Declarations: Jordan Tannahill's struggle with grief- Drew Rowsome - MyGayToronto
Declarations: Jordan Tannahill's struggle with grief 26 January 2018
by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Alejandro Santiago
Grief is a sate of being we all share at some point in our lives. While the common parlance is that grief adheres to Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's seven stages, those stages are different for everyone. Instead of progressing logically through the seven stages, most people cycle wildly, often repetitively, through the first six before, if they are lucky, reaching the seventh, the stage of acceptance.
While Declarations doesn't follow or acknowledge any such sort of structure, it dives into each stage before restlessly moving on to another. Bounces from one to another in search of meaning and that state of acceptance. Acceptance or any other emotion that will give some comfort or resolution. Declarations is not theatre - notably the program notes and press materials refer to writer/director Jordan Tannahill (Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom, Concord Floral, Late Company, The Magic, Post Eden) as a multi-disciplinary artist - but more performance art, an attempt to process the inexpressible.
Liz Peterson (Flashing Lights) enters the squared off, deliberately distancing, floor space and reads a series of declarations from a teleprompter, all of which being with "This is . . ." The declarations include objects, feelings, visuals, events, states of mind, and a few satirical jabs at contemporary culture. Each declaration is accompanied by a gesture or a short dance move. Some are illustrative, some are literal, some tangential, some satirical, and some inexplicable but fraught with meaning. For those who have read the program notes or Tannahill's novel Liminal, there is a thread, but a search for meaning or connections between the phrases is hard to decipher. Some of the phrases link, usually in groups of three, but that appears to be as random an occurrence as the other declarations.
By surrendering to the words as concrete poetry, it washed over me with phrases and ideas creating associations or emotions, some powerful and some mundane. Peterson is joined by the statuesque and magnetic Jennifer Dahl, and they work in tandem, against each other, in unison or alone. The words and gestures build in energy but not in coherence. Philip Nozuka (Banana Boys) and Danielle Baskerville join in and the duet/not-duet becomes a quartet. Again it builds. Builds to a self-referential and welcome comic effect before Robert Abuto, prone to violent falls, joins in. The quintet becomes dissonant as they talk over each other, interact, compete, remain self-absorbed and occasionally function as a chorus.
The declarations become longer and more elusive and intriguing. "This is Sylvia Plath's oven." "This is a customer representative." "This is my best side." "This is a box of elephant tusks." "This is a fetish." There is a pure movement interlude, a sung counterpoint driving home that this might be a piece of music, and a final short monologue from Peterson that attempts to tie everything together. My expectations and need for catharsis was not met, but that may have been the point: we have been inside Tannahill's mind as he struggles - by confronting, by distracting, by pondering, by raging, by avoiding - with his emotions surrounding his mother's fatal cancer diagnosis. And there is no catharsis or explanation, there is just grief and the necessity of continuing on.
As an experiment in plumbing a state of mind, Declarations is successful on its own terms, but as a piece of theatre it feels like a creation still struggling to find its form. Which, as performance art or a musical piece, makes it a complete success: the presented object and process being the art, a shortcut to the emotions. As theatre it defies expectations, which can be exhilarating or frustrating, reactions that were in abundance throughout the restless theatre. As the gestures are improvised (within limits I suspect) each night will be different and the dedicated and emotionally communicative performers can only grow in their roles and connection, the Declarations that the next audience sees will be quite different. And when Tannahill, or another director, remounts Declarations, it may open up into an experience more inclusive and less self-absorbed intellectual. There is a clever, heartfelt statement and emotional cry buried in Declarations and that I can't wait to see.
Declarations continues until Sun, Feb 11 at Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. canadianstage.com