Denise Clarke just gets better and better.
The actor/dancer/choreographer, best known through her longtime association with Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit, brings her solo show Sign Language to town as part of Factory Theatre's Performance Spring Festival and proves again – via her agile, taut, sexy moves and the ability to express all sorts of emotion with body and text – that she's a special performer.
Clarke's piece uses the simplest of means – a few crucial costumes changes (both robings and disrobings), lighting effects, music by Arvo Pärt – to give the world to her audience.
She enters dressed in black, and her sly smile entices us as she creates a character who says she's finally achieved calm and control. Well, maybe, on the surface, but jittery neuroses burst out from beneath that calm. She tells us, by means of words and hand signing (some of which, I think, is indeed ASL), of her progress in dealing with the world. Everything gets physicalized for this long-limbed figure as she reveals her acceptance of animals and insects, shows us her "multi-thousand-dollar car" and reveals fears of war, flying and falling down.
The hour-long show then becomes mostly non-verbal, as we move with her into a universe of angels and devils; she doesn't know which being best describes her. Alternating between a little-girl innocence and a mysterious, adult sophistication, Clarke walks us into Eden – there's a splendid scene where Eve meets the scary snake and, seduced, becomes a seducer herself.
It's Clarke's uncanny ability to morph emotionally and physically in a blink from one being, from one emotion, to another that's really impressive. She can go from hooker to madonna (or maybe Madonna) with the flip of a costume, teasing us with her energy and her succinct creations.
A 15-foot journey toward a bag that falls from the heavens is both funny and exhausting, demonstrating Clarke's awesome physical control. She can transform into a nightmare figure straight out of Hieronymus Bosch or evolve into an elegant runway model. Ever playful, drawing on ballet and more contemporary moves, she takes us from a silent conversation with God to a demonic creature with a huge appetite (though we watch that appetite take its toll on the character), from wartime destruction to a gentle hope for the planet.
That final bit of optimism becomes Clarke's gift to us, as she shares a surprising gift with the audience. And she's willing to share it in other ways, too, for she's in the lobby after the show to discuss what she's just said in performance and get our impressions of her skilful work.
This Sign Language speaks volumes. Don't miss it.
The show runs until Sunday (April 15) in the Factory Studio Cafe. See theatre listings for details.