Saturday, March 28, 2015

Representation: Disabled Theater at Harbourfront's World Stage

At the beginning of Disabled Theater, which is playing at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre as part of Harbourfront’s World Stage, the 11 members of the cast enter one at a time and stand centre-stage, in silence, for one minute. Then they exit and the next cast member comes out. That’s well over 11-plus minutes of silence, which can be pretty challenging for an audience, and also for the cast members. But Jérôme Bel, a Swiss director and choreographer living in Paris, is not afraid of a challenge. (Even the show’s title is somewhat controversial, as became clear in a pre-show chat session, in which one person drew applause when she objected to the term “disabled” as inherently divisive and demeaning.) In this work, a co-production with Zurich-based Theatre HORA, is designed to present people who “are not represented in the public sphere,” Bel says in the program notes. “If one is not represented, one doesn’t exist. And representation is my job.”

That silent, oddly compelling opening is the cast’s first move toward representing themselves. The next task – read out in German and English by Chris Weinheimer, who also translates for the cast – is for each cast member to enter and come to the front of the stage, one at a time, and give his or her name, age and profession, then take a seat in a row of chairs arranged in a shallow half circle facing the audience. The 11, all of whom are intellectually challenged in one way or another and to various degrees, all give their profession as “actor” (or “actress”). Most are in their 20s; one is 44. All have been associated with Theater HORA for years, have been in several earlier plays, and participated in the making of this show. (One, Julia Häusermann, was nominated for the Bessie Award NYC for her performance in Disabled Theatre.) Bel wrote a script based on the answers cast members gave to questions he asked at auditions – rather like A Chorus Line, come to think of it – and has left room for spontaneity.

In the next exercise, each cast member tells the audience about his or her disability. Things become moving at this point, as the actors frankly, sometimes clinically, describe their issues, ranging from cerebral palsy to hydrocephalus complicated by epilepsy to learning disabilities to difficulties processing information to general “slowness”. One, Tiziana Pagliaro, says simply, “I don’t know.” Häusermann says, “I have cerebral palsy. I’m sorry.” Next comes the dancing. Bel asked all 11 to choreograph their own dance numbers, and selected seven of them for the production. Now let’s be honest: these are not professional dancers, and some of them have physical limitations. But I don’t think I’m being condescending when I say that it’s an awful lot of fun. The dancers are energetic and imaginative, and there is considerable humour. And the action in the chairs, behind the soloists, is a whole show in itself. In fact, Remo Beuggert’s solo dance is performed mostly on a chair.

The next section of the play is extremely interesting. The players are asked to say what they think of the show in which they are participating. Often, they discuss their families’ reactions to the show, and a surprising number of these reactions are pretty negative. Pagliaro says, “My sister didn’t think it was cool.” Demian Bright’s parents called it a “freak show.” Matthias Brucker’s sister thought it was “like watching animals in the zoo.” Nikolai Gralak has reservations of his own: “I don’t get it. Where behind all these questions is the theatre?” Remo Zarantonello says the show “is like going to the doctor. You enter, sit down and wait for your turn.”Häusermann says she’d like to dance to a Justin Bieber song for once, rather than the Michael Jackson number she just used. Immediately, Bieber’s "Baby" is in the air, and dance she does. Gianni Blumer says he’d like to have been one of the seven chosen soloists – “I am the best dancer” – and is immediately given the chance. As are the remaining three cast members who haven’t danced yet.

I’m not sure if this show will change the world, but I think it is good theatre: funny, moving and provocative, fast-paced (barring the silent opening) and constantly entertaining. It closes tonight, so if you can get to it, you won’t regret it.

– Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor in Toronto.

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