By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It beings with an explosion somewhere in the galaxy, a crash landing, smoke, red emergency lights, a siren.
Matt Schuurman’s video design, spread across jagged meteor fragments amid showers of light (by Elise Jason) is, quite precisely, awesome. The music is in the grand cinematic adventure tradition. What planet is this?
In the two-hander love story currently running at Theatre Network, half the double-act moves through space in asymmetrical arcs, one-footed cartwheels, angled flips in defiance of gravity. And keeps up a grave running assessment of the damages (be very apprehensive when your flush capacitors get blown out; I get that). The other half looks around impassively and leaves the stage.
As a career theatre-goer, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like Jezebel, At The Still Point, created by and starring Ainsley Hillyard and her dog Jezebel (and thereby introducing a new two-member theatre collective, Bumble Bear Productions). The former is an actor/dancer/choreographer/playwright; the latter is a French bulldog. And the show is built on an extravagant imbalance in stage labour — which turns out to be both comical and then touching.
Hillyard and Jezebel, both wearing space suits, are the pilot and co-pilot of a spaceship that’s crash-landed on an alien planet. They are on a time-travel mission to subvert, or perhaps reverse, the course of earthly chronology, for reasons that the pilot will reveal in the course of the show. The pilot does all the talking and most of the moving, issues the instructions, outlines the goals, encourages initiative, offers positive reinforcement at every turn. The co-pilot, mostly silent, is a minimalist actor, to say the least. Without noticeable change of expression Jezebel takes a sip of water from a bowl, lies down, delivers an occasional sneeze or snort, and occasionally walks off stage.
It’s the quintessential unfairness of showbiz that Jezebel gets instant and sustained attention — and all the laughs — from the “non-corporeal life forms” in the house seats. And she does it without apparent effort. Or even changing expression.
Jezebel is a natural (as opposed to a calculating) upstager. She has no apparent interest — much less insatiable appetite — for being onstage. Every once in a while she looks out at us with a kind of appraising but non-judgmental look, a ‘whatever’ look as if to say it’s OK that we’re here and it would be equally OK if we weren’t. Or maybe I’m reading something into the gaze; is this, perhaps, a demo of the secret power of the mask? In any case, you’ll get no hammy over-acting from Jezebel. The mystery of the craft is safe with her.
What happens in a love story when the two parties are in very different time dimensions? Dog years and human years have dramatically different durations, at least on earth. And there’s cruelty and grief in that, of course. Which is why living in the immediate Now is an urgent imperative for Hilyard and Jezebel. And why time travel is (if I get the gist of relativity) a possible solution; as Hillyard points out, if you travel fast enough, faster than the speed of light maybe, you can get somewhere before you left.
“This expedition is all about time,” says the pilot, who explains that she and her co-pilot are searching for “a temporal anomaly.” And the downside of time is mortality. In short, if quantum physics finally gets useful instead of being something you’re doomed to not quite grasp, Jezebel might never have to die.
The still point of the title (possibly Jezebel herself, having a snooze) is the axis of the past and the future where the present lives, either fleetingly or forever. And Hillyard’s text, and her graceful lexicon of sign language, together wax poetic and at length on that subject.
The bond between human and animal, which stands well outside the pet-owner relationship, is the driving pulse of Jezebel, At The Still Point. Unlike Jezebel Hillyard wears her heart on her (space suit) sleeve. She steps up fearlessly to sentiment as she reviews the history of Soviet dogs who got sent into space, or remembers the story of doomed dog from Pompeii, or dances to The Way We Were.
And gradually, in Beth Dart’s production, a show that is not without its own puckish sense of humour (witness a fashion show of space suits) cedes to a different tone; the theatrical premise gets tossed, and yields to direct address to the audience. Jezebel has changed her life, Hillyard tells us, in an impassioned ode to love between the species. “She has taught me to slow down and see the beauty in things…. She has taught me to be a better person.”
Quantum physics aside, you can’t help thinking that however heartbreakingly brief a dog’s tenure may be, Jezebel has been awfully lucky, to have such love and creative energy lavished upon her. To be the object of such devotion is a rare thing.
Jezebel remains calm and cool, and not slavishly grateful for the tribute. If Jezebel were an actor on Tony Awards night, she would not be bursting into tears while thanking her agent and her mother. You wonder if she’s wondering. But it’s hard to tell.
Jezebel, At The Still Point
Roxy Performance Series
Theatre: Bumble Bear Productions
Created by and starring: Ainsley Hillyard and Jezebel
Directed by: Beth Dart
Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through Oct. 21
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca