Arts Report Review: PuSh Festival's Steppenwolf | A Scene of Absurd Expression


Once again, Vancouver’s International Performing Arts Festival PuSh brought a bevy of dazzling and dynamic performances to challenge audiences and their viewpoints on art. As you may have heard on the Arts Report, our CiTR Arts Reporters have been abuzz about PuSh and lauded the festival for their bold and energetic approach in creative works.

One of such works was Fight With A Stick’s production of Steppenwolf, as Arts Reporter Andrew Arasimonwicz discussed a little on-air during the February 11, 2015 show. He further describes in his in-depth review of this fantastic show under the cut.

Fight With A Stick's Production of Steppenwolf for the Vancouver PuSh Festival.
Fight With A Stick’s Production of Steppenwolf for the Vancouver PuSh Festival.


If you’ve ever picked up an article or a review on an adaptation of a novel into another medium, you’re probably well acquainted with variations on the expression  “Can’t be done”.The novels of Faulkner, Wallace, and Pynchon are no strangers to this saying, as their books are known to be focused on being experimental to the point of only being able to exist within the medium of the novel. Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, is not one of these books. It is still, however, quite a weird trip of fiction, and when I heard that a theatrical adaptation was going to play as a part of Vancouver’s International Performing arts festival (a.k.a PuSH,) curiosity forced me to go out and check how exactly co-directors Alex Ferguson and Steven Hill would adapt such an acid trip of a book with their theatre company, “Fight With a Stick”.

Steppenwolf performed at the Russian Dance hall in Eastern Downtown Vancouver from February 4th to the last day of the Push festival, February 8th. I saw the performance on the first day of production, so I was well aware that I benefitted from a lack of fatigue by the cast. The dance hall was conveniently right next to a bus stop so access to the event was rather easy for a university student without a car like myself.

As soon as I received my press pass for the show I went into the auditorium to be immediately confronted with the bizarre sight of every audience member in the room facing not the main stage where I’d expected the show to play, but the back where a white screen with the image of a red curtain was projected. My previously held fears that this was just going to be a straight white laced performance of the novel beat for beat were pleasantly destroyed by this kinda off-kilter image.

    At around five minutes passed eight, things got started with a man connected with PuSH reading a brief introduction to the directors. Soon after he finished, the white screen began to lift slowly, revealing a mirror that reflected the entire audiences faces back to them. I should reinforce that the curtain was lifted up really, really, slowly, allowing myself at the very least to have a decent amount of time to think about what the hell was going on. I recalled in the book, there was a magical theatre which held a mirror, so I thought perhaps the directors desired to transform the entire Russian Hall auditorium into the magical theatre. Gradually, I just decided to not make any conclusions early on, and just see exactly where the directors wanted to take me and the rest of the audience with their unique vision.

After a bit, some figures adorned in black carrying with them laptops that showed the image of a room came into focus in the mirror. The laptop screens were small, and the images on them were a bit difficult to decipher, but all of this, I believe, was intentional. The figures began moving side to side, and the images on their screen’s started to move along with them, until I came to realize that these separate images on each of their computer screens showed aspects of the same room. The amount of work required to plan out this filming with the movement of the cast commanded respect.

A voice could be heard coming from somewhere behind. A few curious heads turned away from the mirror to look behind them. As could be seen in a mirror, there was a man reading from the book Steppenwolf in a television set, reading softly, so softly that the ambient noises of fog horns and beach gulls almost drowned out his narration, his narration over the frivolousness of middle class values.

His reading continued, and two boards were placed upon the stage, each depicting the interior of a house that any member of the bourgeoisie could call homely. Each board was equal in size, and consisted of similar objects, a lamp, a table, and some wall paper, albeit each one was different in insignificant ways such as the colour of the wall paper or the size of the lamp. Lights exposed one of these scenes but not the other for about a period of two seconds each, manifesting the question to the reader with the help of the narration critical of the livelihood shown, what exactly was the difference between these two sets? What ultimately differentiated one middle class setting from the other other than debatebly non-relevant aesthetic features? The answer that the play impressed was that there wasn’t a difference, due to as soon as the man in the televisions set finished his reading, both of the sets fell down in sequence, as not one aspect of either of the scenes made them stand just a bit longer than the other.

After this, the man reading from Steppenwolf went silent, although his television set was still visible. The stage lights moving to the back of the stage, exposing the red curtain, took at least my eye off of the man. In front of the curtain, was a man carrying around the projected image of another man pacing back and forth and back and forth. The image of the man looked bewildered, questioning something important that only he knew. Eventually, the man being projected onto the screen manifested from behind the curtain, and began mimicking the mannerisms of his projected image. He disappeared under the curtain while the projected image continued in its path, but he reemerged after a bit, continuing to brood. When he hid behind the curtain sometime again, the curtain opened up, revealing what looked like to be at least three or four scarlet curtains behind the first curtain visible to the audience, all in the motion of opening and closing after the first exposed the red maze. All of this continued with the projected image of the contemplating man being pulled back and forth in front of the red curtain, while the actual contemplating man played a little dance among the different layers of curtains. There was a real sense of continuity in this image, and since this image was joined by the sight of the deeply troubled introspective man, it gave the striking and horrific impression of despair, a despair that does not end, but continues until the curtain’s close for good.

