small metal objects: the invisible revealed

eleanor hadley kershaw

A tall shifty man in a white shirt and long black jacket approaches a passerby in the covered area of Vancouver Public Library’s central promenade. “Gary?” “Er, no.” “Oh, sorry.” He crosses the promenade and approaches another man sitting alone outside one of the coffee shops by the paved walkway. “Are you Gary?” A bemused no. “Oh right, thanks.” The tall man looks around frantically. He spots another man alone, leaning on the balcony overlooking the glass-fronted library. He crosses the busy promenade. People bustle by with shopping bags and plastic coffee cups. Hesitantly, he asks again, “Are you Gary?” “Yeh.” Although we’re looking from quite a distance, I’m certain that I see a barely perceptible flash of surprise cross the tall man’s face.

On a bank of seats to one side of the promenade, the audience had earlier witnessed the opening conversation in Back to Back Theatre’s Small Metal Objects between Gary (Sonia Teuben) and his friend, Steve (Simon Laherty). Their caring and honest discussion of love, relationships and loneliness reaches each of us us through the isolated intimacy of headphones linked to the performers’ wireless mikes as they amble towards us down the length of the promenade, somehow in a world apart from the crowd rushing by. Initially, we had scoured the crowd to find these two speakers amongst the couples chatting at coffee shop tables and the curious shoppers who look up at us.

Steve’s dependency on Gary is evident, but Gary is a loyal friend. He explains to Steve that he has to go into hospital for a knee reconstruction: “You’ll be alone. I know you rely on me.” The accompanying intermittent chords lend an almost filmic character to the performance, pacing out the seemingly simple dialogue. Later, jagged discords build suspense. Although the reality of this pair seems out of synch with the public around them, their friendship is much more tangible than anything else in this space.

Alan (Jim Russell), the tall man, wants to buy drugs for the participants of some kind of corporate event he is organising. We wonder if Gary knows what Alan, with his mumbled euphemisms, is seeking, since Gary refuses to give direct answers or confirm his complicity in the deal. The fleeting expression I think I see on Alan’s face indicates his surprise, founded in a common socially instilled prejudice, that a drug dealer could be someone with a intellectual disability.

As Alan tries to seal the deal, Gary's role is confirmed: “I only serve top shelf,” he says, silencing Alan with an index finger pointed right into the taller man’s face. But Steve is having a crisis, and doesn’t want to move from the spot to which he has been stiffly fixed since Gary and Alan’s telephone exchange. And Gary won’t leave him to get the gear from a locker nearby, so the deal’s off. Increasingly panicked, having failed to buy Steve’s co-operation or to intimidate him into moving, Alan calls in Caroline (Caroline Lee), his sharply dressed associate. She arrives at the library within seconds. It emerges that she is a change management consultant, a corporate psychologist, who tries to bribe Steve out of his crisis with the promise of private sessions in which he can discuss his problems, with the suggestion that she can arrange for a woman to make him less lonely, and finally, losing any remnant of integrity, an offer of a blow job.

But Alan and Caroline don’t have anything that Steve needs; their brisk, manipulative, corporate approach seems like a ridiculous pantomime next to his genuine expression of feeling and lack of pretension. His struggle is the need to be seen, to be a “full human being.” In frustration Caroline shakes his small frame violently: “You’re a fucking useless piece of shit!” The suited couple storm out. The exchange has empowered and liberated Steve. His sense of dependency reduced, he simply says, “I feel a lot better now, thanks.”

Set apart on the raised bank of seating and in our headphones we provide a spectacle for the passing crowd. But the stares that scan us are just curious. They don’t convey the misunderstanding or prejudice Steve and Gary have to bear. We have consented to our difference and we are protected by being a part of a collective, and by the distance the headphones afford. The experience is powerful in its simplicity, and we realise that what at first seems to be a “conventional drama of two invisible men” as the program note suggests, is also a profound and intelligent exploration of power, expectation and dependency, once we have worked past our snap judgments and fixation on the superficial.

7 February 2008