Toronto's oldest alternative theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille will celebrate its 35th anniversary season next year and if the strong conclusion to its 34th is any indication of what's to come, audiences are in for a satisfying time.
Most recently seen on the main stage was an existential, symbolist romp entitled "boxhead" by Darren O'Donnell. The premise revolves around a young geneticist who, after experimenting on himself, wakes up one morning to find that his research has taken on a seriously misguided new dimension. He awakens to find a box secured permanently to his head. Obviously, he must now try to get his head out of the box both physically and psychologically - literally as well as figuratively. If the philosophic metaphor that the play treats on is now clear to you, as I'm sure it is, ("get out of the box", "think out of the box", "maybe better just to stay inside the box?") you pretty much have the whole picture. The central conceit of the play and the strength that carries it forward is perhaps more technical than cerebral, but it still made for an interesting ninety minutes of theatre.
An effective opening featuring the black lit hands of percussionist Romano DiNillo sets the tone for a rapid paced, rhythmically driven exercise that involves to actors with boxes on their heads (the geneticist decides to clone himself in an attempt to find someone to relate to in this cold and brutish world). Paul Fauteux and Jim Jones perform much in the style of commedia only instead of masks they are wearing brown, cardboard boxes. The style that results perforce eschews the physiognomic in favor of broad physicalization. Their tongue twisting, speed driven syllogisms filtered through a disembodying sound system at first gives the audience the impression that the lines might be pre-recorded and all we are actually seeing is the two actors giving physical reaction to the dialogue. This is not the case, however, and in the end, the technical accomplishment of the three performers is truly remarkable.
Although the play is broadly defined as a comedy, there were really no knee slapping deliveries the night I saw it. Comedy, to me, is that collective, anarchic release of laughter that is evoked (whether you want to join in or not) from you as an audience member at least several times throughout the course of the evening - along with the lesser guffaws, chuckles and titters that suffice in between the big laugh lines. You don't get too much of that in "boxhead", and I think the playwright, Darren O'Donnell realized his premise was wearing thin toward the last quarter of the show when he has one of his actors enter naked and start playing with his penis. Although this begins to prop the piece up a bit, it never quite stands erect much less achieves orgasm.
In b currents production of "rock.paper.sistahs", ahdri zhina mandiela continues to investigate the highs and lows of being young, gifted and black. Mandiela's work with black youth continues to inspire although the themes evident in this series of performance pieces reveals the alienation and despair that is the currency of everyday life for many young people in the black community.
"the stand-in" (written by mandiela) features Ordena Stephens in a touching solo performance that echoes the author's own journey as an artist. Audition calls, performing in industrials, comedy clubs, poetry readings, getting your Equity and ACTRA cards, is all part of trying to jump from the tributary into the mainstream. Although this journey may be part of any actor's struggle, being black entails following a very particular route which often meanders around the dried creek beds of racial prejudice, limited opportunity and the shoals of self-doubt.
With the lyrics of Nina Simone lovingly transcending us from one scene to the next, Stephens expertly navigates the humor and pathos of the piece only to find that that there is no definitive answer to it all, just the discovery of little pockets and eddies of satisfaction here and there that sometimes are enough to tell you that its worth it to keep trying.
In "yagayah" written and performed by Naila Belvett and Debbie Young, we imagine two young women named Imogene and Mary. They both start out as adolescents living in Jamaica, sharing the kind of bond that only two young girls can. One is the subject of sexual abuse while the other has an opportunity to move to Canada and does so. The friend she leaves behind desperately wants to join her and thus the theme of love, longing and long distance friendship and betrayal integrates the play with a particularly Canadian resonance calling out to the many who were not born in this country but now call it home.
Although Belvett and Young infuse their individual performances with humor, energy and great technique shifting from adolescence into maturity, the most startling thing about this script is the articulacy and intelligence of the writing coming from such youthful actor/playwrights. Working together over a period of two years (the piece was originally performed as part of Summerworks 2001 in Toronto), Belvett and Young have clearly refined the piece with dramaturgical assistance provided by zhina mandiela. The result is a choreopoem that freely mixes verse and prose with a conscious feeling of improvisation connecting the whole into a piece of theatre that is vital, life-affirming and challenging all in one breath.
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