[boxhead] at Buddies in Bad Times by Chris Dupuis

Presented by Buddies and Crows Theatre in association with Mammalian Diving Reflex

Text by Darren O'Donnell

Directed by Chris Abraham

Featuring Adam Lazarus and Andrew Shaver

Photo by Beth Kates

The original production of [boxhead] at the Factory Studio Theatre in 2000 still ranks among the top ten theatrical experiences of my entire life. As a fresh-faced graduate from theatre school, over-saturated in naturalism and starving for something different, the piece which tells the story of a young geneticist who awakes one morning to find that he has a box affixed to his head, was simultaneously unlike anything I'd ever seen and exactly the inspiration I needed as I was beginning to forge a career for myself as an artist interested in experimental work. Recreating the impact of an experience like that is virtually (if not totally) impossible to do, however when I was heading off to catch the new production of the show last week at Buddies I did everything I could to calm my expectations, lest I be let down by however this version would weigh in my mind against the previous one.

The original creative team on the project has returned, through the O'Donnell and Paul Fauteux who originally performed the roles of Dr. Wishful Thinking and Dr. Thoughtless Actions respectively, have been replaced by Adam Lazarus and Andrew Shaver, both of whom throw themselves into their parts with gusto. The set design (devised by the team of Abraham, O'Donnell, and Naomi Campbell) is more or less the same, as is Steve Lucas's lighting. There have been small updates to the text (references to Stephen Harper, the current economic downturn, and the internet have been added) though the script is essentially the same. It makes sense that not much has changed as the show was essentially perfect the first time it was produced. At the same time, it just doesn't work quite as well as it used to.

Criticism is an incredibly subjective thing, which is why I always go to great lengths to insert my personal experiences and prejudices into my writing, so that readers know where I'm coming from. The show blew me away the first time I saw it and this time it didn't, which I think is both a combination of the body of work I've seen in the last eight years of my life and some subtle changes that Abraham has made with this production. One of the subtle changes is a reduction in the amount of subtlety. The first production (though I think it was almost exactly the same length) seemed to give the actors a bit more room to breathe, alternating the firing-squad speed of the text with space for the audience to absorb what was happening. There were moments of quiet, moments for reflection, and space for us to think, which given how much the script asks us to think about is pretty important. In this version you can almost hear Abraham in rehearsal yelling "Faster! Faster! FASTER!!!" as the actors race through the text with such incredible speed it's frequently difficult to understand them. This is the third time I've seen the show and I still had problems understanding some of the text, so I can imagine how challenging this would have been for an audience member who was viewing it for the first time. Combining this with a slightly too heavy handed approach to the sound design (please turn the reverb down just a little bit!) and Buddies cavernous Chamber which is certainly not one of the best spaces acoustically in the city, meant that at times the text just became a sonic blur. With a different play I might not have had such a problem with this but the text, particularly the way that repetition plays in this piece, is so essential to the overall outcome, that making the sacrifice of adding an extra five minutes to the playing time would have been incredibly beneficial to the audience's experience of the work.

Having said all that, I'd still recommend the piece to anyone. If you've seen it before, you may not like it as much this time. And if it's totally new to you? It just might end up on your personal all-time top ten list.

[boxhead] plays at Buddies through November 2.

Box Office: 416-975-8555




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Rankefod at Harbourfront Centre by Chris Dupuis

Choreographed and Performed by Kitt Johnson X-act

Co-presented by Dance works
Photo Credit: Per Morten Abrahamsen

After a four year absence, Danish dance dynamo Kitt Johnson returns to Harbourfront Centre with her newest solo-work Rankefod. Created as a means of exploring the relationship that human beings have with our primordial ancestors, the piece derives its name from the Danish word for Cirripedia, a class of invertebrates that includes barnacles and acorn-shells. This could have been a dangerous starting point for a lesser dance artist, but Johnson pulls the show off with such a level of skill that it's impossible for you to take your eyes off her for a full 55 minutes.

