Norah Paton’s Burnt is probably the closest you can come to experiencing Burning Man without driving to the Nevada desert with 65,000 others in various states of cleanliness, burning a huge wooden effigy and, if Paton’s experience is a guide, having at least one existential crisis.
For the uninitiated, Burning Man is an annual festival during which several thousand people build and occupy a temporary city known as Black Rock City in the desert. Burning Man gets its name from a huge wooden human form erected in the centre of town, which is burned to the ground near the end of the festival.
Burnt, one of the local offerings at the undercurrents festival, is a solo show in which Paton retells (perhaps not quite verbatim) the stories of certain people she met at the festival. Much of the dialogue has clearly been recorded during interviews, however some appears to stray somewhat from direct quotation. Her skill in recreating these characters is clear. Each has unique mannerisms and speech patterns. One of the core themes of Burnt is that Burning Man can only be truly understood as a shared social experience. The characters Paton recalls for us are what guide us into the experience. That we get to meet such diverse and interesting people ultimately gives the audience a sense of what it is like to be in the desert, isolated and yet with hordes of people all around.
Of course, the set, the smoke, and the music help to transport us there as well. The sound design by AL Connors is a highlight. With thrumming bass and synths, the music is designed to block out all thought, and gives the sense that, though we can only see Paton dancing, there are multitudes of others on all sides. The set is beautifully simple. Designed by Dominique Coughlin, it consists of fabric made to look like a desert. The entire aesthetic of the play is well-conceived, down to the penlight Paton uses to point out landmarks on the Burning Man map. But what brings it all together is her exceptional character work, and the depth to which she takes each person being portrayed.
There are contradictions which make these characters so interesting. Often, a switch in character will serve as an argument to a point just raised. And that serves to highlight a broader contradiction for Burning Man: the proclaimed attitude of inclusion and mutual respect is a facade. Many of the characters feel forced into certain roles, brought out of themselves in ways they didn’t expect. The play explores the hypocritical nature of the festival doggedly; it is meant to be anti-consumer and anti-waste, and yet it takes an enormous amount of money to get there, and many people buy disposable junk to camp with, which gets thrown out at the earliest opportunity.
And while it doesn’t quite come full circle in the end, it is these contradictions that Paton seeks to bring out into the open. Sometimes difficult to identify, her own voice is very much present in the play. Her stance appears to be one of concern for what the festival has become, but a hope that it can change, and a deep love for the core experience.
All of this comes together in a play that is fascinating, clever, and immersive. This run at undercurrents is its world premiere, and with a script and performance this strong, it will be interesting to see how it develops.
Burnt is playing until February 18 at Arts Court Theatre (2 Daly Ave) in the undercurrents festival lineup. Tickets cost $15–25 available online at www.undercurrentsfestival.ca. Students PWYC at the door.