2013 Toronto Fringe Festival Review: Fear Factor: K-9 Edition

Fear Factor: K-9 Edition by Written and Performed by John Grady. Part of the 2013 Toronto Fringe Festival. George Ignatief Theatre. http://thejohngrady.tumblr.com/

I’m by no means a dog person and I admit that I’ve been dismissive of the bonds people claim to have formed with their pets. You feed them. They need you. When somebody is upset because their cat or dog has passed away I try to be sympathetic, but honestly I feel a little silly indulging them. I mean, it was just a pet. I know, I’m heartless, but in my defense I’m trying. I spent a few years of youth growing up on a sort-of farm, and the mortality of dogs and cats (and animals in general), well, it just seemed like a part of every day life, nothing to really get overly emotional about. So when somebody refers to their dog (or cat) the way they would otherwise refer to a romantic partner or child, it makes me cringe. It’s not the same. I think it’s absurd how some pet animals get better treatment in our society than people, but maybe that’s just me. Somehow I suspected I might not be the ideal audience member for Fear Factor: K-9 Edition, John Grady’s memoir of his relationship with his Bernise Mountain Dog.

But actually, I found Grady’s emotional honesty about the companionship he recieved from the fourteen year old Abby truly affecting. At times, John has to defend his closeness to Abby to others who don’t quite understand and there’s no great argument he has, except that “she needs me”, and maybe I’m going soft, but his earnestness is pretty convincing. And his struggle about knowing the right time to let go, in John’s case the humane time to put Abby to sleep, it does ring upon something that, sadly, many people can relate to regardless of whether they have pets. John is a confident and precise performer. The piece has plenty of space and silence in it, but it’s reflective space, it allows us to think about our similar relationships with pets (or similarly loved ones), and rather than losing us, I think it draws us in. He is charming and very relatable, an everyman with an everydog.

I couldn’t help but wonder though, is John’s closeness to Abby have something to do with how he (the character?) doesn’t seem to offer the same respect to human women? At one point John is given a hypothetical ultimatum, would he save the life of the gorgeous woman he is dating or his dog? He picks the dog. Okay fine, that’s what the person gets for proposing a hypothetical ultimatum. But the most John tells us about his reasons for dating this particular woman is that she’s gorgeous and “he gets to see her naked”. In another instance part of his reasoning for helping out a friend is because she has great “boob-ers”. Using the word “boob-ers” should be enough to ruin this show, but it really just compounds the tragedy. It makes it seem as though the reason John doesn’t have romantic success with humans is that he doesn’t really treat women like real people.

But perhaps his prioritization of animals over human relationships goes beyond his romantic relationships. In relation to putting Abby asleep, Grady speaks about how a humane end is the best gift we can give a loved one, but he doesn’t stop to consider that we can’t perform this mercy for our human loved ones. Physician assisted suicide is illegal in most places for people and while perhaps its mention would have distracted from the show, John has related his relationship to Abby by comparing her to a human over and over again, it seems odd he wouldn’t make this extension back so we might better understand the depth of his struggle.

My only other real gripe with this show is the title, which is gimmicky, lame, and doesn’t serve the uniqueness and complexity of John’s story. It’s a strong piece about a very heartfelt relationship and I felt quite moved by the strength of John’s love for his dog, and his compassion for the animal. People who actually like pets are sure to appreciate it even more.


2013 Toronto Fringe Review: Oh God – The Drums

Oh God – The Drums by Written and Performed by Brad Hart. Part of the 2013 Toronto Fringe Festival. Tarragon Main Space. http://bradhart.ca/oh-god-the-drums-2/


Brad Hart is a drummer. There’s a point in this memoir where he tells us about having the opportunity to choose an instrument to learn and play in school. This setup may be familiar to many of us who squonked and honked our way through High School band. And of course everyone WANTED to play the drums, they were the only ‘rock’ instrument available (unless you counted the saxophone, and unless Clarence Clemons is playing, I don’t), but there was of course only one kit, therefore only one person could learn the drums and so we were stuck with boring instruments like the trombone (I did later on play bass guitar and totally slayed Eye of the Tiger). But there was a sense that the drums were almost too dangerous, you could really go off the rails, letting out every bit of repressed emotion in a cathartic flurry of sticks and vibrating cymbals. Of course it would sound like crap if I actually got behind a kit, drumming takes a lot of skill and practice, but if you can’t imagine yourself on that riser pounding those skins like  a God, like John Bonham himself, then I think you’re probably dead inside.

