Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Near & Now: Two Years, Two Shows, One Theatre

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend my first live show in over two years. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how comfortable I would be returning to the theatre, especially for a show in a small, fifty-seat black box space where the performer was but a few feet away from me.

Like many during these past two years, I’ve internalized so much anxiety and apprehension in the presence of other people that I’ve become a virtual shut-in. I mask almost everywhere I go and I can count on one hand the destinations in Hamilton or beyond where I’ve traveled in the last year. However, when I learned that Eldritch Theatre in Toronto was hosting a double bill, a one-man adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, it was an opportunity that I could not pass by. In doing so, I rediscovered something that I thought had been lost to the chaos of COVID.

Let’s take a step back. The last live play I saw before the pandemic was a production of Judith Thompson’s Watching Glory Die by Toronto’s Love2Theatre. Performed at the Grand Canyon Theatre, an intimate black-box by way of converted garage, the play is one of Thompson’s more challenging scripts. Based on the 2007 death of teen inmate Ashley Smith, Watching Glory Die is a series of monologues shared between three characters and, like all of Thompson’s work, digs into some very dark places. My friend Kaitlin Race performed in the title role as part of an ensemble and the production literally took my breath away. Performing on a bare stage, in stark grey jumpsuits, the only prop was the length of cloth used as part of the movement choreography between the actors.

“Watching Glory Die” by Judith Thompson, produced by Love2Theatre Company. Photo credit: Love2Theatre Company, 2019

As I took the GO Train back to Hamilton after the show, news of the virus spreading around the world was just beginning. I saw several weary travelers from Pearson on the train with me, and my mind naturally raced at the thought of what might be in store with this coronavirus. We all know what happened next.

As live theatre shut-down and digital plays popped up, it seemed prescient that the last show I saw in-person had been Thompson’s play. A horror story about innocence lost in the face of human frailty and the brutality of fate, it’s an apt metaphor for what we’ve gone through over the last two years.

Fast forward to Eldritch Theatre’s Two Weird Tales! and the Kafka/Lovecraft double-bill. Written and performed by playwright-actor Eric Woolfe, Metamorphosis / At the Mountains of Madness epitomize his company’s mandate to produce theatre of magic and terror. Both stories, written in the early 1900s, involve existential dread, isolation and monstrous body horror. By their very nature, they encapsulate so many of the themes our society has wrestled with during the pandemic. Woolfe even stated as much in the show’s program; if adapting Metamorphosis was a reaction to the early stages of the pandemic when people were largely locked inside their homes, adapting At the Mountains of Madness was a reaction to later on when people started traveling only to realize it wasn’t such a good idea.

Woolfe’s decision to focus his storytelling on his one-man performance alongside puppets, projections and sleight-of-hand was ingenious. After these past years of chaos, I desperately needed to see a performance that was magical, so Woolfe’s presence and presentation were like a bolt of lighting. Specifically, the use of stage magic during the Lovecraft piece saw Woolfe brusquely break the fourth wall as he pleaded with the audience to believe his rants about an invisible evil out to destroy the world. As I was called upon to be part of these tricks, I was pulled out of being a masked spectator and drawn into the unsettled reality of the show.

It turns out this was exactly what I needed to break free of the anxious stranglehold of these past two years. Shut in and shut down, my sense of being an artist has been an open question: What does live theatre look like in a COVID world? In the face of the pandemic’s reality of hell-is-other-people, can live performance ever again conjure the kind of magic that brought me to the darkened theatre in the first place? The answer has always been a resounding yes. Indeed, if anything can arrest us out of the toxic shells of fear and anger we’ve constructed, it’s the theatre. Sitting in the dark, next to so many strangers, we all share an intimate experience. It’s one that often confronts us with deep truths or strange spectacles. But when the lights come up, and the exit door opens, we’re transformed together in a mutual experience.

Ironically, if anything is going to help guide us out of the shared trauma of the last two years, it’s the closely shared space of the theatre.

Stephen Near
Stephen Near
Stephen Near is a freelance writer and educator living in Hamilton. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He works at Mohawk and Humber College and is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and an alumnus of both the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen's plays have been produced at the Hamilton Fringe Festival and Theatre Aquarius and he is completing his first fiction novel.

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