Alma Mater ‘subtle, complex, beautiful, haunting’ **** review in The Herald
Aug 2011 11

Herald Scotland: Take a leap into a new dimension St George’s West Alma Mater by Mary Brennan

11 August 2011

Alma Mater **** (four stars)

It begins with an Alice in Wonderland moment: you’re standing in front of a white door, wondering, “do I knock?” when the iPad in your hand shows you the self-same door …

opening. So through you go, totally alone except for the music sending melody- atmospheres through your headphones and the film now running on your hand-held screen. It’s panning around the little all-white bedroom you’re standing in – only, it’s not exactly the same. But even as you’re noticing the differences, a merry little girl in a stripey sleep-suit is suddenly in the frame and her bright-as-a-button face will lure you into another dimension, experiencing a virtual but intensely vivid, encounter for the next 20 minutes.

If, as a child, your bed-time imagination led you into a freefall association of the day’s events, then Alma Mater, by the Fish and Game company, will remind you of how ordinary things – a canary in a cage, a book of bird illustrations, even having your hair brushed by your mother – can jumble, darken and terrify in dreams. Watching the images on-screen, wondering if the empty room around you was witness to any of them, triggers thoughts – some upbeat, some sinister, some wistful – about family life and how a young child interprets the stuff of schooldays, story books and especially the moods and feelings that affect them without any clear understanding of what’s happening or why. Alma Mater is subtle, complex, its various components beautifully put together to haunting effect. Just how insidious, how compelling it is, becomes apparent much later when you realise you’re re-running it inside your own head.

Leo, from the Berlin-based producing house Circle of Eleven, makes its own brilliantly bizarre and unexpectedly moving foray into topsy-turvy realms – again with video footage as an adjunct to what you see, but with Tobias Wegner not just on-screen but live on-stage. A man, Wegner, finds himself cooped up in a tiny room with no doors, windows or obvious way out. Actually there are two rooms. The one on-stage has been rotated through an angle of 90 degrees, not that the agile, acrobatically inclined flesh and blood Wegner is aware of that as he leans, sits, begins to do handstands and the like.

Now, here’s the twist that is so imaginatively turned every which way in the course of the show: the on-screen Wegner does exactly the same movements, but his room is the right way up.

The subsequent sequences defy gravity to leave audiences surprised, delighted and laughing. When one Wegner is sprawled flat on what (he thinks) is the floor, the other Wegner is pinned half-way up a wall as if by magic, or maybe by some external manipulating force. For even as the comedy builds, with Wegner creating a Leo character who has the naive charm and vulnerable optimism of silent film players like Buster Keaton, there is always a nightmare hint of circumstances beyond his control.

Without giving away too much, let’s just say that the section where Wegner decides to make himself at home is clever, witty and unexpectedly poignant. There’s nothing heavy-handed or overtly political in these scenes. Indeed they are some of the funniest in the piece. But, like the sheer physical brio that Wegner unleashes when Leo looks for a way of escape, they nudge us into remembering that this innately chirpy guy is held in a captivity that exists not just in real time but in a parallel on-screen universe.

Wegner’s precision in matching every movement, his stamina and skill – Leo is prone to push-ups, precarious balances and back-flips – is awesome. But it’s the way Wegner, who created the concept, uses this physicality to tell a story about the human spirit and the value of freedom that brings cheering audiences to their feet, all standing right way up of course.

Pinocchio: a Fantasy of Pleasures tells a story too – but not in the way that Collodi’s tale of a little wooden puppet is depicted in cartoon, play or pantomime. Company XIV, from America, slip into decidedly decadent mode – initially in fabulously ornate baroque finery, then in very stripped-back basques and nipple tassels – for a commedia-cabaret about the seductive follies that almost rob Pinocchio of his chance to be a real boy. It could, very easily, be a bump’n’grind subversion of a children’s story, and for sure this isn’t a show for youngsters, but Austin McCormick’s company are an accomplished, versatile ensemble with serious circus, dance and singing skills.

Was the Blue Fairy more of a Blue Angel than a guardian angel? Wouldn’t you, like Pinocchio, want to stay on a Pleasure Island where lithe, near-naked bodies dance with such raunchy allure? It’s an exuberant romp that teases, pleases and – commendably – doesn’t go for cheap jokes about that long, phallic proboscis.
Just Good Friends is quintessential French mime and clowning, done with great finesse by Marie Emilie Nayrand as Filomena and Jean-Luc Bosc as Felix. He adores her, she loves him too – but, in this production by Le Voyageur Debout, just as “a friend”. You either click with this particular style of gentle whimsy, relish her vocalising and her long-legged gawkiness – think Olive Oyl sounding like the Clangers – and his forlorn attempts at wooing, or you don’t. Not sure? Give it a try, because these two are brilliant at what they do – and because her knees are a comedy double act in themselves.

Alma Mater, Leo and Just Good Friends run until August 29. Pinocchio until August 28.

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