by Denise Clarke
Firehall Arts Centre and Ruby Slippers Theatre
Firehall Arts Centre, 280 E. Cordova, Vancouver
A key member of Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit theatre company for the past two decades, Denise Clarke has helped shape its influential brand of surreal physical performance, seen here in shows such as Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp, Tears of a Dinosaur, Doing Leonard Cohen, and most recently Dream Machine.
Clarke’s brief run of her own solo show A Fabulous Disaster at the Firehall last year was so successful that it has been brought back for another week, co-presented again by Ruby Slippers Theatre. A performance that at first seems kind of silly turns into something rich and strange and at times mesmerizing, though there’s barely enough of it to make up a fully satisfying evening of theatre.
On a bare stage in front of a large video screen framed by a couple of pine trees, Clarke appears in what looks like a firefighter’s white hazmat suit. She tells us that she’s there in the middle of a forest fire where “animals need help.” But her concern for animals, including dying rhinos in Africa, is only part of the story. Her anguish derives primarily from the breakup of her relationship, “the second lesbian divorce in history,” which has led her to enlist an ex-boyfriend in a foolishly romantic attempt to win back her female lover. The firefighting suit, it turns out, is made only of paper.
Her extreme plan has a certain bizarre logic, born out of the desperation of love spurned and the imagination of a deeply passionate woman. Her heart, she says, is “like a marmot living in the forest fire of me.”
In three theatrically beautiful moments we see her sensibility at its most attractive. First, she re-enacts the eroticism of mixing her books with those of her lover when they first moved in together. With eyes closed she moves along an imaginary bookshelf, naming about 50 books, everything from Edgar Allan Poe to A Girl’s Guide to Giving Head, each one lovingly recalled, verbally caressed.
Later, she pays a sensitive, intelligent tribute to bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, including a stunning a cappella version of his “Goin’ Down Slow.” She ends by dancing off her boots and work socks in a ballet both mock-melodramatic and genuinely exquisite. Dancing the dying swan to the love theme from the opera Thaïs, she falls naked into a flaming video forest.
Clarke utilizes her dance training throughout the piece, physicalizing her storytelling in subtly effective ways with a distinctive walk or a short burst of dramatic gestures. Her down home verbal cadences and flat, almost whiny Alberta accent keeps her from ever seeming precious or pretentious.
All these strange combinations work remarkably well but, at just over an hour, the show feels somewhat slight and left me wanting more.