First, a warning: if you are feeling at all emotionally fragile, do not go see T.R.A.S.H. this week at la Cinqième Salle at Place des Arts, Montreal. If, however, you consider your sanity unshakeable, don’t miss it... but don’t be surprised if you leave emotionally spent.

Oona Doherty in Enchanted Room © Paul VanWeert
Oona Doherty in Enchanted Room
© Paul VanWeert

Combining dance, theatre, and live original music, T.R.A.S.H. grew out of the alternative punk rock scene in Tilburg, Holland. Under the artistic direction of Kristel van Issum and Guilherme Miotto, T.R.A.S.H. delivers an ultra-physical, raw, brutal, and absolutely riveting explosion of the subconscious mind in a world gone mad.

The Montreal show includes two pieces: Enchanted Room and T†Bernadette. Both works feature live music composed by Arthur van der Kuip, performed onstage. In Enchanted Room, soprano Michal Bitan sings gentle folk-influenced melodies, punctuated with laughing and occasional sound effects, against a drone intoned by baritone João Paixoa. Their calm polyphony amplifies the schizophrenic, rapid-fire mood changes enacted by the dancers, Oona Doherty and Joss Carter. In T†Bernadette, a solo cellist combines minimalism and extreme dissonance with amplified sound effects. Here the score complements the dance more closely, clearly projecting the underlying darkness of the couple’s emotional states.

Both works focus on a male-female couple. In Enchanted Room, a brother and sister seek a mythical promised land among the few dead trees that populate the stage. It’s not immediately obvious that the couple are siblings – if I hadn’t read the press materials I would have assumed they were simply a couple in a romantic, if severely troubled, relationship, although near the beginning Carter does shout about his pre-teen sister with the slutty dresses. So the specter of incest hovers over the couple, poisoning their search for a non-existent utopia.

The sister seems to be the stronger of the two. She bounds onto the stage, Broadway style, shouting manically and repeatedly, “The world is a wonderful place!” However her strength is riddled with petulance and vulnerability. Her bleached blonde wigs and frequent costume changes belie her degraded innocence: frilly bloomers and childish white dress soon give way to panties and purple bra.

If the female role here is to cover up the cracks in a seriously dysfunctional relationship, the male role is to inhabit those cracks. From the beginning we feel like Carter’s character is already institutionalized: his movements consist of horror-filled shaking and trembling and frightening violent outbursts. The delusions inhabited by the two characters translate into sudden and severe emotional shifts, from violent to vulnerable and back again within microseconds. Interspersing the madness are bits of humour (the kind of humour you uncomfortably acknowledge when your four-year-old niece puts on make-up and high heels), quotes of “drunken sailor” songs accompanied by very briefly rollicking jigs, and fragments of children’s rhymes sung by the dancers.

If Enchanted Room features a brother and sister living in an interior hell, T†Bernadette features a couple exploring the violent and sexual impulses that both bind them together and drive them apart. A washing machine sits onstage, perhaps as a reminder of the severe mundanity against which relationships unfold and eventually collapse. The machine is also a source of the costumes the dancers don, the personas they create.

T†Bernadette shares with Enchanted Room the extreme and sudden emotional contrasts, but its brutality is more immediately obvious. Doherty combines minute attention to physical detail (trembling fingertips, curled toes) with acrobatic, masochistic throws and gravity-defying backbends. She goes from jumping childishly from side to side to posing pseudo-sexually only to dissolve into a zombie walk seconds later. There is much more physical contact between the two dancers here: very little intimacy, but plenty of frenzied groping and animalistic taunting and thrusting. Humour makes fewer appearances, and is even darker, like when Doherty smiles, waves and shouts “Hi Mom!” in the midst of the madness.

Towards the end of T†Bernadette, Carter approaches a microphone set up on the stage, and starts “reading” from a piece of paper. He isn’t speaking English or French, indeed he may very well not be speaking any language. His sentences are violent, angry. He seems to be listing accusations. Doherty then pronounces her own incomprehensible observations. The two seem to be bearing public witness in a court of law, witness to some kind of atrocity (war crimes? Heinous criminal acts?). Carter then re-approaches the microphone as if to speak, seems to realize the futility of language, and returns to his macabre pas de deux with Doherty. It’s as if the couple challenges us to explain how we can create a peaceful world when we can’t even have a peaceful relationship with another person. Or perhaps it’s the opposite: how can we lead sane lives in such a shattered world?