REVIEW & ANALYSIS: Isis Sadek

Sappho rehearsalIsis Sadek studied Spanish and Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Ottawa and Duke University in North Carolina. She is now an Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina. She attended Sappho…in 9 fragments twice when it played in Ottawa, June 2013.

How to write about Jessica Ruano’s mise-en-scène and adaptation of Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ Sappho …in 9 fragments? How to write about it when what still echoes in my head is, even more than the stories it tells and weaves together, the interaction between the multiple elements that convey these plots, all brilliantly put into play by Ruano’s direction, Victoria Grove’s stirring and nuanced performance of all characters and Ana Inés Jabares Pita’s set design?

The play could be summarized as the intertwining of two stories: that of Sappho the Greek poetess who speaks to us from the prison-house of historical oblivion, lamenting the relentless erasure of her voice by a host of “clever, clever men” who appropriated her persona in their art and literature only to silence her voice, and that of a present-day Atthis, a fledgling actress named after Sappho’s lover, who falls deeply in love with an experienced actress aptly named … Sappho.  
If this synopsis evokes the play’s revisionist thrust, it hardly scratches the surface of how this interpretation of the play rivets, entertains and challenges its audience throughout (and of why, the day after seeing it for the second time, its fragments are what still haunt me). Perhaps thinking in fragments can yield some critical insights. 
 
“How do you tell a story when there are so many gaps?”
The play begins with this question, thus foregoing the temptation of presenting the audience with a unified narrative (a whole) to illuminate the elusive Sappho’s life and work. Instead, the script is based on the conceit that combines two perspectives: the voice of the Greek poetess to whom His-tory has been cruel alternates with the voice of the present-day Atthis, who endured cruelty at the hands of her sapphic lover. Victoria Grove’s talents and the immense skill with which she harnesses them make this plurality of perspectives dramatically convincing and effective. Grove first embodies Sappho with such an expressive balance between assertiveness and vulnerability, as she both taunts her detractors and enlists our sympathies, using a tone so determined and a voice so deeply husky and rich that, as a friend quips, it makes Lauren Bacall sound like Minnie Mouse.
Our surprise couldn’t be greater, when, adopting a more North American accent and a softer voice, she performs the vulnerable Atthis, thoroughly seduced, full of longing and self-doubt. This device hinges on the actress’ talents and it is a testament to her acting that the facial expressions, bodily gestures and attitudes that express Atthis’ fragility end up highlighting the historical Sappho’s vulnerability. Conversely, our own critical understanding of Sappho is enhanced by our closeness to the enamored Atthis, who delivers some of the more humorous parts of an intensely stimulating script. The use of distinct characters to tell parallel stories generates both closeness and distance, as Grove’s Sappho attracts and stirs us, while her Atthis’ fragility and emotional transparency distance us from the poetess. 
 
Kinesis and the prison house of His-tory
The script’s fine use of language and its careful selection of poetic images prove to be tremendously evocative in re-creating remembered moments and places. Repeated in each plot, these poetic images create parallels and provide us with anchors. Yet if this use of language is in good part responsible for our involvement with the characters, the choreography and the set design stimulate our attention in different directions, challenging us to not rely solely on spoken language to extract the play’s richness of meanings, and grasp the characters’ complexity. Consisting of metallic bars bound together to form of the edges of the cube that, draped with white sheets at first, sustain the ropes from which Sappho hangs, jumps, twists, perches and cradles herself, and swings sometimes dreamily, sometimes furiously, the set design shapes Sappho and Atthis’ movement, also positioning them in ways that define their relation with their respective tormentor, whether cruel His-tory in the case of Sappho or Sappho herself for Atthis.  
Sappho rehearsal 2
In this sense, the set design and the choreography work together to create multiple possible points of flight from the verbal anchoring of meaning. The combination of light, shadows and reflections, as well as the swinging and balancing and perching express more intuitively than her words Sappho’s fragmentary, and precarious positioning *and* her power over Atthis, intertwining the public and the private spheres. The shadows and reflections of Grove’s characters and their constant movement also highlight the shifting, slippery nature of the play’s very enterprise at reconstructing this mis-recognized figure. While from each seat, one can witness a different visual spectacle produced by the interplay between light and shadow, Grove’s constant movement becomes equally if not even more expressive than the words she utters, as is the case with her fast-paced repeated flailing between ropes near the end of the play when, following their separation, Sappho confesses her love for Atthis expressing through movement how this love had imprisoned her. 
This synergy between the set design and the choreography constantly probes the limits of verbal language. For example, when Sappho accounts for her historical erasure in a memorable scene in which the sentences describing how her poetry and writing were burned and her voice extinguished are punctuated and linked with successive “POOF”s as the lights turn off and then on again. Together, these elements supplement and, in some cases, deepen the gaps that language and His-tory won’t probe or allow, as if refusing to “never prod a pebble on the beach”, to use an injunction that Sappho repeats throughout the play. 
  
