ECHOES directed by Jennifer Tarver, with Jane Archibald and Tamara Hummel. Presented by Queen of Puddings Music Theatre at St. George the Martyr Church (197 John). Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (June 14, 16-17) at 8 pm. $20. 416-872-1212. Rating: NNNNN
director jennifer tarver is sit-ting in a church. There are high ceilings and stained glass windows. The movable pews reveal a wooden floor, two sopranos and a couple of pianos.Not your typical theatre space, this. But don't let that fool you. Tarver has a genius for integrating drama and environment.
Echoes, her latest piece, takes place in St. George the Martyr Church, just off Queen West. It has no script, and there are no characters, just singers, a pianist and a sequence of eight contemporary songs with poems sung in English, French and Estonian.
Estonian? Don't let that fool you either. As Tarver has shown recently in works like Not Faust and History Play, she can make even the most difficult, dense and seemingly unplayable works burn with theatrical power.
"There are translations in the program," laughs Tarver, on the phone during a rehearsal break. "Even the English poems will be written down."
The show -- you can't exactly call it a play -- is set in some kind of art studio.
"The idea is that each of these songs come to life within the studio and then fade," explains Tarver, the artistic director of Theatre Extasis. "A lot of the images are inspired by paintings, and the overriding themes throughout are birth, death and rebirth."
The show was conceived and is produced by Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, best known for their hit opera Beatrice Chancy. Tarver's a good match for them. Before earning an MFA in directing from the University of Alberta, she got a degree in performance from the Manhattan School of Music, and has since directed musicals and operas like Menotti's The Telephone and Bernstein's Trouble In Tahiti.
So it's not surprising to find her describing her directing technique in musical terms.
"I like to look at elements of harmonic tension, or rhythmic variety," she says. "Those all come into play when you're creating a stage picture. Variety, contrast, counterpoint."
And where do words fit in? In the past year, she has mounted shows that use words for their rhythm and visceral power as much as their meaning. Not Faust contained Gertrude Stein's near-impenetrable musings, while History Play featured the dense philosophy of Aristotle and J.W. Dunne.
"Some people said they didn't understand History Play, but it triggered memories or visceral feelings," she says. "I think people panic when they don't immediately understand something. We've forgotten that we can absorb things in other ways. Listen to the rhythm of Aristotle's language. It's circular. It works the way the thoughts work. The same with Stein's writing. It can be like a dance."
This summer, Tarver directs three short plays by Samuel Beckett for SummerWorks. But don't expect her to get to work on a big warhorse opera.
"One of the problems in opera is the size," she explains. "Seeing an opera in the Hummmingbird is different from this show. You don't get the same experience of hearing the performers' breath or seeing the tone of their skin.
"What's the point of live theatre if there's no interaction? Go to a movie if you don't want to engage with other human beings."