photo by cylla von tiedemann
Soulpepper Theatre has launched an exciting new venture called The Soulpepper Lab Series, which, according to Artistic Director Albert Schultz, is an opportunity to “give artists and audience members a chance to share in the creative process by experiencing together various approaches to theatrical storytelling.” Their inaugural production The Aleph, created by Soulpepper Founding Member Diego Matamoras and the Artistic Director of Necessary Angel Theatre Daniel Brooks, is a stunning retelling of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story by the same name and also an incredible examination and exploration of the theatrical experience itself.
I was immediately intrigued by this piece while reading Daniel Brooks’ “Artist Note” in the programme before Matamoras emerged to begin his performance. Brooks made a list of the things that he and Matamoras had considered and discussed throughout the creation of the piece which I found thoroughly fascinating. The list included the following items: the nature of identity in theatre, the real relationship between performer and audience, presence, the counterpoint between a present, older self, and a younger naive self, mirrors, Canada, the north versus the south, Diego, Hamlet, literary theft, the foolishness of the actor, self consciousness, hapless love, humiliation, moral laziness, original sin, deception, the actor as demon and as shape shifter, the way we think about theatre, concision versus loquaciousness, everything and nothing, Wikipedia, memory, space and silence. Truly, The Aleph reflects each of these elements and throughout Matamoros’ performance they interconnect, collide, merge into one another and inform our experience with the piece.
Diego Matamoros is a sublime storyteller. He begins the evening by telling the audience that he does not think that they will ever believe what he is about to tell them and he entices the room, simply with his captivating voice and twinkling eyes, into The City of Light: Buenos Aires, circa 1980. Immediately, Matamoras and Brooks are playing theatrical tricks as Diego and The Aleph’s narrator seem to converge and the audience is whisked away wanting wholeheartedly to believe that everything Diego says is a retelling, reliving, recalling and re-enactment of things that happened in his own life. Like in Borges’ tale The Aleph is centered on a love that has been immortalized by death. In this case “The Goddess” Adelia Beatriz and it is through Adelia that our narrator meets the fanatical theatre director Vittorio Soledad and comes to learn of the aleph, “the only point in the universe where all places are, seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending.”
As a narrator Diego Matamoras is affable and charmingly forthwith with a strong sense of comic timing. He transforms brilliantly into the brooding, pompous, analytical Vittorio Soledad with absolute ease and treats the audience to hysterical and thought provoking tirades about the theatre. Here, he argues that as men (or women) of the theatre we are everything in theatre history that has come before us, “the theatre is love, it is death, it is everything; in the theatre even the dead speak to us.” These words could have been lifted from an essay by any number of distinguished theatre practitioners throughout the ages. They sound lofty, even empowering perhaps, and they may fill us thespians with a sense of purpose and importance, but what do these words really mean? Do we really believe them? What practical implication do these words have? Surely we are all connected to the history of our art, but what responsibility does this impart on us? Antonin Artaud may live deep down inside me, but does that necessarily make me a better, truer artist? Where is the truth? What is truth? Where is the honesty and the connection to the work amid this haughty, possibly empty, jargon?
The question of truth is an important one here, for what resonance does this story have if the audience thinks it is untrue? What is the significance of the aleph if an audience does not believe in its existence? At the beginning of the play Matamoras tells the story of a Broadway production of Hamlet where the casting directors searched throughout America for the perfect unknown performer to play the title role and finally a little old man, who was eighty years old if he was a day, came to audition. When he stunned the production team in his ability to transform perfectly into the Dark Young Dane, a young assistant asked him how he was able to do such wondrous magic and the little old man replied: “That’s acting.” What is the role of “truth” in a world where we are all pretending?
The magic of The Aleph is how effortless and simple it all appears. One is easily tricked into believing that Diego Matamoros waltzed into this space and began to speak without any planning or forethought. Yet, much of the magic has been meticulously constructed by Director Daniel Brooks. Much of the play surrounds Matamoros, his swivel chair and the audience who are always complicit and thoroughly present. Yet, with crisp lighting effects (by Kevin Lamotte), the end of the play suddenly lurches into an ominous space that takes the audience on a wildly psychological ride into the underworld of the theatre.
The Narrator of The Aleph at one point asks Vittorio Soledad during a rehearsal for his theatrical epic Universe: You in Verse (seriously) whether he has plans for movement during the performance or whether the entire show will just be a man sitting in a chair. Vittorio, deeply offended and outraged, responds by hollering to our intimidated Narrator, “What do you see? Something? Nothing? Everything? You are looking. You have eyes. So, look. Really look.” This is a play that is simultaneously wondrously simple and excruciatingly complicated. The aleph. The theatre. The universe. We are always looking, but what is it that we see? It seems to me that these answers are entirely intangible, as transient as a shape-shifter, but that within them lies, to borrow from Stewart Lemoine, “every adventure you’re ever going to have.”
The Aleph plays until March 20th, 2010 at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street, Building 49 in The Distillery). For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.866.8666 or visit http://www.soulpepper.ca/.