The old AT&T long-distance ads used to urge customers to “reach out and touch someone.” Today, that cuddly phrase has been truncated and turned into stale business jargon – I have an e-mail inbox full of messages from publicists who want to “reach out” to me. All the same, the slogan kept popping into my head as I watched the offerings at this year's SummerWorks Performance Festival in Toronto.
Maybe it was because one of the productions focuses on the father of telecommunications (Show and Tell Alexander Bell), while another plays with social media (iShow). Or it could just be that so many of the 15 shows I saw over the festival's first weekend are about trying – and failing – to connect, about what we share and what we hide, about opening up and being misunderstood.
One of the funniest – and darkest – cases of misunderstanding is acted by a terrific Tony Nappo and Nancy McAlear in Edmonton playwright Jason Chinn's Murderers Confess at Christmastime. In this premiere production from Outside the March (Terminus), Nappo plays a lonely, wheelchair-bound man hoping to score with a coarse but vivacious co-worker (McAlear) on Christmas Eve. His tender intentions and her brassy obliviousness are hilarious – until they take on sad and, later, tragic dimensions. Their story is the strongest one in Chinn's triptych of pitch-black Yuletide scenarios, which tries a bit too hard to be the antithesis of sentimental holiday fare.
Murderers also features a married couple keeping secrets from each other, which puts it in good company with Kat Sandler's Delicacy and Andrea Scott's Eating Pomegranates Naked. In Sandler's explosive marital comedy, a pair of Yorkville yuppies invite over a biracial couple from the ‘burbs for a mate swap, only to end up in a class and race war instead. Writer-director Sandler takes sharp little digs at the underlying prejudices that still exist even in multicultural Toronto, before zeroing in on her main subject: how lack of honesty poisons even the most loving marriages.
Scott's provocatively titled drama also concerns two couples, one of them biracial, and adds religion to the incendiary ingredients. But, as with Delicacy, the fundamental dividing issue for her married people involves having children. In fact, the secret pregnancy – a time-honoured dramatic device – seems to be another recurring theme this year.
There were few secrets left unrevealed in the confessional pieces by Sook-Yin Lee and Itai Erdal, both engaging performers who reach out to an audience despite their shows' flaws. Lee's messy multimedia experiment, How Can I Forget?, has the CBC Radio host sharing candid memories of her mother's mental illness and her younger sister's death. Erdal's How to Disappear Completely finds the Israeli-born, Vancouver-based lighting designer movingly recounting his mother's slow death from cancer and showing us the film footage he shot of her during her last days.
All these works do a better job of communicating than the two shows about communication itself. Show and Tell Alexander Bell by Ars Mechanica is a fitfully beguiling but largely confusing attempt to interpret the inventor's life via physical theatre and audio-visual magic, with some feeble comic interludes involving a perky telephone operator.
At least it displays some imagination, which is more than can be said for the lazy iShow, by Montreal's Les Petites Cellules Chaudes. A dozen performers on laptops hooked up to a giant screen make extensive use of YouTube, Skype and the Chatroulette website in an attempt at some sort of commentary on how computer technology has changed the way we interact. After being subjected to Internet porn, grotesque home videos and a seemingly endless loop of Stephen Harper singing Imagine, the audience at the performance I attended started making for the exits long before the show was over.
If you want grotesque, better that it be in the hands of a master like Austrian playwright Werner Schwab, whose relentlessly scatological 1990 black comedy about a trio of cleaning ladies, Holy Mothers (Die Präsidentinnen), gets a boisterous treatment from director Elizabeth Saunders and her gutsy actresses.
Schwab's work is rarely seen here; so, too, the plays of Brecht contemporary Marieluise Fleisser. Her feverish 1924 drama Purgatory in Ingleton (Fegefeuer in Ingolstadt) has been translated and directed, with phantasmagoric flair, by Birgit Schreyer Duarte. The tale of a troubled youth with saintly aspirations in small-town Bavaria, it dovetails neatly with the premiere of the more ballyhooed The Life of Jude, Alex Poch-Goldin's epic-sized take on religious extremism. Poch-Goldin's ragged but lively parable – employing a cast of 21, skilfully shepherded by David Ferry – likewise deals with the individual's relationship with his community.
All three of these shows, while they have some problems, are well worth seeing. But the one that really reached out and touched me – no, make that, blindsided me – was Salome's Clothes. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard's stunning new play draws a subtle parallel between the personal and political as she examines the compromises we make for material comfort. Karen Robinson claws at our hearts as the loving single mother of two teenage girls, who turns a blind eye to some terrible truths in return for financial stability. Forget technology – there's nothing like a great live performance to make a room full of people feel connected.