So it’s disappointing that in  Oh God – The Drums, Brad spends the entire show standing beside his drum kit explaining how he got into the drums, and how they give meaning to his life and allow him to express himself, when he could be showing us  by actually playing the drums! I think we’d get it, we’d understand. Perhaps he was trying to build anticipation for the moment when he actually really played and, yes, the  two times he picks up the sticks book-ends a story quite nicely, but it’s just not enough. Throughout his story, I really just wanted to see Brad do what Brad (probably) does best; play the drums.

The anecdotes are very sweet, and some of them funny, but most of the humor comes from the pleasure of recognizing very specific nostalgic references to rock bands and drummers. I got them, and it’s nice hearing Iron Maiden, or John Bonham of Led Zeppelin name-dropped in a Fringe play, but it feels like empty calories. He never quite expresses why the drums are so special to him that devoted himself to them at the cost of financial security and even his personal relationships.

This later point pops up repeated through-out the work. Brad gives us the impression that people hate drummers, and even among them he’s especially detested for being left-handed.  Similarly, the complications in his relationship with his father (who bought him his first and only drum kit), seems hinge solely on Brad’s drumming, and you have to wonder if there isn’t more to the story. But the drums are such a fascinating instrument, Hart tells us how Rush’s Neil Peart has a million pieces in his kit and who knows what they all do. But they all do something, don’t they? They make a specific sound, they let you play a certain rhythm which produces a certain feel and conjures certain emotions in the listener (and the performer) . One would expect that director Evelyn Perry would find away to let the instrument become part of the dramaturgy of the piece, to use its properties to propel the narrative or SOMETHING, but really the kit simply sits glowing onstage, drawing focus from the performer and his tale. And it could be us up there, and we wouldn’t waste our time talking, we would hit something! We would make a sound even if it wasn’t pretty, or had no rhythm because the drum demands to be hit. We as the audience we’re yearning for it, but Brad the drummer doesn’t really come through.

I’d love to see different rhythms and sounds incorporated into a narrative. I’d love to see Brad deliver the monologue from behind the kit, while playing, like Don Henley sings Hotel California from behind the kit, keeping time all the whole way through. I’d love to hear a rim-shot at the end of each of the drummer jokes, but Brad’s voice goes on and on, and the beat, unfortunately does not.

2013 Toronto Fringe Review: “Radio :30”

Radio :30 by Written and Performed by Chris Earle. Part of the 2013 Toronto Fringe Festival. Tarragon Main Space. http://www.nightkitchentheatre.ca/ 

No doubt Chris Earle’s Radio :radio3030 will be a popular show this year, as it was in 1999 when it made its debut at the Toronto Fringe. The kind-of-solo show features Earle as voice actor Ron, who is summoning all his smarm as the announcer of a radio spot for a family restaurant. He prides himself in satisfying his client, and Ron is charming even as he’s explaining just how all that charm is just construction and artifice, how when you make a smile (even if it’s fake) it opens up your voice and makes you sound happy. It’s cleverly put together and very funny. The rapport between Ron and Mike, the unseen engineer, is pleasantly chipper and seemed to encompass both the inauthentic aspect of advertising in its professional cordiality, but also the genuine respect and empathy of old war-buddies (in a sense) as Mike tries to keep the session (and Ron) together. The play does seem a bit disjointed however, in that the story of how he lost his former best friend doesn’t quite hook into what’s happening in the studio. It’s extra padding on the character, but it’s relevance to Ron’s professional frustrations is not clearly illustrated. Regardless Radio :30 rounds out as a funny, creative, entertaining piece of work.

Summerwork Blogs

I was privileged to do a bit of blogging for the Summerworks festival and I figured I might as well post those in one big post here for the benefit of the theatre going public. These reviews are very diplomatic, which is to say they’re more positive than I might have otherwise written them. That said, anybody with the ability to read between the lines will be able to tell which ones didn’t quite do it for me.

