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Review

Character, comedy, video, wigs … oh, and some dancing 

By Philip Szporer
  • Dulcinea Langfelder & Co. in Langfelder’s “Dulcinea’s Lament” / Photo by Katsuhiro Ichikawa 
  • Dulcinea Langfelder & Co. in Langfelder’s “Dulcinea’s Lament” / Photo by Katsuhiro Ichikawa 

“Dulcinea’s Lament”, “Çaturn”

Dulcinea Langfelder & Co., Naomi Stikeman

Montréal  November 12-16, 18-19, 2008; November 5-8, 12-15, 2008 

“Dulcinea’s Lament” by Dulcinea Langfelder & Co. Dulcinea Langfelder loves to tell stories, and she loves to make people laugh. She does both in spades in her new fusion of theatre, movement, song and multimedia, “Dulcinea’s Lament”. Blessed with a terrifically engaging personality, in this work she has a brassy Bette Midler-like brashness and winking comic sexuality. The show feels close to vaudeville with witty, sometimes corny, but often laugh-out-loud repartee. Langfelder is surrounded on stage by four multi-faceted technicians/musicians/singers/puppeteers, who go about their business before our eyes, but, in all truth, “Dulcinea’s Lament” is Langfelder front and centre. With her limitless energy, she has the audience in stitches, if not in awe. In great showbiz tradition, she knows what the paying public wants, and gives it her all.

This captivating performer has been a mainstay of Montréal’s arts community for thirty years now. As she tells us in the play, she grew up as Dulcy in her native Brooklyn. She danced when very young, and then, after some years, she went into theatre because, as she’s often said, dance was too abstract and she couldn’t express herself sufficiently. But then she missed dance. Ultimately she studied mime with Étienne Decroux in Paris. Work with the mime troupe Mime Omnibus lured her to Montréal, and she came of age professionally during the heady 1980s creative explosion in this city. I’ve been watching her stage work pretty much from those early years, starting with “Vicious Circle” in 1985, when with a hula hoop as prop, her aim was to create form from the movement of everyday life.

Even in that early stage incarnation, or in pieces like “The Woman Next Door”, and later “Victoria”, in which she plays a wheelchair-bound ninety-year-old with Alzheimer’s, her multi-disciplinarity set her apart from much of what was then being produced. Dance artist, mime, theatre practitioner, a woman with a big voice, and a bigger smile – no label stuck. It’s still hard to peg this great communicator. But on that score, Langfelder was, and remains, a trailblazer – the kind of gymnastic thinker and creator that Robert Lepage, who charts a similar course, covets.

In “Dulcinea’s Lament”, with her shock of white hair highlighting a styled mop of curly grey, Langfelder knows how to crack wise and engages with a slightly risqué routine. The show, ably directed by longtime collaborator Alice Ronfard, stems from Langfelder’s interest in her own name, one that she shares with Cervantes’ idealized muse, Dulcinea del Toboso, from the Spanish classic “Don Quixote”, who incidentally never appears as a full-fledged character in the novel. (In Langfelder’s rendition, Quixote himself appears in a plexi-glass/papier-maché incarnation, hoisted here and there). In his mad mind, it mattered little whether she was goddess or whore – she was the perfect woman, with the most noble of traits. 

From the get-go, Langfelder has us in the palm of her hand with her great physical performance. Her Spanish-speaking Dulcinea, who regales the audience with her heavily accented-English, inhabits her body. It’s all in the body language; she’s conveying the notion that she is two different people, with two different sets of emotions and gestures. It’s inspired comedy, as she convincingly portrays a woman split down the middle between opposing sensibilities, and there’s a great sight gag where her hand has its own life. She is literally facing off with herself, and she plays the duality brilliantly. Sometimes you forget that it’s an illusion; she depicts the characters alternately, and sometimes simultaneously. But, at one point during a huge internal struggle to which we are privy, the current-day Dulcinea gives in to the resurgent Dulcinea, after they argue about the ancient D’s status as either hooker or goddess.

