Sunday, April 01, 2007

Music for Contortionist strips away conventional norms and reveals the bloody heart beating within

Can you display to the world the blood and sinew and capillaries through the glass cabinet doors in your chest? What will happen if you show people what is inside the sausage casing? Why are we obsessed with beauty? Is it possible to truly reveal yourself and somehow survive the scrutiny? How do you write a love song that is not sentimental? These are some of the questions raised by Music for Contortionist, the latest offering from Sage Theatre, and they are questions that only serve to propagate yet more questions rather than allow themselves to be easily answered.

From the moment you enter the Joyce Doolittle theatre, you are aware that this will not be a standard evening at the theatre. As I have actually come to expect from Sage Theatre, I was unable to recognize the room I had just entered. With each production, the theatre company has completely transformed the space, from an Edinburgh flophouse in Trainspotting, to a once prestigious Harlem mansion in The Dazzle, and finally to a smoky and rather seedy cabaret in Music for Contortionist. The room itself, with its brick walls and black shuttered windows, is certainly an evocative space, but it is a testament to the vision of the crew at Sage Theatre that through the imaginative placement of such simple props as lace shawls, an out-of-tune piano and candles, such an atmosphere can transport you.

One enters the theatre to find a cozy grouping of small café tables and chairs, each setting illuminated by a candle in a glass, which has been placed in the centre of a lace shawl tablecloth. A small stage with a single chair extends from one corner of the room, and beside it, a musician plucks out a melody on an up-right double bass, flanked by a rickety piano. As we take our seats, we chat within our groups, drinks are placed upon the tables, and the set seems to expand to envelope the entire room. We are not here to watch a play, we are here to participate in a performance.

And then, Valeska Gert enters. She saunters down the narrow aisle among the tables, throwing out greetings to the odd person, and authoritatively takes the stage.

Valerie Planche is mesmerizing in her role as the German avant-garde cabaret performer, the social satirist who challenged conventional norms of beauty and artistic culture by transforming the grotesque into the personal. Planche’s portrayal of Gert is simultaneously provocative, vulnerable, haughty, and tender. She perfectly captures that seemingly oxymoronic quality – the German sense of humour – with bravado and self-deprecation and with a wink to her audience to invite us to join her in laughing at the world.

A one-act play by Morwyn Brebner, Music for Contortionist is not a biography per se of the life of Valeska Gert, rather it is a portrayal of a final performance by this highly unusual and charismatic performer. The performance unfolds through a stream of consciousness narrative which encompasses stories from Gert’s childhood, dances, songs, and the trances over which she has increasingly less control. Accompanying the trances are the movements of a contortionist - a beautiful young woman who serves to illustrate the disdain which Gert professes to have for conventional beauty.

This is a highly interactive performance, and the evening I attended the audience was in fine form, responding to questions from the performer, gleefully participating in the scene in which Gert provocatively and aggressively, and yet playfully, challenges a man in the audience to confront her sexual advances.

Music for Contortionist is a fascinating glimpse into the world of Valeska Gert, a world which refuses to buy into the conventional ideals of beauty and conformity, a world in which our principles and our physical selves are stripped bare and turned inside out, revealing the raw essence within the sausage casing.

Music for Contortionist has now completed its run at the Pumphouse Theatre, but if you find yourself in the Calgary area and you are interested in the idea of provocative and challenging theatre, I urge you to take in some of Sage Theatre's upcoming productions.


Anonymous said...

Wow, that sounds like a great time Barbara. I love the theater but haven't been in years due to lack of friends with interest in it and shyness about going by myself.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I had the same problem, Fearless, especially after moving away from my theatre-going friends. So I had to wait until my daughter was old enough to go with me and fortunately, we like the same type of theatre. I am already starting to dread her moving away from home some day.

Allison said...

Great review Barb. I love reading your take on the stage. This company sounds really amazing.

Its hard to get people to attend plays sometimes eh? Growing up as a theatre kid, quite literally in the backyard of the Stratford Festival, it was part of the everyday, and since we moved my attendance has never quite been the same. As for Eva moving away though, just think of all the things you'll have to fit in when she returns for visits :)

Barbara Bruederlin said...

They are an amazing company, Al; they definitely take risks with their productions and I believe that courage makes for memorable theatre.

Growing up in Stratford, theatre would have just been a natural part of your environment, and you never really lose that when the opportunities stop being so available.

Poor Eva - she will be deluged with mom activities when she comes back to visit. I'd better start planning now.

Malnurtured Snay said...

What an obvious April Fools' Day prank! I'm not falling for this!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

It's always good to have a healthy degree of skepticism, Mal Snay!

Toccata said...

The Joyce Doolittle Theatre sounds like an incredible venue just perfect for Sage Theatre. Calgary is doing some pretty impressive things in the arts. Your reviews and the CD the art school put out make Calgary sound like an exciting place to live.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I know I bitch about Calgary a fair bit, Toccata, but there is actually a lot of pretty exciting stuff going on here.

Good to see you back; hope you're feeling all better.

Dale said...

It sounds like Sage really knows how to inhabit their space and yours Barbara. Your reviews are so enjoyable.

I love good theatre. Hell, I even love bad theatre. What I enjoy most is the exchange afterward with other people and getting their take on things and what affected or moved them.


Deb said...

Sounds like you're onto something good with these productions Barb. I love the way you practically put us there with you...good job on the review.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

You ARE fearless, Dale, just not the Fearless.
It's true, it's all about the debriefing after the show, preferably over a luscious slab of cake.

Thaanks Deb - I just calls em as I sees em - and they are really good productions.

Dale said...

Damn, I didn't finish my comment. I was going to say in relation to Fearless's first comment -- be more fearless and go alone anyway. You often get great seats if there's an odd number of seats in a row, you don't have to put up with your friend saying 'what did they just say?' thereby ensuring you miss the next 2 lines and so on and so on. Or come here, I'll go with you.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

hahaha Dale, and I thought you were being a Fearless impersonator!

Dale said...

Nope, just being a half wit.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Awww, I have days when I can't use the keyboard either.

Anonymous said...


I was recently directed to your blog. Thank you for your passion for the arts and culture in Calgary. As President of the board of directors of Sage Theatre Society, I appreciate your well written and thoughtful reviews and your passion for our work. If you thought this season good, next season will blow your socks off!


Chima Nkemdirim.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Hi Chima, welcome! How very kind of you to comment. I really have enjoyed Sage's production immensely this year, and plan to subscribe for season's ticket for next year.

I can't wait to see what's offered!