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theatre review

Richard Lee, Derek Kwan and Julian DeZotti in a scene from "A Fool's Life"

Brilliant. Imaginative. Magical. Ahuri Theatre's production of A Fool's Life is all these things and more.

Toronto is home to several physical theatre companies, all of them architects of collaborative, innovative, original productions. The link among them is the late French actor/mime Jacques Lecoq (1921-1999) and his famous movement-based theatre school in Paris. Ahuri was founded in 2005 under artistic director Dan Watson, a former Lecoq student.

A Fool's Life was inspired by the life and works of author Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), the father of the Japanese short story. Two of his tales form the plot of the legendary 1950 Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon. A Fool's Life is the title of another story.

Watson was drawn to Akutagawa's writings because of their grotesquerie and wild supernatural fancies, all tinged with satire noir. He was also influenced by Akutagawa's long battle with schizophrenia, and his tragic suicide from a barbiturate overdose when the writer was just 35.

The director's structure for A Fool's Life is very clever. On one hand, the cast enacts three stories, each one more dark and disturbing than the one before. Collectively, they mirror Akutagawa's real life descent into madness.

The Nose is about a monk, horribly disfigured by a long nose reminiscent of an elephant's trunk. Horse Legs describes a man who died too soon, and was sent back to life with horse legs to replace his decomposed real ones. Hell Screen centres on a famous artist who is painting a screen, and demands that real life images, no matter how cruel or dangerous, be created for him to copy.

The stories are interpolated with scenes with actor Julian DeZotti as Akutagawa himself, describing the writer's fascination with the kappa, a bizarre mythical creature from Japanese folklore. Just like the progression of the stories, the kappaland tales are increasingly terrifying. DeZotti's droll delivery adds to the growing sense of mental decline.

Designers Sean Frey's and Sonja Rainey's simple but elegant costumes instantly evoke place and time, be they a draped orange cloth for a monk's robe, or an elaborate kimono for a woman. The duo's set is a large wall of textured paper that also acts as a screen for their projections. Moveable, triangular baffles of the same material help organize the playing space. André du Toit provided the atmospheric lighting.

The most spectacular design feature is the combination of live drawings and preset pictures. For example, Hell Screen ends with a horrifying fire that destroys a carriage. This image is created both by the picture of a carriage, and by painting broad, angry brushstrokes in vivid red and orange on the video screen, superposed over the woman in the carriage being burned alive.

As for the talented cast – Claire Calnan, Haruna Kondo, Derek Kwan, Richard Lee and DeZotti – are all physical theatre masters, creating stunning visuals through body positioning combined with props.

For example, in The Nose, the poor monk (Calnan) keeps getting his proboscis trapped in his food, and needs an underling (Kondo) to lift it out of the soup with a chopstick. The hero of Horse Legs (Kwan) does a spectacular job mimicking a horse's gait.

Live Japanese percussionist Gaishi Ishizaka is a kagura drummer who is adept at making sounds on a bewildering array of instruments, from drums to gongs, from whistles to shakers. His marvellous cinematic score follows the action with minute detailing.

A Fool's Life is one of those original productions that satisfies on every level – intellectually, emotionally and visually.

A Fool's Life continues at the Theatre Centre until Oct. 8.

A Fool's Life

  • Ahuri Theatre/WhyNot Theatre
  • Conceived and directed by Dan Watson
  • Featuring Claire Calnan, Julian DeZotti, Haruna Kondo, Derek Kwan and Richard Lee
  • Live percussion score by Gaishi Ishizaka