Failing Kansas at LuminaTO


Failing Kansas, one of the shows in LuminaTO this year, got a long ovation on Friday night. The audience at Factory Theatre (which, incidentally, has big soft seats in their main space) obviously loved the piece. However, it was too intellectual to engage me on an emotional level, so I wasn’t applauding quite as enthusiastically as the woman beside me, or the couple cheering behind me.

Failing Kansas, which has no characters, features Mikel Rouse singing poetry over a spectral soundscape, and a black-and-white film montage. One doesn’t seem to have prominence over the other. Rouse alternates between four microphones to speak, and there’s rarely coherence between the soundscape and the montage. We’ll hear one thing -a memory of a dream for example – while seeing another – young beautiful women hugging one another – the correlation between the two is unclear.

Walking home, I mulled over what I had seen and heard. I was so preoccupied that I walked into the side of a payphone. (Editor’s comment – so it obviously had him thinking, which to me, is a good sign, whether the visceral response was good or bad.) I’m sure Mikel Rouse (who also directed the piece) deserves the acclaim that’s quoted in his press material, but I definitely have trouble reconciling the incoherence of Failing Kansas with glowing praise from huge U.S. newspapers for previous endeavors.

For me it feels like there’s either been too much thought put into this show or not enough. Maybe its juxtaposition of banal footage and quasi-poetic lyrics is brilliant. Footage like the long wobbly sequences, shot from the backseat of a car as it drives around a city; or the middle-aged man in glasses standing in front of a sign proclaiming the price of corn oil, combined with lines like “Taller than Jesus, yellow like a sunflower” or “There’s a race of men who don’t fit in / Dad I’ve been looking for ya, where you been?” Maybe the nearly endless repetition Rouse gives them is to really let the profundity sink-in. But I have to admit, to me these artistic decisions felt like a lack of comprehensive vision and self-indulgence.

I’m always prepared to give an artist the benefit of the doubt. Even so, to me this show comes across as an over-interpretation of a few phrases, and mostly bare images with the end product being spare and sometimes pretentious. I hate to call anything pretentious – and mean it here in the most positive way possible. Pretensions aren’t necessarily bad, but they did limit my experience of Failing Kansas. That said, it clearly it resonated at a deeper level with a lot of people in the audience, so maybe I’m the pretentious one?

Failing Kansas is playing at the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst)
– Plays June 14th at 10pm, and June 15th at 4pm
– Tickets are $35, available through Ticketmaster at 416-872-1111, or in person at T.O Tix at Yonge-Dundas Square

Photo of Mikel Rouse by Roger Woolman