Undercurrents 2011. One Act Play Festival in Ottawa

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

Categories: Professional Theatre

 


My Pregnant Brother

written and performed by Johanna Nutter

Director and dramaturg: Jeremy Taylor

A Freestanding Productions production from Montreal.

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

Also listen to www.cbc.ca/ottawamorning/columnists/theatre

Johanna Nutter tells us all about her brother who is in the midst of a real gender transformation. He used to be a girl but he is psychologically, emotionally and in all ways a man, thus the explanation between sex and gender is well drawn in this story. In any case, somewhere in the midst of this process of change, he becomes pregnant.

The situation is unusual to say the least but Johanna draws us gently into the intimacy of her personal world and tells us all about it in the most frank and unassuming way as she sketches out the geography of her space on the floor and walls of the theatre. There is something pedagogical about this…

We learn all the details: how they all came through the experience, how the mother reacted, how the birth took place and the fact that Johanna always seems to play the saviour to the rest of the family, getting them out of tough situations.

This is essentially the very emotional telling of a life experience, part confession, part re-enactment of an event that touched the actress whole family. Her manner of speaking is very warm and engaging as she draws us closely into her world.

However this did not particularly interest me as theatre. It was simply a really lived experience of the touchy feely hyper romantic sort that one associates with the spirit of the Hippy movement in the 1970s. In fact that corresponds exactly to the portrait of the mother who grew up as a hippy, who dragged her children across the country, living with them in communes, in Ice Cream trucks and in various other non-traditional spaces. And as a result, the mother never quite gets rid of her guilt and the predicament of the son helps Johanna flush out the mothers problems, as well as her own difficult relation with her mother. It all comes down to one great big session of collective therapy founded upon the anti-psychiatry tendency of R.D. Lang, so typical of the 1960s and 1970s.

More annoying for a theatre watcher however, is the way the story line veers off in a direction which becomes less and less interesting. As Johanna, playing herself, begins talking about her transsexual brother, all this might have developed into a fascination exploration of this gender confused conscience: how he sees the world, how he relates to his double identity, how he evolves through the pregnancy.

But the play, apparently stuck very closely to the truth of the situation that the actress really experienced so it took the easy way out and became a soppy soap opera where the anecdotal prevailed. How did Johanna relate to the baby? Why didnt the young man keep the baby? Who was the new mother?. What about the reconciliation between Johannas mother and her gender shifting son. And ultimately, how the sight of an accident somehow cements the relationship of this very untraditional family.

This intense realism, coupled with a more banal ending that was totally devoid of theatrical interest, even though the actress, Johanna Nutter has an engaging presence that would surely make a stronger impression in another play. My Pregnant Brother left me Luke warm.

It plays Friday (9pm), Saturday (1pm) and Sunday (3pm) this week.

Alvina Ruprecht, Ottawa, February 4, 2011


SPENT

by Dean Gilmour, Adam Paolozza, Ravi Jain and Michele Smith

Directed by Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith

Performed by Adam Paolozza and Ravi Jain

A Production of Why Not theatre, TheatreRun and Theatre Smith-Gilmour

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

Spent made the whole festival worthwhile. This creation, which is in many ways a collective effort, brings together a team of theatre people whose work is a rare phenomenon in English speaking Canada where a theatre of text is the normal fare. Spent on the other hand has realized a break through in this verbal tradition by creating a performance based on the heightened presence of the body, as well as the creation of visual illusions and extremely intelligent textual fragments taken from contemporary writings of the church, from lacanian psychoanalysis and from journalistic analysis of current political events. It also integrates a multitude of linguistic forms, sounds, specific gestures and facial expressions that correspond to the many people who inhabit this country. And it all appears as the result of a heightened sense of theatricality which transforms the most banal occurrence into a highly stylized and exciting event that whets ones appetite for more.

Working closely with a very tighly orchestrated sound scape, both performers move in the most perfect harmony, as their choreography , their gestures, their facial expressions and their speaking styles, set off a theatrical dance that makes time whizz by at an unbelievable rate. I barely saw the hour go by.

