by Varrick Grimes, Elizabeth Rucker, Alex McLean, Jane Wells and Ker Wells
Number Eleven Theatre
Fredericton, November 2001
What live theatre does better than any other art form is to suffuse motion and action with purpose and shape it with meaning. Even when you don't exactly understand, theatre at its best -- like music and dance -- communicates, makes you feel and respond at a level which transcends (or perhaps gets down underneath) words. Most of us, most of the time, are content with theatre of the kind Samuel Johnson characterized by calling it "a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation." And usually that's enough. But occasionally we see something that brings us to realize, or remember, how much else can be there.
Number Eleven Theatre's Icaria, which was brought to the Black Box Theatre by TNB, is an example of that kind of reminder. It's an hour-long production incorporating dance, singing, mime, gymnastics and a wonderful sense of how to make space mean. Built around the basic metaphor of the Icarus story, Icaria presents us with a mutlilayered understanding of a family in which the son dies attempting to fly.
Logistically, the production is not demanding at all: one could, I imagine, do it in pretty much any space. Lighting's not very important*; the sound system's not used at all; props are minimal and could be set up nearly anywhere. They entail, mainly, a large "proscenium arch" with accordian-folded curtains for one end of the playing space, and a cabinet at the other end, and a few odds and ends -- chairs, a table -- that are brought on as needed. The audience in the box -- and, I suspect, wherever the show plays -- is split, half on each side of the playing space.
In the space, we're brought into the family (mainly, at first, through Daphne, the family's daughter, played by Elizabeth Rucker), and come, perhaps, to understand how Daphne's brother Thomas (Alex McLean) might have come to hang himself. But the understanding's not easy, and explanations -- here, as in real life -- don't work very well. The understanding accumulates through bits and pieces of their life, presented fragmentarily and often in wonderfully dreamlike, surreal episodes and images, sometimes w arm, sometimes disturbing, sometimes, unnervingly, both.
The most impressive elements of the show are the entirely confident, professional authority of the physical movements of all four actors, and the tightly choreographed ensemble. Most of the relationships in the play are defined completely by physical placing, movement and interactions, and the words, however moving and effective, are simply illustration and fine-tuning. When Daphne begs Thomas to tell her what he's doing, beyond the chair (which serves as a wall and a door, as needed), and Thomas wraps the tablecloth around his neck, we see, and feel, rather than understand, the desperation and love on the one hand and the confused panic on the other. When Pat, the fisherman father (Varrick Grimes), appears in one sequence as a ten-foot one-eyed monster on stilts, attacking Thomas with a gaff hook, we see and feel how parents often appear to children, and when Mother (Jane Wells) appears, on stilts as well, and suddenly we're watching a formal courtship/wedding dance, in which Mother is attended by Daphne, holding her train, while Thomas, now with the gaff hook and the single eye, has gradually become a parody of the already-parodic father figure, we don't need words to see the eternal drama of family being worked out. And when Thomas and Pat struggle over and around a chair, performing seemingly impossible feats of physical dexterity and gymnastic skill, while Daphne dances in rage and frustration on the table, among the dishes, all the relationships are perfectly clear, even though we have no way to know t he details we might want in a conventional production.
Just as impressive, and more surprising, is the music. All four actors sing with astonishing authority and power, and control. Suddenly, you realize, everyone's singing -- now a Celtic-sounding lullaby, now what seems to be Central European or Balkan throat-singing, now two characters laying a counterpoint melody behind a scene involving the other two. Although the most spectacular voices are Varrick Rucker's floor-rumbling bass and Alex McLean's astounding countertenor, all four have sure, solid, full and perfectly disciplined voices.
What is most important here, it seems clear, is precisely that: discipline. It's not an easy production to follow: there are sudden jumps from moment to moment. Language is saved for story, not for transitions. But we never hesitate in our belief that even though we might not understand what's happening right now, there is something there to be understood, and felt. Because of the discipline and control of the production, we believe that every movement, every flick of an eyelash, is deliberate, planned, part of an artifice designed to move us. Every accident is planned. We feel everything is suffused with purpose and meaning, and are prepared to wait till it makes sense -- at least emotional sense, if not discursive, rational sense.
And in the end, we do make sense of it. We realize we've heard two stories that frame the kaleidoscope of images. One is the story of Icarus, told by Thomas to Daphne, whose father, having given him wings, watches as the boy, having flown too close to the sun, spirals down into the waiting sea; the other is a fairy tale told by Daphne to Thomas, in which a father impetuously wishes his son would turn into a raven and fly away. The boy, of course, does so, and his sister pursues him to the land of death, and looks into the blackness at the end of the world.
Given the tightness of the ensemble acting here, it's impossible to separate out any actor for particular notice: nothing is done that isn't part of a complete design. All four actors are superlatively trained and effective: all four exhibit gymnastic-style control of their bodies, and similarly trained control of their voices. All four, with Ker Wells, the director (and the actor who first played the mother, Sondra Haglund) jointly created the show. We should be grateful to all of them for reminding us of some things theatre can do, and doesn't often achieve -- or even aim for.