Breath In Between
Breath In Between, the newest piece by Eternal Hydra scribe Anton Piatagorsky, is a chilling exploration of the gaps that exist in our relationships to others and the lengths we’ll go to bridge them and thus experience even a moment of true connection. Brimming with a carefully brewed intensity, the play follows Roger, a soft spoken, introspective man who once placed an ad on the internet looking for strangers willing to let him kill them. Years after committing these grisly deeds, Roger meets and falls in love with a woman named Amy. However as their relationship develops their bond becomes overshadowed by the deeper, unique union shared by Roger and his victim.

Director Brendan Healy guides the actors through Piatagorsky’s poetic and contemplative text with quiet confidence. The piece, most of which has a wonderfully hushed quality to begin with, is anchored by a haunting performance by Paul Fateaux as Roger, who is tortured not only by the memories of his victims, but by the fleetingness of those connections. Bleak and darkly fascinating Breath In Between carries its audience into the most disturbing depths of the heart.

When It Rains
Perhaps it’s an old and perhaps insipid question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, but Anthony Black breathes new life into it with When It Rains, the new, media enhanced play presented by Halifax’s 2B Theatre. A bleak yet sharply hilarious, When It Rains explores whether it’s better to accept the world as a series of chances and coincidences, or if there is value in the very search for meaning, whether one stands a chance of finding it or not.

The play’s main focus in Alan, a self-described “math genius” and stockbroker, who sees the world only as a series of numbers and probabilities. While his wife Sybil remarks in awe at the series of chances and coincides that led to their coupling and happiness, Alan points out that had things occurred differently, their chances for happiness would be the same, albeit likely with other people. However, Alan’s faith in probability is challenged by a series of seemingly random, senseless tragedies which unravel his life in a Job-like fashion. While Alan clings to his philosophy, he chides his sister Anna as she flits half-heartedly through various Eastern religious practices. While these seem to fall short of offering her the understanding she seeks, the propulsion of her search seems to offers a purpose which Alan’s devotion to probability and meaninglessness lacks.

Most will agree that the projection design is the one of the biggest treats in this all around excellent production. The simple looking, yet innovatively utilized projections whisk the characters from scene to scene, never really seeming superfluous or gimmicky. Neither do they distract from the fine performances by Conner Green and the rest of the cast.

Artaud: un portrait en decomposition
Tragic figure, ex-communicated surrealist, blasphemer and madman, it’s easy to see why young artists are still attracted to the figure of Antonin Artaud, even some sixty years since his death. While the ideals espoused in his theoretical writings such as The Theatre and It’s Double have had an inestimable influence on contemporary theatre, the man and his work remains elusive. Adam Paolozza and TheatreRUN attempt bring the tortured artist back to life (for a while) in Artaud: un portrait en decomposition, a reverent biography of this enfant terrible.

The “decomposition” in the title refers to the final wasting years of Artaud’s life, much of which were spent in various asylums and institutions where he was heavily medicated and received controversial treatments such as electroshock therapy. Despite these inhospitable environments (or perhaps because of them), Artaud entered into a final, rather prolific, phase of writing after a long drought.

Performed almost entirely in French with English subtitles, Paolozza’s piece is an accessible introduction to the work of an often misunderstood and challenging figure.

Kitchenband, the ensemble that brought you Pelee and Reesor, return to Summerworks once again to transport us away from Toronto via their unique fusion of musical and theatrical performance. This time our destination is a farm in Southern Ontario, where a family of migrant Mennonites have been hired to pick tomatoes. The boss’s son Henry, returned to the farm after a failed attempt at being a musician, quickly strikes up a friendship with Susan, who used to attend his school. This association, however, troubles some members of her family, who believe it will provoke judgement from God and thus further hardship.

Utilizing a variety of ‘junkstruments’, the rural setting is wonderfully evoked by Andrew Penner’s alternately clonking, then ethereally lush compositions. Similarly, the sparseness of Erin Brandenberg’s text and direction perfectly emulates the tone of rural life. A lot the experience feels undramatic, but the slow simmer pays off in the end. Petrichor also features some excellent performances, particularly David Tompa as the stony and silent Peter whose thousand-yard stare seems to drill right through you.

