- Title: Speculation
- Written and performed by: Leslie Ting
- Directors: Alex Bulmer, Tristan Whiston
- Company: Theatre Passe Muraille and Leslie Ting in partnership with NUMUS
- Streaming on: www.passemuraille.ca/
- Year: Runs to March 20
Speculation, available online from Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille until March 20, bills itself as a digital presentation of a theatrical concert.
It’s mostly filmed, partly livestreamed and definitely as “beyond walls” as anything else the theatre company of that name has ever produced.
Leslie Ting, creator and star, is an optometrist turned violinist – and the subjects of the online version of this show she first premiered in 2014 are of direct past and present professional interest to her: the eye and the ear.
Ting explores vision and hearing, and the loss of both, in short monologues about her relationships with three people.
First and foremost is Ting’s late mother, who underwent seven eye surgeries before she died; the two had a fraught relationship that only became more difficult as the elder woman’s vision declined.
Mother and daughter argued over big things, like what Ting was doing with her life, and small things, like how she made dinner. At a certain point, the violinist realized something that is perhaps particularly painful for a musician to realize of a loved one: “I would never be heard, so I stopped trying.”
The two other loved ones Ting talks about in Speculation are John Cage and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Anyone with an interest in music will immediately see the connection, or contrast, between these avant-garde American and classical German composers.
Cage (1912-1992) sought silence in his work, and is best known for composing the soundless work 4′33″; Beethoven (1770-1827), on the other hand, fought silence in his work, continuing to compose symphonies and sonatas even after he became deaf.
“Theatrical concert” is a term that is upfront in its priorities – and, indeed, music dominates Speculation, with performances by Ting and pianist Hye Won Cecilia Lee “recorded live” on a stage somewhere.
Beethoven is represented by parts of his Sonata for Piano and Violin in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2 and his Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110 – which are movingly performed by Ting and Lee, and then Lee solo.
There are also several compositions by Cage in the show, beginning with an excerpt of Cheap Imitation for Solo Violin III played with real conviction by Ting – and ending with the entirety of 4′33″ performed by Ting accompanied by anyone watching who wants to join in.
That’s not a joke: It’s at this point in Speculation that the digital presentation switches to a livestream and viewers are invited to call in and join Ting in a silent conference call.
This unusual bit of audience (non-) participation gives a full hearing to all the contradictions of the idea of “silence” Cage was exploring through this composition. What I really heard, for instance, was a buzzing phone line, the pipes in my house, and a couple of folks who didn’t seem to understand that their whispers could be heard.
Though sound (or lack thereof) dominates, the visuals of Speculation, which credits Alex Bulmer and Tristan Whiston as directors and dramaturges, are never boring.
Ting delivers her monologues from a stool in front of a semi-circle of vertical fluorescent lights that designer Patrick Lavender adjusts the brightness of in unsettling ways to suggest vision loss.
There are also atmospheric projections and films overlaid onto the musical performances – though it’s hard to know which of these images should be credited to filmmakers Zachary Finkelstein and Elinor Svoboda, and which to projection designer Amelia May Scott, when you’re watching everything on a screen.
The only aspect of the show that disappoints is Ting’s writing – which often feels like a juxtaposition of information musicological and biographical, rather than a weaving together. The themes she is exploring are clear, but the overall picture is fuzzy.
We learn very little about either Ting or her mother until, in her final monologue, we learn something quite interesting about the latter’s upbringing. From a dramatic point of view, the revelation lands in an unsatisfying way – in that it makes what came before feel rather superficial and unrevealing by design. It feels more like a good starting point for a deeper exploration than a point finale.
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In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)