pragna desai and dan watson
Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s production of Grimm Too, which closed March 21st in the Factory Theatre Studio Theatre, immediately evoked imagery of my teenage years as a student of Halifax’s Neptune Theatre School where my instructor, strongly influenced by the methods of L’Ecole International de Theatre Jacques Lecoq, guided us in several collective creation pieces. I wish that I’d had the opportunity as a young aspiring performer to see a production like Grimm Too because I immediately recognized the stunning and entrancing potential for the culmination of the exercises and physical explorations I had encountered in my youth. In the creation of truly unique and magical physical theatre, a collective creation that is bursting with creativity and intense imagery, this production was one for the zealous student to aspire to.
Grimm Too is a fantastical journey into ten of The Brothers’ Grimm’s more obscure fairytales. In their Directors’ Note, Co-Artistic Directors Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour write that “myth is not life as we live it but as we dream it” and indeed with mystic lighting effects and the agile movements of the performer’s bodies Smith and Gilmour have created a dream world which both reflects and distorts all that is essential to our humanity. Through these allegorical tales the Grimm’s audiences confronted and engaged with questions of morality, justice and charity and devised a complex mythology in attempt to provide question to life’s unanswered questions, such as how the moon came to be in the sky. It is striking how dark these stories are and how brazenly the Brothers Grimm depict humanity at its cruellest and most disturbing. These fairy tales are not peddling the fallacy of “happily ever after.” At the same time, Dean Gilmour, as our primary Narrator, does not conceal the fact that all the audience is about to hear are fanciful, whimsical, chimerical lies which illuminates the argument that the very nature of the theatre is to play and pretend which begs the question: can that shifty fiend called “truth” ever be found on a stage?
The evocative nature of this piece is inherent in the speculator performances by five immensely talented performers. Adam Paolozza and Dan Watson begin as two urchin brothers who happen upon the moon lighting a single village like a lamppost. They clamour up a ladder and steal it for their own village where it remains until their deaths when it is carved in half and buried with both of them. In the underworld, the moon shines so brightly that it wakes the dead. At this moment, in a murky moonlight, the stage erupted into a scene brilliant reminiscent of a Tim Burton cartoon. Bodies and light contorted in such a magical way that they cast marvellous tricks on the eye and it looked like body parts were being severed and joints were moving as only a zombie could move. This moment strengthened my resolve that with ingenuity and skill the theatre can create all the same illusions as film and generate similarly vivid responses. Throughout the performance the actors seemed to emerge continually out of empty space and then disappear just as suddenly. This sense of magic illuminated the fairytales beautifully.
Michele Smith gave an incredible nuanced and disturbing performance as a young girl throwing a temper tantrum and her mother desperate to instil manners in her, even after the girl has died and has been put in the ground. Smith is equally chilling as a cook who plans on boiling a foundling child in scalding water. Dan Watson demonstrated brilliant physical prowess in a story about a man who had a toad attached to his nose during which the empty space where the imaginary toad existed took shape and I watched it fly from one face to the next and then return to Watson, like a very advanced and convoluted game of Zip, Zap, Zop. Pragna Desai shone particularly bright as a girl who became a bewitched statue, especially throughout the miming of the chiselling of her form. Dean Gilmour was utterly heartbreaking as an old dog desperate to save his life after learning that his master has plans to shoot him because he is “no longer of any use” and Adam Paolozza was mesmerizing in his ability to reproduce the sounds of musical instruments, specifically a violin and bagpipes, with the utmost precision and minimal movement of his lips. He gave an incredible performance as a boy who was born with the quills of a hedgehog who grew up to be a tyrant (who played the bagpipes) until his spell was broken upon encountering pure love for the first time.
I think it is easy to dismiss Grimm’s fairytales as being simplistic, didactic and even irrelevant to contemporary life, when in fact these stories illuminate deep complexities within the human psyche and our penchant toward greed, violence, jealousy and the senseless cruelty of the world. The characters in Grimm Too are prototypes, not unlike those in the Commedia Dell’Arte tradition, but this does not mean that the production lacked substance or depth. Perhaps the audience is not guided quite as firmly by the directors in how to engage with these stories, but their overt harshness seems to me to invite a slew of interpretations and questions, which seems to be the response Smith and Gilmour were hoping to ignite. The last tale in Grimm Too ends with the line “and then all the animals of the World were drowned.” It is a lie; of course, as we are reminded, and yet it seems absurd for us to merely accept such a story blindly. “And then everyone was dead. The End.” If we do not ask, what does this mean, why was this told to me, what is the significance of this ending, we have not been truly listening. The stories of the Brothers Grimm were told to spark a dialogue between parents and their children about the world around them. They appealed most strongly to a child’s sense of awe and wonder. Grimm Too seems to require a similar capacity for awe and wonder to truly resonate and to launch the million questions which are essential to the next adventure.
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