Whether you drink the Kool-Aid or not, there’s no escaping the effects of Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, which opened at Toronto’s Heliconian Hall on Monday night. It’s a radically immersive show in keeping with the mandate of Outside The March, a theatre company that has spent the past eight years turning kindergarten classrooms and funeral homes into theatrical spaces for unusual plays. As an experiential marvel, the company might have outdone themselves with this large-ensemble tribute to an imaginary cult leader in which the audience becomes part of the cult. And the Kool-Aid is no metaphor: you’ll be served a blue liquid in a plastic cup "to open the mind.”
Dr. Silver is a co-production between Outside The March and The Musical Stage Company, but in artistic terms, it’s a collaboration between director Mitchell Cushman and composers/librettists Anika and Britta Johnson. Mr. Cushman’s visions are big and ambitiously layered; he’s the kind of director who takes responsibility for every little dramatic and aesthetic detail so that the cumulative effect is as lucid and reasoned as it can be stirring. Pair that with Britta Johnson, a young composer/librettist who proved with last year’s hit Life After that she can strip away emotional artifice and reveal complex feeling in her music. With fellow composer/librettist Anika Johnson (Britta’s sister), the three make a formidable team.
The story of Dr. Silver’s death is relayed in fragments. The guru’s face is projected over the altar as his family and acolytes begin their eulogies. We’re given a prayer book that outlines some tenets and rules of the spiritual movement, which worships a "master conductor” and is founded on the principle that only music provides truth. The deceased’s eldest daughter Vera (Kira Guloien) is the first to mention "The Raid,” an ominous incident cloaked in vagueness that set off the deceased’s heart condition and, subsequently, his somewhat bathetic death mid-exercise on the treadmill.
Then, there’s the older brother who escaped. While Vera, sister Harmony (Rielle Braid), wife Caroline (Donna Garner) and chief assistant Timothy Sweetman (Bruce Dow) have all loyally followed the doctor’s teachings, Gordon (Peter Deiwick) left the compound for the temptations of the outside world. He may have died in an apartment in the city. Or he may be the one knocking relentlessly on the barred front door as the funeral proceeds. As Vera tells us with glassy-eyed ferocity, the most important rule of Silver-ism is “Don’t let anybody in.”
Mr. Cushman’s skill at creating atmosphere is uncanny – I frequently felt airdropped into the kind of esoteric gathering I’ve only ever imagined (or seen in TV depictions of cults, such as Netflix’s Wild Wild Country). Some of the most impressive moments are the ones that depict the congregants in a state of psychedelic ecstasy. As rings of coloured light are projected through the space, an ensemble of 10 youths (from Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts) perform a rapturous trance-like dance to electro-pop music. Barbara Johnston’s choreography hits that perfect half-tone between satire and earnestness, and she constructs powerful images with simple gestures performed en masse.
But the best stuff might come from how much feeling the Johnsons can wring from their songs, which range from synth-inflected rock to ballad-type musical-theatre tunes. The music is bolstered by a uniformly exquisite cast who sing with skill, resonance and dexterity. A lovely moment comes through flashback: Gordon plays an acoustic guitar and sings You Should Come With Me Next Time to the younger Vera, relaying all he’s learned about the outside world. It’s a tender episode between siblings, and Ms. Guloien is radiant as a young woman torn between her beliefs and her love for her older brother, not to mention her thirst for a life of her own.
While immersed in all this, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was waiting for a satisfying – or even just coherent – takeaway. Despite the prayer book, we never get a real sense of the cult’s actual beliefs, beyond a blanket devotion to music, or what it is about the outside world that they’ve chosen to renounce. Because of this vagueness, the cult seems like more of a metaphor than the subject of its own story. But what exactly is it a metaphor for? Indoctrination? Tyranny? Or is the play about the opposite –the persecution of an innocent group? The production gives us no sense of what it’s actually probing, making it feel like an exercise in kitschy beauty and atmosphere alone.
It’s rather apt that the final number is titled The Most Beautiful Song, an ode to family love and devotion. Sung with mesmerizing conviction by Ms. Guloien, it’s about as gorgeous as it sounds, even if its weight and purpose remain about as obscure as Dr. Silver’s teachings.
Dr. Silver continues at Heliconian Hall until Oct. 14.