One perplexing aspect of Fringe culture is the performer-line-flyers hustle: when you’re standing in line for a show at 10:30 at night, and a performer walks up to you and asks if she can tell you about her show, and you awkwardly mumble vague promises about coming to see it whether you intend to or not. And then you see that same performer at a completely different venue the next day, and you feel exhausted just watching her do what she has to do.
Seeing Roller Derby Saved My Soul is a success story of Nancy Kenny’s hustle, because after chatting with her for a moment, and hearing her pitch her one-woman show, she had me: socially inept dork/comic-book nerd tackles the greatest challenge imaginable — organized sports. More specifically, the titular roller derby, one of the fastest growing sports in North America. The few things that I knew about roller derby before seeing Kenny’s show are what appealed to me as much as they did for her protagonist — the name, for example. With the insular, rough-and-tumble all-women aspect of the roller derby circuit I could sense a queer aspect to the show as well — and my intuition did not disappoint me.
Kenny’s main character, Amy, is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer–worshipping, Wonder Woman–obsessed nerd who, after seeing her sister on the derby track, signs up as “fresh meat” for her local team, partially for a tattooed hotty at the recruitment table who reminds our hero of Wonder Woman. Roller Derby Saved My Soul is a coming-of-age story — it gives hope to all us aging losers out there — about discovering the empowering alter ego within.
Roller Derby’s story is a little predictable and has all the makings of a Hollywood film — Ellen Page comes to mind, even if I still haven’t seen Whip It — and so the story sometimes feels a little contrived. Amy has doubts, finds a place she belongs, has her dark moment, ultimately triumphs. Kenny’s wide-eyed earnestness in the role she created works more often than not, and the humour is broad enough that you don’t necessarily need to be a devotee of Buffy, roller derby or DC Comics to enjoy the jokes.
The essence, however, is both entertaining and worthy of attendance, not only because of Kenny’s hustle. The unapologetically queer aspect of the show is noteworthy — like Concrete Kid, interesting because it’s not another trite coming-out story. I don’t think there is a single male character mentioned; men barely even factor into the story, which stands out and is astounding to me. The show feels a little like walking into a mythical Amazonian camp where everyone’s on quad roller skates fighting over who gets to be the jammer.
The story is safe and traditional but not without challenging merits. The jokes are sometimes cheesy and sometimes dorky but fun, and Kenny doesn’t take herself too seriously. Probably the most impressive part of the show, and I cannot stress this enough, is that it made me want to join a sport. That notion is about as scary as this dorky loser would be on roller skates.