peaRle haRbouR’S chauTauQua by ñ
Justin Miller (Pearle Harbour Productions/Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson). Runs to October 27. $20-$30. 416-504-7529, passemuraille.ca. See Continuing, page 29. Rating: nnnn
The world is all topsy-turvy right now and so is the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, which has been completely transformed for Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua. Audiences enter through a side door, take a circuitous walk by intriguing displays, grab a drink at the cash bar and end up in a tent (erected inside the theatre) where an usher has a unique method for seating everyone for this amazing and immersive experience.
Drag performer Justin Miller’s alter ego Pearle Harbour is part ringleader and part spiritual torchbearer, who encourages better living through breathing exercises and faith in self-improvement. Miller, who also wrote the show, uses music and stories to elucidate Pearle’s four maxims for living: Speak Truth, Live Pure, Right The Wrong and Follow The Way. Musician Steven Conway delights as the affable Brother Gantry, Pearle’s harmonizing and guitar-strumming sidekick.
The show exists in something of a time warp. It’s set in the present yet draws much inspiration from the past in the form of old songs, the Chautauqua movement (an education movement that began in New York State in the late 1800s and spread across the U.S.) and a morality puppet play.
And Pearle appears to have stepped out of a fashion magazine from the postGreat-War era, perfectly appointed with gloves, hat, jewelry and makeup – including eyelashes even a modern Kardashian would envy.
But behind that outer perfection is a person aching for understanding and connection. Miller’s brave performance always remains intensely in the moment, even when Pearle muses on a significant incident from her childhood. It is riveting to watch Pearle interacting up close, encouraging everyone through humour, audience participation and her empowering catchphrase, “You betcha!”
Many components bring this show together splendidly. Byron Laviolette directs with precise pacing, incorporating pauses for emotional reflection at just the right moments. Joseph Pagnan’s production design and Jareth Li’s lighting are integral to the show, with one flickering bulb taking on much meaning. The tent, designed by Haley Reap, offers a reassuring space that’s small but never feels confined. And check out the detailed handiwork of Jesse Byiers’s hand puppets.
The ending feels brusque, but maybe that’s to snap everyone back to presentday reality, where things are far from perfect even though, as Pearle reminds us, we can still count on ice cream treats for a taste of happiness.
Justin Miller’s Pearle Harbour is part ringleader, part spiritual torchbearer.