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Phoenix Theatre takes bold path for T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land

Production brings poetry, dance to the University of Victoria stage
University of Victoria students, including Kaelan Bain, second from left, perform in a re-imagined staging of T.S. Eliot's 1922 poem, The Waste Land, which runs in-person until Feb. 26 at the Phoenix Theatre and streams online Feb. 24-26. Credit Dean Kaylan

ON STAGE: The Waste Land

Where: Phoenix Theatre at the University of Victoria, 3800 Finnerty Rd.

When: Feb. 17-26 (in person), Feb. 24-26 (livestream)

Tickets: $16-$30 ($15 for livestream) from or 250-721-8000

The floor of the Phoenix Theatre stage has been painted for its upcoming production with a map showing the Thames River, complemented by a backdrop made up of three simple panels of fabric — a minimalist set-up for a groundbreaking production with an ensemble cast of 13 and a historic piece of prose for its foundation.

What happens during The Waste Land, which is based on the T.S. Eliot poem of the same name, will be anything but slight, however. “We’ve never done anything like this since I’ve been at the University of Victoria,” said director-choreographer Conrad Alexandrowicz, who has been with the school’s theatre department since 2008.

“The use of movement and abstraction, it doesn’t abide by the rules which govern plays.”

Eliot’s original is bursting with allusions or direct references to other writers, from Hermann Hesse and Aldous Huxley to Bram Stoker and William Shakespeare; it’s incredibly dense in that regard, with a persistent undercurrent of dread. Alexandrowicz, who adapted the text for this performance, has segued into the aforementioned writings in a manner he feels befits the century-old original.

The end result is remix of sorts. “The audience members who know the poem are going to think: ‘Wait a minute — that’s not in The Waste Land,’ ” Alexandrowicz said with a chuckle.

“It’s full of excursions. Some might be puzzled, surprised, annoyed. Maybe they’ll be disgusted, I don’t know. Just as long as people aren’t bored.”

The actors are being used as dancers, according to Alexandrowicz, who has a degree in dance from York University and spent two decades exploring interdisciplinary arts. Performance and movement are areas of specialty for the associate professor, who received a grant in 2011 to explore staging poetry for actors, dancers, and musicians, and Alexandowicz felt The Waste Land provided him with further opportunities to extend the idea.

“I have one actor who definitely plays T.S. Eliot, and there are some other characters which have emerged, so the audience has something to hang their hat on,” he said. “But this is operating in the realm of imagery. It’s physical imagery, which is analogous to the imagery in the language.”

There’s an apocalyptic feel to Eliot’s The Waste Land, above and beyond its title, one that has made the 434-line poem something of a sacred text among scholars (its most famous line, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” is said to have inspired The Dark Tower series by horror master Stephen King, among many other endeavours).

Taking artistic license with something written in 1922 wasn’t an issue, Alexandrowicz said, despite knowing his friends in academia will be in the audience. He believes the post-war poem has its present-day parallels. “It was a remarkable poem for its time, but it still reads as a modern piece.”

Though scattershot, the original is full of surprises, with references to Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Iseult to From Ritual to Romance, the book by Jessie Weston. It was up to Alexandrowicz to make it all work scenographically. The actors were game, he said.

“It was a lot of fun, actually. I’ve gone really far in finding scenarios in the language, I think. I’m curious what the audience will make of it.”

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