Spent in fact creates a magnificent Urban Canadian myth. It tells the story of the Financial crash that hit the world several years ago, how it was reported in the Media and how the near suicide of two traders, produced the Miracle on Bay Street, a particular Toronto phenomenon that inspired a whole series of events, around the attempted suicide of our two Holy heroes. The sequences produce a breathtaking series of isolated episodes that create the illusion of teetering on the brink of suicide, of falling from the heights of the Bay street Towers. The two men are somehow swept away on a magical ride into the clouds, where they live a heavenly voyage and a hellish nightmare before returning to earth to resolve the financial crisis in Canada.

Using the techniques of silent film, (Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin and many others) where humour, slapstick and pathos come together in the most imaginative way, the two performers then draw on the most amazing rhythm induced forms of mime, the physical poetry of Marceau Marceau, even Meyerhold’s image of the bio mechanical actor comes to life within this repertoire of all the forms of physical theatre that exist in the Western tradition, along with images inspired by the Lanterna Magica, and from other visual and corporeal based sources this collective of artists hasseamlessly integrated them all in their own corporeal poetry.

Note for example the discussion where the two actors recreate a hot debate among a Lacanian psychoanalyst, a Hindu professor, an Anglican minister and an Italian Catholic priest, all talking at once and all reproducing the sounds and the gestures of each of these types who see the world according to their own beliefs and their own cultural heritage. Leaping from such depths of discussion to sizzling broadcasts on BBC television and the final moment when the two holy survivors of the suicide attempt curl up together in their getaway train with their ties flapping in the wind as they eat hot soup out of a can. Such sequences are worthy of the most brilliant moments of classic silent film and will certainly have an impact on the future evolution of theatre in English Canada. I kid you not. What this company has achieved is very important.

Why Not theatre, TheatreRun and Theatre Smith Gilmour must return to Ottawa sometime soon. They were a breath of fresh air in the theatrical landscape of this city and everyone should have a chance to see them. The problem is that after Spent, everything else might just seem a little bit boring

If you can only see ONE show at the Undercurrents Festival, Spent must be your choice. Only two performances remain: , one on Saturday at 3 pm and the second on Saturday at 7pm at the Irving Greenberg Centre. Call 613-236-5196 to reserve your tickets.

Alvina Ruprecht

Ottawa, February 3, 2011.


SHADOWS

written by Margo MacDonald

Directed by Diana Fajrajsl

A Queen Mab/Parry Riposte production

Set and lighting designer Lynn Cox

Costume designer Judith DeBoer

Sound designer Diana Fajrajsl

Audio Pyrotechnician Al Conors

With Margo MacDonald as Eva Le Gallienne and Sarah Finn as Josephine Hutchinson.

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

Afterseeing this show at the Ottawa Fringe Festival in June (2010) and thinking then that this was such a superior production, especially in the general context of Fringe theatre, I still feel that Shadows isa very special piece. There have been some very minor additions to the text and the ending seemed a bit more abrupt but I must admit thatglobally, the playhas the same effect as it had in June whenboth Margo Macdonald and Diana Fajrajslfirst revealed the measure of their great talents.

Stylish, elegant, withJudith DeBoer’s delicate costumes and Lynn Cox’s beautiful lighting effects (the match that lights up the actresses profile in the first moments is so striking) as well as themany period props, Shadows brings together the theatrical world of the famous French actress Eva Le Gallienne who met Josephine Hutchinson in 1927 after she moved to New York to continue her acting career. France proved impossible for her at that time but even in New York, where she dared to lead her life as a lesbian, she felt the pressure of the media and the condemnation of a society that brought tragedy to her life.

The title of the play refers to the fact that Hutchinson was called "the shadow actress." At the time, the term "shadow" was a euphemism for "lesbian" but it originally meant the figure who is not visible on stage, since ‘Joe’ was never allowed to show herself in public with Eva during their relationship. Joe thus became the Shadow actress, the invisible lover who dominated Evas life at that period. The situation, which also created much tension between the two is examined in the play against the background of the movie and stage career of Mme Le Gallienne who was recognized as one of the great women of the theatre of the period. Among her other accomplishments, shealso founded her own theatre company The Civic Repertory Theatre

The long, slim, flowing blond Sarah Finn (as `Jo Evas lover) is the perfect antithesis to the strong dominating presence of the accomplished French actress played with much dignity, passion andenergy by Margo MacDonald. The difficult relationship of this couple evolves through a dramtic structure that moves back and forth in time, creating moments of changing moods and shifting energies that both actresses assume very skillfully.

