Warning: this review contains spoilers of Are we not drawn onward to new erA by Ontroerend Goed.
Who doesn’t love a palindrome? (Or, ?emordnilap a evol t’nseod ohW)
Are we not drawn onward to new erA tackles the forwards and backwards of life in the anthropocene — an ecosystem marred by man-made trouble. Somewhere between theatre and dance, the 80-minute performance uses gesture to tell a story that, on first glance, just doesn’t make sense. Five figures speak, but in what often seems to be a nonsense language — is it Dutch? Flemish? Klingon? — while they complete a series of tasks. One person rips a tree apart limb from limb. A group erects a statue. When a flurry of rainbow plastic bags float down from the ceiling, performers shuffle them around, adding more to the pile. Combined with the dirt from the depotted tree, the stagescape is a Bauschian, messy playground for these odd rituals.
But then, at the forty-minute mark, a screen descends, and a video starts playing. Remarkably, it’s the performance we just watched, but now we’re seeing it in reverse. That “nonsense” language of the first half is actually English when played backwards — no small feat, especially for a Belgian company which includes non-anglophone performers — and the gestures, too, make a little more sense when you look at them from this backwards angle. The plastic bags fly back into the heavens; the tree re-roots; the humans reconnect.
Director Alexander Devriendt’s palindromic exploration of human destruction is playful, surprising, and deceptively simple. While the conceit of the show becomes obvious at a certain point — its title is a dead giveaway, as is its programme note — the magic of how on earth the company manages to pull off a perfectly backwards performance keeps the tension alive in the theatre. Babette Poncelet and Jeroen Wuyts’ lighting, video and sound glow with expertise; this production’s video mapping in particular is top-notch. The formidable cast, too, makes a great team, and their backwards talking is consistently accurate on playback: Karolien De Bleser, Kristien De Proost, Vincent Dunoyer, Ferre Marnef, Leonore Spee, and Bastiaan Vandendriessche clearly trust one another, and it shows in the work.
Conceptually, I’m not quite sure where I land with Are we not drawn onward to new erA. The show seemingly posits that the human impact on the environment (displayed in one compelling montage through spewing tubes of theatrical haze) is reversible through collaboration and eco-conscious actions like litter cleanups and tree planting. While those gestures are important — urgent, even — the show clings to its palindromic form and concludes in a perfect mirror of its opening, with a blank stage and a strong, young tree. Are we not drawn onward to new erA, while a triumph of linguistic ability and theatrical video, seems to take a rather optimistic approach to building an eco-narrative, one that feels almost dated as the global climate crisis reaches more dire heights.
Still, this show’s exploration of what theatre can be — and what audiences can understand — is a zippy, worthwhile watch, rife with memorable images and more than a few charming “aha!” moments. Certainly one of the more unique pieces of performance to hit Toronto in a while — both forwards and backwards.
Are we not drawn onward to new erA ran at Canadian Stage on February 9–11, 2023.