Itai Erdal’s How to Disappear Completely is completely non-fiction: partly a memoir on the deterioration of his mother’s condition after her cancer diagnosis, the show fascinatingly is also something of an intro to theatrical lighting design. Erdal keeps the connection understated between these two halves, so while at times the show seems to ramble, most of the elements thematically complement each other wonderfully.
The Ottawa theatre community is no stranger to autobiographical shows by creator-performers, but as far as I recall the focus in shows like that tends to be on the autobiographical element, or else the general experience of living and working in the arts. Rarely do we get the chance for technical elements to shine on their own, especially for lighting design (I have to admit that I haven’t always been as observant of lighting design as other technical elements like set and costumes, so I personally was super grateful for the chance to learn a few more things about this part of the production process). We go through the traditional McCandless method of stage lighting, before getting into the various types of lamps and their respective qualities. What really strikes in this ‘tutorial’ aspect is Erdal’s philosophizing about how truly ephemeral his work is and how he, as the controller of light, can feel like he’s playing God in his work on some level. Combined with the powerlessness of the situation as he struggles to accept his mother’s mortality in the other main portion of HtDC, the deeply personal nature of the show begins to assert itself.
The autobiographical portion of this show mostly takes the form of home videos where Erdal interviews his mother and younger sister not just about his mother’s illness but more broadly about the highs and lows of one’s personal experiences, the validity of constantly searching for knowledge/wisdom, and the importance of having children in order to “continue yourself”. We become intimately acquainted with not just these direct relatives, but also Erdal’s best friend since childhood Ari and his stepfather Petro. Although Erdal originally meant to create a documentary film from his footage, the ‘final’ theatrical version that only partly comprises the show arose from potential legal roadblocks due to Erdal’s mother’s desire to end her life by assisted suicide, and the outcome of that wish (trigger warning!). Practically however, the inclusion of what was supposed to be a documentary film in what is a very theatricalized experience speaks thematically to the discussions in the film itself of whether one can know everything: in film every nuance is recorded forever and is the same every time, but in theatre (lighting design included), nuances are subtle and lost immediately unless the spectator notices (and even then, how can you guarantee they’ll remember it accurately?)
There’s some confusion over how the videos are presented to the English-speaking audience, as everyone (Erdal included) speaks in Hebrew in the videos: most of the time Erdal speaks over the video in English translation, mimicking the poses of the interviewee, but in two video segments he subtitles the dialogue instead, though I’m not sure why the inconsistency is there. The personal anecdotes he tells about his life are amusing but the connection of each one is not always clear (one story involves Erdal’s experience with an amorous manatee in Vanuatu, and though the story is fun to hear I otherwise couldn’t tell you why Erdal included it).
My final criticism is not really a criticism as I personally see it, but I suppose it really depends on your point of view on unreliable narration: as I said at the beginning of this review nothing in this show is untrue, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a 100% accurate representation of Erdal’s experience. Erdal freely admits that he doesn’t tell you everything: he often mentions his own single-ness but admits at the end that he was married once even though that story didn’t fit in with the rest of the content of HtDC. Given how deeply personal most of the content of How to Disappear Completely is it makes sense that Erdal wouldn’t subject himself every night to reliving the trauma of his mother’s death, and so I think to fully ‘get’ this show requires a certain amount of reading between the lines. And in the midst of a (surprisingly warm at times) Ottawa winter, who doesn’t need something to take their minds off the weather?
How to Disappear Completely
Presented by The Chop
Created by Itai Erdal, James Long, Anita Robinson and Emelia Symington Fedy
Performed by Itai Erdal
Directed by James Long
Dramaturgy by Anita Rochon
Lighting Design by Itai Erdal
Sound Design by Emelia Symington Fedy
Original Composition by Andrea Young
Projection Design by Jamie Nesbitt
Remount Projection Design by Corwin Ferguson