Undercurrents Pt. 2: Saving the Best for Last

Brianna McFarlane

If you’ve read the “part 1” to this review, you will know that after my first three shows at the 2014 Undercurrents Festival (A Quiet Sip of Coffee, Broken, and The Tashme Project)  I had become a little disheartened by the seeming lack of variety in genre and style. I had felt as though these particular pieces did not bring anything new or exciting to the table, something I had come to expect from a festival that seeks to promote “theatre below the mainstream.” However, I must say that after seeing the final three shows (RiderGirl, Ciseaux, and Morro and Jasp Do Puberty) my opinion on this year’s programming made a complete 180. I can now safely and enthusiastically say that this year’s Undercurrents has been a success.

Heading into my fourth show at the studio space in the Irving Greenberg Centre, RiderGirl written and performed by Colleen Sutton and directed by Janet Irwin, I was not looking forward to yet another realistic show based on seemingly personal events. I realize they (whoever they are) say that you should write about what you know and as such we’ve seen an influx of presenting personal stories on stage (whether by the verbatim style or the memory genre), but doesn’t this country also have strong creators of fiction? RiderGirl, unfortunately, was to leave me a little disappointed in this aspect as well. While the story itself isn’t supremely original or thought provoking (I can think of a number of plays and films where a female protagonist finds empowerment in the usually male dominated sports arena or even any protagonist who’s a bit of an outcast finding acceptance in this world), the physical performance itself and the audience that this show brings to this festival are what really sold me on this piece.

Now, before the entire CFL fanbase riots and burns me at the stake for calling this piece unoriginal, I will say that the show is an absolute riot and the energy that Sutton is able to bring out in not only herself, but her audience is quite remarkable. HOWEVER, it most certainly has a very select niche audience (i.e. sports fans) which can isolate the audiences who are looking for something more aesthetically and/or intellectually nourishing and expressive. As such there is the risk that they might write off this show altogether. That being said, after watching this particular production I am convinced it was a smart choice to program because it is no doubt incredibly successful in bringing out atypical audiences to the theatre.

Simply put, Ridergirl is a show about a prairie girl who discovers a sense of belonging amongst the many diverse personalities found at the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ CFL games. Yet as the play progresses we see this small town girl slowly realize that the world outside the football stadium doesn’t play by the same rules, and consequently our protagonist finds herself struggling to understand this game called life.

The stage itself is set up very simply with only a single backless bench set centre stage and two Roughriders’ banners hanging from the upstage wall. Sutton plays a number of differentiated characters including the wide eyed and naive protagonist, who completely transforms into a loud-mouthed, fanatic in the arena; Sandra the equally loud, trash-talking, die hard Rider fan who introduces our protagonist to the “thirteenth man”-the fans; the detached and almost dismissive UPS delivery man; and multiple caricatures of sports enthusiasts found throughout the protagonist’s journey.

I have to commend Sutton on her infectious energy and the vivaciousness with which she performs her characters: they were distinctive, humourous, and added great variety to this production. The sound design, by Jon Carter, is also completely on point, playing numerous stadium classics one normally associates with sporting events. Not to mention the multiple football cheers intermingled throughout, which the audience sings with much vigor. Again, I cannot express how much fun I had being in this audience, but it is truly to the credit of the performer who is able to create such a specific atmosphere in this black-box studio space.

Now, the criticisms I have of this piece, I will admit, are certainly picky and perhaps only reflective of my own personal theatrical preferences, but I found this piece to get slightly repetitive, the staging to be uninteresting, and to contain a couple of continuity errors. In regards to the first critique, while I enjoyed Sutton’s bits where she is commentating a football game, it happens several times over and are all delivered in a very similar manner: performer cheers when something positive happens for the Riders, followed by immediate frustration at something negative that happens, the performer then grabs a noise-making device and the cycle repeats two or three times.

The strongest moments are easily the ones where there are multiple characters in the scene trying to converse with one another while also attempting to watch the game at hand (i.e. the first time the protagonist is introduced to the character of Sandra; or when she attends a Riders’ game alone and numerous male fans try to hit on her), yet the scenes where the protagonist is watching the game from her own home I find to be the weakest scenes in the entire production.

