Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Last week, I saw two ideas-driven plays:  LOOKING FOR PAUL: INEZ VAN DAM vs. THE BUTTPLUG GNOME at  The World Stage Festival at Harbourfront Centre and THE SUMMONED, now running at the Tarragon Theatre.  Both productions provided plenty of food for thought, and that was, mostly, a good thing.

I wasn't looking forward to LOOKING FOR PAUL... A title with the word "buttplug" in it made me wonder if I was in for a night of adolescent prurience masquerading as gosh-awful  "shock" theatre.  Fortunately, not: the Rotterdam-based Dutch Flemish actors' group WUNDERBAUM delivered a sly piece of devised theatre that explores, in droll, tongue-in-cheek fashion, concerns around the aesthetics, politics and the function of public art.

The City of Rotterdam commissioned a sculpture from American visual artist, Paul McCarthy (not to be confused with Sir Paul McCartney, as they point out). McCarthy, whose formal concerns are ostensibly consumerism and mass media, offered the good burghers a monumental bronze garden gnome holding what could be interpreted as a bell, in one hand, and a rather curious looking artificial Christmas tree in the other. Apparently, that's not what those two objects are. The statue is referred to as both "Santa Claus" and "The Buttplug Gnome".

Inez Van Dam, the everywoman of this piece, is a bookseller with a condo above her shop.  The gnome is in a public square outside her windows. She can't escape looking at the damn thing, which she finds hideous. I confess she had my sympathies. It is both disarmingly kitschy, and disturbingly perverse.

The play  is a text comprised of the emails between the performers, the director, and Van Dam about a commission they've received to build a performance around the subject of the statue, and the issues arising from its commission, its subject matter, and its placement in Rotterdam. The performers read their letters to each other, seated on the stage. The "actual" performance is to take place in Los Angeles, the home of McCarthy, who they are desperate to meet.

LOOKING FOR PAUL ...works because it is less of a discourse about art, and more of a buffoon episode of Seinfield:  a very funny play mostly about the hilariously pretentious and petty concerns of a bunch of rather flaky, self-important people.

The company doesn't really have a play to perform, and in spite of their American collaborator, Daniel Frankl,  they can't get an audience with McCarthy. Without the planned show-down between the creator of the statue, and the woman who hates having it outside her window to put on stage, they determine to instead perform a play McCarthy wrote: a very free adaptation of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF by Edward Albee. The company's leading lady is very pleased by this turn of events as she, not Inez will be the "star".

Alas, McCarthy's version of the great text is little more than a filmed orgy with a gross-out food fight thrown in for good measure. Two unfortunate technicians are employed to ensure the audience misses none of the gory details of this production, which is a mess in every sense of the word.  Mr. McCarthy's real preoccupations are on full display in the denouement, and aesthetics don't have much to do them.  I'll just say that I'll never be able to look at a tray of condiments in the same way ever again.  A Freudian analyst would have a field day with McCarthy.

LOOKING FOR PAUL... is a clever satire of  the demi-monde of modern art.  I can't recommend it to the easily disgusted, and I'd highly advise NOT sitting in the front two rows, if you care in the slightest about preserving your clothes. For the most part, the show was surprisingly charming, wickedly clever, and a lot of fun.

On Saturday night, I headed over to the Tarragon to see Fabrizio Filippo's THE SUMMONED.  An excellent cast: John Bourgeois, Rachel Cairns, Kelli Fox, Maggie Huculak, Tony Nappo and Alon Nashman (in a voice-over cameo) capably directed by Richard Rose perform this piece about the reading of  the will of a Steve Jobs type millionaire/ tech genius/recluse.

The group members, summoned to an airport hotel in Toronto, exhibit varying degrees of interest in what they'll inherit from a man they loved, feared, and hated and who held them in his thrall. The creator of the will was nothing if not willful, and his last word and testament is definitely a hand from beyond the grave. When all the players are assembled, an interesting cat and mouse game of selective revelations ensues between the all-too present deceased, and the people from his life on Earth.

As the play jumps from past to present,  Filippo plays both the underachieving son of the genius and the man himself.  Or is he the son?

Filippo is intent on exploring the ethical dilemmas arising as technology, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering advance and intersect. The script's play of ideas is nicely supported by the design team of Kurt Firla (video) Dylan Green (sound) and Jason Hand (lighting and set). Charlotte Dean's costumes also work perfectly.  I particularly liked the way she dressed Kelli Fox, who does a terrific job of playing a sexy, amoral shark of a lawyer.

The late David Bowie's SPACE ODDITY plays a prominent auditory cameo in the production.  As Bowie's iconic music washed over us at the end, I was reminded that the thing about genius is its uniqueness.  It can be copied or imitated, but when a genius dies, their gifts are lost forever. It is hubris to think otherwise.

There's a lot of plot twists and interesting ideas in THE SUMMONED. Take a smart, geeky friend.  You'll have much to discuss after the curtain comes down.

LOOKING for PAUL: INEZ VAN DAM vs. THE BUTTPLUG GNOME appeared as part of WORLD STAGE at HARBOURFRONT THEATRE from April 27-30, 2016. The festival of contemporary theatre continues until June 11th. http://www.harbourfrontcentre.com or (416)973 4000 for information about upcoming performances.

THE SUMMONED continues until May 29th at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. http://www.tarragontheatre.com or call (416) 531 1827 for dates, times, tickets, and information.