Miriam’s world is one of many books.
Like, many, many books. Stacks of novels and self-help guides. Piles of children’s picture books. Rolling carts of recipes and test prep booklets.
And those are just the physical books you can flip through. Miriam’s world — which, it turns out, is the public library in Toronto where she works — is walled off by images of them, too. In Miriam’s World at Theatre Passe Muraille, based on Martha Baillie’s Giller long-listed novel The Incident Report, audiences enter the TPM Mainspace through a tunnel of books which concludes in a small, round sanctuary of reading material, surrounded by fabric backdrops (bookdrops?) and large video screens, upon which videos of the goings-on of the library play: someone returns a DVD. Someone dies — but who? Someone rotates a squeaky magazine rack.
Fans of The Incident Report are likely to get the most out of this experience: Miriam’s World is a highly stylized adaptation of a highly stylized book, and those who don’t know the source material might find themselves feeling lost. Baillie’s book drew praise for its inventive form — 140 lyrical and complex “incident reports” with no surrounding prose — and Miriam’s World, too, innovates upon the standard theatre experience. Those looking for a clean-cut story won’t find one here.
It’s a quirky experience which when translated from page to stage requires audiences to search for a narrative, as one doesn’t immediately present itself. Only once the audience chooses to get nosy and flip through the objects left on desks does the mystery of the story appear — the night I attended, that happened when it became clear the videos around us were playing on loop. Stacks of incident reports indicate something strange and terrible has happened in the library (perhaps in relation to a hanging body on the video screens). The incident reports are written in a variety of handwriting and pens and languages, reflecting the diverse array of characters who populate the library but never presenting a full account of what’s actually happened. Some reports have crucial parts of the story ripped away. Some have doodles. Some are hidden under piles of books (including a tattered copy of The Fountainhead).
I’m not sure where exactly Miriam’s World falls on the spectrum between theatre and installation — it floats somewhere between the two — but what prevails is the care the creative team has taken to build an environment and bolster it with character. Even in the absence of traditional theatre trappings like live actors or a tangible story, the drama endures, brought to the surface by a confident directorial hand and masterful scenographic design. Naomi Jaye’s production is playful and eye-catching, and the decision to let audiences figure out the story for themselves is fascinating in its open-endedness. Production designers Tia Bennett and Evangeline Brooks have done a swell job of building out the library and studding it with interesting books, and kudos too to installation producer Petek Berksoy — Miriam’s World totally transforms the TPM theatre facility into something unrecognizable, to marvellous effect. It’s not just the Mainspace — the Backspace, too, has been turned into a small lending library for when audiences exit the experience.
What emerges here is a moody, stylish immersive work, as well as the mystery of what actually happened in this library — what Miriam has seen from behind the circulation desk. It’s a curious piece, Miriam’s World, multidisciplinary and fascinating in its presentation. If anything, it’ll inspire you to give The Incident Report a (re)read.
Miriam’s World closed at Theatre Passe Muraille on December 18. More information is available here.