Sappho rehearsal 3You’ll sink without a trace 
While during the first few minutes of the play, the script establishes as themes the gaps, fragments and holes that plague any attempt at storytelling, its use of the elements of theatrical form is cohesive. The synergy between the use of kinesis and the verbal/sonic and visual dimensions creates an entirely enveloping and involving experience, that stimulates different modes of perception separately, to then incite them to function in unison as we grow accustomed to this mode of perception or, even better, upon a second viewing of the play. Even more than what the characters will say next, we wonder where they will be next, how they will move and what this movement and positioning will express. Ruano and Grove’s collaboration brings to theater the intense and meticulously planned sensorial stimulation that this medium should provide at its very best. This is no small feat considering not only the quality of the script but also Sappho’s damning repetition that “you’ll sink without a trace”, once quoting her His-torians and then upon breaking off her relationship with Atthis.
Along with Grove’s twists, intonations, expressions and shadows, the brilliance of this play’s use of fragments to compose this story and its multiple sensory effects will stay with this reviewer for a long time to come. 

ARTICLE: Xtra! Get Ready to Fringe

The Whole Nine Yards: Sappho …in 9 fragments is both seductive and romantic

by SERAFIN LARIVIERE

“Suffering Sappho!”

For those of us comic geeks who grew up adoring a certain star-spangled amazon, this frequently uttered epitaph was our first exposure to history’s most famous Greek lyric poet. But aside from Wonder Woman’s dubious endorsement, Sappho was much more than some vague deity in perpetual torment.

Born some 600 years before the (purported) birth of Christ, Sappho crafted thoughtful melodic poems about love and beauty that survive to this day in the form of fragmented papyrus scrolls and respectful mentions by other writers; even Roman lyric poet Horace was a fan. Her musings on the nature of passion continue to inspire other artists, and to many in the queer community, this woman from the island of Lesbos represents the quintessential lover of women. Her infatuated scribblings about other gals have inspired many of our Sapphic sisters, and she’s often characterized as the mother of lesbianism.

Canadian director Jessica Ruano’s knowledge of Sappho was limited to a few readings of assorted poems before she stumbled upon an interesting one-woman play by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. “I was in London looking for some ancient Greek plays for research when I found this script,” Ruano says.
“I had a very emotional response. I immediately started connecting it to various love affairs I’ve had. You can recognize yourself so easily in the writing.”

Griffiths’s play is taken largely from Sappho’s poetry; the playwright adapted her own translations of the Greek text into a narrative involving a love affair between the ancient muse and a young American chorus girl named Atthis. Sappho has taken on human flesh and is posing as the leading lady in a play, catching the attention of the introverted chorus girl.

“I relate to Atthis a lot,” Ruano says. “She’s insecure a lot of the time, she doesn’t believe in herself, and she’s always in her head, rethinking and rethinking... But she’s not afraid of  falling in love.”

