Before handing over the program, the usher throws it in the dirt and stomps on it, raising a little puff of dust.
“There you go,” he says, picking it up.
“I had to stamp it first.”
If Carnaval’s late show time, the Raven Recycling location and the portable toilets haven’t already tipped them off, the dusty footprint on each program is sure to wake up a Whitehorse audience that rarely gets to venture beyond the proscenium arch.
Throw in hard hats, a long, dark tunnel to the stage and scrap-metal effigies and Whitehorse disappears.
For that matter, so does the territory.
Hidden behind walls of bundled cardboard and crushed pop bottles in Raven’s dusty salvage yard lies a perfectly constructed piece of the Third World.
A steaming pot in the middle of the tiny South American square is full of stewed fruit and syrupy liquid.
Audience members help themselves, before settling onto old car benches, discarded wheelchairs and plastic school seats.
The regular buzz that usually fills a theatre before the curtain rises is absent.
After pulling blankets over knees, zipping up parkas, and swatting a few mosquitoes, people take time to quietly look around and admire Veronica Verkley’s set.
It is dumbfounding.
Crushed green pop bottles form a striking fanlight above one of the entrances, while a spray of wire crowns a bent wheelbarrow throne.
Little white lights hang above the square and the setting sun catches the coloured plastic.
Add Paul Lucas playing original compositions on guitar, mandolin and garbage and the audience has already been transported to South America before the performance even begins.
So when the narrator, Bolivia (Dave Haddock) walks in towing a little cart piled with what looks like battered tin breadboxes, he suits the set so well it takes a minute to notice him.
Offering more cups of hot, thick juice, he wanders through the crowd challenging the confines of conventional theatre.
But there is no sense that Haddock is acting.
In a tattered velour skirt and bowler hat, it would have been easy to ham it up a little and clown around, but he doesn’t.
Starting on the right note, Haddock’s flawless performance carries the whole production.
At one point his attentive narrator even morphs into a llama. And Haddock is so utterly convincing as the furry, spitting beast that he successfully highlights a riotously funny bit of absurdity that could easily have been lost.
Climbing a wall of baled cardboard at the start of the play, Bolivia pulls on a long, white-tarp apron and becomes the Mountain of Stars. (That same tarp later becomes a wedding gown and bedding, which, in keeping with the recycling theme, is a nice touch.)
The townspeople have been mining stars for decades, he explains, pulling the tarp away to reveal a green glowing tunnel of bottles.
Enter Chivito (Tanya Marquardt) a young boy who brings lunch to his father Ernesto (Michael McManus), a miner and revolutionary.
Tall and lanky, Marquardt gives Chivito the right amount of masculine charm, but her performance initially lacks earnestness.
Already jaded, Marquardt’s Chivito makes dangerous deals with El Tio, god of the miners, with an ease that verges on cavalier.
However, as Chivito’s experiences age him and the play progresses, Marquardt grows into the role.
Chivito dreams of dancing in the Carnaval, and to do so, he promises El Tio (Charlie Wilson) he’ll undermine his father’s revolution.
It’s an interesting premise, and Mitch Miyagawa’s writing gives the play an original, poetic and haunting appeal.
Unfortunately, extraneous stage business often interferes with his writing.
The dialogue and narrative are regularly interrupted by movement and dance numbers that fall flat and remain awkwardly out of place.
As a result, the story is often hard to follow.
Throw in director David Skelton’s penchant for cross-gender casting and the result could be mayhem.
But this stretch works.
As Fernanda, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, Brian Fidler establishes some beautiful moments.
Fernanda’s tentative attempts at a first kiss with Chivito are so engaging the audience completely forgets it is a man playing a woman and a woman playing a man.
However, after setting the bar, Fidler has some trouble maintaining it, at times falling back on cute but less sincere female mannerisms.
Playing God and El Tio, Wilson’s conviction and intense physicality suit her roles and allow her to pull off some otherwise over-the-top reactions.
And while Jude Wong made a decent Don Jamie, Fernanda’s wealthy father, her fondness for movement often distract from the believability of her characters.
For much of the production, McManus plays Ernesto as a stock, Che Guevara-loving communist blinded by his dreams of revolution.
And it’s not until he dons the role of a homeless beggar that McManus’ talent truly shines, as he curls up on a bail of cardboard with just the right amount of spindly pain and trepidation.
The worn jeans and muted colours of Alyson Stopps’ costumes add to the production as a whole, leading the cast away from South American stereotypes and into the reality of Third World slums.
Despite the production’s confusing storyline, much of which is cleared up rather hurriedly at the end, Carnaval offers a host of beautiful moments.
There’s Ernesto scratching a flower in the dirt as he remembers his dead wife, a tear running down Chivito’s cheek when he learns his father has died and Bolivia describing El Tio with “ a mouth full of knives,” and “eyebrows on fire.”
And not all movement is gratuitous.
A soundscape created by the actors and Lucas as Chivito dances lends credence to the lure of South America’s carnivals, and a gut-wrenching fight scene leaves the audience visibly shaken.
Carnaval is “where tragedy is beautiful and sadness is celebrated,” the program tells the audience.
Nakai and Gwaandak Theatre took a risk, staging the production at Raven, outside both traditional theatrical conventions and in the elements.
One of the most innovative and beautiful pieces of theatre to come out of Whitehorse in the last three years, this is a production that shouldn’t be missed.