In the world of performance, “You have to see it!” is as good as word-of-mouth gets. “You need to know …” is not so happy a recommendation, and Paradisiacal Rites comes to Toronto’s Luminato Festival studded with you-need-to-knows. You need to know that Paradisiacal Rites is created by Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell, a Seattle theatre artist who spends the day before every performance in an exhausting ritual of long-distance walking, wine drinking and bloodletting with leeches. The ritual is neither secret nor really public: the audience’s only glimpse of it is when it first encounters Mitchell sitting at the front of the stage with the last of the wine and the leeches.
You also need to know that Mitchell calls his company Saint Genet, which was the title of a book that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about the French dramatist and author Jean Genet, whose plays rejected conventional morality and included violent reversals of social hierarchies. You also need to know that Paradisiacal Rites is a performance in three acts that supposedly address three moments of American social hysteria: the Oscars, the Manson murders and the Jonestown massacre. You also need to know that even Luminato artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt does not pretend to understand Mitchell’s work, as he confesses in the program, but asks whether we ever understand great works of art.
Few of us who see a lot of art expect to understand all of it all the time – a mystery is often the most compelling artistic encounter – but we can ask that we be engaged by it. As Mitchell rises from his chair to direct a cast of 13 in ritualized movements, dance and the occasional bit of drama or dialogue, the results are always opaque, occasionally shocking but mainly boring. Backed by an aggressive and sometimes droning score provided by an onstage band, the cast moves about a mechanized landscape created with tall strands of grass and dead pheasants rotating from the ceiling. Mitchell kisses various performers, taking wine from their mouths and spitting it back in their faces. Performer Darren Dewse delivers an amusingly frantic monologue in which he cites by heart all the instances in which two performers in the same movie have been nominated for best actor at the Oscars.
In the second act, there is one blinding scene where some purpose emerges from all this as Mitchell and another actor attempt to skip double dutch while a clown-faced Dewse sings That’s Entertainment, the freneticism of the action amplified by a pulsating strobe light. For a brief moment, Mitchell’s purposeful reversal of conventional entertainment – and what is America except 24-hour entertainment? – is potent. The show also includes a shocking passage where Dewse performs a crude visual joke and then is wrestled to the ground by another performer and bullied by the cast into repeating the trick as Mitchell pushes his audience to confront its own passive role in these events.
But mainly the second two acts are padded out with banal contemporary choreography, created by dancer Jessie Smith, that wouldn’t look out of place in the most inoffensive modern dance performance. The show culminates in scenes of a grave and a hanging but otherwise the references to Jonestown and Manson are indiscernible.
You can see the commitment and the effort here; you can grasp that, in a frenetic world of commodified art, Mitchell and his company strive to reinvent theatre both as an ancient ritual and as a social disruption, you can occasionally seize on a powerful image or startling moment, but you can’t engage with the piece, which lasts for three hours, in any deeper way. Often, Mitchell’s sadomasochistic gestures seem stupidly blunted: His great self-flagellating endurance test leading up to the show proves anti-climatic as his physical performance in the piece turns out to be rather minor.
Luminato has sometimes been accused of an infatuation with yesterday’s avant-garde, the Robert Wilsons and Pina Bauschs of the art world. Yet when it co-commissioned the enlarged version of Paradisiacal Rites with an Austrian performance festival, it made the odd decision to take a big chance on an unproven American artist unready for the international stage.
Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell and his Saint Genet company are based in Seattle, not New York as stated in a previous version of this article.