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You are here: Home Theatre Reviews & Features 2013-14 Reviews Toronto Toronto Toronto Theatre Review: VITALS
Saturday, 17 May 2014 13:06

Toronto Theatre Review: VITALS

Written by
Katherine Cullen Katherine Cullen Photo: Michael Barlas

Some vital facts about Vitals:

Fact 1) Vitals is "participatory theatre", which means it is a form of theatre in which the audience interacts with the performers or the presenters. This type of theatre attempts to blur the boundaries between art & life.

Vitals may also be referred to as "immersive theatre", which is partially defined in the show's brochure as, "The physical freedom to explore the sensory and imaginative world of a show without explicit direction. The non-linear narrative content coupled to a higher degree of viewer freedom can make it a singularly intense and personal experience."

2) In this production, instead of an audience sitting in one spot and the sets being changed on the stage, the audience moves from room to room 'into' the different settings.

3) Adverts for this play contend that Vitals is "an insight into the life of an emergency worker, an EMS paramedic." But it's that and more, since so much of what we see and hear in this production is not only about the workings of emergency medical services (EMS), but more specifically about Anna, an EMS worker (a brilliant Katherine Cullen). If they had titled this, "The Turbulent Life of Anna," (a dedicated EMS paramedic), it might more accurately have described what this play is about.

Full Disclosure; I am not a great fan of participatory theatre. I generally feel uncomfortable with theatre that directs me during the performance and expects me to be part of the action. I prefer to see plays in a darkened theatre and from the vantage point of a fixed seat approximately 5-6 rows from the stage and preferably on the aisle...more leg room that way.

I figure that suspension of disbelief, which is usually a necessity for an audience attending theatre, is more likely to occur with each audience member sitting independently, in their own private space, in a darkened theatre.

Nevertheless, Vitals was a fascinating experience and I can assure you that "this play will forever change the way you think about 911 calls."

To begin at the beginning;

A group of us had managed to score one or more of the only 30 tickets available per show and had gathered in front of a specified address on Roncesvalles, where we were handed earphones. We then walked several blocks to a private building on another street (address must not be disclosed), a lovely 3 story home in the Parkdale neighborhood. This dwelling had been turned into the performance space.

We were directed to the back garden of the house where we waited for all 30 audience members to assemble. While waiting, I noticed three banker boxes on the ground in the center of the garden. I assumed that we were welcome to look inside, since no one said otherwise. I discovered a blood stained sweater in one box and a dog leash in another. I honestly couldn't make out what was in the third box. Some article of clothing, I believe.

I further assumed that we would eventually learn how all these random, mysterious pieces would fit together, and we ultimately did.

Prior to entering the house, we heard voices over our earphones informing us that there was an emergency call from this address and that the EMS ambulance was on its way.

At the exact advertised starting time, we were introduced to Anna and to her nine alter egos, (the nine parts of Anna, representing her at different times in her job as an EMS worker) who invited us into the house.

As we were somewhat free at specified moments to wander through parts of the house, it might have looked as though the events that unfolded were improvised or spontaneous. But in fact, each and every moment of this production is carefully calculated, directed and timed.

Each performer knows exactly 'who' is supposed to be 'where' in this house, 'what' they're supposed to be doing and/or saying and very specifically 'when'. So no matter where you are at any given time, the alter ego guides are there to direct you to a particular compulsory event at exactly the right moment.

As you move from room to room and from experience to experience, Anna is there with you constantly, via the earphones, or in person. And some of what you're seeing/hearing is gruesome… all EMS material... a story about an unfed baby who dies, several incidents of people having heart attacks, or believe it or not, people faking heart attacks so they don't have to pay for their restaurant bill, countless folks with asthma attacks, drug overdoses, sexual assaults, rapes, suicides, burns and far too many idiots who needlessly stop the ambulance on its way to a serious emergency because they fell and scraped their arm.

Even though Anna is with you throughout the 90 minutes as the main thread, her nine alter egos, each dressed according to whatever emergency Anna had experienced at some point during her EMS career (a blood spattered EMS uniform, or a partially burned and torn outfit, etc. with costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle) are also there to remind you of Anna's many terrifying moments, as well as to direct and guide you through the house and the experience.

Each room features a different type of case/emergency... the blood splattered bathroom in which someone cut their wrists, the room in which I was handed clothes pins and freshly washed baby clothes that had previously been drenched in blood and I was asked to help hang them up to dry on a clothes line and the room from which we watched someone commit suicide by jumping to their death off a neighboring building.

After seeing or hearing about some of these traumas, we're encouraged to wander and explore other spaces, as a way to minimize or release the building tension. But at very specific moments, all wandering and exploration stops, as everyone is directed to a specific space in the house for a talk by Anna, who is a superior story teller.

In one room, the space that is the operations room of EMS headquarters, I noticed rows and rows of banker boxes, each one containing a label that by itself tells a story. Seizures/Amputations/Drug Overdoses/Sepsis/Palpitations/ Wrist Cutters/Dog Bites/Hemorrhaging/etc.

In addition to all the blood and gore, we also hear about and see the various more routine daily activities of an EMS worker, like watching a worker in the kitchen literally perform the mundane task of preparing a fried egg for her lunch, or at another point, off in another corner of the house, a worker doing her daily yoga exercises.

At one point, Anna herself goes beyond the EMS events and cases by making things very casual and personal. She offers you donuts and coffee while she talks more intimately about her relationships and discusses her feelings and emotions concerning her colleagues who are involved with her on a daily basis.

Ultimately, as the pressures of her job accumulate, it becomes obvious that this play is more than "A Day in the Life of…" It has now evolved into "Anna's Crisis," a point in Anna's life and career where she finally has to face her personal demons, which is not surprising, given her unceasing trauma-filled existence.

Eventually, we realize that this is really the story of Anna's burn out, her slow and awful deterioration as a person and as an EMS worker. And as horrendous as it all sounds, this script and production work as an excellent piece of theatre because the playwright and director have created a perfect blend, or balance, if you will, of interesting facts and emotional moments. They encouraged us to learn about a vital public service, while also emotionally connecting us to that service by making us care about Anna.
Katherine Cullen's bravura performance as Anna is a must see!

The directing by Toronto's hottest young director, Mitchell Cushman is incredibly innovative and the highly unusual. The set and multiple props are truly special (design by Anahita Dehbonehie)
Musically, there is an appropriate soundtrack designed for each event. For example, in the drug overdose room, we hear heavy metal in the background (design by Samuel Sholdice).

It seems as though this type of experimental theatre is attractive to a more youthful audience, since more than half of our group that day consisted of college age kids.

As interesting as this production is, it's still not my "cuppa". But if this is what it takes to attract the audience of the future to the theatre, then bring it on!

Cast & Creative Team

Starring: Katherine Cullen as Anna
Directed by: Mitchell Cushman
Written by: Rosamund Small
Production Design: Anahita Dehbonehie
Sound Design: Samuel Sholdice
Costume Design: Shannon Lea Doyle
Produced by: Katherine Devlin Rosenfeld
Audience Liaison and Social Media: Sebastien Heins
Poster Illustration and Design by Chloe Cushman
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VITALS has been extended one more week, due to popular demand!
The show must close June 1st

Additional Info

  • Review Theatre Name:  
  • Review Theatre Address:  
  • Review Theatre Closes Date: Sunday, 01 June 2014
Last modified on Saturday, 17 May 2014 22:18