Disclaimer: I felt unwell about halfway through this performance and had to step out of the theatre for a few minutes. I watched the final portion of the show from the back of the theatre and have since read a copy of the script, provided by Nightwood Theatre.
“I love the smell of gasoline,” says theatre artist Claren Grosz near the top of her solo show of the same name.
And what a solo show it is. Autobiographical but not self-indulgent, poetic but not overly abstract, emotional but not too sentimental or saccharine, Claren Grosz’s interrogation of her family’s deep connections to Alberta’s energy industry is a stunning, confessional piece of theatre. Yes, Grosz’s dad was a surveyor for a gas company, “whatever that means,” but Grosz carries the weight of the worsening world on her shoulders, leaving her caught squarely between the two poles of the climate debate.
According to Grosz, you can scarcely go anywhere in Calgary without running into a gas provider or one of its employees. Some of the world’s biggest energy brands are headquartered right there in Grosz’s hometown.
And, well, that makes things complicated. Grosz is a young person with justifiable fears about the climate crisis. She’s well acquainted with the math of the situation — and her whimsical, searing solo show incorporates more than a few statistics. (A theatre person offering Grosz feedback once told her to cut the numbers, she tells us, so she did, at least some of them — but a lot of math has made the final cut. Smart move on Grosz’s end: the numbers add lovely texture to her prose.) Amidst facts about the environment and memories of Alberta as part of an energy industry family, Grosz intersperses vignettes from her adult personal life — charming first dates, tough breakups — and they never feel irrelevant or like they’re oversharing. Without fail, Grosz always gets to the point and then some: I love the smell of gasoline is masterfully paced.
Against a backdrop of simple, smart projections, created using old-fashioned slide projectors operated by Jesse Wabegijig, Elyse Waugh, and Stephanie Zeit, Grosz walks us through her all-consuming dilemma: what is the role of the individual as climate doom becomes more and more inevitable? There are shades of Duncan MacMillan’s climate play Lungs throughout — more than once Grosz wonders aloud the ethics of having a baby who might grow up in a world unrecognizable from the one we’re in now. Grosz has put together a tight, compelling monologue, half-memory, half-manifesto, and far from feeling preachy, the script’s climax feels richly earned, its text balanced, complex, and not at all self-serving despite its strong roots in Grosz’s personal biography.
And those projections really are something. Co-directed by Grosz William Dao, this iteration of I love the smell of gasoline (it premiered as part of the RUTAS International Festival of Performance last fall) makes use of toys, art supplies, and no shortage of imagination to produce its gorgeous backdrop of people and places. Along with her onstage helpers, Grosz collages together family photos, pools of ink which suggest gasoline, and tiny action figures which blow up to life-size when projected on the backdrop behind her. Additional climate-themed artwork (including a lovely, waterfall-esque sculpture by Jessica Hiemstra) adorns the playing space, suggesting themes of consumerism and sustainability which complement Grosz’s text without feeling too on-the-nose in its environmental critique.
Something particularly successful about Grosz’s script is its false ending — it’s not so much a focal point of the script as it is a cheeky, impish dramaturgical device which brings levity to the heavy topic at hand. Grosz takes her time building a relationship with her audience, and the intimacy of the Aki Stage allows her great freedom in making eye contact and one-off jokes to individual audience members. Towards the end, following a “mic drop” moment of clarity for Grosz, where genealogy and societal responsibility come to a head, the lights go down — by all accounts, the show’s over, and on opening night the audience enthusiastically applauded. But, nope, Grosz has more to say, impishly, and she carries on for a few more minutes. This sort of dramaturgical mischief is completely in the spirit of the rest of the show — conversational, playful, cliché-averse — and places a perfect button on a solo show that I hope has life in it yet beyond its first two outings.
As far as autobiographical solo shows go, I love the smell of gasoline is that rare creature with heart, charm, and relatability well beyond the parameters of the performer’s own life. When it inevitably hits the Fringe circuit or remounts for a longer run in Toronto, go see it — you might learn something, and you’ll relish doing so.
I love the smell of gasoline runs at the Aki Studio March 8–19, 2023.