Leaky Heaven's latest performance work, der Wink, is a thrilling immersive experience, a multi-sensory exploration of space and how that influences the sense we make of our own embodied encounters in and with that space. Working with performers Alex Ferguson, Nneka Croal, Sean Marshall, Jr., and Kiki Al Rahmani, and with designers Lee Su-Feh (movement), Jesse Garlick (architect), Parjad Sharifi (scenography), and Nancy Tam (sound), for the rest of this weekend director Steven Hill transforms the Russian Hall on Campbell Avenue in Strathcona into what he calls, in his program notes, "a contemplation of co-occupancy and co-presence."
That transformation starts (and maybe ends) with where the audience sits upon entering the hall. Wooden chairs have been arranged on the floor into a square grid, but not all facing in the same direction, so that depending on when and with whom we arrive, we might find ourselves at a diagonal from the person we came with and/or staring directly at a stranger. Already familiar bonds of intimacy are shifting and re-aligning. The sounds of water lapping at a shore gradually give way to more industrialized sounds as shafts of harsh white light bisect the hall from the front and back and warmer orange shins illuminate the floor from the sides. The performers begin arranging a series of vertical cardboard panels--some with square openings cut into them--around the perimeters of the audience, using simple concrete blocks to weight them. Projections turn these panels into the facades of buildings, and as Ferguson takes a seat among the audience and begins to speak into his head mic about matters at once soulful and soulless we might be forgiven for thinking initially that the evening will be about urban anomie and our collective alienation from our built environment.
The piece definitely plays with such sentiments, but in ways that challenge the passivity and safe distance of traditional theatrical spectatorship. To this end, the cardboard panels do not remain on the outside edges of the audience; rather, over the course of the next hour, they are constantly being moved up and down and across our various rows, arranged into different configurations that, depending on where we are sitting, give us a front or side or rear window onto a series of mini social dramas enacted by the performers. Tam's referencing of Bernard Herrmann, the composer who scored so many of Alfred Hitchcock's films, implicates us directly in the voyeuristic roles we habitually assume within the scopic regimes of both the theatrescape and the cityscape, as, in this case, we spy through those cut-out squares in the cardboard a disturbing encounter between one couple at a private bathroom mirror, a flirtatious encounter between another at a public one, and a mother's rather perverse schooling of her son in the ways of discipline and punishment.
But we are not just watching the performers. We are also watching each other watching the performers. And, in doing so, we are not just part of the performance installation; we are the installation. This is underscored most materially when, near the end of the piece, the cardboard panels are rearranged to wall off different sections of the audience from others. It induces a moment of reverse agoraphobic panic (at least it did in me), as, suddenly separated from my community, my public, I no longer have any sense (quite literally) of my place within it.
Mercifully, the walls erected between us are only temporary. As Tam strums a tune on her ukulele and sings with perfect pitch about connection (is there anything this woman can't do?), the performers turn the cardboard panels on their sides, creating a maze, which they then move about, now seeking out direct encounters with individual audience members in order to offer us forgiveness. If, as the somewhat embarrassed recipient of one such performative absolution, I was reminded momentarily, in looking across a piece of horizontal cardboard at my partner, of the adage about good fences making good neighbours, I was also grateful to the always intelligent Hill and his extraordinarily talented collaborators for reminding me that theatre is precisely the collective public trespass we need upon our individual privacy.
Go see this show.