Merz is A-Merzing!

Reviewed by Jeunes critiques

Peter_FroehlicPeter Froehlich knows Merz! 

Brie McFarlane is with Yana Meerzon’s course on Theatre criticism at the University of Ottawa.

Prepare to have everything you thought you knew about the theatre thrown out the window in
Merz, composed by Kurt Schwitters and directed and performed by Peter Froehlich, because this show knows no boundaries and is not to be missed this April at the Irving Greenberg Centre. Brought to Ottawa for a three day fundraiser on behalf of the Great Canadian Theatre Company, Froehlich is no stranger to this piece having toured it sporadically since 1976. It is clear that Froehlich’s deep knowledge of the Dadaist period and his passion for theatre is what makes this show so merz-merising.

Merz is a composition of Dadaist poetry written by German artist Kurt Schwitters who also
dabbled in many styles and genres including (but not limited to) constructivism, surrealism, sculpture
and typography, Schwitters is most famous for his collages: the Merz Pictures. The piece itself is
definitely a collage of sorts. The first half of the show is made up of scenes that allude to Schwitters’ life
as an artist in Nazi Germany juxtaposed with poems of apparent nonsense including a poem comprised
solely of coughing. The second half: one sound poem made entirely of sounds that have no rhythm or
musicality or even meaning on the surface. It is the second half where you might find yourself wanting
to get up and leave. This is the point. I urge you not to leave! This is Schwitters’ and the Dadaists’ goal:
to destroy culture and the conventions of language while antagonizing the audience to the point of
anger. If you stay, I promise your mind will be all the broader for it and at the very least it makes for
some good conversation.
Peter Froehlich takes to a minimally adorned studio stage in dishevelled dress attire: untucked
shirt, no suit jacket, and suspenders (one of which is attached to the pants by some rope).Already his
appearance is a gross provocation for the audience. His set is made up of a music stand, a table with two
chairs, and a house plant. The intimate atmosphere is the key to this pieces’ effectiveness. Froehlich is
captivating in his ability to weave in and out of scenes and characters and his storytelling is unmatched
by anyone currently on the Ottawa stages. Though the blocking mainly consists of the performer moving
to and from the music stand, this never gets repetitive or boring. The emotion Froehlich brings to each
poem is believable even if most of the poems don’t contain any actual words. The love poem dedicated
to Anna Blossom is touching and totally relatable in its stuttering simplicity. My favourite moment,
however, is the sneeze poem. It’s something you have to see to believe.
After a brief intermission the audience returns to the studio and Froehlich once more takes the
stage, only this time he is in full concerto garb. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the fifty
minute recital of the famed Ursonate, a poem without a single intelligible word. Recited like a true
conductor, Froehlich’s comprehension of the piece is apparent. Even though the audience has no solid
idea of what is going on, it is clear that the actor understands and believes every sound he is making
and, furthermore, he believes we as an audience do too! This is the beauty, if you will, of Dadaist art.
The onus is placed on the audience to make some meaning out of the sounds. You get some suggestion
of what the performer is feeling (frustrated, playful, annoyed, content), but ultimately it is up to the
viewer to make sense of what the performer produces. The audience remains engaged throughout,
playing an integral role in the piece’s transgressional nature.
At some point during this act roughly six people walk out, yet this never fazes the performer. In
fact, I have a theory that Froehlich must have a running total of how many people have walked out of his
show over the years, like some sort of game. I imagine him psyching himself up in the mirror before a
show every night saying to himself, “I wonder how many people I can get to walk out tonight?” These
walk outs only add further enjoyment to the piece.
Again, I cannot stress enough how much this piece needs to be seen to be believed. It is truly
incredible and is nothing like you’ve ever seen on stage before. Froehlich is an absolute master of his
craft and this was such a smart decision on behalf of the GCTC to agree to have him back on stage. Catch
it while you still can April 3rd-5th!
[word count: 770]


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