I also took issue with the staging in that I found it was rather unremarkable, with the performer only moving in a triangular formation from the bench at centre stage to either downstage left or right. The performer never reaches the upstage areas and the bench remains static in its position and is only used in its traditional sense. The most dynamic set piece, of all things, is the roll along suitcase which is used in its traditional manner, but is also turned into a little Riders mascot with various costume pieces. This was an excellent touch. If this show is undergoing anymore development, I believe Sutton and director Irwin could strive for slightly stronger staging.

Finally, the continuity errors I noted, while only two, are fairly noticeable and served to pull me out of the performance and question it. Here is my spoiler warning. The first is in regards to Bill’s death. The context of the situation is that Sutton’s neighbor who lives in the apartment above her (and also a serious Riders fan) has what seems to be terminal cancer, which distresses our protagonist to no end throughout the piece. Having forged an instant connection with Bill through their mutual love of Roughrider football, she comes to sign off on a number of deliveries (mostly medication) for her friend. While this is not odd in itself, the real issue is concerning the eventual revelation that Bill has passed away.

This revelation comes to the protagonist when the mail carrier, who has made all of the deliveries thus far, arrives at her door not for a delivery but for the pick-up of Bill’s medical supplies, namely his I.V. pole. This information, understandably, comes as quite the shock to the character, yet she goes on to grab the I.V. pole from within her own apartment. My question is this: if the character is completely unaware of Bill’s death, why is this equipment in her apartment? Perhaps a quick and more reasonable solution might be to mention that the protagonist has a set of keys to Bill’s apartment in case of emergency.

The second continuity error I noticed was when our protagonist heads to the Grey Cup and meets up again with Sandra. Sandra gives the main character a small gift and after this exchange is never seen again. Did I miss something? Does Sandra say why she isn’t going to the Grey Cup? This seems strange to me considering this character is the major catalyst in our protagonist’s jump onto the Roughrider fan-wagon. I was actually a little disappointed not to have Sandra at this final event as I believe the interchange between these two characters, plus the male character from Montreal (I believe) could have heightened the comedic elements even further as well as brought out some poignant moments where Sandra sees just how much of a passionate fan the main character has become, in which Sandra’s gift (or the passing of the torch, if you will) becomes even more significant.

Again, I can concede that these criticisms are very specific and personal in nature and as such the artists themselves can either take it or leave it, but I nonetheless believe them to be valid critical comments. Overall, I think RiderGirl succeeds in its mission to engage audiences “through entertainment” as the program says and I think that the type of audience it brings to the Undercurrents Festival is an extremely valuable, and relatively untapped, resource. However, I think if RiderGirl wants to appeal to more non-CFL familiar masses, it needs to work a little bit harder on making it “intelligent and provocative theatre” (again, as referenced by the program) because, as evidenced by my critical observations, in these elements this performance falls short of the end zone.

I had been anticipating the francophone show, Ciseaux, created by Lisa L’Heureux, since the festival line-up was initially announced. I could hardly wait to see what Théâtre Rouge Écarlate had in store for audiences and I found myself wondering just how they would integrate the English subtitles into the performance. This piece packs a serious punch and it is easily the strongest dramatic piece at this year’s festival. I cannot commend festival director Patrick Gauthier enough on taking a risk and programming this show. It adds the much needed variety in genre, performance style, and staging that I had so desperately wanted from the first three shows I saw.

You would never know what the piece is exactly about from reading its description in the program: Two lives bound together. Each is carrying within her the opposite pole. One is the north while the other is the south. Each is the other’s counterpart, the other’s negation, towards whom everything converges until the two parts become inseparable. Like a pair of scissors. Yet after watching this piece I realize that no other summary will do.

The story follows two girls Olive, played by Marie-Ève Fontaine, and Phani, played by Lissa Léger, who live in an undefined world of time and place where gangs of rebels run rampant through the streets wreaking violence and massacre wherever they go. First meeting on the schoolyard, Phani relentlessly bullies new-girl Olive, who unfortunately catches the blame for their altercation and is sent home to her Grandmother’s house by the school principal. Refusing to believe Olive’s side of the story, her Grandmother sends her to her room and locks the door until further notice. Raging at the unfairness of it all, Olive consequently shears off her long braids and runs away from home at the first chance she gets.

