By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Poor Gordon. He has a complicated problem. His life, an infestation of minutiae moment to moment, is driving him crazy. Especially at night.
The scratching of vermin in the walls. The chewing of insects in his yard. The drip of a tap. The sound of breathing.… The Particulars, says Gordon’s creator, playwright Matthew MacKenzie “is not about pest control.” It’s “about a guy who goes on with living without his reason for living.”
MacKenzie’s spring-loaded black comedy for one unravelling man and seven dancers makes its way back to Edmonton Friday and Saturday in a Punctuate! Theatre production, after an impressively successful run at The Theatre Centre in Toronto. “At first you laugh at him,” says MacKenzie of the insomniac obsessive at the centre of “a very funny one-man epic.” And then, when you discover something of the mystery of Gordon’s past, “you’re implicated for having laughed at him. But by then you’re strapped in for the rest of the ride.”
“I wrote it 15 years ago, after a bad heartbreak,” MacKenzie explains. “And the story grew.” The 20-minute “mini-show for myself” at the National Theatre School expanded into a full-fledged solo play that, directed by Patrick Lundeen and starring Simon Bracken, was a sleeper hit at the 2008 Edmonton Fringe. In a 2013 incarnation MacKenzie himself starred as Gordon. What happened in that version wasn’t dance, he laughs. “Not really. Just me running around the stage like Oedipus with his eyes put out.”
And now, in this latest version of The Particulars, the beleaguered Gordon (Bracken again) has acquired a Greek chorus of seven dancers called Mourners, who create the abstract maze and signposts of Gordon’s interior world.
Dance, says MacKenzie, Punctuate! artistic director, is a way of arriving at “a heightened state” that often eludes a single actor alone on a stage. The Particulars isn’t the only time that MacKenzie has populated a “solo” show with dancers. In Bears, his captivatingly strange and imaginative 2015 piece — which won awards both for its Edmonton and Toronto productions — the playwright set his Indigenous protagonist forth on a transforming journey into the wilderness, with oil company enforcers in hot pursuit. In the decade’s only “multi-disciplinary comedy about the Trans-Mountain Pipeline,” the visceral Indigenous connection with nature was brought to life by a chorus of dancers who were wildflowers, birds, animals, a shrinking glacier.
The Other, produced by Punctuate!’s sibling indie company Pyretic Productions (MacKenzie and Lundeen were co-founders and they email each other as Pyrunctuate!) starred a woman who is somehow an outsider to herself, a spectator looking in on her life. A corps of dancers set that intricate idea in theatrical motion, in a production that starred actor/dancer/choreographer Amber Borotsik, .
MacKenzie thinks The Particulars, in its current incarnation, might be the trickiest theatrical challenge of all — as three workshops in the past year will attest. Choreographer Alida Kendell of Good Women Dance, “laid down the law,” MacKenzie grins. “She didn’t want dance to be decorative,” movement pasted on to a text. It had to be organic.
He’s the director, but MacKenzie is keen to avoid the perception that The Particulars is “the Matthew MacKenzie show.” He says “Alida’s voice is the most prominent in the room, definitely; she casts all her dancers.”
In a way the evolution of The Particulars as dance theatre is the story of a theatre company aesthetic. By now, at Punctuate!, “the majority of artists we hire are dancers,” says MacKenzie. “My chief collaborators are dancer/choreographers…. The possibilities with dance (in theatre) are really limitless.” He points to the Jonathon Young/ Crystal Pite collaboration Betroffenheit. “I don’t want to mimic it, of course, but it’s powerful as hell! The term ‘art’ his thrown around a lot. But that’s art!”
“I want words and dance…. That’s where the magic is for me!”
If dance has been one of MacKenzie’s prime theatrical motivators, the other has been the discovery and exploration of his own Indigenous (Cree, Métis, Iroquois) roots. Bears was a bold declaration. Now he’s working with Bears star Sheldon Elter, a Métis actor of huge charisma, on a new solo show, Poster Boy.
The Situation We Find Ourselves In Is This, MacKenzie’s new solo show, is in progress after a September workshop production in Toronto. It’s about his time with the great Canadian theatre mentor/ dramaturge Iris Turcott during her final days. He’s off to the Ukraine in February with Pyretic’s Lundeen and Lianna Makuch (Blood of Our Soil); the latter is developing a new play spun from her heritage in that war-ravaged part of eastern Europe. And in April, After The Fire, a re-thought re-worked version of Bust (first seen at Theatre Network) — MacKenzie’s very dark comedy set in Fort McMurray in the aftermath of the devastating 2016 fire there — plays the Citadel’s inaugural Highwire series.
But first, after “a couple of years of urban frenzy,” MacKenzie does what he always does to clear his head and recharge his creative skills. He heads to nature — specifically to Canmore for “some time in the woods.” As Turcott used to say to her playwright charges, “get yourself a six-pack. You’re going to need it!”
Theatre: Punctuate! Theatre
Written by: Matthew MacKenzie
Directed by: Matthew MacKenzie, choreographed by Alida Kendell
Starring: Simon Bracken, Amber Borotsik, Bridget Jessome, Richard Lee Hsi, Krista Lin, Rebecca Sadowski, Kate Stashko, Raena Waddell
Where: La Cité francophone, 8627 91 Street
Running: Friday and Saturday
Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-4201757, tixonthesquare.ca)