HeartBeast: A Fringe Festival Must-See

The 2022 Spirit of Fringe Winner Returns for a 2023 Run

Courtesy Cindy Lopez

Spectators at the Montreal Fringe Festival entering the main stage room of the Mainline Theatre are greeted by Sarah Rossy’s melodic vocals. Positioned at a piano downstage right, her arrangements are primed to accompany each progression throughout the 60-minute performance.

The set design showcases floral patterns oozing vibrant colours along stonelike sculptures, one fashioned downstage centre with a mirror in the middle. This will become an essential prop for the main character who continuously works to find comfort in who they are through self-reflection

From the mind of non-binary playwright and director Mael Cheff, HeartBeast illustrates the journey of one young adult named  Teen and the navigation of their gender identity. Their experience is discomforted by an overbearing, sage-wielding mother and the uber-spiritual, crystal and tuque-toting therapist named Rev. Their seemingly well-meaning efforts at times cause Teen more discomfort than good.  

Philip Sawaia likened the opportunity to portray Teen to finding your favourite candy in a box of chocolates, saying, “This type of surprise is the best thing that has happened to me.” Never having to properly audition for Cheff, a mere readthrough was enough to convince the director to cast Sawaia. The same went for actors Leigh Ann Taylor who plays Mother and Thom Niles who plays Rev.

The last character introduced in the play is a tinsel and moss-covered creature who guides Teen throughout the tribulations Teen experiences, emulating the art form of bizarre drag.  Despite the character never speaking, the movements– choreographed and performed by Flow Gall– align with that of Teen to express the inner and outer turmoil they are experiencing.

The numerous outfits Teen wears incorporate bizarre drag qualities with an animalistic foundation. Outfits, all designed by Moohk, include a snake head with long sequencing, a rhinestone, black vest with insect feelers and so on. The purpose of these explorations allows for an interaction between the mother and Teen wherein Teen poses the question, “If I were [this animal], what would you do?” 

“Nature is queer,” Cheff said when asked about the bizarre drag aspect. “Queer-trinsic identity is absolutely internal, mental health as well. So there was that concept that nature is real and wild.” Combining this interpretation with their own observations of bizarre drag, they felt it to be a perfect art form to utilize.

Although the main plot revolves around gender fluid expression with themes of bizarre drag, the show still aims for everyone who watches to relate in some way. Cheff explains that it is not so much a story for one specific person. Elaborating by saying that all are welcome to relate.

“I hope they [audiences] take away different perspectives,” Cheff says. “It’s not hard to look at someone and say, ‘This is you? Yeah, I can love you”. Cheff continues by saying that if attendees can have a moment of identifying with the characters and their story, that is what matters most.   

Audiences raved throughout the duration of HeartBeast’s 2023 Fringe run. With multiple shows selling out in advance and a Patron’s Pick Frankie Award, the run was a success with compliments to Cheff.