During the monologue with movement Are You Okay, her latest collaboration with playwright and actor Michael Healey, Peggy Baker gets exactly one line, if you want to call it a line: "Okay, we're good."
Baker directs these words to the lighting booth after the audience has settled in. They are an instruction to get things started, but they are also an answer to the title's unpunctuated question and a succinct summary of the show and its message. The next 60 minutes are, essentially, reiteration.
Over the course of Are You Okay, Baker dances, Healey acts (as himself) and, in a rectangular pit a few feet in from the lip of the stage, sound designer Debashis Sinha sits with a laptop and summons up an occasional electronic bleep or bloop to back things up.
If you are listener rather than a looker, Healey is the undisputed focus of the show. He wanders about the stage reenacting his daily walk to and from work while pontificating amiably about the human condition.
Basically, Healey makes an argument something along the lines of:
Whereas we are only conscious of a tiny sliver of the world around us; whereas most of what we do in life consists of repeated actions; whereas the sources of our desires are hidden from us and choice is largely a myth; be it resolved that it's pretty amazing that the human race accomplishes anything positive at all, eh?
As Healey outlines this cynical but sunny outlook on life, Baker attempts to prove that human beings are impressive despite their limitations by moving her body about.
Occasionally, Baker's dance seems to directly mirror Healey's monologue. For instance, she appears to be struggling to make her way through a doorway while Healey talks about how difficult he finds it to leave the house in the morning.
At other times, her movements echo his themes more abstractly. As Healey describes the repetitious nature of life, Baker performs the same frantic movement over and over. It consists of putting one arm out as if leaning on an invisible wall and then thrusting her other arm over it in a pecking motion. It looks like a swan operating a cash register on Boxing Day.
The tone of Baker's writhing is always in contrast to the monologue, however. Healey is relaxed and rambling, while Baker is intense and exact. Always focused, she looks like she is practising some unknown martial art, her strong sinewy arms and legs constantly pushing and pulling at invisible forces.
Though Healey gingerly steps out of her way whenever she comes near, in truth, he dominates the space - psychically at least. Director Daniel Brooks gives the show to him, matching the aesthetic up with his pseudo-casual delivery.
In this atmosphere where no one wants to be seen to be trying hard, Baker's rigorous display of dance ends up coming across largely as ludicrous. Everything around her - the stark lighting, the minimalist sound, the understatedness of it all - seems to be an argument against physical expression and exhibitions of effort.
According to Healey's philosophy - or the philosophy he espouses here, anyway - it is rather incredible any time we do something that is not harmful, given all the factors working against us. With that in mind, it is only fair that to acknowledge that Are You Okay is better than a war, superior to a petty fight with your significant other, and contributes more to humanity than ignoring a person in need on the street.
"I'm not trying to bring you down," Healey repeats several times in the show. And he doesn't, but the answer to the show's title question is: Yes, but just okay.
Are You Okay
- Written by Michael Healey
- Choreographed by Peggy Baker
- Directed by Daniel Brooks
- At Factory Theatre Studio in Toronto
Are You Okay runs until March 13.