Review: This Is Why We Live (Open Heart Surgery Theatre)

why_we_liveThis is Why We Live brings collage, poetry, music, and onions to Toronto’s Theatre Centre stage

This is Why We Live — produced by Open Heart Surgery Theatre, and on stage now at The Theatre Centre — is a multi-lingual collage, combining dance, live music, and poetry. It draws inspiration from the poems and art of Polish poet Wisława Szymborska.

According to the program, one of the goals of the show was to present it as “a moving poem, as a journey of emotion rather than pure story.” I found it completely lacking in any cohesive story — or to quote my companion Caryhn, “aboutness” — and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Before I get in to all of that, I’ll share what I liked about this show. The first thing that charmed us — and in regards to this show, Caryhn and I are in total agreement on all points — was the music, heard before we entered the theatre, and played throughout.

One talented solo cellist (Dobrochna Zubek), perched amidst a mountain range, was powerful and intimate in such a small space. The range of music she played was vast, and evoked feelings of fear, amusement, wonder, whimsy, sadness, longing, and heartbreak.

Next was the set: as I said, a mountain range, inside the incubator space at The Theatre Centre. Add to that ceiling-hung leeks, onions of all sorts everywhere, and orange glowing bulbs that dimmed and brightened on cue. It was simple but interesting.

Further intriguing us before the show even began were the onions on our chairs: one single onion on each seat. I enjoy quirky elements with my theatre, and taking three shallots home from a play is lovely.

In addition to the music, Caryhn and I were both very impressed by the performances of both Elodie Monteau and Alaine Hutton. Individually stunning — in terms of movement, timing, energy, and stage presence — they also worked incredibly well together. All three of them did. The timing was pretty much perfect down to the slightest raised eyebrow.

There were many comedic elements present, many of which I was able to enjoy because I speak and understand French (mostly). Which brings me to the first part I found less enjoyable.

This is a multi-lingual show, presented in English, French, and Polish. I’m a huge fan of bi- or multilingual theatre, but I’m also a fan of surtitles. There were none. They aren’t always needed, but given the amount of non-English dialogue — roughly two thirds — I feel like they were warranted. The French parts I was able to understand added so much humour and made me feel like we were missing too much.

I suspect that this was partly meant to focus the audience on the emotion-rather-than-story aspect, but for me it didn’t. I found myself feeling confused, at times bored, and like it was MUCH longer than an hour. Caryhn and I discussed the possibility afterwards that perhaps it was geared more towards intellectuals, but eventually agreed it may have been trying too hard to do so.

It felt like a bunch of random skits. Which would be fine, but there was no cohesive element that I could find to tie it all together. Some of the poems (or skits) were enjoyable — in particular a funeral scene where the two actors ambitiously and successfully take on a dozen characters each — but I kept waiting for a theme or a unifying element that never came. There were also moments when the actors’ words — especially when facing away from us — were drowned out by the cello.

I’m aware that this is highly experimental theatre, and may simply not be my cup of tea. I would eagerly watch all of the performers again in another production, and I look forward to seeing what future projects they have in store.

If you figure out what the onions have to do with anything — layers? fake tears? staples of sustenance? — I’d love to know.


    • This is Why We Live is playing until October 9, 2016 at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
    • Shows run Thursday to Saturday at 7:30pm, with an additional matinee on Sunday at 1:30pm
    • Ticket prices range from $20-$25, with special arts worker/student pricing and are available online, or through the box office at 416-538-0988

Photo of Alaine Hutton provided by the company