Thursday, March 10, 2011

Critical Perspective: Lucy Lost Her Heart

Michael Thomas Taylor

Photo by James Stangroom

Conceived and Directed by Mark Lawes
Text by Mark Lawes and Raphaele Thiriet
Created with The Resident Company of Artists

To illustrate the remarkable idiom Theatre Junction has developed under the direction and artistic vision of Mark Lawes, one may consider the character of Pierre. A brother or a son and perhaps a lover who has been injured in a mine accident and become mentally disabled, Pierre's figure is disarmingly genuine and vulnerable but also, for the theatrical space of this performance, metaphorically crucial and precise. Boisterous and eager in his fur hat and oversized frame, he has been given the simple task of painting the rocks in the mine into which the characters have withdrawn from a frozen, desolate surface. His art brings color back into the gloom, but he paints the rocks red, the name of a character who has been murdered, and whose ghost also inhabits the tunnels. He is loved by more than one of the figures, and yet his name - the French for rock - also makes him into the remains of Lucy's heart, which has turned to stone. Pierre's coloring marks traces of trauma, dislocation, forgetting, and death out of which this theatre takes shape. And this kind of poetic density characterizes all of the figures in the performance (a fact that has made them grow more vivid in my mind over the past several days).

The history of identities played by Stephen Turner across the trilogy of works that has now concluded with "Lucy Lost Her Heart," of which Pierre is the latest, is similarly emblematic of the radical compression that this piece achieves. Like each member of the interdisciplinary ensemble, Stephen brings an unusual history to the theatre: he is a sculptor. In "Little Red River," he played an iteration of himself that was inseparable from the physical presence of his works, which he hammered out slowly and patiently for the audience. This doubled persona reappeared in "On the Side of the Road," though it was dislocated into another story and place, the Northern Lakes, and recast in a new medium, ice, that disappeared as the performance progressed. In "Lucy Lost Her Heart," this presence has transpired away to become bedrock for the ensemble and performance itself. It is not hard to imagine that Stephen's sculptural forms have been taken up and abstracted outward into the set: vertically into the geometrical prairie church under which Pierre colors his rocks, a frame impossibly cantilevered into the air by two I-beams and a set of stairs; and perhaps horizontally into the white plane that marks the center of the stage as an open field of dramatic possibility. Even more, his materials of wood, earth, metal, and ice have become the dramatic environment itself. Of course, you need not know this history to watch "Lucy Lost Her Heart." But it offers a token of how the company has developed.

All of the figures are similarly condensed out of "autofictions" developed in workshops among the ensemble as the material for Mark Lawes' artistic direction of all elements of the performance, which for this piece included a visit to the abandoned mining town of Wayne, Alberta. Their reality cannot be separated from either the intertwined metaphors (and translations) of the work's bilingual script - a tightly wrought, emotionally raw dramatic poem co-written by Mark Lawes and Raphaele Thiriet - or from the physical elements of the performance. That is to say, their shifting memories tell stories that take literal form, and it is these transformations that we witness as theatrical events. The first and second parts of this trilogy unraveled along narrative arcs punctuated by fantastic happenings and accidents. "Lucy Lost Her Heart" dispenses with any such overarching conceit to forge a relationship between stories and identities that is tighter and more essential. The fantastic moments on stage, including the fantastic identities of the figures themselves, can always be folded back into the collective dreams of the ensemble. To give another example: Red becomes the bear who was discovered in a block of ice and eaten (cannibalized?) as the figures dance around her in a celebration that is both charming and unsettling. But as one of my students remarked, this also makes her the ghost she has become: "You can't eat a scared cat," Pierre screams at the Lost Soldier, "because then it will live on inside you." The point is not that Red is the one or the other of these images, but that she performs the poetic possibilities suspended between them.

Each of the characters on stage is rich and memorable, both in the roles they play and their individual presence as performers: Raphaele Thiriet's fiercely lyrical, at times caustic figure of Pocahontas, a girl who was captured and caged in the circus but has now escaped, and who also seems to give voice to the town of Lucy; Ian Killburn's Lost Soldier, a wounded romantic whose trauma (and vocal performances) drive the ensemble; the physical, sexual encounters and entanglements of Red, played by Isabelle Kirouac, which extend out into the audience; and the entertainer / dreamer / cowboy / FLIP (fucking little island person) Mike Tan, whose performance to my mind anchored the entire cast with its virtuosic range. All members of the cast are present on stage throughout the performance, and the audience is forced to consider these multiple points of view in choosing where to look. Yet what is most compelling in "Lucy Lost Her Heart" is what happens between the figures. Each figure has a moment of confession in which they tell their own story. But it is in the scenes of shared physical movement and song in which action becomes dynamic. These scenes push all of the figures beyond their own boundaries as characters and performers into the space of transformation that they create together.

This transformation extends to the stage itself. Chris Dadge - the musician who performs on stage with a range of sources including live recordings, electronic and acoustic instruments, and some unusual objects - embodies the transposition of the work's figures into the physical elements of the theatre. His liminal status is marked by his position on stage, constantly present and yet off to one side, his voice also unobtrusively that of the narrator who recounts the catastrophic origins of Lucyland itself. It is impossible to tell whether the characters come from this past or have created it themselves, whether they have burrowed their refuge out of their memories or whether these have collapsed around them. Answering these questions is immaterial, but asking them is not. Their openness articulates a principle that structures all the physical elements of the stage - the forms and shapes of Deeter Shurig's minimalist, versatile, and open-ended stage design; the deftly accented types of Lauren Tamaki's costumes; the sudden illumination of the set with projections that disperse the figures into reflections and memories of themselves; and the choices to exploit of all dimensions of theatrical space, as when the Cowboy's dream of a tunnel to the other side of the ice becomes a dead-end echo-chamber of complete darkness. This last moment was particularly powerful, as the audience found itself suddenly thrust into the disoriented claustrophobia of the mine, but it jostles in my mind with a series of further images - whimsical, somber, terrified, tender, and outrageous - that remain equally insistent.

In the final scene, when Raphaele Thiriet incants a seemingly endless pile of words with an even dispassion that swells, measure-by-measure, as she announces each new item, these transformations collapse. The lights come up, the costumes come off, and the projections come to an end. Language is what remains of things, apocalyptic traces of objects bereft of their world. And this is perhaps what has finally become of Lucy - words of rubble and debris that fill these mines. The power of "Lucy Lost Her Heart" is to show us what it can mean to have made these things come alive.

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