Jordan Tannahill's Declarations


Written and directed by Jordan Tannahill

Performed by Robert Abubo, Danielle Baskerville, Jennifer Dahl, Philip Nozuka and Liz Peterson

Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell

Vocal compositions by Philip Nozuka with the ensemble

Canadian Stage/Lower Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto

January 26 to February 11, 2018

Reviewed by Beverley Daurio

The stage of the Lower Berkeley Street Theatre is open to the brick walls—no curtains or backdrop, adorned only by the walled-in windows of what used to be a church. Our sightlines are clear. Four long fluorescent lights hang from the ceiling, perpendicular to us, and shine down on a stage floor devoid of props and furniture, except for a large square of luminous white plastic—maybe 15 by 15 feet—that is the playing area. This array is consciously artificial and immediately sets up a contrast between the technical and the human. There is no comfort in this glare. The set creates the aura of a graphics light table used to cut and organize images, of display cases for exotic avocadoes or Gucci purses, of greenhouses, of sterile medical clinics. It is not playful; it promises hard work. This could have been ironic, but thankfully it is not. It is surefooted and brave.

This uncompromising light shines up and shines down, and into this bright square runs Liz Peterson, in a loose sweatshirt, brown pants and black shoes. Peterson can see a large screen onto which the spoken text is projected (the audience can only see this screen by a neck-twisting turn in the seat). In Jordan Tannahill’s conception, the text is a score, something like what a musician would read, except in this case the dancer/actors recite (or occasionally read) the text aloud, while improvising gestures or movements that parallel, evoke, argue with or create tension against the text.

In an active, modulated voice, Peterson begins to speak, accompanying her words with a semaphore of gestural meaning—clenched fists, falling rolls, friezes, fleeting tableaux—which appear and disappear, much like the moments of our days. Peterson is alone on stage, switching from madcap to solemn to manic, airplaning, miming a slap or caress, crying, writhing on the ground—for the first half hour or so of the show.

Declarations’ text operates on the conceit of “declarations”— the phrase “This is” precedes every statement for the majority of the play: “This is how I lie down; this is a car speeding; this is the hard part; this is time itself; this is an abandoned storefront…” The tension between the text’s extremes—“This is thirty seconds of your time.” “This is a dirty rag.” — replaces the traditional tension between characters, and the shape of the piece and its segments replaces standard dramatic development. Declarations is also a long poem. Tannahill reaches back into classic theatre, bringing poetry back into drama.

The lighting never changes. There is no soundscape apart from the performers' voices. After a while, one understands the pattern, and the repetition of “This is,” despite the living energy of the improvised gestures—becomes a bit annoying and monotonous. But, isn’t tedium, with flashes of wonderment, what daily real life is like? It is magical how insistent that aspect of this highly stylized piece becomes.

More performers are added to the stage until there are five (Peterson, and Robert Abubo, Danielle Baskerville, Jennifer Dahl and Philip Nozuka). They trade off or synchronize the production of gestures, atomized, seeming lonely. For the first fifty-five minutes or so, the text moves between the mundane and the profound, the sacred and the profane, the silly and the mortal, powerful meaning and the forgettably ephemeral. Tannahill stretches his phrases in huge arcs around experience, from intimate sexual moments to neutral observations, in the process limning a greater consciousness or sphere of existence: Tannahill’s existence.

Declarations left me hungry for specificity, individuality, and tactile particularity. The cosmic, impersonal, and pop-culture memes are entertaining, as is Tannahill’s powerful way with language, even within such constraints. The piece presents itself as utterly portable; we could be anywhere. There are no characters (though the dancers are highly differentiated from each other, and there are three women and two men). We do not get to know Tannahill, or his mother, beyond a brief and moving vignette about her, terminally sick, jogging down the street to the bus stop in her bathrobe, to bring him the phone he forgot at home. “This is her love,” says the text. In another moving sequence, the ensemble repeats a kind of humming howl, referring to a dog tied up in a back yard. Is the play talking about being afraid of real being, of real feeling?

The actor/dancer/performers are amazing and fairly quiescent for most of the show. They maintain a quiet watchful power; they are not transported. About twelve minutes before the end of the piece, they begin a choreographed, tightly sung, danced and acted song whose liveliness and intensity is startling. Perhaps derived from the Bob Dylan song “Shake, Shake, Momma,” this spiralling, synchronized, syncopated section is sensual, rhythmic, moving, sharp, impelling, and punches through the quiet surface of the show— demonstrating what these performers are capable of in ensemble work, as well as their emotional power. There is something here, too, about the difference between isolated drift, and conscious connection between people.

Again and again, the play seems to ask us to consider, is this like life? Do we all spend so much time in quick forgettable gestures that we do not challenge ourselves or use our talents in ways that we could, letting time slip past? This is part of Declarations’ depth and seductive ambiguity—we don’t get any answers. Is this profound, or is it menial, dull and quotidian? Or maybe it is both, and Tannahill is uncovering the hidden essential energy that flows through every moment of every day, powerfully capturing the essence of contemporary dissociated being and its confrontations with mortality.