WHO KILLED SPALDING GRAY?

Written and Performed by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Daniel Brooks
Produced by Rework Productions
Presented by Canadian Stage. December 2-11, 2016

spalding-2

 

Daniel MacIvor (photo: Gunter Kravis) 

 

Daniel MacIvor is probably the foremost theatrical solo performer in Canada just as the late Spalding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box) was one of the best-known (and most controversial) solo performers in the U.S. before he committed suicide by leaping off the Staten Island Ferry in 2004. MacIvor pays homage to Spalding Gray in this 80-minute monologue, but, as is usually the case with MacIvor, the work doesn’t have a linear simplicity. His piece has a visual economy: a single table, two chairs, a glass of water, and papers, illuminated by a cube of light from Kimberly Purtell. No projections, no special effects, no extraordinary sound design. Just the actor and minimal props. But these are a ruse for his meta-theatrical reflections: “I need to tell you the truth.” Oh, but what is the truth, and whose truth? MacIvor uses indirection to find direction out. A casual opening involving the participation of an (unsuspecting or planted?) audience member is effected in order to lead into answers of three of MacIvor’s fundamental questions: Who are you? Whom am I? Who is Spalding Gray?

The extent of MacIvor’s cleverness is evident even from his title that implies something dastardly, such as murder. But it is widely known that Spalding Gray had a host of psychological issues, and took his own life. Moreover, the title is not channelled into a single theme, for it soon becomes apparent that the answers to these underlying questions will not be direct or clear-cut. Instead, the audience gets three stories in one, and they encompass such things as psychoanalysis, suicide, “murder,” love, grief, depression, identity, and catharsis.

As MacIvor relates it, he was warned by an intuitive (euphemism for psychoanalyst) that he would have to remove the entity that was attached dangerously to him. So, he headed to the analyst in San Rafael, a town just north of San Francisco, for relief and therapy. The “surgeon” used trances to coax the entity to depart Gray’s body, but these sessions are interwoven into another story about a man named Howard who hires a hit man named Don to kill him at an unexpected moment. The plot in this story goes ironically awry, allowing MacIvor to indulge his superb penchant for wry black humour. Other bizarrely amusing and ironic subjects are added via discussions of the film Big Fish (the last film Gray reportedly saw and to which he had an upsetting emotional reaction), Helena Bonham Carter (who starred in it, directed by Tim Burton, her husband at the time), mythology, father-son relationships, and various signs of the universe. A rich stew, and a clever one for MacIvor’s overriding theme, which reveals itself as the nature, effects, and reliability of story-telling. We are such stuff as stories are made of, and in this piece, one story rests within another, making truth out of fiction.

There is no doubt that the show is a triumph for MacIvor as both writer and performer. Director Daniel Brooks seems unnecessary, but this is not to deny that his contribution remains virtually invisible, and therefore a good thing for he doesn’t allow anything to get in the way of MacIvor’s storytelling. Few performers can match MacIvor in absorbing an audience in his reflections, seemingly offhand or deliberate. Some of this themes may be well-worn but they are redeemed by his unique humour, lightness of bearing, and self-expressed vulnerability. In his interaction with the participant from the audience, he is sometimes charming, sometimes goofy (certainly his solo disco dancing is), and his main commodity is himself, of course, but what a compellingly interesting self that is, even though it is not necessarily exempt from questioning. In fact, questioning and self-questioning are part and parcel of MacIvor’s performance dynamic. He is not boxed in, and neither is his audience.

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