Over at the Theatre Centre’s brand new building on west Queen West, you’ll currently find Cock upstairs and Lecoq downstairs.
Cock, a ripping new play by Mike Bartlett already reviewed rapturously in these pages, is traditional script-based theatre, albeit written in an up-to-date style. It tells the story of a bisexual man in a love triangle – and “tells” is the imperative word: You listen to the actors as much as you watch them, and the physical world of the play exists largely in the audience’s imagination.
Jacques Lecoq, a famous French actor and teacher who died in 1999, spent his career promoting alternatives to language-dominated theatre like Cock. He founded a school in Paris in 1956 dedicated to mime and clown and physical theatre that performers from around the world have flocked to ever since, including generations of Canadians who have then returned home to start up body-biased companies such as Theatre Smith-Gilmour (in the 1970s), Theatre Columbus (in the 1980s) and Why Not Theatre (in the 2000s).
Inaugurating the Theatre Centre’s very intimate first-floor studio, the BMO Incubator Space, three new or nearly new theatre companies founded by young artists trained at Lecoq (or rival French school, École Philippe Gaulier) are presenting short works that you can see separately or, as I did, in a single, somewhat overwhelming night.
Ralph + Lina, an Ahuri Theatre production written by Christina Serra and Dan Watson with director Michele Smith (of Smith-Gilmour fame), showcases the charms of physical theatre, as well as its limitations. Serra and Watson play the title characters, an Italian-Canadian couple who we first meet in their retirement days in Peterborough, Ont., bickering over breakfast and battling over the newspaper.
In their carefully co-ordinated movements, however, we see that Ralph and Lina are in fact deeply in love and inseparable. When Lina is lifted up into a dress hanging from the ceiling on Ralph’s shoulders while he pulls his pants on, it’s not only pleasing to watch due to the acrobatics involved, but also shows (rather than tells) how in sync they are.
In an extended flashback, we learn – again mostly through movement rather than dialogue – how Ralph and Lina came to bond so deeply during a long courtship in Italy, interrupted by a seven-year separation due to the Second World War.
Serra’s wide-eyed performance is adorable in the extreme, tempered by moments of poignancy, while Watson is most entertaining to watch in a scene where he flips back and forth between playing Ralph and a competing suitor of Lina’s. The war, however, is dispatched in a silent 30-second scene – and complexities such as the effects of being a prisoner or immigrating to a country you fought against are ignored. This is a romance, very cute, but very superficial.
I like it best when physical theatre gives us access to an extra dimension of a character, rather than flattening one into two dimensions – when it, for instance, shows us the emotional side of repressed characters. Business as Usual, from a company called ZOU, somewhat does that, in a series of loosely connected scenes set at the fictional Apex Corporation, where office life is literally a nightmare. Co-creators Viktor Lukawski and Nicholas Di Gaetano play squinty-eyed businessmen, who let out their inner animals and monsters and show inner turmoil through movement. (Adam Paolozza, a cartoon puppy dog, is a less interesting presence.)
The design is simple but slick: Ken MacKenzie has created three rolling walls with windows that light up in ominous fluorescence – and through which we keep spying employees jumping to their deaths. These set pieces also transform into elevators where businessmen cry or bathroom stalls where cocaine is snorted. My favourite scene involved Lukawski as a boss asking for his calls to be held, then putting pantyhose over his head and acting out a sexual encounter between his two desk lamps. Truly bizarre; I’ll be interested to follow ZOU.
The third show in the Incubator is Death Married My Daughter from Play It Again Productions. It features Danya Buonastella and Nina Gilmour playing grotesque, bouffon-inspired versions of Ophelia and Desdemona. They take turns burlesquing the men who slighted their characters in Shakespeare – so Ophelia plays Othello, strangling Desdemona while lip-synching to Verdi, then Desdemona manipulates a naked action-figure Hamlet atop the water-logged corpse of Ophelia while reciting “To be or not to be.”
That thin conceit exhausted, the two performers strut and fret the rest of their hour on the stage in overlong, under-thought sequences involving conservative clown Anne Coulter or roasting baby dolls over an open fire while reciting the 1967 SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto. Dull, and decidedly first-year in its feminism, I found the show – co-directed and co-written by Nina’s parents Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour – completely lacking in appeal.
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