Happiness. Despair. Belief. Hope. Money. Connection. Transcendence. These are common themes in the theater, but rarely are they addressed as directly as they are by STO Union, the Canadian troupe visiting through Sunday as part of UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival.
In separate, alternating performances, the Ottawa-based group presents two pieces. One employs fairly linear, generally conventional storytelling. The other is stripped so bare that it's little more than a conversation. Both quickly get down to life's big questions.
For "Revolutions in Therapy," performed in the 180-seat Macgowan Little Theater, Tracy Wright and company artistic director Nadia Ross occupy a nearly empty stage, speaking into handheld mikes. Wright leads Ross through a sort of therapy session that also incorporates meditation techniques.
In essence, though, they are just talking, as two friends might, about the state of their lives, the state of the world, how they feel about this and what can be done to change any of it. They hand the leader-guide position back and forth, and a third person enters the equation, but they remain focused on the desire to find contentment and joy.
Through all of this, the audience is frankly acknowledged, along with its desires. "People come here to be entertained, and to be given something," Wright says, raising, by implication, the question of whether their performance will provide that.
It does, though the effect is subtle. A sense of stillness develops, largely because, in both pieces, the performers flatten their speech to a near-monotone and, with rare exceptions, register little expression in face or body. In the resulting calm, audience members' breathing slows. Their minds clear, focus, become hyper-attuned. It's group meditation, if you will.
Ross, with Jacob Wren, wrote and directed both pieces. "Therapy" is a more direct expression of STO's goals, but "Recent Experiences" is probably easier to grasp -- though it too has a twist.
This tale, which follows one family through the 20th century, is performed at an oblong table with a doughnut hole in its middle. Audience size is limited to 78 people, gathered on the stage of the Freud Playhouse. There is room at the table for 19 audience members; everyone else sits in two-row tiers of seats ringing the table's periphery. The six actors perform sometimes in the doughnut hole, sometimes while seated at the table, speaking across it. The audience is left mostly in the comfort of the dark and is not required to interact.
The story begins with a couple so happy "it's almost embarrassing," the woman, played by Ross, says. Indeed, they are so happy that they begin to fear "that nothing could ever happen again. In a way it was a little like death." So they experiment. The man, played by Learie McNicolls, leaves, so that, as Ross' character puts it, "we'd know happiness and we'd know emptiness and we could use one to cure the other." But this, of course, doesn't work out quite as hoped, and so begins, as in "Therapy," a search for inner peace.
Also woven into STO's performance technique are film, overhead projections, recorded voices, music and even a bit of dance -- sometimes used to draw in the viewer, sometimes to hold him or her at arm's length.
Is any of this truly useful? Will it lead to deeper understanding? Perhaps the best answer comes in "Experiences": "Life is what you make it."
What: "Recent Experiences"
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus
When: 4 p.m. today, 7 p.m. Sunday
Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
What: "Revolutions in Therapy"
Where: Macgowan Little Theater, UCLA campus
When: 8 tonight, 4 p.m. Sunday
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Contact: (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org