70 minutes / Drama / PG
Ghost River Theatre’s lab-coated “audience service mechs” lead audience members blindfolded, in groups of five, to their individual experience modules. They pass through a children’s playground until they are seated individually. A helicopter approaches and lands among them to take them on a sonic adventure – an audio experience of a Ray Bradbury story about an expectant couple (Polly and Peter, played by Anna Cummer and Tyrell Crews) whose mechanistically-assisted childbirth goes terribly wrong. Their child (Py, played by a cast of four) is cast into an extra dimension. In four spatial dimensions he is a normal child, but in our three dimensions he is…
The soundscape of Tomorrow’s Child is rich and lush. From the first scenes of the playground and the helicopter, the soundscape is immersive and enveloping. The sound surrounds you – around you, above you, sometimes at your feet, occasionally in your chest. Often, sounds feel nearby but just slightly out of reach. Choral passages are particularly lush. One sonic highlight is a game of hide and seek where Py takes advantage of his extra dimensionality to evade Polly.
Ray Bradbury would probably have liked this sonic adaptation of his story. Ghost River Theatre has not tried to update the story for our time. Instead Tomorrow’s Child is a time capsule. They are unabashedly presenting a story set in 1988, but imagined by a writer living in 1947. Bradbury published the story as The Shape of Things in 1947.
Often, speculative fiction reflects the social mores of the times in which it is written. Orwell’s 1984 is a dystopian 1948 tale about totalitarianism. The societal roles in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 look like 1953 despite its high-tech flame-throwing fire trucks.
While Tomorrow’s Child is set in 1988, the societal roles of Tomorrow’s Child reflect the post-WWII ‘40s. Mothers stay at home, while fathers go to work. Expectant fathers aren’t allowed into the delivery room. Men rely on cocktails at times of stress. Mothers instantly love their newborns unconditionally.
1947 was the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) Hollywood blacklist. Anti-communist paranoia was at a height. Conformity to social norms was valorized.
Bradbury’s story of a child born into an extra spacial dimension shows clear influence from Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland (1884), in which a two-dimensional being, a square, is visited by a three-dimensional being, a sphere. The square can see the visitor in only two dimensions, as a circle. Py is a normal child in four spatial dimensions, but his intersection with our three dimensions makes him unrecognizable.
But Bradbury wasn’t trying to simply update Flatland from the 19th to the 20th centuries. He wanted to explore how people who look different – people with physical disabilities or birth defects, visible minorities, lower social classes – are treated by society. 1947 was the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) Hollywood blacklist. Anti-communist paranoia was at a height. Conformity to social norms was valorized.
I had two reactions to the immersive soundscape. I found a similarity to the experience of reading, where I had to use my imagination to visualize the events around me. What did the children in the playground look like? Or the helicopter? Or Py?
My other reaction was that I felt cut off from the other members of the audience. No arms touched mine. I rarely heard another audience member. This is unlike most theatre where we experience the emotions of those around us.
My reactions are by no means definitive. Chatting with others afterwards revealed different reactions. Some experienced it as they would a radio play. Some drew pictures in their minds to fill in the gaps. Others enjoyed the soundscape on its own terms. For them, the sound of flowing water was enjoyable on its own with no need for an accompanying image.
At a 70-minute length, some of the auditory passages are too long. Sound for sound’s sake. If I’d been able to see, I’d have checked my watch.
It’s certainly possible to enjoy the immersive experience for its own sake, like a sonic roller coaster ride. The soundscape is of a quality to rank with Mad Max Fury Road in a surround-sound movie theatre. When the helicopter takes off, you are IN the helicopter!
The immersive sound heightens the appreciation of some parts of Bradbury’s story, especially Polly’s experience of undergoing and recovering from anaesthetic.
But the soundscape is so involving that it’s hard to ponder the deeper meanings that Bradbury was trying to explore. Maybe that’s what you could discuss afterwards with your team.
Tomorrow’s Child by Ghost River Theatre Company is playing at Arts Court Theatre (2 Daly Ave) as part of the 7th undercurrents festival. Friday February 17 at 9:00PM. Matinee Saturday February 18 at 1:00PM. Tickets are $20 in the evening (including HST) or $15 for the matinee. See www.undercurrentsfestival.ca for other discounts.