Looking for Paul is a Show for Thinkers, Feelers, Radicals and Weirdos
You ever have a piece of art you hate — like really, really hate — and you wonder why and how that thing managed to not only get made but get funded, too? Wunderbaum’s Looking for Paul: Inez van Dam vs. the Buttplug Gnome, done in association with Richard Jordan Productions, RED CAT, Theatre Royal Plymouth, and Summerhall, and playing at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, tackles just such a question — and it does so in an unforgettable fashion.
A combination of comedy, moral fluidity, and chaos is only the tip of the iceberg.
Inez van Dam (Maartje Remmers) lives in Rotterdam within sight of a piece of Paul McCarthy art: the Buttplug Gnome. A chance encounter with theatre company Wunderbaum, who have just been given a grant to do a new work in Los Angeles, lands her the opportunity to take her revenge. Unfortunately, actors Walter Bart, Matijs Jansen, Marleen Scholten, and American cultural ambassador and actor Daniel Frankl aren’t so sure if her story is theatre enough.
Hilarity ensues as the actors, contractually obligated to make a show, decide to deconstruct their artistic process — and artistic debates — over how to make theatre. Thus we are given a presentation of e-mails delivered directly to the audience.
For the first hour or so, the actors casually sit in chairs, reading their exchanges. It almost goes on too long with everyone circling their respective opinions. Marleen, for example, wants straight up theatre. Her frustration at both the decision to bring in an ‘amateur girl’ and everyone’s moral interest in cultural debates about funding and art is comedy gold.
But as a show, you start to wonder where it can go? The ideas they float around aren’t new and I suspected it might peter out. After all, how often can you make the same point, have the same arguments?
Trust me, the result is not what you expect.
In fact, I think my reaction at the end of the show was literally: what did I see, did I like it, and I have no idea how to write about it.
Here’s the thing: I’ve outlined the show but that’s really only the first half. Wunderbaum’s work so completely makes you question what you’re watching that I found myself trying to gauge how I felt by glancing at other people.
At times I was offended, grossed out, amused, genuinely enjoying myself, and wondering whether this was something I would ever recommend. I mean, Looking for Paul actually embodies the question: what is art? Why do we like it or not like it?
I’m not familiar with Paul McCarthy as an artist so, while I understood sections were making specific reference to his installations, I was watching it with very little context. When they get to the second half of the play it’s baffling. Several people left, some people were having a riotous time, and others seemed just as confused as me.
It’s just, what is it? I mean really, I’m reviewing the show, and I think I loved it but I don’t know if there’s an explanation that would make sense. Imagine spaghetti everywhere. Imagine masks, a toilet, and ketchup.
Lots of ketchup.
Wunderbaum cleverly lays the ground work for their climax. Their early arguments what show they should do, and their feelings around Inez van Dam versus Paul McCarthy set up some of the later comedy. But it’s there to make you wonder if what you are watching is worth it, between the funding they received and the ticket you bought. Did you like the play, or do you think it’s too ‘insert opinion here.’
Half the battle, too, is that it blurs lines between real and fake in a way that is disorienting in a good way. It kept me on my toes.
That said, Looking for Paul goes to extremes to make its point. It is incredibly graphic and gross. Trust me when I say gross. There’s also some sexual imagery and ideas that might not sit well with everyone. Altogether, I believe it worked, but there’s a subjectivity to the end that makes me wonder if someone else might argue differently.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? I think it’s a brilliant piece, but sometimes only you can decide if it’s worth the ticket.
- Looking for Paul runs until April 30th at The Harbourfront Centre Theatre (235 Queens Quay West)
- Shows run Friday April 29th and Saturday April 30th at 8pm
- Tickets are $35 or $15 for students and youth and can be purchased at the box office prior to the show, online here, or by phone at 416-973-4000 (press 1)
- Show contains graphic content and some disturbing imagery
Photo of Walter Bart, Yannick Noomen, Matijs Jansen, Maartje Remmers, Marlee Scholten by Stephen A. Gunther