— Colleen Wheeler, Haig Sutherland in INITIATION TRILOGY. Photo credit: Michael Sider
When the Vancouver International Writers Festival convened on Granville Island last week, I was most excited about two things: moderating a session with Margaret Atwood and seeing drama included for the first time in a literary festival that privileges novels, biography and poetry.
Atwood is an icon of Canadian literature. But Electric Company Theatre also looms large in my cultural pantheon: the Vancouver troupe that most consistently combines innovative approaches to theatrical storytelling with high-quality production values. Their work is always visually stimulating and artistically challenging. Attending an Electric Company show makes you feel cool.
Presented by the Writers Festival and Boca del Lupo, another local avant garde theatre group, and directed by Anita Rochon, Electric Company’s Initiation Trilogy dramatizes poetry texts by three Vancouver women in a four-part, site-specific structure. The mini-dramas concern female initiations of various kinds, with the best being thematically the most oblique.
Meeting at the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island, the audience is taken to a secret location in a parking garage, divided into three groups of about twenty, then shepherded to three other hidden locations to experience the poets’ work. The initial setting involves hands-on initiation into one of the odd rituals of womanhood: embroidery. I only partially finished the S in Sarah because I kept losing my thread. It was strangely satisfying and frustrating at the same time.
The first scenario feels more like an art installation than a theatre piece. Glossolalia by Marita Dachsel (credited as playwright for the entire Trilogy) is a suite of poems spoken by the many wives of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Mormon. You pass from room to tiny room, listening to recorded snippets of the poetry but never seeing an actor.
Instead, you interact with the scenery, staring at the ceiling of a bedroom where a wife is losing her virginity, or at a sizzling frying pan surrounded by hundreds of broken eggshells: “Just the thought of eggs made her want to hurl.”
In the most fascinating room you crank an old victrola, turning a cylinder that creates a little movie of a woman frantically hurrying as the woman in the poem tells herself, “keep walking.” Kudos to scenographer Naomi Sider, who also designed the next piece, Jennica Harper’s What it Feels Like for a Girl.
Harper has written a series of prose poems, narrated retrospectively by an older woman, about an intense friendship with another girl during adolescence. Jen (a very pregnant Jennifer Paterson) is totally infatuated by rebellious Angel (Emma Lindsay), who introduces her to porn and models herself on Madonna. When Angel crosses a line, the other kids turn on her in a scene with chilling echoes of Amanda Todd’s story. We watch this in what feels like a circus ring, our heads poking through holes in the surrounding wall.
The final piece is the most richly theatrical and least straightforward. Elizabeth Bachinsky’s God of Missed Connections seems part autobiography, part family chronicle reaching back to Ukraine from where an ancestor immigrated to Canada in 1914, only to end up in a work camp for enemy aliens.
The poems’ subjects range from a mother’s red Ukrainian dance boots to a grandmother’s exorcism to Expo 86 and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Chernobyl dominates the performance space, an old warehouse spookily lit by Jonathan Ryder and hauntingly designed by Pam Johnson. We sit on overturned buckets marked with the radioactivity symbol, watching Elizabeth and her family ghosts played by Wendy Morrow Donaldson, Haig Sutherland, and the brilliant Colleen Wheeler.
It’s not always clear what the poems in their enactments mean, but at the end of the 100-minute show you’ll know you’ve been through a unique theatrical experience.