Eva retreats into her world of theatre and artistic creation where she can hide from the vulgar disapproval of her lifestyleand recreate her own world on the stage. Joe is devoted to her mentor and ready to sacrifice everything , a husband and even a career on stage, to find peace and happiness with Le Gallienne The easy slippages into theatre within theatre moments from Peter Pan, Alice and in Wonderland, Hamlet and even Hedda Gabler, captured so clearly the importance of theatre as a way of life for these two women but they also nourrished the waytheir temperaments often clashed because of their different needs.

Besides the magnificently textured production and the sensitive portrayals by the two actresses, Diana Fajrajsls staging made itself particularly visible in the Irving Greenberg Centre. The scene with Alice and the White Queen captured moments of extraordinary playfulness that added depth to their world. Mostly though, Fajrajsls sound design was much easier to appreciate here. Her choice of music, Satie, Bach, Jazz and Philip Glass, stood out in this space where obviously the technical superiority of the sound equipment in the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre changed everything. The Satie piece especially, played at the beginning of the show, created a most haunting mood of nostalgia, of emotional turmoil, of sadness and passion that set the stage for the rest of the evening.

Shadows is a work of art that very likely will undergo more changes, more additions. The play is not at all imperfect nor could one even say it is still unfinished. However, its very back and forth movement in time would easily facilitate the seamless addition ofnew elements, in case the author or the director might want to transform this one hour play into a full length drama. Such a choice would draw us even more deeply intothis fascinating theatrical world where Eva La Galliennelived her tormented life.

Shadows is not to be missed. It plays until Saturday, January 29. Call the Box office for seats and more times: 613-236-5196


HARD WAYS

Written and performed by Jason Cadieux

An Essential Collective Theatre Company Production

Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley

Sound design by Erica Sherwood

http://www.ectheatre.ca/about-us.html

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

Lights come up on a rather banal site: a table, a chair, a closed door, a water cooler, an American flag. A pleasant looking young man sitting behind the table, smiling, fidgeting with his hands and apparently waiting for someone to enter the room. Where is he? Why is he here? We can only guess because the cues trickle in at a fairly slow rate, but the clues do catch our interest immediately.

This appears to be involved with the policeor the office of a border duty guard because we quickly learn that this is place is on the American Canadian border at Niagara Falls, on the U.S side…where there is a Casino.

The situation evolves slowly. There are strange unearthly noises, blackouts. Little changes appear on stage, the young man who remains anonymous, smiles and laughs. If this is a joke, then let me in on it he roars at his invisible captors. Nothing

I began to ask myself if there was a flaw in the writing because I couldnt see where it was all going. I quickly realized however that there was no flaw in actor Jason Cadieux who almost immediately established himself as an interesting presence. Shifting moods at the drop of a hat, mimicking individuals, hitting us with a stage energy that drew us along in this seemingly nonsensical situation of waitingbut for what? And what was really going on?

And then it began to happen. The story slowly unfolded as a narrative emerged. The character told us what he had done, and how he had been driven to go beyond all reasonable behaviour and the horror of his act came to life. Cadieux is not only a dramatic story teller, who brings his whole body into play when he is on stage but the writing at that point moved to another lever of monologue. He was no longer just reacting to the situation.

He launched into an intriguing verbal mixture of frantic confession, of highly painful visual description all the while incarnatingan overflowing of despairing human behaviour that brought the whole play to levels of near mythical proportions. If Sartre wrote that ‘ l’enfer c’est les autres’, Jason Cadieux tells us that .l’enfer c’est moi – and we understand.

And then, when its over, you can barely breathe.

Hard Ways is superb theatre. Using very little material means it draws on a very real human experience which the actor conveys in an almost  hyper realistic way so we experience all of his passion, his guilt and his self horror.

Dont miss Hard Ways. It plays every day in the small theatre – Thursday (Jan. 27) to Sunday (Jan.30) but at different hours. Call the Irving Greenberg Centre for times and tickets . Telephone 613-236-5196 or consult the GCTC site:www.gctc.ca

Alvina Ruprecht

Ottawa, January 27, 2011


Bifurcate Me

By Julie Le Gal, Andy Mssingham and Kevin Orr.

