Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Play: The Charge of the Expormidable Moose

The Charge of the Expormidable Moose (One Little Goat Theatre Company. Dir: Adam Seelig. Written by Claude Gauvreau. Translated by Ray Ellenwood.)

Tarragon Theatre Extra Space. May 10 - 26, 2013.

[Consumerist summary for the tl;dr crowd]

Inventively staged and well-acted, The Charge of the Expormidable Moose could be the Québécois One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, introducing English-speaking Canadians to the work of Claude Gauvreau. This is a poetic journey into institutionalization and group dynamics, designed to provoke emotions rather than answer questions. Yes, the title means something, and no, it's not literal. Running at the Tarragon Extra Space until May 26, this is well-worth investigating.

[Longer, rambling review — Spoiler alert! This discussion freely throws in a lot of details of developments in the play, etc. Be warned if you'd like to head into the show with an unfettered mind.]

Mycroft Mixeudeim1 is the sort of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve — "guileless", if you will, but ever willing to come running to help on hearing someone scream. A sensitive poet, he's a broken man due to a great sadness and loss in his past. Now he resides in an ambiguous, vaguely institutional setting, and it's unclear if his tormenting co-habitants are attending doctors, cruel fellow inmates, or even externalized aspects of his own personality.

Such a lack of literal clarity in the pursuit of a higher truth is probably to be expected when heading to a show by Toronto's One Little Goat Theatre Company. Billed as "North America’s only theatre company devoted to contemporary poetic theatre," the deliberate sense of ambiguity and dislocation here allow layers of potential interpretations without being too directly concerned with suggesting a resolution.

Helping to encourage that suggestive inspecificity, the set was executed with fairly simple elements.2 "Windows" on the sides and wings of the stage were backed by thick vegetation (hinting at the location's remoteness) while five doors, ranging in size from a small hatch to a grand portal in the centre, lined the back wall. But most striking was that all of the doorknobs were replaced with mannequin hands, giving each door the look of a suggestively-inviting portal. At the outset, they'd be removed and subsequently used as keys. Hands, reaching out for succour or to offer rescue — but removed by a capricious overseer; doors — portals into a different place — weighted with all sorts of symbolism, especially here with the handles removed and turned into constricting barricades...

...but not to Mycroft Mixeudeim (played by Ben Irvine), whose brute strength allows him to fling himself through the closed doors, running head-first into them to jar them open. We witness this at the outset as possible romantic interest Laura Pa (Lindsey Clark) feigns a scream of terror to bring him crashing through the door. This would be the first of a series of tormenting "tests" that the other characters would subject him to, each promoting their own diagnoses of Mycroft's condition. It is through these experiments that we learn of his work as a poet and his doomed love, as well as the shades of contempt, jealously and possible sympathy that the others hold him in. Dressed as if they were spending a weekend at the country club, ready to dash off for a round of tennis, their behaviour falls somewhere between clinical observation, voyeuristic thrill-seeking, and cruel sport.

This reaches its peak in the second act's "dinner party" where the dominant Lontil-Déparey (David Christo) supplies a series of potions that send Mycroft into various emotional states, each of which come with a new diagnosis. The allusions to psychopharmacology's chemical cosh are clearest here, and the sequence is probably the play's high point, especially for the turn-on-a-dime range in Irvine's performance as he is transformed from elation to manic babbling to a non-verbal state where he can only mime his responses to the questions aimed at him. The tone throughout had previously surfed a tension where the audience was never quite sure if they should laugh at or empathize with Mycroft, but here director Adam Seelig reaches for overt humour, emphasizing the absurdity of the observers evaluating Mycroft's emotional responses to the chemical states they have induced in him.

