Review by Wes Babcock
Betroffenheit, created by Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, sets out to explore beyond the inherent inability of words to express an individual’s entire lived reality. By harnessing and integrating the creative efforts of the dancers and designers, along with those of Pite and Young, this production achieves a powerful articulation of the unspeakable elements that populate and trap us within the world of language.
This show wrestles with the darker worlds an individual might inhabit as a means of coping with trauma and the struggle to formulate a response to it and move forward through it. To accomplish this, the performance works with a number of distinct but finely interwoven elements: the language of the text itself; the metaphorical significance suggested by the set and technical design; and the various forms of movement, all of which physically embody the internal struggle of the narrator. It is nearly impossible to separate these elements from one another in a discussion of the show’s independent parts, and that is likely its greatest strength. This show is a total experience.
Linguistically, this subject matter is necessarily approached by feint. You cannot name any of the things inside an inexpressible world, but you can point to what you mean through the manipulation of words and by acknowledging their ever-evolving meaning. This pointing-to is accomplished in a couple of key ways, that all work to convey a sense of inner conflict and struggle.
The entire show is spoken by the same voice, altered by varying degrees of distortions. This voice is physically embodied by all of the performers, as well as by the world that these performers occupy on stage. As the voice approaches a natural tone, the man seems to get closer to expressing something new, possibly something that he has drawn from the unspeakable world to “talk himself through it.” The ever-changing tone of the voice seems to echo through the performance space, and animate the bodies of the dancers as a means to this end. Without the constant evolution of relationships between the bodies of the performers and the stage, and the iterations of the voice, the text would be unable to address anything as complex as what’s presented before us. The words alone are insufficient already; they require tone and a body to support their meaning, and as the relationship of these extra-textual elements changes, so do what the words are saying.
The words themselves also shift in meaning and significance to the speaker throughout the piece. One of the most memorable moments of this, or at least one of the easiest to describe comes in the second act of the show. A small repetitious sample of the recorded voice forms the sound for a moment of dance and, over the course of the movements, the words seem to shift subtly from saying “no, you,” to saying “you know.” The sounds are so similar that it is in fact a change in the pattern of silences between them that alters their meaning. It is unclear whether the movement of the dancer has changed the meaning of the words or vice versa. In either case, the words are different, and this miniscule shift reflects the entire struggle of the character to find expression, to come to terms, in an intelligible way with his trauma.
The design of the set also works to this end. The world created on stage begins the piece with a life of its own, as an intelligent entity bent on confining the man. We can name the setting somewhat clearly: he is in a room. This place is animated by the man’s own distorted voice, and by the representations of himself that occupy its margins in such a way that they become the centre. We come to learn from the text that the room is simultaneously a construction for coping with the trauma of a past collapse, and for preventing some future collapse, and which prevents by its very existence his moving through the chaos beneath it towards some sort of reconciliation.
This is a lot for a set to do, but its illusory nature becomes progressively clearer throughout the piece. We see that it is a refuge on the border of total collapse: the elements of the linguistically inexpressible leak in from just beyond the door; it serves to confine and protect the man from what lies outside of it while speaking with his own voice; it paralyses him and gives structure to his motion towards the things he cannot address. These are subtler clues to the realization that the room is within the man’s power to manipulate, but then wall moves, and we see its constructed nature starkly on stage. He cannot address the trauma of the past and his future with the room as a refuge, and when he escapes the confines of the room at the conclusion of the first act, we see it as both terrifying and as the only remaining way forward.
In the second act, the “theatrical” elements of the piece are diminished: the text forms a backdrop to the movement of the performers on stage, rather than the opposite that was the case in act one; the room set vanishes and then returns as a more evident piece of fabrication, only to disappear for good; the costumes that separated the dancers from the man lose their distinctions, and they begin to work through the chaos in a more collaborative fashion. One thing that remains consistent, to some degree, throughout the piece, is the large post in the centre of the stage. I’m not sure what to make of this choice, or its significance to the piece as a whole. It is perhaps an acknowledgment of the fact that for all the “working through” that occurs outside the room, there is still some structure that binds and focusses the action of our thoughts around it. There is always a blind spot to any “working through” that can be done, even while approaching and embracing the unspoken elements of experience that lie outside of language.
The movement on stage, in the form of the dancers and their interactions with the man at the centre of the whole piece constitutes another means of approaching these unspeakable moments. There are a number of distinct “moods” and styles of dance that come to suggest different methods of approach towards these unspeakable things. The most obvious is the moments of cabaret-style flash wherein the struggle embodied on stage becomes “the show,” and the man transforms into “the host.” The text, as well as the framing drama that takes place “in the wings” of the cabaret, suggest that these moments are a sort of addiction that the man participates in while searching for a way to circumvent/pass through the fear of collapse. This portion of the piece culminates in a sort of “straight” moment of performance (in contrast to the flash and evident spectacle of “the show”), where the dancers literally support the man as he begins to address his state of affairs.
The rest of the motion on stage is more difficult to pin down with words, which is to say it is extremely effective at drawing forth the parts of this story that are inexpressible with language. There is a slow transition in roles for the dancers relative to the man as the piece progresses. Whereas at the opening they are somewhat sinister elements of chaos that sneak into the room that is his safe haven and seem to derail his “coping strategies,” by the end their separation from the man has diminished to such a degree that they become the means by which he attempts to discover his way forward through the chaos of collapse. Their movements, which began as a collage of forms, and generally suggested a sort of brokenness, begin to take on more fluidity and articulation. This seems to reach its culmination in the concluding scene of the play, where the man is entirely absent from the stage, leaving the dancer who served as various forms of his side-kick and alter ego throughout the piece to embody the movements and words of the text alone on stage.
There is nothing specific about the trauma or the chaos or the paralysis or the addiction that are explored throughout this piece. This lack of specificity is terrifying for audience and performer alike, but it also lends the show a universal appeal that transcends any specific set of circumstances without descending into a pit of vagueness or generalization. The narrative of this piece is so totally sub-textual that I am amazed it made me feel so hard. It is not possible to articulate what any one moment did without reference to every other moment; each is an evolving network of moving parts that refuse to sit still enough to pin them down with words. This feat would not be possible without the spectacular integration of every element of this show, each of which simultaneously supports and conflicts with the others in a way that reflects the struggle undergone by the man. Nothing is told to the audience, but so much is shown, and so cleverly and completely, that we are able to understand the nature of the unsayable story taking place before us without anyone ever telling us what exactly is happening. And moreover, through this inclarity, it approaches each individual on their own terms, becoming a whole and truly different story for each person watching.
a Kidd Pivot &Electric Company Theatre Production
presented by Canadian Stage in Toronto
Written by Jonathon Young
Choreographed and Directed by Crystal Pite