Monday, May 23, 2016

Revolutions at 3681 Victoria Drive

Because their usual performance space, the Russian Hall on Campbell Avenue, is being renovated, Fight With a Stick (formerly Leaky Heaven) is presenting its newest devised creation, Revolutions, at a former warehouse space on Victoria Drive. What's more, taking their cue from the space itself and invoking the principles of scenographic dramaturgy for which they are so well known (as well as the theories of Jane Bennett and other new materialists), FWS collaborators have built a show in which site is not just a container awaiting animation by human actants, but is actually the primary animating agent.

That said, the piece begins fairly traditionally. (***WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW!***) The audience, having assembled in an anteroom at one end of the warehouse's main floor, is ushered down a few stairs and invited into a jerry-rigged plywood performance space that appears to have been purpose-built. At one end there is a bed piled with mussed-up sheets and a desk and chair. At the other end there is a platform with risers for the audience. So far so proscenium. Following the curtain speech, the lights go down and ... nothing happens. Which is, of course, not true. As we wait expectantly, our trained perspectival gaze focused on the ambiguous domestic scene in front of us, Nancy Tam's atmospheric and vaguely foreboding sound score insinuates itself into our consciousness like a horror film soundtrack, the layered thrum of its synthesizers combining eerily with the ambient acoustics of the adjacent outdoor environment (including the swoosh of the passing Skytrain, which we learned during the talkback Tam purposefully picked up and amplified with two pencil mics hidden in bushes; she also recorded, reversed and delayed the sound of the Skytrain, and then pitched it on the other side of the interior room to make it seem like there was a train moving in the opposite direction). Then there is the damp and musty smell of the semi-subterranean space that we begin to notice. Finally, and crucially only after our other senses have been piqued, there is something to focus on at the front of the stage: slowly and almost imperceptibly the sheets on the bed have begun to move. So minute is the movement at first, and so amorphously shaped is the entire mass of sheets, that one is unsure whether there is a body underneath manipulating them or if they are moving of their own accord. Just to be clear, there is in fact a body, and it belongs to Delia Brett. Nevertheless, this perceptual doubt (and ethical philosophy) about the dividing line between subject and object, the material and the immaterial, is at the core of this piece, and it will be exploited elsewhere to amazing effect (especially in Josh Hite's video projections, where for example an animated picture of the surface of a concrete wall interacts with the very thing it is meant to be a representation of, making it impossible to determine where one begins and the other leaves off, and also creating a sense of doubled perceptual porosity).

But back to our domestic scene. Eventually a human actor--Sean Marshall Jr--does intrude upon our witnessing of the moving sheets. He emerges from a tiny corner bathroom upstage right and takes a seat at the desk, lighting a small kerosene lamp. He rubs his eyes wearily and taps his glasses mechanically, every sound picked up by a hidden table mic. He appears to take no notice of what is going on underneath the sheets on the bed--until, that is, a hand suddenly reveals itself and, rather dramatically, lays itself on the surface of the table. Shades of Thing from The Addams Family, or something out of the pages of Poe: whatever one's favourite gothic reference, it is the signal for Marshall to get up and fetch whoever is attached to the hand a glass of water--and a straw to drink it with. Not that these actions necessarily mean anything profound, beyond drawing out attention to the different objects which are ostensibly mediating the interactions between the two human bodies on stage--who legitimately should be the presumptive (and undivided) focus of our attention in traditional naturalist drama (and here it strikes me that FWS's work is productively in dialogue with the theatre criticism of someone like Andrew Sofer, both his book on The Stage Life of Props and his more recent Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater and Performance).

Even the book that Marshall begins to read and take notes from refuses to offer up any wisdom in terms of its content; instead, the increasingly trite aphorisms that get repeated to us serve as a very real distraction from the physical action and changes in material form that we should be concentrating on. That is, trained as we are as good theatregoers to prioritize spoken language on stage, we are wont at first to miss the fact that Marshall is slowly moving his desk table and chair (both are on wheels) forward as he is reading his aphorisms and, even more importantly, that we audience members on our platform are moving backwards. At the talkback following the performance, several of my fellow spectators commented on experiencing feelings of nausea, which was their first sensory clue that something uncanny was going on; in my case, I admit to cottoning on to the visual trick very slowly--though when I finally realized what was happening it was one of the most astonishingly rewarding experiences in the theatre I have had in a long time, a live embodied version of a cinematic zoom out that happens so subtly and incrementally as to make you both doubt and become more hyper-attuned to your senses in relation to your immediate physical environment. Indeed, in terms of the expanding and contracting of space in Revolutions, I was very much put in mind of Catherine Deneuve slowly going crazy in her apartment in Repulsion.

The reference is not so far off, as the walls of our original performance space start breaking apart, with outside objects intruding, and with individual wall panels eventually taking on a life of their own, shooting across the floor of the warehouse (the entire expanse of which we can now see) like toy cars on a racetrack (the ingenious lego-like set is by Jay White). There are of course FWS performer-devisers (including co-directors and FWS co-ADs Steven Hill and Alex Lazaridis Ferguson) behind these panels manipulating them, just like they were behind our platform pulling us backwards. But that doesn't make the non-human ballet we are watching (which includes lighting design trio Kyla Gardiner, Gabriel Raminhos and Jaylene Pratt's trick of having the warehouse's built-in hanging ceiling fluorescents flicker on and off like they are extemporizing a conversation in morse code with each other) any less thrilling to behold. For what FWS have so brilliantly managed to do in this piece is flip theatrical frames mid-performance, turning a proscenium staging into an immersive experience in which space acts upon us rather than the other way around.


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