dollhouse by Bill Coleman



Concept, choreography and performance by Bill Coleman

Live music, sound and visuals by Gordon Monahan

Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto

November 15-29, 2016



The stage is strewn with paraphernalia, bits and pieces, work stations, vertical pipes decorated with leaves and flowers, and burners on stands. A few large silvery metal sheets hang shiny from the rafters and the back of the stage. The effect is of a cluttered jumble of odd things.

The lights stay up, on the stage and on the audience. Bill Coleman stands in a small clear space, centerstage, watching us. He wears a grey jacket, crisp white shirt, grey jeans and black shoes. Three seated men, in turn, watch him, from tables arrayed with mysterious equipment, at either side of the stage.

Popping and crackling sounds emanate from Coleman’s clothing, as he tenses, more and more uncomfortable, as if he is being crushed by a massive weight from above. Finally, he writhes and falls, in a cascade of snapping. Broken plastic pieces tumble to the stage as Coleman removes his clothing down to his underwear, shifting from dominating presence to sudden vulnerability.

In its promotional material, dollhouse is described as referencing both tap dancing and Artaud. There is tension in this description as well as a sense of humour; but this tension does not directly translate to the experienced show. Conceptually, dollhouse draws on The Wooster Group, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and perhaps especially Peter Handke and John Osborne. The assaults on the audience are more classic than shocking, more familiar than surprising; Coleman combines these elements masterfully and symphonically.

Coleman is actively accompanied by avant-garde musician and performer Gordon Monahan, who intersects and interacts with Coleman, at times a kind of magician’s helper, at others a doctor or caring technician, applying sensing electrodes that feed back into the soundscape, or helping him on with his clothing.

Coleman moves through “stations” on stage that include whimsy—a glass of water for a sip is perched on top of a ladder; floor tiles are laid about, glue side up, creating a miniature havoc of sounds and body décor as they stick to Coleman as he dances and stumbles— and the stations have, in their imposition of suffering, a resonance with the stations of the cross and with the Christian saints— in one segment, for instance, Coleman wears a suit jacket pierced with white arrows, reminiscent of the Passion of St. Sebastian.

As the performance proceeds, the ornaments and objects begin to loom. Coleman’s stage presence is mesmerizing, and the soundscape is intense, variable and generated before our eyes— by Coleman’s breaking and cracking the pieces of plastic, by his jumping gingerly about in 50 or so preset mousetraps, so they snap and clack, or the intensifying and metaphorical mic’d steel bowls of water that are brought to boiling in front of us. The atmosphere is ritualistic, strange and constricting; the movement is limited and focused. The sounds and lights reach a crescendo of gleaming, flashing and banging, with the plastic flowers on pipes spinning madly like alien plants, and the silvery sheets of metal glowing as if they are heating up.

A dollhouse is a miniature, a representation in toys of where we live in the larger world. The Dollhouse is also the title of a well-known play by Henrik Ibsen, wherein a woman finally stands up to her oppressive husband and rejects societal demands to conform. This kind of layering operates throughout the piece, offering glimmers and glances into influences and a culturally laden flotsam of imagery.

Coleman, despite the symbology of martyrs and rebels, and despite the pervasive sense of abuse of the human body throughout—whether the clanging of beaten metal or the overbright, harsh and punishing lights—takes responsibility for the creation of this environment and for the suffering, a kind of electronic shaman. The implication is that this suffering is chosen and self-imposed— Coleman offers resonance with our daily lives, where we are subjected to a constant wash of media, light and sound.

A pleased, conspiratorial nod by Coleman to Monahan was the last gesture when we saw the show on opening night. Coleman appears to be neither crushed, nor freed, nor transformed. After his successful journey through a strange kinetic world of eccentricities and powerful visuals— including a dousing with real water in a kind of avant-garde baptism— he is smiling, surviving, and consciously present.