Sunday, January 31, 2010

PuShing Further

Since Thursday, I've attended two world premieres and one remounting at the PuSh Festival.

First up was The Passion of Joan of Arc, a screening of Carl Th. Dreyer's acclaimed 1927 silent film (starring the incomparable Renée Falconetti as the nationalist martyr) in Christ Church Cathedral, accompanied by a newly commissioned score by Stefan Smulovitz, and featuring soprano Vivane Houle singing text by poet Colin Browne. The place was packed (this was a one-night only event), and the energy in the Cathedral was electric.

The performance did not disappoint. On its own, Dreyer's film, with its famous close-ups and what my colleague Laura U. Marks (who was in the audience) would call its "haptic" qualities, overwhelms the senses. Add in Smulovitz's brilliant new score, and especially the auratic counterpoint he creates between strings and wind instruments, and the effect was positively spine-tingling. Christ Church's grand cathedral organ helped in no small measure, in this regard.

On Friday it was over to the Cultch to take in the opening of Rimini Protokoll's Best Before, another commission by PuSh. Berlin-based RP is famous for working with local "experts" to create their community-based shows. In this case, the group decided to build a piece around the Lower Mainland's video gaming industry, bringing in computer programmer Brady Marks, game tester Duff Armour, traffic flagger Ellen Shultz, and former politician and Railway Club owner Bob Williams to aid in the construction of the piece, and to guide us in the audience in our interactivity.

The animating concept of the show is an on-line world called Bestland, in which audience members are given an avatar based on where they are sitting in the auditorium, and which they then manipulate via an individual console attached to their seat. Based on a series of questions posed by our experts, we get to choose our sex, gender, and various other aspects of our identity, as well as the general social, political, economic, and ethical framework for the type of society we think Bestland should be.

As a concept, the piece is brilliant; however, the practicalities of its interactive execution still need some refining, it seems to me. First off, the piece is too long: two-plus hours with no intermission. Second, our on-screen avatars are difficult to keep track of. Brady showed each of us our positions, and pointed out the "Drop" and "Jump" buttons we could press to keep track of where we were on screen. But the general indistinguishability of the avatars (they are triangle-shaped blobs of varying colours that attain different props as the show progresses), and the chaos of movement on screen as audience members hit their console buttons with mad abandon, made it difficult to figure out where one was during several crucial moments when key questions were being posed to us. Then again, it struck me that these questions were the real crux of the performance: we were told repeatedly by Duff that it was just a game, and that we could make whatever choices we wanted, choices we wouldn't normally make in life. But, of course, in games, as in life, there are always consequences, and with each additional question posed the burden of decision became that much more fraught.

Vancouver is the first test audience for this audacious show, and I have no doubt that as it travels to Brighton and Seattle and Toronto and various other cities and festivals in the coming year it will become even more complex and intriguing. For now, I was simply thrilled to be part of its unveiling.

Finally, last night we took in the final show of Rumble Productions and Theatre Replacement's Clark and I Somewhere in Connecticut at Performance Works on Granville Island. First shown at the 2008 PuSh Festival, the show concerns performer James Long's discovery, in 2005, of a suitcase full of photo albums in the alley near his East Vancouver home, and the theatrical narrative he and his collaborators proceeded to construct around the documents. When, however, the family behind the photographs gets wind of the idea, they threaten legal action, and the play becomes instead at once an hilarious and deeply moving rumination on the documentary process and the ownership of memory. All of this is revealed slowly and cannily via various visual means in the production, in a manner akin to time lapse photography, with the suck-in-the breath moment coming at the end of the performance when one realizes that all along Long had really been talking at a displaced remove about his own family. There's a lot of humour in the work, but also a great deal of self-loathing, and the first clue in this regard should be the bunny suit.


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