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Kristina Watt in Particle. Photo by Stéphanie Godin.

undercurrents: Particle a work in progress

By Brian Carroll on February 15, 2016

undercurrents has built a reputation as a forum for “theatre below the mainstream”, a place where artists and audiences are encouraged to take chances with original contemporary theatre. Since 2011, it has brought 12 world premieres to stage. Kristina Watt and Martha Ross’s Particle is one such premiere.

Particle has a pedigree. Ottawa audiences know Watt as an actor in such work as Up to Low, God of Carnage, Blackbird and Top Girls. Ross has co-written plays including The Attic, the Pearls and Three Fine Girls and The Anger of Ernest and Ernestine. She directed Skin at undercurrents 2013.

In Particle, a literal-minded academic (Watt) has constructed an elaborate multimedia performance piece to elucidate Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves. The stage has a profusion of props. The booth is manned by a well-meaning, but less than attentive, audio-visual tech guy (James Richardson). Just as The Waves has multiple “characters” to represent facets of consciousness, our heroine has rehearsed multiple characters for her performance piece.

But success eludes her. The centre (our performer) cannot hold. She is stricken with bouts of stage fright from the beginning. Things fall apart. Scene after scene fails. There’s even a rough beast in the form of a recurring roaring animal sound effect.

Once she regains her composure, she outlines how she will explain Woolf’s book. This is a labour of love. Her paperback copy of The Waves is in such a state of disrepair that, were it a teddy bear, it would be called “well loved”.

There are early warning signs. Virginia Woolf wrote metaphorically “I am casting about all the time for some rope to throw to the reader.” Our literal-minded heroine has brought an actual rope on stage. She states, in all seriousness, that she will perform a “Checkhovian analysis” of The Waves, identifying “Checkhovian moments” in the novel. She then presents a string of characters, many of whom you will recognize from your experience of excruciatingly painful academic lectures and earnest educational broadcasts.

Allow me a modern corollary to Chekhov’s rule about the appearance of a gun in the first act. If a lab coat appears in Act I, a scientist will wear it and expound in Act III. Though the play is Particleand the book is The Waves, her scientific exposition can be understood with only high school science.

But our heroine suffers from more than literal-mindedness, stage fright and an incompetent AV tech guy. There are deep waters below the surface. She is trying to make sense of a great deal more than an avant-garde novel. The program notes refer to heartbreaking attempts. To reveal more would be to give spoilers.

Particle is a work in progress. The audience certainly found many reasons to laugh: academic malapropisms, silly disguises, stilted movements, out-of-sync multimedia. But the darker side of the show didn’t always connect with the audience. There was laughter during moments of pathos. Pagliaccio may be a clown, but Leoncavallo built a rapport between clown and audience. The rapport between our heroine and her audience still needs work.

Let no one say that Watt, Ross and festival Artistic Director Patrick Gauthier don’t take chances. That’s one of the things undercurrents is for.

Particle by 100 Watt Productions is playing at undercurrents at Arts Court Theatre on Wednesday, February 17th 9:00pm and Saturday, February 20th 3:00pm. Tickets are $18 and available here. Students: pay what you can at the door.