By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
If there ever was a piece of theatre that owed star billing to the sound designer, it’s Cardiac Theatre’s premiere production of The Listening Room, by Calgary-based Michaela Jefferey.
Everything about the premise depends on sound: Thomas Geddes’ ominous post-apocalyptic soundscape, weirdly amplified by a bank of archaic pre-apocalyptic equipment in Elise Jason’s set design. Time and space in a dark universe, or what’s left of it, are defined by sound channelled through earphones. With the exception of a newcomer, who relies entirely on hearing because she’s sightless, the characters seem to come fully to fractious life when they’re putting on the earphones or taking them off.
Even between sound effects — boat horns, birdsong fragments, the tick-tock of clocks, a fragmentary baby’s cry, the clang of colliding metal — there isn’t silence. The soundtrack of The Earie, a remnant desert society whose name isn’t coincidental, is a kind of echoing industrial rumble; it surges into a roar and subsides without ever disappearing.
In Michaela Jefferey’s futurist speculation — produced by Cardiac, co-presented by Edmonton’s Azimuth and Calgary’s Downstage in the first of their Alberta Emerging Company Showcase initiative — a cell of teenage dissidents in the “Third Era” listen to to the fragmentary sounds of the past, scavenging for signs of connection. Existentialists in palmier days would call it “meaning.” These kids have to settle for the small consolation of sounds from long ago. They’re only disconnected sound fragments till they’re listened to; then they become the track of the past.
There is an authority, the Council, the ultimate arbiter of interpreting the sounds collected by the Listeners. And there are rules about how to behave, or pretend to behave, vis-à-vis the Council. As we glean in the loud, prickly hostility of the listeners’ room, there’s considerable disagreement about whether acquiescence, subversion, active resistance, or radical reinvention is the way forward.
This dissension is captured in harshly committed performances from Harley Morison’s cast and ricochets off the comfortless industrial bleakness of Jason’s design — bare lightbulbs, an ugly big soundboard, loops of cross-hatched wires, corrugated metal walls with holes cut for bunk beds.
In conjuring dystopian worlds, the problem is, of course, how elaborate to make the set-up without losing the sense, the stakes, and the momentum of human interaction. The Listening Room may be admirably spare with exposition, but the complications of The Earie, interesting as they are, seem to multiply by the minute. And despite the intense, focussed energy that Morison’s actors bring to the characters — angry, dissatisfied, and disaffected in various ways — the intricacies might actually topple your engagement with the story. Patience, my friends.
A newcomer (Ashleigh Hicks) arrives in the secret (from whom? from the Council?) listeners’ room on spec with the goal of joining the listeners’ brigade, only to be told by Fayette (Colin Dingwall) that “there are no more new listeners.” That’s the rule.
The Listeners, most of whom are illiterate, are appointed, then name themselves to demonstrate a break with the past. One among them, Lanolin (Carmen Nieuwenhuis), records the raw data in concentric circles on round paper to match the old-fashioned discs that are sent to the Council for interpretation.
Lanolin, who works the soundboard like a sort of tattered post-apocalyptic teen Horowitz, suspects that this process of “interpretation” is corrupted. She tells the newcomer that’s it’s an excuse, political window-dressing for the Council to validate its own agenda, an escalation in its own power. The Council, she says, wields the Trumpian argument of security whenever challenged about the steady erosion of freedoms. What started in liberation has become its own kind of authoritarian regime.
The characters, who arrive in the listening room successively, have dramatically differing views of their situation and their resident idealist/trouble-maker Marcus, the last to show up. They’re all on a short fuse; wildly physical brawls break out, in which gender, incidentally, gets no concessions and Lanolin gives as good as she gets.
With the arrival of the storied Marcus (Philip Geller), a charismatic, passionate firebrand of a guy who has no time for the Council (and vice versa), the play seems to shake off the weight of its complications, and clarify itself. Suddenly The Listening Room leaves its elaborately futurist set-up behind, and becomes what it probably was designed to be all along: a speculation, and a knowing one at that, about the inevitable nature of government, of revolution and revolutionaries, of youthful radicalism and radicals.
Is Marcus a self-promoting grandstander? A legitimate firebrand? Should he be jettisoned since he’ll probably get them all in trouble? Or is he their salvation? Or is he a guy with anger issues vis-a-vis the status quo but no real vision of what to replace it with? Discuss.
“The world is broken and unbalanced and unfair,” he cries. “But we are descended from stars.” He’s that kind of guy, intense, irresistible and maddening. Geller’s performance leaves all the options open.
At the preview I was kindly allowed to attend, I found the set-up more intriguing than the arguments that followed, in truth. But there’s no doubting the heat of the Cardiac production. It listens intently for sounds of youthful anger in the world, and connects to a revolutionary cycle that rolls on through time.
The Listening Room
Written by: Michaela Jefferey
Directed by: Harley Morison
Starring: Ashleigh Hicks, Carmen Nieuwenhuis, Colin Dingwall, Jay Northcott, Philip Geller
Where: PCL Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through Jan. 28
Tickets: 780-409-1910, tickets.fringetheatre.ca