Theatre Notes

By PAUL MATWYCHUK and CHAD HUCULAK Sex and Zen Dialogue and Rebuttal •
Timms Centre for the Arts (U of A) • May 13-22 • preVUE Studio
Theatre’s production of Gao Xingjian’s Dialogue and Rebuttal
reunites Jonathan Christenson and Beth Graham, whose scenes together in The
Blue Orphan as downtrodden, shoeless paper seller Jim Tibue and Hortense, the
optimistic waif who gives him a rare taste of happiness provided some of the
most memorable and poignant theatrical moments of the last couple of seasons.
But their relationship in Dialogue and Rebuttal couldn’t be more
different: this time out, Christenson is a glibly confident sexual predator
and Graham is a sexually experienced young woman he met a few hours earlier
in a bar. The play itself, which begins just after the couple finishes making
love and just as they start playing intellectual power games and debating the
difference between men and women, couldn’t be more different,
either—where The Blue Orphan was lushly designed, intricately plotted
and appealed to an audience’s heartstrings, Dialogue and Rebuttal is
stark, minimalist, plotless and designed to inspire meditation, not jerk
tears. (There’s even a third character, a Zen monk played by dancer
Sonja Myllymaki, whose meditative exercises provide a calm counterpoint to
the often violent argument being waged elsewhere on the stage.)
“It’s sort of a cubist view of two characters after a one-night
stand,” says director Goesta Struve-Dencher, whose M.F.A. in directing
at the U of A is nearly complete once this project is over with.
“We’ve been reading and rereading this script for several months
now and it doesn’t reveal itself at first glance. When I spoke with
[Beth and Jonathan] and gave them a script, they both came back and they
expressed interest in it as well as some degree of perplexity. But it was
obviously something that hooked them, and then the problem became one of
figuring out the best way to approach it.” One of the bigger challenges
Struve-Dencher faced in staging the play for a Western audience was
Gao’s unconventional, post-Brechtian performance style. As
Struve-Dencher explains, where Brecht saw two aspects to the figures onstage,
the character and the actor playing them, Gao—and I’m wildly
simplifying here—sees three: the character, the actor and what could be
called the “neutral actor,” a kind of purified essence-of-actor
who negotiates between the other two personae. “The way he explains
it,” Struve-Dencher says, “is that in traditional Chinese
theatre, the person who the actor is steps into the dressing room and as they
strip away who they are and what they wear, they become this empty vessel who
then puts on the character in the play. The most obvious equivalent in the
West occurs when someone appears onstage as the character and poses for a
moment as the applause breaks out. And what they’re applauding,
according to Gao, is not the character or the actor, but aesthetic moment of
seeing the actor present the character before going back into the
drama.” This technique shows up a few times in Dialogue and Rebuttal in
scenes where the man and the woman refer to themselves in the third person,
as if observing themselves from outside their bodies. But those moments of
release are very hard for the two characters to sustain. “What takes
place onstage,” Struve-Dencher says, “is the struggle between the
human being trapped in reality and the yearning for transcendence and
enlightenment that’s always just out of reach…. These characters are
deeply alone, they’re trying to figure out who they are. The woman is a
very independent sort of world traveler, but she puts herself into situations
where she becomes victimized because she believes that in sexual surrender
she can lose herself. For the man, it’s the opposite; he feels that
having a sense of control and collecting these women and understanding them
he’ll have a greater understanding of himself.” Dialogue and
Rebuttal certainly asks a lot more of its audience than, say, The Sound of
Music, but Struve-Dencher (whose recent projects include a new translation of
Goethe’s Faust) has tried to make the play as much a sensory experience
as an intellectual one with the addition of live music and video projections.
“It’s a musical approach,” he says. “Not musical in
the sense of singing and dancing, but it’s like a piece of music, where
you’ve got this polyphony of intellectual, sensory, dramatic, visual
things going on…. You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand it; it’s
very basic. In fact, it helps not to think too much about it. It’s like
those Zen writings that go on and on but which also say that none of these
words will tell you how to become enlightened. So then the student asks,
‘Well, how do I become enlightened?’ and the Zen master hits him
on the head. In some ways, this play is a very gentle Zen rap on the
head.” (PM) Carnival knowledge Carnival of Shrieking Youth • Arts
Barns • To May 24 The figurehead for the Carnival of Shrieking Youth is
the famous screeching character from Edvard Munch’s painting The
Scream—a choice that might lead you to believe there will be some
actual shrieking onstage. “No,” jokes artistic/festival director
Karl Schreiner, “it’s more of a cry from young artists to be seen
and heard artistically.” Now in its 12th year, the Carnival is an open
opportunity for young Albertans between the ages of 11 to 25 with
inclinations in drama and the arts to perform live in front of an audience
that doesn’t consist solely of supportive parents and uninterested high
school students. Schreiner started COSY in 1992 as a response to all the
young people who kept telling him that there weren’t any theatrical
opportunities for them because of their age and inexperience. Like the
age-old adage goes: they couldn’t get a job because they had no
experience and they couldn’t get any experience because no one would
give them a job. In 1994, the small local festival became a provincial one
when it was handed over to the Theatre Squared Society of Alberta, who opened
up the application process to communities across Alberta. It’s been
expanding in size and scope ever since, from its humble beginnings as a
three-play, four-day event to its current slate of 18 new plays, a visual
arts exhibition and a cluster of live music performances stretching over
three weeks. Schreiner says each festival has been an improvement over the
one that came before it—and this year’s edition is
“phenomenal in scope and scale and subject matter.”
“There’s a ton of untapped talent,” he adds. “Some of
the plays [are] written by first-time playwrights, and you see the potential
of growth of where they’re going to.” Among the more interesting
projects among this year’s crop of productions is David Johnson’s
24/7, a dark comedy about an average Joe who is forced against his will to
become the solitary star of a new reality show (a twist on the usual
attention hogs who readily jump in front of reality show cameras); and Angela
Wight’s Illusions, about two sisters brought up in a small town but
raised differently as an experiment in social conditioning—one is
trained to become a “high society princess,” the other a
“cultured intellectual.” Participating in the festival for the
third time is Josh Languedoc. The 17-year-old is doing a staged reading of
his play Questions and is also directing Ian Younie’s Confessional.
Languedoc describes Confessional as being “mainly about sort of letting
go of the past.” “The main character, Aaron, has the past cling
to him,” he says. “He’s gay and his ex-boyfriend killed
himself. One day someone who looks like his dead lover comes into his
workplace and he is forced to confront the past.” Commenting on what
it’s like to direct actors around his age, he says, “They know
exactly what they’re doing. They’re very organized and
disciplined.” Directing Illusions is 25-year-old Martin Villote,
who’s in his fourth year with the festival. Like many COSY
participants, he’s involved in more than one production, having also
written the script for Brigade of Fire, a saga about superhuman teens
fighting off an alien invasion. That kind of multitasking is a welcome
contrast to the normal state of affairs for young theatre artists, most of
whom can struggle all year to get even one production in front of an
audience, let alone two simultaneously. “Most venues seem reserved for
actors in their late 20s,” Villote says. “There should be more of
these things. It’s nice to have more venues other than school.”
(CH) V

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