The second half of the play doesn't quite maintain the momentum. A deus ex machina (in the form of a helicopter crash) introduces Dydrame Daduve (Sochi Fried) which creates a new dynamic, giving Mycroft a confidant, but also providing his observers with new levers with which to test him. After finding that their manipulations aren't powerful enough (or their own wills strong enough) to induce a suicidal state in Mycroft, the final act sees Lontil-Déparey calling upon the services of Letasse Cromagnon (Hume Baugh), an avowed sadist. Appearing on the scene with a coach's whistle and loud bluster (shades, perhaps, of Rob Ford?), the mystery and ambiguity that the play had cultivated was suddenly set upon by a perverse (and perversely articulate) shouty voice, sucking all of the air out of the room.

Cromagnon serves the purpose, though, of exposing the hypocrisy of the other characters, who prefer to cloak their sadism in clinical mumbo-jumbo, pronouncing they are tormenting Mycroft for scientific discovery rather than for their own pleasure. Convincing Dydrame, who has fallen in love with Mycroft, to take part in an experiment to complete his cure, Cromagnon manages to impart to Mycroft the lesson that he must build up an internal callousness so as not to be aroused to respond to "impertinent calls for help", which leads, step-by-step, to the tragic resolution — "tragic" in that classic sense where there's a pile of bodies left behind. It also leads to the play's final climax, wherein Mycroft is dispatched by being impaled with a hockey stick — a most particularly Canadian martyrdom.3 The play's final resolution leaves us with a world steeped in sadism and absurdity.

It's partially from that deflating conclusion that the play's second half doesn't land with as much impact as the first. The last act moves with the assurance of pieces being moved in sort of perverse chess game — absurd, but inexorable — and somewhere in the clockwork movements, our emotional investment in Mycroft is stripped away, and ultimately, his murder (or sacrifice?) was neither shocking nor discomfiting. That lack of catharsis might be a deliberate final sort of alienation effect, but it also left a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste as I left the theatre.

Still, there's a lot to chew on here, which is what made this a worthwhile experience. It doesn't take much knowledge of Gauvreau's life to give this a strongly autobiographical reading — he was an unappreciated poet, suffered the loss of a great love, and was in and out of institutional care for much of his later years.

It's also an interesting document of how artists in the avant garde can be ahead of their times. Just as the Situationists, with whom Gauvreau was affiliated, issued their manifesto Refus Global, presupposing the Quiet Revolution in 1948, this play (originally written in 1956) exposes fault lines that would be part of the cultural battles of "the 60's" a decade later. Although this would have been written against the backdrop of Québec's battles with secularization, God is strikingly absent from this work,4 a non-concern compared to the problemization of power dynamics and the instrumentalization of rationality that would allow "experts" to exert power over inmates (and, by proxy, over members of society at large). Those themes tie this in with a number of other key works, and both Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Foucault's Folie et déraison both feel like they emerged from a similar social ferment. But it's striking to note that Gauvreau was there first.

Photos by Yuri Dojc.

1 Two notes on the use of names in the play: First, they are, as translator Ray Ellenwood notes, "rather cumbersome mouthfuls", some of which are nebulously suggestive in French, but still generally abstract. Second, they are here employed in that literary way where the characters often call each other by name in a way that never happens in normal conversation, especially in the frequent use of both first and last names. It's an affectation that simply has to be adjusted to.

2 Special praise should be given to Thomas Ryder Payne's sound design. The pre-show mixture of birdcalls and echo-y electroacoustic noise (the type that is generally used to signify madness) established both the tone and the location's remoteness. And throughout the play, microphones were used in interesting ways — adding some reverb-y echo at key moments, but also sometimes physically handled by the cast, subtly breaking the fourth wall.

3 The hockey stick is one of several innovations not in the original script added by director Seelig. A mirror that Mycroft originally employed in self-directed monologues has also been replaced here by a final miniature door, lowered from the ceiling, through which he now speaks as if peeking through a window to his own soul. All of these modifications are well-employed in the play's dynamic staging.

4 Though, obviously, you could give a Jesus-y reading to Mycroft's death. But that just doesn't seem to be the battle Gauvreau is fighting.

1 comment:

  1. Nice text, but La charge de l'orignal épormyable was written before L'Internationale situationniste was founded, and the movement who wrote Le refus global is named Les Automatistes.