A Vista: a trip

 

Fight With a Stick is presenting A Vista at the Massey Theatre

Mark Rothko didn’t paint the backdrops for A Vista, but it kind of feels like he did. (This is Untitled, 1960)

I rarely have such exhilarating aesthetic experiences at the theatre.

A Vista consists of three parts: “Full Drops”, which I saw last night; “Portals”, which is playing tonight (March 21), and “Legs” (March 22). You don’t have to see one to appreciate the others.

Hunker down because this is going to sound dull at first. In “Full Drops”, a crew lays out 15 folded painted backdrops on the huge stage of the Massey Theatre, then they tie them to steel pipes called battens and raise them. The rest of the performance consists of the slow rearrangement of these drops in relation to one another: they go up and down in different sequences. It takes about two hours—and it’s a fucking trip. (If you don’t believe me, ask the three little boys who were also at the show last night. You get to move around to different viewing areas during these performances and those kids were scuttling about as eagerly as I was—because we were all on an adventure.)

What makes A Vista so interesting? Well, there’s a lot to look at. The invitation to simply experience colour is profound. The 15 backdrops all come from the warehouse of the Royal City Musical Theatre, a long-time resident company at the Massey. Most of them are by Jean Claude Olivier, who is one of the best scenic painters Vancouver has ever known, and two of them are by Brian Ball, a worthy successor.

In the selected drops, there’s a whole lot of turquoise and rust, peach and teal, with some green thrown in—and even the surprise of red. And, because these colours are being offered on such an extravagant scale, you really get to sink into them. The drops aren’t high art—they’re not meant to be—but watching them unfold is still kind of like standing in front of a painting by Mark Rothko or maybe a sculpture by Claes Oldenburg: the fanciful vastness of the drops as objects is also part of the delight.

Nancy Tam has designed the masterful sound, which seems to be a combination of recorded cues (the battens descend with a wind-like moan), amplified ambient noises (the thuds and thumps of things being tossed around), and unamplified voices (the strain of crew members chanting, “One! Two! Three!” as they raise the drops into the fly gallery).

And the whole thing is riddled with tensions. We get to see the crew at work, so there’s the reversal of backstage and onstage, and there’s a dialogue between the crew members’ effortful physical presence and the ephemeral, almost forgotten dreams that the backdrops were meant to conjure. In the drops themselves, there’s a mixture of nature and buildings so, depending on what portions of those drops we’re seeing, there’s a discussion between natural and constructed worlds. And, at the pinnacle of this experience—for me at least—there’s the relationship between representation and abstraction: we see glimpses of the literal worlds the backdrops represent, but we also experience these fragments elementally as colours and shapes.

Don’t get me wrong. This is slow—and you’ve got to be willing to give yourself over to receptiveness and meditation. But there’s also a kind of thrill to it and urgency. And that’s where those boys and I got on the same track, I think. Whenever I got a little restless, I allowed myself to be pulled backstage, or to the lip of the playing area. And you get a pretty cool insider’s view from all of those spaces.

That view resonates with a conversation between history and the present moment. The Massey Theatre is one of the last houses in North America to still use hemp rigging—and that system is so nautical you’ll feel the spray. Crew members yard on pulleys like sailors raising sails and tie them off on pin rails. When they’re falling or being folded, the canvas drops billow as if filled with wind. The last thing I wrote in my notebook was “Upon the hempen tackle, ship-boys climbing.” That’s Chorus from Henry V evoking the English fleet.

Yeah, baby.

A VISTA Devised by the company. Dramaturged by mia susan amir, Alex, Lazaridis Ferguson, and Steven Hill. Directed by Josh Hite. A Fight With a Stick production. At the Massey Theatre on Wednesday, March 20. Other performances in the series on March 21 and 22.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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