Kris Demeanor (right) and Robert Morrison (left). Photo credit Justin Michael Carriere
November 22 – December 2, 2012
Big Secret Theatre
Listen to my live review of Noise on CBC’s Eyeopener on Monday, November 26 at 7:40 am
Noise, Verb Theatre’s world premiere musical for Deaf and hearing audiences, is an extremely ambitious production. Not only does it tackle the challenge of trying to make theatre that has meaning for two distinct audiences, it also incorporates a multi-media element, live music, vibration based sound pieces (music you can feel as well as hear), contemporary dance and traditional acting from Deaf and hearing actors. It’s a lot to squish into one performance. And while I thoroughly applaud the creators for taking a risk and presenting a wholly unique type of theater experience, I left Noise feeling that it wasn’t a fully realized or ultimately satisfying time in the theatre.
Conceived by Verb Co-Artistic Director Jamie Dunsdon, who also directs the show, with live original music by Calgary’s Poet Laureate Kris Demeanor, Noise tells the tale of several different characters. Well truthfully it doesn’t really tell us much about any of the characters, but more on that later. The storylines include a DJ who is losing his hearing, a Deaf woman who has received an implant that lets her hear again, a Deaf astrophysicist who has recently lost her husband and is dealing with a young daughter and an angry, grief-stricken teenage son, a Deaf Occupy Calgary protestor and her interpreter and a man and a woman who meet on an online dating site. In each case, the musical tries to examine the characters’ relationship to sound as their stories get told through sign language, surtitles, dialogue, song, music, dance and video projection.
Many of these elements are done well. In every case that sign language is used, the audience is either given a spoken translation or the action is so meaningful on its own that no explanation is necessary. When the online daters message each other, their words appear as surtitles on the large screen that anchors the back of the stage in a cool bit of design that despite some technical difficulties on the night I saw the performance, was fun to watch. Kris Demeanor’s clever lyrics sung mostly off stage and not by the performers themselves are deliciously surreal yet applicable (big shout out to his line, “Colonel Mustard in the bedroom with the candlestick, maybe he was just trying to set the mood”, which gave everyone old enough to remember the game Clue a good chuckle) But by far the wow factors of the production were the projections courtesy of Production Designer Erin Gruber. I don’t think I’ve ever seen design and video used so extraordinarily and comprehensively in a show. From perfect scenery referencing to actual interaction with the performers to visual representation of sounds to simple mood setting I was totally transfixed by what was happening on-screen. This was a good thing because if I was left to concentrate only on the performers or the narrative, I would have been far less enthusiastic.
It’s often the case that theatre with lots of distracting multimedia effects often falls short in the character development area and Noise is no exception. Each scene is never more than a few minutes long as each performer pops on and off the stage playing one-dimensional characters that are never more than the sound deficit they struggle with. There is no backstory, there is no context, there is no way to engage with any of them. How can you feel for a DJ losing his hearing when you are given no time or space to care about who he is in the first place? How can you be happy for a woman regaining her hearing when that happiness has nothing to attach to?
I’m loathe to critique the individual performers given that they had so little to work with, but despite such weak material, one actress was able to shine. Robyn Mackie as the widow/Astrophysicist managed to draw pathos out of her character while employing her deafness not as an acting accessory but as part of a well-rounded performance. Mackie is the kind of performer that I wager would be great to watch in any production regardless of the fact that she is a Deaf actress. Hers was the one strong performance in a cast that went from fine to forgettable to amateurish in a play that went on far too long without offering anything concrete.
In the opening scene of the musical, Mackie’s professor character says, “There is more to sound than what you see… today we will see sound, we will feel it.” And Noise, with all its thumping music and visual sound representation certainly lives up to this promise. However in the quiet parts of the production, the places where character and story grow, Noise was a cacophony without a compelling melody.
For the guys and the girls – I heard someone at intermission say that the projections were “wicked cool”. I’ll up that ante and say the music is interesting as well. But is this all you want in a musical about sound, deafness and character? MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Probably too experimental for your tastes regardless of the show’s shortcomings. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – It’s almost worth it thanks to the video projections. They will amaze you and up your benchmark for all other shows. But you have to suffer the rest. MAYBE SEE IT