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Performance Anxieties

The Globe And Mail
Shannon Rupp

“Could you love a cock that kills?” is the kind of line that has been getting a laugh since Chaucer made the pun and, as always, it drew whoops when battery opera worked it into their latest performance art piece, Spektator.

 The audience also howled when Jennifer Murray, kneeling, stuck her naked butt in the air in a pose so revealing it prompted a colleague to murmur: “Nice Brazilian!”

And spectators guffawed when, as the dead cock, Murray’s naked body was dragged off-stage.

But then, everything the performers did during this fiasco drew laughter and cheers. The enthusiasm for Spektator’s mock-profound look at cock-fighting and the meaning of love, is so unlikely that I wondered if creators Lee Su-feh and David McIntosh had packed the opening night house with paid supporters, or at least their family.

 There was plenty of time to contemplate this and other meaning-of-life questions -- such as, "how did signing up to be arts critic earn me a spot in gynecology row?" -- because so little of interest happened on stage, beyond the occasional amusing sight gag.

Early in the show, McIntosh draws a chalk circle (that serves as the cock ring) by lying on his stomach and pivoting on some unseen appendage in a gesture that is sure to provoke a smile. When he dons his rubber gloves with a gleeful snap, like an evil proctologist, he also earns a giggle.

 But some mildly entertaining moments do not make up for two tedious acts.

 There is plenty of movement in the show: the dancers twitch, flutter, and make bird noises. They do it as well as any fowl imitators and (probably) better than most. But the delightful absurdity of people pretending to be chickens loses its charm after the first few moments. And it has to be said that using a dancer as superb as Susan Elliott to play poultry for almost two hours is a disgraceful waste of talent.

Lee, as The Deity of the Occasion (The Ring Goddess), choreographed the best dance of the show for herself. Dressed in a long black gown trimmed with feathers, Lee opened and closed the show with solos of subtle beauty. She has studied martial arts as well as dance, and it’s evident in the way she prepares to move, knees bent like a fencer or a boxer. She strikes like a warrior but her gestures have a fluidity that falls somewhere between ballet and tai chi; she is a pleasure to watch.

But pleasures are few and far between at Spektator, which seems designed with audience discomfort in mind.

The intimate theatre-in-the-round brought the performers within inches of the viewers: close enough for us to be able to smell them and feel their sweat spray land on our brows. That’s a little too intimate for my taste.

 The nerve-grating commentary that Louis Chirillo, as The Commentator on the Occasion, babbles throughout the show can’t be described, so here is a sample of the text from the program: “Mr. Louis Chirillo is an uncommon fan and raconteur, whose elucidations on the subjects of the manly arts is unparallel in beauty and devotion. His loquacious elocution make manifest the tender beauty of the science. [sic]” Maybe McIntosh intends the grammatical errors in the text to be funny? Maybe he is punning when he calls the chickens the “Principles” and their Seconds? If so, these are jokes that don’t work.

Like many ridiculously bad shows, Spektator would be merely laughable -- at least after I escaped the theatre -- if not for one really uncomfortable scene. When Murray and Billy Marchenski strip and stand in the cock ring, ready for the final bout, they are exposed under harsh white lights. It seems such a cruel thing to do dancers, especially when they are paid a tenth of what they would earn for a much less pretentious gig in a strip club.

 No doubt the creators would argue that it was their intention to make audiences feel uncomfortable about the exposure of love. Or to make audiences feel guilty about voyeurism. Or some such blather.

The truth is, the scene is just exploititive. It is striking only because it is so unfair to ask such talented dancers to give up so much dignity in the service of so little art. Of course, that could be said of the whole show.




26 Oct 2001