What I’d really like to do is share my theory about the murder mystery at the heart of “Goggles”, the solo by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg that recently premiered at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre’s freshly renovated theatre. But that would spoil the fun for new viewers. So my lips are sealed, except to say that, as in any whodunit, figuring out what’s going on keeps the little grey cells active (as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot would put it).
“Goggles” is the third full-length, character-driven comedy/drama/dance created and performed by Friedenberg, another in her tradition of zany one-woman shows. With the help of her longstanding team of director and dramaturge Sophie Yendole, composer Marc Stewart and lighting designer James Proudfoot, Friedenberg now has a trio of well-staged and lively works: “bANGER – The Power Hour”, “Nick and Juanita – Livin’ in My Dreams” and “Goggles”.
Friedenberg embodies the main character, Norman, with her usual shape-shifting thoroughness. He’s a sad little boy who suffers from asthma, psoriasis, bad eyesight (hence the swimming goggles clamped over his hoody, presumably stylized eyeglasses) and bad fashion sense, engulfed in shapeless lemon yellow sweat pants throughout. His father has a girlfriend Norman doesn’t like and his baby-sitter is a mean religious fanatic. But what we know most about Norman’s life is how he spends hours watching television: the body language, the jargon and the background music of crime dramas fuel the piece.
It took me a while to get used to Norman’s jerky, bumpy, hyper-alert movements, which change direction as abruptly as the cuts in a typical TV show. They are certainly in keeping with his tendency to hysteria – he’s as ill at ease in his body as in his emotions. As well, Norman’s limbs and toes and fingers are often stiff, as if rigor mortis is setting in, and his fingers push and press against each other or on the ground, oddly splayed and with precise pressure; only at the end did I put this together with the way a finger is pressed onto an inkpad when a fingerprint is taken.
There is much spoken humour, as when Norman spins and jumps and then, suddenly, is lying pretzelled on his back, feet crossed behind his head, staring straight into his (really her, Friedenberg’s) crotch, making a joke that somehow features the fabricated word “a-clit-amized”, a silly reference to the clitoris that left us all snickering in delight. In his detective persona, Norman announces: “We have a 90210 in progress” and, earlier, he recites a list of Disney movies, including his dad’s favourite, “Pocahotass”. Well, he’s a young boy and it’s all part of Friedenberg’s outrageous arsenal of humour.
Friedenberg’s voice for Norman is squeaky and nasal, shrill when he’s having an all-out tantrum. He repeats his favourite phrases over and over, like “Talk to me”, pretending to be the detective at a crime scene asking his sergeant or the coroner for information, and the repetitions contribute to the nightmare quality of Norman’s retreat into fantasy. But after the first episode of obsessive ranting, I wanted him to quiet down.
The crime scene forms and reforms in Norman’s mind throughout the hour-long work. The outlines of two victims on the floor centre stage create a concrete focal point for Norman’s fantasies. In these, he swaggers outrageously, a boy pretending to be a man. There is also one beautiful sequence where Friedenberg shakes off the little boy persona for a few moments and moves through the sprawling, dead shapes of the victims – the curves of one, the angles of the other – in a sad and touching elegy.
Stewart’s score supports this imaginative sequence beautifully, beginning quite lyrically and then adding a sombre beat, as well as spoken phrases like, “They found the body” and “Too late now,” repeated over and over. His soundscore is key to grounding Friedenberg’s many sudden transitions, so that we always know where we are: in the basement where Norman is waiting for his dad or at the crime scene, where a few discrete screams often enliven the music.
Proudfoot’s lighting design, too, is key: in one section, red and blue lights flash, as if a squad car is nearby. His most splendid lighting effect is the red and blue stained glass window, created by light cast on the floor; though fleeting, it’s just enough to establish a context for the religious babysitter that Friedenberg also channels. This character supplies the single extended break from Norman and it would have been nice to have had a change in vocal quality: while the style is that of a ditzy young woman, her hysteria over sin is too much in the key of Norman. Occasionally, Friedenberg morphs into Norman’s father, urging his son to “calm down”, but the character is rare and fleeting.
I don’t think I could bear Norman’s hysteria for a rerun of “Goggles”, but it’s an oddly touching work. The funny, lonely child remains with me as I write and I wonder what it’s like for Friedenberg, who channelled him for five nights at the premiere run and, if her past works are any guide, will continue to do so in remounts.