PuSh in person: The 2022 festival provided a captivating return to live theatre

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PuSh International Performing Arts Festival | Various venues and streaming online | January 20 – February 6, 2022

One of the biggest thrills of this year’s PuSh Festival is seeing live theatre again. While this year’s festival saw three shows cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions or infections, the diverse in-person line-up of theatre, dance, music, and multi-media works was refreshing—reminding us of the power of being together and sharing stories from both our own backyards and around the world.

Born To Manifest | Joseph Toonga, Just Us Theatre

A writhing back and shoulders emerges from the darkness as if resisting or struggling against an unseen force and amidst ominous crackling sounds. Suddenly he leans back, and we hear three gunshots. He raises his hands, and we hear “No, no, please I just want to go home.”

It’s a striking moment, especially given the recent events that sparked global Black Lives Matter protests. More shots can be heard as Toonga puts his arms out, resisting, fighting back. He falls, and his hands are behind his back—the first image that comes to mind is an arrest scene, hands being cuffed or restrained.

His back still to the audience, Toonga shoots a finger gun a few ties and frantically gestures. After a moment of stillness with his hands in the air, he slowly faces the audience, panting and sweating profusely. “I said I’m fine, I’m ok, I just want to go home,” says the voiceover.

Cache Thake joins Toonga on stage and catches him as he falls back. They stand apart looking at each other for a moment until they embrace and Cache controls Toonga’s movements, manipulating his arms from behind. Gathering momentum, they move in unison in an impressive series of contact and lifts. Resting and pushing against each other, they become deadlocked in stillness.

Muscular tension, and controlled partnering mark the choreography as the two dancers negotiate their movements. Working as a team, they stand back to back, fighting off multiple invisible foes. Walking in a circle, they grunt and make ape-like noises, hitting their chests. Moving between these primal moments and more fluid movement sequences, the two end by hitting each other’s chests as the lights fade—fighting each other though they have more important shared enemies.

Do You Mind if I Sit Here? | Theatre Replacement

Seated behind tables forming a square at the edges of the room, the audience serves as participants in a focus group of the future, one that is tasked with helping to decide the future use of the building they are in. On our grey tablecloths, each guest has a glass, a spoon, a bowl, two post-it notes and a pencil—all of which will be used, some if only figuratively.

Three urban planners (Kayvon Khoshkam, Pippa Mackie, and Conor Wylie) lead the proceedings, beginning with a lengthy negotiation amongst themselves about where the chairs should be placed. Their dialogue is stilted and repetitive; corporate and disengaged. They say things matter-of-factly like “every plan is a process” and “I feel some concern that we’re fucked.” We raise a toast to “progress.”

As they begin to discuss the potential futures of the building, the screens on the four walls show images of wheat fields, machinery, and factories—seemingly a stark contrast to the sanitized and vaguely apocalyptic world the urban planners inhabit. A cosmonaut (Gina Stockdale) enters the room, and it seems they are a current resident of the building. This provides a complication for the planners who assumed the building was unoccupied now must decide how to approach this person. They decide they must perform an “abject loneliness assessment” to determine if this person has had any contact with others, whether they ever leave the building.

The whole process of the focus group and considering new uses for a space that is already occupied brings up themes of gentrification, redevelopment, ownership, and the collective versus the individual. From the perspective of the urban planners, the cosmonaut is a problem to be dealt with, ideally relocated, as opposed to an individual who is part of their community. Hinting at a future devoid of compassion and full of bleak environmental conditions, Do You Mind of I Sit Here? provokes us to think about what we want the future to look like, and whether we want to move forward with everyone’s interests in mind.

Violette | Joe Jack et John | Co-presented by Théâtre la Seizième

Greeted by Violette and guided to her bedroom where she shares a very personal story, this individual VR experience is immersive and chilling.

Sitting on Violette’s bed and wearing a VR headset, it feels as though we are part of the action, witnessing the story unfold as Violette and her crow friend recount her experiences with Joe, an older man whose life she saved and who now feels a duty to repay her in an inappropriate way. “We can when you’re 16,” he tells her. Isolated and craving affection from a man, Violette says Joe is the only person who looks at her like she’s a woman.

“You didn’t say no!” screams the crow over and over again. It’s a haunting line that makes a lasting impression. Violette’s mystical, abstract method of storytelling adds to the feeling of alienation and loneliness and Violette must feel in her own life.

Aalaapi | ᐋᓛᐱ | Collectif Aalaapi

Two Inuit women (Nancy Saunders and Ulivia Uviluk) sit in a small kitchen, sheer drapes covering the window and obscuring our view. The radio plays as they sit in silence. When they begin to discuss the events of their daily lives, three languages are projected on to the wall of the house—a trilingual mingling of Inuk, French and English.

What began as a radio documentary has become a stage show, one that relies heavily on audio to tell its story and showcase the importance of the radio (Tusautik) in Inuit communities. The word Aalaapi means be quiet because what we’re hearing is beautiful. The long moments of silence and slow pacing also highlight the realities of Inuit culture in which silence is not something to be filled, as the performers explained during a talkback.

Immersive and atmospheric, the simple staging and stripped back plot plunge the audience into the Inuit experience, showing us what daily life is like and teaching us a bit about Inuit culture, language, and the geography of Nunavik, north of the 55th parallel in Quebec. Saunders and Uviluk are naturals who make us feel as though we’re sitting in their kitchen listening to the Tusautik alongside them.

