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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Moving Perceptions - Studies In Motion - Play Review

Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge - Electric Theatre Company at Canadian Stage's Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Kevin Kerr, Directed by Kim Collier, Choreographed by Crystal Pite
Until Dec. 18th 2010


There are great plays, and then there is great theatre. The difference is in the details, in the moments between great scenes. It's how you fill the gaps that can really make a difference in the whole, and this applies whether it's dance, theatre or film. Kim Collier (the 2010 Siminovitch Theatre Award Winner (it's fancy, prestigious, and means she's probably pretty smart)) manages to not just direct a play, but to gather the best in all, from the lighting and projection design, and costumes and choreography and putting them all together in a thrilling way to tell the tale of Eadweard Muybridge. Who? You ask?

Eadweard Muybridge was a 19th Century Photographer who is known as the "father of modern cinema" when he set out to catalogue animal movements and human gestures. Not exactly stuff that sounds like exciting theatre. Muybridge had some personal drama in his life, and the tales of his past and his projects are told in intercutting non-linear vignettes that could have easily become stale and scientific, much like his photography experiments, but it's the moments in between that are the true reveal.

Working With choreographed movements by Crystal Pite (currently also being represented at the National Ballet of Canada with her mesmerizing Emergence), Kim Collier and Crystal Pite moves the play with moments that become interpretive dance pieces on their own, and set forth beautiful segues between (what we think of as traditional) scenes.

Collier has molded Kerr's play to mix in Pite's human movements to enhance the theatricality of a story of a man trying to capture human and animal movements in multiple singular moments on film. It's layered and sophisticated while creating a theatrical play that remains exciting and easy to understand, all played live on stage. A fleeting moment in time, about capturing split seconds in movements to be documented forever.

And if this all sounds a little too pretentious, it isn't. The play is in fact, just as the types of theatrical styles are meshed together here, a very varied story that is dramatic, dark, moody, romantic, fanciful, scientific, and very very funny.

The excellent ensemble cast literally strips down bare as the chorus and alternates into 19th century costumes, as Muybridge's photographic experiments tries to document the naked human body against the puritanical social customs of the time.

Andrew Wheeler's Muybridge sits a little comically under obviously fake wig and beard, and Wheeler's performance is at times buried under all that coverage, but his stoic centre, while making the central character a little distancing, works overall to Kerr's overall punchline.

Kyle Rideout and Juno Rudell gives the show the heart it needs as two of Muybridge's assistants, and both manage to stay true to the time while giving a breathable relatability in their performances.

There's some terrifically game performances from the entire ensemble, particularly Dawn Petten as Susan, the silly and uneducated, but very willing subject participant, and Allan Morgan who confidently struts around as some comical characters.

Robert Gardiner's beautiful set, lighting and video design is so intrinsically important to Kim Collier's direction and Pite's choreography that the play wouldn't work without it.

If there's a lack of an emotional resonance with the central Muybridge character over the course of the play, the thrilling theatrics and emotionally involving secondary characters more than make up for it. But hints of Muybridge's emotionally distant personality is revealed in haunting scenes with his deceased wife Flora (an enchanting Celine Stubel) and his orphaned son Floredo (an innocent Julien Galipeau).

It's all very highly calculated by Kerr, Collier, Pite and the design team, as the thrill of the play keeps us distant from the true emotional core until the very end, and as exciting as the entire piece is, the whole show truly solidifies once it's over and everything can be seen at once.

Photos by Tim Matheson
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