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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Theatre review: FLEE is filled with metaphors and atmosphere

FLEE is at least galvanizing. You’ll either hail it as a brilliant Kafka-inspired mindfuck, or you’ll walk away scratching your head (and other parts of your body), trying to figure out exactly what just took place.

At its most basic, FLEE tells the story of destitute watchmaker Archibald Twill who upon discovering a singing flea, sets up a flea circus inside a rundown hotel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The tiny circus becomes a surprising cult phenomenon thanks to the hotel’s proprietor, played with delightful eccentricity by Kathryn Shaw.

This is where things get complicated though, as co-writers David Hudgins, Jonathon Young and Peter Anderson take great liberties in presenting their story, chief among them the spatial relationship between Twill’s world and that of Caprice and the flea circus.

It is never quite clear whether Caprice, played with the haunting melancholy of a tortured chanteuse by Lois Anderson, is of the human or Pulex irritans variety. Does Caprice undergo a literal metamorphosis (more Kafka), or are the playwrights once again playing with a spatial construct?

And what of the Fleaks?  Played with panache by students from Langara’s Studio 58, are these simply the story’s narrators, other fleas, or are they the circus’ gathering cult followers? In the weirdly twisted realm of FLEE it is probably safe to say they are all, some, or none of those things.

Studio 58 Artistic Director Kathryn Shaw plays Madame Renard with a wonderful eccentricity
Studio 58 Artistic Director Kathryn Shaw plays Madame Renard with a wonderful eccentricity

Post-show discussions naturally drifted to the metaphorical nature of FLEE. Is this a commentary on the life of an artist, who becomes consumed by their craft, so manipulated by those looking to take advantage, that their true nature all but disappears? Or perhaps, taking it outside the idiosyncratic and indulgent sphere of show business, is it more a basic human quest to find and hold onto love at any cost? Depending on which of the playwrights you’re talking to, it is both and much more. In recent interviews director and co-writer Young talks of Kafka, the theatre and even the Downtown Eastside. In our own interview with David Hudgins he talks of the compromises necessary in any relationship.

Whichever side you fall on though, FLEE gets a great deal of its strength from the atmosphere that is created inside Vancouver’s converted porn house. Shizuka Kai’s set is beautifully realized with its larger-than-life magnifying glasses focused on the raised ring at the center of the stage. But it is in combination with Itai Erdal’s subdued lighting design that gives the show a signature look that simultaneously acknowledges The Fox Cabaret’s history, and bridges the line between the real and fantasy of FLEE. Barbara Clayden adds to the mood with her costumes.

Helping to bring it all together is the music from Peggy Lee, from the small four-member band that combines electronics with cello, trumpet and percussion. While it is at times overpowering, given its position beside the audience, there is a haunting quality that beautifully underscores much of the action and sets the tone for what we are witnessing on stage.

Whether you walk away with a profound understanding, or a bewildering shake of the head, one thing is for sure: FLEE has the ability to make you obsessively continue scratching at its surface, just like a flea bite. But perhaps most satisfyingly, just like theatre should.

FLEE by David Hudgins, Jonathon Young and Peter Anderson. Originally conceived by David Hudgins. Original music by Peggy Lee. An Electric Company Theatre and Studio 58/Langara College co-production in partnership with Barking Sphinx Performance, The Elbow Theatre and the Arrival Agency. On stage at The Fox Cabaret (2321 Main St, Vancouver) until December 6. Tickets are available online at Tickets Tonight. Visit or for more information.

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