Wildside Festival

Wildside Festival 2008
Centaur Theatre, January 8-19th 2008

Here’s a quick review of the first four plays I saw at the Wildside this year.
The Wildside Festival is the Centaur’s attempt to buy itself a stake in the Fringe™ festival. It chooses what it considers the five best plays, gives them a budget and stages them on its main stage for two weeks. Wild? Maybe not, but there was some good theatre on display.

…and stockings for the ladies
The Gesamtkunstwek Project
written by Attila Clemann
performed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett

One of the better, if not entirely satisfying, moments of this year’s festival was Attila Clemann’s Frankie-Award winning …and stockings for the ladies, a carefully-crafted story of the experience of Clemann’s father’s step-father in the post-war Allied occupation of Germany. McMurtry-Howlett plays all the parts, showing himself capable of considerable theatrical gymnastics as he reconstructs dialogue between hardened officers and battle-hungry soldiers, impatient mothers and disobedient children.

Ted Aplin, an officer, and Daniel Friedman, a soldier, are stationed in Celle, Germany, near the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. When Aplin is taken to see the camp, he is shocked by the conditions he sees and decides to go over his supervisors’ heads and find a way to help nurture the survivors back to health. He recruits Friedman to help him and together they organize a secret system to allow soldiers’ families to donate supplies to the former interns. When the military brass finds out that the two have been breaking the rules, they are threatened with dishonourable discharge.

There is enough drama in this story for good theatre, but the problem I find with this kind of chronicle of parental heroism is that it tends by nature to try to avoid conflicts and contradictions that could tarnish the hero, though this could, in fact, lead to higher drama. Friedman and Aplin are nice guys motivated by a high sense of moral duty. Their adversaries are tough authoritarians who simply want the rules followed. The arguments between them should be a climactic moment of the play but it falls short because Clemann doesn’t give enough ammunition to his adversaries. If he allowed the officers more convincing arguments, the tension would be greater. He needn’t worry that his audience would side against helping holocaust victims.

The picture that Stockings gives of the Canadian military is equally without contradiction. Canadian soldiers are described as nice, generous, good-looking blue-eyed boys jumping to give out chocolate to camp survivors. As if that’s what armies are trained to do. This seems to me a uniquely Canadian view of Canadians, a kind of national narcissism that belongs more in Heritage Minute spots than in theatre.

The flip side of this myth is the portrayal of camp survivors. Represented—quite masterfully—by hand puppets, the victims relate stories about their torment at the hands of the Nazis. They recount their delight at eating chocolate for the first time in years, the carnal violence with which they act when they are thrown a former torturer. One victim glows with joy at being told that a new land called Israel is awaiting him. I was amazed this could be pulled off with no sense of how obscure the concept must have sounded in 1945, or the slightest irony that this dream might not work out quite as planned. In each case they are portrayed as passive victims awaiting their liberation by others, in this case British and Canadian forces. This seems to me to reflect one of the implicit tenants of Zionism: that its project of liberation is necessarily dependent on the favours of the Great Powers.

These oversights do not destroy the drama. The tension rises as we watch Aplin attempt to shake off the threats coming from above and Friedman, who is at first reticent to get involved, rising to meet the Aplin’s level of commitment. But oversights do mean that we don’t take what we see as seriously as we could. Aplin and Friedman’s story is worth telling: their choice to offer solidarity to suffering people even if it meant losing a comfortable military career certainly makes them small heroes. But it doesn’t add to their legacy to rely on cheap myths about Canada, Israel and WWII.

Teaching As You Like It
Written and performed by Keir Cutler
Directed by TJ Dawe

By all indications Teaching… should have been the highest point of Wildside this year. 2008 marks the fifth time Cutler has been invited to bring his Teaching series to the Centaur and the piece is directed by Fringe™ favourite TJ Dawe. But Teaching is insufferable from beginning to end.

The story follows a day in the classroom of “the inept Dr. Cutler” who, while ostensibly trying to teach Shakespeare to a high school English class, accidentally regales his students with a long confession of the romance he is undertaking with a student. “Inept” doesn’t begin to describe such a person.
If you don’t catch the idea that the doctor’s lust for Rosalind the student is very similar to Orlando’s lust for Rosalind in As You Like It, don’t worry because Cutler lets you know several dozen times over the course of the play, and with decreasing subtlety. “Isn’t it ironic that Rosalind isn’t here on the day we’re studying a play with a character of the same name?” he asks. Yes I suppose it is.

