Review: Vitals (Outside the March/Theatre Passe Muraille)

Katherine Cullen as Anna in Outside the March's Vitals. Photo credit- Michael Barlas.

Outside the March takes audiences on call with a Toronto EMS worker in its immersive play Vitals

Life in a big city like Toronto is by its nature a bit of a dehumanizing experience. When an ambulance barrels down the street with its sirens wailing it usually just fades into the background soundtrack of the city and we never stop to think about the people whose lives are affected by the emergency at hand. Outside the March shines a spotlight on the lives of EMS workers and invites audiences on an amazingly immersive, site-specific journey in its newest production Vitals.

Vitals centres on the character of Anna (Katherine Cullen); a straight-talking, world-weary Toronto paramedic. Playwright Rosamund Small based her script on a series of interviews she conducted with EMS workers. Anna is a composite of their experiences and Small effectively conveys the raw, confessional quality of her interviews in the character. Anna’s stories are in turn revealing, insightful, upsetting and funny but they provide a consistently fascinating look into the life of EMS workers.

Taken on its own, Small’s script is a well-written dramatic monologue but what really takes Vitals to the next level is the amazing production. Outside the March and director Mitchell Cushman transform the simple one-woman show into an exciting, immersive journey in a real-world setting.

Outside the March has built a reputation for producing intimate, site-specific shows. With Vitals the company pushes further into the realm of immersive theatre where audiences are invited to become part of the performance by moving about, exploring environments and interacting with performers.

I’m a huge fan of UK theatre company Punchdrunk, arguably the world’s foremost immersive theatre company. I’ve seen their Sleep No More in New York three times. The show transforms Shakespeare’s Macbeth into a film noir Hitchcock thriller and sets audiences loose within a massive hotel set to discover the story. The show is wildly successful and helped popularize the immersive theatre genre.

Vitals borrows many elements from the immersive theatre genre. Audience members are instructed to meet at the corner of Roncesvalles and Garden Avenues. Upon checking in you’re treated as a rookie paramedic, given a pair of surgical gloves, an “EMS radio” with headphones and a map to the performance location a 5-minute walk away.

Once you arrive you discover a multi-level performance space that consists of different environments described in the script. Production designer Anahita Dehbonehie has created intricately detailed rooms representing places as diverse as a yoga studio, a banker’s office, a subway platform and an emergency dispatch office.

While audience members are encouraged to investigate and explore the environment, it isn’t a self-guided experience like Sleep No More; the audience is corralled around the space by costumed “First Responders” and moved to certain locations to watch scenes at specific times.

There are times when you sit, watch and listen to Anna as she delivers her monologue but at other times you’re allowed to roam and explore while listening to a soundtrack with Anna’s narration on the EMS radio you’re given at the start.

During one of these exploratory times I was lucky enough to be chosen to participate in another immersive theatre element adopted for Vitals; an intimate one-on-one encounter with a performer in a private room. I won’t give away too much about the one-on-one but let’s just say I left with literal chills.

What I love about immersive theatre experiences like Vitals is that they allow you to change from being a passive observer to an active participant. When you’re immersed in the actual environment where a show takes place and inches away from a performer it stimulates and heightens your senses. It also enables a much higher degree of intimacy and immediacy creating a deeper sense of connection to the performance.

With Vitals Outside the March creates an exciting, engaging, original immersive theatre experience in Toronto that shouldn’t be missed. Get your tickets and get them now; the constraints of the space means that only 30 audience members can be accommodated per performance and some shows are already selling out.

Details:

  • Vitals is playing through June 1, 2014
  • The experience begins at 149 Roncesvalles Avenue, at the corner of Roncesvalles Avenue and Garden Avenue (outside of Solarski Pharmacy).
  • Shows run Tuesday to Sunday at 7:30PM and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00PM
  • Tickets $25.00 to $30.00
  • Tickets are very limited; only 30 audience members per show. Tickets are available by phone 416.504.7529 or visit www.artsboxoffice.ca

Photo of Katherine Cullen by Michael Barlas