There is good theatre, interesting theatre, well-made theatre--and then there is theatre that can be described only as transporting, that lifts us into an entirely new sphere that is more brilliant, mysterious, and intense than ordinary life. The latter is the kind of theatre at work in this production. Conceived and directed by Emilie Beck, this production is so breathtakingly successful when it does succeed that it is hard not to gush. Beck doesn't so much direct as choreograph, paint, dream in front of us, making judicious use of song, dance, parody, and poetry. Justin Townsend's set and lighting design are astoundingly beautiful: fresh, inventive, nuanced. There are images in this production that are simply unforgettable.
The piece makes unlikely companions of three stories. The first is of the work and life of sociologist Marianne Paget (the sufficiently talented though somewhat miscast Kristen Brennan), who makes it her life's work to analyze and critique the limitations of doctor/patient discourse, picking apart the semantic minutiae of patient interviews until she discovers a territory in which the physician dominates and the patient's experience is largely ignored. When she is diagnosed with cancer, her life begins mirroring her work.
At the heart of the piece is the stark contrast between the physical and psychological experience of illness, and the intellectual critiques of various approaches to healing.
Alongside Paget's story we have a portrait of the cantankerous, hard-drinking oppositional journalist Christopher Hitchens (an expert turn by Michael Byrne), who rails against liberals and religious fundamentalists alike, making the claim that people who believe in God are capable of forgiving themselves of anything. Both the idea of bodily illness and the portrait of Hitchens provide a bridge to the world of healer Mother Teresa, whom Hitchens describes as a religious fundamentalist--something, he says, most liberals choose to ignore. Isabelle Calais is astonishingly radiant and convincing as Mother Teresa, put on trial in an absurd courtroom for her supposed negligence, for hoarding money, for not using donations to build functioning hospitals.
On the whole this ensemble is hugely gifted and cohesive. Standout performances abound, including Tim Maddock as the doctor and the decrepit pope, Amber Skalski as a suffering patient, and Rainey Taylor as the frustrated defense attorney for Mother Teresa. Jack Arky's original music and sound design are likewise rich, complementary, and as evocative as we could wish.
This piece raises far more questions than it answers, and we could certainly ask it to make more obvious connections than it does. However, this would be a delicate task, as there is something vital and refreshing in its hallucinogenic weaving and contrasting of realities--so moody, so dreamlike, so intellectually titillating--that the piece satisfies richly nonetheless.