*Originally posted on the Capital Critics’ website here!*

Merz is A-Merz-ing

Brianna McFarlane

Prepare to have everything you thought you knew about the theatre thrown out the window in Merz, composed by Kurt Schwitters and directed and performed by Peter Froehlich, because this show knows no boundaries and is not to be missed this April at the Irving Greenberg Centre. Brought to Ottawa for a three day fundraiser on behalf of the Great Canadian Theatre Company, Froehlich is no stranger to this piece having toured it sporadically since 1976. It is clear that Froehlich’s deep knowledge of the Dadaist period and his passion for theatre is what makes this show so merz-merising.

Merz is a composition of Dadaist poetry written by German artist Kurt Schwitters who also dabbled in many styles and genres  including (but not limited to) constructivism, surrealism, sculpture and typography, Schwitters is most famous for his collages: the Merz Pictures. The piece itself is definitely a collage of sorts.  The first half of the show is made up of scenes that allude to Schwitters’ life as an artist in Nazi Germany juxtaposed with poems of apparent nonsense including a poem comprised solely of coughing. The second half: one sound poem made entirely of sounds that have no rhythm or musicality or even meaning on the surface. It is the second half where you might find yourself wanting to get up and leave. This is the point. I urge you not to leave! This is Schwitters’ and the Dadaists’ goal: to destroy culture and the conventions of language while antagonizing the audience to the point of anger. If you stay, I promise your mind will be all the broader for it and at the very least it makes for some good conversation.

Peter Froehlich takes to a minimally adorned studio stage in dishevelled dress attire: untucked shirt, no suit jacket, and suspenders (one of which is attached to the pants by some rope).Already his appearance is a gross provocation for the audience. His set is made up of a music stand, a table with two chairs, and a house plant. The intimate atmosphere is the key to this pieces’ effectiveness. Froehlich is captivating in his ability to weave in and out of scenes and characters and his storytelling is unmatched by anyone currently on the Ottawa stages. Though the blocking mainly consists of the performer moving to and from the music stand, this never gets repetitive or boring. The emotion Froehlich brings to each poem is believable even if most of the poems don’t contain any actual words.  The love poem dedicated to Anna Blossom is touching and totally relatable in its stuttering simplicity.  My favourite moment, however, is the sneeze poem. It’s something you have to see to believe.

After a brief intermission the audience returns to the studio and Froehlich once more takes the stage, only this time he is in full concerto garb. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the fifty minute recital of the famed Ursonate, a poem without a single intelligible word.  Recited like a true conductor, Froehlich’s comprehension of the piece is apparent. Even though the audience has no solid idea of what is going on, it is clear that the actor understands and believes every sound he is making and, furthermore, he believes we as an audience do too! This is the beauty, if you will, of Dadaist art. The onus is placed on the audience to make some meaning out of the sounds. You get some suggestion of what the performer is feeling (frustrated, playful, annoyed, content), but ultimately it is up to the viewer to make sense of what the performer produces. The audience remains engaged throughout, playing an integral role in the piece’s transgressional nature.

At some point during this act roughly six people walk out, yet this never fazes the performer. In fact, I have a theory that Froehlich must have a running total of how many people have walked out of his show over the years, like some sort of game. I imagine him psyching himself up in the mirror before a show every night saying to himself, “I wonder how many people I can get to walk out tonight?” These walk outs only add further enjoyment to the piece.

Again, I cannot stress enough how much this piece needs to be seen to be believed. It is truly incredible and is nothing like you’ve ever seen on stage before. Froehlich is an absolute master of his craft and this was such a smart decision on behalf of the GCTC to agree to have him back on stage. Catch it while you still can April 3rd-5th!