For some, it’s a dream. For others, a nightmare. But whichever side of the fence you’re on, Spine leaves you feeling disoriented, much like Alice tumbling down a cyber rabbit hole.
A world premiere co-production between the University of Alberta and Vancouver’s Realwheels Theatre, it cleverly tackles the shifting sands of technology and questions who we are and what our place is in relation to this new and infinite world.
Penned by the university’s Lee Playwright-in-Residence, Kevin Kerr (Unity 1918), this surreal caper is more than the journey of two bitter wheelchair-bound individuals with broken spines reinventing their lives.
Directed by Bob Frazer, Spine is a technological marvel that hybridizes the spectacle of theatre with the virtual world of 3-D mapping and animated projections.
For instance Robert Shannon’s minimalist set is basically a fan-shaped semi-circle projection screen about 30 feet high that is cut into pie shaped wedges that serve as doors for avatars to step through. It creates a vast, empty feel of limitless possibilities in both the real and cyber world.
The founder of Realwheels Theatre, James Sanders, is a real-life quadriplegic. Not only does his experience lend authenticity to the lead character James, but also Sanders is a very natural, nuanced actor.
His character is a bit of a warm-hearted, quirky crank. James is angry at his wife for leaving him, he’s mad at himself and he’s tired of living a lie — that of being an inspiration, a hero to others.
In rehab, he meets Carmen (Carmen Sison), a paraplegic with an acerbic wit. She was once part of the Precursors, a five-person art collective that was her life before a fall during an art installation snapped her spine. Her life has changed forever and she bitterly distances herself from everyone.
James reinvents himself as a female avatar in the virtual world played by the kick-butt Karyn Mott. And that’s where the cyber fun begins. A sexy horned Egyptian priestess guides the newbie avatar through the spider web virtual world of virtual characters — a panda bear, an Amelia Earhart flying ace, a safari adventurer and even a Sailor Moon. James’s alter ego learns to fly, blows up zombie brains and even enjoys a burst of romance.
Carmen instead ties herself to a questionable experimental lab looking for answers. Controlling the lab is an aloof researcher named Sarah in a powerful performance by St. Albert’s Sarah Sharkey who hits the right note in every scene. As the lab researcher, Sharkey manipulates the equipment and through the advent of a clever sensor design, the audience sees the electronic results on the screen.
In addition, every new scene, from a tropical garden and glowing sunset to a flowing river and a video game zombie town, flashes onto the fan-shaped screen. The impressive technology creates a series of non-stop magical moments. But its lavish onslaught also steals the spotlight and buries the plight of the characters into a secondary role. Intended or not, that is an exact mirror of today’s society where man has come to serve technology as opposed to technology serving man.
Spine<br />University of Alberta Studio Theatre<br />Running until Feb. 13<br />Timms Centre for the Arts<br />87 Ave. & 112 St.