Clad only in a white loincloth and lengthy hair braid, Johnson leads us through a process of evolution on stage, from single celled organism to proto-human, while alternating through extended periods of stillness combined with La La La Human Steps style speed. Acting like a piece of human origami, she folds herself into all sorts of strange positions, resembling a vast array of long since extinct creatures that you've never heard of, but somehow recognize. The program talks about how the pre-archaic body and senses live within human beings like pockets of memory inside the primordial slime of our cells, and I think perhaps this might be part of why the piece registers on such an instinctive level.

Though I'm not usually attracted to choreography that's about "creating images on stage" Johnson makes this style of work interesting because she really plays with how our eyes see. The way she distorts her body makes you frequently forget that you're watching a real person and she degrades to a quivering mass of prehistoric flesh. She's aided handily in this endeavour by Mogens Kjempff's skillful lighting which, despite its simplicity, serves the cause of tricking our eyes immensely. Charlotte Østergaard's evocative yet simple set design, consisting of a cloth backdrop, transports us to the bottom of the ocean, across a Pleistocene landscape, and inside the human body, as Kjempff's light hits it in different ways.

Will incredible skill, precision, and even occasional moments of humour, Johnson achieves something younger choreographers often strive for but rarely accomplish; getting the audience to look at the human body in a totally different way. Absolutely mesmerizing. Catch it while you can!

Rankeford plays at the Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront Centre
October 16 - 18, 8:00pm
Box Office: 416-973-4000
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Norway.Today at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space

Norway.Today by Igor Bauersima

Translated by Anna Köhler
Directed by Sarah Baumann
Featuring Ieva Lucs and Steven McCarthy

The rebels that punctuate human history – Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables, Luther nailing his theses to the church doors, Nietzsche’s late 19th century announcement, “God is dead” – are better known for their gestures than their teachings. Parables, theses, and poetics are, after all, more opaque than gestures; and less effective in grabbing a public’s attention. Today, the gesture has eclipsed the teaching (one need only conjure up the image of smoldering towers). However, theatre, one of the “original” sites of the gesture, offers a unique place to question the potency of the gesture. Theatre Smash, a fledgling Toronto-based theatre company, led by artistic producers, Ashlie Corcoran and Sarah Baumann, use the stage for precisely this enterprise. Their production of the forceful two-hander, Norway.Today, directed by Baumann, and written by contemporary Swiss playwright, Igor Bauersima, wrestles with the flippancy of existing gestures, from smiley faces to adolescent declarations of self-destruction, and offers audiences evocative gestures of its own.

Written in what is often referred to as the “postdramatic” style—an approach to theatre that puts the emphasis on the role of performance rather than the dramatic text—Norway.Today demands much from its theatergoers. A highly theatrical and episodic work, the play calls upon its audiences to not only interpret the performance but to complete it. Karen Jürs-Munby, in an introduction to Postdramatic Theatre, explains that spectators do not just plug “in the predictable gaps in a dramatic narrative but are asked to become active witnesses who reflect on their own meaning-making and who are also willing to tolerate gaps and suspend the assignment of meaning.” Like other iconoclasts in the postdramatic genre (think Heiner Müller, Sarah Kane, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Martin Crimp, to name a few), Bauersima wants spectators to be as aware of their position in the performance event as they are of the actors on stage. To witness a performance is to create it. And in the bold case of Norway.Today, to witness (and thus create) is to question the very boundaries between the “real” and the “fake.”

Our stewards in this boundary-crossing performance event are the characters, Julie, played by leva Lucs, and August, performed by Steven McCarthy. Their presence on stage as middle-class European youths is loosely inspired by “true” events. However, Julie and August are closer to mad, chattering polemicists than richly drawn characters with a sense of depthless interiority. (Make no mistake: Bauersima is making a brazen allusion to the patron sinner-saint of Naturalism, August Strindberg.) And while it is not part of the Tarragon season, the Smash production (a Canadian premiere) is, nonetheless, an interesting work to stage at the theatre, which is known for its emphasis on realism and psychologically complex characters. Moreover, the play is clearly a “director’s” script as it demands extensive interpretation. This demand is in contrast with the aesthetic and mandate of Tarragon, which calls itself the “home of the Canadian playwright.”

