The Edmonton Journal gave this show such a low score that I had to rush out to see it. Yes, I am a little perverse. But I mainly had to rush out to see it to see if the Journal’s assessment was fair. A high score from the Journal can make a Fringe show, and a low score break it, and as this woman-driven show was on my provisional short-list partly for feminist reasons I wanted to know ASAP if it deserved to get a show-killing score of 1.5. And it sure doesn’t. It does, however, require a good deal of patience, and it is fair of Iain Ilich, the Journal reviewer, to question the show’s premise.
The premise is this: that a different actress will, for each performance, work her way through a dramatic piece for which she has learned the choreography, delivering, as she goes, a narration that she is hearing for the first time. In other words, she knows part of the script — the script for her body — without knowing in advance the words that she will utter. Given that too much contemporary theatre has divorced itself from theatre as an art of the body, the premise has something very hip about it. For the actors, the premise is however unbelievably demanding, and requires an immense leap of faith: each of the actors has to trust that the storytelling in which she is engaged with her body will match up with what she is required to say on the spot — at least to the extent that it will all cohere for the audience. The two aspects have got to add up to an effective act of communication.
The danger is two-fold: the audience may feel that its role is simply that of observer to a technical exercise, and that technical exercise could fail in the execution. I felt that I was watching a technical exercise that had really great promise, one that the actor for the performance I saw, Elisa Benzer, executed well. For her to have executed it spectacularly something more would have had to occur in the preparatory phase: there would have had to be a distinct sense that the actor was delivering words that mattered as much as the movements she was executing — words that were in fact poetry. The lines that come out of the actor’s mouth are delivered in three-, four-, five-, six- and seven-beat units that, more artfully combined, would always have added up to blank verse, but even broken up as they are lend themselves to Beat-style delivery. If the actors delivered the lines as if they were poetry, then the language could match the choreography by Raena Waddell, and combined with it add up to something truly exciting. But for that to work they needed to prepare to treat the lines being fed into their ears as music.
As it is, we are supposed to watch — as I see it — an actor telling the story of several women caught up in Beat lives because the men they loved from the late ’40s onwards were Beat writers (Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady). The women are mostly destroyed because of these relationships — one gets a bullet in her head, and another leaps out a seventh-storey window — but they are all figuratively maimed because of the subordinate roles they choose to play in relation to these drug-fuelled self-serving men. The choreography captures this quite well, especially in the climactic sections in which the actor has to draw together various gestures, introduced and performed separately at first, to render the distortions of these women’s lives in a physical alphabet. And sometimes Benzer was able to deliver the lines being fed her through earphones in a way that captured the rupture and frenzies of these women’s lives. But more often than not the lines that she was required to recite purveyed narratives that were hard to keep separate in a delivery that became monotonous — a delivery that lacked Beat flair for and love of language. It is certainly a great shame that the writing, though it involved some amusing lines, was not more playful. The piece needs to offer more of a sense of why these women let the men draw them into their lives — what it was they offered in terms of sensual excitement, sometimes rendered as poetry, and sometimes as sex, and sometimes in the form of artificially-fuelled forms of intoxciation.
Additional multimedia aspects would have done wonders for this production. Projected images of the women whose stories were being told — Joan Volmer, Edie Parker, Joan Haverty, Carolyn Cassady,Elise Cowen, and Joyce Johnson — might have helped, along with audio snippets of the writing of some of the men with whom they became entangled. But what I can’t help wondering about is the politics of the premise. The story that emerges is of a kind of generic Beat Wife, and that story is one of a woman included in but also marginalized in relation to a heady world of words. To ask six actresses to spout words that they are hearing for the first time — words dictated to them through earbuds — is to put them in a position like that of the women that they are representing. An actor’s usual relationship with the language of a playwright is a considered one. And so my question as I was watching was what was the actress gaining by being put into this radically different relationship with the language she was required to speak? And what were we gaining as the audience by watching her put through an exercise in which the language was secondary material fed to her on the spot? How would the performance have been different if the actress had learned the lines in advance? Why was she being kept from learning them? For if she’d being able to learn them, wouldn’t her performance have been able to marry the words to her movements in a far superior way than she could do having to deliver them the instant after she first heard them? And are we supposed to walk away from every performance wondering if we’d might have had a superior experience if we’d come for a performance with another actor in the role?
Given that the performance was so obviously an artificial exercise, at least in the sense that there was no obvious rationale for the actor to have been hearing the words of the script for the first time through her earbuds, it might have helped if the director Andrea Beça had said a few words at the outset about the motivations behind it, and what she hoped it would achieve. I’m trying not to believe that Beça wanted to deprive her actors of the opportunity to think in regard to the words they were uttering. The choreography was interesting, and Benzer was valorous (amongst other things, when a teenage girl in the audience cried out that her mother was having a seizure she soldiered on), but I’m still not sure what the experience contributed to my understanding of the women of the Beat generation — well, other than to inform me that they had a predilection for Benzedrine, and were a little too willing to throw away their lives over men.