Se Prendre | Lion Lion

A vacant mansion in Vancouver’s wealthy Shaughnessy neighbourhood serves as the venue for this intimate duet that moves from room to room as the couple’s emotional bond evolves from tenderness to celebration, to conflict and back again.

We start in the living room and witness the couple (Claudel Doucet and Christine Daigle) in moments of intimacy, climbing on each other and the walls—it all feels very voyeuristic, as if you shouldn’t be witnessing these very personal moments while sitting on someone’s couch. One of the dancers places the other on the mantle like an ornament; she steps back and says, “you’re beautiful.” Coming down from the mantle, they two embrace in a fit of desire and move down the hallway to an empty room full of haze and purple lights. Jumping as if on a trampoline, the two celebrate and revel in their comfortable bond, in their own world where nothing else matters. Moving downstairs to a bedroom, the tone goes from intimate to combative as one wraps the other up like a mummy, the mattress is flipped and one storms off to lead us upstairs to the kitchen.

After a moment of silent conciliation, eating a snack at the island in the kitchen, the action moves to the hallway where they perform an impressive sequence climbing the walls, with one of them pressing hands and feet into the walls to hold themselves upside down. They seem to work out their conflict and make up before changing in to bathing suits and leading us to the bathroom where they share a bath and return to their original intimacy. The finale takes us outside to culminate the cycle of desire, conflict and reconciliation—its a story told with very few words that ends up saying a lot.     

How to Fail as a Popstar | Vivek Shraya

All Vivek Shraya wanted to be when she grew up was a popstar. From singing devotional songs in her childhood temple, to Edmonton’s Youth Talent Quest, to chasing fame in Toronto’s music scene and finally a record deal in France—Shraya may not have broken through to pop stardom, but she sure had an interesting journey along the way, and she knows how to craft a good story.

With humour and wry observations that hindsight has given her about the music business, Shraya takes the audience on a musical journey full of pop song references and some of her own music along with way.

If she can’t make her dream of becoming a popstar go away, how can she live with that dream alongside failure? Vulnerable and honest, she attempts to answer this question for herself once and for all. The most powerful moment comes when she lists forty reasons why she failed as becoming a popstar—some are outside her control, some she may have been able to change, and others are brutally honest. Her tears are as authentic as her story is inspiring and she leaves us with the message that we just need to keep showing up no matter what.

I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron | Njo Kong Kie

Setting Xu Lizhi’s beautiful, tragic poetry to music, Njo Kong Kie passionately plays the piano and sings about working in a factory in China. Lizhi was a worker at Foxconn who committed suicide in 2014. His poetry is about his experience as a factory worker and what he felt with quite a meaninglessness existence, living in a ten square metre room and working long hours in a heartless place.

Although Kong Kie sings in Mandarin, the emotion comes through as the poems are projected on screen both in Chinese characters and English. Little more than a man, a piano and some poetry, it comes together as a powerful, poignant message about the people whose lives are spent working in order to make the electronic devices we use everyday.   

Lizhi’s final haunting poem, written the day he died: I want to take another look at the ocean, behold the vastness of tears from half a lifetime / I want to climb another mountain, try to call back the soul that I’ve lost / I want to touch the sky, feel that blueness so light / But I can’t do any of this, so I’m leaving this world / Everyone who’s heard of me / Shouldn’t be surprised at my leaving / Even less should you sigh or grieve / I was fine when I came, and fine when I left.

William Shakespeare’s As You Like It: A Radical Retelling | Cliff Cardinal

Cliff Cardinal’s adaptation of As You Like It trades in secrecy and surprise, so there aren’t many specific details that can be shared without ruining the experience for future audiences. What I can say is that this is a truly radical retelling, and I can guarantee it will not be what you expect. Cardinal is a masterful storyteller, and this show allows him to demonstrate a broad range of his skill from political commentary to humour and personal storytelling. By the time the audience figures out what’s going on, he has you hooked on his retelling and eager to hear more.

Cardinal says ironically, “I don’t want to be controversial” and also speaks truth to power with statements such as “History has been unkind to everyone except the rich.” This adaptation of one of the Bard’s most popular plays is sure to leave you with plenty to think about, and you may never think of Shakespeare in the same way again.  

La Goddam Voie Lactée | Mayday

Five sets of tables and microphones are scattered around the stage, with many plants filling the space. Five dancers in jumpsuits pick up guitars to perform a rock song as smoke fills the space. Melanie Demers’s piece is visceral, unexpected, and a bit disjointed.

Scenes move from animal noises and strained poses to crying and whining, spoken word, and various guttural vocalizations. Accompanying this soundscape is movement that varies in equal range from fluid contemporary sequences to tortured movements and unpleasant writhing.

It wasn’t completely clear if there was a narrative arc to follow, and the smoky haze seemed inserted into the piece without much thought about its timing or effectiveness. Costume changes to oversize boots, fur coats, or going topless similarly didn’t seem to serve a specific purpose. Vaguely referencing feminist themes and the importance of strength, independence and perseverance, the piece feels unfinished in terms of its coherence and overall thematic purpose.  

 

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