It is not until Olive, who is mistaken for a little boy, is picked up by a group of rebels led by a mysterious man named Quentin that Olive completely sheds her feminine identity and finds new belonging and empowerment as Oli within the gang of boys she lovingly terms as “The Little Shits”. Phani on the other hand remains at school and wonders what’s become of the missing new girl, though never fully concerning herself with the thought. We see the lives of the two girls become intertwined again when Phani is picked up by the same group of rebels and forced into the, traditionally female, role of seamstress. The dichotomy between feminine and masculine empowerment is explored quite a bit in this show and in some incredibly interesting ways.

There is so much to discuss within this piece that I hardly know where to start. L’Heureux’s writing is strong and indicative of being a more than capable playwright. With Ciseaux she has created a completely new and dynamic universe that could be set within any time period: past, present, or future. Within this world there is a captivating plot that examines how each of the characters find themselves through completely opposite means. Olive becomes empowered through her shedding of her femininity by joining up with Quentin’s gang and becoming Oli. The power she holds rests in her gun (a clearly phallic symbol), to the point where she becomes incredibly distressed when she can no longer find it. Phani on the other hand, becomes defined by her role as seamstress, caregiver, and finally mother representing the feminine to Oli’s masculine.

I appreciated the through-line of incorporating “les ciseaux” throughout the piece, from when Olive first cuts off her braids, signifying her initial rebellion and perhaps even her coming-of-age, to when Phani is presented with scissors and a needle and thread to mend the clothing and the wounds of the boys. Moreover, albeit coming from a completely Anglophone perspective, when Phani meets Oli, as opposed to Olive, for the first time she mentions that she recognizes her eyes. En français within this sentence ‘her eyes’ is translated as “ses yeux”, which almost sounds like “ciseaux”, again to an anglo ear, but I found this to be an interesting little nuance nonetheless.

The set is dressed beautifully by John Doucet. Just in front of the back wall there are many assorted hanging windows with which the performers interact with greatly by using them to establish a feeling of surveillance as one character may watch the other from behind one of the windows or using them to establish the space between inside and outside. The subtitles are given above these windows and did not serve to be distracting in the slightest. The lamps are a nice touch aesthetically, especially in regards to the final scene. Perhaps the strongest aspect about this set is that it is incredibly non-descriptive of time or place, which works perfectly for this universe. It is merely suggestive of things and it becomes the job of the performers to illustrate specific settings.

This brings me to the acting: Fontaine and Léger are powerhouses. They are equally strong individually and their chemistry on stage is matched only by that of clown duo Morro and Jasp. Both are perfectly cast in their roles with Fontaine embodying Oli in her lithe form and androgynous profile and Leger as the epitome of the traditonal womanly physique. The trust these actors have in one another is a further testament to their engaging performances and is displayed most obviously in the brief fight choreography, which ends up with Phani pinning Oli down onto the trunk onstage by her collar. The move itself and the speed in which it is accomplished are most impressive.

My favourite moments are when the two of them are on stage together, playing off of and contrasting one another nicely. They establish this wonderful feeling of intimacy and comradeship when they are on the run together and Oli delivers a poignant aside about not wanting to let go of Phani’s hand otherwise she will be lost forever. Finally, the most powerful scene is right at the very end, though I will not spoil it here. It is definitely something that needs to be seen and felt with the entire piece behind it. What I can say is that myself, and the people around me in the audience, were left a little misty-eyed.

Ultimately Ciseaux left me with a lot of feelings and thoughts, but in the most positive way possible. I left the theatre wanting to discuss this show with people and explore others’ reactions to it. I wanted to talk about the differences within the text between masculinity and femininity, exactly where and when this story is set, and where the characters go from here. This was to be the first show of the festival that actually inspired me to start a discourse about it and as such I believe this piece to be the strongest show in the entire festival. Although this is the first time a francophone show has been programmed at Undercurrents, I sincerely hope it is not the last!

