Theatre Review: The RISER Project 1/Mr. Truth and Tell Me What It’s Called

Toronto’s acclaimed Why Not Theatre is behind the annual RISER Project staged at the Theatre Centre. Called “A Collaborative Producing Model”, the aim is to provide performance opportunities for emerging artists with Why Not helping out with production infrastructure to allow the newbies maximum creation time. Four groups are chosen and appear two by two. The second set of RISER offerings has just opened and runs until May 12 featuring Speaking of Sneaking and Everything I Couldn’t Tell You. The importance of RISER (this is its fifth incarnation) can’t be underestimated in terms of getting noticed. Take for example, the wildly successful Mouthpiece, which was part of 2015’s project. The show just had a sold out run at Buddies, which followed extensive touring.

On the adage of better late than never, here is my assessment of the first two 2018 RISER performances which took place in April.

Mr. Truth was a two-hander created and performed by Lester Trips (Theatre) a.k.a Lauren Gillis and Alaine Hutton. It was a brave and saucy satire about human sexuality with the aim of outing our “erotic truths” and stripping away the veneer of denial and repression. The eponymous Mr. Truth was a menacing hooded figure straight out of a horror movie that silently and slowly crossed the stage from time to time. Clearly, he was the metaphoric torturer who worked us over, so to speak, and forced us into confronting our sexual nightmares.

The format was sketch comedy with a dizzying series of vignettes. In the program notes, the creators included a tantalizing statement that the show was structured to resemble a woman’s orgasm. As for the vignettes, the creators deliberately included material designed to shock and awe. For example, the opening scene went right for the jugular. It was set at a three-day couples’ “fingering retreat” with a mono-voice instructor teaching the participants the proper way to “stroke” a woman’s vagina.

Along Mr. Truth’s sexuality highway, the audience was treated to a conversation between a woman and her cervix (the latter’s costume was hilarious), the glories of anal sex, the erotic use of a salt lamps (don’t ask), not to mention abduction and rape fantasies. Gillis and Hutton played a myriad of characters with aplomb, my favourite being the women impersonating “woke” guys who were anything but. The production also sported ironic projections on the back wall and a clever sound design courtesy Wesley Mackenzie and Peter Demas.

The most appealing aspect of Mr. Truth was its freshness. If the RISER Project is about risk-taking and innovation, Gillis and Hutton came up trumps.

Alas, Tell Me What It’s Called, was a theatre exercise that should have stayed in the studio. Director Ximena Huizi and eight actors make up the collective known as Tell Me Theatre. The performance was built around an elaborate theatre game, which was the improv method this group uses to devise a play – in other words, an insider’s look at the rehearsal process. The structure comprised of a series of encounters, which were, in a word, incomprehensible.

The program notes detailed the parameters of the game, which were so complicated they made no sense. The description included deathless prose such as “Some scenes are games. All games are scenes.” Each of the actors also had an insect avatar (I kid you not), and seven were linked to a deadly sin, with one being a virtue. Apparently, the actors had to earn their insect skins, which were hanging on the back wall, and text had to be “unlocked”. Further complicating the mix was director Huizi giving notes about posture, energy etc., except she spoke in a soft voice and couldn’t be heard throughout the theatre. Oh, lest we forget, there were ropes that linked people together, but the how and why was unclear.

Now I happen to be a former drama teacher, so I’m an insider so to speak when it comes to theatre exercises. While the actors were clearly engaged and highly motivated, this workshop performance, in terms of being in the audience, was mind-numbing boredom writ large. It was tune-out time. Sadly, a fair number of the eight did show acting chops in the encounters, but their talent was lost in the miasma of confusion.

This collective must have beaten out some stiff competition to be one of RISER’s favoured four. Why Not Theatre must have seen some spark of promise in their choosing. Theoretically, these improvs are going to grow up to be a full-scale theatre production. I wish Tell Me Theatre lots of luck, and I hope for the best.

The RISER Project 1, Mr. Truth and Tell Me What It’s Called, The Theatre Centre, Apr. 15 to 24, 2018.