going into Citadel + Compagnie’s Against Nature, i was struck both by the almost cloyingly cozy venue——which housed no more than 50 people, including a cast of three richly costumed musicians and three stage performers——and by the potential excesses involved in adapting joris-karl huysmans’s 1884 novel À rebours: the purportedly ‘plotless’ story of an upper-class french eccentric who retreats into a private sanctuary of artistic masterpieces, obscure books, and decadent pleasures. in short, i wondered whether i might have spent the next hour locked in the same claustrophobic aestheticism that accelerates protagonist Jean des Esseintes’s delusion and demise. but Against Nature delivers something quite different, looking past its source’s languid, introspective tone to instead re-stage the more beautiful and horrifying aspects of des Esseintes’s world in a quick succession of virtuosic episodes. using its salon-like venue and bizarre source material less to experiment than to showcase, the production coordinates its cast and creative team’s mastery of musical theatre, opera, and dance conventions across a densely woven performance.
from the beginning, Against Nature is driven by a stream of singing by baritone alexander dobson, who plays des Esseintes’s stand-in “The Master.” although dobson’s vocals boasted brief ascents into operatic power, texture, and emotionality, they were largely restrained and sometimes even casual, subtly facilitating my descent into his character’s tragically childish mind. the same was true of baritone korin thomas-smith, whose lyrics as one of two servants mostly narrate The Master’s misadventures. more impressive than either of dobson’s or thomas-smith’s voices, however, was their sheer presence, especially in the tiny room in which Against Nature is staged. as dobson ruefully sang “the nobility is dead,” i couldn’t help but feel that his cold, cruel eye was trained directly at me, an effect that lingered through to the line’s repetition at the performance’s close. catching startling expressions of pride, terror, agony, and even (in the case of the two servants) eerie indifference flash across the performers’ faces at too-close proximity was definitely a highlight of the show.
while dobson and thomas-smith’s singing is a constant, dance sequences by thomas-smith and Citadel + Compagnie Artistic Director laurence lemieux give Against Nature its unique energy and intrigue. james kudelka’s choreography centres contorted, inhuman movement——as when lemieux shambles on elbows and knees to mimic a tortoise whose shell is encrusted with gems——and the baroque entwining of limbs, torsos, and luxuriant nineteenth-century furniture. in thomas-smith and lemieux’s powerfully alien pas de deux, the dancers seemed to be constantly fighting to get away from each other——hurling each other around the stage, pulling to the point of breaking, groping on hands and knees——only to be ushered back together by a series of effortless ghost steps. the sick, sexual energy of these sequences extended to the pair’s interactions with dobson: in one of the trio’s poses, lemieux held dobson’s jaw and scalp in a vice grip while thomas-smith clawed at her flank from the floor. in alex poch-goldin’s thought-provoking libretto and dobson’s humanistic performance, we see the ultimately childish outlook of Against Nature’s main (and perhaps only) character. but it is through the show’s dance sequences——which are deftly foisted onto the mechanical, almost inhuman movement of the servants——that we see the physically and sexually horrifying manifestations of The Master’s debauchery.
in a sense, all of this is just a nod towards the depth achieved in Against Nature. but the show is also entertaining; there were even a few laughs, especially around the jaunty refrain of “i bought a rug” during the aforementioned tortoise scene. in sum, the show successfully presents such a diverse range of themes and talents thanks to its supporting cast and team: even elements like simon rossiter’s on-point lighting, joe pagnan’s decision to use big, bold, and numerous props in the small performance space, and jeremy mimnagh’s mood-setting projections were instrumental for making scene and tonal changes immediately accessible. james rolfe’s score for piano, violin, and cello——which is mostly populated by simple repetitions of short, exuberant sequences——was performed with a tactfully light touch, including a straightforward yet compelling use of dynamics to mark the show’s many climaxes.
the overall effect frames high-minded artistry and exceptional performance in an eminently enjoyable package. to the extent that Against Nature reflects Citadel + Compagnie’s dedication to both the creator’s mind and the audience’s sensibilities, the company’s continuing elaboration of their particular brand of multi-disciplinary production should leave a lasting mark on toronto’s performing arts landscape.
John Nyman is a poet, critic and scholar from Toronto. In addition to reviewing for Opera Canada and The Dance Current as part of the 2018/19 Emerging Arts Critics program, he has reviewed literature for publications including Broken Pencil and The Puritan as well as visual art for Border Crossings and Peripheral Review.