Bosons, banalities & bravura
Solo tour de force British-Belgian co-production of "History of the World"
“If you hang a gun on the wall in your opening scene,” Russian genius playwright Anton Chekov supposedly advised, “make sure it gets fired by the final curtain.” Or something to that effect (the citation is murky); the point being to not introduce anything onstage that won’t get used to somehow advance the action.
By those lights, Belgian actor Titus DeVoogdt, who also co-directed and co-authored the script, has his work cut out for him in his solo tour de force that runs through May 5th at the York, a co-production of five British and Belgian theatre companies. The stage set (constructed by Vancouver’s own Great Northern Way Scene Shop) is choked with eclectic oddments that DeVoogdt has got to find a use for in the course of his 80-minute farrago.
Retro 1950’s style kitchen furniture, coffee table books, fruit, a comatose body, a live guitar-strumming figure of hooded Death (composer Geoffrey Burton), an old 45 RPM record player, a helium balloon, a wall clock, a coatrack full of limp togs, a shaving mirror. There’s even an actual, smoke-belching Chekovian gun. Everything up to and including a kitchen sink – gotta be a sink in there somewhere under the accumulated midden of grimy, unwashed dishes.
The neglected clutter reflects the distraction of DeVoogdt’s character, a distraught Gen-Xer who’s shut himself into his mother’s apartment to tend her decline and death. He paces the claustrophobic kitchen like a zoo animal, by turns listless or frenetically outraged, sometimes literally climbing the walls (with impressively acrobatic grace).
And, like a zoo animal, he’s always conscious of the gawkers – us, the audience – just beyond the invisible “fourth wall” of his cage. He aims his harangues, ironies, reminiscences and sleight-of-hand magic tricks directly at us. When he misses a ball in bilboquet tennis, it dribbles right into Row A of the York. When he steeps a cuppa, he slings the used teabag straight at the cabinetry behind him to further compound the kitchen morass.
Not that his mother before him was much of a housekeeper, either, it seems. A theoretical physicist and singleton academic, she lived much of her life on a chilly, abstract plane in fervid quest of the Higgs Boson.
At least that’s how she’s described by her sole offspring (who was conceived in a momentary lapse of indiscretion in the basket of a Montgolfier balloon). For bedtime stories, she regaled him with cosmic Big Bang origin stories, rather than comforting fairy tales. The only mitigating influence was his grandfather, a onetime stage magician, long deceased.
And now Mom, too, is on the way out – comatose, horizontal (we only get to see her shrouded feet). So, at last, our hero’s got her exactly where he’s always wanted her, attentive – if not exactly responsive – to his reminiscences of what passed for “family life” in their sad little ménage à deux.
To this end he recruits much of the random flotsam onstage for a series of show-and-tell vignettes. In style, they’re an odd hybrid of his mother’s lab bench physics demo’s and his grandpa’s flamboyant magic tricks. In the process, he uses up an impressive share of the Chekovian clutter of the set.
Intermittently he’s overcome with a sense of immanent loss and grief, denoted by a burst of composer Burton’s keening, growling electric guitar score accompanied by looming shadows or wisps of stage smoke. But then we soon get back to DeVoogdt’s anecdotal skits.
Mostly he’s offering droll and homely kitchen-table illustrations for some counter-intuitive tenet of particle physics. But what really moves him, it seems, is the memory of those rare moments of simple, human, idiosyncratic mother-and-son bonding over nothing of any monumental significance.
Like the time they were picnicking in a fresh-ploughed field and he found an old Roman coin. Which launches our boy into a reverie about how some bygone legionnaire might have dropped his pocket change and it lay there for millennia, bypassed and overlooked by assorted agrarian serfs, courting couples, sporting coves, shambling bards et al. Until happens to be stumbled upon by just this child who shows it to just this Mom.
And it's just such “banalities,” in a dense-packed stream, that comprise the real history of the world, DeVoogdt muses. That's the history that matters, versus the grandiose, abstract verities we tell ourselves to whistle our way past the great cosmic dark.
So, to underscore the point, he sets up the shaving mirror on the 45 RPM turntable and, in its spinning reflection, he sites on the balloon behind him, which he shoots over-the-shoulder with his rifle, releasing a shower of confetti like a cascade of Higgs Bosons. Then, donning his grandpa’s magical tail coat and top hat, he saunters offstage in a puff of smoke to the howls of the electric bass.