My favorite moment of Eternal Hydra occurred at the end of it. Coming out of Thursday’s opening night performance at the Factory Theatre in Toronto, my writerly companion turned to me, her eyes wide, her voice trembling, trying to capture what she’d just seen.
I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately -the ways we use it (or don’t use it) and the importance it has to some of us, particularly those in the arts. Communication is what every artist attempts through a chosen medium. Whether it’s dance, film, music, writing or acting, every creative act is an attempt to communicate something to someone else. Within that chosen form of communication is a myriad of ideas and influences, not all of them original -some are sifted through the rough grains of hard-won experience, others are left unfiltered for consideration and conversation. When it comes to presenting a work of art, who can really say what is wholly original?
The question becomes all the more cloudy in the world of words, where research and source material often become intimately intertwined with the writer’s own opinions, approach, and sometimes, life work. History is fraught with examples of works that, while considered utter genius, are suspect in their originality at least, and acts of plagiarism at worst. Think of playwrights like Shakespeare, whose works were frequently based on other (popular) tales floating around, or the Bible, a collection of tales written and re-written through the centuries to suit the age and ruling classes.
Anton Piatigorsky tackles the huge questions swirling around authorship, originality, voice and its relationship to identity, and what makes art … well, art, in his play Eternal Hydra, now on in Toronto at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. This Crow’s Theatre production brings together the same acting/directing team from last spring, when the work was workshopped before an audience for a week. Originally starting out life as a one-act play at Stratford’s Studio Theatre, the work has been greatly expanded and explores larger notions of historical detail, authenticity, and what it means to really “create.” He uses the image of the mythical hydra -the scary monster Hercules fought with the multiple heads -as a metaphor for the writing process itself. Just when characters -and audience, in fact -think they’ve figured out what links writer Gordias Carbuncle’s work to past sources, another connection presents itself that renders theories incomplete. Throw in notions around race, gender, and religion, and you have one hell of a heady night of theatre.
That doesn’t mean Eternal Hydra is cold, however. It’s heady, but it’s also full of heart. Cast members Karen Robinson, Liisa Repo-Martell, Sam Malkin, and David Ferry, as the self-hating maybe-genius Gordias, all give fully-fleshed out performances that make you feel something beyond intellectual wonder. Piatigorsky’s piece is Stoppard-esque, no question, but it’s also fascinating for its mix of the epic and the intimate; the scenes between Robinson, as impoverished black writer Selma Thomas, or Repo-Martell, as the smitten researcher Vivian Ezra, and Ferry’s Carbuncle, are moving, enlightening, disturbing and challenging. Throw in some evocative lighting, where characters frequently move in and out of shadow, as well as multiple plotlines, where characters fall through time, and frequently blur lines between eras and realities, and Piatigorsky’s work is suddenly about a whole lot more than historical appropriation. It’s about life, art, and yes, communication -how we do it, and more importantly, why we do it.
Artists get communication: we’re just not sure if what we’ve produced is actually ours at the end of the day, or simply another screaming head. I mean really, there’s so many of those around already, competing for our attention, demanding time, energy resources, or sometimes, just perhaps, whispering something incredible.