By Megan Mooney
Calgary’s Theatre Junction brings On the Side of the Road east as a part of Toronto theatre’s worldstage
If I had to only choose one word to describe the work, I’d have to say that it’s striking.
First thing I noticed was the brightest stage and set design I’ve ever seen. The set was filled with lots of white, some glittery silver accents, and ice. The white was highlighted by bright white lighting.
Walking into the theatre the audience is met by a woman in a sparkling silver dress, sitting on the edge of the stage talking to audience members as they streamed by. There was also a man on stage working on an ice sculpture.
So, what about the show itself? Well, it felt to me like it fell somewhere between what people generally seem to think of as a play and what they generally think of as performance art. There was a narrative, but there was also a lot of stuff that moved outside of the realm of what people expect from a play, like interpretive dance.
The whole show was really visually stunning. The sparse set, the lighting, the movement. It all came together to create something a bit other-worldly. It was as though we were actually watching a dream.
Avant-garde theatre is generally not my favourite, so, as an overall piece I didn’t particularly enjoy it. But that’s based on my tastes in theatre, not in the quality of the piece. I like to feel a connection to a piece, and I just didn’t get it from this. That said, if I enjoyed avant-garde theatre, I am pretty sure that I would have loved this piece.
The elements of the show felt like they were done with great care and commitment. Care and commitment go a long way. In this case, that was also met with great skill. In fact, even though I didn’t enjoy the show as a whole, there were things about it that I loved.
I’ve already mentioned the design, but it’s worth mentioning again. I loved it. On the Side of the Road is a visual treat. The way they used silver helium balloons really stands out in my mind. First they created a wonderful still picture with them, and then a beautiful moment of movement.
I also really liked the live music aspect of the show. That isn’t to say that I always liked the music being performed, but I liked the energy the performance gave. I liked the cross over in genres and performance types. Sometimes it felt like a concert, the group of actors on stage, facing the audience, singing in unison. At other times it felt character driven and self-directed. As though the audience didn’t matter.
Movement was a huge part of this piece. I don’t know much about dance, but if I had to put a label on it I’d call it interpretive or maybe modern dance. It was dynamic, energetic, and interesting. Other than build on the dream-like feel of the piece, I’m not sure it particularly moved the story forward at all, but I don’t know that it was meant to.
In fact, I’m not sure the story was an more than a carrier. It didn’t feel like the story was the point, just a handy thing to hang other stuff on. There was a lot of facing the audience, dissolving the 4th wall. But it wasn’t consistent. Sometimes there was a 4th wall, sometimes there wasn’t. The flipping back and forth was actually a bit disconcerting, which was interesting. I suppose as humans we like to know what to expect.
It’s possible that I imagined this, but the applause at the end of the show sounded tentative to me. I took this as an indication , not of displeasure, but of uncertainty. This show keeps you on your toes, offers the unexpected, so, when it ended it was as though people didn’t know whether or not to believe this was actually the end.
I’m pretty sure this is a play that would make Brecht proud. He wanted the audience to be alienated from the show, distanced from the action, basically, reminded constantly that this is a performance, not real life. This was not real life. There was no doubt.
Listening to audience reaction on the way out of the theatre, and while speaking to people at the reception after the show, it was pretty clear reactions to the piece were mixed. Everyone recognized it was a skilled performance, but not everyone enjoyed it.
I heard "Oh my God! That was amazing!" on the way out, and "I kind of don’t know what to think…" as I exited the theatre. A the reception I got an enthusiastic "sooo soo so good!" and a kind of bored sounding "I dunno, I think it’s just not really my kind of show."
Bottom line? This is a show with a lot of talent, and a striking look. And it may, or may not, be the kind of thing you’ll enjoy.
On the Side of the Road plays until March 27 at the Roberta Fleck Dance Theatre (Queens Quay)