It’s my first show of the Fringe and the audience is on its feet unable to stop applauding. Playwright and performer Joy Ross-Jones is holding back the tears after her stellar performance in which she embodies seven different Venezuelan people. She invites everyone to a talkback and encourages us to look at the organizations that are bringing positive changes to Venezuela in the program.
I’m not sure if I’ve hit my Fringe peak and everything else will be a disappointment afterwards, or if this is just the start of a series of shows that are going to bat it way out of the park. Either way, at some point during the Montreal Fringe Festival 2017 you should hike up to Studio Rialto to check out Elsewhere (dir. Christina Cugliandro, written and performed by Joy Ross-Jones).
The show starts as the audience enters a room filled with shoes of different types on the floor, reminiscent of Doris Salcedo’s works about Argentina’s “disappeared”. Flowers, umbrellas, and Venezuelan flags hang from above. Ross-Jones comes to the stage to watch a political feed on her computer and shortly after, puts the computer away as the music starts and the lights dim. She then introduces six different Venezuelans who are suffering under food shortages and political oppression in a country that has collapsed.
Each monologue is delivered using a separate half-face cardboard-colored mask, beautifully shaped around the eyes, forehead, nose, and cheeks to provide us with a portrait of a distinct individual. Masks are so often used to hide or conceal, to genericize. In this case, they serve to personify each character, and increase the illusion that Ross-Jones has become someone new. It is extremely successful, especially with the dance-like physicality. In addition to each person’s narrative, their class and personal history, Ross-Jones uses both gesture and posture to create the experience of having different lenses through which to see the effects of the catastrophe.
The six individuals she brings to life are each compelling and have good reason to share their experience. All are angry, but have enough humour and pathos to round them out. We meet a former-pageant/model/beauty queen who uses her charm to get ahead in the food line. Another is a philosophical cop who tries to look on what good fortune he still has in life and uses puns to try keep his spirits lifted. I don’t want to reveal too much, other than that each monologue is a glimpse that draws the audience into the experiences of a complete and rich individual. Each one surprises and delivers a storytelling journey. Ross-Jones is magical. Her range to bring each one into existence so fully embodied — and she does it in both Spanish and English — is commendable.
Whatever triumphs Ross-Jones has an actress in this piece, she is just as successful in raising awareness. In a world where Isis and Trump grab headlines, Venezuela’s on-going problems have been less visible in most news cycles. Ross-Jones is very clever is allowing her first character, a punk, to bring the audience up to speed on the country as she rages about the causes of the situation. After this show, I went and looked at the websites of the organizations that Ross-Jones recommends for the contribution to positive change (Medical Fundraising for Venezuela, Support for Mothers in Venezuela, and Fundrasing for material to improve conditions in preschools and elementary schools).
On the whole, Elsewhere is a must-see show with its important conscious raising message and in illustrating the impact of political unrest on individual people. Ross-Jones’ passion for this cause, for the people affected by it, is infectious. Her virtuosity as an actress is commendable, the message important, and overall, a great piece of theatre.
Elsewhere is playing at the Rialto Studio (5723 Du Parc) as part of the Montreal Fringe Festival on June 2 (19:00), 3 (14:00 and 19:00), 4 (19:00), 6 (19:00), 7 (19:00), 8 (14:00 and 19:00). $10.50. Tickets HERE or contact 514-849-FEST.