Theatre

A CREATIVE SPLASH

Canadians at the World Stage festival break down genre barriers

John Bemrose April 21 2003
Theatre

A CREATIVE SPLASH

Canadians at the World Stage festival break down genre barriers

John Bemrose April 21 2003

A CREATIVE SPLASH

Theatre

JOHN BEMROSE

Canadians at the World Stage festival break down genre barriers

WHEN IT comes to theatrical innovation, there are a lot of queer things going on in Toronto these days. In a midtown swimming pool, the bodies of synchronized swimmers quaver like anemones while a silent movie about Kafka flickers overhead. In another location, actors dance and mime their way through a short story by Gogol, to the sweeping music of Shostakovich. It all sounds so very European—the sort of avant-garde theatricality normally associated with places like France or Russia, where there’s a long tradition of breaking down boundaries between genres. But these shows are Canadian, and are being performed as part of Harbourfront Centre’s biennial Du Maurier World Stage festival. The month-long event (April 1-27) has always presented cutting-edge drama from abroad. But this time around, it also offers a chance to see just how inventive Canadian staging has become.

In the past, Canadian appearances at World Stage have often been, if not embarrassing, then stuck in an old-fashioned, linear realism. There were exceptions, of course, most notably from the electrifying Quebec directors Robert Lepage and Gilles Maheu. But gradually, many English-Canadians have been shedding their reserve and taking up the internationalist style, with its emphasis on visual wit and genre-bending. This movement has been strongest in opera and other dramatic musical works; in fact, four of the six Canadian offerings at World Stage are music-driven.

One early festival success was Facing South, from Toronto’s New Opera Works. Powerfully staged in a decrepit warehouse, it evokes the controversial 1909 assault on the North Pole by U.S. admiral Robert E. Peary (Gregory Dahl). The actor-singers move with a slow-motion grace reminiscent of classical Japanese theatre. And despite Linda Catlin Smith’s monotonie score, this is a riveting

production in which simple objects such as crumpled plastic sheeting are skillfully used to suggest the Arctic wastes.

John Krizanc’s Tamara, on the other hand, goes for the most sumptuous setting possible—a Toronto mansion, where spectators get to follow individual cast members through the house in the hopes of untangling the amorous adventures of Italian poet and drug addict Gabriele d’Annunzio (John Gilbert). The play, set in 1927, was considered revolutionary when it premiered in 1981—hence its inclusion in the festival. It still seems highly original yet the drama is undermined by its melodramatic script.

The show raises a critical issue. Tamara and all the other Canadian offerings—apart from Maheu’s La Bibliothèque, set in a library—are about people and events outside Canada. Depending on your point of view, this can be taken as open-minded interna-

tionalism, or a lack of faith in Canadian content. The Overcoat (April 23-27), a national hit when it was first mounted by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling in 1997, is set in an unnamed eastern European city. Another much-anticipated show, Kafka in Love (April 26-27), from Autumn Leaf Performance, is set in an Italian spa town—its baths are evoked by a University of Toronto swimming pool.

On the whole, the advent of such innovative staging can only be greeted with joy. But the question remains: are some Canadian creators simply following a fashionable internationalism while ignoring their own history and culture? This is not to say their works should have an obviously Canadian content. Among the shows already performed at World Stage, Facing South, despite its American central character, seems animated by a skeptical Canadian sensibility. Productions that don’t root themselves at home may well have novelty and intellectual flash, but in the longer run they may prove as evanescent as yesterday’s news. lui