Third World (B+) & ZAYO (A)
Movement and stories of obstacles overcome merge in these two fascinating, viscerally performed dance pieces. dancer FLY LADY DI opens Third World with a brief, funny and insightful summary of her relationship to dance as a discipline. What follows are a series of sequences that range from an almost meditative birthing, to assertive and passionate Hip Hop, alternating as well between Voguing and House Dance amongst others. LADY DI’s dancing has a slightly rough-round-the-edges dynamism that makes her work somehow even more engaging. The projections, showing a series of “possible worlds” accessed by the dancer suggest a slew of spaces that she’s negotiated at an artist, that have both challenged her and helped her grow.
The second show, ZAYO, choreographed by Esie Mensah and performed by her and an incredible ensemble is a sensational piece of movement work. Mensah starts alone, in the role of Ouhna, similar to FLY LADY DI in that she seems to be almost birthed onstage, hovering in unseen waters as mist wafts around her before being released into the space. The second and third pieces show her going up against and eventually being integrated into (and devoured by?) a militant group of dancers symbolizing the tests that Ouhna must pass in order to, as the program states, “get to his destiny”. These sequences elegantly maintain the conflict felt by Ouhna as he tries to fight off the dancers before ultimately being taken in by them, and Mensah’s choreography tells that story powerfully. The dancing is also just fabulous to watch. The distinctness of each performer married with the cohesiveness of the ensemble as a whole shows off the talent that Mensah has assembled: all the dancers, including herself, Lauren Lyn, Daniel Gomez, Kwasi Obeng, Shaiann Roach, Benjamin Smalls and Amanda Videla do stellar work. Both Third World and ZAYO are being further developed and are apart of the Summerworks LAB program, and I can’t wait to see where they go.
Box 4901 (A-)
In the early 90s, while attending UWO, novelist Brian Francis placed a confidential ad looking for men around his age who might be interested in meeting up. He received a slew of letters, and there were some that, for a variety of reasons, he never responded to – thirteen, to be exact. Twenty-six years later, he has taken these hopeful missives and turned them into a lovely, reflective hour that examines his youthful experiences as a gay man and changes since, the world of gay dating as it existed before dating apps, and the tapestry of queer individuals into whose lives these letters offer tiny, suggestive glimpses. Standing at a lectern (“I’m not a performer,” Francis opens the show by saying), he narrates his story and introduces each letter before giving over to one of the thirteen actors assembled onstage, each of whom performs one of the letters. Francis then reads out his own, long-delayed response, some of which are thoughtful reflections on why he didn’t originally write back, weaving in autobiographical episodes and his state of mind then versus now, which he often then uses to try illuminating the life of the unknown writer. Other times Francis’s response is amusingly quick and cutting (and a touch bitchy), as it is most hilariously with the letter from a man who writes an increasingly horny letter about a sex fantasy he wants the two of them to play out. Many of the actors are cannily cast against type to the person described in the letter, highlighting the same longing that defines these men and the near irrelevance of their different bodies (despite the role that those bodies inevitably play in Francis’s decisions to communicate with these men). This is particularly effective in the final communication, written by an extremely enthusiastic yet nervous nineteen-year-old who claims to be a model. Hume Baugh, who is not a nineteen-year old model, conveys the energy and the ludicrousness of this person with total comic precision, and is the highlight of this excellent cast, all of whom are queer performers (they also include Bilal Baig, Keith Cole, Izad Etemadi, Jeff Ho, Michael Hughes, Tsholo Khalema, Eric Morin, G Kyle Shields, Chy Ryan Spain, Jonathan Tan, Chris Tsujiuchi, and Geoffrey Whynot). Director Rob Kempson does a mostly very good job of keeping everyone in play. In its development as part of the LAB program however, some of the actor’s transitions from having read their letter to ascending to the back of the stage could perhaps be more cleanly worked out. Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski’s sound work is also very effective in conveying a romantic, nostalgic longing, a dominant feeling of the entire production. Francis’s journey is beautifully conveyed in these letters, and he and this creative team have crafted an alternately loving and sardonic look back that feels distant in its means of communication and immediate in its emotional resonance.
Intimate Karaoke, Live at the Uterine Concert Hall (A-)
An exuberant piece of performance art whereby the performer manages to get the audience rowdily engaged despite being almost totally absent. We enter the Franco Boni Theatre after having passed a curtained off-area in the gallery where creator and performer Dayna McLeod waits for audience members in twos and threes to come visit her. In the Boni Theatre is a sort of bar/cabaret space: round tables, a bar, and at the centre of the stage, a mic and karaoke setup. As with any other karaoke night, volunteers come up to the mic and sing the words passing by on the TV screen. However, the only person in the main room to hear the actual instrumental track is the singer, wearing a giant pair of headphones. To hear their voice with the track, you must visit McLeod, to whom the music “is wired via a 50-foot cable into my vaginal canal, which acts as the stage for the audience of my uterus.” Stethoscopes allow the visitors to hear the music that is pumping through her body. When I first read the show description an hour before arriving I had a mild panic attack over just how intimate the experience might be, but in execution it’s a fun and communal piece of work – vulnerability and intimacy is encouraged, but it emerges in an organic, unforced way (we’ll call the alcohol a lubricant). Listening to the music in the company of several other audience members and McLeod herself, (who is charismatic and chatty throughout despite being propped up on a table with various chords coming out of her), is in fact only a part of the experience. A bigger chunk is sitting in the main room, watching with the gradually growing audience (more of whom are let in at thirty minute intervals) as, like on any other karaoke night, confidence and mild drunkenness grows and the singing gets more and more relaxed. The lack of instrumentals causes most audience members to sing along with whatever track is playing – intriguingly, this group sound remains unheard by McLeod and the stethoscope listeners, which means that no matter whether you’re in the main room, listening to the music on the stethoscope, or McLeod herself, you’re never hearing everything that’s going on. The experience provided by McLeod is one that develops beyond her, a lovely metaphor for an artist’s creation. Nerves and lack of time prevented me from singing myself but if I had it would have been “Edge of Glory” by Gaga.