A tightly knit triptych of monologues set under the clouds of the most recent economic crisis, Nicholas Billon’s Iceland examines how money creates relationships of power and subordination between people and blurs moral structures. On the need end of the spectrum is Kassandra (Christine Horne), a young woman from Estonia working as a prostitute to send money back to her family. Her current john is Halim (Kawa Ada), a self-described “capitalist” and real estate agent of Pakistani origin who fetishizes the almighty dollar and revels in the control it gives him over others. Finally, Anna (Clare Calnan) is a young Christian woman who has been evicted from her Liberty Village by Halim, who is looking to flip it and make a tidy profit.

All three characters are exquisitely performed; through perhaps the standout for me was Kawa Ada’s Halim, who argues his loathsome and enraging economic philosophy with such conviction and panache it’s hard to decide whether you want to punch him in the face or give him a high five. Of course, much of the credit must go to Billon’s intricately woven script which declines to pass judgement on even his most despicable of his characters. As if under the influence of cash, all moral bets are off.

I, Animal
It’s inevitable to compare the trio of monologues contained within I, Animal to the solo work that made Daniel MacIvor the golden boy of the Canadian theatre scene. Cynical yet optimistic, complex but breathtakingly simple, MacIvor has a gift for storytelling that emerges clearest when delivered by a single voice. Though the trio of monologues that comprises I, Animalaren’t directly related, each touches upon a character’s relationship or identification with a domesticated creature: a dog to fill the space left by a lost lover, a dead cat that turns a young boy’s life upside down and the horse that every little girl dreams to ride.

Sturdy direction by Richie Wilcox anchors a trio of fine performances. Stewart Legere as the boy in the hoodie hilariously embodies the confusion awkwardness of teenage life while on the other end of the spectrum, Katheryn McLellan finds great emotional depth in an aging woman bemoaning her lost youth. For rabid fans of Daniel MacIvor I, Animal is a tasty snack that is sure to satisfy.

When Mani Soleymanlou, then a student at the National Theatre School in Montreal, is asked to speak about his home country of Iran he doesn’t know what to talk about. Initially he imagines telling the audience about the beauty of the country, of the mountains and the snow (yes, there’s snow), but as he thinks upon it he realizes that he doesn’t really know anything about Iran. After the Iranian revolution Mani’s parents relocated with him to Paris, then eventually to Toronto where he went to high school. Since then he’s been back only a handful of times and due to Iran’s compulsory military service, Mani hasn’t seen his home country since he was fifteen.

Disarmingly hilarious, One/Un is the theatrical result of Mani’s search for his Persian identity. Delivered in a wonderfully casual manner, Soleymanlou charms and delights as he negotiates what it means to be a man without a country. It’s one of those rare pieces of theatre that doesn’t feel like a theatrical presentation, but it certainly doesn’t lack the impact of a carefully constructed play. Rather as Soleymanlou’s relaxed demeanor falls away we clearly see the scope of his predicament; how can he reconcile his origin, an integral part of his self, when his home remains so frustrating out of reach?


“Lukey and Kyle couldn’t be less alike. Lukey liked birds, Kyle only talked about cartoons and videogames. But they were brothers, and that’s what mattered. Right?”

As two young brothers hike through the wilderness to help their father, the bonds of brotherhood are tested by nature and blood. 

Created and Performed by Robert LaRonde
Dramaturgy by Blain Watters
Presented by Swimming Lessons for Shut-Ins Theatre
Part of the Alleyplays

PWYC/ Approx. 40 min.