Trenchantly formal, Norway.Today acknowledges its presence as a piece of art in the text (Julie, for example, directly addresses the audience as the audience), and the production evokes an equally artificial stagescape (the characters are first in a chat room and, later, the edge of a fjord in Norway). Formal elements such as set design, lighting, sound, music, and video do not assiduously copy an off-stage reality but are treated as tools in their own right. The design team, Robin Fisher (Set and Costume), Michael Walton (Lighting), and Romeo Candido (Video) make remarkable use of the Tarragon Extra Space. Flat screen televisions and empty frames of various sizes connote an online environment; a sloped white stage, in the centre, evokes the edge of a fjord; and a white scrim poses as a camping tent and voyeuristic love nest.

The online environment, the chat room, is where the play begins. Bauersima’s choice to install his characters in a virtual environment where text is quite literally the site of the action (the visual display on the screen) and the main vehicle for communication mirrors his own work as playwright. Chat rooms resemble play texts as participants bat back-and-forth dialoguing, monologuing, and diatribing. Because the chat room is a virtual site, the “where” is staged as a set of screens and frames with tight lighting focused on Lucs’ and McCarthy’s faces. It is through technology, then, that we enter a postdramatic landscape that blurs the line between the real and the virtual.

The chat room becomes the social networking site of choice for Julie, a bellicose young woman desirous of self-destruction. She enters in search of someone with whom she can commit suicide. “Would someone like to die with me?” (From the beginning then, Bauersima links death with sex since chat rooms are regularly places where people go looking for illicit sexual encounters.) Lucs, a poker straight blond with an even voice, is unrelenting in her portrayal of Julie, and makes strong use of a text that flows in mad, often frenetic directions. Like the historical rebels that precede her, Julie wants her gesture to be public and thus announces her intensions for self-demise to an audience. We, as spectators, are the implied “writers” and readers in the chat room.

As Julie recites the chat room dialogue, the screen hanging behind her functions as a Brechtian-style placard. At one point, she states/types, “smiley face,” the eternally optimistic icon that follows a good portion of online exchanges. The program cover and poster, which includes Julie’s suicide inquiry is followed by the requisite smiley face (stitched together as colon, dash, and comma): “Would someone like to die with me? :-)” In the production, however, the screen projects the indefatigable emoticon J of the chat room and other sites where people text. Even in the throes of self-destruction, Julie’s insertion of smiley faces and “lol” into conversation conforms to an online culture that insists on positivity.

Julie eventually does find a suicide partner in August. (Julie, in the original German language script, is phonetically identical with Juli, German for “July.” ) A nineteen year-old self-described loner, August steps onto the set directly from the implied chat room, the audience, and stands on the opposite end of the stage. McCarthy, lanky, hands permanently in his jean pockets, plays a teenage boy who reveals himself to be far more emotionally integrated than his twenty-something suicide partner. Equally adept at handling Bauersima’s text, McCarthy proves to be a skillful interlocutor with an intuitive sense of stage timing. As August and Julie “chat” about their potential destruction, the screens behind them display the vertical tab line that signals a keyboard in standby. Magnified on the screen, the tab moves in and out of the digital ether, and as their conversation progresses, the pulsing starts to resemble a heart monitor.

When Julie and August arrive at their frigid destination, the edge of a fjord in Norway, we are treated to a kind of inversion of the creation story in Genesis. Adam and Eve, August and Julie, join not in a fecund paradise, but on the edge of Pulpit Rock, a 2000 ft. cliff that looks out into an abyss. The pair, rather than falling from grace, experience a number of “false” falls, and at different points find themselves at the precipice of the cliff, but can not force themselves to self-demise. These “false” falls lead to a romantic one as Julie “falls for” – and seduces – August. Their love is celebrated through the medium most devoted to representing romance, the “big” and “small” screen. Images of Julie and August saturate the stage in an artful display that refracts the couple through live feeds, music video style clips, stills, and shadows. We are returned here to the realm of the online environment and its position as “everywhere” (or perhaps we have never left). In a euphoric display, real and virtual, alive and dead, space and time fold into one another and become indistinguishable.

