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Mime over matter: theatre show breaks barriers

A butterfly fluttered around Anand Rajaram’s head.The actor watched the bony insect, made from his own two hands, land on his lap.

A butterfly fluttered around Anand Rajaram’s head.

The actor watched the bony insect, made from his own two hands, land on his lap.

 The audience fell silent.

A small child in the second row scrutinized the movement of Rajaram’s hands, trying to convert her own tiny fingers into slow-batting wings.

It was Saturday afternoon at the Yukon Arts Centre, the peak day for Frostbite Music Festival.

The show, called Cowboys and Indians, combined mime with live music.

Although it wasn’t written specifically for children, the child making a butterfly with her hands, got it.

She experienced the piece as Rajaram intended — by interacting with it.

Making each member of the audience aware of living at that exact moment in time, is one of Rajaram’s goals for the performance.

“This is the present, be present,” he said from a brightly lit dressing room at the arts centre.

 Breaking the “fourth wall,” the imaginary barrier that divides the action on stage from the real world, is one technique Rajaram used to bring the audience into the show.

Before the bulk of the performance began, Rajaram stood on stage in costume.

Clad in flowing Indian cotton, he bantered with the audience and with keys player Bob Wiseman, formerly a member of Canadian country-rock band Blue Rodeo.

The show proper started with slow, deliberate movements, a character waking up and moving through his morning routine — showering, dressing and praying.

Late for work, the man leapt into the early-morning traffic of a chaotic city street. Sprinting to work, he was caught in the bedlam of a rainstorm.

Then, the blackout hit. Literally.

With the recent catastrophic power outage fresh on Yukoners’ minds, a hum of whispering swept through the rows of plush seats.

Wiseman continued tinkling the keys, half-heartedly, in the dark and parents shushed their children, who began making restless noises.

The question weighing on everyone’s mind was, is this part of the show?

“I like to play with the audience during the show,” said Rajaram, sporting a pair of black winter boots he bought specifically for the trip.

The blackout is fake, he added.

The audience’s reaction, and their interactions with each other, are also part of the show.

 “It puts the audience in the same room, together,” he said.

“They are no longer living their individual experience. It becomes a communal experience.”

In its form, the show — described by its two creators as a “clown mime fantasia” — recalls simpler times.

There are no props, no set and the costumes are simple.

Lighting, which can rely on a single spotlight, dimming and raising the house lights or flaunting the occasional colour, is the only special effect in the piece.

The show has been compared to a silent movie.

Back on stage, Wiseman massaged the ivories, with the occasional tambourine interlude, as Rajaram wordlessly transformed into a cast of characters, from a fired worker and his irate boss, to a beat-up cowboy and his assaulter in a Western bar, to a devil-like creature who escalates the violence.

While Wiseman functions primarily as the sideman, the musical accompaniment to the drama unfolding on stage, he does enter the show as a character.

This, again, plays with the relationship between performer and viewer, blurring the line between the lives of the characters on stage and real-time events.

The show “blew everyone out of the water” when it premiered at a festival in Toronto last summer said Wiseman.

That was especially sweet for the Toronto-based duo because their first co-production was “a train wreck,” according to Wiseman.

“I was horrible and I still am a horrible actor,” he said with a laugh.

With sold-out productions throughout the festival last summer it was a beautiful experience, said Wiseman, who composed the score.

While he had hoped for a bigger audience at Frostbite, it gave them a run at performing in a different environment — a large, sparsely populated, professional theatre.

The challenge is to keep the energy and the magic of the show alive in such a vast space, he said.

“You have to ask yourself, do you believe in this show? And the answer is, ‘Yes, I do,” he said.

 Right on the heels of their Whitehorse performances, Rajaram and Wiseman took their show northwest to Dawson City and Haines Junction.

After the breakneck pace of their weeklong stint in the territory, they could not be reached to talk about their community performances before heading off for Toronto.

The performances in both communities also drew small audiences, according to local musician Andre Gagne, who stage-managed the show.

A low turnout isn’t crippling for the piece, which changes every night, he said.

“They’re setting up in different spaces with different equipment and different lighting every night,” he said.

“It was really live and really in your face.”

In Dawson, Rajaram and Wiseman were almost mixed in with the audience.

“They were inches away from people, on the same level,” he said.

 The idea for the show did not come from a visionary dream or a moment of divine inspiration.

The beginnings were much more humble.

In fact, the incident that eventually led to Cowboys and Indians, was a simple walk through the market.

One morning Rajaram was walking through the crowded streets of Toronto’s hip Kensington Market, a food and clothing bazaar in the downtown core.

Along the street, lined with trendy used clothing stores, Rajaram spotted a tan suede jacket hanging on the crowded racks.

Being a strict vegan, he couldn’t buy a leather jacket.

Mysteriously, though, this one wasn’t made of hide of any kind.

While the material remains somewhat of a mystery to this day, Rajaram bought the jacket for $20.

This jacket sparked him to create a series of cowboy-themed pieces and, eventually, spurred him to collaborate with Wiseman on Cowboys and Indians.

While it was this piece that had Rajaram’s riding north into the sunset, for his first venture to the territory, Wiseman has toured extensively north of 60 both as a solo artist and with his former band, Blue Rodeo.

One of the most profound experiences of his life happened in the North.

Years ago, when Blue Rodeo was playing in Frobisher Bay, a local pilot flew the band outside of town to a frozen lake.

When they landed, each band members walked off in a different direction, he said.

“As much as I though I’d experienced silence, I hadn’t,” he said.

“I was in this void. It was really life changing.”

Blending dichotomies, the world outside with the world within, the distance between fiction and reality, were themes that surfaced in both the show and the interviews with the two performers.

Navigating those worlds makes for a powerful show, said Wiseman.

“Everyone has to make some sense of the fact that they are an entertainer on stage,” he said.

“If you’re on stage, people want to know about you, they want something else. Some people can be quite entertaining even though their work is hollow. You’ve got to make peace with that.” 

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