To enter the main performance space and view Miriam’s World at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, you pass through a dark, narrow corridor lined with piles of books. Novels, dictionaries, comic books, they sprawl and spread in uneven piles, all about knee high, threatening to collapse into your path. The particularly attentive may notice a thick rope discarded on one pile and a stool lying on its side.
If this is part of the set for Miriam’s World, a work of “expanded cinema” that takes place in a public library, it is intriguing and engaging. If this is a visual art installation, it’s literal and banal.
So much of arts criticism is about categories. From the perspective of theatre, performance art seems raw and underwritten. From the perspective of film, theatre seems claustrophobic and artificial. The most admirable aspect of Miriam’s World, an adaptation by filmmaker Naomi Jaye of the 2009 Martha Baillie novel The Incident Report, is that it is genuinely multimedia and cross-disciplinary. An interactive installation with aspects of walkabout theatre on the one hand and filmed performances on video loops on the other, it is mixed in media and enigmatic in message.
Spectators walk into a circular space where they are surrounded by vertical banners; eight of them are film screens; the rest are printed with images of bookshelves. You can take your seat in an office chair – you’ll need to swivel to watch all the action – or at one of several desks covered with more books, notes and papers. The filmed performance is a 19-minute loop featuring eight actors playing eight characters, shot separately so each screen can only show one character at a time. In theory, you can start watching at any point in the action; in practice, a powerful performance by the whole cast moving to or mouthing a chorus from Rigoletto can serve as both overture and conclusion. And viewers may want to stay through several loops to catch all the dialogue.
The story, such as it is, concerns the eccentricities of the library patrons, overseen by the long-suffering but increasingly desperate librarian Miriam (Pamela Palsat). There is Mr. MacGregor (Scott Clarkson), a well-dressed gentleman who takes orgasmic pleasure in the number of history titles in the Toronto Public Library catalogue. Unusually Pale Female Patron (Pascale Couderc), a woman exuberantly dressed in multiple floral prints, offers Miriam a condom. In the washroom, Orange Coverall Man (Isai Rivera Blas) only sits on the toilet and weeps. Suitcase Man (Adrian Griffin) mutters about espionage while stuffing papers into the photocopier.
Beautiful Man (Tarick Glancy) appears to be a romantic: He anxiously suggests to Miriam that women prefer brains over the beefcake in the magazine he’s reading. An old poet (Brian Rhodes) expects to be published soon while a poetry reader played by Gloria Mampuya wants a vacuum to clean up a mess she’s made. Somebody apparently kills themselves, but who is unclear.
In an era where public libraries are increasingly recognized as daytime shelters rather than mere study halls or information centres, Miriam’s World is a highly topical – albeit darkly comic – consideration of the social challenges that poses. Beyond that, it seems to be a piece about sex and death (as are Rigoletto, and many other works of art).
Perhaps the diligent spectator will find more clues in the papers lying on the desks: These include handwritten incident reports detailing the sad and funny events of the library. Maybe the key to the suicide is in there somewhere if you move about, seeking and reading. Perhaps it is the fault of the audience, not the director, that once presented with screens, we do tend to just sit and watch.
What is perplexing, however, is that the potential of these characters is so under-exploited: A strong cast has created a series of comic and dramatic figures but isn’t given the opportunity to develop stories beyond the briefest vignettes. Sometimes these are instantly telling – an exasperated Miriam walks across the screen carrying someone’s denture in a zip-top bag – but often they feel truncated. Who is Beautiful Man in love with? Why is Mr. MacGregor so excited by history? And what is the poetry reader destroying? Monologues have gone missing.
Baillie’s novel was also an experimental work, and it frustrated some readers with its many literary references and dramatic twists, but it concentrated on telling Miriam’s personal story through her incident reports. Here, a rich multimedia environment could use more old-fashioned narrative.
Miriam’s World continues at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto to Dec. 18.