Thursday, April 3, 2014

Review: (Toronto / Theatre) Conte d'amour (World Stage)

(photo by Robin Junicke)
Story of Hatred
Love yourself – stay away!
by Jason Booker

This is a three-hour, intermission-less film plopped onto a stage – not theatre. Allegedly the play is about Fritzl and his house, where he lives upstairs with a family of life-sized cloth dolls which he feeds by crumbling potato chips into their glossy magazine page faces. It’s a highly amusing, if perverse, opening scene that lasts less than ten minutes. However, that is almost the only live action in the piece (at least as much of the piece as I saw, but I’ll get to that), before Fritzl disappears behind the white drywall of his home through a hole in the cupboard. He descends into the darkness below his living room floor, a constructed box with plywood walls on three sides and a translucent plastic wall facing the audience. Inside this rec-room basement live three people. The program informs me that the man in drag is his daughter, who resembles a badly feminized Daniel Craig and mumbling into his hand-mic songs like Love Will Tear Us Apart – a darkly amusing but overly long English commentary on this German-based show. The daughter takes care of their two sons in this dark playroom, all of whom are played by men in their mid-thirties. Everything that occurs in the basement is filmed and displayed live by two cameras – one hand-held and one mounted in the upper corner near the audience, akin to a security camera – projected onto the drywall.
Why do I need to state that the program tells me? Because it isn’t at all clear from the show. Conte d’amour isn’t meant for audiences to understand or participate in – simply to watch in awe. And for them to walk out.

At my performance, the walkouts started about 45 minutes into the piece and continued throughout, commoners and theatre practioners alike. By 130 minutes, I joined them. I was sick of my time being wasted for no purpose and had been offended enough by the actions portrayed.
The title, Conte d’amour, means love story. Clearly it is a twisted title meant to criticize and question but the show only vaguely hints at emotions and family, instead questioning patriarchy and commercialism more. Watching the meticulous close-up of Fritzl preparing the McDonalds for dinner in the near-dark calls into question the ideals of what is communal, what is proper, what provides for our family – commercials that tell us what we need and want or actual subsistence. But when it drags on and on, barely visible and projected, the audience has no say in how the performance proceeds and where else to look – nothing can really be seen and nothing really happens, certainly not with a clear reasoning for why. It is a film that should be turned off long before Fritzl gets raped by his diaper-wearing son, then collapses into a corner, wearing a bathrobe, holding up a totem and singing Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors while kicking his feet in the air.
Then came watching Fritzl burst into the basement one night to inform his family that they are diseased Africans in need of his help is offensive but could be viewed as satire. When he strips down to his underwear and a dark mask to tap his asshole in front of the camera before sitting on the face of a cloth doll and sexually assaulting her, it isn’t funny – no matter how much the audience may titter. And having him speak in a language of clicks and gibberish that represents an African language can’t easily be seen as amusing; neither does having his baby son want to play Thai massage girl with daddy and slipping into a ching-chong patois with a matching stereotypical (and offensive) soundtrack.
Towards the end of the first half of the show, the prisoners all come to the corner and stare into the camera chanting about how God came to earth and humans killed his son, retribution will be had. They say it looking into the camera – directly to the audience – and we wonder how we, watching, are involved in what will transpire. An hour later, we are still expecting action as these characters passively await whatever fate is in store. Then, the man-as-a-woman steps towards the camera, staring boldly at us, shouting again and again: I am a victim (in German). Before she gives us the middle finger. I wanted to jump up onstage and rip away the plastic wall. Do something about your life, I wanted to scream to both her and the audience. It is unacceptable for people to be so passive about their time and existence and to call it drama or theatre. And it is unacceptable for theatre to simply be a projected image – why did it have to be live if there is no interaction with the audience, no interaction with humans visible for the people there, in the moment, to view? Yes, that lack of interaction is the point of the piece… but why inflict it upon an audience in such a banal and self-serving manner, a collection of idiotic performance art moments barely strung together?
What a piece of self-indulgent, offensive, meaningless bollocks. Too bad that World Stage felt the need to import this Eurotrash instead of commissioning a local artist to do anything – and I mean ANYTHING – onstage, which would have been more entertaining and worthy of the funds.


  1. Um...You're panning a durational work of which you saw half?

    I hated it for two hours and then something shifted for me. (That was my experience, it might have not been yours, we won't know.) You can certainly walk out, but then don't write about the work... You didn't see the work.

