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Assembling an oratorio

Community-building for show folks: tech run-thru for Pi Theatre's PuSH Fest run of The Events

After the hecatomb: tea. And sympathy...? Image: R.B. Patel

On a sideboard in Strathcona’s Russian Hall: a box of sugary donuts and a battered chrome tea urn with some Styrofoam cups. The donuts are real; the tea is imaginary, pure theatre.

But both are laid on to betoken the same principle: “the stolid, consoling presence of a community…,” as the ideal is stated in the programme notes to Pi Theatre’s upcoming production of David Grieg’s award winning script The Events. Such homely rites of community, according to Pi director Richard Wolfe, may be our last bulwarks of shared humanity against violent, hate-filled, senseless times.

So the tea urn becomes a kind of votive font for that homeliest of Civil Society congregations, the Community Choir. Vancouver is amply endowed with such choirs. Pi has recruited a dozen of them to join the Russian Hall production, a different one for each performance of the show’s run, January 17-28, as part of the PuSH Festival.

The donuts, too, have sacral meaning for another kind of communion – the holy order of theatrical professionals. Co-star Douglas Ennenberg has laid them on for the cast and crew that are convened here, just ahead of Opening Night, for the ancient rite of Tech Rehearsal.

Carpenters are still banging and drilling to complete the risers that will seat the audience, surrounding three sides of the Russian Hall’s open, gym-style floor. The fourth side will be a dais for the choir[s].

Since the choir members change for each show, the action onstage will be as new to them as to anyone else in the audience, and their spontaneous responses just as fresh and immediate, even though they sing from a pre-scripted score. So they can serve as emotional proxies for the rest of us, Wolfe explains, “a kind of Greek chorus” to tide us through the open-ended horror of unfolding tragedy.

Pi has evolved somewhat of a specialty in this sort of thing lately, as attested by its most recent Vancouver production, Long Division, a Greek Chorus treatment of a high school shooting.Pure coincidence, Wolfe insists, citing the company’s eclectic repertoire over the course of its three-decade history. Still, he concedes, the steady rise of political and cultural septicaemia demands ever more powerful artistic antidotes to toxic social shocks.

The particular shock The Events sets out to tackle is the 2011 mass murder of youth campers in Utøya, Norway, by one Anders Breivik, a “lone-wolf” neo-Nazi shooter. How could any human so coolly and meticulously, over a period of years, plan and prepare such an act? And how can life go on – for the perpetrator, the survivors and ‘collaterally’ affected society-at-large – after such an enormity?

To address such mysteries, head-on dramatic portraiture falls short. Rather, playwright Grieg has chosen to “surround his subject” from multiple vantage points, Wolfe is convinced, which makes Pi’s “theatre in the round” staging at the Russian Hall particularly apt. The result is an almost holographic, 3D image of the tragedy and its aftermath.

This composite approach dictates the transposition of the story from its Norwegian particulars to a more generic atrocity. The play’s locale could be any Western city – a reminder that ‘shitholes’ of nihilistic violence can, without warning, open up at your feet anytime, anywhere – even in Canada.

The figure of Breivik becomes simply – generically – ‘The Boy,’ and is no longer the central figure of the story. Rather that role is shifted to a liberal, lesbian Church minister-cum-choirmaster whose life, faith and sanity are all shredded by the tragedy.

Luisa Jojic, an eight-year-veteran of Bard on the Beach, portrays the minister. She performs opposite co-star Ennenberg, newly returned to his native Vancouver after graduation from the National Theatre School in Toronto. He plays ‘The Boy’ and 10 other roles, male and female, all without changing his jeans-and-hoodie costume.

To the right of the choir dais, music supervisor Mishelle Cuttler will accompany the singers on a rather battered-looking spinet. Other than that, the stage is bare – no scenery or props, apart from the sacral tea urn and just two chairs.

Rather, to set the scene and mood, Pi’s Events will rely entirely on lights and sound effects. For today’s run-through, lighting designer Brad Trenaman and stage manager Jethelo Cabilete man the light and sound boards, respectively, to coordinate their all-important technical cues with the actors.

State-of-the-art lighting, Wolfe notes; LED’s, with a wider and warmer colour range than earlier models, and more precisely controllable. Expensive, too, he sighs – nearly $4,000 to rent. But worth it, he hopes.

An overhead spot shoots a bright, metre-wide pool of light mid-stage. In impromptu improvisation, Jojic and Ennenberg draw up their chairs alongside and delightedly splash their toes in the yellow disc, like kids playing in a fresh puddle.

But then Trenaman dims the beam, softens it to a crepuscular pink and stretches it into an elongated ellipse. The two actors pull back into a doctor/patient consulting room juxtaposition and launch into an angsty, therapeutic dialogue.

And so it goes throughout the tech rehearsal. Donuts and jokey bonhomie – community building – among the assorted theatre pro’s until they iron out the kinks and get the cues down pat. And then they run through the scene with heart-breaking gravity and intensity. And then they play it again; and maybe yet again.

Early days yet, Ennenberg allows. Even if it looks a little sketchy right now, he promises, by the time the show opens, everything on stage – the people, the feelings, even the imaginary tea in the Styrofoam cups – will become absolutely real to us.

“When you come see the show, watch those tea cups,” he suggests. “They’re absolutely key to the whole thing.”

To find out how, book the PuSH Fest run of The Events at the Russian Hall.



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