The “real” fall comes when Julie and August attempt to record their suicide letters with a camcorder. Their innumerable, failed attempts to record and rerecord their familial good-byes comes to override the object of their mission. Suicide falls flat on camera. As they obsessively scan and rewind their goodbye messages, suicide no longer appears like the ultimate in “real” acts but, on screen, as hollow, emotionally stunted gestures ridden with cliché. The pair’s inability to articulate a truly “authentic” goodbye on camera forces them to come to terms with the inadequacy of their actions. In Norway.Today, Julie and August expose their gesture of self-destruction not as tragic, or even miserable, but a need to potentialize a static existence.

This review was first posted on drama.ca

Keren Zaiontz is a writer, critic, and PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto
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Artists and Politicians by M John Kennedy

After fulfilling my civic duty at my advanced polling station I ventured into Nuit Blanche. I took in exhibits, installations and artists all night for free. I may not have found all of the pieces worthwhile, but the energy of streets still filled at 5am with hundreds (earlier in the evening it was thousands) of people searching out and finding art to watch and do was an unusual delight. I know that there is already much critiquing of Nuit Blanche happening both inside and outside the arts community and yes the event does have some problems. However, I have lived in Toronto for ten years and I cannot recall a time when so many people have flooded the streets for a singular event let alone an artistic one. I have never seen so many (mostly sober) people of this city engaged in what is inherently a social and artistic endeavor. In addition to the scheduled pieces, galleries and shops stayed open and there were numerous impromptu performances. If I was in a Nuit Blanche zone, it was full of people, energy and art. It made me wonder how certain politicians cannot see the value of programs that bring people together, which is what artists do best.

It is easy to sell artists on the value of art, but what about politicians? How can all the hollering become more than preaching to the choir? What do politicians and artists have in common?

In order for me to understand, I need to start by looking at politics. If the purpose of our democracy is to unify a community voice behind a representative who will then defend the community’s interests in our parliament of representatives then this political system is meant to ensure that everyone has a voice. Perhaps it needs an overhaul to further ensure this, but I will accept that this is the idea. Therefore politicians are meant to be the voice of the people they represent (no news there). Obviously, no community speaks with a single voice but politicians must strive to accurately reflect the wants of the majority of those they have taken an oath to represent. There will always be voices unheard.

Enter the artist.

Many artists represent the desires and ideas of the minority. The artist can be popular, powerful and a voice of the majority, but most artists exist in relative obscurity. The artist delves into new areas and challenges established thought and perspective. Artists are people who have something to say that they will not trust to a representative. The curious urge to create, communicate and affect others in new, provocative ways is a driving force behind the artist. The desire to create is inside of every person (just as are opinions about how to better run the community). However, not everyone is driven to taking on the mantle, lifestyle and responsibility of calling her/himself an “artist”. Once that title is worn, you leave the safe confines of creation as habit and suddenly you must endure criticism of said creation because you are selling it. Similarly, some people go from having an opinion to selling their opinions by becoming a politician. In both cases the public is asked to support a perspective and pay someone else to express it. Artists and politicians both are then subjected to intense criticism and examination in regards to what they create and preach.

Generally, we need to delegate in our society to get things done. No person has time to do every thing. This is what leads to specialization and careers. We no longer do our own hunting, gathering, building of shelters and the like; we have others hunt, gather and build shelters and we trade for it. We also pay others to express for us. What do artists and politicians have in common? We have the same job. We are paid to express a perspective.

Just as we need professional politicians, we need professional artists. There has been great art created by those working in their spare time but if we wish to represent ourselves as exceptional artists, we must delegate. Enter funding. Without funding potentially great artists would be forced to either put their art aside in order to survive or they would be forced to live in squalor. It is true that, once established, if the artist is truly great she/he may earn the opportunity to be able to support her/himself but to get to that point, the artist needs support. Every artist is a small business developing a product of art that the public may or may not find worthwhile. However, there are no small business loans for artists. Imagine sitting down with bank manager to explain the potential returns.
Just as intangible is the practicality of trying to be a politician. Imagine going to the bank to ask for a loan because you are running your first campaign. Anyone starting a career needs help.