The Red Horse is Leaving (B+)
The painter’s studio we are greeted with when we take our seats in the Main Gallery of the Toronto Media Arts Center is an immersive example of the kind of workspace we associate with certain artists. Aside from customary easel, paints and paintbrushes, the space contains all the elements of a solitary life: a sagging leather chair, a near-empty coffee pot that sits next to a tall, ever-accumulating pile of magazines and books. A loaf of bread sits amongst the painting detritus, and five brushes poking out of a jar resemble a hand reaching out, as if to grab the artist in a moment of respite. A radio emits wavering signals throughout the show (Mark-David Hosale contributes strong sound work). It’s a personal space in what must be a very personal show: Erika Batdorf is playing Thaya Whitten, a Canadian painter and performance artist most known for her work in the 60s, and who also happens to have been Batdorf’s mother. The hour-long piece settles us into her mother’s mind during a period of creative blockage. Possessed by the thought that she is losing her inspiration in the midst of mental health episodes, she obsesses over the titular red horse, a manifestation of her artistic vision. Zoe Sweet, bedecked with a sort of electronic back-padding that ends in a slim, spiky tail, seems to embody this horse, haunting Whitten as she crawls with impressive dexterity through the space – an anarchic, unpredictable presence. She stands in seeming contrast to the love, freedom and fearlessness Whitten preaches as being imperative to artistic creation, and the play maps her struggle between these two creative values. While Sweet is fascinating to watch, the creature’s improvisational, punk-y presence feels a little too out of step with the rest of the show and in need of re-focusing (the play is part of the Summerworks LAB Program, and so is still being developed). Batdorf, however, is dynamite, viscerally inhabiting her mother’s journey through fear, inspiration, playfulness, and total depression. Even her slightly quiet speaking voice contributes to the sense of a real person trying to communicate with an audience she fears losing. While the more physical aspects of the show can definitely be developed further, it’s clear that Batdorf is successfully crafting with co-director and choreographer Kate Digby a moving ode to an artist, which has at its centre an unshakeable performance.
The Negroes are Congregating (B+)
A passionately performed and written work staged by PIECE OF MINE Arts about intergenerational (and specifically anti-black) racism, Natasha Adiyana Morris’s play spans a range of experiences and performance-styles that shows off its talented young cast while directly addressing the lived experience of being black in 2018. The play begins with the cast (Angaer Arop, David Delisca and Dennis W Langley) taking turns in the spotlight, delivering spoken-word addresses to the audience, emphasizing individual, isolated experiences before adding two-person and three-person scene work into the mix. From depictions of micro aggressions (endless hair queries at the office) to full on police violence, the piece is extremely up-front with what it wants to say, but it says it with high energy and easily evokes an engaged audience response. While everyone does good work, the standout for me was Langley, who shows off a strong range, easily going from performing a comic patois scene to taking on the role of a pastor delivering a stern, passionate sermon interrupted at one point by a sceptical parishioner (Arop). But all three performers are extremely engaging – the extent of their commitment was illustrated by the last thirty minutes of the show, which was an audience-inclusive “Long Table Discussion” whereby the cast and writer sat around a table hastily constructed onstage with any audience members who wished to sit with them and discuss the issues of the play. When the cast first emerged from backstage after having just finished their performance they were slightly reticent, a stark difference from the passion they had just shown onstage, which to me indicated just how immersed they had been in their work. Eventually however a conversation got going, and they along with Adiyana Morris explored the themes of the play with both openness and a careful precision of language, focusing on the notion of structural change being impossible until the role of the oppressor is dealt with directly. While the “Long Table” idea is a commendable one, I think it probably needs to be given more time to let a full-on conversation develop – with only twenty minutes allowed, there was just enough to get some interesting thoughts out there before we all had to head out. And the play itself could, despite its deliberately fractured-structure, find some kind of narrative or structural framework to guide its scenes. Still, as a show that is apart of the LAB program, it is already a passionate and well-performed piece of activist theatre, and with time could probably become an even stronger one at that.
The Artist’s Children (B)
Liv Hussey’s play, originally performed at the NTS Drama Festival (formerly Sears), received a staged reading on Thursday night with a group of professional actors who highlighted the poetic ambition of Hussey’s language. The work of a previously unknown artist, Farren (Amy Rutherford), is discovered after her death, and while patrons marvel at her work her strange, fantastical story is revealed to us in flashbacks. I wasn’t clear on everything, but it involves her search for beauty in the midst of a dense forest, where her children (Jasmine Chen and Malube Uhindu) cavort around her and question her about the world. Or at least, a world: the play deals in part with the idea that artists literally venture into other, parallel universes in order to access their work, with the result being that sometimes they are unable to return. While I found some of the scenes a little longwinded in their quirky rustic-ness, the play is overall a moving examination of the artist as a creator and as a woman, and how there are some secrets that even the closest friends can’t access (embodied effectively by her friend Avrah (Sarah Mennell)). Ultimately I think this is probably a play made only more effective as a staged work rather than as a read one, which is itself a good sign for its future development (it is apart of the LAB program). But Hussey’s writing is exciting to listen to, and excitingly ambitious in its thematic exploration. I look forward to what comes next!
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