To cap off my Undercurrents 2014 experience I had the great pleasure of seeing the clown duo Morro and Jasp. Like Ciseaux I had been eagerly anticipating these performers having seen them at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival this past summer. Having heard such positive things about other shows they’ve put on, I was chomping at the bit when it finally came time to see Morro and Jasp Do Puberty, created/performed by Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee and directed/dramatuged by Byron Laviolette. I was not disappointed. Unlike Ciseaux where I wasn’t sure what to expect this show went above and beyond any expectations that I had, which is a difficult task for any show to accomplish.

The story itself is simple and uncomplicated, though this is not in any way a criticism. The clown sisters, Morro (played by Heather Marie Annis) and Jasp (played by Amy Lee) are in high school and experiencing all of the things you would typically associate with this period (no pun intended) in a girl’s life: boys, sports, school dances, popularity, and most importantly puberty. Coming at it from a completely female lens, we explore alongside Morro and Jasp how one deals with the constantly changing body and fluctuating hormones when all one wants is to fit in and be normal. Through insanely hilarious comedic bits the sisters examine the awkward experiences of choosing between pads and tampons, of how to use said devices, of accepting one’s appearance, and of the budding of sexuality.

The stage is divided into three sections: Upstage centre there is a white porcelain toilet, downstage right there is a single bed made up in typical teenage girl fashion with colourful bedding and some stuffed toys, and downstage left characterized by a side table with a pink telephone and trophies. Although these are the main playing areas, the performers make use of the entire stage by incorporating many entrances and exits and coming into the audience space on multiple occasions. I was never bored by this staging and constantly wondered what they would do next.

Though I am no expert in this particular performance style, it is easy to see the proficiency in Annis and Lee’s clowning. Their characters are at once grotesque, yet relatable and not to mention supremely comical. Morro is brash, bold, and ready to take control of just about any situation (except when it comes to boys), however she finds herself at a loss for what to do when her very first ‘monthly monster’ arrives unexpectedly. Trying to hid it from Jasp, who absolutely idealizes getting her own period and believes it will signify her coming into womanhood, we watch as Morro tries to deal with all the discomfort and potential for embarrassment that comes with “bleeding from the crotch” for a week straight. She treats us to two vignettes that absolutely contradict everything you’ve ever seen in pad or tampon commercials. I can confidently say that I have never laughed so hard at someone unwrapping a “sanitary napkin” in my life.

Jasp, by contrast, is a bit of a romantic which is evidenced by her constant diary writing and day dreaming. As previously mentioned, she awaits the coming of her menstruation with much anticipation. She informs the audience that she has kept a box of tampons beside the toilet from a very young age in preparation for this “glorious” day. Moreover, it is Jasp who deals with the slightly more serious issues in this piece. She has an excellent monologue about being constantly bombarded with pictures of “really attractive people” plastered all over the magazines while trying to accept her own appearance despite not fitting into the traditional mold. Furthermore, it is Jasp who explores her new found sexuality with her stuffed…pea, Peabody. And while it does resemble a peapod, what else it looks like is certainly not lost on the audience.

One of the major reasons why this show is so great is because it keeps its story uncomplicated. They’ve taken one main idea (female puberty) and parodied all its various aspects without getting caught up in multiple story lines or characters. There is great physical, facial, and vocal expression from both performers and as such this show never once drops its momentum. In fact, this momentum is so strong I hardly wanted the play to end when it did! Simply put, I could watch these clowns for hours and never get bored.

I fully believe that Annis and Lee need to be picked up by one of the many (clearly male driven) companies that produce women’s sanitary products as I have no doubt their grossly realistic, yet highly comedic, representation of this uniquely feminine experience would sell far more product than the mythical happy-go-lucky-frolick-in-the-fields women who are currently featured on our television screens. This was such a solid piece of theatre, comedy, and clowning; Bravo to everyone involved!

To briefly conclude, as I am sure you are getting weary by now of reading, the reason why these particular shows are so strong is because they each brought something absolutely unique to the stage. In the case of RiderGirl it was the energy of the audience and the type of audience it is able to reach. In Ciseaux it was the quality of the text, the particularity of the universe, and the depth of the characters. Finally in Morro and Jasp Do Puberty it is the performers themselves and the lens through which they view this one particular topic. Ultimately, while I started out being rather disappointed in this year’s programming, after watching these final three shows I left the Irving Greenberg Centre with a smile on my face and once again looking forward to next year’s Undercurrents Festival.