At the whirlpool about a mile downstream from the famous falls, the Niagara River ties itself in a knot. It is a spectacular sight, the water turning turquoise-green as it surges between the walls of the gorge. The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart’s prize-winning 1986 novel, is set here, with the river as a metaphor for the currents of desire animating her characters. But how to fit the mighty Niagara into a theatre? That was the problem faced by Brian Quirt, director of a stage version of The Whirlpool now playing at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre (to April 2). Quirt didn’t have a million-dollar budget at his disposal, so trucking in tons of water was never an option. Instead, he has been forced to be uniquely innovative—and the result is one of the most original dramas in years.
In a nutshell, Quirt’s solution is to fuse drama and dance in a new way. Of course, the two art forms have often been combined: the Vancouver Arts Club mimeinspired version of Gogol’s tale The Overcoat is currently wowing audiences in Toronto. As with most such shows, The Overcoat's actors never say a word. Quirt, on the other hand, keeps his cast talking while—with the artful help of moderndance choreographer Julia Sasso and composer Justin Haynes—he has them whirl, contort, squirm, fall and dance their way through a maelstrom of relationships.
Set in 1889, The Whirlpool revolves around Fleda McDougal (Tracey Ferencz), a bored young woman whose historian husband, David (Martin Julien), is more interested in the War of 1812 than in her. There’s also a poet, Patrick (Jordan Pettle), who is so terrified of the mutual
attraction between him and Fleda that he elects to swim the whirlpool instead. The Whirlpool may not offer the straightforward dramatic momentum audiences expect. But the show throws up many scenes of an almost Zen-like simplicity and force. Guided by Sasso’s choreography, the actors move with the uncanny waywardness and grace of objects— sticks, bottles, bodies—being manipulated by powerful and complex currents. Their contortions fracture and emphasize their speeches in strange ways, giving the effect of a new language struggling to be born—one more deeply embedded in the natural world. The Whirlpool may be flawed, but it points, excitingly, in fresh directions.
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