— Jane Osborne, Crystal Verge, and Sebastian Kroon . Photo: Tim Matheson
HOUSE OF X
The Neanderthal Arts Festival, now on at The Cultch, sports a witty logo. A cartoon caveman holds a skull in the Hamlet pose, with the slogan: “... and you thought theatre was extinct.” In the wake of the Playhouse debacle the Neanderthals are working to ensure that theatre in Vancouver will continue to be rather than not to be.
Now in its 3rd year, Neanderthal is a Fringe-like summer festival, different from the Fringe in that its shows are curated and all under one roof. This year it showcases seven new or newish, short, edgy works. They run simultaneously on The Cultch’s three stages alongside improv comedy from The Sunday Service and a series of play readings. Most participants are local, but there’s also a political satire from Toronto about Lenin’s corpse (Tyumen, Then) and a solo show from Victoria called God Is a Scottish Drag Queen.
For my opening night taster I tried two very different plays with a little something of the theatrical caveman in common.
Conrad Alexandrowicz is the slightly mad genius behind House of X, an experimental mash-up of poetry, prose, gibberish, movement and dance produced by his company, Wild Excursions Performance. Alexandrowicz takes as his text the oblique verse of Canadian poet Erin Mouré, gives some of it to a narrator (Crystal Verge) who sets the scene, and some as dialogue to three performers (Sebastian Kroon, Jane Osborne, Linda Quibell) who act out archetypal mini-dramas like “The Suitor, the Mother and the mad Daughter” on Catherine Hahn’s Daliesque set.
Sometimes the actors speak Mouré’s strange poetry (“the play starts now, after it’s over”), sometimes they speak a gibberish that sounds vaguely Slavic. But mostly they mime the story or dance it, and that’s when it really comes to life. Alexandrowicz provides a witty, dynamic choreography and the attractive Kroon and Osborne move with athletic verve. Quibell offers sharp comic commentary, such as a mother’s distress at her child’s choice of mate, through facial expression and body language. Simple repeated choreographed gestures—feet sliding back and forth along the floor in unison—become eloquent signifiers.
I’m not a big fan of dance theatre. I usually find its vocabulary much more limited than the spoken word. But House of X illustrates how intelligent and fun pre-verbal movement can be.
While Hardline Productions’ Coercion tells a more conventional theatrical tale, it utilizes a similar physical language of stylized movement to surprising effect.
Coercion poses a paranoid suspense fableabout two men who have worked in the Alberta tar sands. Both have been brainwashed by the oil company to keep them from revealing the devastating environmental damage it’s trying to conceal. Roderigo (Gui Fontanezzi) is an engineer now driving cab, Jason (Sean Oliver Harris) a security officer and former soldier. They take turns threatening and interrogating each other as Roderigo tries to get Jason to acknowledge the truth of his conspiracy theory.
Co-written by the actors, director Genevieve Fleming, and movement and sound designer Raes Calvert, the story is compelling but the dialogue often clumsy. The action is high-pitched, the acting intense, the music spooky. Then every so often the B-movie style interrogations morph into highly stylized, choreographed fight scenes. Without dialogue, bathed in Wladimoro Woyno’s dreamlike lighting, Fontanezzi and Harris perform muscular, masculine dance that resonates with much more suggestiveness and complexity than the play’s generic narrative.
The Neanderthal Festival’s antidote to theatrical extinction continues through this weekend.