By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In the first moments of The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow, a man bursts headlong into a tower room above a street. He triple-locks the door behind him.
Jasper is a man under siege. But is he the prisoner or the jailer? Nicole Moeller’s disturbing new solo play imagines a man who is both. And, in Murray Utas’s Azimuth Theatre premiere, Steve Pirot’s scarily intense and kinetic performance imagines the phrase “pursued by demons” made flesh.
Moeller has written about imprisonment before; in her 2011 play An Almost Perfect Thing, a little girl is kidnapped, and grows up a captive in a makeshift dungeon, until she emerges a bona fide media star. That was eerie. This is downright horrifying — not least because you can’t help but be drawn to Jasper’s valiance in struggling against his own predatory, repelling, obsessive devil.
The former street preacher needs to save the princess from this ever-hovering crow, who doesn’t even say “Nevermore” like his famous literary predecessor. And here’s the thing: What do you do if it’s a dangerous world because you exist? Jasper longs for freedom but craves imprisonment, on behalf of society.
The usual religious and social mantras have failed him: faith, hope, humility, perseverance, as he lists. “Why is the man not saved?” he wonders, in the frantic, murky third-person stream of consciousness that’s Moeller’s poetry of damnation. “Having no soul means the man is neither living nor dead.”
With Moeller’s plays, empathy isn’t something soft, it’s something hard — and hard-won. Watching Pirot’s Jasper attempt self-exorcism is like watching a man take out his own liver. Without anesthetic. Gruesome and riveting.
Utas’s production transforms the Backstage Theatre into something voyeuristic. The theatre opens into the lobby; 45 of us sit at a 45-degree angle to Jasper’s rooming house room, a bleak and blasted urban cell strewn with old paper coffee cups, tattered maps of the big wide world, a bucket of water, and the ugliest couch in the western world. The design is by Tessa Stamp, who locates Jasper’s tiny smeared windows so high up he has to climb a step-stool to see out and down, ready to fly or to jump.
Aaron Macri’s powerful multi-layered soundscape is a sort of sound poem in itself. There’s a kind of ominous hum and thud (a cosmic heartbeat perhaps?) under the muffled sounds of city traffic and sirens. There’s the soundtrack of an evangelical preacher coming from a TV that Jasper seems to be able to turn on and off and with his mind. And from time to time, there’s the frightening sounds of beating wings, claws, beaks; Jasper is a man under avian surveillance. It’s exactly synched with Rae Dunn’s lurid lighting, scabrous and harsh, with flickering evocations of an outside world and sinister shadows of a giant hovering bird.
Occasionally the poetic script, with its tricky internal rhymes (“doctors and healers, witches and dealers…”) turns into analysis rather than spontaneous expression. And the play lurches from its sense of spontaneity at those moments. Mostly, though, it’s for you to follow Jasper’s train (wreck) of thought, as he zigzags through his fatal choices en route to damnation. Pirot, always a dangerous actor, is in perpetual motion throughout, in a tense performance that physicalizes temptation and terror, and feels like thinking aloud.
“Resist the devil and he will flee from you,” he repeats, in period bursts of wishful thinking that are sometimes accompanied by bizarre self-baptisms in water from the bucket. But his “recipes for resistance” won’t stick. And neither will yours.
“There is no skin left; there is only bone.” And discomforting questions about the people we cast out are under our skin, too.
The Preacher, The Princess, And A Crow
Theatre: Azimuth, with Fringe Theatre Adventures
Written by: Nicole Moeller
Directed by: Murray Utas
Starring: Steve Pirot
Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through May 27
Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca