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THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS IN ORANGEVILLE

Susan Aaron

This Is What Happens in Orangeville was a statement and an accusation at the same time. At the Festival of the Americas in Montreal, director Hillar Liitoja confronted his audience with a murder that had actually happened in the Canadian town of Orangeville.

As Liitoja likes to point out, the Toronto-based theatre company DNA bases its work on the coding properties of its namesake, the molecule responsible for heredity, but he provokes and defies his audience to break the code. Liitoja’s style is similar to Richard Foreman’s, for whom he was an apprentice director on the Dutch production of Birth of a Poet. He shares Foreman’s penchant for whimsy and his interest in altering the audience’s perception of theatrical space. However, he uses a freer hand in altering the space, and a ferocity in eliciting a reaction from his audience.

The title, This Is What Happens in Orangeville, is significantly in the present tense. Liitoja created a facsimile of the community that produced the murderer and immersed his audience in it, almost to the point of forced participation. The audience was allowed to enter the theater only in pairs, proceeding past a girl who was taking a quarrelsome piano lesson under the watchful eye of a cowboy guard. Once inside, they were confronted by a blinding white light and the loud, hollow sound of rubber ball rebounding off a wall.

The theater space was at once a garden party, a circus and a tribunal. The seating was arranged in clusters of chairs and two walls of bleachers. A voice similar to a prison warden’s offered the audience the choice of changing seats during the performance or leaving. The focal point of the large room was a tentlike construction of string lit from overhead by a triangle of white lights, under which rested the murderer Paul.

The performance itself was built in repetitive patterns and pockets of action. A tape loop of classical music that never reached its building crescendo was repeated again and again, and a tape of a lecture on group criminal behaviour played quietly, then faded away. Paul’s psychiatrist entered at intervals with the taped crescendo to question Paul, like rationality entering into the mayhem. The characters and their narrative were the only realistic elements.

The room was filled with stations of drama making up the community of Orangeville around Paul; the action conspicuously spilled over into the audience and implicated its members as spectators in the community. The argumentative teacher and pupil sat in the bleachers, and a plant in the audience ranted about the insanity in Orangeville caused by the moons of Jupiter. Two women in black and white sat at the high tables facing the bleachers and in unison applied makeup, ate and chatted with the audience about the small-mindedness of the town. The mother and father entered at intervals from opposite sides of the room like figures emerging from a cuckoo clock. Each entrance matched a different state of mind to a task, a repeated phrase and a set of clothing. The father, for example, would emerge in dirty clothes and falling trousers, holding a huge piece of driftwood and murmuring “I am sick”; then, clothed properly, he would appear clutching a lawnmower, repeating “Anything we do comes to nothing.”

When the characters tried to interact with the audience, responses varied from outright participation to wariness. All movement was monitored: an audience member might attempt to open a door or move a chair, only to be forced to sit by attending guards. Everyone was compelled to find the periphery of the director’s hold on the performance and function within it.

By making the situation and participation always urgent, Liitoja diverted the conventional theatrical reactions of empathy for the characters and hope for a resolution. Neither the psychiatrist, one of the oppressively facile human adults, nor the boy-murderer, the unwitting product of the adults, could be empathized with.

At the end a naked girl entered with colorful balloons, a picture of innocence and youth. But, as the macabre product of the director’s omnipresent will, she only reinforced the fatalistic surrealism of Orangeville.

High Performance #39
1987