Culture viewed through the looking glass

Munich Now uses language to provide different perspective

As a boy Blake Brooker recalls walking around his house with a mirror under his eyes and getting a skewed view of the familiar surroundings. Today the co-artistic director of One Yellow Rabbit continues to seek out fresh perspectives through different cultures and languages in his Tangled Tongue Trilogy which sees the debut of the second instalment Munich Now at the High Performance Rodeo.

The story involves a talk show in which a hard-nosed German journalist and a celebrity chef must first figure out the identity of a mystery guest and then proceed to interview them. Brooker who wrote and directs the play calls it “a comedy about media absurdism.”

“What I mean by media absurdity is watching a talk show they never ask the questions you’d want to ask. You know they never really get anywhere and they never really uncover anything. So I’m just playing around with these ideas. I mean TV is really a satire of itself in just being itself in a way.”

When One Yellow Rabbit revealed a brief portion of the play at the launch event for the Rodeo there were plenty of laughs but audiences should be prepared for more than lighthearted humour.

“This is a comedy but are comedies all funny all the way through? Once you sort of catch on to what’s going on I think this is somewhat challenging.”

Talk shows and celebrities are no strangers to anyone with a television but when you move the setting to Germany and have the characters speak much of the dialogue in German (with English subtitles) Brooker says it adds another layer to the story.

“What I’m trying to do with it is look at things that exist within our culture but looking at them in kind of an oblique way such as through a looking glass…. You know remember when you were a kid and you walked around your house with a mirror underneath your eyes and you could see the roof as a floor? I remember when I did that and it was totally surreal to me and I started to look at my house in a different way.”

Brooker compares it to being in another country and experiencing something familiar in a different way. For example when he was in Germany he would often return to the hotel room flick on the TV out of habit and see the same type of programming you’d see in Canada but presented differently — such as American movies dubbed in German and talk shows that included a lot of actual talking with guests that were unknown to him.

“Our talk shows the ones that are popular here that are late night — you know Jimmy Kimmel and all those guys — they bring people in and they barely get to talk to them and then they’re finished and they bring someone else in. And you realize what’s going on there is they’re all selling something. So it’s not a talk show it’s like advertisements that aren’t like an advertisement. They’re all publicists for their own stuff so really you’re looking at something where you think you’re getting one thing but it’s not” he says.

“Whereas you look at these German ones and these French ones and they have people on and they talk to politicians all the time or other notable people and they talk to them for a long time…. I just look at it and I go what does this say about our media? What does this say about theirs? What are we getting from it?

“And then when you look at it in another language again then you can really sit outside of it and kind of examine it and it’s like looking at a reflection that’s sideways or looking at a mirror” he adds. “What the actors are doing here those actors are absolutely doing something that is incredibly difficult.”

That is no exaggeration as a substantial portion of the play is in German. The cast — including familiar ensemble members Denise Clarke Andy Curtis and Christopher Hunt as well as relative newcomer Devon Dubnyk (who already spoke some German) — had scripts in both English and German. They learned their German lines phonetically in stages both individually and as a group starting with slowed-down versions and then progressing to normal speed. At the same time they learned what they were saying in English so they could understand the lines and act accordingly.

While Brooker is quick to emphasize the effort required by the actors to speak their lines in German the language posed challenges for him as a director as well. Since the play required hiring a translator which is expensive it restricted the type of changes that could be made to the script.

“Usually with a play as you’re rehearsing it you always discover better lines and better ways to do things so you change it as you’re doing it. When you do something like this you can’t because it has to be translated.”

This is not the first time Brooker has challenged himself and the cast to present a story in a foreign language and it won’t be the last.

The Tangled Tongue Trilogy opened with Kawasaki Exit which was inspired by the dark side of Japan’s social networking sites — Brooker describes it as a “puzzle box love story.” The play debuted at the 2010 High Performance Rodeo and was performed in English and Japanese.

The third play Casablanca Casablanca is about a husband and wife who are moving to Canada from Morocco in northern Africa and it will be in English and Arabic.

Brooker says he is well aware that some people don’t like subtitles but the use of different languages is vital to the concept.

“The Tangled Tongue Trilogy the whole business of it is that it is performance theatre and it’s about seeing actors doing something remarkable and using language in this instance as a mask. So instead of having a mask or kind of weird costume or something else you can be something else in another language — particularly after you learn it very well phonetically and then it starts to make sense to you contextually then you can really truly become somebody you’re not” he says.

“As a theatre maker I find that totally attractive to my eye…. It grabs my attention.”

The three plays are set in countries that Brooker has previously spent time in and he says the idea for each story came to him in one afternoon.

Following Munich Now the ensemble will take a break from language lessons to work on a new performance about the First World War which will debut in 2014 to mark the war’s 100th anniversary. Then he’ll begin tackling Casablanca Casablanca which he expects will open in about two years.

“They get a break for one year and then they have to come back and learn Arabic. If I’m still alive — they might want to assassinate me” he jokes.

“We’re challenging the group and they’re more than up for it but like I said it’s very hard to do.”

Then again he adds experimental theatre is what One Yellow Rabbit is all about.

“It’s a gamble — all our stuff is a gamble. But we’re in a small theatre and that’s I suppose our raison d’être.”