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3 out of 4 stars

Are memories like tape cassettes that deteriorate in quality each time we replay them? Or are they like play scripts that we rewrite each time one is performed in our mind? 300 Tapes, a new theatrical experiment created by choreographer Ame Henderson and playwright Bobby Theodore, investigates these competing conceptions of how we recall our pasts in a mash-up of audio recordings and semi-improvised live performance.

Two years ago, Henderson and Theodore enlisted three actors – all in their late 20s or early 30s, all engaging storytellers – to each record their memories onto 100 mini cassette tapes.

Now these tapes are shelved in three racks hanging in the corners of a triangular stage. In performance, Joe Cobden ( The Eco Show), Frank Cox-O'Connell ( Dedicated to the Revolutions) and Brendan Gall ( East of Berlin, TV's Men with Brooms) chose tapes from the racks, pop them into portable players and then retell the recorded memories while listening to them on headphones.

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Presumably, 300 Tapes changes from performance to performance depending on which cassettes are chosen. On opening night, one man told of getting stuck in a culvert under a driveway as child, another of rescuing a dying pigeon to impress a girl, and they all listed the Halloween costumes they wore in elementary school.

Cobden, Cox-O'Connell and Gall deliver these memories in a detached, ironic tone that seems to mask a mild melancholy. The depressive atmosphere is accentuated by a disorienting sonic backdrop created on the spot by sound artist Anna Friz, who inserts snippets of recorded ums and uhs, feedback and fuzz into the soundscape. The effect is of an episode of CBC Radio's WireTap produced in collaboration with Samuel Beckett.

Whose memory is whose is never clear: The three actors perform the monologues interchangeably, sometimes handing them off to another performer; occasionally all three perform a single monologue simultaneously.

Due to this, 300 Tapes comes to feel like a composite portrait of a generation, that nameless one wedged between X and Y that grew up during a revolution in personal recording technologies. They've watched formats change from year to year, while also living the seismic shift as personal moments moved from being recorded for a private audience to a public one. Their first words and steps may have been shot by mom and dad on video cassettes stored in the basement, but now, almost every word and movement of their lives is captured and uploaded to Facebook and YouTube.

When Cobden tells a story about a song he made up when he was five that amused his parents, he notes: "I think there's a recording of me singing it." There's something bittersweet about the way he says it, as if he is nostalgic for a time when a recording might possibly be lost and yet, at the same time, sad at its potential loss.

All three men focus on memories from childhood and teens – that is, tellingly, from their pre-Internet or, at least, pre-Facebook lives. "I have no trouble talking about high school," says one. "As I get closer to today, it's harder to talk about things."

That rings true. I wonder how it connects to the popular impression that the Internet and mobile devices are eroding our ability to remember? Do we now need Google to access memories of our own lives? Are the memories formed before search engines the only real ones we still have?

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300 Tapes doesn't exactly spell out any answers, or even its questions – these are the ones that surfaced in my head as I watched this collective creation that is very much a laboratory experiment more concerned with process than results. Despite the affability of the performers, the show becomes a tad tedious at a certain point. The repetition of various memories begins to feel like a particularly banal therapy session on a loop.

Still, there were parts of 300 Tapes that I found quite moving – and while it doesn't say anything concrete about our Wikileaked world, it at least it reflects it.

300 Tapes

  • Co-created by Ame Henderson and Bobby Theodore
  • With performers Joe Cobden, Frank Cox-O'Connell and Brendan Gall
  • Co-produced by Public Recordings with Alberta Theatre Projects and The Theatre Centre
  • At the Theatre Centre in Toronto

300 Tapes continues until Dec. 12 at the Theatre Centre in Toronto. It also plays Feb. 15 to Mar. 6 at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary.

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