Directed by Kevin Orr.

Designer Jamie Bell

Cast: Andy Massingham and Julie le Gal

Voice off: Peter Haworth

A production by Theatre 4.669

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

We are in a scientific laboratory where two human beings are being subjected (willingly) to a series of tests created by a certain Dr. Mandelbrot whom we never see. We only hear his voice off, uttering commands, blowing a whistle and explaining to the audience that he is trying to measure human reactions, human intuition using scientific means. In other words he wonders if mathematics can be used to capture the way human instinct functions? Can the rational describe the irrational?

A “faux problme“ of course but it sets us up in front of the gaze of the absent scientist as he follows these human guinea pigs who willinglygo through their tests of a very physical nature, responding to thesound of the master scientist’s voice.

The event sent me back to Becketts play Catastrophe. The similarity resides in the disconnected relationship between the human beings (actors who play themselves in Bifurcate me) and the voice off of the absent but masochistic scientist who tortures his subjects participating in his scientific experiment, much like a theatre director assuming his role of benevolent dictator mouldinghis actors into obedient creatures who will perform his play.

In Bifurcate Me, the humans still seem to possess a certain amount of autonomy and so we follow the way the two “guinea pigs“ try to disengage themselves from that voice, as they interact in this situation of physical, mental, and emotional stress. The dominant voice intervenes from time to time to blow a whistle, order a pause, tell them to take their pulse and then begin a different exercise according to a series of mathematical equations set out on a blackboard upstage, equations you will soon figure out if you pay close attention to those seemingly nonsensical formulas scribbled on the board. But they are not the most important thing.

What one notices is that the exercises become more and more physically demanding, more and more exhausting. Andy Massingham and Julie Le Gal who play themselves, are weakening and one begins to wonder, why they accept this bashing, this dragging about, this tripping and collapsing on the ground, these somersaults, this head cracking on the steps, these acrobatics that leave them both panting, sweating, red in the face and reduced to quivering weaklings trying to get on with the experiment, or the performance, whichever you see because there is just enough fusion of reality and illusion in this performance to have us both wincing and asking questions which are never really answered.

Neither actor questions the voice that gives them orders. They avoid any confrontation with the power that dominates them from above. Instead, they turn towards each other where their reactions become more intimate, more spontaneous. They share something in this physical dance of exhaustion that creates a bond between the two of them even though there seemed to be tension at the beginning. Andy says he is an actor playing a Danish philosopher wrestling manager whose job is to get the fans worked up. He calls Julie“Frenchie“ and makes fun of her speaking the “other“ language.

She has poetic visions of dangerously pointed snowflakes falling from the sky. He is a boor, she is a delicate poetic creature..and both meet in this onslaught of physical abuse. She cant speak English and she watches him in a cold distant way. He makes fun of philosophers names, and taunts her with gross insults. She knocks him round and he beats her up.with a level of physical violence that is only possible on a stage where all must be make believe, except that here, there is a certain degree of authenticity which becomes disquieting and the perspiration and the panting are real!!

And as their bodies heat up, so does their desire to communicate through wrestling techniques, acrobatics, wild aerobics and slow motion Butoh style body movements and then alyrical moment where Julie tries on a beautiful romantic dress that obviouslytouches her wrestling partner. Then, all fusestogether as these creatures litterallycollapse with fatigue, as the ‘voice’ drives them on …and still,no one complains!

And then, despitethe apparent masochism of the situation, they begin reaching out to each other as they breathe more easilty and themeeting of those twolanguages becomes less problematic.

However, even as a metatheatrical performance, a play about theatre, which could also be a play about politics in Canada,, it is much too fragmented, too unhinged, too repetitive, too loosely defined, even too simplistic. By attempting to say anything at all, it eventually has nothing more to say and after twenty mintues I felt it had already lasted long enough.

Bifurcate Me is a puzzle that might fascinate some, but it did not hold my attention long enough to entice me to make the effort.

It continues until Sunday, January 30 at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre.

Alvina Ruprecht

Ottawa, January 28, 2011


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