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What It’s Like is an amiable, athletic account of male friendship

What It’s Like is a new dance-theatre-performance hybrid from the Adelheid company now on at the Theatre Centre.

Title
What It’s Like
Genre
Dance
Actors
Michael Caldwell, Luke Garwood and Naishi Wang
Venue
Theatre Centre
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Sunday, October 02, 2016

I'm a sucker for watching men do idiotic things with household objects.

At one point in What It's Like, a new dance-theatre-performance hybrid from the Adelheid company now on at the Theatre Centre, Luke Garwood and Naishi Wang make their hands into fists and then wrap them in transparent duct tape. This is easy enough for the first hand, and the second. But once each man has transformed one extremity into a big, sticky, plastic ball, their task becomes trickier. Wrists and teeth become crucial to get the job done.

All the while, Luke and Naishi – who along with a third dancer named Michael Caldwell, observing impartially at this point, are the performers in this show – talk about whether they are brothers or merely friends. Luke is insistent that brotherhood is linked to biology; Naishi believes they are brothers in the metaphorical sense.

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By the time they've finished their strange task, the men have not resolved their dispute – but they have successfully turned themselves into Siamese twins, connecting two of their hands with many, many layers of tape. However you want to define their relationship, they are now brothers in arms – or brothers in one arm, at least.

Luke and Naishi being men – having made a close connection, they now feel the need to shake it off. They hit the dance floor with their plastic paws for a movement sequence that is partly a pas de deux, partly like a panicked attempt to get unstuck from one another.

Like much of the assuredly athletic movement in the show choreographed by Adelheid artistic director Heidi Strauss, all this hurling of one another across the room is impressive, while also looking a bit like a couple of boys roughhousing in the basement.

What It's Like, an amiably ambling hybrid of a show, is about male friendships and all the competition and hidden caring that they entail; intimacy and the fear of intimacy at once. The taped-up duo seemed to me to capture that the best in both form and performance.

There are other bits and pieces of What It's Like that I liked as well, but the problem with the show, created in residency at the Theatre Centre, is that it rarely feels like more than than a bunch of bits and pieces. A monologue here, an improvised game with audience participants there, followed by a dance sequence that shows up the men's real skills. Rarely does it live up to the ideals of the truly interdisciplinary.

At first, What It's Like – which is staged in a series of curtained-off chambers created by Julie Fox in the Theatre Centre's main hall – brings to mind Marcus Youssef and James Long's much-admired performance about (male) competition, Winners and Losers.

Indeed, lying under a fluorescent light fixture lowered to just a foot above the floor, Luke, Michael and Naishi – they call each other by their first names, so I will too – talk about whether they are winners or losers as they arm-wrestle, see who can hold their breath the longest, or try to guess the name of the person who flushed a toilet within hearing range right at the start of the show.

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The dialogue here seems to be off-the-cuff banter, which is itself a male, competitive form of conversation. Who can be the cleverest, the funniest, the most charming.

In this, for me, the Chinese-born performer Naishi Wang won the evening – charismatic, chill and confident as he improvised in accented English. The dancers are all performing versions of themselves – and that's hard to do for even the best actor. But speaking in your second language is already a performance, so Wang seems the most natural all evening long.

By contrast, you definitely can tell the moments where Luke and Michael go from making stuff up to stuff they've memorized. You can almost hear the switch clicking in them.

There's a similar click every time What It's Like moves from one segment (taking turns asking each others questions from a stepladder) to the next (a moody movement piece in their underwear under Jeremy Mimnagh's barcode-scanner projections).

My favourite dude dance number involved the three men moving around under, over and between a series of red laser beams. It reminded me of Mission: Impossible – and there was something tense, naturally dramatic, about watching them try to avoid the lasers.

It had the stakes that was missing from the rest of the evening. I definitely had the urge to bring in a dramaturge, the itch to get someone in to help Strauss and the men figure out exactly what they're saying with this piece beyond simply showing us boys being boys.

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What It's Like continues to Oct. 2 (theatrecentre.org).

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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