World Stage intends shaking up audiences and their expectations of what a theatre experience is; this year's fest couldn't have started with a better production than small metal objects, presented by Australia's Back to Back Theatre and directed and devised by Bruce Gladwin.
The script may have its conventional side -- a pair of high-power business people try to score from two lower-class drug dealers, and the action involves a fair amount of coercion to make it happen -- but one twist here is that the dealers, Steve and Gary, are played by Simon Laherty and Sonia Teuben (the latter in drag), two members of a company whose ensemble includes intellectually challenged actors.
While many of the group's shows deal with themes of the disabled in contemporary society, the main feel of small metal objects isn't sociological or exploratory in that sense. It's the chemistry between the figures in each pairing, and the edgy contrast between the pairs, that resonate here. While there's always a bitchy element in the relationship between lawyer Alan (Jim Russell) and psychologist Carolyn (Caroline Lee) -- they're trying to score some "refreshments" for a party that night -- the bond between Gary and Steve is strong and even, by the end, bittersweet in a surprising fashion.
On a conventional stage, the show would work well enough. But the company always does it environmentally -- here it plays in the Eaton Centre -- and the presentation gains tremendously from that public use of space.
The audience of some 70 people sits in bleachers, boxed in on three sides, listening to the action on headsets. It's hard to determine, in fact, who are the actors, for we're looking south into the shopping area, with dozens and dozens of people milling about. Picking out the performers is kind of like a theatrical Where's Waldo.
When the performers finally appear -- or when we recognize them as such -- it's as if they've magically burst onto the scene. In fact, they've been there all along, just not stood out, which in fact is one of the points of the show.
That the four are so well "camouflaged" in the environment means that sometimes a real shopper will interact with them, as happened at opening when some unknown person asked Russel about where to get a drink in the Eaton Centre. Or maybe she was asking for some money to get a drink, since we couldn't clearly hear her part of the conversation.
Just as fascinating is the flip-flop I felt: that sometimes I was a member of the audience and that sometimes I was a focus of the action. For just as we can't immediately separate actor from shopper, there are times that shoppers frequently stare curiously at us, trying to figure out what we're watching and a moment later not sure at all of what that group in the bleachers is. Are we an art installation, they may wonder, academics engaged in some phychological study or just some bizarre people communing with the spirit of a large mall? Some shoppers make faces, one even photographs us. Are we performers? Are we viewers? There's a curious postmodern thing going on with the show, initially eerie and unsettling, and it makes for one of the most unusual shows I've seen in years.
Small metal objects runs through Saturday. For schedule, check out our listings or www.harbourfrontcentre.com/worldstage; 416-973-4000.