July 05 08:30 PM
July 06 06:30 PM
July 08 08:30 PM
July 09 08:30 PM
July 11 06:30 PM
July 12 06:30 PM
July 13 08:30 PM
July 15 06:30 PM

Theatre Review: Lisa Marie DiLiberto’s “Tale of a Town – Queen West”

TALE OF A TOWN – QUEEN WEST Produced by Theatre Passe Muraille and FIXT POINT. Created and performed by Lisa Marie DiLiberto, directed by Verrick Grimes. September 14th to October 9th, 2011. Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Ave. (416) 504-7529.  http://www.passemuraille.on.ca

“Queen West is Dead”. I know, I saw it on a sign at an Istvan Kantor performance once. Of course, artists are always proclaiming things, media, movements and aesthetic ideals, dead when it suits them. As Tale of a Town – Queen West shows us that part of Queen West is still alive. The question is whether the prevailing  story will be told by the artists and bohemians who brought notoriety to the strip in the eighties (or those like them), or the condo developers who appropriate and commercialize its symbols without context and without care? Performer/creator Lisa Marie DiLiberto explores the street’s bohemian renaissance by presenting us with the former in the guise of the latter, that is instead of an audience in a theatre we are potential buyers of an imaginary Queen W. condo named “Champagne Flaming Feather Eco Boho Legend Lofts”.

The piece begins outside Theatre Passe Muraille with a mime routine to a horrendously bright pop song that I didn’t recognize but was repeated intermittently throughout the piece. When this was mercifully finished we were given a very short tour of Queen W which consisted mostly of celebrity gossip in the back-alley behind Velvet Underground. We were then treated to a fake-busker performing an altered version of that ubiquitous Barenaked Ladies hit If I Had a Million Dollars. I was starting to get worried. “Is this the essence of Queen West”, I asked myself? This tired novelty song has been played under so many different circumstances it can’t possibly mean anything to anyone anymore. Is this groan-worthy piece of contemporary CanCon all Queen West has to offer the world? My feelings about the tune aside, this first mobile section of the piece feels like a lost opportunity as it never really finds a way to have us engage with the neighbourhood. Instead it gave me the impression that Queen West was just a boozy old tart rambling about celebrity conquests to anybody that’ll listen.

The tour portion was thankfully short, however and once we arrive at our destination, things begin to look up. The venue is a large loft space which has been converted to resemble condo-ized versions of prime Queen West landmarks. There’s an area called the “Cameron Penthouse Parlour” that mimics the still extant Cameron House for example, as well as a CityTV lounge and several tempting suites named for Theatre Passe Muraille and Duke’s Cycle. It’s here in the presentation space we meet Jane, a vintage clothing seller who’s story is the meat of our Queen W. experience. She weaves her story and QW’s story through the retrograded environment, making good use of the era’s boom in video and recording technology to create a collage-like experience that often vividly evokes an authentic-seeming portrait of the old street. Bits of CityTV broadcasts flicker on old television sets as Jane describes this artist or that bar, both long since gone. But there is a lot going on in the environment and the cacophony of music, audio and video got occasionally irritate as they pull your focus away from the performance. Just as often, though, the elements come together and recreate a wonderfully rendered impression of strangely familiar culture.

Though I grew up in Northern Ontario and didn’t move to Toronto until long after there was a Starbucks at the corner of Queen and John, I was long ago introduced to the style and aesthetic of Queen West via Much Music and CityTV. Queen West institutions such as Speaker’s Corner transmitted this image of a grungy, cool Toronto where crazy and exciting things were happening right there on the streets. Everybody looked so confident in their weird haircuts and mismatching attire. But while I enjoyed watching that part of the city come back together, I felt the piece occasionally leaned a bit too heavily on the audience’s nostalgia and pleasure of recognition to keep us with the story. Elements that seem interesting or important would be introduced, but never given more regard than a passing reference, as if we’re expected to know their significance. I often didn’t and couldn’t make the connection. I don’t think it’s any fault of mine, few personalities from the scene blew up the way Barenaked Ladies did.

One of the drawbacks of the piece is that it has difficulty reconciling what it wants to do and ends up drawing our expectations in several different directions that don’t always come back together. On one hand it celebrates the commercial success of its artists and its notoriety as a hip cool place to be, but it doesn’t do enough to explore how that that notoriety and hipness begins strangely threatens the community by inviting outside commercial interest. Is it fair to say Jane’s success with her clothing shop attracted the sort of attention that made it possible to raise her rent? While Tale of a Town seems to acknowledge the scene couldn’t have lasted forever, that change is inevitable and perhaps necessary, it never seems to fully admit it’s part in the process.

