Northern Light Theatre has a reputation as a little company that does big things. Among Edmonton’s theatre companies, they’re one of the ones that’s dedicated to performing the challenging and controversial pieces that bigger theatres can’t or won’t put on their stages. So, I was excited at their announcement that their 2014/2015 season (Girls / Boys//Boys / Girls) would focus on (according to NLT’s website) “discussions around gender, transgender, and gender norms.”
The company’s season opener was Space // Space by Brooklyn-based playwright Jason Craig. The play takes place in a shipping container-turned-spaceship that has been converted to hold a living space just barely big enough for a collection of 1950s/1960s videos and music and two brothers. Their purpose? To be discovered.
Which takes place when, exactly? When their purpose has been achieved, as Trevor Dupplessis says in the role of Lumos.
Simple enough, right? Not so fast.
It turns out that during the course of a three-year sleep, one of the brothers (Penryn played by Nadien Chu) has had his body morph into, as he says, a “sister-brother”.
To be honest, I haven’t gotten a lot of enjoyment from previous sci-fi-type plays I’ve seen in the past. I typically find them a little too repetitive, disjointed, and existentialist for me to be completely swept away and immersed in the play. While I had some of the same issues with Space//Space, this play also spoke to me on levels that other plays of this genre haven’t been able to accomplish.
Yes, there’s the recurring question, both verbal and implied about why our characters have been sent on this mission and whether we’ll see it accomplished. But there’s also the far more interesting questions of when there’s just two people alone, do societal morals and norms apply? Does gender or sex matter when it’s just two people alone in space? What does family mean when there’s just two of you? Is the relationship between brothers different than the relationship between a sister and a brother? Does undergoing a gender change effect the way you’re treated even by your friends and family? How do our societal artifacts (like music, entertainment and advertising) influence our behaviour? How do we influence what’s being output by these industries?
I was quite affected by the ads and television shows from the 50s or 60s Penryn and Lumos would watch as part of a way to keep themselves occupied, and how that related to the changing relations between the two brothers as Penryn’s body becomes more and more feminine. The video clip scenes were interspersed with scenes where Lumos works on a stand-up comedy routine that is quite derogatory to females and scenes showing the day-to-day interactions between the two siblings where Lumos’ behaviour towards Penryn become increasingly aggressive. Over the course of the play, Trevor (Lumos) and Nadien’s (Penryn) way of physically relating to one another gradually shifted from brotherly affection to being tainted with a sense of power imbalance and sexual menace.
The way director Trevor Schmidt has staged the show, the two brothers sit in front of the video screen nibbling on their sandwiches and totally transfixed by what’s on the screen – the way children do if you sit them in front of the “electronic babysitter”. It’s never revealed how long the brothers have been in space or what age they were when they left earth, but the acting, which used movements and physical expressions that remind me of children, and the costumes (matching onesies) implied that the brothers were quite young when they left earth – just barely old enough to look after themselves.
The juxtaposition between the sibling interaction and the videos made me reflect on the development of a society. Regardless of how we raise our children – who are blank slates for us to impress ideas on – they’re subject to all the media that has accumulated throughout the ages with these predetermined ideas of how individuals should interact and relate to one another. In the case of Space//Space, the topic of exploration happens to be gender relations, but this could be relations between any individuals who are somehow “different” from one another. While the statement the play makes about how males and females relate to one another in popular media and in real life is powerful as is, I think that statement could have been even more powerful had the media used shown the evolution of male/female interactions in the media over the decades (sort of like this article).
As mentioned previously, I really enjoyed how Trevor and Nadien’s changed their way of physically relating to each other over the course of the play. In particular, I thought they did a great job of showing the flow of power in the relationship from Penryn to Lumos. Both start the play in sort of curled up/protective position, but Lumos gradually gets larger and more expressive through the course of the play, while Penryn retreats more into himself by becoming physically smaller and assuming protective positions more frequently.
On the tech side of the show, I thought Dave Clarke’s sound design did an excellent job of matching the unsettling subject matter with an unsettling sound design. Upon walking into the PCL Studio, you’re met with eerie music reminiscent of scenes in movies where a space ship is traveling through space. Throughout the play, the dialogue occasionally echos, traveling across the playing space and aurally reinforcing the idea that Penryn and Lumos are alone in space for an indeterminate amount of time – possibly forever.
Space//Space was a thought-provoking opener for Northern Light Theatre’s season – I’m excited to see the next two shows in their season: The Pink Unicorn in February and Christina ~ Philippe in May. Space//Space runs until November 29. Tickets are $22 – $26 from Fringe Theatre Adventures.
PS – Check out Trevor Duplessis’ awesome harmonica solo – possibly the best music performance I’ve seen in a play.
PPS – Check out the What It Is Podcast’s interview with Nadien Chu, Trevor Duplessis and Trevor Schmidt.