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A hybrid of theatre and ‘reality’

The ambiguity of mixing written text and personal improvisation is heightened when the audience is asked to question the panelist

Ray Conlogue

Hillar Liitoja has been silent since his exploded production of Hamlet two years ago. Now he has returned with something completely different, a play about AIDS that is a strange hybrid of theatre and public discussion group.

Someone wishing to see The Panel must descend the Palmerston Library spiral staircase that leads to the basement theatre. Halfway down the staircase a “ticket-taker” has been positioned, who is really a ticket-taker – you must pay him – but also an actor who will challenge you in unpredictable fashion. After I passed by, he collapsed on the floor in a death spasm and spoke his last words as I clambered down the staircase.

The theatre is more properly an environment, where you sit in one of a scatter of chairs around the room. There is an empty table in the middle where, it will later emerge, the “panelists” sit. At the moment there is little going on, except for a blond woman hanging from the ceiling at one side intoning Blake’s poem, The Tiger, into an echoing amplifier.

As always, whether for financial reasons or as part of his personal esthetic, Liitoja uses mainly amateur actors, though it must be understood that some of them are experienced and committed to Liitoja’s work. Others, the youngest ones, are used in such a way that their youthfulness becomes a poignant aspect of their performance. There are also several professionals, including Sky Gilbert and Eleanor Yeoman.

Matthew Scott plays the moderator of the panel, wearing a red bathrobe and explaining in a theatrically slow and projected voice the maddeningly bureaucratic procedure by which each person will be allowed to speak. The panelists are a strange congeries of types: Sky Gilbert plays an aggressive homosexual who wants to deny that the HIV virus causes AIDS; Yeoman, mystifyingly described in the program as a “devout Heliconian,” advocates a prissy and alarmed monogamy; Ed Fielding as an “invalid” in a wheelchair prophesies doom. A variety of other views come from a self-described “promiscuous” young woman who insists that her body awareness will save her from harm, an exiled Argentinian dancer (Ken McDougall) who preaches holistic medicine, and so on.

Each appears to be quasi-improvising his speeches, and each is ruthlessly cut off by the moderator using a bell or loud buzzer. He then performs a dancer’s pirouette and asks each panelist to summarize his views. A “judge”, played by Liitoja himself, sits at the back of the theatre on the floor and sometimes interrupts with pointed opinions that are, however, just as personal as those of the panelists.

The theatrical artifice (underlined by a continual drone of drug and plant remedy names from a woman at the back dressed as a lab technician, who is mixing these ingredients together) seems designed to show that human beings are vain, foolish and self-deceiving; nothing seems to be lost by having them cut off by the moderator in mid-sentence. But because their speeches are a strange mixture of written text and personal improvisation, we are left with the uneasy feeling that they – the real people playing these roles – are expressing opinions that they hold in “real life”.

The ambiguity becomes more painful when audience members are asked to question the panelists. Several do, and again one doesn’t know if they are actually members of the public or “plants”. As it turns out, several are simply audience members, and so their questions – and the panelists’ answers – about AIDS are pure “reality” and not part of a theatre event at all.

As often happens in Liitoja’s work, a seeming carelessness and casualness (Sky Gilbert yawing, other actor-panelists wandering over and sitting in the audience from time to time) are counterpointed with a controlled ritual. At the end, the moderator uncorks champagne and solemnly offers a glass to each panelist, while the “lab technician” – quietly friendly and informal – simultaneously offers each member of the public a sip of the brew she has been concocting.

 In other hands than Liitoja’s this could all be pretentious and awkward. But he is an artist with a strong sensibility, especially in his ability to mix ritual action with the powerful use of music (another element that continues throughout the performance) and random sound.

 The Panel is a smaller work than some of his others, and in many ways is less controlled and formalized. But even this lack of control seems to have been a decision taken with a view of the subject matter – who is to control AIDS? – and never the result of uncertainty or artistic confusion.

The Globe and Mail
November 23, 1990