july 2018 | Volume 169
Fight With a Stick Performance has established itself as Vancouver’s foremost avant garde experimental, exploratory theatre company with shows like Cinerama, Revolutions and Steppenwolf. With little interest in traditional theatrical character or story, the company explores perception: the ways visual and sonic manipulation can affect audiences’ ways of seeing, hearing and understanding theatrical space and the world that space stands for.
They often describe their theatre as political, as investigations of the settler-colonialism on which our community is based. I admire their political position but have to say that I have had difficulty understanding the politics of most of their work. Oh What a Beautiful Morning! is no exception.
This 50-minute performance/performance art piece is fascinating, numbing and frustrating by turns. It’s some kind of deconstruction of the classic American Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! (1943). The movie—also referenced here—appeared in 1955.
Alex Laziridis Ferguson directs four performers (Hayley Gawthorp, Hilary Hin Leung, Jessica Wilkie and Logan Rhys Hallwas), but James Maxwell’s sound design and Josh Hite’s video are at least as important.
Moving walls have become a signature of the company’s work, and in this show the walls of the set move as does a scrim that sometimes almost touches the knees of the first row of audience. On the scrim are projected images, most of them not from the movie but suggestive of the Oklahoma prairie and the kind of period rural Americana suggested by the musical and film.
We see, variously, a human figure in a wide-open landscape, horses, a farm, the windows of a farmhouse—all in projections—and in real space a period interior, a dusty drawing room with two people in chairs. These images are often visually distorted, given unnatural, herky-jerky, repetitive movement, accompanied by a sound loop that suggests the beginning of an overture or a song but never quite gets there. We do briefly hear “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” actually sung from the soundtrack, and two actors lip-synch part of it.
One of the longest and strangest sections has two actors standing side by side. At first their top halves are obscured by screens; all we see are their legs, with projections on the screens (of characters from the film?) comprising the top halves of the two bodies. The actors move their legs in synch with the projected images, which is kind of cute. Then the screens move downward. We see the actors’ bodies from the waist up. On the screen are projected forearms and hands, and the actors synch their arm movements to make it look like the projected forearms and hands are attached to them. Kind of a cool effect but its point escapes me.
There doesn’t have to be a point, of course. It could be enough to make human bodies and technologically generated images interact in amusing and surprising ways. But if the company’s intention is political here, wouldn’t greater clarity be helpful?
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