l to r – Tomorrow’s Child Co-Adaptors / Co-CreatorMatthew Waddell and Eric Rose. Seated: Evan Medd (Assistant Director). Photo by David van Belle.
March 17 -22, 2014
2007 10 Ave SW
“Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?” It was this quote from Nietzsche that came to mind upon receiving the news that innovative Calgary theatre company Ghost River Theatre was embarking on what they call their SIX SENSES SERIES, a series of six plays, each one based on a single sense with sound being the focus of the first production. This is not to suggest that traditional theatre is boring. I still easily get goose bumps seeing a fantastically produced/performed conventional piece of work. It’s just that too much of the same, even good customary theatre, can become routine after a while. Therefore companies trying to push boundaries and offer theatre-goers new experiences are always of interest to me. With Tomorrow’s Child, Ghost River’s audio-only play, not only has this company given us something different, they’ve delivered a stimulating performance that engages the audience deeply and rewards them with an intriguing immersive experience combined with compelling storytelling.
Adapted from celebrated science fiction author Ray Bradbury’s 1948 short story Tomorrow’s Child, the play, conceived and co-created by Eric Rose and Matthew Waddell and directed by Eric Rose, tells the story of a couple whose child is born into another dimension. Through mechanical malfunction of a futuristic birthing machine (ironically set in 1986) Polly (voiced by Anna Cummer) and Peter’s (Tyrell Crews) baby boy Pi is born looking in this dimension like a blue pyramid with tentacles. Dr. Wolcott (David Van Belle), the attending physician explains that in Pi’s dimension he is a normal baby but technology hasn’t advanced enough yet to crack the dimensions and bring Pi the human-looking baby back to Polly and Peter. The couple has no choice but to go home and look after their pyramid-infant while the doctors/scientists try to come up with a solution.
But it’s the telling of the story here that is the real point of the production. Reimagined as a purely sonic experience, audience members are blindfolded and taken individually into the theatre space and placed in swivel chairs by performers in white lab coats. It’s in total blackness upon entering that we are bombarded with the 360 effect of happy playground noises. It’s a familiar and delightful sound no doubt designed to soothe what can be at first an anxiety inducing experience. Once everyone is seated, the playground titters fade away and the sci-fi story begins.
Using 10 speakers and 3 subwoofers that boom, echo, whisper come at you from different spaces in the dark and often feature concurrent dialogue or sound effects, Sound Designer Waddell brings to life the feel of Tomorrow’s Child. This production may only operate on one sense, but to us it feels distinctly multisensory. No, we can’t see the action being describe to us, but Waddell’s effects are so comprehensive and complex that we can’t help but see, feel and become committed to the tale. At times the soundscape feels like dreaming (when sound is the only offering) at times it’s like having and e-book read to you in the dark (dialogue portions of the play) and at times it felt markedly like an art installation a la Janet Cardiff’s celebrated piece The Forty Part Motet.
Of particular note were Waddell’s plot advancing montages that featured a cacophony of ideas all at once. A scene where Peter and Polly decide on Pi’s name is beautifully illustrated by a litany of boy’s names ringing out around the space in whirlwind-like fashion. Fast forwarding the everyday realities and hardships of taking care of Pi is sounded out through overlapping sounds including, “Is he down? Here comes the choo choo…mmmm! I can’t do this all by myself!”, that any new parent can relate to. Equally smart was the imagining of what Pi’s voice would sound like to his otherly dimensional parents. Part squeaky toy filled with sand with just the inkling of baby coos, Pi sounds human enough that we are made to care about him and his parents plight.
Less successful are the moments Rose and Waddell become too enamoured with their own soundscape, lingering on effects for too long and perhaps overestimating the audience’s ability to listen to machine malfunction or alarmist tone-setting effects. Here Waddell’s sound was reminiscent of the drug addled days when Led Zeppelin would take the stage and do nothing but wail vocally and instrumentally for an hour before taking off. But thankfully these moments are few.
In the final moments of the production where the surreal solution to the dilemma in Tomorrow’s Child is revealed and the audience is invited to take off their masks, we are gently brought out of our mind’s eye to finally see the space we’ve inhabited. With full senses back and a feeling of having experienced something remarkable, we leave the theatre just a little more tuned into our imagination and aware of what listening can bring us. And isn’t that what all theatre ought to aim for?
For Ray Bradbury Fans – You’ll be happy to know that Mr. Bradbury’s estate blessed this production and I do believe that the great author himself would be intrigued by the treatment of his work. What the soundscape experience affords is the ability for a theatre company to stage a sci-fi production without worrying how to create grand visual effects worthy of the narrative. Plus, those of you who have enjoyed visualizing the world’s Bradbury created will be able to hold onto your vision of Polly, Peter and Pi. SEE IT
For the sci-fi averse – If the story/genre turns you off so much that you aren’t even curious about the soundscape experience than this one isn’t for you. But if you are willing to take in a story that might not be your first choice in order to experience an intriguing production, than go for it. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – This is a big leap from watching Jersey Boys or Shirley Valentine. And if it’s these easily digestible, lightly entertaining show’s you’re after, then better to give this one a pass. SKIP IT
For theatre junkies – The ability to challenge how you experience a play is always intriguing and this show rewards on many levels. Yes it might have been nice if the story told was original as opposed to a well-known Bradbury short story. Not already knowing the plot might have enhanced the experience. But give this company credit for moving the conversation forward, if not completely, more than enough to be paid attention to. SEE IT