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Culture | Existential dread at the ring of a bell

TNC deconstructs narrative and structure in Blue Heart

Destroying conceptions of language, time, and theatre, Caryl Churchill’s double-bill Blue Heart is playing at Tuesday Night Café (TNC) Theatre this week. Directed by Johanna Ring, Heart’s Desire and Blue Kettle, the two anti-play one-acts, explore the human draw toward self-destruction that lies hidden underneath domesticity.

Heart’s Desire feels like David Ives’s comic play Sure Thing (where the characters similarly go back in time and make different choices at the ring of a bell). A middle-class family — father (Max Katz), mother (Amalea Ruffett), and aunt (Sasha Blakeley) — waits in its kitchen for the return of the daughter (Natalie Liconti) from Australia. However, every time the buzzer goes off, the family resets, doing the scene or a certain part of the scene over again, with small permutations that gradually become more and more absurd. All of a sudden, the audience finds itself moving from Ives into the more fantastical and farcical absurdity of Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad.

Here, the tech team, headed by José Camargo, steals the show, not missing a single beat on the quick light and sound cues of the first act. The constant repetition induced by the buzzer gives the sensation that the characters are marionettes, helpless against a force larger than themselves. However, as they go further into the scene, it seems as if they may be incapable of deviating from their own inner fears, desires, and internal monologues, attempting to both articulate and escape from self-repression at each ring of the bell.

The constant repetition induced by the buzzer gives the sensation that the characters are marionettes, helpless against a force larger than themselves.

The second one-act, Blue Kettle, continues the theme of a manipulatable narrative as Derek (Martin Seal) goes about convincing women that he is their son. Gradually, more words in the dialogue are replaced with the words “blue” or “kettle,” alienating the audience by forcing them to analyze the fragmented dialogue.

Although this second piece does not seem as well-worked as the first, there are some wonderful moments of character-play, particularly from Anna Lytvynova as Mrs. Vane, Kelly Lopes as Mother, and Maxine Dannatt as Miss Clarence. A sense of incompleteness rings throughout, with the decontextualized narrative, missing words, and Chip Limeburner’s set design, which is scaled down further from the fairly realistic kitchen set of the previous piece.

However, this incompleteness is much more engaging than the over-rehearsed quality of the first play. The feeling of risk in the play draws in the audience as the actors work through delivering dialogue that becomes more and more nonsensical.

A sense of incompleteness rings throughout, with the decontextualized narrative, missing words, and Chip Limeburner’s set design, which is scaled down further from the fairly realistic kitchen set of the previous piece.

English language theatre in Montreal has seemed to be obsessed with Caryl Churchill in the past couple of years — there have been at least five productions of Churchill in Montreal within the last three years – ranging from Top Girls at the Segal Centre to Love and Information at Dawson College — and not without reason. The postmodernist, feminist British author has written over thirty plays, and is arguably the only woman who has gained popular recognition alongside big names like Beckett, Pinter, and Chekov, as a playwright who revolutionized the language of theatre.

The language used in the more surrealist plays of the second half of her oeuvre (of which Blue Heart is part) is hard to describe, being an amalgam of Cixous, Ives, and Beckett — a sort of deconstructive, absurd écriture féminine. However, in Heart’s Desire, the focus seems to be on the destruction of time, rather than the normally Churchillian focus on the structures of language.

What will strike theatre-goers most about Blue Heart is the thick undercurrent of fear and panic in Heart’s Desire. The constant repetition of a middle-class family giving freedom to their latent anxieties — fears of death, of change, of unhappiness, of entrapment, of “not doing things right” — welds itself into a palpable suburban terror. The permutations of these themes seem endless while watching, and suddenly, the Ives-like silliness of what started as a benign game of forward-reverse, is gone.


Blue Heart plays at 8 p.m. from November 25 to 28 in Morrice Hall.


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