The Emergency Monologues
by Morgan Jones Phillips
Directed by Evalyn Parry
Presented by Drinking Well
Featuring Morgan Jones Phillips
Morgan Jones Phillips is big and friendly and tells funny and horrifying true stories from his work as a paramedic, and he has all the unnerving, loquacious energy of the shell-shocked. The night I saw the show he informed us that he had just worked his third nightshift in a row. He was almost falling over, and was entirely winning. Though Phillips is the only human performer in the show, it would be a mistake to say that he is the star of The Emergency Monologues. That honour undeniably goes to ‘The Wheel of Misfortune’ which is prop, hero, villain, plot device, and rickety emblem of human frailty all rolled up into one.
It’s a brilliantly simple form. Phillips spins the wheel, he reads out the random selection and then has to talk about the indicated story, code-word or moral. Then he does it again, and the show literally revolves around the wheel, so always the tales of wisdom and idiocy he expresses are punctuated by the melodramatics of a roulette game. It’s inevitable that the random playlist yields less than perfect results, but that’s pleasingly intentional. The formal constraint is compelling and thematic in its own right, but by offering the possibility that we might hear a story that’s never been told, or that Phillips might be forced into an even more uncomfortable position as speaker as he shifts quickly from the comic to the irredeemably dark, it also makes a witty comment on the show’s own avowedly populist form. It shows us ourselves.
At the end of it, of course, he tell us the message, which is that Toronto needs more ambulances on the road lest the Wheel of Misfortune grow even larger. Sometimes Phillips's desire for a funny story, or his simple exhaustion undoes some of the beautiful tension of this show. It’s also possible that he’s too good a storyteller, that he’d rather make us laugh than give us the space to live uncomfortably with the material. But this is a brand-new work (I hope that this production marks a point of departure rather than arrival) and the fact that I could imagine what it could be doesn’t change what it is. As such, The Emergency Monologues is a piece of intelligent agit-prop. Successful agit-prop too, because, there is no suspect or problematic ideology on display here. (Unless you think publicly-funded health-care is suspect or problematic, and even you might have your mind changed). It mobilizes us instantly against that intractable foe: plain, dumb luck, Dame Fortuna herself – and not alone, not by ourselves, as the title might suggest, but freely, eagerly, and together.
Fri Aug 15 6:00pm
Sat Aug 16 10:00pm
Sun Aug 17 6:00pm Read more!
The Emergency Monologues
by Martin Crimp
Directed by Brendan Healy
Presented by Mitch
Featuring Ken Mackenzie, Vahid Rahbani, Erin Shields, Andrew Pifko
Singhski is Chad Dembski and Rebecca Singh
Maybe the good Pastor's shadow is still covering our bright city, or maybe it's the start of the monsoon season, but I’m still feeling sublime Evil around every corner at SummerWorks. The text of Martin Crimp’s very funny Fewer Emergencies is provocative not so much because of its story of suburban desperation and violence, but for the way it dismantles itself, leaving only people and their hopes as the possible source of the contagious violence they must confront. Thanks to director Brendan Healy, these are people on stage, and its their double nature as performer/characters (particularly in the immensely composed Vahid Rabhani) that makes this show so worth seeing. As characters, their hope is for a more meaningful life; as actors they hope just as palpably for a deeper logic, for a more complete story. In the end, what the performer/ characters (and finally, we the audience) are looking for is a judgement, and this is the Evil in Fewer Emergencies: there isn’t any. Instead, there’s a cautious mapping of the territory of hope, where the golden key dangles always out of reach and the car gets overturned again and again, where the contingency of our happiness is as absolute, and as final, as our ability to do something about it.
Meanwhile, the territory of hope gets driven over by a sparkler-mounted electric monster-truck in Singhski, part of the Performance Gallery series at the Gladstone. In just under ten minutes, Rebecca Singh and Chad Dembski simply, effortlessly, even childishly show us how ‘Things used to be better’, while nimbly keeping themselves clear of the black hole of nostalgia. In doing so, they manage to renew our faith in the power of strangeness. It’s hard to say what you’ll find when you go, because the set-list of their performance (which is likely to include ‘internet poetry’ and Sun-Ra-inspired costumage) is mutable. Though it's sure to stay essentially, refreshingly, weird.
