DENNIS CLEVELAND by Mikel Rouse (Rouse). To June 8 at 8 pm. Toronto Film School Studio (39 John). $35. 416-872-1111. Rating: NN
The set-up to Mikel Rouse’s Dennis Cleveland, a so-called multimedia opera (one in the trilogy he’s brought to Luminato), is terrific; too bad the show itself comes as a letdown.
In the CBC building, we’re taken up an elevator and ushered into what looks and feels like a real TV studio. (In fact, it’s the Toronto Film School studios of the International Academy of Design and Technology.)
Huge, colourful signs for the fake talk show Dennis Cleveland are plastered everywhere, and strategically placed video screens make sure we’ll be able to see what’s going on wherever we’re sitting. Workers clad in black Ts printed with the Dennis Cleveland logo carry videocameras or help show us to our seats.
Soon Cleveland himself (writer/performer Rouse) welcomes us in a pre-show informal chat, and then audience prompters instruct us so we know the difference between “Applause” and “Give It Up!” in showing our enthusiasm.
At one point in the pre-show warm-up, we’re even ordered to chant “We want Dennis!” and the effect is truly eerie. Give it up, indeed.
Once Cleveland, who’s blandly handsome like most male TV talkshow hosts, brings on his guests, the ideas and structure for the show are pretty much set. The guests, four couples who are each unhappy after their own fashion, look like figures you’d see on a daytime tabloid talk show. They bicker, mutter, make surprise Jerry Springer-ish revelations… and they also sing.
Yes, this is an opera, so much of the dialogue is sung, the lyrics often banal confessions like: “If you don’t love me the way I am then you can go,” and “My way or the highway.”
Rouse and his chorus of guests (and one soprano hidden beneath one of the DC signs) occasionally create a lulling, hypnotic effect with the repetition of these phrases, underscored by a soothing, textured electronic score.
That’s essentially the show. A half-dozen planted audience members take Dennis’s mic and prod the guests or make banal confessions of their own about loneliness, alienation and celebrity worship.
But there’s no arc to the piece. During some parts, the houselights dim and the stage takes on a hazy glow. Not sure what Rouse intends here. Are we supposed to be tapping into the collective unconscious?
The songs have a sameness to them, yet I recall thinking I could listen to a couple - the catchy Life In These United States and Soul Train - on my iPod. One song, Beautiful Murders, has the potential to say something intriguing about violence and pop culture, but goes nowhere.
It’s a shame Rouse doesn’t exploit the talkshow format enough for us to stay captivated. Where’s the commercial break? The floor director who’s having a meltdown? The surprise guest?
And despite what the background notes claim, it’s never clear during the show that Dennis’s “guests” are really voicing aspects of the host’s own life. Cleveland remains an enigmatic figure, and Rouse doesn’t let us get beneath the stony surface.
Ironically, about a third of the way through the show, just when the paying audience was getting restless (you can only try to spot yourself on one of the monitors so many times), I felt like switching the channel to see what else was on.