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Unforgettable drama of AIDS death agony

Vit Wagner

 

The AIDS sufferer in writer-director Hillar Liitoja’s confrontational drama, Sick, does not go gently into that uncertain night.

As he lies there in a hospital bed, his vital signs blipping away on an electrocardiogram, the young man’s delirious observations gradually are drowned out by the activity around him.

To one side, an agitated man talks on the phone about having tested HIV positive.

Off to another side, is the voice of a woman reciting lines.

Other voices join in - bolstered by loud classical music - and build to a sustained, deafening, heart-stopping, cacophonous crescendo.

This sensory bombardment is augmented by periods of prolonged darkness punctuated by flashes of blinding light.

Liitoja’s evocation of an agonizing death is almost unbearable.

No doubt, there are those who would flee their seats if the effect wasn’t so utterly gravitational.

By the time it was over, I felt I had died a little myself - and also survived.

I certainly knew I had been to the theatre.

Sick, now running at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, is part of a continuing investigation into the subject of AIDS launched last fall with The Panel, also produced by Liitoja’s experimental company, DNA Theatre.

The new work doubles back to the quirky, roundtable discussion of AIDS that served as the narrative thrust for The Panel and then takes off on an even less linear tack.

Liitoja has a number of worthwhile observations about AIDS and the nature of disease in general. The most obvious concerns the randomness with which illness strikes.

In The Panel, the director had audience members pick numbers to determine the musical selections in the program. In Sick the actors read from various texts, their selections determined by bingo call numbers.

In this respect, the work is informed by the same esthetic found in the work of composer John Cage, writer William S. Burroughs and painter Jackson Pollock.

Other issues, including the stigmatization and ignorance that colours the public’s understanding of AIDS, are also addressed.

As much as anything, though, Sick is about theatre itself.

Even the mere act of entering and departing the performance space forces the audience to think about what it means to be inside the theatre.

When the show starts, audience members are milling around the lobby, the door to the theatre still shut.

An actor sitting on the floor starts to read a text by Edgar Allen Poe. His monotonous recitation is interrupted by the sound of a buzzer inside the theatre. Something is going on in there that we aren’t a part of.

Moments later, Liitoja appears and asks the audience if it was intrigued enough by the sound to want to go inside.

Several hands shoot up. Some among the crowd are selected to enter the theatre while the rest are forced to wait outside. It is a deft dramatization of the process of selection and exclusion.

Scenes like this are the real strength of Sick. There are more genuine theatrical ideas in this 90-minute show than one normally encounters in months of going to the theatre.

It’s unfocused at times - particularly in the middle section.

But the 11-member ensemble, including such familiar alternative theatre stalwarts as Daniel Maclvor and Ken McDougall, performs with style, commitment and a necessary understanding of what is being attempted.

Sick is a challenging and unforgettable piece of theatre that is bound to annoy and disgust as many as it thrills. 

March 28, 1991
The Toronto Star