“The call of the void.”
It’s one of those strangely beautiful phrases that English doesn’t have enough of: a small and perfect piece of poetry describing some human experience that feels alien and inexplicable, but is unmistakably real. “The call of the void” is the feeling that sometimes comes over you when when peering down into a great abyss—off a tall bridge, into a canyon, out of a high-rise apartment building window.
It’s not so much the worry that you might slip and fall, but rather the terror that, for some reason unknown to you, you might just jump. No matter how happy or contented you are in life, that something dark welling up deep inside you might secretly want to jump.
After all, just look down into the void.
Doesn’t it just
7 Stories by Morris Panych, on now at the Gordon Best as mounted by Trent University’s Anne Shirley Theatre Company, starts with a desperate man in an ill-fitting suit (named, in typically absurdist theatre-y way, “Man”) in the midst of a screaming, overwhelming call of the void. He stands on the ledge of an apartment building seven stories up. Indeed, the entire set is taken up with the cavernous apartment building facade, which strains the maximum dimensions of the Gordon Best stage and seems forever trying to push Man right off the stage.
But, instead of getting down to the business of killing himself, Man is continually distracted by the building’s colourful residents, who, one by one, pop out of their windows, pepper him with their self-obsessions, and then slam the window shut without ever getting around to helping him—or, often, even asking him what he’s doing there.
And that, roughly, is the entire play: a procession of insane people, forcing a desperate and suicidal man to play straight man to their wackiness. We slowly uncover their strange obsessions, and, eventually, Man’s as well.
In this description, you may have already noticed the basic problem that Panych has set up for anyone trying to mount a production: if your main character can only move by sidling back and forth along a thin ledge, and the other characters are all stuck in tight window boxes, how do you create an captivating production?
The Anne Shirley Theatre Company, which is made up of Trent students, many only in their first or second year, have taken on this challenge with aplomb. Each character seems to burst through the constraints of their 3′ x 3′ window box with wild performances, costuming, and makeup. There’s the warring couple, who act and look like something out of A Streetcar Named Desire. There’s the actor, who is oddly Trumpian in his grandiose delivery (and awful hair). There’s the artist couple, who slink around their window like forest-dwelling extras from a Shakespeare production. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” blasts any time the dayglo 80s partiers open their window.
It’s a play that’s forever reminding us of its own un-reality, in these bizarrely over-the-top characterizations, and in the text. The actor character in particular is forever nudging up against the fourth wall, making winking nods to the fact his whole life is nothing but a role. And, of course, as Man stands on the ledge of an apartment building, he really is standing on the ledge of an abyss: the edge of a raised stage, and the outer bounds of his own reality.
As in any good piece of absurdist theatre, we are not meant to take these ridiculous events at face value. These are not real people; this is not a real apartment building. Instead, these are, well, 7 stories, presented with wildness and playfulness, but designed to explore the deeper question that lurks just below.
It isn’t so much, “What drove Man to this point?” In this dark and insane world, climbing out onto the ledge seems almost rational. Indeed, when Man finally answers this question, it’s almost disappointingly mundane: a ho-hum existential crisis, not unlike the one many of us have faced at one point or another.
The more interesting question that Panych and the Anne Shirley Theatre Company are forcing us to confront is, “What the hell is keeping everyone else off the ledge?”
Each resident is, in their own way, offering up a possible solution to the call of the void. Some distract themselves with trivialities, some protect themselves with jaded cynicism, some lie to themselves about the truth of their lives.
At face value, they are each and every one terrible solutions, meaningless answers that only distract from a very meaningful question.
But, then again: they’re not on the ledge and he is.
Anything to silence the call of the void.
7 Stories runs January 12 to 20 at the Gordon Best Theatre (more info).