A word of mention must go to set designer Ana Cappelluto, video master Yves Labelle, and lighting designer Eric Gingras. There are movable screens for the projections and computer graphics, Claymation, and some choice mediated visual puns. There’s song (Langfelder sings the Billie Holiday classic, “Strange Fruit”, and the finale, “Dulcinea”, from “Man of La Mancha”), and some dancing too, in passing, serving mostly as interlude. In one movement section, a nude Langfelder, graceful under a billowing white silk sheet, creates an image reminiscent of a Loïe Fuller routine, but without the theatrical phosphorescent lighting.

Langfelder ably straddles the centuries and cultures, with a script that tackles gender roles and representation, war, religion and myth. Nonetheless, if the sacred/profane references sound all heady and intellectual, they’re not in Langfelder’s hands, especially when she’s tossing off one-liners about Mrs. Yahweh, and other encounters with the God-head, firemen, and recalling 9/11. Text, timing (with a few exceptional lags and dead spots), visual flare and charisma rule. After this run in English, “Dulcinea’s Lament” will be performed in French (“La Complainte de Dulcinée”), in December at Espace Go. 

“Çaturn” by Naomi Stikeman Imagination is at the heart of dancer/choreographer Naomi Stikeman’s “Çaturn”, an ambitious hybrid production about death and transformation. She’s surrounded herself with some major talent. Notably, Robert Lepage served as consultant, and when she requested assistance, he promptly enlisted his wigmaker, Richard Hansen, into action. (No less than eight extravagant wigs figure in the piece). The music is by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, along with Alexander MacSween and Matthew Banks. Vancouver-based choreographer Crystal Pite contributed a series of dances, as did Peter Chu. Pierre Tremblay produced the video elements that feature the talented actors Frédérike Bédard (who co-wrote the script) and Québec acting legend Janine Sutto, the latter in all her touching glory as a geriatric character in her decline.

Featured as part of Danse-Çité’s Traces-interprètes series, “Çaturn” showcases a panoply of video, dialogue, storyline, dance, music and costumes, but I walked away frustrated that the video screen literally, and figuratively, dwarfs the movement sequences. With the screen set up at the lip of the stage, it feels like a real evening at the movies. The five videos are really very engaging, well shot and well lit. The ongoing story, which weaves in and out, for the most part is whimsy, set in a hair salon called Salon Chanelle.

Enchanting and odd (one of the main characters is a pint-sized doll), the video elements command time and space, edging out the dance. When the big screen rises, and it comes time for the dancing, the dancers (Stikeman and Chu) appear tiny. The eye is so attuned to the screen reality that the live in-the-flesh performers are diminished. Case in point: Chu and Stikeman dance in front of a rear projection, in which a polar bear ambles along the tundra. Again, the power of the image overwhelms the dancers, and it’s the polar bear that grabs our interest. In another scene, they dodge cutout dinosaurs dangling from on high. The dinos, which also later appear on screen, command the attention. The wigs, while fantastic, grant the performers even more anonymity. In addition, the dance tableaux that have been created really don’t seem in synch, content-wise, with the video elements. (I’ve heard that the dances were completed well before the videos were done.) The screen elements offer some quirky movement moments – a group of older women serving as chorus, moving their hands and fingers and feet in synch, comes to mind – but the bulk of the dancing happens on stage. 

No matter how accomplished the dancers are, and Stikeman – perhaps best known for her roles with La La La Human Steps, and more recently as one of the dancers in Céline Dion’s Las Vegas show, “A New Day” – is a striking presence. There’s no mistaking those long expressive limbs, but it’s not enough to keep the crowd interested. The dance really just comes and goes and Stikeman, hidden behind her wigs and costumes, can’t imbue the piece with too many sharply etched details. In one evocative moment, she drags her body along a diagonal, pulling a miniature dinosaur. It feels like it should go somewhere, but then the lights dim, she’s gone, and it’s back to the film. Later on, she returns on pointe, floating across the stage, the lighting low so she’s almost in silhouette, and then it’s over once again.

There’s lots of visual flair in “Çaturn”, and with her big guns as support, people will be interested in what she has to offer. But, in my view, Stikeman has a choice – embrace the film concept or the dance; if the two are to share the same stage, they have to be calibrated to make a more coherent and satisfying experience for the viewer. And for that matter, in this case, an edit would be downright inspired. 

 

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