The only difference between artists and politicians is employment status and rate of pay. Maybe we should look at artists more like politicians.
(Potential artists would have to vie for a position as an artist of the people. We pay you to create, we get to come for free and if we like what you are doing, we hire you back for four more years. You get a staff and an expense account for travel, meals and materials.)

If we pay one third of what an MP gets paid, we could have three full-time national artists for every district for the same price of one politician! Perhaps we should hold politicians to the same standard as artists? It would get rid of the backbenchers. Imagine an artist was hired for a four-year contract of creation and expression and then did nothing but still took the money?

Arts funding is not the life or death of art. Art will always be created, some will find an audience and select artists may even be able to make a living creating without government support. The reason funding is necessary is not to encourage artists (you cannot stop them) but to foster their development so that they do have to live in complete squalor while devoting their lives to creating. Also, culturally, some may view art as a luxury but it is the difference between a society that is surviving and one that is alive. If the government has an interest in the quality of life its citizens, it needs culture. I applaud any corporation that sponsors the arts but must we as a society depend on the kindness of strangers to have art.

The current conservative party and particularly Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the first politician I can recall taking an active and aggressive role putting down the arts and arts funding. It may not be surprising that certain right-wing politicians - who claim to be ever practical and interested only in the measurable results - are disinterested in the arts. I am not surprised that the belief is there, but the actual distain the Prime Minister seems to have for the arts is startling. I am also confounded that the party that argues itself to be the most logical and anti-“touchy-feely” so embraces religion. The concepts of God, faith and religion may be the least measurable thing in this world that so many are fully committed to. The “impracticality” of art must be at least matched but the impractical nature of religion. Perhaps there is a battle at the root of the distain for the arts. Is it possible the right-wing perception is that artists are competing for the dedication, cultural significance, sense of community and faithfulness of religion? If that is the case, then the artist is not only godless heathen but false prophet or anti-Christ. Is that it? Does The Prime Minister think I am the anti-Christ?

There may not be a culture war but there is a definite schism of ideologies occurring in this election. The Liberals, NDP and The Green Party all have extensive sections in their platforms on Arts and Culture. The Conservatives have decided they do not need a platform and since neither Arts nor Culture is listed in their “Key Issues” section I think it is safe to assume that funding in those areas would not play a role in their policy-making decisions. Assuming art and culture is important to you, I hope you always read the policies of the parties and vote for the perspective that most closely matches your own.

I did.

M John Kennedy is an actor, writer, and teacher based in Toronto.
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Unsolicited Advice to My Fellow Creators by Anthony Furey

If Stephen Harper can be accused of performing the Empire Lite gavotte with the Bush administration, left-leaning Canadian artists are equally as guilty of an Idea Lite when it comes to their excoriation of Harper’s choices.

Recently, the Conservative government knocked a good few million out of the arts coffers. They claimed the reason was to re-evaluate the worthiness of these programs. They also wanted to re-direct funds to support the forthcoming Vancouver Olympics. Both of these, at first glance, are worthy reasons. It’s important to reconsider the founding principles of various programs and departmental divisions; perhaps they were ill-conceived.
Artists remember these excuses from the Mike Harris days and are wise to doubt their sincerity. As such, with megaphone in hand, they denounce the cuts by citing the importance of the arts.

Now right-leaning politicians tend to have fundamentally different conceptions of where funds should go than their left-leaning counterparts. These are in some respects the bedrock of their views, and to merely look down at your navel and proclaim arts funding as a messianic command is to debate on your own terms and not those of your opponents. To be so myopic is to confirm your opponents’ suspicions of your attitudes.

Nobody, save for a few backwater yokels, has ever stated that the arts are not important. The main issue is to what degree a person may think government should be involved in the funding of these arts. Many educated readers and culture vultures take a libertarian stance towards arts and government.

When earlier this year I wrote an essay concerning arts funding for the National Post, I was inundated with letters from readers calling Canadian artists freeloading has-beens. I was surprised and disheartened by their sentiments. However I soon understood that these were educated voices, if a tad abrasive: cultured conservatives who were familiar with the country’s artistic landscape and were not happy with the direction it was headed in. What they require is not a condescending suggestion that they fail to see the importance of the arts; they require worthy combatants who take time to consider their positions and offer a considered rebuttal.

