STUDIES IN MOTION: THE HAUNTINGS OF EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE
Electric Company Theatre meets the Playhouse in this remount of Kevin Kerr’s kaleidoscopic son et lumière spectacular, and it doesn’t seem all that comfortable a fit. First produced a few years ago at UBC as part of the PuSh Festival, Studies in Motion still has the feel of a large-scale “experimental” drama, with little real plot and lots of nudity. Kerr has tightened the sprawling script and director Kim Collier has upped the visual ante even more, bringing choreographer Crystal Pite’s added brilliance to the play’s many movement sequences. Patrick Pennefather’s dynamic soundscape and Robert Gardiner’s gorgeous, innovative lighting and projections make this a full-scale sensual treat. But for the audience being cultivated by new Playhouse boss Max Reimer, with his upcoming season of old chestnuts, light comedy and music, it must seem like aliens have landed on the Playhouse stage.
To make a play about Eadweard Muybridge, the 19th century American photographer whose pictures of animals and humans in motion led eventually to the motion picture, Kerr has intercut Muybridge’s photographic experiments with flashbacks to his personal life. There is some drama and conflict early in the photographic plot, when Muybridge (Andrew Wheeler) has his work stolen by Leland Stanford (Allan Morgan), who commissioned him to photograph race horses to see whether, in full stride, they ever have all four legs off the ground. But that subplot disappears pretty quickly. Most of Muybridge’s experiments (in the 1880s at the University of Pennsylvania) are relatively conflict-free.
The play’s dramatic interest is created through flashbacks to his haunted past (hence the subtitle), involving his wife (Anastasia Phillips), her lover (Jonathon Young), and their son (Julien Galipeau). This story has its own interest, enlivened by Phillips’ bright presence and a funny, dashing performance by Young. But the connection with Muybridge’s photographic mania still seems fairly flimsy and inorganic. And the two stories together add up to a show that feels at least 20 minutes too long.
But all that said, this is still an amazing piece of theatre, well worth the price of admission. In addition to the gasp-inducing technical prowess of the above-mentioned designers (along with Mara Gottler’s rich. detailed costumes), the acting is quite wonderful. Kyle Rideout and Juno Ruddell are outstanding as two of Muybridge’s assistants, as is Dawn Petten, whose relish in the role of a photographic model is utterly contagious. The matter-of-factness with which all the performers treat their nudity and the tastefulness with which the naked bodies are lit, blocked, and choreographed is really classy. And Andrew Wheeler delivers a stunning Muybridge. Powerfully obsessive with his flowing white hair and beard, and rich, booming voice, he’s the mad genius as Old Testament patriarch, Captain Ahab and King Lear rolled into one.
It would be very unfortunate if boundary-challenging work like this were banished from the Playhouse stage. This is the kind of show that mainstream theatre audiences need to see more of, not less.