Written and performed by Itai Erdal
At Winnipeg Jewish Theatre March 23 – April 1
At the Segal Centre for Performing Arts in Montreal April 30th to May 21st
Jane Enkin Music and Storytelling at janeenkinmusic.com
Out of his own stories, his memories, his concerns and his hopes, Itai Erdal has created a beautiful play. Erdal is an Israeli-born Canadian lighting designer. When his mother was diagnosed with cancer, he returned home to Israel and, with other family members, he cared for her until her death. His script is built out of these two major aspects of his life, lighting design and family. There are many layers to experience in this work artistically, intellectually and on an open-hearted emotional level; Erdal finds many meanings and connections in the events of his life.
Erdal teaches a great deal about lighting design during the play. He demonstrates the impact of lighting angles and colours on our perception of character, emotion, and the rhythms and important moments in theatre. There are ‘aha’ moments, sometimes funny and sometimes heightened emotionally, when we see these techniques in action – we’re in the know, yet definitely moved.
Throughout the show, there are more and more references to the concept of disappearance. The symbol Erdal uses most clearly is the lighting cues – the stage goes dark, or he moves out of a spotlight, and he disappears. The most moving disappearance, of course, is the painful fading away of his mother’s life. But disappearance is woven into many of Erdal’s stories.
Erdal confirms that he is a storyteller rather than an actor, and he is an engaging one. Canadian audiences are familiar with storytelling as theatre since we see so many wonderful examples in Fringe Festivals. (Erdal performed How to Disappear Completely in the Edinburgh Fringe but the technical requirements are too much for Canadian festivals, so catch the show while it’s on tour.) He speaks directly and very personally, recalling incidents that range from funny, to embarrassing, to deeply poignant.
This one-person play is very much about relationships, especially those with his best friend, his sister, and his radiant mother. We meet these characters on film. When Erdal returned home to be with his mother in her illness, he began a documentary film project his mother was eager to support. The filming is by no means objective – Erdal makes us very aware that we are meeting his family through his lens. Here too there are many layers. Erdal is choosing when to film, the camera angles, the beginning and ending of excerpts of conversations. He is usually an interviewer, setting the agenda for the conversations. The family speaks Hebrew, and in one of the most extraordinary technical aspects of the script, Erdal provides simultaneous translations in character, acting the gestures and emotions of the people he is interpreting. We watch his sister as he questions her and films her, and at the same time we watch his understanding of her. Through it all Erdal playfully lets us know that his assertive family members resisted his attempts to define them.
I feel it is important to note that many audience members said they found the play “heavy;” many were vividly reminded of their own experiences caring for dying family members.
Erdal himself finds the play “joyous.” While I did feel the sorrow and the tension in his experiences, I was aware of that joy. Partly, I suppose, it was because the unhappy elements of the story were fairly conventional – everyone’s experience of illness is individual, but there was nothing surprising about the sad trajectory of Erdal’s mother’s decline. His mother’s failed first marriage and Erdal’s own relationship problems, too, are unfortunate but not unusual. On the other hand, Erdal’s anecdotes are fascinating, and unique. His lighting demonstrations give a nice glimpse into the impact of design, and he is interesting on the topic of the ephemerality of his art form. There are rich characters, including the charming, mischievous but intensely loving best friend, the brilliant and edgy sister, and Erdal’s gentle and ironic mother. A favourite scene for me came as Erdal’s stepfather gently shaved his mother’s head – this woman’s glowing beauty afterward was so powerful. Throughout the play, Erdal emphasizes his indelible connection to her.
The moment that was sad for me came when Erdal’s mother, early in her illness, described her discomfort, explaining that she had never paid attention to how her body felt until it felt bad; for her that was the definition of illness, that you notice how your body feels. I want to turn this around into an affirmation, a personal teaching, a promise to myself: my body feels good, and I will notice, often, the blessing of my own health and my physical experience of joy.