As well, while it celebrates Queen West as a hotbed of culture, it never really considers its relationship to other similar neighbourhoods, like New York’s Greenwich Village or Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. As much as Queen West is a product of Toronto culture it is just as much if not more a product of the countercultural movements associated with those neighbourhoods. You can easily see how Queen West was developed to resemble these famous neighbourhoods, which popularized vintage shops and revived rockabilly music long before Queen West ever thought to. The narrative is almost too familiar; artists, obscenity trials, AIDS, heroin addiction then gentrification. But in Toronto the names are different and smaller. Instead of Jim Belushi overdosing it’s somebody named Handsome Ned, instead of CBGBs being turned into a tacky John Varvartos, it’s a club I’ve never heard where a band I half-remember used to play and now it’s Le Chateau. This isn’t to sound crass, as if Queen West’s history doesn’t count because it’s a Canadian artist being tried for obscenity and not Allen Ginsberg, but there’s an interesting theme of appropriation I’m not sure Tale of a Town is entirely conscious of. Vintage clothing for example appropriates the styles and clothing of the past, Toronto’s rockabilly revival appropriates a sound that originated in Texas. Even the way Handsome Ned picks up Jane the first time, by calling her “Sweet Jane”, referencing the Cowboy Junkies from their acclaimed Trinity Sessions album, is an appropriation of sorts because it’s a cover version. Sweet Jane was originally performed by New York’s the Velvet Underground and of course Lou Reed is well known for writing little tunes about the eccentric characters that hung out around in places like Greenwich Village. I wonder if Handsome Ned ever heard Lonesome Cowboy Bill?

So what becomes the question in a piece that damns condo developers for using symbols and icons of a culture to sell units is; how is it different when an artist appropriates an image for their use? What’s the difference between art and commerce? Does making less money borrowing aspects of another’s identity somehow make it better? It also made me consider what part of the gentrification are artists responsible for. Who did they push out when they started taking over? But these questions are left to linger at the fringes of the piece and are never given much focus.

One difficulty with the piece is that Lisa Marie DiLiberto’s image of Queen Street still seems far too alive to lament. And sometimes too recent ( I remember the fire that took Duke’s Cycle). Granted, that particular area of Queen has been retailed up about ten notches, but it seems like the old Queen West has just simply moved further down the street and spread out elsewhere all over the city. It’s not like we’re starving for vintage clothing shops in Toronto. And I’m sure if we wanted to hear rockabilly or something quite like it we could find a place if we just peeked our heads through a few doors. In this way, Tale of a Town feels sort of aimless, because what we’re supposed to be missing is still so present. It’s self-indulgent, but that seems appropriately Queen West. It’s interesting that because so much of the period’s identity seems borrowed from elsewhere, it sort of seems inevitable, if sadly so, that it would also be recontextualized in some manner. It’s hard to get angry at condos for murdering a scene and robbing the corpse when it still seems very much alive just a few short blocks down, or a few blocks up, or somewhere else in the city. The Queen West way of life isn’t one that is changing radically or going extinct like family farmers or anything. So how well it works depends on how special you think this one particular era of Toronto culture was.

Of course I think we’d all rather see Queen West scene revisited by the spiritual successors of those that made it vital, the artists rather than by developers of condos and box stores. Lisa Marie DiLiberto does an admirable job, breathing life back into this barely passed era through a number of characters and performance techniques. Some of them are a bit broad and sadly none is given the depth that Jane is. The versatility of the space is impressive and the set and environment do a lot to transport fluidly to the era of Shuffle Demons and Echo Beaches with its wall of 80’s hipster clothing and it’s grotesquely sanitized condo presentation twin.  Frankly the set could probably stand on its own legs as an installation. The whole piece masters that silly, charming grit of Queen Street as we’re toured through its freakish doppelganger. I did find myself growing tired of shuffling from one place or the other all the time and constantly navigating the classic QW clutter as well as the performers. Often it seemed like we were in the way of everything, in fact my date was asked to move at one point so DiLiberto could drop a pair of boots to the couch where she was sitting.

