By Mike Drach
Last Friday, I had the great fortune to catch Ryerson’s on-going production of Basketball, their popular experimental musical at West Kerr Theatre.
I entered the off-off-Broadway production with understandably high expectations, as the Ryerson Rams’ Theatre Company has received much praise from local critics over their last few shows. But not since Rent have I seen such energetic and electrifying performances from a relatively inexperienced cast.
Ryerson has a wealth of young talent in their hands, but the stand-out performance of Benjamin Gorham as “#13” alone made it worth the trip. Basketball, directed by Terry Haggerty, is an unusual play in that there is a different cast each time it is performed. Half the players are local talent, while the other half belong to a visiting troupe from one of several cities. This week, Ryerson collaborated with Laval to give the audience a truly magical performance.
Like Damn Yankees, this musical centres around the theme of sports. But that is where the similarities end between Basketball and any other Broadway musical you might have previously seen. Basketball is quite simply and elaborate, swirling, and noisy feast for the eyes and ears.
It is close to Cirque du Soleil than a coherent play with a beginning, middle and end. Although it touches on themes of violence, war, and competition, Basektball is intended to serve primarily as a spectacle. Always the avant-gardism, Haggerty allows the audience to sit in as the players actually warm up and work on their choreography. As the crowd watches this self-conscious bit of fringe-theatre indulgence, the original Broadway production of Snoop Dogg’s “Slow Down” is blasted in the background.
The show, which runs for two hours, is highly repetitive. The action on stage moves back and forth steadily, leaving room for a great deal of improv by the young cast (who are incidentally all male, in the tradition of Japanese kabuki theatre).
However, the main focus of activity soon becomes a mere backdrop for a host of other distractions. The audience has to be careful to notice them, as the play is carefully designed to mimic the chaotic atmosphere or a “real” basketball game. For instance, inane moment reminiscent of the Theatre of the Absurd, a man dressed like a ram and carrying a picket fence comes out on the stage, dancing formlessly as an unseen orchestra plays over bruitist poetry (also, I believe, performed by Snoop Dogg).
Within the first few minutes of the show, David Dumas of Laval gives a convincing performance as the man who injured his leg, in a moment that emphasizes the horrors of war. He spends the rest of the play off-stage, clutching his ankle and moaning horribly. Basketball is a completely interactive production, in which audience participation is greatly encouraged.
All around me, the audience (who were obviously there to see a repeat performance) continually chanted the one-word hit song (“Defence, defence”), adding to the already grandiose atmosphere. During the intermission, members of the audience were invited on the stage itself to mimc the actions of the players.
One beautiful moment occurred near the end of the show when Ryerson appeared to be “winning.” Benjamin Gorham, playing with the audience’s expectations, stood simply with the ball in the middle of the court, breaking up the action with a silent and reflective pause. I, for one, was in tears. Bravissimo!
While there is a place for classical dramas and typical Webberian musical in Toronto, Basketball manages to retain their sense of vibrancy and excitement while completely taking apart their structure, injecting it with new sensibility and pushing out their boundaries. It has the potential to achieve cult status in the Ryerson community, and you should see it before it becomes big enough to actually start charging money for ambition.