Review: Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua

by Lynn on October 18, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace,  Toronto, Ont.

Written and performed by Justin Miller

Accompaniment by Steven Conway

Directed by Byron Laviolette

Design by Joseph Pagnan

Lighting by Jareth Li

Sound by Deanna H. Choi

Tent by Haley Reap

Puppets by Jesse Byiers

Part revival meeting, part lecture, part gentle hectoring. Totally entertaining in slightly eye-brow-knitting way.

 We negotiate our way around the outside of Haley Reap’s tent to the ‘creamy flaps of the tent’ (Pearle’s words, not mine). Joseph Pagnan has designed the production so we pass an old typewriter, old suitcases, vintage stuff to get us into the mood. Quite effective.

We are welcomed into Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua tent by Brother Gantry who holds a basket full of ping pong balls. We take a ping pong ball from a basket on the way in. Each ball has a number and “Chautauqua” printed on it. The number corresponds to one of 10 benches. I sit on my bench at the back. Strings of lights cross the top of the tent. On the four walls of the tent are sayings that we will come to know are the backbone of Pearle’s philosophy: Speak Truth, Live Pure, Right the Wrong and Follow the Way. Simple codes of behaviour.

At show time, we hear Pearle singing a hymn outside the tent. She travels around the outside of the tent, fluttering the tent wall on my side and then makes a quiet but arresting entrance. She is in full, high makeup: dramatic eyebrows worthy of the late Marian Seldes, false eyelashes as long and curved as skateboard loops, bright red lipstick, definite shadings on the cheeks and eyelids, wearing an auburn wig of waves and curls. She wears a vintage, form-fitting WWII jacket with a ‘wings’ pin on it, over a white blouse,  a string of pearls, well fitted Capri pants and heels. The smile is disarming and yet makes us wary. The voice is a deep purr.

Pearle is fervent in her efforts to create community, assure us we are not alone and impart wisdom. Several times during the gathering or “Chautauqua”, she makes us recite together the four wise sentences/dictates of a good life. She urges us to say “You Betcha” when we agree with her and we usually do. I don’t want to know her reaction if we don’t agree.

Pearle talks of the worrying world we live it with one leader with orange hair who obviously does not subscribe to her four rules of life. Are we worried? Will we find the way? You Betcha.

She approaches various people in the audience, asks their name, chats with them respectfully, even asking if she can touch then (usually on the arm or the shoulder) and it’s all very non-threatening. People are up for the involvement. And she remembers their names as she goes back to various people for further assurance. One woman at the back volunteers to drink some kind of pure Chautauqua water that Pearle pours slowly into a glass. It has a strange light amber? colour. Do I detect a little fish that poured into the glass? The brave woman drinks a bit of it without terrible consequence. You Betcha.

The audience is trusting, accommodating and it seems on the same wavelength as Pearle regarding the world and its problems. But occasionally that purring voice and charming smile suggest a more sinister, unsettling side to her.

She picks a person to participate in a game. The prize is a crèmesicle. Who would the woman share the crèmesicle with? The woman chooses her friend. Then Pearle says since there is only one to give away (there are two, one goes to another person) Pearle asks the woman if she would eat it herself or give it to her friend (note how subtly the sharing is cut from the equation). The woman gives it to her friend. Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua makes us think about such things.

Brother Gantry (the well-turned out Steven Conway) plays the guitar and  engages with Pearle and not always in a good way. He comes under some scrutiny and sharp words when something goes wrong. Another reason to be wary and respectful of Pearle.

Pearle re-enacts a play using hand puppets that she distributes to members of the audience who will play the various characters. The script for each puppet is in the sleeve of the puppet. It takes a special impish chutzpah to give the puppet of the old mother to Ronnie Burkett, marionette master extraordinaire, who was in my audience. Mr. Burkett does a brilliant job with the puppet and the old-crone voice. Of course! You Betcha!

This is my second? Third? Chautauqua and the format is the same with perhaps some tweaks here and there. It is all scripted, even the planned malfunction of a stubborn light that flickers on and off and then goes off. Pearle is not happy about that and chastises the stage manager, the accommodating Giuseppe Condello. Pearle replaces the bulb herself and voilá there is light! You Betcha. (however in my show Pearle accidentally stepped on a light at the side of the tent and apologized to Mr. Condello who then replaced the light during the show. That was a mistake that was not planned.)

There are of course moments when Pearle, and her gifted alter ego Justin Miller, rise to the occasion and banter with the audience. The quips are good natured with just a little bit of edge occasionally. She is never insulting. It’s all directed with easy care by Byron Laviolette.

Justin Miller has written and created a character that stops us in our tracks; makes us pay attention to what she says and agree with her. She gives us a good time. And lots to think about. Does she ‘speak truth, live pure, right the wrong, and follow the way’? I think so, er, uh, “You Betcha.” And I will too.

Produced by Rebecca Ballarin and Justin Miller.

 Began: Oct. 11, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 28, 2018.

Running Time: 80 minutes

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