Friday, August 9, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Show and Tell Alexander Bell (SummerWorks)

When Bell Plays Broken Telephone
Crossed lines between theatre and performance art
by Gregory Bunker

Like a dream, Show and Tell Alexander Bell (produced by Ars Mechanica) is fantastical, schizophrenic, hard to understand and even harder to recall. Sadly, the premise gets lost and the plot becomes so bewildering that the nightmarish atmosphere towards the end feels appropriate: you know that soon, you’ll wake up and it’ll all be over.

Still, the play is so well-produced that I made the effort to think more about it. The musical score and sound is beautiful (Vladimir Kerkez), and the lighting and projections are perfectly executed (Vojin Vasovic and Montgomery Martin). The effects and artful choreography merge to create some truly magical scenes, but the reality is that there simply isn’t enough dialogue from the actors to create emotion, drama, or to know what is actually going on.

You would be hard-pressed to know from seeing the play that the historical jumping-off point for this show is speculating about how Alexander Bell (Vojin Vasovic, also director) might have invented a device to help him communicate with his deaf wife and mother (both Natalie Mathieson). There is an “operator” (Sasha Kovacs) who helps to introduce and occasionally interrupt the play with a sort of meta, iPhone-inspired commentary, ostensibly “to make sure no line gets crossed” in the play’s attempt to communicate with the audience. But lines get crossed anyway.

The premise is ripe with many possible motivations and perspectives, yet the play’s objective becomes a concern early on. The program reads: “This performance has strange and silly choreographies, dramatic and magical scenes, but these are all nothing but attempts to patch you through.” Patch me through to what, you ask? “…A participatory, intermedial and immersive journey into the paradoxical nature of communication.” There are lots of “innovation” buzzwords here, and really, only the “intermedial” part of it is truthful.

Perhaps the paradox of this show is that despite its topic and academic pedigree (it verges towards Dadaism but not as free or fun), it is best to enjoy it as you might a Schwarzenegger action flick: if you can tolerate an ever-fraying plot that eschews dialogue in support of mesmerizing sights and sounds, this may be for you. Just don’t expect to wake up and remember much about it tomorrow.

Show and Tell Alexander Bell is at SummerWorks

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