Ottawa Theatre Review: Winners & Losers
To those who turn to this blog solely because of my science fiction and fantasy leanings, or those similar biases present in my co-writers, I apologize: the show in this review is as far from speculative as a show can get. Nonetheless, it’s time for me to add some Ottawa theatre review to the website, something you’ll see more of (hopefully!) when Fringe approaches.
Winners and Losers is, at its heart, a staged conversation. Two men, playing themselves, choose topics and debate if the chosen topic is a “winner” or a “loser.” This conversation is building to a show-down between the two men, where they argue for which one is the winner, and which is the loser. The battle becomes a fight of classicism, privilege, uncomfortable truths and deconstructed mythologized representation.
The play’s prime goal is to appear real: not real in the way a Checkhov play appears real, but real the way reality tv aims for reality.The distinction is important: Cherry Orchard attempts to capture a sense of realism on stage, but it doesn’t try to deny aesthetics. Checkhov presents the real world, but does so by turning it into poetry. Winners and Losers tries, in opposition, to deny or otherwise subvert poetry. Winners and Losers wants its audience to fall into complete confusion, unable to tell what is scripted and what is off-the-cuff, what is heightened and what is reported. It’s a truly theatrical experience, in that it relies on ontological tricks that are impossible in any other medium.
I commend the artistic impulse that built Winners and Losers, and I highly recommend the play to anyone who has a chance to see it, if only to see the borders of theatre clearly marked. I praise its inventiveness, and its willingness to play with the phenomenological heart of theatre. However, it didn’t always work. A project like this creates a new sense of authentication, whereas it isn’t trying to make the audience believe in its artifice, but rather its trying to make the audience believe it isn’t artificial at all. This inevitably becomes a game of “spot the scripted scene,” and as soon as a moment seems “too perfect,” we immediately doubt its authenticity. This is a problem: the goal of the show is to seem authentically like it isn’t a show, to confuse our ability to see the artificial elements and accept it as a real argument. But whenever a moment works well, our critical mind doubts the reality of the show and catches onto its aestheticisation. This process undermines its initial work to get us to view it as an object that isn’t aesthetic. This is a problem: whenever the show satisfies, it undermines its own goal. So what is an artist to do: alienate the audience in the quest for artistic success, or undermine your artistic goals for the audience’s pleasure?
Finally, while I love theatre’s ability to trick the mind into conflating aesthetically presented reality with represented fiction, I simply have lost the ability to care about realism on stage. Theatre’s most unique trait is its ability to re-frame reality, but I find that re-framing empty if the aesthetic elements of narrative, mise-en-scene, character and composition are not there. It loses half of what makes theatre special, and what makes theatre stick in your mind. The play left me with lots of interesting questions about theatre’s phenomenological and practical capabilities, but it didn’t leave me feeling fulfilled the way a great production of Arcadia does.
Winners and Losers is an important play, and worth a lot of thought. But I didn’t like it much.
(I am the best reviewer ever)