Zarathustra Said Some Things, No?
nytheatre.com review by Ross Chappell
April 22, 2006
It’s so easy to find theatre that almost hits the mark. There’s so much out there that comes close to examining an issue or giving life to an idea or challenging an audience to think. With each near-success, our standards seem to slip a bit lower. Then along comes a show that accomplishes everything it sets out to do. It pushes, but not too hard. It’s cohesive, but allows room for interpretation. It holds something up to the light for examination, but is in no way gratuitous; it never invites the audience to gawk at the human train-wreck that is occurring. With Zarathustra Said Some Things, No?, the Bridge Theatre Company has presented a story that is as even-handed as it is challenging, and in doing so they have created an amazing piece of theatre.
On the surface, Zarathustra is the story of a Canadian couple in Paris who have made a suicide pact that they have, so far, failed to complete. The longer we watch, the more unsettling their relationship becomes to us. The games they play (both actual and metaphorical) begin as confusing and odd but rapidly become disturbing. Their mock group therapy game includes record-keeping, points claimed, lost, and conceded. It is not only effective satire but also a painful vision of two people who are utterly lost. They have all but stopped fighting against the tide and have simply allowed themselves to be overtaken by their convoluted pathologies.
The brilliance of the writing is in the timing. Playwright Trevor Ferguson does a remarkable job of carefully and steadily revealing the reasons why this couple is so dysfunctional and neurotic. With each revelation, Ferguson forces the audience to re-examine their initial perceptions of who these two characters are and why they behave as they do. Ferguson’s text is extremely demanding of the actors. That said, its rapid shifts in emotional state and the complexity of the characters’ pathologies are well-paced but not over-explained. He has created an intense and insightful examination of addiction and abuse, and he clearly demonstrates that nothing exists in a vacuum. In the end, Ferguson has illuminated the dark corners of this couple’s world, but the text of the play has so many layers of metaphor, it can easily stand up to multiple viewings.
Lina Roessler and Brett Watson are astonishingly powerful in these roles. This is no play for faint-of-heart actors. The characters’ sadistic pathologies, as individuals and as a couple, require brave and honest performances. Mishandled, this play could easily become little more than a sick spectator sport. Roessler and Watson both do a marvelous job of giving full, three-dimensional life to these bruised and battered human beings. In one scene, Roessler forces Watson down on all fours and eventually rides him like a pony. It would be ridiculous if not for the actors’ heartbreakingly human performance. They elevate the moment to a metaphor for how we, as humans, treat one another, and it is painful to watch. They move from pony-riding to Nietzsche to the concept of the event horizon. I lost count of the times I was, quite simply, astounded at their ability to take an over-the-top line or action and create from it a genuine, human moment. The pain they convey is legitimate and believable. One comments to the other “Our light will be extinguished.” To which the other replies, without a hint of humor, “What light?”
Robin A. Paterson’s direction is careful and maintains the delicate balance and pacing necessary for this play to work. He gives the audience carefully placed and isolated moments of humor that allow some comic relief without undermining the seriousness of the play and the characters’ pain. The only shortcoming is due to a single, poor set design choice. The audience has to watch much of the action through and around two welded metal doors, the French doors of the balcony from which our couple intends to jump. While Paterson uses the framework of the door for some wonderful stage pictures (the actors looking out at us, each of them isolated in a box), it generally just gets in the way. It’s a clever idea that doesn’t quite work. The doors should be moved to the side, although that would kill the dominance that they have (and deserve).
However, Paterson takes full advantage of the rest of Katka Hubacek’s outstanding set design. Other than the doors, the set is a study in how to use a small space. The scrim-like rear window is eerie and allows for some interesting lighting effects. The stained skylight, the askew rug, the painted metal bed frame, and a host of other details make this set feel like an old Paris flat. They also speak volumes about the two people who live in this space. The design elements all work together quite well. Michael Picton’s sound design sets the tone from the very beginning with accordion music and the hollow echoes of children’s voices; he incorporates traffic noise when the doors are open. Paterson’s lighting design also blends well, lighting the space effectively and creating an amazing sunset aura as the play comes to an end.
While no theatre company gets it right every time (especially if they’re willing to take risks), this young company seems to have found their niche. They excel at finding new work that is fresh and vital. They’re willing to take necessary risks without losing sight of their audiences’ needs and perceptions. If you're looking for a solid, young theatre company to follow, The Bridge Theatre Company merits serious consideration.