  2. I beg to differ. I would argue that a work the viewer sees as drek for two hours of three has lost all its value. It's nice to have a third act, but not if you don't have a first or second.


  3. Polarizing performance works are a good thing in my book. I am happy for this and ANY discussion around contemporary performance. I do want to chime in however about your final comment. I am personally and professionally deeply committed to the local ecology and there are in fact 2 commissions of local companies this season (and in seasons past) and a work by Fujiwara Dance Inventions that we co produced and supported its development and continue to support in its diffusion (same with other companies in seasons past)
    As an international performance series I believe Toronto is part of the world.

    Thank you

    Tina Rasmussen
    Artistic Director,
    World Stage

  4. I'm with Frank on this one. If the viewer considers it drek, feel free to leave. Don't feel free to review a thing you didn't actually see.With a durational piece, if you don't endure it, you haven't seen it.

    I'm also a bit surprised that the reviewer thinks it's okay to refer to this as Eurotrash.

  5. I am fucking tired, TIRED of these racist tropes in shows. Tina Rasmussen's facebook post today, all about how she stands behind the work of the artist and is dedicated to growing audiences for contemporary art in Toronto conveniently ignores the fact that many of us who left did so during racially problematic sequences. I do not come to Harbourfront and pay money to get CHING CHONGED IN MY OWN GODDAMNED SEAT. I support performance art in this city, and have enjoyed many durational performances but I do not and will not stick around for this racist and literally colonial european bullshit.

  6. To clarify: I asked Jason to review anyway as I wanted to know why he - as one of the 10-15% (according to World Stage) - left. As I have said elsewhere, a reviewer is also an audience member and reacts accordingly. The difference is a reviewer must explain why.

  7. There is a lot flawed in this review. Not in not liking the show but in leaving and in the understudying of the relationship between liveness and video and especially in the repeated references to "Fritzl" as the character. He is never referred to in this way and the briefest look at the notes (but also the briefest thought about the show) would reveal that the ensemble has no desire to represent the real people involved in the story.

    This is a problem dear CharPo. It wouldn't be if it were Jason Booker's personal blog. But CharPo is making a claim for for a certain position in this little world of ours – a position where writers free tickets and page views and some version of status.

    I'm all for knocking Print off the mountain top, but to do that and get some of the privilege that you seem to want, requires some effort and entrance into the pretend meritocracy of internet writing. Either I trust a site because there is a single voice I trust and read, or there is an editorial and collective rigour that I trust. In all cases you have done serious damage to your "brand" by printing this post.

    Also, for the love of god, redesign the site. It's really really not helping.

  8. Thank you for the comment, Mr. Zimmer. CharPo is and becomes what it becomes. We do it, we work like hellions, I like to think we reach some people, but mostly I like to think we also allow our (mostly young) writers to think (and write) for themselves. As we do not receive an retired red penny for our labours, I simply try to recruit - with my editors - the best writers and without a single doubt Jason Booker is one of the very best. To clarify - again, as this has been debated to death everywhere - I asked Jason to write a review despite the fact he left the show as the dialogue was heated about the piece and I wanted a take on it before the work disappeared. Now, as to you trusting on not trusting CharPo? We comment. You read. You go away. You write on your blog. I continue to put in the 40 hours per week (60 during the Fringe) on the site. I have never published anything I have been ashamed of. That's *my* bottom line. You decide yours. As to the design, it is simple and clean because we cannot afford a designer who will also create an update system that I and my editors can work and live with that has the same efficiency as this one. We keep it simple (much like your own blog, I would suggest). People come. People share. People leave. It's a lovely thing and the loveliness of it all helps me to get through the quibbles I get about everything we do every day.

  9. Hi Gaëtan,

    Simply put, Jason's statement in the first paragraph that the opening scene is "almost the only live action in the piece" is empirically inaccurate. I know this because I saw the whole show, and Jason didn't. If your blog had a corrections policy, World Stage and the Conte D'Amour creators would be entitled to one; if they were of a mind, they would have a case for libel.

    I have no issue with how Jason expressed his opinion on what he saw, but continuing to assert that what he wrote is a review when he, due to a lack of due diligence, is fundamentally unqualified to review this show, discredits your site.


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