REVIEW: Elsewhere Is Unmasking Crisis In Your Face
Sarah J. Culkin reviews Elsewhere, a Joy Ross-Jones and Cristina Cugliandro co-creation produced by Imago Theatre about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela:
North American media is, and has been, deeply preoccupied with musing on the possibilities of apocalypse, generating imagined future landscapes replete with zombies, plagues, or alien cancer meteorites. The various ends of the world are extreme and unimaginable, and that allows the average (read: white) Canadian citizen to not have to consider the possibility of life as they know it grinding to a halt. Meanwhile the reality of an apocalypse, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “a very serious event resulting in great destruction and change,” is in fact not such an extreme or fictitious possibility.
Elsewhere, co-created by Joy Ross-Jones and Cristina Cugliandro, uses the transformative potential of mask to humanize the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, weaving eight separate stories into a deeply personal narrative of adaptation. Instead of taking the didactic route of trying to catch the audience up on the political or socio-economic factors that lead to the current situation, the creative team chooses to tell the stories of Venezuelan people tasked with re-normalizing their lives in a nation that has destabilized in their lifetime. As an apocalypse unfolds in Venezuela, life continues on a personal scale.
Sole performer Ross-Jones is in full command of the stage, meeting her audience head-on in each fully embodied character. Her storytelling is convincing — you could almost forget the actor under the mask. The transition from mask to mask is almost confrontational: centre stage, deliberately slow, and facing the audience. Sometimes impactful, sometimes clunky, it often affords everyone in the theatre a chance to catch their breath.
Set design by Liv Wright is simple: several large metal frames are suspended mid-domino-fall, curving through the space. Coupled with Amber Hood’s lighting design the space mirrors the stark and precarious feeling of the entire piece.
Elsewhere doesn’t finish so much as it ends — there is no tidy conclusion for the characters the audience has come to know. The open-endedness makes sense for a piece addressing ongoing political collapse with no easy end in sight — dissipating into the wider, unending and current narrative of upheaval and chaos in Venezuela.
I will be the first to admit that I don’t know nearly enough about the situation in Venezuela; as I understand it, however, that’s part of the point Elsewhere is making: “A crisis isn’t a crisis when it’s Elsewhere.” The direct address style of the show doesn’t allow the audience to be the fly on the wall we so often expect to be, even in the comfort of the dark house. That’s what makes Elsewhere an important new Canadian work: Joy Ross-Jones is speaking directly to her (Canadian) audience, pushing them to confront how far they’re willing to depersonalize a news story in order to not think about the hard things. If art is supposed to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, Elsewhere is a solid step in the right direction.
One character, a young Venezuelan expat feeling helpless in another country, sums it up in the first ten minutes of the play — he says you can’t turn off the news. Fiction is easy because it stops being real as soon as we stop indulging it. The news is hard because even if you turn off the screen, the story is still unfolding in real time. Despite some narrative disjointedness, Elsewhere is maximizing the transformative power of mask to deliver its point: giving face to elsewhere makes it a lot harder to turn off the news.
Sarah J. Culkin is a performer and facilitator from the prairies (Treaty 6), currently based in Montréal (unceded Kanien’kehá:ka territory). Sarah is most interested in new scripts, and is currently getting really into sewing (unrelated).