Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region.   ,

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TACTICS is an independent, collective series that features work by emerging and professional performers. The plays occur in short runs ––no more than a week in length—and so audiences will have to rush to the theatre if they hope to catch the performances before the next shows take the stage. It goes without saying that original performances and emerging artistry are vital parts of a theatre community. With that mandate comes the potential for some really great or really bad theatre, and the first weekend of this TACTICS series exemplifies this divide.

The first show of the evening, (off) Balance, is the brain-child of Naomi Tessler who both wrote the piece, and acts in the production. The stage is fairly bare and a large, red cloth circle outlines the playing space. This one-woman, autobiographical piece employs monologue, dance, and a live music; the musician sits outside the red circle, and plays African drum and chimes alongside the performance. But even with the intervention of Bronwyn Steinberg’s direction and dramaturgy, the production is underwhelming.

The story begins on a relatable note: A young woman leaves home for University, only to find herself overwhelmed, and soon in the grips of depression. The play is about Tessler’s journey to mental well-being, and her struggle against traditional medicine. She feels powerless to control her own mental health, and sinks further and further into the well of depression. Meanwhile, a team of psychiatrists, doctors, and anti-depressants take over.

The narrative may seem compelling, but the production feels more like personal therapy than theatre. The narrative is dominated by Tessler’s growing interest in all things “new-agey”, from acting as a medium for strangers, to unsolicited aura readings. If the artist’s intention is to showcase an alternative perspective on mental health, its cast in the shadow of a narrative that lingers more on her aunt’s urgings that she has a “gift” (said with a meaningful eyebrow raise).

Tessler is at her strongest when she slips into the various character roles—the worried mother, the no-nonsense doctor, and others—with ease. Still, you may find yourself rolling your eyes more than feeling genuine sympathy, due to Tesslers’s saccharine interpretation of a character coming into spiritual awareness.

The heart of the problem with this production is the extremely literal telling of her own story, and particularly attempting to do so in an hour-long timespan. Though it’s a very honest piece, Tessler rushes between sequences—years of her life—so that the powerful moments of realization come across as trite and ineffectual. Overall, the production is a project that badly needs to be thought through, from script to staging.

(off) Balance
Created & performed by Naomi Tessler
Direction & dramaturgy by Bronwyn Steinberg
Plays as part of TACTICS at Arts Court until November 21.

Where the first performance of the evening fell flat, feelers emerges as an incredibly powerful performance. Choreographed and written by Amelia Griffin, and performed by four dancers, feelers takes aim at street harassment and manages to lasso interventions into concepts of masculinity and even proxemics within the performance. All of this, and a strong aesthetic, too. It’s a lot for an hour-long performance to do, but between choreographed sequences of dance and a few monologues, they cover a lot of ground.

Three performers, Amber Green, Alya Graham, and Annabel Boissonneault, begin the production wearing all-black, and very high-heels. They walk briskly across the stage at an increasingly hurried pace, and the audience gets a sense of their growing anxiety. This non-verbal sequence is so simple and yet so powerful; it manages to communicate the urgency of being a female walking alone, late at night.

The sequences that comprise the production run the gamut from audience-facing monologues, to pure dance sequences. Each sequence expands on the themes of personal space, anxiety, and empowerment. Writer Griffin keeps the audience on their toes by offering both serious and tongue-in-cheek approaches to the topic.

In one scene for example, a dancer becomes the aggressor, while another dancer becomes her target. The former becomes more aggressive as their dance progresses, and eventually she even lifts and manipulates the other dancer. The scene feels dark and threatening. This foreboding scene is juxtaposed with lighter fare: The three main performers launch into their top 10 incidents of street harassment that they experienced while working on the production. The tone is conversational, and they go through their list while dressing and re-dressing in various outfits as if preparing for a night out.

Though the subject matter is heavy, the production manages to weave optimism and hopeful resolution into its fabric. This is never more exemplified than through a scene which incorporates hip-hop animation dancer Simon ‘Klassic’ Xavier. The intensity of this style of dance becomes a stand-in for masculine ferocity, particularly from the eyes of someone caught on the receiving end of street harassment. Later, Xavier and another dancer partner while a dialogue overlays their performance. A male and female voice find common ground and even empathy for each other’s challenges. It’s a beautiful moment.

There is a lot more that can be said about this performance, but in a sentence: feelers is a gem of a production, and I hope it makes its way to bigger audiences soon.

feelers
Choreographed and written by: Amelia Griffin
Dancers: Amber Green, Alya Graham, Annabel Boissonneault, Simon ‘Klassic’ Xavier
Musical arrangement: Rise Ashen
Stage Manager: Marie-Michelle Darveau
Dramaturg: Bronwyn Steinberg
Plays as part of TACTICS at Arts Court until November 21.