*warning: this review contains spoilers*
With Tomorrow’s Child, Calgary’s Ghost River Theatre hits on an excellent concept with similarly excellent technical expertise, although some flaws in the dramaturgy prevent this immersive sensory experience from achieving its true potential.
Tomorrow’s Child is a dramatization of Ray Bradbury’s short story “Tomorrow Child”, but more importantly it is a purely auditory show which, true to its immersive form, starts before you enter the theatre. While waiting in the Arts Court Studio you exchange your ticket for a blindfold, check your belongings and finish your drinks, and sit through a preshow ‘safety demonstration’ before donning your blindfolds and being guided to your seat by the Audience Service Mechs. The pre-show experience is entertainingly pulled off by Louise Casemore as Head Mech with her oversized clipboard, visual aids, and general tongue-in-cheek mad scientist persona. The light tone helps to ease audience members into the experience, though the story of the play itself, like much of Ray Bradbury’s work, is a good deal bleaker.
The story of Tomorrow’s Child has two new parents facing an unusual dilemma: During the birth of Peter and Polly’s first child, the Birthing Mech experiences unforeseen mechanical issues, which cause their son to be born into another dimension. Though the baby (whom they name Py) is still physically present, his existence on another plane of reality causes his physical form to differ radically from human physiognomy. While the hospital doctors struggle to figure out how the Mech failed and how to reverse the dimensional transportation, Peter and Polly must learn how to live with and love a child whose humanity is a technicality.
The dramatization, which consists of much more than dialogue, has some hits and misses with its mastery of auditory storytelling. Montages are used often and effectively, usually with a quick build-up of layering voices and sounds, which would be nearly impossible to pull off in an audio-visual form without disorienting the audience. The beginning and the end of the drama are told effectively, but the middle part of the story feels unfocused and doesn’t raise stakes sufficiently to make the ending feel like any kind of payoff. Despite Peter and Polly’s obvious unhappiness with the situation they try to make the best of it until the process can be reversed, but the conflicts they face, both internal and external, aren’t developed much beyond mere mention. As an example, we only find out very close to the end that Peter doesn’t want Polly to take Py outside, and though this reaction is understandable it’s not built up – Peter remains hopeful and optimistic when speaking to Polly, and since we barely hear him talk to anyone else besides the doctor we have no choice but to take him at his word. When Peter forbids Polly to take Py outside, it comes off as sudden. For this reason the script itself could benefit from either more dialogue (some environmental/mechanical sound sequences go on longer than seems necessary, so trimming these would allow for more dialogue to establish the plot/conflict without extending the 70 minute running time) to build up the tension between Peter and Polly.
Voices, music, environmental sounds, and such are seamlessly edited into a richly textured soundscape. The volume is at times a bit high, especially the mechanical sounds that form a vital backbone to the auditory textures employed by the sound designers. Besides the occasionally unnecessary length of some of these mechanical sounds, I have little to say about the sound design and editing due to this high quality of production, except to congratulate the designers/editors for their work. The technical execution is impressive, but the integration of the tech with the story is more problematic.
Besides some weaknesses in the storytelling (narrative dramaturgy), the sound design doesn’t fit as well into the concept of the show as I had hoped in the preview of the second week of undercurrents (production dramaturgy). My main issue is with how Ghost River Theatre defines ‘immersive’, as the audience interaction certainly matches that descriptor though the performance itself doesn’t go as far as to achieve actual audience immersion. Is visual deprivation the same thing as emphasizing the auditory? Tomorrow’s Child seems to depend on the answer to that question being ‘yes’, although I’m not so sure. Though sight and sound are clearly the senses we tend to rely on the most, our sense of hearing is not the only one that ramps up once we lose sight. The sensory experience of Tomorrow’s Child, however, is purely auditory – we hear a helicopter coming in for a landing, but we feel no breeze, and so it’s harder as an audience member to fully project yourself into the retro-futuristic 1988 of the play. Conversely, if the experience is meant to be auditory only, what makes Tomorrow’s Child different from a radio play, besides the radio play making no attempts at immersion? In its current state Tomorrow’s Child is purely auditory, and therefore not fully immersive despite the best efforts of the Audience Service Mechs.
For all the theoretical confusion, Tomorrow’s Child remains an experience far removed from Ottawa theatre fare, and the technical execution remains impressive in the face of the likely challenge of adapting to the acoustics in a touring venue. Pieces that test the limits of a theatrical format, regardless of their success, are an important part in developing understanding on the part of both creator and audience, and to become part of that process is an invaluable experience.
A Ghost River Theatre Production
Based on the story “Tomorrow Child” by Ray Bradbury
Direction and Sound Design by Eric Rose and Matthew Waddell
Dramaturgy and Additional Writing by David van Belle
Original Music by Jesse Osborne-Lanthier (Noir) and Sarah Albu
Assistant Directed by Evan Medd
Additional Sound Design by Jozsef Iszlai, Todd Helsley, Tim Crawshaw
Performed by: Sarah Albu, Jolene Ceraldi, Tyrell Crews, Anna Crummer, David van Belle, Wren van Belle, Aubrey Hall, Helen Knight, Evan Medd, Jesse Osborne-Lanthier, Genevieve Pare, Eric Rose, Aaron Zeffer
Audience Service Mechs: Louise Casemore, Monica Bradford-Lea, Caterina Fiorindi, Even Gilchrist, Cullen Elijah McGrail, Franco Pang, Eric Rose
In Arts Court Studio and Theatre
Thursday February 16 7:00pm
Friday February 17 9:00pm
Saturday February 18 1:00pm