The Boy Who Went Outside stays stuck in its head
Written and directed by Conrad Alexandrowicz. A Wild Excursions Performance production at Performance Works on Thursday, May 27. No remaining performances
The Boy Who Went Outside, writer-director Conrad Alexandrowicz’s exploration of the life and work of composer Harry Partch, feels like an illustrated lecture. It’s always ambitious and sometimes clever, but it’s also so academic that I felt like I was back in university.
In the script, a playwright named Lily has been commissioned to write a drama about Confederation, but D’Arcy McGee holds little appeal for her, so she spends her time writing about Partch, who died in 1974.
Speaking directly to the audience, Lily feeds us biographical information: Partch’s parents were missionaries in China; as an adult, he moved 16 times in 15 years. This is all dully declamatory. And other attempts at theatricalization—including a number of staged phone calls—fall flat.
Lily also explains in detail the difference between “equal temperament”, the 12-tone scale we’re all familiar with, and “just intonation”, the 43-tone scale that Partch championed. Other actors emerge to concretize the notion of sonic vibrations by waving a rope up and down, or to show us different types of harmonic relationships by joining hands and spinning in a circle or joining hands and spinning in a spiral. This is instructive rather than theatrical.
Alexandrowicz may be trying to invent a new aesthetic language with this piece, a theatrical response to Partch’s sonic experiments, but the results are only mildly interesting.
That’s largely because the two central characters are so unsympathetic. In this play, Partch insults other artists and potential mentors. He refuses to compromise. Alexandrowicz presents the composer as a misunderstood genius, which he may have been, but he also comes across as a self-defeating curmudgeon. Lily is similarly unyielding. She fails to deliver her Confederation script and she runs out of dough, then she boo-hoos to her mother, who reassures her that her life as an artist is worthwhile. To me, both Partch and Lily look far more self-indulgent than heroic. And Lily’s dwindling bank account yields zero dramatic tension.
Near the end, Alexandrowicz gives us a tearful scene between Lily and her subject, but I didn’t feel prepared for it and didn’t buy it. No other important relationships are developed; Partch’s lovers and other characters merely appear and disappear in a boxcarlike series of cameos.
Linda Quibell plays Lily, which is a good thing, because this actor can convey intelligence just by showing up. Five different performers play Partch, a clear comment on the unknowability of the subject. In a strong cast, Josue Laboucane is particularly playful and engaging as Partch and in a number of other roles.
The composer’s estate refuses to let his music be excerpted, so Lee Gellatly and Patrick Pennefather offer their responses to his sonic legacy. The results are interesting, but being denied the real thing feels like a tease.
The element that works best in the script is its metatheatricality. Having the playwright’s avatar on-stage hardly ever works. Here, however, it feels funny and fresh when an actor breaks a scene to say, “Miss, I don’t feel like I’m a very specific character.”
The script tells us that Partch’s goal was to integrate all elements of the performance experience, but The Boy Who Went Outside stays stuck in its head.