Stage Door Review

A Tonic for Desperate Times

Sunday, November 7, 2021

✭✭

by The Ensemble, directed by Jacquie P.A. Thomas

Theatre Gargantua, St. Anne’s Parish Hall, 651 Dufferin Street, Toronto

November 5-14, 2021

"Hope for the hopeless"

With A Tonic for Desperate Times Theatre Gargantua is offering its first live theatre production since November 2019. Conceived before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the “desperate times” referred to consisted of the antagonism, particularly in the US, between political parties, between rich and poor, between environmentalists and manufacturers and between races. Thus, in the 70 minutes of the show there is only one reference to Covid by name. Nevertheless, the onset of the pandemic has done nothing to mitigate this atmosphere of constant conflict.

For many the “tonic” that Theatre Gargantua offers will be simply a dose of live theatre after months of deprivation. Theatre Gargantua blends so many aspects of theatre – music, song, movement, dance, mime, spoken word, puppetry along with projections and animation – that once-avid theatre-goers will be reminded of how many of these aspects they have missed. Tonic is meant to provide “hope for the hopeless”, but whether it works as a cohesive show, however, is another question. Given its short running time and given its stated purpose, it’s odd that the show should feel so aimless. None of the metaphors that are meant to give the show meaning are successful since they are each inscrutable in themselves.

The show begins with Alexandra Lainfiesta alone crooning a wordless tune in her lovely low voice. Soon she is joined by the other four members of the ensemble – Sierra Haynes on the violin, Nabil Traboulsi on the piano, Michael Gordon Spence on the long-neck mini-banjo and Heather Marie Annis on the tambourine. The song turns to words, not always intelligible. The mournful song turns to a dance tune but a violent rainstorm in the soundscape and in the projections cause all the celebrants to flee.

At this point a series of short monologues begin interrupted by dance and movement episodes and references to the show’s metaphors. Each member of the ensemble has at least one monologue. Both Annis and Lainfiesta speak of seniors who showed a lust for life even as death approached. Spence speaks of his thankfulness in surviving a life-threatening event. Haynes describes the pain of finally finding a soulmate, an American, only to be separated when the first Covid lockdown began.

Traboulsi speaks of growing up in Lebanon when his school bus might be stopped one day because of a car-bomb. But he also describes the joy he felt visiting his brother and baby nephew when they were in safety in Berlin. The baby was born August 4, 2020, the same day as the Beirut port explosion, and this causes Traboulsi to reflect that he must accept the good and bad that is the heritage of his country. Traboulsi’s reflection is the most profound of the evening in its recognition that we have to accept the complexity of reality rather than repress a past we find horrific. His remarks could well serve as a model for Canadians reflecting on their own past.

Unfortunately, the show is desperate to seek visual analogues to the discovery of order in chaos though none of these are suitable. The first analogue shown is a pendulum wave apparatus, videoed and projected on the half dome above the stage’s back wall. For the pendulum wave (not to be confused with Newton’s cradle) 15 steel balls are hung from a horizontal pole from increasingly longer lengths of wire. When pulled away from the frame and released simultaneously, the balls create a snakelike pattern before generating several more fascinating patterns until finally reverting to the snakelike pattern and ultimately stasis.

Given that the balls are all hung at fixed lengths and at fixed distances from each other, this is hardly an apt metaphor for harmony arising out of chaos since the set-up and the actual swinging of the balls, even if they appear to get out of sync, is always predictable and calculable.

The image that most infuses the show’s action is that of a murmuration of starlings. People have always marvelled at how these massive flocks of birds can in an instant shape and reshape the form of their flock in the sky. The ensemble members anthropomorphize this phenomenon immediately by commenting how beautiful such shapes are but how each bird, since it is inside the flock, cannot know the beauty it is creating. This is a pointless remark since an individual bird cannot know the beauty it is creating even when it flies on its own.

We learn that scientists have found that a starling in a flock adheres to only three rules of behaviour and that it pays attention to only the seven birds surrounding it. If one bird happens to change direction, the seven surrounding birds also change direction and rippling outward so does the entire flock.

This notion, which derives from computer modelling of flock behaviour, may sound good and it helps reinforce one of Theatre Gargantua’s notions that individual action can lead to major change, but it fails for several reasons. First, scientists have also noted that the change in the entire cloud of birds is too rapid for any such ripple effect to occur. Scientists still don’t know how a change is communicated so rapidly throughout so large a group. Second, if only one bird can cause such a massive reaction, what if two or more birds change course at the same time? Third, as with schools of fish, such flocking behaviour in starlings is thought of as a strategy to avoid predators. Since we don’t know as yet the way that changes of flight direction is communicated through the group, what we may really see is not an individual influencing an entire group but birds operating with the kind of preprogrammed hive-mind of bees. This example hardly supports the value of individuality nor does the idea of a huge flock mindlessly mimicking the change made by a single bird.

As if two metaphors were not enough, the ensemble later throws in chaos theory and the notion of fractals. Fractals are so complex and fascinating they could serve as the image for an entire show. Yet, the ensemble wonders since humankind is part of nature and since fractals have been found to describe all kinds of natural phenomena, could it be that fractals would also describe the good in human beings. The answer to that is “No”. Sorry to burst bubbles, but goodness, like all ethical values, is an ideal dreamt of by human beings. It not a natural phenomenon. And even if goodness could be found in human beings via fractals wouldn’t our less admirable qualities are be found there also? Again, Traboulsi’s reflection on accepting the good and bad of his heritage is more to the point.

Both the pendulum wave and fractals only add confusing information to the show’s main emphasis on starling flocks. Jacquie P.A. Thomas’s choreography is imbued with this idea although it is expressed only by the ensemble wandering separately about the playing area moving their two hands as if birds in a flock. What Thomas never thinks of is having the ensemble move in concert with each other and suddenly change direction. Bonnie Kim incorporated this technique in Corpus Dance Theatre’s Divine Interventions earlier this year and it immediately conjured up murmurations of starlings in a way that Thomas’s choreography never does.

A great irony of Tonic is that its most effective parts are those where the ensemble is the least involved. Laird Macdonald’s projections on the half dome over the stage and onto Spence’s set of hanging lanterns are lovely to look at and only make the humans’ efforts at imitating flocks seem paltry. The same is true of Thomas Ryder Payne’s subtle soundscape that is so well-timed with the projections.

Despite this, one does not go to the theatre with the primary intention of watching projections and hearing soundscapes. In Tonic the technical aspects of the show always feel separate from its performer-centred aspects.

There is no question of the talent of all five members of the ensemble with their engaging ability to sing, play instruments, deliver speeches and lend meaning to movement. Yet, because none of the central images for the show work, nothing pulls the ensemble’s efforts together to create a larger statement.

The one action that does serve as a “tonic”, though rather late in the action, is the final singalong with the audience. Indeed, that more than anything celebrated the reunification of live performers with a live audience. One only wishes that Theatre Gargantua could have thought of something less conceptually conflicted to precede that singalong that would produce the same joyful effect.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Sierra Haynes, Nabil Traboulsi, Alexandra Lainfiesta, Michael Gordon Spence and Heather Marie Annis; Heather Marie Annis and Michael Gordon Spence; Michael Gordon Spence; Heather Marie Annis, Alexandra Lainfiesta, Nabil Traboulsi, Sierra Haynes and Michael Gordon Spence. © 2021 Michael Cooper.

For tickets visit theatregargantua.ca.