NSTF Review: At the Sans Hotel

Toronto – How would you show a schizophrenic having a mental breakdown on stage? It’s hard to imagine what that would look like, but even if Nicola Gunn’s At the Sans Hotel doesn’t have it exactly right, I have to think it’s got to be pretty close.

Gunn, a Fringe veteran from Australia, took inspiration from the story of Cornelia Rau, a mentally ill German woman who was detained by Australian immigration authorities but turned out to be a permanent resident, in writing her new work. But At the Sans Hotel isn’t really about that story; it begins with a different character entirely talking directly to the audience about her life, drawing the “dramatic arc” on a chalkboard and discussing metaphors in playwrighting, and eventually revealing that the great artist Nicola Gunn isn’t here tonight because she had a breakdown writing her new masterpiece At the Sans Hotel.

It just gets weirder from there. “Sophie” says she has a questionnaire for the crowd, but only mimes handing it out (though she hands out real pencils), but then goes through the questions on stage like “How are you?”, “How are you enjoying the play so far?” and “What is hopelessness?” (“some of the questions are harder than others,” she says). There are several uncomfortable silences, during which Sophie stares straight ahead or sits behind the chalkboard. A light-up sign that says “Rescue Me” comes out at one point, and goes back and forth across the stage for a minute or so. She invites someone from the crowd on stage to play musical chairs with her to win a Nicola Gunn promo photo, then belittles him quite viciously when he loses.

“Sophie” also talks about how much she wishes we could see the great dramatic scene of Gunn’s masterwork, because it has a great sequence where Nicola sits at a table, all you can see is her legs, and asks herself questions. Then this sequence makes up the bulk of the second half of the show, with Gunn acting the part of both the mentally ill person and her interviewer, while the audience can’t see her face. Like Sophie said, it is very dramatic and haunting.

For a show so scattered and disjointed, At the Sans Hotel is surprisingly intimate. At several points it’s hard to tell if Gunn is talking about her schizophrenic inspiration or herself. You can’t help but think, at times, when “Sophie” talks about Gunn having a mental breakdown while writing this play that maybe she’s telling the truth. It’s an unsettling show, funny and creepy and personal and disconnected, all at once.

It’s so rambling and bizarre at times that it’s hard to get a grip on what you’re seeing at times. But Gunn is such a great performer that even when, by all rights, she should’ve lost the audience completely, she manages to bring us back in. Don’t go in expecting a tight narrative, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a “psychological detective story” like the Next Stage website does, but it’s an interesting show that’s well worth your time.

At the Sans Hotel runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday this week as part of Next Stage. See their website for schedule details and tix.

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Posted on by Brian in Everything, Fringe, Reviews, Theatre

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