Recently Canada’s vice-regal consort, Jean-Daniel Lafond, gave a rather banal argument against the cuts in an interview with The Globe & Mail citing ‘the importance of the arts’. So an artist thinks the arts are important because arts are important. That does little to aide the Red Deer Albertan into appreciating why his income tax is being used to create plays about pederasty.

In an age when anybody can claim they are an artist, and can therefore feel they have a right to receive government subsidies to stay at home and create, it’s important we make clear exactly what it is about the arts that makes them important, what constitutes an artist and on what terms we believe said artists should be funded.

Interesting arguments are buzzing around in the air just like Mozart claimed his melodies were before he deftly plucked them down. What’s barring their explication is that no Canadian virtuoso seems willing to stretch and make a grab.

Where are the impassioned essays concerning how artists are always leading the frontier of ideas, and thus reactionary sentiment to their funding is to be expected? Where are the economic explanations of how theatre – which is at risk of becoming the old curiosity shop the opera houses devolved into some hundred years ago – is unable to sustain itself through its own revenues? Where are the earnest explorations of the differences between American and Canadian artists, such that the former have a more viable economic model?

At present, I am not going to write these arguments because while I do not support those who call for cuts to arts-funding, I also do not support the reasoning behind those why decry them. But if the protesting artists give the strong bang-for-your-buck they pledge, then they should easily be able to compose a nifty panegyric or two.

If you do not create more nuanced arguments, conservatives will take you for mere freeloaders scared that the ride is coming to an end.

Anthony Furey is a theatre artist and writer whose work frequently appears in national magazines and newspapers.
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An Open Letter to Canadians by Bobby Del Rio

So let me get this straight... The bastard Conservatives are anti-gay, pro-censorship, and now anti-art, and we’re just supposed to keep our mouths shut?


Here’s an alternative: Fuck you, Stephen Harper.
First you try and tell all my gay friends that they shouldn’t have the same rights to marry like you and all your ugly, boring friends. Then you try and decide what kind of art is ‘moral’ and what isn’t. Now you’re gutting our international infrastructure to market our art to other countries – when what we need is MORE money, not less.

If this was the schoolyard, I would’ve kicked your ass like a year ago. And I would’ve spent your milk money on whores.

This political street fight has officially entered the artistic arena. While artists are continually relegated to the realm of pauper, vagrant or morally-ambiguous in the eyes of this antiquated government, it’s time to fight back! Let’s stop writing shitty plays about Newfoundland in 1932, or horrible TV shows about small towns in Canada, or trying to recreate Road to Avonlea as the poster child for Canadiana.

We’re getting fucked here, people. And when you get fucked, you fight back. That’s how I was raised. And, proverbially, that’s how I roll…

What we need is some SERIOUS BACKLASH to all these Conservative moralists who are doing their best to portray a society that is anti-gay, anti-risk and all white all the time. Institutions like the Shaw Festival will have to realize that you can’t keep making all your art to serve the whims of 70-year old white people. Toronto is 47% non-white, the old people here are afraid of computers, and we have more categories of sexual orientation than I could effectively research in a master’s thesis.

I want to see a Canada whose art reflects all of these wonderful things. I want to see a TV show about an Aboriginal lesbian couple. I want to see a play done at Stratford that makes teenagers say, “Dude, you HAVE to go to Stratford!”, I want to see our failed Canadian entertainment industry say, “Okay guys, we’re not making money doing American-lite versions of art we cannot afford to produce anyway. Let’s start taking some serious RISKS, and show that you don’t need MONEY to make great art, you just need great IDEAS.”

Here’s the truth: We have lots of talented, sexy, edgy, dangerous, risky, compelling, daring, young, angry, horny, gloriously-diabolic artists. In this country, they have no home. They’re supposed to make their best attempts at creating pleasure for white, blue-haired, Conservatives. The Stephen Harpers of the world are much happier this way: Gutting funding for artistic projects that might actually succeed, and siphoning that money to kill Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

But who are the worst offenders of all? The Canadian citizens that allow all this to happen. Talk about an inferiority complex…

Bobby Del Rio is a writer, actor, and producer, based in Toronto
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