Review: The Festival of Ideas & Creation (Canadian Stage)

by George Perry

On the first unofficial day of summer in Toronto, I took a train downtown. It was early, so I popped into a jazz club at Queen and University. A pleasant streetcar ride delivered me to The Berkeley Street Theatre a little later where The Festival of Ideas & Creation was underway.

I had a fun day taking in Dive and The Synesthesia Project. The venue is great and the day was gorgeous. The festival is billed as a “cross-disciplinary collaboration.” It is about creating hybrids and fusing different arts. It is bold, ambitious and provocative. It is also a huge success.

Berkeley Street Theatre is the perfect setting for a festival like this. There are numerous performance spaces anchored by a central courtyard.  The staff is super friendly and helpful. Organization is top notch. Rock festivals could learn a lot from these fine folks!

The first play I saw was Dive.  It is adapted from Lampedusa’s story The Professor & the Mermaid. It’s a story about two Sicilian men meeting in a seedy bar in Turin in 1938.  One is a young womanizer played by Gordon Miller.  The other an old aristocrat played by Hrant Alianak.  Meanwhile, Il Duce rules Italy.  Both men did a great job bringing their characters to life.

I liked the play before it even started. The performance space was simple and intimate. Four small round tables at the edge of the stage provided a place for patrons to mingle. Candles enhanced the welcoming atmosphere too.

The house was full and I think some people may have been turned away from this “sold out” free play. The enthusiasm was well deserved too!

In a bit of inadvertent foreshadowing, the old aristocrat takes tactile pleasure by simply touching a Sicilian newspaper. The womanizer brought to the bar. Perhaps it is a trophy, like his girlfriends.  The filth of his birthplace can be felt, and his fingertips get smeared with cheap ink.

Dive has elements of The Odyssey. Fantastic stories of sirens and mermaids are plentiful. Dive is much more approachable though, the characters are of this world. There is levity and we can relate to the men.  This is partly because they are read by excellent actors, and partly because Richard Sanger adapted the play so brilliantly.

There are times when the sea is described so passionately that it was easy to visualize. The images of fish swimming in The Mediterranean are amazing. The fish looked like peacock tails in the clear water. Sea urchins, and what they represent, also play an important role in this play.

Afterwards, I felt compelled to call a friend who lives on The Danforth. I hoped to take in a little Greek magic for myself!

Oddly, I didn’t like sound score and bel canto singing. I am a huge music fan and love sounds. However, I found the sound effects far less passionate than the words, or their reading. I found Fides Krucker’s singing overpowering and confrontational at times.  At a lower volume it would have been magnificent and seductive.

I can’t wait to see a full production of this play!

The Synesthesia Project was another treat, in more ways than one. Upon entering the theatre, everyone was given a jellybean.  Co-creators Beth Kates and Steven McCarthy told us keep the candy in the plastic container until instructed otherwise. I didn’t notice anybody self-medicating before being instructed. Theatre goers can be a docile bunch!

The Synesthesia Project was presented as more of a university lecture than a play. Scientists from around the world have collaborated with the creators in their exciting, early work. Kates and McCarthy kept it interesting and fun. Rappers used to call this sort of thing “infotainment.”

We all enjoyed our jellybeans using all five senses, carefully following the guidance of Kates and McCarthy. We touched, looked at, smelled, listened to and eventually tasted the candy.

They explained a fascinating concept of synesthesia that they have only recently begun researching. It is difficult to explain, but it involves associating colors with letters, tastes with music and other “crossings” of the senses.

I really like that the two are able to present this in the welcoming surroundings of a theatre and not have to play the political games so often associated with higher learning compounds.

Synesthesia is a remarkable field of study. Kates and McCarthy will very likely realize remarkable results with their work. It is incredible that they made such a theoretical concept so much fun. It was like delving into the world of Bjork, LSD and The Manchurian Candidate.

Meanwhile, Jose Bautista hit two home runs down the street for The Blue Jays on this day. I witnessed two equally spectacular achievements – Dive and The Synesthesia Project, just down the street. Thank you Festival of Ideas & Creation! I shall see you again in 2012!

The Festival of Ideas & Creation ran May 9 – May 21.  Most events were free.