Friday, May 25, 2012

Review: (Toronto) The Hunger

The Gingerbread Man
Not a pleasant night
by Dave Ross

A man dressed in black, wearing a mask, stepped into the lobby of the theatre this evening. He mingled with the crowd waiting to enter the theatre, and started silently directing the audience into the performance space. And then he walked into a few chairs and nearly fell over. This was clearly not part of the act, and was a bad omen at the opening night of Uncanny House’s The Hunger, running now at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre in Parkdale.
Before proceeding further in this review, I need to state that The Hunger is my first experience with an immersive performance installation. Until now, theatre for me has always been relatively traditional. It should also be noted that I’ve not included any names in this review—Uncanny House is a collective of artists, and the news release is unclear as to who was responsible for specific aspects of the production. No program is provided. This performance is billed as a “surreal, immersive experience” that explores the themes of escapism and consumption, while instilling a sense of child-like wonder. The news release states that this production “strives to distill the essence of… Hansel and Gretel.” These are lofty aims, aims that are not met even once during the production.
The choreography was uninspired, and included some disturbing moments.

The production is a mix of sound, video projection, and live choreography. The cast consists of six performers dressed in black, with identical seagull masks. They lead us into the performance space, a portion of which consists of a house with walls of vacuum-sealed bread. On leading us into the house, the gulls offered us gingerbread. Eventually, we were led out of the house and it was indicated to us where to sit. The choreography was about to begin. It occurred in three nearly-identical cycles, with some bird-inspired movements, a lot of abstract interpretation, and even some disco. Again, gingerbread was offered, but also taken away. Occasionally, a gull would point at someone in the audience (who are seated around the edge of the room) and all the gulls would rush at that person at once. This cycle would repeat, before the gulls would start doing shadow-dances behind a large screen. The gulls would occasionally interact with the audience, ushering individuals out of the main space into the house, or dancing with them. Throughout the dance cycles, the screen is projected with images of sharks lunging out of the water, seagulls at a garbage dump, scenes of Santa Clause from Miracle on 34th Street, among other images.
I have nothing but criticism for this production. It lacks any movement or momentum, and stagnates quickly. The lighting design is ill-considered—I sat with an LED flickering in my face the entire time, blinding me for much of the evening. My companion ended up being unable to see much of what was happening due to his position in the L-shaped room. The choreography was uninspired, and included some disturbing moments. At one point, I was rushed from behind by a gull who started rapidly running his fingers up and down my back before digging them in and growling from deep in his throat. I froze in my chair, and he growled again and started pushing me. Eventually, it became clear that he needed me to move so he could artistically adjust the wall of vacuum-bread behind me. Quite frankly, he scared the shit out of me (influenced no doubt by my distaste for masks). If I hadn’t realized half a second before what he was about to do, he would’ve lost his mask, and any contemplative quiet would have been shattered by a loud “What the FUCK?” 
The gulls seem to want very specific results from the audience, but never make their desires clear.

For much of the production, it is unclear exactly what is going on. The gulls seem to want very specific results from the audience, but never make their desires clear. Perhaps this is intentional, but it left the audience with bewildered and frustrated looks on their faces. Mind you, I’m never big on audience interaction. The third time a gull offered me a tray of gingerbread, I declined. The gull kept pressing, and I declined again. They gestured at the tray, and I gestured toward the rest of the audience. My pockets were full of gingerbread at this point, and I didn’t want any more of that game. The performer should have picked up on my reluctance and moved on. Especially since the gull demanded the gingerbread back once I cooperated, and then kept darting the tray away so I couldn’t return it. Between the gingerbread game and the growling gull, I was left feeling picked on and irritated. I wanted nothing more than to leave. 
The audience was looking at their watches the entire time, and if I hadn’t been there for a review I would have left within the first half hour. This production is nothing short of disappointing. There is no message, no comment on consumerism, no depth to this art. If a message indeed exists, it is so obscure as to be inaccessible. The Hunger is contributing the proceeds of the show to the West End Food Co-op’s fundraising campaign, which is laudable, but also ironic given how much bread is molding in the walls of their set. Everything about this production is unfulfilling. 
While it is clear that Uncanny House has put a lot of work into this production, my advice to potential viewers is to donate the $20 for admission directly to the food co-op, skip The Hunger, and spend your evening on a patio down the street. 

The Hunger continues to May 27 (WARNING: This website includes a deafening sound effect)

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