Go See the E.E. Cummings Thing at Soulpepper

Since I was just a little wolf cub, I’ve been lucky enough to know a great deal of things about a great deal of things. However, I won’t say that Le theatre is one of them. Of the last, say, ten shows I’ve attended in Toronto, a majority-mandate-winning percentage of them have either been adapted from poetry (as was Mike Ross‘s Dennis Lee cabaret a couple years back) or about poets (as was “Futurists”, and the excellent “After Akhmatova”).

The newest 3D Motion UnPicture Event I saw was the Double Bill being presently put on the Soulpepper Academy, the first half of which is called (Re)Birth and is basically a loose, vaudeville-inspired cabaret of song and dance inspired by the work of American poetry’s favourite rumoured-spy-turned-McCarthyist, e.e. cummings.

It sounds like it could be awful. But it’s not. The work is listed as a collaboration, but the music sounds too similar to Ross’s Civil Elegies score (he’s the musical director of the company, and performed in the cabaret dressed in a very in-charge looking admiral’s jacket) to ignore what may have been a dominant source of input. The music is incredible, the staging both invested in the poetry and winkingly irreverent, and the efficiency of the event’s choreography closer to dance than to theatrical blocking.

The strength of Civil Elegies was in Ross’s ability to cobble together something resembling a balladic vision from Lee’s massively diverse prosody (he drew on the title book, obviously, but also elements of The Gods and the “children’s verse”). That trick is maybe even a little tougher with cummings, so the company did really well to avoid biting off more than they could chew. The poems selected skew to the poet’s younger years. Whereas Ross’s solo show was ordered and almost narrative in its scope, the group effort of (Re)birth is more of a straight cabaret, with the various instrumentation (electric bass, stand-up bass, violin, beatbox, children’s xylophone, pennywhistle, um, rubber frog toy…) leading the way, even at expense of the words. The celebration, here, is of the aw-shucks American vernacularism that inspired much of cumming’s diction, and likely much of his popularity. The youthful, playful, anarchy-facing subversiveness of the project is more than enough.

(Re)birth is presented as a double bill with the farcical experimental piece, Window on Toronto, which is set at a hot dog cart, has maybe 100 characters, and moves as fast as anything I’ve seen in my limited theatrical viewership. It’s a great chaser for the meatier, if equally madcap, (Re)birth. I’m hoping one day to see Ross’s Civil Elegies remounted as double bill with (Re)birth as its follow-up.

The Soulpepper Academy’s Double Bill runs until the 22nd. We scored rush tickets for $20 a head. Worth it at twice the price. Which I imagine is what they cost, now that there’s no more rush shows left. Go see it. Seriously. This is the very most I’m capable of recommending something.

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Explore posts in the same categories: 2011, Poems in the Wider World, Theatre

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