Review: "Against Nature" with Citadel + Compagnie

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

I have heard James Kudelka’s name before, but I did not have the opportunity to see any of his works. I had the chance to see ‘Against Nature’, an extremely dark commentary on the life of the protagonist who is called The Master (extraordinary vocal work by Alexander Dobson). The Master is also aided by two servants (Laurence Lemieux and Korin Thomas-Smith).

I am always thankful when I see the programme contains a synopsis. ‘Against Nature’ was written in 1884 by French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. This one-hour narrative concentrates on The Master and is mostly a catalogue of the tastes and inner life of Jean des Esseintes who is an eccentric and reclusive aesthete who loathes 19th century bourgeois society in Paris and retreats into an artistic world of his own creation. The Master retreats to a house in the countryside filled with his eclectic art and then decides to spend the rest of his life in intellectual contemplation.

From a 21st century perspective, I found the story line just a tad unnerving as I wondered how a theatrical presentation could be presented of a ‘doom and gloom’ story. An interesting connection was made in the programme. This story is widely believed to lead to the downfall of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and caused the protagonist to lead an amoral life. A rather interesting connection.

This was my first visit to the Citadel and Ross Centre for Dance. The production takes place in the Mimi Herrndorf Studio Theatre, a quaint and intimate setting. Upon entry, we see a string trio of musicians who are covered with their heads bowed. From my front row seat, I noticed there were a few objects around the playing area that had drop clothes placed over them, a reminder of a bygone time and era. On the back wall was a painting of who I believe is The Master with one of his eyes on the portrait specifically highlighted in a white light. Intriguing to say the least.

Alexander Dobson confidently captured my attention immediately as the story begins when he sings in his rich baritone voice.  So many thoughts ran through my head as I watched and listened to him sing.  Initially I thought he was a suave, mysterious and debonair swashbuckler dressed completely in a black tuxedo who has obviously charmed the ladies over the years.

Another thought came to my mind that Mr. Dobson encapsulates a distinctly dark, sinister side to The Master’s character which sent a chill down my spine. For some reason, I thought of Henry Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As Mr. Dobson sings, he made me feel as if he was just speaking to me only which I found unnerving at times, yet fascinating that I was being taken on a journey into this man’s reclusive and what appears to be an extremely lonely life.

Equally as talented are the two supporting servants who encompass a great deal of mystery surrounding themselves. Korin Thomas-Smith’s baritone/bass voice highlighted so much intrigue of The Master and his former life. Mr. Thomas-Smith swiftly assists in helping Mr. Dobson change his clothing and move set pieces around to keep the pace moving along nicely. Laurence Lemieux did not sing at all in the production, but her presence is strongly felt in much of her movement and her steely glances towards The Master. I received the impression that perhaps The Master and his servant may have had a sexual ongoing tryst as there is a heightened sexually intense moment between these two.

I really liked the musical interludes of the String Trio of musicians who finely underscored Mr. Dobson’s exceptionally powerful vocal work. As we begin to see the eventual demise and destruction of The Master, the string trio strongly captures these peaks and valleys of character development and growth.

I will be honest and say ‘Against Nature’ is a challenging production to watch. Even though there are only three characters, so much is said through the English lyrics that it is important to pay close attention to them. The silences and pauses also speak volumes so make sure you look at all three characters. It was extremely warm in the auditorium the night I saw the production and I could feel myself nod for a few minutes. Hopefully the auditorium temperature will be monitored carefully for future performances.

‘Against Nature’ continues to May 29 – June 1 inclusive at 8 pm at the Citadel, Ross Centre for Dance in the Mimi Hernndorf Studio Theatre, 304 Parliament Street, Toronto. For tickets please call the Box Office at 416-364-8011 or visit www.citadelcie.com for further information.

The production runs one hour with no intermission.

The Performers: Alexander Dobson, Laurence Lemieux and Korin Thomas-Smith.

The String Trio: Piano: Steven Philcox; Violin: Parmela Attariwala; Cello: Carina Reeves

Director and Choreographer: James Kudelka; Composer: James Rolfe; Librettist: Alex Poch-Goldin; Musical Director: Steven Philcox; Set and Props: Joe Pagnan; Costume Design: Jim Searle and Chris Tyrell for Hoax Couture; Lighting Design: Simon Rossiter; Projection Design: Jeremy Mimnagh; Puppet: Neil Coleman.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Mimnagh