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Punctuate! Theatre’s Dirt

When I was in Grade 9, our English teacher Mr. Hillen handed out six or seven books at the start of the year.  (Merchant of Venice, an Agatha Christie mystery, Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason, anthologies of short stories, poetry, and plays, and maybe something else I can’t remember. )  Being introduced to Shakespeare made a difference to my life in the long run, but the immediate change came from the implied permission to start reading my parents’ collection of murder mysteries.  Mr. Hillen told us the order that we’d encounter the works on the curriculum, and said we could feel free to read ahead in any of them, except that we should not read the last play in the anthology because he wanted us to encounter it fresh in class.  That of course was an irresistible briar patch to an enthusiastic reader, even one who already loved the English teacher, so over the year I would sneak glances at different bits of that last play, and I never did encounter it fresh and all of a piece.  As it turned out, we didn’t get around to reading it in class anyway, so I never got to discuss it, but Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery stuck in my head as a very strange dangerous world, that sounded normal until it suddenly didn’t.

That was a very long time ago, and it hasn’t been a foundation of my literary framework in the meantime either.  But partway through watching the opening-night performance of Punctuate! Theatre’s production of Ron Chambers’ Dirt, I thought, Ooh, this scapegoating is working like The Lottery.  Whether that shows the benefit of English class or the more devious benefit of telling kids not to read something, I’ll leave for the, ahem, reader.

Anyway.  Dirt is directed by Liz Hobbs, and performed by Elliott James, Cliff Kelly, Andréa Jorawsky, Jeff Page, and Rebecca Starr.  It starts out with a familiar-seeming setting and characters – police investigating a murder, a suspect living on the margins of society.  But it gets odd, a little bit at a time.   The pair of investigating officers were immediately identifiable as the conscientious anxious young one (Cliff Kelly), and the confident preeningly-masculine and politically-right-wing more experienced officer (Elliott James).   When the performance started, the two officers were standing in front of a rough burlap-bag curtain, which they then opened to reveal the home of their chief suspect, where the rest of the story was set.  Murphy (Jeff Page) was under suspicion because he was the boyfriend of the murdered woman, and because he was a foulmouthed dirty loner on welfare.

The senior officer Falkin bullies Murphy and threatens him with the death penalty.  When Murphy protests that we don’t have the death penalty any more, Falkin goes off on a rant about how it might be reinstated and would be cheaper than keeping people in prison.  He then says that as a cheaper alternative to keeping him in custody while the case is investigated, he is leaving Murphy under house arrest with an armed guard, Greta (Andréa Jaworsky).   The fifth character in the story, a local woman making deliveries of homemade food to Murphy, is played by Rebecca Starr. She was playing a very familiar kind of character that I recognized from life and she was doing it in a very funny way.  I really enjoyed her.

The story progresses with Murphy and Greta clashing in predictable ways and starting to get to know each other.  He doesn’t like having a fussy outsider in his house, and complains about the police sealing up the window in his unventilated bathroom.  She thinks his house is dirty and doesn’t want him to keep his “long gonch” (long underwear, for those not familiar with the regionalism) on the kitchen table.  But gradually he begins telling her some of his hard-luck stories, and she gets won over along with the audience (or at least me!).  I could see why his projects never worked out, but at the same time I liked him for trying and felt sorry for him for not being able to think them through.

Yet every time Falkin burst back in to the house, he seemed more offensive.  It took me a long time to decide that he was objectively out-of-line, because he was a classic example of that trope of bigoted bullying cop.   By the end of it, I was completely on the side of Murphy and/or of Greta.  And around about then, I started thinking in a horrified way about planned scapegoating.

Dirt was an interesting, thought-provoking contribution to the Punctuate! Theatre season.  Upcoming they have a dance show and then Hannah Moskovitch’s East of Berlin.

Silence is powerful

Punctuate! Theatre‘s The Silence Project is an original work of theatre that takes place in almost complete silence.   There was no music before the show started, just the hushed talk of patrons getting seated in the darkened room of the TACOS space.  After a prologue with several characters chattering over top of each other and one playing a singing bowl, there were no sounds at all other than the unavoidable sounds of breathing and movement.  This made me very aware of those incidental sounds.

The five performers and creators, Julie Ferguson, Elizabeth Hobbs, Elliott James, Andréa Jorawsky, and Sheiny Satanove, combined to portray about twelve distinct characters.  The main character was wearing a silver mask with some peripheral decoration which made me think of an alien.  The others appeared with various stylized costume elements (an apron, a raggedy overcoat, a cleanroom suit, a sparkly bra) and props (a hipflask, a twinkly ball, a pocketwatch) allowing them to be distinguished.  There was also some effective use of lengths of shiny fabric to hide faces or turn bodies into non-human shapes.  It was the kind of setup which I would have classified as a modern dance piece if there had been background music … but there wasn’t.  Instead there was the rhythm of breath, and heightened awareness of the main character’s anxious and uncertain body language.

