Review: Ruff (Tangled Festival of Art & Disability)

Ruff explores theatre life after a stroke, on stage at Daniels Spectrum in Toronto

PeggyShaw-1648.Photo Credit-Michael Conti

I understood, sitting with my program at Daniels Spectrum, that Ruff is a show about making work after a stroke. And even still, when theatre legend Peggy Shaw limped onstage carrying an orange and one shoe, my heart sank. Were things so bad she couldn’t put on her own shoes? Then, when she handed the shoe to one audience member and the orange to another, I signed with relief. Just another in a long line of Peggy-Shaw-ignores-the-fourth-wall moments. Phew.

Shaw, whose list of awards and distinctions is longer than even the internet has room for, is a 68-year-old theatrical powerhouse and lesbian trailblazer who has been making work for more than forty years. In 2011 she had a stroke, and – as she quips in the show – “woke up a straight white man. I was missing half my brain.” The performance, on a green seamless strip with three video monitors showing the text and visual cues of the show, is classic Shaw: a series of beautiful and complex metaphors that wind around each other, eventually.

From a social standpoint, it’s unusual to see a fully-realized representation of what an impaired life is like. Typically, if we live without impairments, we don’t see the interior realities Shaw exposes and plays in with Ruff: not being able to learn a new show, not knowing which bit comes next, and she does it in her trademark ease, apparently unbothered by not knowing. This makes sense in the context of her career; Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver are the ones who taught me that what exists in the making of a show – impatience, disbelief, lust, exhaustion, enthusiasm or reluctance, skill or luck – should always exist in the finished product. True to their advice, the piece before us is deliberate, optimistic, forgiving and winsome, with a sweet quality of connection.

I sometimes experience Peggy Shaw’s work like watching a lithographer work through a one-inch frame – these tremendously interesting things are happening, but at a certain point one starts to yearn for the camera to pan out and reveal the entire design. One of Shaw’s great talents is know exactly when to reveal the entire picture, and then how much time to let the audience take, just enjoying the new reality, before adding to it some more. This show is no exception, and her timing in the build up is as good as ever. My only complaint is the complaint I always have about Shaw’s work – I always want about one fewer song. Not that the songs aren’t good, of course they are, but it’s her words I adore and fall in love with, replay in my head over and over, turn to in odd moments, and sometimes live by.

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Photo by Michael Conti