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.11201017_1008247122528087_3067619711538154452_o

“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.

“If this story is worth telling it’s because it’s about being human. The Devil’s tale is the tale of our own confusion, ego and inability to live without hope for Heaven.” – Clive Barker

Fantasia Film Festival is best known for its quirky program of genre and horror films. However, each year, Fantasia hand picks special events to highlight alongside and to complement their film selection. This year, Fantasia presents an encore run of Title 66’s production of The History of the Devil, a play by filmmaker and novelist Clive Barker.

The History of the Devil asks the audience to bear witness to the trial of the Devil where he must prove that it is humanity that is guilty of the crimes he has been charged with. If he can do so convincingly, he the gates of heaven will be open to him once more.

Spanning millennia, this satiric tale blends darkness, philosophy and humour as characters travel through time. The play asks us to consider whether the Devil deserves paradise and if anyone actually does.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Title 66 company co-Director and director of The History of the Devil, Jeremy Michael Segal, alongside Set and Costume Designer and company co-director Logan Williams. We discussed how Title 66 began, its mission, the choice of Barker’s play and local theatre.

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Both Williams and Segal are Montreal-based theatre artists who graduated from the Dawson College Profession Theatre Program. The roots of Title 66 are based on their position as young artists in the city.

Williams explained that “upon graduation, we knew of the stigma that to work in the world of acting in Montreal that you would have to do your time and not get paid. So we thought why not pursue passion projects and not get paid and try to get exposure that way as a company and as artists.”

“We grabbed that by the horns and we remounted a show we had done in school The Seagull by Chekhov and kind of adapted it […] We are really strongly behind the mandate of bringing forth really true performances. Focusing on the acting, on opening up the actors but also at the same time providing a really stunning visual. A lot of the time in theatre there is one or the other, especially in the case of young companies with young people. We try to focus on that and bring art forth that way.”

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The name of their company stems from a combination of the title used for their first production Working Title, which was unfortunately already taken, and from a theatre artist who inspired many of the members of the company.

“Robert Wilson did a production of some of the Shakespeare sonnets in Berlin which he directed and designed and for which Rufus Wainwright wrote the music,” Segal divulged, “we were shown these in one of our classes. For me, at least, it really opened up an entire new world of theatre. I had certainly never seen anything like that before in terms of contemporary art and now he is one of my biggest inspirations. The first sonnet we were shown, which seemed to inspire most of us, was Sonnet 66. Within the Sonnet, there is the line that says ‘and art made tongue-tied by authority’, which although not a political thing for us, it’s the idea of breaking through boundaries of art in exciting ways. So, we combined Working Title with Sonnet 66 to get Title 66.”

Title 66 came to mount The History of the Devil when Segal, who’d always been a fan of Clive Barker, happened to discover a book of Barker’s plays in a second hand book store, simultaneously discovering that his favorite author was also a playwright. After reading Incarnations, a book of three plays in which The History of the Devil is the third, Segal fell in love with the Devil’s saga and brought Barker’s piece to the rest of the team.

In their interpretation of Barker’s tale, Title 66 has eight actors playing thirty four characters with most of the cast younger than twenty seven years old. If that isn’t impressive enough, judging by stills of the production and Fantasia co-director Mitch Davis’ praise, Title 66 promises an exhilarating and visually stunning interpretation of Barker’s play. Evocative high production value which is fashion forward can be expected.

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“The design is definitely unique. Overall the key is that as a company we look at the text, the theme of the play, the relationship of the characters, the story and use that as a bouncing board to develop interesting creative ways of telling the story through the design, set costumes, movements. It’s all rooted back to the story of the play,” noted Segal.

Williams added: “Being young and not having the plethoras of experiences that other people have is that when you are young you have no barriers: you don’t know what’s wrong what’s right; you don’t know who is going to judge what; you haven’t been all around; and haven’t had a chance to be jaded. So you see things in different ways that open themselves up to being more experimental. More of the ‘why not?’ factor and just trying things out and seeing if they works. A quote I really love from Tony Soprano, in The Sopranos, is ‘more if lost by indecision than wrong decisions.’ I think that in terms of our interpretation we are fearless.”

Don’t miss The History of the Devil on Thursday, August 1- Saturday, Augut 3, 2013 at Place des Arts’ Cinquième Salle, 175 St. Catherine Street West starting at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $24.00 and can be purchased at 514-842-2112 or online at  Place des Arts box office

Photos by Julia Milz