Tale of a Town works best when it’s relating the personal in a theatrical way. I found myself getting swept up in Jane’s romance with Handsome Ned, even momentarily forgetting that it would surely be short lived with Ned’s untimely death at age 30. But the piece overstays it’s welcome and feels long with its ambling storytelling and loose organization. Even then Tale of a Town never really defines the essence, purpose, uniqueness or meaning of Queen West in a way that makes its loss (or development) seem tragic. It just seems like another cycle of appropriation and recontextualization. Though I do think I’ve strangely regained an appreciation for that signature BNL tune. If I Had a Million Dollars shared a goofy earnestness and warmth with the old Queen West that sometimes seems at odds with the cool detached irony its recent successors sometimes display. Maybe Queen West is dead. Long Live Queen West!

Summerworks 2011 Review: Nassim Soleimanpour’s “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit”

WHITE RABBIT, RED RABBIT by Nassim Soleimanpour. Presented by Necessary Angel and Volcano. The Theatre Centre.

My opinion of Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, presented by Necessary Angel Theatre and Volcano Theatre at the Summerworks Festival has evolved since I first saw the piece at the Theatre Centre a few days ago. In any case it’s difficult to review in the classic sense because it isn’t really a play in the common sense of the word. The script is a theatrical message from the playwright presented by a different actor each performance. As if this weren’t enough we’re also told that the presentation is completely unrehearsed, in fact the actor only receives the script as the show is beginning. There’s no production to speak of, most of the theatrical conceits are completely stripped away. We’re left with only the script, an anxious performer and the audience, members of which were occasionally called upon to perform small tasks and roles. What White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is interested in, rather than what is found in the theatre, is what isn’t present. The absent party is the playwright, Nassim Soleimanpour. Nassim, a 29 year old Iranian, is not permitted to leave Iran because he does not have a passport. He does not have a passport because he refused to do military service. So Nassim is trapped in a repressive country in which the very act of writing can be dangerous. Physically elsewhere, he speaks to us via the performer, they act as his medium. The performer, of course, also remains intact and is allowed to interject whenever they desire. As well they never need to “act” as Nassim, just deliver his words and instructions. It’s an unique performance situation which the playwright utilizes to demonstrate the Kafkaesque nightmare of living under an oppressive regime. In many ways it’s quite chilling, Soleimanpour strangely enough casts himself in the role of manipulative dictator; making all the rules, dominating the speech, yet avoiding any consequences of that speech through his absence. Nassim seems relatively good natured but he also clearly possesses a malicious streak. One of his instructions, relayed to an audience participant through the actress, is to pour a vial of what we’re told is poison into one of two glasses of water while the actress looks away. The actress tells us she will be drinking from one of these glasses later in the performance. Nassim seems to enjoy manipulating us into positions of complicity and pointing out the ways we’re willing to make ourselves accomplices in his hypothetical crimes (as well as the crimes against him). But surely the playwright (nor the production company) wouldn’t actually poison a performer, would he?

No. But the possibility of  that sort of danger should be thrilling enough, yet I found that I couldn’t buy into the poison plot at all. It seemed implausible, gimmicky. It didn’t help that there was some confusion with the poor audience participant and everything seemed to be knock everything off kilter. I think it may have worked better in other performances, or at least I hope it did, but the night I attended the performance got so tangled it significantly depreciated the the experience of the piece. Our performer, the timid Natasha Greenblatt, didn’t seem able to take control of the performance situation and I’m afraid the substance of the script was lost in the confusion. I think perhaps a more confident actor, one not afraid to be presentational, one who would find the script’s performability, might have made some of the more gimmicky-seeming moments work better. Greenblatt had our sympathy as a young, charming actress in a difficult situation being manipulated by a playwright with a flair for the sinister. Unfortunately she just didn’t seem particular game for the challenges of this performance. It’s a shame because I think White Rabbit deserves a bit more commitment. On the other hand, you can’t blame the performer because it’s Soleimanpour’s own dramatic conceit that is obscuring his material. I imagine when it works it works quite well, but my experience was that it was sort of boring and clunky, although occasionally clever and compelling. It does bite itself in the own ass by being unrehearsable though. Is the effect of having it unrehearsed is worth the occasionally belly flop? I still want to think it is. But I wish I wasn’t the one who had to see it.