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.