Devised show dazzles on theatre department stage

4our ran just prior to the campus shutting all but down/Courtesy of the U of R Theatre Department

4our highlights just what’s possible from a collective creation

When I went in to see 4our, the devised theatre project staged by the University of Regina Theatre Department, the first important thing I noticed was the staging. The play was performed in the round, and the stage space was divided into four equal quadrants – every section had a different pair of actors.

Before the show, audience members were invited to walk around and take a look at the actors, who were each holding a single pose. Most audience members didn’t do so. I can understand why – as I made my way around the circle before returning to my assigned seating area, it felt strangely invasive. Even though I had been given permission, I wondered, did I have the right?

4our is a show-within-a-show – four circus acts on display, “curated” by Kasmy (alternating: Daniel Rodriguez and Kevin Mc Laurin) and his sister Zilla (Chelsea Laing). Kasmy and Zilla bantered, bickered and acted as ushers before the start of the play, providing a compelling outer narrative for the show.

Then, once the lights went down and the introductions were past, 4our showed its true innovative nature. The four pairs of characters – “the Enchanting Explorers” (Jadav Cyr and Bongani Musa), “the Li’l Orphans” (Elizabeth Bishop and Aja Tom), “Skin and Bones” (Emma Eaton and Rachel Walliser) and ”the Mighty Mirror Men (Brandon Mackenzie and Spencer Mackenzie) – each performed a scene, totally separate from what the other characters were doing. Kasmy or Zilla would occasionally butt into one of the narratives to interfere, but other than that, the characters seemed unaware of the world beyond their own little corner.

Then, once the scene was done, the actors turned the set and began it all over again for the next section of the audience. Only when every audience member had had the chance to see a scene could the story move forward.

Because of the section of the theatre I was assigned to at the door, the first act I saw was Skin and Bones. At first, before I knew the actors would be rotating, I was somewhat disappointed that I would only be able to view a quarter of the stories that were going to be told over the course of these 70 minutes. I kept trying to glance around the curtains dividing the set, hoping to catch a glimpse of what I was missing. But by the time the actors rotated, I was totally invested – I would have happily watched a whole performance of just Skin and Bones. After that first rotation, I was even afraid their story was going to go on without me! But when the same sounds started to repeat in each retelling, I realized this show was going to let me have my cake and eat it, too. I could see each pair’s stories in their entirety and follow along with all four plots. For me, the uncertainty at the beginning only made the payoff of realizing the true structure that much more satisfying.

In an unusual and wonderful twist, Kasmy and Zilla were the only characters to have any lines of spoken dialogue in the show. The other actors communicated through mime, gesture and sound. While they worked on developing the show, the actors were trained in mime, mask, physical characterization, pair work and acrobatics, and all of this shone through in their performances. The entire cast did a marvelous job at conveying their stories without spoken language – while I often had to work hard to follow along, I never felt like I was being left out in the cold, and it was challenging theatre in the best possible way.

All of the actors demonstrated impressive and memorable physical storytelling, from Skin and Bones hilariously miming pulling an oversized splinter out of a foot, to the Enchanting Explorers going for a very convincing swim,  the Mighty Mirror Men engaging in multiple intense fight scenes and the Li’l Orphans learning circus tricks to follow in their late parents’ footsteps.

While there were no dull moments in the entire play, the ending is really where it truly shone. Kasmy and Zilla had been bickering throughout the show – Kasmy treats the world of this four-part circus as a “controlled experiment” and believes it will all devolve into chaos without his careful management, while Zilla objects to these conditions – “they’re not toys, they’re humans,” she says as she tries to convince her brother to see things her way.

Eventually, fed up with her Kasmy’s actions, Zilla pulls up two of the curtains and allows pairs of characters to see each other – Skin and Bones meet the Enchanting Explorers, and the Li’l Orphans meet the Mirror Men. And as Kasmy had predicted, they fight.

But then, something extraordinary happens. The second set of curtains comes up, and all the characters are now inhabiting the same space. And while, at first, they all started fighting with one another again, those conflicts only last for a few moments. Then slowly, surely, and without exchanging a single word, the characters make peace. I was ashamed to find myself so surprised that Kasmy had been wrong about what would happen if the characters were allowed to interact. He predicted that a world without his rules would give way to chaos and violence – human nature, as he argued – but after a just few moments of fighting in the initial shock of having their worlds change and expand so drastically, the characters instead embodied a different and no less powerful part of human nature. In discovering each other and the wider world, they embodied compassion, curiosity and hope.

For all inventiveness and physical and technical prowess on display throughout this production, my favourite thing about 4our is that I walked out of the theatre feeling significantly more optimistic than when I walked in. In these weird times, I’m just so glad this wonderfully weird show came about.

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