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I Send You This Cadmium Red delivers the full spectrum of colours

Julian Richings in "I Send You this Cadmium Red"

John Lauener

I Send You This Cadmium Red

  • The Art of Time Ensemble and Canadian Stage
  • At the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto on Tuesday

John Locke writes of a blind man who after much study announced that the colour red, which he had never seen, was like the sound of a trumpet. The philosopher's blind man might have found a place in the recitation with music that opened at the Berkeley Street Theatre on Tuesday, though Locke would not: He disapproved of any effort to characterize simple sensory ideas.

Not so John Berger, the writer and painter whose correspondence with fellow artist John Christie forms the whole text of I Send You This Cadmium Red. Berger delights in anthropomorphic definition of colour: a particular deep blue is "paranoiac," red is "not usually innocent," and gold is "naked from the start." Berger is the spider in this dance of colours, spinning out glittering, reckless insights. Christie is the bee, who gathers aphorisms and colour lore from Paul Klee, D.H. Lawrence and Vincent van Gogh. You get the feeling that when Christie stops writing, he resumes painting, with an artisan's practical interest in mixing the exact colour he needs.

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The letters have two authors, but the show has at least half a dozen. An English production company called Somethin' Else edited the letters for BBC Radio, and commissioned Gavin Bryars to write music to go with them. Art of Time and Canadian Stage, with director Daniel Brooks, put those elements onstage, and backed them with two suspended screens of flowing colour imagery by Bruce Alcock.

Alcock's inventive play of colours and textures opened the dialogue into a three-way conversation; Bryars's music made it a foursome. His onstage quartet (guitarist Rob Piltch, clarinetist Lewis Gilmore, violist Douglas Perry and double bassist Brian Baty) subtly characterized some colours by emphasizing instrumental pigments: Blue skipped out in pizzicato bass, yellow glowed through a viola melody, black yawned from a reedy bass clarinet. At other times, the music abolished base and tint, foreground and background, and all voices became even and equal, with as little accent as if they were watercolours seeping into paper.

Julian Richings played Berger, or rather animated his written words as if thinking them up on the spot, sometimes pausing to enjoy the cleverness of the latest metaphor to pop out of his mouth. His Berger was partly an entertainer, which felt amusingly right. John Fitzgerald Jay's Christie aptly embodied the earthier tone of his letters, which didn't fizz the way Berger's did, but which often sounded more heartfelt. When he described climbing a ladder in his house to paint a yellow rhomboid on the wall where the sun beamed in most beautifully, his words were prosaic, but their effect was magical.

Andrew Burashko led a flavourful performance of the music, from the dark central island between Glenn Davidson's pools of light for the actors.

Clarinet and guitar were replaced by violins (Carolyn Blackwell and Rebekah Wolkstein) and cello (Peter Cosbey) for the opening performance of Bryars's accretive masterpiece, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, the music for a James Kudelka pas de deux called Soudain, l'hiver dernier.

Despite its jokey allusive title, this remarkable dance for two men (Michael Sean Marye and Luke Garwood) explored some very sincere variations on the theme of not failing someone. Lifting or supporting a body always implies some kind of trust, and Kudelka's choreography seemed to distill this bedrock faith. A repeated movement pivoted one man low on the ball of one foot, his clenched bicep locked with that of the standing partner, who turned him on his axis. It was a compact kinetic symbol of male strength, and also male reliance.

The dancers sometimes faced us head on and close together, their arms windmilling in tandem before folding around each other's shoulders, power and vulnerability coming together in one sweeping movement. Their duet, humbly costumed by Paul-André Fortier, embodied the part of Rilke's familiar metaphor that we usually forget: that these two solitudes border and protect each other.

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This expertly performed double bill was not a long evening in the theatre, but it was chock full of ideas, both abstract and intensely physical. It was a very good start to what I hope will become a continuing conversation between these two Toronto companies.

I Send You This Cadmium Red continues through Oct. 22.

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