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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Theatre review: Red Phone is surreal

The feeling is one of nervous dread, as I try to make sense of it all

There was something nostalgic about standing in one of those old-fashioned enclosed phone booths, talking on a phone. It was also weirdly surreal talking to a complete stranger on the other end, reading someone else’s words. Such is the set-up for Boca Del Lupo’s latest micro-performance, Red Phone.

Taking your place inside one of two custom-built phone booths located around the corner from each other on Granville Island, the teleprompter above the phone tells you to answer when it rings. Upon answering, the teleprompter begins to cue your side of the conversation.

“Hey” is the first word that appears on the teleprompter as my unseen partner and I begin playwright Marcus Youssef’s sub-ten minute script, All Good. From there, much is a blur as I try to concentrate on the words that appear before me and taking in the words said by the person on the other end. The noises outside the phone booth become a distraction as I force myself into the story. Putting my finger into one ear, I strain to hear, trying to recite my dialogue as it appears on the teleprompter. I focus even harder on what is being said on the other end.

The conversation is disjointed, not only because of how it written, but also largely because there is zero context. The feeling is one of nervous dread, as I try to make sense of it all.

I must confess I feel as if I failed miserably. Not in holding up my part of the bargain – I kind of got into the whole acting part, something I haven’t done in some time – but in understanding what the story was all about. Key words registered – Jian Ghomeshi, Ebola, ISIS – but they became a jumble. By the end I had very little understanding of what just transpired.

I do have a confession, a privilege I suppose as someone who writes about theatre, but I asked Boca Del Lupo for a copy of Youssef’s script.  Another confession: it is the only reason I am able to tell you the name of Youssef’s piece.

Even as I tried to flex my now latent acting muscles, the experience was ultimately surreal. I wanted it to be real.

Having the opportunity to read the script shed some light on All Good, but I readily admit even with the benefit of reading it after-the-fact, there is little recognition to what transpired in the phone booth.

In its press material, Boca Del Lupo say that it is “a conversation that you will not soon forget”. Going on to refer to them as “some of the most urgent, touching and uplifting conversations that prominent Canadian writers think we should be having”. Marketing hyperbole aside, the reality for me, was very different. The only way in which I could remember any detail was to read the script, and without context, my conversation lacked any emotional connection.

In a recent interview with the Georgia Straight, Boca del Lupo’s artistic director, Sherry J Yoon, expands on the urgent conversation idea to include the opportunity “for anybody who also wants to experience what it is like to act, but privately.”

That aspect of Red Phone is more successful than in any understanding of my urgent conversation. It also has big limitations. Most actors have context, and the idea of going into a performance, or even an audition, without having read the script is not reality. At the very least there is some idea of what the play is about.  In Red Phone we are given nothing more than words on a teleprompter to read. Even as I tried to flex my now latent acting muscles, the experience was ultimately surreal. I wanted it to be real.

Red Phone conceived by Sherry Yoon and designed by Jay Dodge with technology by Carey Dodge. A Boca del Lupo production. On stage at The Fishbowl on Granville Island until October 21. Visit for tickets and information.

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