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theatre review

Evalyn Parry in "Spin"


  • Created and performed by Evalyn Parry
  • Directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones
  • At Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto

Spin, musician and story-teller Evalyn Parry's ode to the political and personal power of the bike, opened on the first nice day for cycling in Toronto this year. (Full disclosure: This theatre critic arrived on two wheels, filled with the joy that comes from getting back in the saddle after a winter of slow streetcar and jerky taxi rides, and couldn't have been more in the mood for a sonic celebration of cycling.)

A performance that is half concert, half spoken word, Spin might most fittingly be slotted under the category of song cycle. In the first half, Parry, dressed in Victorian garb, sings or speaks sweet, indie-folk songs about the bicycle's pre-automobile heyday in the 1890s, with particular emphasis on its impact on the women's movement.

Then, she shifts gears and zooms ahead to her own "gay Nineties," living in Montreal and dating a woman whose preferred mode of transportation was the car - a relationship disaster waiting to happen.

The Ballad of Annie Londonderry concerns an early feminist icon who left her three children at home with her husband to become the first woman to bicycle around the world, from 1894 to 1895. (Later, she wrote for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World under the byline "The New Woman.") Instructions on Learning to Ride a Bicycle by Miss Frances Willard, meanwhile, takes its lyrics from a 1895 pamphlet that declared that women "must all learn to ride, or fall into the sluiceways of oblivion and despair."

Parry's detour into the personal history of a bicycle she believes was stolen by the notorious Toronto bike thief Igor Kenk is less enlightening. Though perhaps it works better when better delivered: She either forgot her lines or got carried away by emotional memories on opening night, and Spin's momentum slowed and nearly toppled over.

Parry has a highly unusual (and accomplished) two-person band backing her up. Percussionist Brad Hart, who sports an appropriate handlebar mustache, actually plays a bicycle: an attractively rusty 1972 CCM, suspended on a stand and hooked up with contact microphones. Using brushes on the fenders, violin bows on the spokes and drum sticks on a variety of tuned bells, Hart creates an astonishing array of sounds with this iron horse. Even spinning the pedals make a gentle, maraca-like whir.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, sound designer Anna Friz plays instruments that are much more traditional (accordion) and even more out there (amplified buzz from flashing bike lights).

For Toronto cyclists worn down by the recurrent antipathy expressed by politicians and tabloids toward two-wheeled travellers in this city - most recently, Don Cherry's dismissal of "all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles" at the new mayor's investiture - Spin is welcome breath of fresh air. Parry takes the cyclo-phobic concern that riding a bike in Toronto involves "taking your life into your own hands," and turns that phrase into a beautiful mantra.

Spin's certainly an original piece of work, but not entirely so: Ironically enough, what Spin most reminded me of was another local music-performance project, Andrew Penner's Detroit Time Machine, which pays tribute to the Motor City and era of mechanization and includes what look like car parts as instruments. I saw it at Buddies in Bad Times, where Spin is playing, just a few weeks ago. Perhaps, a double-bill of the two might end the ongoing bikes-versus-cars war, or at least allow these antagonists to briefly make beautiful music together.

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