And fall in love she does with the alluring and mercurial leading lady.

“Oh, Sappho is mad, she’s crazy, she’s wonderful,” Ruano says. “She’s so opinionated and very aware and political. But she’s also very emotional and occasionally emotionally violent. Sure she’s a bit of a diva, but she’s also prone to falling head over heels in love. It’s a fictional portrayal, of course, as we
know so little about her.”

One of the director’s favourite scenes between the two is a romantic interlude that leaves Ruano quite weak in the knees. “It’s such a wonderful seduction
scene,” she says. “They’re in Atthis’s apartment, and it’s messy and freezing cold. [Sappho] suddenly tells her to go to the corner and take off all of her clothes. It’s that beautifully awkward moment where someone who is really in charge of their sexuality takes over.”

Actress Victoria Grove portrays both characters in the piece, which Ruano adapts specifically to each venue as the play tours across North America and
Europe.

“What I wanted to do with this piece is use everything we have in the space,” Ruano says. “Let’s not make fixed features obstacles; let’s make them part of the play. It can change the audience’s perspective in powerful ways.”

SAPPHO . . . IN 9 FRAGMENTS, Fri, June 21–Sat, June 29, Arts Court Library, 2 Daly Ave, ottawafringe.com

ARTICLE: uOttawa Gazette

Fringe Festival opens the stage for many uOttawa artists this summer

Posted on Wednesday May 29th, 2013 by , under: AlumniArticleEventsFaculty of ArtsProfessors.

Actor Victoria Grove

Victoria Grove performing in Sappho…in 9 fragments. Photo: Robert Piwko

From directing to performing in plays, University of Ottawa students, staff, professors and alumni are involved in all facets of Ottawa’s Fringe Festival. The Fringe’s impartial selection process makes it an ideal place for experimental theatre…and whether the play succeeds is up to the audience. Among the many people involved in the Festival this year are alumni Jessica Ruano and Nancy Kenny, as well as Department of Theatre professor Kevin Orr, whose productions promise to give audiences a unique experience.

For London-based director Jessica Ruano, theatre is about creating an emotional impact through visual moments on stage. While shopping at a London bookstore, she discovered the play Sappho…in 9 fragments. Based on fragments of writings left behind by Greek poet Sappho, the play explores Sappho being erased from history as well as love between women. When actor Victoria Grove who plays Sappho suggested suspending herself on stage, Ruano, along with Spanish designer Ana Pita, set out to make that happen. “We looked at pictures of ropes, and Ana thought of spiders and came up with all this imagery,” says Ruano. The end result is a scaffolding structure and suspended ropes that serve as Sappho’s lair.

Writers and performers Emily Pearlman and Brad Long

Brad Long and Emily Pearlman, writers and performers of We Glow. Photo: Kevin Orr

Through his company, Theatre 4.669, Kevin Orr showcases original creations from the Ottawa region. “I hope to continue to develop Ottawa as this incredibly unique artistic landscape that I think is still trying to find its own artistic voice,” says Orr.We Glowis a play that grew out of Orr’s summer creative labs, where he invites Ottawa theatre artists to the University to experiment with their craft. An original production by Brad Long and Emily Pearlman, the play examines what happens when two executives are thrown off the “life script,” or the intense expectations put on us by society to get a degree, get married, buy land, find a job, climb the ladder, etc. Orr finds his dual role as teacher and director has helped push him in new directions by bringing what he learns from working with professionals to the classroom and vice versa.

Performers Martine Roquebrune and Nancy Kenny

Martine Roquebrune and Nancy Kenny in a publicity photo for Dolores. Photo: Tania Levy

Writer, performer and producer Nancy Kenny will be debuting her French translation ofDolores, a story about a woman who seeks her sister’s help to escape an abusive husband. Translating the play began as an acting exercise in class when Kenny said the lines in French, her native language, to connect emotionally with the character. Set in the kitchen of St. Paul’s Eastern United Church, the play creates a realistic atmosphere for 15 audience members at a time. While some attendees will sit right in the kitchen with the performers, others will peer in through big serving windows to watch the play unfold. “I like shows that make me feel, as an audience member, like a fly on the wall. I’m there up close, peering in on these private lives,” says Kenny.

