PROVO — Now in its third year, BYU’s international theatre festival Off the Map continues to present the most innovative and fascinating theatre that Utahns will see. Featuring companies from Canada and Denmark this year, Off the Map continues to excite the imagination and stretch the limits of what’s possible in live performance.
From Montreal-based Y2D Productions and featuring a solo performer (German-born Julian Schulz), Leo is best described as a gravity defying multimedia live performance. On one side of the stage is a small box set (designed by Flavia Hevia) about the size of a prison cell—the space that Schulz occupies the entire show. The other half of the stage is a projection screen. A camera in the audience films Schulz’s actions and transmits the images nearly simultaneously to the projection screen.
But here’s the kicker: the image on the screen is turned 90 degrees, and Schulz performs as if the wall of the set is really the floor, and vice-versa. The result is that on screen Schulz appears to sometimes float in the air or sit and stand in bizarre positions. (In the photo above, he is really doing a handstand; the “floor” is really the stage left set wall.) The effect is disorienting at first, but never confusing or frustrating. Indeed, Schulz is fun to watch as his character inquisitively probes the nature of the new law of physics that rule the play.
Leo is directed by Daniel Brière (and based on an idea by original performer Tobias Wegner), who has been exceptionally clever in creating this hour-long pantomime. Just when I thought that the premise of Leo had been exhaustively explored, Brière would create a new sequence of events (such as a portion of the play in which Schulz is “swimming” around the set) that would surprise me. The premise and the action never seem hokey, and the effect is memorable.
As the only cast member, Schulz has the charisma, energy, and acrobatic talent to pull of this show. He somehow makes the hard actions look easy (like pulling himself up to apparently sit on the edge of the floor, when in reality he is hanging upside down from the top of the set wall) and the easy actions look hard (such as “push-ups” that are really just Schulz leaning, pushing himself against the wall). Schulz seems to have the right mix of whimsy and realism to make his character engaging without saying a word.
Leo has all the right ingredients for a show that can easily cross international borders: a fascinating premise, a reliance on physical comedy instead of language, and flawless, professional execution. It is a production worth rearranging the schedule for, and audience members of any age (including children) can enjoy the mix of acrobatics, multimedia, and physical theatre that Schulz presents.
Hailing from Denmark, Out of Balanz presents Next Door, a bare-bones production about neighbors. Troels Findsen plays Ivan, a Danish man whose elderly next door neighbor died. Ivan realizes that although he lived next door to his neighbor for three years, he hardly knew the man and didn’t even realize that he had passed away; the cleaning service found the neighbor’s body. This leads Ivan to reflect on the neighbors he has had throughout his lifetime, some of which he created lasting memories with.
The play is basically an extended monologue for Findsen (written by Ivan Hansen and Katrina Bugaj), and Gassot says almost nothing during the course of the hour as he plays all of the other characters in Ivan’s story. Findsen handles the eccentric characterizations of Ivan well, such as the character’s verbal digressions and the strange squeaky voice. Ivan doesn’t seem like a realistic character per se, but he has a realism that makes his scattered thoughts and emotional angst plausible. Findsen is careful to make the character endearing rather than annoying, and it probably helped that much of the show consists emotional self-disclosure, which makes Ivan vulnerable.
For his part, Gassot is charming as he switches from character to character. His physicality clearly communicates each character’s age, habits, and relationship with Ivan. In Gassot’s performance, Paul’s incessant gum chewing or the elderly former resistance fighter’s labored walk seem natural and essential to the story that Ivan tells.
Next Door is the more emotional offering from Off the Map this year, and its exploration of urban alienation and community is interesting. Some audience members, though, may get frustrated at Ivan’s meandering way of telling his story and the lack of a clear conflict. Additionally, the piece is less unusual than Off the Map’s typical offerings. Most shows from Off the Map are completely unlike anything that Utah theatre patrons normally see. Next Door, however, would fit comfortably in the season of Plan-B Theatre Company or Salt Lake Acting Theatre Company, or even some of the semi-professional groups in the state. Ironically, this production from Denmark doesn’t feel foreign.
Nevertheless, it is nice to see two talented actors present a charming story with an emotional core. Next Door may not be a strange or bizarre as Off the Map’s patrons are accustomed to, but thanks to the efforts of director Katrina Bugaj, the story clips along comfortably and the show has a quiet passion that I can appreciate.