By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Uncanny. It’s all about us.
Sorry to be self-centred, but it’s hard to believe that Fight Night, a fascinating five-year-old show from the innovative Belgian collective Ontroerend Goed, wasn’t custom-made for us, right now.
So here we are, Canadians in the final days of a vicious Canadian election campaign, who talk big about democracy, but signally fail to show up and vote. And here’s a show that arrives at the Citadel in its international travels with questions about why we vote the way we do.
Fight Night doesn’t just wonder vaguely or abstractly about that, as it alights in countries around the world. The fun of this playful, smartly entertaining experiment is that it launches questions at us, and tallies the result percentages, on the spot. It hands you a clicker (your own private hand-held voting booth) as you enter the theatre. It presents you with five candidates — two women and three men — strangers about whom you know nothing, and asks you to make a choice, and vote. So, who do you like? In each round of questions, one candidate gets eliminated, and has to leave the ring — until there’s a winner.
First, though, the moderator — the amusingly calm, deadpan Angelo Tijssens, in a jaunty plaid suit — grabs the dangling microphone in fight night fashion and launches a demographic survey of us, the audience. Of the 229 people present on opening night 63.3 per cent are women; 60 per cent of those present are in a relationship or married.
Our host, who has a dry under-the-radar wit about him, moves on to age, and finds, via the show’s sophisticated instant polling technology, that “we’re waiting for 17 people.” If you’re hesitating to commit on your age, he advises, just press the button for “60-plus.”
Five candidates in hooded robes à la boxing enter the “ring.” Ding. The bell goes, and we’re asked to choose our favourite candidate, based on nothing but … appearance? a hunch? random chance? Each steps forward and speaks.“This is my voice, the voice that comes with my face,” says the winner of the first round. “I hope I’m not ruining anything.” The loser says “please like me more. I will be your underdog.”
No issues are invoked, which is part of the provocative, and disconcerting, liveliness of the whole enterprise. Who will vote for you? the moderator asks a black candidate. “White people,” he responds instantly.”Go Oilers,” says another.
Before the loser leaves the stage, strategy and coalitions start happening (does that ring a bell, fellow Canadians?). As one candidate puts it, if you notice strategy then it isn’t working. The questions, to both the audience and the candidates, get more broadly socio-cultural, all about who you trust, what qualities you admire, what qualities you identify in yourself. “Are you a bit racist? a bit sexist? a bit violent? none of the above?”
The result of the latter, like all the results of this lively and surprising evening, might take you aback; in a Canadian theatre crowd, that bastion of left-leaners, an unexpectedly hefty 40.8 per cent admit to being a bit racist. Director Alexander Devriendt told me last week that of the show’s world-wide stops before now, the results almost invariably skew to “none of the above,” except in Australia.f
In a list of tabu pejoratives, which is the most offensive to you? the moderator asks the candidates and us. And then we vote again. I don’t want to reveal too much about the questions themselves; you’ll be engaged and startled by what you see. I heard discussions (hey, I was in one of those) continuing on the way out of the theatre and down the stairs to the parking lot.
There’s a certain sly and plausible escalation at work in the course of the show. Can the rules of engagement change? Fight Night asks that, too, in its interactive, increasingly confrontational, way. Can a show be both sneaky and forthright? The results will be different every performance: on opening night, the loser of round 1 turned out to be the ultimate winner. How did that happen? Why didn’t I notice as it was happening?
The music (sound designer David Heinrich) has a subtle electronic buzz and pulse to it. At the busy intersection between real life and theatre, where you don’t quite know where to look before crossing, Ontroerend Goed seems to have eliminated acting altogether. It’s a powerful and persuasive illusion, one that leaves the pretences of social media — and the idea that somehow those platforms capture the zeitgeist — in the junk file. Instead it cuts to the chase in sharp satirical fashion, a prickly thought for an election eve.
Does voting matter? How on earth can democracy work if it needs voting to mean something? Fight Night is cynical enough to wonder, and game enough to bring it on.
Theatre: Ontroerend Goed
Written by: Ontroerend Goed
Directed by: Alexander Devriendt
Starring: Julia Ghysels, Aaron Gordon, Aurélie Lannoy, Bastiaan Vandendriessche, Max Wind, Angelo Tijssens
Where: Citadel Macab Theatre
Running: through Oct. 27
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com