Review: Draw Me Close is an unforgettable experience
Jordan Tannahill’s autobiographical VR show works on heightened, emotional and extrasensory level
ATTRACT ME FIRM by Jordan Tannahill (Soulpepper / National Film Board). At the Young Center for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House). Until December 12. Exhausted. soulpepper.ca. Evaluation: NNNNN
Since the pandemic, words like “immersive,” “hybrid,” “virtual” and “intimate” have been used so loosely that they have lost all meaning. But they all apply to Jordan Tannahill’s Draw Me Close, a work that brilliantly combines live performance, audience participation, animation, and virtual reality (VR) to evoke an experience that works on an increased extrasensory level.
Wearing a sanitized VR headset, you open a door and step into a virtual recreation of playwright Tannahill’s childhood home, which has been carefully illustrated (both inside and out) in black and white. by Olie Kay and the late Teva Harrison. There is a garden outside; inside are the typical possessions of the suburbs: television, toys, table covered with a magazine, works of art. Note: Pay attention to works of art, especially photographs, as the exhibition progresses. As well as being a work about a son’s relationship with his mother – a subject treated by Tannahill in his novel Liminal and his dance-theater piece Declarations – Draw Me Close is also a mini portrait of the artist as that young queer man.
Fittingly, Tannahill himself walks you through the experience via a pre-recorded audio track. In that first scene, he’s a young child, and when his mother (Maggie Huculak in the performance I Saw; Caroline Gillis alternates in the role) opens the door and enthusiastically introduces him – that is, you – a rolled up wad of paper, you immediately get to work drawing something, which she encourages.
Sadly, that same spontaneous act of creation leads to a brutal domestic brawl after Jordan’s invisible father returns home. And little by little a picture emerges of the frustrated and limited life of the mother. As Jordan ages, his feelings about her change, especially when he looks at her, invisible and much older, in the garden, and he has a creative revelation about the lives of others. In the end, which I won’t spoil, his feelings for her are a complicated mixture of love, gratitude and guilt.
The technical aspects of the show are remarkable; the weather changes as if by magic, as in a dream, the walls dissolve, bedtime stories come to life during the narrative. But Tannahill provided such fine detail – a glass of wine, a twist, the flipping of a page in an art book – that these vignettes suggest a whole world. Although the show has evolved over five years, the presence of certain words – vaccine, plague, Spanish flu – mostly resonates now.
Draw Me Close consists of two parts. In the first, you participate in the show with the VR headset. In the second, you take off the headphones and watch as the next audience member walks in and experiences the same spectacle.
This second part acts almost like a behind-the-scenes making-of documentary of the experience you just had. Most importantly, it allows you to admire the performance of the actor; although VR technology may suggest the movement and posture of a performer, and of course the vocal performance remains intact, there is nothing quite like seeing an actor’s face, especially their eyes, to communicate the depth of what he feels. (I recognized Huculak’s voice and empathetic spirit early on, even when separated by headphones.)
And the room’s most emotionally charged moment, which means so much at a time when touch is loaded with meaning, works effectively in both VR and non-VR versions. This moment, combined with another just after, adds up to one of the most moving things I have experienced in the theater or in the movies.
Although the Draw Me Close series is sold out, we hope it adds more performance. At the very least, it should encourage artists to take more artistic and technical risks in exploring the human condition.
In a recent NOW What? podcast, NOW’s Norman Wilner chats with Giller Award nominee Tannahill about writing for the stage, transcendence and conflict in the Canadian literary community.