So why would any of this happen? Apparently, Dr. Cutler is nervous – that’s why he continues to spill incriminating details of his illicit affair long after the audience (and the presumably less patient students of his fictional class) has lost interest. Why would this happen? Is he mentally ill? Or is it part of his wacky ineptitude? The problem with the latter is that Cutler character is simply too dull to be wacky. I could be stretched to believe that a Ricky Gervais or a Steve Coogan could walk himself into such a trap, but then I imagine the journey would at least be amusing.

The Girl With No Hands
Talya Rubin and Jodi Essery

Between 1803 and 1812, the Grimm brothers went out to document oral storytelling traditions in the small villages of Germany for their book Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). Rubin and Essery’s Girl recounts their attempt to assemble the different versions of one particular story they gather into a coherent manuscript. The story begins and ends numerous times, details are changed, re-interpreted, and argued over as Wilhelm Grimm struggles with task he has been set. What makes Girl intriguing is how each re-telling affects the whole, and what it says about the nature of storytelling in the process.

The myth concerns a young girl who is accused of having exposed herself to the Devil. As punishment, her father cuts off her hands and she runs into the woods and dies. The story is weaved through the perspectives of a series of colourful characters. We hear from the gossipy women of the town, who use the story of the girl to advance their peculiar visions of morality. We meet the story’s protagonists: the axe-wielding father and the mother who is enjoying the peace and quiet and golden pears that appeared with the disappearance of her daughter. One character is the embittered raconteur of the “puppenspiel”: a hunch-backed old man whose stories all end with, “and so she died.” Rubin and Essery tease us by allowing some characters to reveal facts from the end of the story, while others return to tell them in greater detail.

Wilhelm Grimm doesn’t know what to do with the patched-together, morality-soaked story as it’s been told to him. It seems like so much gossip. Each person has used the facts of the story to prove a simple point: usually that girls should behave themselves. As such, they have cut out every detail that doesn’t fit their agenda and the story has become lifeless in their hands.

The play ends with the Brothers Grimm version of the Girl with no Hands. This version begins where the others conclude, leaving aside the punitive morality of the townswomen and turning it into a tale about how love can survive interference, even from the Devil. While the girl with no hands had been just an object in the townswomen’s stories, someone to whom a sentence was to be doled out, she becomes the subject of the Grimm version, someone who acts and responds to the challenges sent her by the Devil.

Stories expand and contract, develop and degenerate depending on who tells them and why. Stories exist differently for teller and listener and this affects how they change as they are passed on. Rubin and Essery show us the subjectivity inherent in storytelling but also the power of a story in the hands of a master. If you add to this the wit of the dialogue, the sparse gothic sets, Tanya Rubin’s fine acting, and the eerie live accordion music by Julia Kater, Girl is easily the pick of the bunch at this year’s festival.

Rabbit in a Hat Productions
Written by Paul Van Dyck

A lot of effort and imagination went into Van Dyck’s latest production. A four-piece ensemble act out characters inside and outside the imagination of its protagonist, Ballor, accompanied by a three-piece band who deliver a live score and sound effects. Impressive use is made of shadow puppetry, costumes, backlighting and set design.

The piece is a highly stylized voyage into the imaginary world of Ballor, a one-eyed delusional patient of a psychiatric ward. Ballor’s subconscious turns out to be a colourful fairground, populated by a devious clown, a bearded lady, a bloodthirsty minotaur and an African mystic, all of whom mirror either people Ballor meets in the hospital or manifest qualities of Ballor’s psychological makeup.

All of this makes for great opportunities for clowning, singing, dancing, delivered with flamboyantly by an excellent cast. The trouble is that you can’t help feeling that Ballor’s mind is too much of a perfect playground for such a gang of enthusiastic theatre artists. We have difficulty believing anyone could really fantasize such a world, and the play doesn’t offer up enough substance to suggest that this could all be a symbol for something else.

The story does not compel us primarily because the characters, though they are bold, are not rounded out with enough idiosyncrasies or contradictions that depart from the too-familiar archetypes they are based on. Though they fall in love, get in fights-to-the-death, and even kill each other, they evolve little as people over the course of the play.

Finally, with all the stylization, I wonder what makes this piece new. To what end does it use generic forms in new ways and what does it add to them? The music is well done, but ultimately conventional, the story ordinary, the characters archetypal, the theatrics derivative. Any one or two of these might be acceptable were the play to cover new ground elsewhere, but as it doesn’t it entertains but leaves us wanting.


  1. Matthew Brett13/4/08 7:09 pm

    Hi Matt,

    I replied to your comment. Thanks for reading, and feel free to drop a line if you ever think something is of interest to Canadian Dimension readers. I'd be happy to post your work.



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