As part of the Printemps Numerique 2015, Title 66, the production company that brought Clive Barker’s The History of the Devil to the International Fantasia Film Festival to high acclaim, gave a limited run of their new piece Nuclear Sky: The Experiment at the Theatre Rouge du Conservatoire d’art dramatic de Montréal. I broke my self-imposed thesis isolation for an unforgettable evening of what turned out to be bold and innovative theatre.
Title 66 is a non-profit organization whose mandate is “to create innovative theatre by blending raw performances and striking aesthetics; evoking a stylized texture of the human experience.” That is exactly what they provided with Nuclear Sky. A week has passed and still images and songs from the show still reverberate in my thoughts.
Nuclear Sky, co-directed by Jeremy Michael Segal and Logan Williams, used Mother Courage and her Children by Brecht as a skeleton to build upon to which cast and crew added automatic writings as well as quotes and references from various essays and works of pop culture.
The set design was at once minimal but rendered dynamic by the use of projections and lighting and the reverberation of sound. Props were few – a giant black box standing in for a wagon – and the use of giant titles across the back were striking.
“Brecht’s play is set distinctly during war, with not one scene depicting killing or violence in the name of warfare,” writes Williams in the program. To bring the piece into conversation with contemporary realities, Nuclear Sky seeks to highlight the disconnect and distortion of experiences of war for those who know it solely through distorted media and narcissistic, almost pathological, use of social media.
“We were inspired by the archetypal nature of the characters and war itself: Filif (the soldier), Swiss Cheese (the child) and Kattrin (the woman),” dramateurg Gabriela Saltiel describes, “taking a page from Brecht, we elected to tell the story of these characters’ journey through a wasteland, depicting the effects of violent action on the types they each represent rather than approaching them as distinct individuals.”
Segal highlights the changes in the ways technologies have shaped the way we KNOW as well as what we know and the radical role theatre can have in this context: “Live performance inherently provides much of what we crave as social creatures that has been clicked away in the technological world: an extended experience in the immediate physical presence of others; a ritualistic gathering of society.”
“With this show,” Segal explains, “we aimed to extend the madness of the 21st century into a hyperreal world in which nature no longer exist; war is as ubiquitous as technology; and human connection has all but ceased.”
Standout performances include that of Arielle Palik who plays the mute daughter, Kattrin, and Gitanjali Jain, who plays the Mother, who must bear the wounds of war. To command such presence without words is a strong testament to the power of well wielded kinesics and to perform such unabashed devastation is to channel something fearless. It is the more nuanced messages within the play that resonate the loudest, the soliloquies of the automaton guards, clad in black and nameless, confessing their innards as they struggle against them.
If there is one criticism for this ambitious undertaking is that at times it is heavy handed on the messaging – although this is fitting with a Brechtian approach. There is a distinct fearless youthfulness to the play that drives its energy. That being said, from a critical perspective, there may be need of further reflection and nuances at certain points of the piece to make sure that Nuclear Sky does not fall into the act of “playing war” or “playing dystopia” for precisely the reason of not having known war – the issue it is trying to highlight.
Dystopia is often used to highlight and criticize social phenomena by making the familiar unfamiliar. However, these sort of works often overlook the very fact that the dystopia they depict is lived realities for thousands and that the audience itself may be complicit in the production of these conditions. Nuclear Sky, at times, teeters on the level of its critique.
What Title 66 accomplished was pointedly breathtaking and boundary pushing. Using a potent blend of simple theatrical elements, allowing experimentation, sleek costume and set design, with technology ingenuity and artistry – Nuclear Sky signals the arrival of a new wave of theatre.