Not right at home with Paula and Karl

A production that drops the audience in the middle of a domestic incident plays out like an exercise in theatrical sadism

Six Stages, a minifestival of innovative international theare, got started Thursday with a highly unusual show. Arrive at 109 Niagara St. by 7 p.m., follow the signs around the back of this old warehouse across the street from the meat-packing plant, and step up to the loading dock to get your instructions. You’re here to see Paula and Karl, some play about a young couple that takes place right in the middle of their apartment. You’re told you may move anywhere you want, sit anywhere you like, but be prepared to give up your seat without notice. You may not interrupt the action, but you may leave whenever you wish.

Up you go in the freight elevator, enter the apartment and find Paula (Veronika Hurnik) watching TV while styling her hair. There’s nothing much for you and about 20 other spectators to do except find a more or less comfortable spot to sit and watch her – or her video, which features some historical drama. Maybe the whole evening’s going to be like this, an excruciating experiment in reality theatre, courtesy of experimental director Hillar Liitoja and his DNA company.

Then Karl (James Thomson) arrives home and a domestic drama begins. He’s threatening and autocratic; she’s subservient and nervous. Gradually, they reveal the grotesque secret of their marriage and you’re stuck spending two more hours with them, bounding off the couch each time they decide to sit down – unless you are going to be a coward and walk out on them.

Technically, this show is performed with impressive skill: under Liitoja’s controlled direction, Hurnik and Thomson never once acknowledge the spectators or even appear to see them. This ability to keep “focus” is considered basic competency up on a spotlit stage at the front of a darkened auditorium; in these circumstances, it’s a greater achievement.

Beyond that, however, the performances are stilted. Thomson exudes an almost cartoonish menace; Hurnik alternates between flat impassivity and some bug-eyed face-twisting that is supposed to indicate her character is afraid. In some mouths, the pedestrian script that Liitoja has written might possibly achieve a kind of ghastly naturalism; here it is mainly bland and occasionally ludicrous. Although they never slip out of character, one is all too often aware the actors are acting, which detracts from the claustrophobia this project seeks to achieve.

The show takes place in real time. There are some dramatic developments in the apartment, but you also watch and wait as Paula makes a sandwich and as Karl eats it; you spend minutes listening to jazz as Karl sits slumped in a chair. Conventional theatre creates the illusion of reality with tightly scripted speech and action which edit out the gaps and inanity that is characteristic of much of life. From that troupe of Australian clowns who have tried living for days in department store windows to Quebec director Robert Lepage’s attempts at languourous realism, experimental theatre has often tried dropping the illusion to play out action with the true slowness of life. It’s a technique that, used sparingly, can sometimes create magnificent tension, great poignancy or even outrageous comedy. Here it should be building sheer horror, but often Paula and Karl is boring.

Of course, the theory behind this show is much more worthy of review than the practice, but on that higher plane Paula and Karl also seems lacking. In the program (which is only available at the end of the show), DNA lists its goals, which include creating unique experiences and using unique venues, two things it certainly achieves here. Another stated goal is to “create performances that are deeply affecting.”

It’s not hard to affect an audience – keep prodding the spectators and they are sure to start squirming.

Although I have often suspected that Liitoja is a theatrical sadist who takes pleasure controlling his audiences, making people uncomfortable can be a perfectly legitimate artistic pursuit. It can be a good way to make them feel – or more likely – to think, about both form and content. And there this show is a disappointment: Despite the great risks it takes in confronting an audience, it has very little to say about couples like Paula and Karl. Beyond that, anything it achieves is purely subjective: Whether its unusual parameters teach you something about yourself and your ability to withstand this experiment will depend on you.

I left 109 Niagara without having learned anything I did not already know about sadism, about theatre, about myself: I was affected, but to little purpose.

Kate Taylor, The Globe and Mail Feb 3/01