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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review: Countries Shaped Like Stars (Wildside)

A Constellation of Cabaret
Ottawa's Mi Casa Theatre may give us cavities, but who doesn't like a good love story?
by David King

There's a saccharine charm to Countries Shaped Like Stars at this week's Wildside Festival, right down to the homemade moustache cookies served up to the audience. 

Re-inventing simple objects and flirting with traditions of cabaret, vaudeville and buffoonery, Ottawa visiting performers Nicolas Di Gaetano and Emily Pearlman have been touring this musical storytelling piece now for about three years, along with others in the roster of their newly formed company, Mi Casa Theatre. Part of the mandate of Mi Casa is to break the walls down between audience and performer, and with Countries Shaped Like Stars, they show us how capable they are of doing just that.

...reminding us of our own connection to the imaginary world they've created, and of the theatre itself.

The show's fairytale revolves around the budding romance of Gwendolyn Magnificent and Bartholomew Spectacular, who meet in a mythical land of dragon fruits and endless constellations. As their romance develops, so too does heartache and regret, which is where the storyline (without spoiling the ending) really takes flight. In between all the goofy, innocent pathos, Di Gaetano and Pearlman regularly burst into interactive cabaret, reminding us of our own connection to the imaginary world they've created, and of the theatre itself.

On the Centaur stage, being reminded of the space is not always a good thing. The show's down-home, in-the-round intimacy is far more suited to a small Fringe space than a traditional theatre. Setting up two rows of seating upstage for that gather-round-the-campfire feel, the pair do well attempting to treat the larger bulk of the audience like the vast universe of constellations that are part of their landscape. Sitting as close to the stage in raked seating as we could, those in the back (including myself) end up far too removed from the characters,  facing a tiny audience onstage that ends up too often in the play as part of the action.

Pearlman, a talented singer with all the right nerdy-girl charm of the character she's co-created, is in good harmony with the irreverent, mandolin playing Di Gaetano, and director Patrick Gauthier does well tapping into their skills in his staging. Further design could more carefully polish this landscape to lift it out of an otherwise theatre school inventiveness, but for now, the show clicks as a poor man's cabaret: lamps turned on and off in transitions, flashlights hovering over the audience in search of lost love, and holiday lights strewn about for some height and dimension. Pearlman and Di Gaetano have enough energy and chemistry to carry the pace, as does their catchy music, on sale at the door on your way out. 

For those used to darker comedy, the text for Countries Shaped Like Stars may come across as more of a shooting star than a full constellation. Whether or not you need a telescope to inspect things more closely, the love story at the heart of this piece twinkles just enough for you to spot Venus hanging over you on a cold winter's night.

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