Wednesday 4 March 2015

Ribcage explores au courant Canadian themes

Performance backdrop : Creator / performer Heather Hermant originally embarked on the Ribcage : This Wide Passage project while researching the history of a cross-dressing French Jewish woman from 1738. The first Jew reportedly to have set foot in what 130 years later would become Canada. All this recorded in Quebec City archives and referenced in a 1926 publication The Jew in Canada that was in her grandparents' library. 

One Esther Brandeau presented herself in Catholic Quebec as a Christian male, Jacques La Fargue, ostensibly to blend into the brave new world across the Atlantic being populated and exploited for its riches. While the "how" is not a matter of public record, fact is Brandeau / La Fargue was "outed" as a gender-crosser. Her "passer" credential was unmasqued. In the process her being a Jew and not a Christian was "outed", too. When she refused to convert to Catholicism she was promptly deported. And there her history ("herstory") stops dead in its tracks.

What fascainated Hermant in her research about Esther was Brandeau's "multi-crossings" occurred some 275 years ago -- not in our contemporary world of sexual befuddlement and "gender search". Female to male, Jew to Christian, Euro to Brave New World. For herself, Hermant is not only of Jewish-Christian roots, she refers to her own "queerness" as centrally self-defining too (she uses none of the expressions "gay", "LGBTQ" nor "lesbian" to describe herself : queer is what she says she is.)

Creator's creative biases : Hermant, not unlike writer Joseph Boyden in The Orenda, is fascinated by first peoples and the post-contact world we now know as Canada (the word derives from the Iroquois word kanata, meaning "village" or "gathering place"). Ribcage, she noted in a Canadian Theatre Review (CTR) article in 2013 "takes seriously the indigeneity of the place we now call Canada and interculturality is a profound commitment to co-witnessing the past in the present."

Hermant is nothing if not serious. A researcher, scholar, educator and performance poet, she is more than just intrigued, nay, seemingly obsessed with how history informs the present and how first footsteps from the past pursue us centuries later. 

In the CTR article she also notes : "[Ribcage] captures my search for a queer history of place compelled by the queer...resonances I found with her/his story. It is a search for my belonging(s) as a queer and as a child of a Christian-Jewish family whose origins cross the language/cultural divides of the first settler communities on Turtle Island." (Turtle Island is the name given to North America by various first peoples' groups as part of their religio-geo-mythos.)

What this performance looks like : Ribcage is not a "play" per se. It is a performance work. It is poetry slam writ soft. It is a videography. It is avant garde dance & rhythmic movement. It is biography. It is exploration. It is incantation. It is a meditation. It is kaddish (a mourner's prayer). Just so. 

In a current interview with Olga Livshim for the Jewish Independent, Hermant describes Ribcage similarly : "It is somewhere between spoken word and storytelling, physical theatre, a series of interdisciplinary tableaux, a performance installation, all of it in a theatre. I just understand it all as poetry, regardless of whether words are involved or not."

What the audience is presented with is a mix of impressionistic dance and choreograph sequences by Hermant that reflect Esther's boat trip to the new world. Her transformation to Jacques. Her playing ? trying out ? living ? Jacques in the forests and marketplaces of the New World as she/he had reportedly done for five years previously in the south of France. And finally her interrogation and battery by the French Catholic authorities in Quebec when her twin "passer" guises are "outed".

Background 8mm. black-&-white films provide lengthy sequences of both shoreline and mid-sea ocean. Of woods in Eastern mid-winter. Of men/women/she/he switches back-&-forth. All this unfolds as a dream sequence in part -- or perhaps a rather nasty daydream. 

Production values : The video installation by Kaija Siirala (along with videographer Melina Young) is married to composer Jaron Freeman-Fox's original fiddle music that fuses jazz and Indian classical and bluegrass. Note-perfect cacophony and harmony both. Violist Elliot Vaughan virtually stole the show for me in what the program notes refer to as "blurring the edges between performance styles". Amen, Mr. Vaughan. Snatches of styles my ear interpreted to be from Bela Bartok, Philip Glass, & Aaron Copland among others. Add to them the worlds of zydeco and bluegrass. And then put all this together with articulate abandon -- this requires heroic sublimity and command indeed. Bravo! 

Lighting designer Simon Rossiter illuminated and enhanced the piece's themes dealing with history and how it is told to us (encoding) plus how we receive it (decoding). Luisa Milan's tunic-like tops and sensible boots for both Brandeau and La Fargue worked both functionally and visually. 

Which brings me to Director Diane Roberts and her staging, blocking, and choreography of the piece. While idiosyncratic, overall the stage movement struck me as spastic-like in many sequences and often too repetitive to engage me compellingly. The interrogation scene was annoying in those respects.  Ms. Roberts declares in her notes that these are "stories under skin, mingled in blood, buried in bones and breath". Nice! description indeed. But the trick in all this is for one's impressionistic stories to transcend the painfully personal so they achieve heights of universality. On that plane the show's reach, regrettably, rather exceeds its grasp i.m.o.

That said, one could not help but feel Heather Hermant's visceral relationship with her material. "Memory is the place where we perform history," she remarks, adding, "and we do not aspire to belong." In her notes she talks of "a search for self, for story, for history. For what falls through. For why and what footprints we let remain." She calls it a midrash (an interpretive texture) about the history Quebec recorded of the "multi-crosser" Brandeau / La Fargue. Hermant admits an ongoing "grappling with this tale" as both author and performer.  We must be cautious of both the encoding and the decoding aspects of history as it's presented to us, she seems to say. And we must be alive to the fact, too, that the story and its nuances change with each moment we relive and rework them. 

Who gonna like :  As suggested earlier, readers of Boyden's celebrated The Orenda will likely relate to this eurofication tale told from its various Christo-Jewish queeriness perspectives. The original music / film sequencing were pure delight only a tin ear would not appreciate enthusiastically. The show is 70 minutes of experience that is clever and creative, no question, but will resonate likely more with self-conscious seekers of identity from the Gen Y cohort than any other.

Particulars : Creator / Performer Heather Hermant. A Firehall presentation co-produced with Vancouver's urbanink productions, March 3-8. Run-time 70 minutes. Box office 604.689.0926. On-line via

Production crew / creative team : Director Diane Roberts.  Composer Jaron Freeman-Fox.  Musical Performer Elliot Vaughan. Video Installation Kaija Siirala.  Videography Melina Young.  Lighting Design Simon Rossiter.  Costume Design Luisa Milan.  Stage Manager Michel Bisson.   Voice Coach Lopa Sircar.  Technical Consultant Conor Moore.  Sound Consultant Troy Slocum.  

Performers : Heather Hermant, actor.  Elliot Vaughan, viola.


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