— Photo credit: David Cooper
Flee is a unique collaboration among some of Vancouver’s most extraordinary theatre artists and musicians plus the students of Studio 58. It’s imaginative and somewhat strange, as we’ve come to expect from the Electric Company. It looks great and the performances both onstage and in the band are first-rate. And my impression after seeing the first preview Thursday night is that it’s about as lightweight as a flee, an elaborate 75-minute exercise, exquisite in places but adding up to not very much at all.
A lot of heavyweight talent is involved here. Electrics (and Studio 58 grads) David Hudgins and Jonathon Young are co-authors, and Young directs. Musical A-listers Peggy Lee (electric piano, cello), Ron Samworth (electric guitar), Dylan van der Schyff (percussion) and JP Carter (trumpet, electronics) improvise the ethereal running score. Itai Erdal paints the stage with a palette of moody lighting and Barbara Clayden’s cabaret-ish costumes are delicious. The cast is exceptional: Peter Anderson (also co-author), Lois Anderson, David Petersen and Studio 58 director Kathryn Shaw, making a rare stage appearance. The eleven student actors comprising the Fleak chorus—narrating, singing and getting a strenuous workout of choreographed flea-flickery—are charming.
Peter Anderson, delightful in his usual lanky physical-theatre way, plays watchmaker Archibald Twill. When a flea makes its way into his nose (I missed some plot detail at the start because the microphones and acoustics were so fuzzy), he and girlfriend Caprice (slinky, sexy Lois Anderson) become strangely obsessed with keeping it. They consult a sideshow flea circus proprietor (a vocally intense Peterson), who warns them not to overfeed it. But they do, and pretty soon Caprice has a whole family of baby fleas sucking her arm. The chorus sings, “Nothing cuter than a flea baby,” and Caprice sinks into a sensual reverie with her bloodsucking brood.
Enter sleazy hotel proprietress Mme. Renard (Shaw, resplendently costumed, made-up, bewigged and unrecognizable but for her voice). “Her breath smelling of mothballs and wine,” she manipulates Twill into setting up a peepshow through the keyhole whereby clients pay to watch Caprice and her fleas do it. Eventually, the health inspector arrives, the Great Fumigation occurs, and Caprice experiences … well, a metamorphosis.
Shades of Kafka, John Donne and more. There’s an existential theme-- Caprice believes she can teach the fleas “how to be flea”--and allegorical overtones to Caprice’s sensual swooning surrender to her “absolute fleadom” (drug addiction? motherhood?). Who says there’s no such thing as a flea lunch?
It’s all immensely clever but to what end, you may ask. You won’t want to flee the theatre (The Fox, former porno movie house, now a hip club, looking a lot like a former porno movie house). But artistically, you may feel just a tiny bit fleaced.