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Double wonder

Mikis Vrettakos: Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf Steppenwolf
photo courtesy PuSh Festival
Something good is happening in Vancouver contemporary performance. For the second time in a week I’ve been deeply impressed by what I’ve seen in the PuSh Festival. First it was MACHiNENOiSY’s Time Machine, in which the sophistication of a mature artist’s mind and the innocence of children’s imaginations are given a place to meet and play. This time it’s Steppenwolf by Fight With a Stick, a new company formed by veteran theatre artists Steven Hill and Alex Lazaridis Ferguson.

We sit on benches before what appears to be a low wall. Ever so slowly a white plastic sheet covering it rises, revealing a wide bank of mirrors. More importantly, a little bit at a time, I see my own reflection as well as those sitting next to me. It’s very uncomfortable and kind of exciting. Then the world behind my own reflection begins to unfold. I am looking at myself and past myself. An actor speaking from a strange green booth with a TV-shaped window (for some reason it reminded me of a submarine) tells us about Harry Haller, a man he feels is half human, half wolf, a man who can’t reconcile his dual nature and adjust to middle class conformity.

The two sides of a room, one half very bourgeois clean, the other exhibiting a furry lamp and chair (the wolf side I guess), flick metronomically in and out of the light. The man in the booth talks about the drudgery of existence and the oppressiveness of middle class life. Then the walls of the two rooms fall backwards in slow motion—an unexpected and almost breathtaking moment—as a video image of a man is projected onto an upright box being pushed across a stage further back. Because of the lighting and projection states created by Josh Hite and Parjad Sharifi, I thought at first the figure was also a video image. Then it got weirder: another figure, exactly the same but live, paces behind the figure on the box but further back as the big stage curtains open and close revealing yet another layer of curtains dancing open and closed. Layer upon layer. Depth upon depth. All of this is seen in the mirror, making it doubly strange and compelling.

A wall behind the last set of curtains seems to shift right and left while a strange wooden structure matches its movements. Soon the wall rotates in space, or so it seems at first. It’s a video trick. A video of the wall has been projected onto the wall. As the video image flips, the wooden structure is rotated picking up the image which has now become the cosmos. It does a few 360 degree turns. It’s mind-bending and a bit stomach-churning.

Just when you think you can’t take it anymore a door in the back wall opens, light blasts into the space outlining Nneka Croal, who plays Hermine from the novel. She seems to have come from a bohemian otherworld, here to disrupt Harry Haller’s slow descent into middle class hell and to give him a new lease on life.

This is in keeping with the themes of Herman Hesse’s novel. But where the novel sticks with Haller’s perspective, Fight With a Stick has chosen to shift the point of view to Hermine, thus disrupting the white male narrative and refreshing it from her sensual and, in this case, black female point of view. She inserts a corporeal dimension into Haller’s existential downward spiralling, doing so without rejecting the validity of his crisis. She simply adds greater dimension to it, in a way bringing it up to date.

There’s a carefully crafted dance between all elements in this production: the actors’ measured delivery, the give and take between visual elements and Nancy Tam’s sound design. As the directors said at a talkback session, the desire was to both localise sound to individual objects floating through space—so a sound feels like it’s coming right from the very thing you’re looking at, which it is—and to immerse the audience, envelop them in the weight, space and texture of sound itself.

In the program Steppenwolf is described as a “design-driven theatre installation.” That’s an accurate description. It’s as if theatre artists found an interesting art installation in a gallery and decided to breathe life into it with a few theatre techniques. That’s an oversimplification, but “theatre installation” does seem like the right name for this hybrid.

While Fight With a Stick has kinship with trends in performance seen in international festivals like PuSh, the company also stands very much apart from them. I’ve never seen anything like this tour de force of theatrical magic. Perhaps because Vancouver is a bit remote, Ferguson, Hill and collaborators have been able to achieve such an original vision.

Fight With a Stick, Steppenwolf, co-directors Steven Hill, Alex Lazaridis Ferguson, created with collaborators Natalie Purschwitz, Josh Hite, Parjad Sharifi, Nancy Tam, Nneka Croal, Jesse Garlick, Alba Calvo, Russian Hall, Vancouver, Feb 4-7

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 8

© Mikis Vrettakos; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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