Review: Picnic in the Cemetery (Folga Gaang Project and Canadian Stage)

Photo of Picnic in the CemeteryPicnic in the Cemetery is beautiful but lacks cohesion, at the Berkeley Theatre in Toronto

I don’t think I’ve ever left a show quite as confused as I did walking out of Folga Gaang Project’s Picnic in the Cemetery presented in association with Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.

Despite excellent parts, Picnic in the Cemetery feels it should be better than it actually is. Moreover, as an audience member, I feel like I should have liked it better than I did. It’s a show where all the excellent smothers what’s actually good.

Originally created by Njo Kong Kie in 2013 as part of the Macau Arts Festival, Picnic in the Cemetery is a series of musical compositions by the Folga Gaang Project. The production at Canadian Stage consists of Kie on the piano, Nicholas Yee on the cello, Hong Iat U on the violin, and Iris Chan Chi Ian as a performer.

When the lights darken, and the musicians take their place, it really looks like an experience waiting to happen. Erik Kuong Wa Fun’s projections and Fung Kwok Kee Gabriel’s set and lighting design are things of beauty. There’s a moment, early on, where Kie walks onstage with a flashlight. As he runs it over items on the stage the project becomes a limited image, like its caught in the beam of the same light Kie holds in his hand.

Even the music is gorgeous, a series of classical compositions done one after another.

All of this sounds like the makings of a great night, right? If you asked me to describe what I saw onstage, however, what comes to mind is ‘creative mess.’

Oh there’s something there, alright. There is a beautiful set that quickly becomes a sightline problem for one side of the audience. Ian’s performances, almost entirely delegated to the other side of the stage, might as well have not been in the show for the most part because I couldn’t always tell what she was doing from where I sat.

And, it sounds terrible, but I wasn’t entirely sure if having a performer really added much to the show. There’s a sense to Picnic that everything was thrown at the wall, and by some quirk it all stuck so they kept it in.

Yes, I thought the projections were beautiful but the small films seemed to add nothing to the pieces they accompanied. Props around the stage were interacted with but it never seemed to actually serve a purpose considering how slight those actions were.

I mean, sometimes Kie would get up and play with a teddy bear or a doll on a ladder, but it was between one breath and the next, like he just needed to get up from the piano for a moment. Kie is charming, don’t get me wrong, and I liked that he was being playful but I couldn’t help but wonder why?

Why have video when you have a live performer? Why have the audience come sit on the stage? Why move them back to their seats half-way through the show? Why have props if you barely use them?

And the worse part of it all is that the music is so good (“Pulsating” and “Night Waltz” were two personal favourites) but in the actual context of the show, everything felt so slow. Obviously, I didn’t really like it but I also don’t necessarily want to say it’s bad because it’s not— it’s just lost in its mess of creativity. 

Kie makes the point in his creator’s note that “the production constantly evolves to involve new collaborators, new venues and new audiences.” If this is one version of this production of Picnic in the Cemetery then I’d rather consider it a first draft with something a little more cohesive to come.

Details:

  • Picnic in the Cemetery runs until May 6, 2018 at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre (26 Berkeley Street).
  • Shows run Tuesday to Thursday and Saturday at 8:00 pm, Fridays at 7:00 pm, with matinees Sundays at 1:00 pm
  • Tickets range from $35.10 – $69
  • Tickets can be purchased by phone at 416-368-3110, at the Berkeley Street Theatre box office two hours before performance, or online here
  • Post-show talkback on Wednesday May 2

Photo of Njo Kong Kie by Luisa Ferreira courtesy Canadian Stage

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