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Audience booted out as Artaud play rages on

Geoff Chapman

There’s a notice in the doorway of the Wellington Space, where Hillar Liitoja’s latest creation is exploring avant-garde ideas floated by notorious theatrical rebel Antonin Artaud.

It reads: “People with heart problems or epilepsy may find the performance stressful. If you choose to enter, be prepared to leave at any time.”

Perhaps the warning notice for Artaud and his Doubles: Prelude – Can’t should be amended to say: “People who watch this performance may well develop heart problems, epilepsy or possibly a multitude of other disorders.”

People should also be prepared for an unusual move by DNA’s Liitoja after 80 or so minutes of ritual.

I don’t as a rule reveal endings, but when the audience is evicted from the premises, doors slammed and bolts shot home to prevent it returning while the “play” rages on, it seems worth a mention.

The 10-member ensemble might have danced all night for all we know, ordered not to stop until Part 2 of this two-years-in-the-making project – Stupeydoop – arrives in the fall.

What’s happening here? If you know of Artaud, you’ll recall he was in the vanguard of the French revolt against theatrical tradition after World War I that led to such labels as cubism, constructivism, dada and surrealism – ideas that would break the hold of realism and develop new forms.

The troubled Artaud, forever battling drugs, booze, head pains and emotional instability, felt Western theatre was devoted to a narrow range of human experience. What mattered to him was the unconscious, where things that lead to hatred and conflict lurk. He maintained that theatre could provide a cathartic release from horror.

His mystical, visionary approach – adopted notably by Genet and Arrabal and successfully by Weiss (Marat/Sade) – operates on the senses in what later was called a “theatre of cruelty” that forced an audience to confront itself.

All this is real meat for Liitoja, who takes up Artaud’s preference for unconventional performance spaces, loud music that’s moving or dissonant and intermittent lighting and then jettisons language entirely in favour of symbolic gesture, movement, sound and rhythm.

Perhaps his meat is infected with mad cow disease.

In one memorable sentence, Artaud declared that theatre “has been created to drain abcesses collectively.”

You may well feel drained after the audience is “downsized” and you’ve experienced ear-splitting religious Bach and Bulgarian non-melodies, plus whirling dervish activity on the floor around a table, in the audience’s face and in corners of the rectangular room.

Anyway, my brain hurts.

You realize early that this is not your average linear plot – the space lit by nine candles and a lampstand, dresses on hangers, odd objects scattered around and Tracy Wright arriving while balancing an egg in her left eye-socket.

The other nine barefoot performers include supple dancers Aviva Chernick and Jacqueline Casey, ballerina Angela Philip and the striking figures of Clinton Walker and Mark Lonergan.

They do a lot of things the immediate meaning of which is likely to be elusive, though they’re obviously in the business of creating mood.

A substance is spooned into a jug, a cloth unravelled, a crystal ball and telescope peered into, a finger dipped into wine.

Limbs thrash the air, gestures are quick, artists sprint in circles, tiptoe. They stare. Breasts are beaten and bared, spoons clashed, a bowl stirred, books tossed – and was that someone frying and egg over there?

This blooming, buzzing confusion represents something, the over-all sense that a state of serenity is collapsing into anxiety, violence and terror with foot-tapping, cries, moans, hisses, distorted Bach and loud recorded bangs on the soundtrack.

Yet the presentation mostly fails to connect, its challenge to theatrical boundaries leaving just a vague and unspecific aura that never crystalizes into something unforgettable.

This busy artistic no-man’s-land might suggest you’re in an asylum or monastery, at the Inquisition, possibly visiting a ballet training school – in any case, in a place where you relate to the hallucinations of painters Dali, Munch, Picasso and Bosch.

Drama critics could be considered fantasists who persist in getting themselves trapped in someone else’s fantasy.

At least Liitoja sets you free.

The Toronto Star
June 1, 1996