Fewer Emergencies plays at the Factory Studio Theatre
Tue Aug 12 6:00pm
Wed Aug 13 6:00pm
Thu Aug 14 10:00pm
Sat Aug 16 4:00pm
Singhski is being presented as part of the Performance Gallery at the Gladstone Hotel
Every night 7:00-9:00pm
The Pastor Phelps Project: a fundamentalist cabaret
By Alistair Newton and the members of Ecce Homo
Directed by Alistair Newton
Musical Direction by Daniel Rutzen
Presented by Ecce Homo
Featuring Matthew Armet, Andrew Bathory, Adam Bolton, Raffaele Ciampaglia, Andrea Kwan, Evalyn Parry, Kaitlyn Regehr, Chy Ryan Spain, Kristine Steffansson, Carey William Wass
It could not begin better: outside, people hold signs and placards, repeating other people’s gestures, grimly attentive, ready for anything; and then we sneak into the luxe, faux-bordello interior of the Cameron House, which is all abuzz with rumours – ‘Apparently, Phelps has crossed the border… yes he’s on his way – and then we are ushered past the threshold and into the back of the Cameron, where we sit down in the fake foliage and the black velvet. It is our very own Heart of Darkness, and the real, live Kurtz is on his way! And then, music! The actors come out, and in a supremely ironic gesture, the whole world inverts, and what we see on the inside is exactly what is happening on the outside: people hold signs and placards, repeating other people’s gestures, grimly attentive, ready for anything…Director Alistair Newton pulls an immense amount of energy out of the cast who all play fast and loose and jump into the Bizarro-world with wonderful abandon. But inverting reality so completely like this can also lead to a general state of dizziness, and to a series of rather unsettling questions floating in the heads of the audience. When, for example, did this show actually begin? With Newton’s recent invitation to Phelps, published in Fab Magazine?
‘…You are so utterly loathsome, your ideas so mind-bendingly facile and your tactics so crassly ludicrous that you provide the perfect mirror to reflect the awesome stupidity of religious homophobia...’
Or with the reply from the Westboro Baptist Church?
‘…The Pastor Phelps Project is a tacky bit of filthy sodomite propaganda, with no literary merit and zero redeeming social value, masquerading as legitimate theatre. It is of the fags, by the fags, and for the fags…’
Certainly, the show started before it started In turn, the performance of the show itself feels like the emblem of a larger dialogue happening outside the theatre. This is (mostly) as it should be. Framing a bigger issue is something that theatre does, and the best achievement of Pastor Phelps is how it demonstrates the pleasure of this property through a style that is all beautiful, DIY cliché and sheer, skin-of-the-teeth exuberance.
The show-as-frame is so clear however, that we see the arguments inside it immediately. Pastor Phelps is not just an ironic name-calling session – that would reduce this show to a piece of fluff. Under the all mockery in the show is real fear; a more troubled, and more troubling, engagement with the notion of evil. It’s in the imagery and in the juxtaposition of texts; Phelps himself is not even a human, rather, he’s coin-operated nightmare puppet. (What currency activates him, we do not know, but it comes from the hand of an ‘innocent’ child.) He is beyond the pale. And if we laugh at him or his minions, it is not in recognition of his human frailty, but in the face of him as the enigma of evil itself.
In Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, Zizek writes about the enigma through the lens of the Holocaust, and I kept thinking about this while I was watching Pastor Phelps:
“Any attempt to locate [the Holocaust] in its context, to politicize it, is equivalent to the… negation of its uniqueness… However, this very depoliticization of the Holocaust, its elevation into the properly sublime Evil, the untouchable exception beyond the reach of ‘normal’ political discourse, can also be a political act of utter cynical manipulation, a political intervention aiming at legitimizing a certain kind of hierarchical political relation… at the expense of today’s radical political possibilities.'
This is what I was worried about.
Any performance that matters to people happens in the territory between the elevated sublime and the contextually politicized, and a little touch of evil can certainly build an atmosphere and help nose a story along. It’s hard work to avoid the consequent depoliticization-effect but it’s work well worth doing unless one wants to end up merely as Phelps’ liberal doppelganger; a Phelps-enabler, not by argument, but by attitude.
An example of a successful navigation of the obstacle: though there’s lots of genuinely sexy and disturbing moments, the most engaging and challenging parts in Pastor Phelps are the sections of verbatim text from the Tyra Banks Show (yes, there is a Tyra Banks Show, news to me) and from the on-camera meltdown of a Fox News anchor at one of Phelps’s deplorable funeral pickets. Both scenes are copied from television and staged with great restraint and sensitivity. And they stand out precisely because they do negate the uniqueness (they show us, instead, the banality) of evil: not only could this person be me; this person is me, and so deserves equal criticism and compassion.
Pastor Phelps is only one of a big handful of shows at this year’s SummerWorks that is explicitly dealing with fear, belief, and navigating the void of un-reason. (I count nine, including the One Reed show that I’m performing in, from the blurbs alone. I’m sure the number’s even higher.) Curatorial bias or unopposable Zeitgeist? Time, and a few more performances, may tell. Either way, it’s very exciting to see such a clear theme emerging in the festival programming. Hopefully it will lead to more, and better, conversations.
The Pastor Phelps Project plays:
Sat Aug 9 8:00pm
Sun Aug 10 3:00pm
Thu Aug 14 8:00pm
Fri Aug 15 8:00pm
Sat Aug 16 8:00pm
Sun Aug 17 3:00pm
The Cameron House