A period of about five minutes lapsed and all of the the curtains opened up. The background of the stage revealed an image that looked like iron bars, a sound could be heard of iron moving, and the sight in the mirror of what looked like to be a house moving in and out of the stage from the left side caught my attention. The bars in the background moved, and it became clear that once again, the directors were using projected images against a white walls to create an effect. The house eventually moved to the front of the stage and began spinning, while the image of bars projected in the background morphed into an image of the cosmos, moving in tandem with what looked to be the counterclockwise spinning of the house. The impressive visual talent on display in this theatrical production soon became apparent with how flawlessly the two images moved together.

Both the house and the projected image of the cosmos stopped spinning, and out from the house came a member of the cast. He gave a monologue that was in essence about the characteristics of a libertine girl who exposed herself soon after she was introduced. She soon entered the television set where the man reading “Steppenwolf” laid, and began flirting with the man, who ultimately kept his distance from making any sort of commitment.

The man in front of the house then introduced the musician Pablo, who was depicted, as he is in the book, as a hedonistic smooth talker. He too, entered the television set where both the man reading Steppenwolf and the libertine woman were, only as soon as he entered into the television set, he began immediately making out with the woman. He also before this made out with the individual who gave the monologue on both characters. The actual actor playing the monologue was a woman, but on stage she looked like a man, I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but if it was, it gave a pretty good depiction over the free-willed nature of Pablo.

 The lights dimmed for a couple of minutes, allowing the audience to put their full attention on the scene of promiscuous lust. The lights in the main stage went back on, and the character who gave the monologue beforehand was now in some frame, and he(she?) began acting very strangely as polka music accompanied his rantings. The scene took my attention off of the television set, which became apparent to me as all of the characters within the T.V. began to interact with the man in the frame in their own ways. Crumpled up pieces of newspaper where hailed on the man like snow, the woman appeared, as another member of the cast held a fan in front of her so that she could pose like a model, and some sort of mannequin was being tossed around. The mood of the whole thing was jovial, if not a bit comedic, as the absurdity of the visuals and the ambiguousness of the narrative left me confused if I was suppose to laugh with or at the cast.

    This mood of mirth didn’t continue for long though, because as soon as the lights on the stage blackened, everything from the music to the cast started freaking out. I can’t exactly recall the sounds that were playing at this time, but they were that of heavy industry that can’t be escaped on a walk down any metropolitan area. A leg from the mannequin shown earlier was now being used by Pablo to destroy the stage, while the rest of the cast just went about rampaging with their bare hands. All of this was accompanied by text in the background detailing words over the end of Western civilization. All in all, it was really effective in creating a dark tension and tone.

    The play ended on complete existential despair. After the apocalyptic scene was allowed to be carried out, all that could be scene was the look of trauma on each of the characters faces. One of the characters on the stage, the character who first came out of the house and in the picture frame, attempted to make sense of what had just previously happened, but the melancholic sounds of guitar drone music drowned out whatever words he could’ve mentioned to reconcile his and his groups actions. As soon as his speech finished, the play finished.

    Frankly, I came out of Steppenwolf pleasantly surprised at just how effective a job the play did at making me feel awful, which in turns meant that it was a complete success in capturing the essence of Hesse’s novel.

    Steppenwolf is a book centered around existential confusion and a rejection over bourgeois sentiments. Instead of just regurgitating the basic plot points in the text in a way that can be expressed in theatre, co-directors Alex Ferguson and Steven Hill ingeniously capture the angst of the absurd by demonstrating it in scenes of loss and confusion, an act with captures the feelings of an existential crisis over the meaning of life much better than just following the thoughts and acts of a troubled character.

    By also using a mirror to show not only the stage to the audience but also their own faces, the play expertly erases any disconnect that audience members might have over the events occurring to the cast as events that can only occur to the cast. The despair that comes with the realization over the meaninglessness of middle class life has the possibility of happening to any member of the bourgeois, and because, let’s face it, taking some time off and enjoying local art isn’t a past-time for the proletariat, the use of mirrors gives audience members ample conditions to reflect on their own place in the economy.

    The willingness of PUSH to promote experimental and avant-garde theatre should be applauded, and it’s a trend that I hope continues into the future. While this review of Steppenwolf might come out after not only Steppenwolf has finished production but as PuSh comes to an end as well, keep the names Alex Ferguson, Steven Hill, and the company name “Fight With A Stick” in mind, because for those who enjoy reflective, experimental art in general, from my extremely positive experience with Steppenwolf, I believe these names are going to be making interesting material for a good long while into the future.