Betroffenheit takes a surreal and devastating trip through the dark and out the other side
A Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre production. A DanceHouse presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Thursday, February 25. Continues to February 27
In Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s riveting Betroffenheit, posttraumatic stress takes the form of a room with no exit, where overwhelming personal pain is only temporarily relieved by a parade of sinister vaudevillian entertainers and eerie clowns.
Young’s voice echoes through speakers, phones, and electrical boxes around the stage, frantically spouting self-help mantras as he tries to escape his confines.
With its harsh lights, grimy walls, and snaking wires, the room becomes a perfect metaphor for a certain exquisite anguish. Betroffenheit dissects the way that the more you try to suppress a painful memory, the more obsessively it pushes to the surface.
The beauty is that the piece is not just a vehicle for playwright-performer Young’s own, achingly specific distress—the loss of his daughter and her cousins in a cabin fire—but something we can all relate to.
The production tracks how the mind sometimes ends up on an endless tape loop, leading to depression, addiction, self-harm, or worse.
Betroffenheit is a German word for a kind of shock that defies words, and fittingly, this is a show that will leave you speechless. The dance-theatre hybrid is visually stunning and intensely moving, and on opening night prompted an extended standing O from Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre’s hometown crowd.
The production is dark and surreal in its first half—part Franz Kafka, part David Lynch. The glittery Show—a stand-in for your drug or drink or numbing agent of choice—is all that relieves the protagonist’s agony. Here, Pite gets mind-blowingly creative with her performers: among them, a bowler-hatted David Raymond turns tap dance into a truly malevolent force as he sidles in from the dark, and Tiffany Tregarthen is exquisitely grotesque as a white-pancaked clown, hunching her spine and bending her limbs like Plasticine, her capering a bizarre mix of the slapstick and the supernatural. In one delirious dance with Young, her physical farce turns into something more horrifying, leaning in to prop up his collapsed body and folding her wonkily mantislike legs around him.
Jermaine Spivey, meanwhile, plays Young’s inner voice, a tormenting half that taunts, berates, and tempts him—made all the more creepy by a staging device that allows Young’s recorded voice to emanate from his own mouth. Salsa dance, a magician’s box, tawdry feathers and sparkles: they’re all here in a chorus line of macabre surprises.
It’s an unforgettable spectacle, thanks to mesmerizing stagecraft, the haunting soundscape (by Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani, and Meg Roe), and some truly out-there performances.
In the second half, Pite goes down a path similar to those she took in shows like Dark Matters and The Tempest Replica: she clears the stage and sets in motion pure dance that works through the themes set up in the first part. Here’s where you really get to see the versatility and depth of her dancers, so game in the first half, now exploding with agony, trembling together like some conjoined organism, and pressing down each other’s convulsing limbs. It’s classic Pite movement—hyperdetailed, fractured, and sculpturally inventive. What’s new is the way she sets movement to Young’s words, using them as an intricate rhythm for every flinch of her dancers’ muscles.
After the show, people were taking sides, preferring the more narrative first half of the production or sticking up for the second’s more abstracted journey. Here’s arguing the two parts make up an unalterable whole that works its way through unspeakable emotions on multiple levels. By the end we are in a vast, dark hole, and Young is alone with his self-blame. It’s heart-wrenching on a whole other level than the horror-circus that preceded it, but there is a way out. The language that has looped and vexed Young now returns to his control, and the effect is quietly devastating.
After all of its early, eye-popping chaos and carnival-of-souls imagery, the emotional hurricane relents and there is calm—even hope. And if one man can survive the unsurvivable, then maybe so can you.