The Complaints Choir: Response by Cole J. Alvis

On the day we all woke up to yet another beautiful but unwelcome blanket of snow Harbourfront Centre brought their Complaints Choir to the Art Gallery of Ontario. The weather was one of the many concerns in the list of complaints elicited from the Toronto community since last fall. Over 1000 were received and World Stage resident composer and lyricist, Bryce Kulak, whittled them down to 60-odd rhyming gripes set to a tune catchy enough for a novice singer to proclaim. While handing out the lyrics sheet to the patrons of the AGO, I overheard a parent predicting their child would be humming the song in the car the whole way home. And indeed, choir members confess to whistling the song at work leading up to tonight’s performance.

Originally conceived by Finnish artists Tallervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta- Kalleinen, this community art project has seen successful compositions in Birmingham, Chicagoland, Tokyo and Jerusalem.  Many of their performances have been documented and can be found online, as well as on the Harbourfront Centre website.

The pleasure of a good bellyache doesn’t discriminate as reflected by the diverse members of the Toronto Complaints Choir. Young and old, many communities were represented and while the group boasted more women then men, Bryce Kulak successfully maintains his duty as conductor while leading the vocal sections set aside for male voices.

Bringing the Complaints Choir into community spaces is at the heart of this project as it alters the way we encounter our city and the people in it. As the choir entered the Walker Court there was already an audience waiting but when they began singing people flooded the balconies to see what all the kvetching was about in the otherwise hushed gallery. The validation of hearing complaints experienced by many of the people in the audience set to a feel good tune is intoxicating and moved one excited listener to dance, clap and sing along. After it was all over, as I was waiting with the few crates needed to perform this show, an excited woman asked if I was involved with the choir. Thrilled this event was happening, she figured she had enough complaints she should run for Prime Minister. If the snow and the prospect of a spring election in Canada are getting you down there are two more chances to catch the Toronto Complaints Choir this week: Thursday from 6:30 – 8pm in the Distillery District and on Saturday from 3:15 - 3:45pm on the boardwalk just south of Harbourfront Centre. Read more!

La Voix Humaine: A Response by Hannah Cheesman

A Dutch company and performance, a French play, and English subtitles. This certainly is World Stage. And to fill in those blanks: Toneelgroep Amsterdam; under the direction of Ivo van Hove; performed by Halina Reijn; in the 1927 monologue La Voix Humaine written by Jean Cocteau.

Van Hove is a director of mostly classical texts. But he interprets them through the contemporary and thus, we are granted greater access to this still quite timeless piece. Timeless because that pain of being abandoned by a lover is decisively identifiable. It would appear that that ineffable despair marking the end of love does not actually lie in language, or Cocteau’s text necessarily, but rather in those moments where Reijn doubles over in pain, silently mouthing screams she won’t give voice to.

The immediate interest I took in this piece even prior to watching, was how close the 1920’s actually are. This is not an Ibsen or a Strindberg classic. We are much closer to the post-war, pre-depression, and pre-war 1920s than much of the high-brow theatre we deem as classics. But unlike watching a Brecht (as the closest comparison I might draw), the emotional access we are immediately given due to the nature of the subject matter makes this echo of the past that much closer. I felt like I was looking at a palimpsest, and that the beating heart of this early 20th century piece was still quite audible. If I may be so bold: one can easily hear the ‘voice’ of the writer, his time, and even the actress he initially wrote this for. Because the text is monologue, I was impressed by van Hove’s work in sculpting and shaping its body. The writing itself did have, of course, an arc, a plunging into deeper despair from her initial and self-named bravery. But van Hove expertly (and with a mostly light touch) utilized all theatrical elements to create what I think could easily be likened to a sculpture or dance piece. It felt organically realized, from the simplicity of prop choices (a sweater, a cigarette, a phone, a shoe, and of course, the beautiful dress Reijn ends up in), to the changing light that gave dynamism to an otherwise still piece, and the music that acted to carve out scenes or ‘movements’. This spareness allowed the room necessary for this actress to feel, experience, and thus permit us to witness.

It’s my opinion, however, that the music was heavy-handed. The piece did not require it to indicate what the audience should feel where, nor did we necessarily require such a pointed nod to the present as “Single Ladies” by Beyonce. The (literal) window into someone’s life was entirely effective with only Reijn flitting across, around, and ultimately outside of her space. No manipulation of this kind was necessary.

Yet one cannot speak of a one-woman show without speaking of the one woman. Halina Reijn was committed, amazingly natural, engaging, and like van Hove, performed with a light touch. Both van Hove and Reijn worked in counter to the piece at times, putting laughter and levity to the heavy words she spoke. Again, I can’t help but draw comparisons to say a piece of music: deep bass, but shrill trumpet. Well thought-out, exacted, and inspired. Truly worth the price of admission. The only incongruity within her performance, I felt, was how ‘in her body’ she was. For a piece that for me was like sculpture, dance, or music, Reijn felt at times unusually disembodied. As much as her keening and writhing should speak volumes, there were flashes of something ungrounded, unmotivated. I wonder whether this was first-night-in-Canada jitters, or my expectation of dancer-like agility, given my likening this piece to other art forms. Still, I must emphasize how very minor this is, how very much one must search for criticism here.

I had a strange experience though, of floating in and out of the piece. Granted, the immediacy of her words were lost in the reading of subtitles, so this could very well have been reason enough for that. But disengaging was rather easy to do. I’ll return to the timelessness of the end of a relationship here: the same feelings, clothed in different words, make their appearance as always. And so, watching Reijn and hearing the cadence of her voice felt more revealing than the text itself. It makes sense, then, that one can step away and then return, without missing much content. In many ways this was a welcome relief, given how demanding one-person shows can be on an audience.

My only major criticism other than the musical choices was a somewhat pushed comedic sense. The Beyonce, the dog-miming, these moments felt like a laugh was anticipated, hoped-for, but chosen in a way that was strangely out of context or at least outside of the piece’s otherwise airtight realization. With such a delicate piece it is no wonder that I was so sensitive to minor gestures, which become so grand against the lean palette upon which this plays.

All this said, I do wonder about the play’s ultimate message. A woman is generous to the very end, giving of herself and her life entirely. The conclusion seems a kind of antiquated moment of French melodrama or romanticism, and here I smell a sort of outdated sketch of the female. I wonder whether this would have been written differently by Cocteau had he been alive today, or if perhaps this was the most active ending he could find. In any case, it left us with a beautiful image: Reijn in her indigo dress and heels, arms raised, the final sound she utters a sharp intake of breath.
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