children play the Ledwell children in a basketball game over Christmas.
- Patrick and I are both contractors on the Island Lives project for UPEI.
- Patrick works in an office about 40 feet from my own office.
- I knew and respected Patrick’s late father Frank Ledwell.
All of which I relate simply to suggest that, evisceration or no, writing a review of The New Potato-Time Review, a comedy and music show by Patrick Ledwell (who I will somewhat awkwardly refer to as “Ledwell” in what’s to come) and Tanya Davis, has implications.
That all said, let me get to the punchline: there are some great moments of comedy in the Review, and Tanya Davis was an unexpected delight, and if you want a night of high-quality entertainment that will leave you feeling good about the world, you owe it to yourself to get out to Victoria-by-the-Sea before the show closes on August 2nd.
Which is not to suggest that the show is without its rough patches.
The central conceit — old-school stand-up comic sharing the stage with a singer of pithy insightful ballads about death and belonging — is somewhat precarious. Mostly it works, but it falls apart when comic and singer work outside their comfort zones, when the comic sings or the singer tells jokes. I think particularly of the last sketch, an extended singalong on Island name pronunciation (Dalziel, Gaudet, Doiron, etc.) that seems more like an obligatory hat-tip to the Wayne and Shuster review format than something either is particularly passionate about. The opening duologue, a sort of poetic back-and-forth on Island themes, suffers from the same uncomfortable feeling, especially as the styles of the two performers is so different. Imagine something like George Carlin jamming with Victoria Williams.
So it’s fine — great even — that Ledwell and Davis share the stage. Just not, perhaps, at the same time.
When they’re on their own, each is at their best when the material is closest to their gut.
For Ledwell this comes during a monologue about the joys and frustrations of growing up in a large and chaotic Island family: his glassy eyes were a testament to the sincerity of the material, and it was only here that he really broke through the fourth wall and established a true sense of himself with the audience. For Davis it came with a temporary costume change and a monologue cum song on growing up weird on PEI. The air was thick with things that need to be expressed more often in this insular place, and with the pierce emerged the central theme of the show (such as there is a central theme): the Island is a strange, fitful and mysterious place that can enliven and destroy, entertain and confuse, and is perhaps, in its small, isolated, interconnected way, unique in the world.
Of course the show is mostly not so, um, serious. Mostly it’s quite funny. And sometimes it’s roll-on-the-floor funny.
The comedy of the show is built around Ledwell’s reactions to rear-projected slides: artworks, faux PowerPoint slides, Jay Leno-style clippings from local newspapers. The visuals are well constructed, and Ledwell’s timing is crackerjack and takes material that would just be passing funny — “Diary Bar for Sale,” “House for Sale: 14 Dump Road” — and takes it to another level. Some of the material comes from the standard Island comedian/storyteller playbook — “here” vs. “from away”, growing up in hand-me-downs, and the like — but the approach is more contemporary than the usual “I remember old Mrs. Gallant from the Horne Cross Road…” and while it would be a stretch to say there’s anything of an “urban sensibility,” Ledwell’s comedy is pleasantly absent of an “old timey” feel.
Tanya Davis, while treading into comedy from time to time, shoulders the responsibility for the mournful part of the bill. Or perhaps mournful is not the right word. She does sing songs that are considerably more packed with ideas that the usual balladeer, though. From her song Gorgeous Morning, for example, a rumination on taking a different path in life, is the lyric:
and it makes for bad digestion when you are crying onto your toast
and if that’s how breakfast goes you know you’re in for it
but i had no intentions then, go to work and come back home
my feet heavy and slow every minute of it
In the same way the Ledwell freshens the comedy tradition, Davis sings songs that shed a new and valuable light on the Prince Edward Island experience. She is a talented singer, a capable guitar player, and has an understated stage presence that she uses to good effect.
You wouldn’t think that the counterpoint of Ledwell’s “of course they’d never heard of seat belts when we were growing up” and Davis’ songs about graveyards would work, but, somehow, it does, and the audience, which included everyone from young rockers to community stalwarts, responded well to most of it.
When so much of Prince Edward Island’s summertime theatrical entertainment is tired remixes on the Anne theme, it’s exciting to see contemporary material presented by talented and thoughtful artists, and I expect great things from both Ledwell and Davis in years to come.
The New Potato-Time Review runs through August 2nd at the Victoria Playhouse in Victoria-by-the-Sea, Prince Edward Island. I highly recommend you sample the delights of Island Chocolates and The Landmark Café before the show.