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

Keren Zaiontz is a writer, critic, and PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto

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