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Bold style masks some flimsy ideas

Marianne Ackerman

Anyone familiar with the slow-motion, dream-like world of the American theatrical innovator Robert Wilson will notice an immediate – if superficial – similarity with the DNA troupe’s This is what happens in Orangeville, brought to town from Toronto this week by the Theatre Festival of the Americas.

Whether writer/director Hillar Liitoja comes anywhere near Wilson’s rigor and breadth of imagination is a highly debatable question. Ostensibly, the piece is a confrontation between a 14-year-old boy who has strangled two children and the psychiatrist charged with investigating his mental health. Friends and relatives loom on the fringe, spouting fragments of reaction.

Stage time seems measured in eons. A slow-witted man stands catatonic, holding driftwood, muttering about his neighbors; a dimple-cheeked mother chats on about their family life, meanwhile preparing an omelette which she hands to a spectator; a naked girl holding balloons appears from a trap door and inches her way across the room; a loony fellow rambles on about the position of Jupiter at the time of the killing. Half a dozen times, the boy dismisses his psychiatrist without a real exchange.

Clearly, character and motivation aren’t the point here. This living museum of human types seems to be about the repression, self-delusions and dangerous bestiality to be found underneath the ordinary chatter of small-town life. Next to the long line of earnest-issue plays which persist on English-Canada stages, this is definitely a new approach to headline-inspired theatre.

But Liitoja’s bold style doesn’t quite mask the fact that underneath are some pretty flimsy and pretentious ideas. Any 10-minute excerpt would adequately sum up the whole. Evil may be banal, as Hannah Arendt said after attending Adolph Eichmann’s trial 25 years ago. But that’s no excuse for the same fault in a work of art about evil.

Where DNA’s assault on conventional theatre really works (and probably works against its own theme) is breaking down barriers between spectators. The house lights (including 100 100-watt bulbs) are on throughout. About 100 spectators are seated at various angles in and around the action, so you can wave at friends, exchange shrugs, observe giggles, nod at grimaces, go for a drink, change seats or walk out without in any disturbing the performance. Frankly, watching people watch Orangeville is a lot more interesting than Orangeville itself.

The Gazette
June 5, 1987