ARTAUD AND HIS DOUBLES: PRELUDE - CAN'T

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Actions do the talking as audience asked to leave

Kate Taylor

In the cramped entrance to the performance space where experimental theatre director Hillar Liitoja is mounting his current show, there is a sign: “Don’t talk to Hillar unless he talks to you. Don’t ask him any questions.” Before the show can begin, the stage manager goes around with a cup and silently indicates to anyone chewing gum to spit it out. As the show reaches its close, he approaches audience members one by one and firmly points them in the direction of the door. Apparently, in the eyes of Liitoja and his DNA theatre company, an audience can be a real pest.

The artistic attitude is an unattractive one, but it can produce some interesting results. Liitoja, whose previous works include a cycle inspired by the poems of Ezra Pound and an all-day Hamlet, turns here to Antonin Artaud, the French surrealist whose theatre of cruelty sought to break down the conventional barriers between stage and life. Punning on Artaud’s collection of essays entitled The Theatre and Its Double, Liitoja calls this show Artaud and his Doubles:  Prelude – Can’t. (Subsequent parts will also be staged, starting in the fall.)

This prelude contains no text, just movement and sound. In a bare and barely renovated space in the garment district, a cast of 10 actors and dancers walk, pace, run and gesture. Sometimes their movements are abstract: arms swing, a hand is pointed to the head. Sometimes they are specific: A man spoons grain into a jar; a woman hurls books against a wall. The women often expose their chests if not their entire bodies; the men wear skirts or dresses. In a hugely detailed panorama of choreographed movements, they become increasingly loud and frantic until, after 90 minutes, the audience is asked to leave.

To the impatient observer, the abstract accumulation of movement and gesture may look random and meaningless, but it is not. At its most engaging, it has the visual imagery and physical power of good contemporary dance; at its least, it washes over you the way classical music washes over the tone deaf. The point, however, is merely the frenetic activity that is wholly engrossing to the performer, but inscrutable to the watcher. It never communicates emotion or idea; it is not about anything other than its experiment.

If that experiment asks questions about the nature of the relationship between performer and audience, it doesn’t ask them with much urgency, let alone offer any persuasive replies. For the barrier between stage and life to really break down, audiences would have to take as aggressive an attitude as Liitoja does: refuse to remain silent, refuse to spit out gum, refuse to leave. Since DNA discourages its audience, its experiment looks self-indulgent.

Globe and Mail
June 7, 1996