Thaya Whitten, the subject of The Red Horse Is Leaving in the 2018 SummerWorks Performance Festival, was clearly a woman ahead of her time. The performance of her character, drawn heavily from her own writing and speaking engagements, is full of chewy, delicious ideas about art, commerce, relationships, colour, light, music, and fear. Whitten, who convened panel discussion and drew them live, who engaged people about their deep feelings and expectations around artwork, is utterly fascinating.
She’s played in this work by her daughter, Erika Batdorf (who also wrote the show), with an eye for detail that only love – however complicated – could produce, and Batdrf brings Whitten to life in the most exceptional way. She’s not just reproducing mannerisms, the acting here is almost transformational; she’s almost channelling Whitten as much as portraying her as she swings wildly between lucidity/present orientation and a world of visions that’s compelling and terrifying in equal measure. I could have watched Batdorf speak and paint and smoke and cower as her mother for another hour with no difficulty at all, and I imagine there was a lot more she could have said.
However, Batdorf was not the only person onstage. She was joined by Zoe Sweet as a bird (raven or crow, I think), wearing a complex and extremely blinky harness with a spine and tail, creeping and hopping around, periodically moving things or impeding the action. While Sweet was very focused and powerful in her work, I really didn’t like this theatrical choice. I couldn’t understand why an actor as talented as Batdorf – who clearly has plenty of talent and no difficulty showing Whitten in all her phases, from collected to nearly unhinged – wanted or needed this distracting presence with a light show attached. The Red Horse Is Leaving was also directed by Batdorf with a co-director, Kate Digby, but this was a place where I wished for a director to push back harder.
There are notes in the program for The Red Horse Is Leaving about this lighted business being somehow related to biofeedback but it wasn’t available to me at all what relationship the blinking thing had to the action at hand, and I thought the piece would have been much more powerful without it. Let Whitten demand of the audience whether a rag has moved and let us all feel that creeping sense of “did it? When? I don’t know for sure…”
One of the best and most powerful quotes of the show for me, a concept to which Whitten returns repeatedly in the work, is that an artist is “in service to an unseen kingdom.” I loved this idea in every way, and despite wanting the visions to remain unseen, I still think Batdorf’s performance is powerful enough to make the show worth seeing. I just can’t help but wish these two characters were separated into two shows so their individual good and interesting work could, in my opinion, shine properly.
The Red Horse Is Leaving plays at Toronto Media Arts Centre – Main Gallery, 32 Lisgar Street in Toronto.
Monday August 13th, 7:30 to 8:30
- Wednesday, August 15th, 6:30 to 7:30
SummerWorks tickets are now Pay What You Decide at $15, $25, or $35, whichever suits your budget. All tickets are general admission and there are no limits to any price level. Tickets are available at the performance venue (cash only), online, by calling 416-732-4116, and in person at the SummerWorks Central Box Office – located at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West), open August 9-19 from 12pm-8pm. Cash and credit accepted.
Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 4 shows.
Access note: this show features the use of white noise/static sounds through much of the performance. It ebbs and flows but it present nearly always.
Photo of Erika Batdorf and Zoe Sweet by Myriam Rafla