>>> Review: The RISER Project reaches high

THE ARCHIVIST by Shaista Latif (Latif/RISER Project). At the Theatre Centre (1115 Queen West). Runs to April 22. $10-$20. See listing. 416-538-0988, theatrecentre.org. Rating: NNN

DEAD ROADS by Clare Preuss, Neema Bickersteth, Darwin Lyons and Zoe Sweet (Dead Roads Collective/RISER Project). At the Theatre Centre (1115 Queen West). Runs to April 24. $10-$20. See listing. 416-538-0988, theatrecentre.org. Rating: NNNN

This years RISER Project, a collaborative producing project developed by Why Not Theatre, begins with a pair of shows by women artists, emotionally rich pieces that look at the need for connection and the hold that memory has on us.

Shaista Latifs solo work, The Archivist, brings the audience into Latifs world. The biographical piece asks us to consider our own memories as she plays out some of hers in the form of stories, sometimes prompted by family photos and a video of her parents wedding in Afghanistan.

She herself, born in Canada and never having been to her familys homeland, feels she has a foot in different worlds, unsure of where home is. The hour-long show is an attempt to publicly reconcile the two with viewers who become witnesses and understanding confederates whose breathing she links to her own.

The idea of her multiple lives becomes deeper when we learn that she lived both with her parents in Toronto and with her grandparents in Weston she wonders out loud where she belongs, even in Canada. And there are other residences, too, including Covenant House, where Latif stays following a disturbing incident and a rejection by her family, an incident that led her to rename and redefine herself.

The Archivist is filled with stories, fragments of Latifs and her parents lives, and she argues convincingly that displacement has been a central part of her life. But this tale continues, she tells us, and connections may yet link together the seemingly disparate elements of her life.

Latifs warmth, honesty and charm, her connection to her viewers, make a strong impression in this partly improvised show, which changes every performance. One of its key design elements is the occasional use of a microphone that amplifies the performer’s words strikingly we see one speaker but hear two overlapping voices, subtly suggesting the division in her soul.

Home is more concrete, at least initially, for the three characters in the collectively written Dead Roads, set in small-town Alberta, a location influenced by the proximity of the tar sands. In a series of interrelated monologues, a haul truck driver who conveys waste material for the oil business (Neema Bickersteth), a butcher (Darwin Lyons) and a bartender (Zoe Sweet) have strange experiences and visions, signs of conscious or unconscious dissatisfactions and rebellions.

Another sign of their troubles? The choral scream they release.

Bickersteths truck driver has taken over the job from her long-gone husband, while Sweets bartender craves the connection to her male customers and Lyonss butcher is stuck with a huge order of dead pigs that she must somehow sell to customers who dont appreciate the organic meat she brings in.

Their stories intertwine, partly woven together by feminist and environmentalist subtexts. Magic realism is also part of the narratives: a bird oozes oil, a woman sprouts wings, a female spider reveals her surprising strength.

The three performers also take part in each others narratives. Sweet and Bickersteth become the slaughtered pigs in Lyonss palace of pork (this story is often comic), Bickersteth becomes an undesirable mouse in Sweets bar and Lyons transforms into a bird from the bartenders past.

Under director and co-creator Clare Preuss, the actors create their characters through movement as well as text. With the aid of Andre du Toits lighting, Preuss makes good use of various locations in the theatre.

Memory holds a golden past for each woman: the butcher remembers better times in Oregon, the bartender recollects her childhood desire to be one with forest creatures, the truck driver recalls her life with her husband and sings a ringing version of Stand By Your Man.

But try though they might, they cant make connections in the present, either with one another or other people in town. They must each seek it elsewhere, over the mountains and in the direction of the ocean.

With moments of stillness alternating with passionate speeches of desire, these Dead Roads are far from lifeless.

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