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DNA Theatre’s Night ultimately a disappointment

Mark Czarnecki

Whatever Hillar Liitoja and his DNA Theatre create is a must-see. Liitoja is one of the few theatre artists in Toronto constantly redefining the limits of theatrical experience.

Even when that experience is as disappointing as Ultimate Night, it would take a half-dozen similar evenings before his next show would be greeted with indifference.

In Ultimate Night, two dictators – Alexander (Sky Gilbert) and Aleksander (Ken McDougall) – hold a clandestine meeting in a deserted apartment. Their absurdist dialogue is sparse and oblique, occasionally dotted with sardonic humor.

Aleksander is a frigid psychopath, Alexander is sentimental and psychotic.

The apartment belongs to Leo (Martti Arkko), an artist who has been imprisoned without cause. When Leo unexpectedly returns, stuttering and feeble-minded, the dictators murder him and take their leave.

Estonian playwright Toomas Hussar’s allegory would have been dated and clichéd even before the recent liberation of the Baltic states.

Today the play reads like a tedious footnote, a predictable memento mori.

Only superb acting in all the roles relieves the flatness of its mindscape and the apt yet unrelentingly slow pace of Liitoja’s direction.

The lighting and set by Liitoja and William Holutiak feature a metal wire fence surrounding the apartment, which disconcerts the audience as they strain to make out what’s happening inside the animals’ cage. But with such weak material, even inventive ideas like this one end up more stagy than stageworthy.

Ultimate Night is a departure for Liitoja, who has previously drawn on poetry (Ezra Pound), classics (Hamlet) and current events (AIDS) for his unique theatrical creations.

Liitoja’s new relationship with Hussar and contemporary Estonian theatre points to an exploration of roots, and his next work will be a fall co-production in Tallinn.

The voyage home should revitalize his perspectives, and his return to Toronto will be eagerly anticipated.

In the meantime, doubts linger about the direction his work has taken.

DNA Theatre’s strength has always been, as the program note engagingly puts it, “slashing theatrical convention” – and the conventional power relations between the production and the audience in particular.

By overturning expectations about “normal” theatre, Liitoja’s brilliant seven-hour Hamlet unsettled and challenged the audience to see both Hamlet itself – and theatre in general – in a new light.

But the movement from unsettling to disturbing, harassing and attacking is seductive, if not inevitable.

In Sick, his doom-laden meditation on AIDS, Liitoja’s total commitment to his apocalyptic vision redeemed a massive frontal assault on the audience.

In Ultimate Night, however, audience members are intimidated as they enter the theatre, then are perversely lured into two hours of boredom capped by one minute of brutality.

Liitoja should take care that his genius does not degenerate into contempt.

EYE Magazine
January 16, 1992