Floating Critical Response by Alistair Newton

In his review of Peter Brook’s landmark multi-hour adaptation of The Mahabharata, American director/critic Charles Marowitz posited that if you want to avoid being criticized, create a work that exists beyond the rubric of criticism. This is the potential issue raised when one approaches the work of artists whose aesthetic challenges all of our preconceived notions about the theatrical experience. Welsh theatre maker Shon Dale-Jones‘ Floating presents such a case.

Currently making its third Canadian stop after being hosted by Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre during the PuSh Festival and Intrepid Theatre in Victoria, Floating is performed by Dale-Jones and his co-creator Sioned Rowlands and has been, as we are told, years in the making. Prompted by the death of his beloved grandmother — portrayed in one of three charming performances by the admittedly untrained Rowlands — Dale-Jones’ theatrical alter-ego Hugh Hughes uses a tall tale about a Welsh island which separates from the mainland as a means to muse on community, family, and socio-cultural displacement. As the audience enters, Rowlands is seated onstage, quietly knitting, amidst a random assortment of projectors, miss-matched furniture and hand made charts and graphs. This folk-art aesthetic could be called ‘anti-theatre’ and it might be familiar to Toronto audiences from some of the work of companies Small Wooden Shoe and One Reed Theatre.

In this world, all of the pretenses of theatre are stripped away, the means of production are on display, and epic images are built from humble objects. Dale-Jones and Rowlands couldn’t be a more lovely pair and they wring a combination of pathos and bathos from Floating’s thin narrative frame which includes a crotchety school master’s scheme to sail an island, and a game of chicken with the Isle of White. The chatty nature of the performance and the childlike simplicity of the imagery conspires to breakdown the typical disconnect between performer and spectator; a sense of community or, as Hughes constantly reminds the us, ‘connection’ is the goal. The open heartedness of the performance is made even more impressive by the ease with which charming can mutate into smarmy when forced; there is none of that here.

For all of the high points of Floating’s breezy self-effacing charm, the problem of how to judge the images/choices/themes that don’t pay off remains. Kenneth Tynan, perhaps the twentieth century’s most astute theatre critic, turned to Schiller’s three point model for theatrical evaluation: what is the play trying to do, does it do it, and is it worth doing. If the goal is to create a sense of community by knocking down the fourth wall and breaking through audience expectations with tactics like passing props around the house as in an elementary school show-and-tell, appointing a front row patron as a kind of navigator, or encouraging patrons in the balcony to relocate to the main floor — leading to a hilarious interaction between the performers and three local indie theatre creators in attendance on opening night — then what is the value of picking apart the specific directorial choices? The third of Schiller’s three questions is easily answered in the affirmative but the second question, the question as to whether or not Floating fully satisfy its dramaturgical goals, is the more problematic of the triad.

In the slightly longwinded though often hysterical introduction, Dale-Jones outlines the themes he will explore in the piece. While Floating does contain some insights into the psychology of the Thatcher-era, the alienation from ideas of home and nationhood and the importance of the family, and in spite of the fact that the staged-lecture format allows for some interesting facts, ultimately I feel the piece lacks a fully satisfying emotional, political, or intellectual payoff. In spite of this fairly major quibble, in a cynical cultural moment ruled by banal hipster ‘authenticity’ by way of the warped equation of irony with nihilism, Floating’s earnestness and winsome passion are a welcomed antidote. As Ovid says in The Ars amatoria: ‘If you want to be loved, be lovable’.

Floating runs February 15-19, 2011 at Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage.

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Tender is the Show: Un peu de tendresse, bordel de merde! (A Little Tenderness, For Crying Out Loud!) at World Stage. Response by Vikki Anderson

In a theatre season that has seen a lot of style over substance it was refreshing to attend last night’s opening of Dave St-Pierre’s Un peu de tendresse, bordel de merde! (A Little Tenderness, For Crying Out Loud!) and experience both; the emperor really is wearing new clothes, even if he’s still naked. 

Tendresse is part two of St-Pierre's Sociology trilogy – part one being La pornographie des âmes (Bare naked souls) seen here in 2008 at Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage. His latest work, Over My Dead Body, which premiered in Montreal in 2009, he examines mortality, primarily his own. St-Pierre was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at seventeen, a multi-organ disease primarily affecting the lungs, which can cut life expectancy in half.

Often cited as the enfant terrible of contemporary dance, St-Pierre has enjoyed a somewhat meteoric rise to fame in the past decade with this triptych that examines contemporary utopias – self-worth, love and death – using transgressive imagery Part dance, part theatre, part happening, Tendresse unfolds from the minute you take your seat. Emerging from the crowd to take the stage, the dancers identify themselves then cause a humorous ruckus in the house. The onstage host, Sabrina, welcomes the audience and advises that there will be no fourth wall. When she asks, “Do you really want to see a show about tenderness?” the audience dutifully replies in the affirmative and she yells back at us, “Losers!” and follows up later with, “You would be so naïve to think you’re safe tonight”. 

What evolves is a montage of vignettes and tableaux questioning, rather fearlessly, our suppositions about love and the human form. Deploying highly entertaining and humorous techniques (you might be lucky enough to have a naked man in your lap) contrasted with moments of great pain (watching dancers slap themselves until you want to go up and stop them) St-Pierre takes hold of your emotional centre and doesn’t let you go for 100 minutes.  

The work is demanding of both the performers and the audience. It forces us to examine our innermost demons: lust, shame, weakness, regret and the gut-wrenching desire to be loved. It’s the kind of communal experience you can only have in the theatre. To be a part of it, to watch souls and bodies laid bare, to watch indignity and dignity run at each other, to bring your own catalogue of desires, base human needs and culpability along for the ride, is as exhilarating as it is life affirming. St-Pierre gives us hubris in it’s highest form; the gain without the pain. 

In the final, breathtaking moments, our host admonishes us: “You’ve all been sitting there doing nothing for the last two hours and we’ve been doing everything. Do something for us now.” She instructs the audience to perform a sports arena-like wave that sets off a tsunami onstage where the literal and figurative cost of drowning becomes beautiful, savage, joyous and tender

I can’t think of a more appropriate title for the work; tenderness is such a full word. It brings to mind everything from Otis Redding and General Public to the small, vulnerable moments of affection and devotion that fill our memories and consciousness. It evokes benevolence, kindness and generosity while also reminding us that once something becomes tender, it has the ability to torment and ache. St-Pierre’s affirmations are what we strive to find, in small measure, every day. To be offered a safe space, a temple of sorts, where we can observe, participate and above all, feel, is a genuine gift. 

Vikki Anderson, a Toronto-based director, designer and producer, is the founder of DVxT Theatre Company. DVxT brings artists together to work on demanding texts with a focus on longer rehearsal time and an organic design process. www.dvxt.com
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