Archive for March, 2020

Review – Trainers: A Theatrical Essay – Gate Theater

March 4, 2020

When you’re a critic, you learn that press releases aren’t always the truth. I mean, the truth can vary depending on who is telling it, so let’s say press releases sometimes don’t meet my truth. Let’s discuss the press release for Trainers:

“Set in a post gender future, Trainers… is part essay and part play. It follows a struggling writer who falls in with a group of depressed queer revolutionaries during a future civil war … [and] explores what it takes to challenge the politics of one’s time and how we can train for a revolution.

“Director Hestor Chillingworth said ‘For anyone who has questions about theatre, gender, power and hope – Trainers is a great place to come to ask them with us.’ ”

This is what was promised. I am a queer theater maker, and my partner is trans. I am interested in queer theater, gender, trans “work,” and, well, theater! I would have thought I was the ideal audience for this show, but …

Two actors are on stage. One appears to be cis female (Nicky Hobday); the other could be cis or trans but is called “he” in the program (Nando Messias) and is wearing a fabulous dress. They are standing on a stage with many objects on it – chairs, rolled carpets, a horse statue, an office chair, a stool, a bicycle, a bucket of paint, et cetera. They start talking – sometimes in turns, sometimes simultaneously – explaining a bit of the concept of what we are about to watch. It’s sort of an essay. It’s sort of inspired by Montaigne. The conceit is used that when one of them says “I” they are the writer of the work.

So … there is rather a long bit about essay writing, which seemed in the end to say that essays don’t have to have a point, and at some point the “I” starts to be a writer who is living in this post-apocalyptic future where people ride horses and parts of the city are walled off from others. “I” is a writer, in love with Stephen, who writes revolutionary pamphlets and is popular.

Beyond this … there is little sense of a real story, no narrative forward motion, and very little sense of real people being created on stage. It didn’t even really tie the metaphor of “trainers” in, despite numerous mention of personal trainers. Instead, the actors change clothes, eat paint and oil (or pretend to), and neither do nor say anything that to me indicated queerness or transness. The only scene that really struck me was very trans was one in which they attempted to negotiate a first sexual encounter with each other, knowing nothing of what sensitive bits of human machinery they might work with; but otherwise …

Trainers (c) Alex Harvey Brown – Nando Messias and Nicki Hobday

How to have a revolution? Challenging the politics of one’s times? I felt I got none of this, and only the slightest taste of there being other events going on besides the slight story of a possible romance. People in the audience were cheering wildly, but I felt this show was self indulgent and formless. It’s a shame, because both performers were quite compelling and I can imagine happily seeing them in a different production in the future. Trainers on for a three week run, though, so possibly there are many people out there who will find this show speaks to them. Me, it made me think I should put my head to doing more explicitly queer works, because while we all know the revolution will not be televised, this made me think it’s not going to be on the stage, either. Not this time, anyway.

(This review was for press night, which took place March 3, 2020. It continues through March 21st.)


Review – Darkfield Trilogy (Seance, Flight, Coma) – Three Shipping Containers at Lewis Cubitt Square

March 2, 2020

I like theater that pushes me: not by doing hamfisted triggery stuff about blood and abuse but stuff that challenges my comfort zones in solid, meatspace kinds of ways. One on one theater can do this easily; but there’s also much to be said for theater performed in the dark. Darkfield was going to push my claustrophobia buttons; but were they going to take it too far? I am simultaneously a bit of a coward and terribly intrigued by seeing what I can handle but also by the way my sensory perception changes when I don’t have access to light anymore. So, hey, maybe Darkfield didn’t actually want a person like me coming to review their shows at all; but I was fairly sure nobody would try to touch me by surprise, and I, er, cheated by having my partner come with me so in case I did get genuinely panicky I’d have someone there I could CHOOSE to touch.

So, what did I think I was going to see? (You can read what’s on the press release, I’ll tell you how I interpreted it.) First, for Seance: I am interested in 19th century spiritualism (especially after seeing the Smoke and Mirrors exhibit at the Wellcome), and what I was hoping for was a proper seance with glowing things floating in the air and hands coming out of the table. What I got was an audio experience, with, I believe, a moving table (authentic enough); it seemed that it was taking place with the various audience members participating but it was clear enough that what I was listening to was entirely a recording. In pitch blackness, it was easy enough to imagine there was someone walking around the room talking to us all; but reality was that the 20 of us were sat elbow to elbow around a table about 2 feet wide and with our backs against the wall, so clearly nobody was walking in the room at all. We were being told a story as it it were happening in front of us, but nothing ever was seen once the lights dropped. In some ways I was disappointed (as I’d love to experience a real seance!); but in this case, I just enjoyed what was pretty much a ghost story that you were part of, and it was good. Also, I didn’t get so freaked out I had to leave, and nobody touched me. This was, in the end, my favorite of all of them, and I’d highly recommend making time to attend this.

Number two was “Flight,” which took place in a shipping container that had rows of airline seats in it, and windows on the right. I was expecting to be in a plane that crashes, although I didn’t really know how they would handle it; I was incorrectly thinking that most of the experience would be aural. Again, no one tries to touch you, and there is no one to be seen, just heard in the headphones. For this one, there were moments where it was honestly so loud I had to take the headphones off, and I would have a little bit of a question about the safety of the sound levels. It was a thoughtful and interesting experience, but with the roar of an airplane constantly in the background, I missed too much of the dialogue, and for this reason I must say this one was the least effective of the trio. There was an experience and some philosophy but over all BBBRRRRROOOOWWWWWWMMMMMM .
Finally, the most physically uncomfortable part of the night: Coma. You’d think that walking into a room set up with bunk beds that you’d be set – half an hour of just lying on your back, doing nothing. But with the temperatures outside near zero and a nice wind blowing to boot, I found I was cold and shivering for most of this, and I became focused on trying to keep my hands warm (as my feet lost sensation due to the cold – with boots on, natch!) and just in too much discomfort. I found the story telling for this section interesting, but I was expecting to be a lot closer to what it was actually like to be in a coma a la Shannon Yee’s Reassembled. Darkfield was interested in taking you on a slightly different journey, one which included smell-o-vision. But I wasn’t able to connect from the material – or disconnect from reality – enough to fully immerse myself in this one. Still, as pop-in, pop-out theater, any of these would be fun (at 30 minutes or less), and the nearby cafes and bars are actually a real treat. And it was cool to walk out into a heightened sense of reality from all of that time straining with your ears and skin and nose to find out the information your eyes could no longer give you. Try to make time for it while it’s on.

(This review is for an opening weekend performance that I saw on Saturday, February 29th, 2020. It continues through March 22nd.)