BWW Reviews: Theatre Passe Muraille's VITALS
By Evan Andrew Mackay, special to BroadwayWorld
"You don't know what a call is going to be like until you get there," says Anna the paramedic. The same can be said of playwright Rosamund Small's new one-person drama Vitals, produced by Outside the March with support from Theatre Passe Muraille. This site-specific show about the arduous work of paramedics is not for the faint of heart. There are three ways in which Vitals is not easy for the audience. First, you don't just sit there; you are on-site and at various points you must be on your feet or climb stairs. Second, you are not pointed at a stage having the performance spoon-fed to you; for a period, you are swimming in the experience, which can be disorienting but also mind-expanding. Third, the subject matter-disturbing experiences that a paramedic encounters on the job-is traumatic even just to hear about.
For better or worse, the lone-performer format means the action is primarily described rather than depicted. But while certain scenes would be gripping if played out between multiple actors, much of it would be deeply upsetting (even for jaded viewers of TV violence) to see in such close quarters. What makes this suitable as a solo show is that, even though paramedics work in pairs, each must face his or her demons alone.
Although Vitals is a monologue, actor Katherine Cullen as paramedic Anna is not alone. Several mute medic/ushers, all women in uniforms labelled Anna and suggesting her multiple states of mind while on the job, periodically gesture to guide the audience from one location to another within the not-previously-disclosed venue.
To research her script, Small interviewed Toronto medic Kaleigh O'Brien (with whose parents I found myself speaking after the Saturday matinee). Having paramedics in my immediate family and amongst my oldest friends, I can tell you that writer Small, actor Cullen, and director Mitchell Cushman have created in Anna something very real. She talks like a paramedic-plainspoken and intense-as she tells the weird, disheartening and gut-wrenching stories that most experienced paramedics have in abundance. She says less about the happy endings which are also plentiful in this line of work, but Vitals isn't an episode of The Littlest Hobo. The script makes legitimate reference to the kind of trauma encountered by soldiers in combat. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not uncommon amongst emergency responders.
Anna is plainspoken and on edge. In listening to her stories, you get a tour of the moods and emotions you would expect of someone whose job demands that she wade into the mayhem that would make most people run away screaming. It's not a mere laundry list of car accidents and assaults; Anna relates several anecdotes which have affected her, telling some matter-of-factly and others vividly, provoking a variety of reactions from the audience, including chuckles, gasps, and tears. Her tales are linked together through characters and pivotal incidents she talks about, with elements of mystery and mounting tension and suspense.
Vitals is not a night at the theatre, it is an immersive dramatic experience, an experience that not everyone would be comfortable with, but one that no one could be unaffected by. There are only 30 tickets per performance, so if you can handle the stairs, the disorientation, and the emotion, it's vital that you get your ticket without delay.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Evan Andrew Mackay writes theatre reviews for Post City Magazines. He is currently seeking a publisher for his first novel and is further developing his latest play, Father Hero Traitor Son (2013), about a war hero with a traitorous son, (not as many laughs as the play about colorectal cancer which he co-wrote and performed in at the 2012 Toronto Fringe Festival). Evan writes drama, prose and humour in any form, and he is a journalist of culture and social justice. Also, he is obsessed with languages.* He has been a regular contributor to Post City Magazine and Nikkei Voice, national newspaper of Japanese Canadians. Raised in the Maritimes, he tends to live in Toronto.