The Festival takes place from June 20 to 30, 2013. For more information on shows, times and purchasing tickets, visit the Fringe Festival website.

Q&A: Interview with Jessica Ruano and Victoria Grove

thetrendtube footage of a Live Q&A on May 26th following a performance of ‘Sappho …in 9 fragments’ at The Rose, Bankside, hosted by Jo Webber, featuring director Jessica Ruano and actor Victoria Grove. Focusing on the representation of women in theatre and aspects of this production that tours Canada and plays at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer.

REVIEW: One Stop Arts ★★★★

Piecing It Together: Sappho…in 9 fragments at The Rose

Sappho…in 9 fragments is a sensuous love letter to the poet Sappho, exploring her identity through the few fragments of her work which are left behind. The performance and staging is magnetic collaboration between actress Victoria Grove and Director Jessica Ruano not to be missed. At the Rose Theatre, Bankside.

Review by Veronica Aloess
24th May 2013
★★★★

The Rose Theatre is an archaeological site, where London’s first Bankside theatre was built in 1587. It’s strangely appropriate for this one woman play written by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. The echoes of history which reverberate through the barren building twist the fine thread Sappho treads between mythology and contemporary perceptions of the poet –teacher, mother, wife, lesbian, and so much more – by looking at how generations have labelled her and loved her. Sappho asks how her story can have ended, when it was lost?

The fragments the play’s title speaks of are the nine books of Sappho’s work that were lost, only partially accumulated in fragments; in fact only one poem of Sappho’s exists in its complete form.Sappho is about filling in the gaps, and whether we have the right to. The script does in fact quote from Six Fragments for Atthis by Sappho, which was assumedly inspiration for said character and a note of admiration from the playwright. Griffiths’ writing obviously takes a lot of influence from Sappho: daringly erotic lines which belong in the world of verse escape Sappho’s lips and dance around the set, lingering in the space and minds of the audience. Her script is sensuous enough to paint pictures where the sparse set cannot.

Victoria Grove is extraordinarily talented. She flips between playing Sappho’s many sides; and despite her surety, the sexually dominant way in which she exudes authority as a celebrity of her time, there is this schizophrenic frenzy in how she can travel the stage – hinting at her inability to define herself outside of the definitions she is given. Grove also plays Atthis, who narrates a much more chronological storyline between herself and a contemporary Sappho, a famous actress playing Phaedre. Atthis falls in love with her at her peril, tenderly discovering herself whilst Sappho remains lost. She is a symbol for the part Sappho’s work plays in modern day lives, particularly in the realm of lesbian literature and being comfortable with your sexuality.

Ana Ines Jabares’ set is a work of brilliance and transports Sappho from interesting to exciting. It’s quite simply an open cage, adorned with white sheets and ropes; like an adult climbing frame. It’s the most dexterous set I’ve ever seen, an absolute gift for Grove to play in. She literally swings from the set, reclines, and pulls gorgeous shapes which tell a story on an entirely different level. This set is used like a thrust stage, playing to three sides of the audience which Grove tries to balance, but it’s definitely a struggle with a solo performance. A little too often her back is facing the audience or, at the other end of the scale, she veers from side to side of the stage so often it’s dizzying and the narrative lacks focus.

There is the problem that without at least a little knowledge of Sappho, and I knew very little, that the play won’t prove satisfying to watch – as you’ll spend half of it working out what’s going on. The script itself doesn’t fill in the audience’s gaps, which is a problem in itself, but otherwise it’s an engaging play with electric performances and exciting staging from director Jessica Ruano. In the Rose Theatre space, it becomes something special.