Like a modern dance piece, I started by just enjoying the shapes and wondering what I was missing, but gradually I was able to tell myself a consistent enough story that I felt as if I understood.  The repetition and patterns of encounters helped in this.  The confused isolated traveller is first unable to communicate with each of the strangers she encounters, although they all try to connect with her.  (I say “she” and “her” because the performer appeared to be female, but the character did not seem to be strongly gendered.) After the traveller receives a gift enabling her to share a language of gesture with each stranger, she encounters each of them again, learns from each of them, and communicates using the collection of gestures acquired, moving towards a climax involving the triumph of community over despair or death.

The program notes say

We follow our main character, a traveler, as she enters into a dream world in order to escape the isolation of her everyday life.  Through the use of a dream mask, she enters the world of her imagination.  On her journey she encounters a myriad of characters that represent psyche, her hopes and fears.  What will the outcome of this expedition be?  Will our traveler be able to recognize herself in each character and connect honestly in order [to] return as a whole being to her world of reality?

So I was close.

Since attending this performance, I’ve been interested to see some of its techniques echoed in my Rapid Fire Theatre improvisational theatre workshop, where we worked on the skills needed to create an environment without props, miming objects and maintaining consistency with the definitions created by our fellow players.  Similarly, in my Foote Theatre School acting class this week we produced some tableaux, moments frozen in time that could tell a story to our classmates from our facial expressions, body position, and interactions.  Both classroom experiences made me aware of how effectively the performers and show creators of The Silence Project had communicated their emotions and narrative to the audience, without dialogue, scenery, musical background, or sound effects to help them.  It worked.

One measure of how well it worked was that during the performance, I kept forgetting that the silver-faced character was wearing a neutral-expression mask, and thinking I’d seen changing expressions on a painted face.  But it was a mask, supported by very expressive eyes, head position, shoulder movement, and convincing story.  It really worked.

A Clown Double Bill

I’m now caught up recording my theatregoing experiences of a busy week.  I’m going to Rapid Fire Theatre’s Date Night Fundraiser (facebook link) tonight, and to Die-Nasty on Monday, but otherwise I don’t have anything on the calendar until the Rapid Fire improv-workshop performance night that I’m performing in on Thursday 31 January.  (Suggestions, invitations, and temptations for shows not to miss next week and the week after are, of course, welcome!)

Two original clown shows, each about an hour long, make up A Clown Double Bill this weekend at Punctuate Theatre’s TACO Space.  Previously I’d only ever encountered this small warehouse blackbox space at the Fringe festival in August, so I was relieved to discover that the wintertime arrangement has a pleasant lobby and a downstairs bathroom and doesn’t involve having the audience sit in a performance space with an open garage door until it’s time to start.

Lost ‘N Lost Department, by PIE Factory Collective of Calgary, was a three-handed story performed by creators Elaine Weryshko, Jed Tomlinson, and Kristin Eveleigh.  It made good use of a charmingly-detailed set, and of the humour of physical repetitions.  The clowns spoke partly in gibberish with enough English and French to be understood.  You could see how engaged the audience had become in their reality by the number of horrified gasps when a cardboard box was damaged.  As in many clown realities, the characters seem to be adults, but they don’t seem to have relevant gender or sexuality. That’s not part of the story and it doesn’t matter.  The story would be appropriate for any children old enough to appreciate the absurdity and tolerate the occasional sad bit, and the program notes say it started as a piece for the Calgary International Children’s Festival.

Sofa So Good, by Small Matters Productions, involves the same characters as the 2012 Edmonton Fringe offering Fools For Love, played by Edmontonians Christine Lesiak (Sheshells) and Adam Keefe (Rocket) and created by them along with their director Jan Henderson, the well-known clowning instructor from University of Alberta.  As in the first-act show, the characters spoke a bit in a stylized fashion, but communicated mostly through actions and facial expressions.  They used a few simple props.  Both companies involved the audience a little bit, but not in embarrassing ways.  I loved the ways in which the characters’ gender expression was played but not overplayed – I could laugh at the ways a woman might be childish or ridiculous and the ways a man might be childlike or ridiculous without feeling as if these differences were insurmountable or the most important facets of the characters, or as if the portrayals were hostile or gender essentialist..  Several jokes came from a “Clownsmopolitan” magazine, which appeared to have images on both covers like a typical Cosmo cover girl and cosmetic ad, but with clown noses.  As in the Fringe show, the most enjoyable parts of this show were when the characters shifted seamlessly from two adults setting up housekeeping to two playful collaborators in delightful pretending games, clearly enjoying each other’s company in various fictional universes.  Part of the story was risqué enough that your 12-year-old would be mortified to be seeing it with chortling parents, but would then probably repeat the whole thing to his or her friends.  Not having family members with me, my inner 12-year-old was free to guffaw.

There are three more shows, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon, and Sunday night.  If you enjoy clown work in general or if you liked Fools for Love, you should definitely catch it.