The Pictures Say a Thousand Words
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The Pictures Say a Thousand Words

Electric Company Theatre breaks it down for you. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge

Electric Company Theatre is one of the most dynamic and exciting theatre companies in the country that you may be only vaguely aware of. This is because they are from Vancouver instead of Toronto. Remember that “live cinematic” version of Sartre’s No Exit that lit up Buddies last year? That was them. And if you missed that one, then you really ought to head over to the Bluma Appel Theatre sometime in the next couple of weeks to catch their Canadian Stage co-pro Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge. Yes, the title is a mouthful, but this is a revelatory production which employs gorgeous design, thrilling choreography, and some of the most fascinating stage nudity we can remember to tell the story the curious man who inadvertently became the father of modern cinema.

For those not in the know, Eadweard Muybridge was a photographer who studied human and animal locomotion. Trust us, you’ve seen his photos (probably these ones, at least) even if you think you haven’t. His curiosity about the simple question of whether horses ever have all four hoofs in the air as they gallop lead to a lifelong passion for studying and documenting every individual moment of a physical action. Studies in Motion mainly chronicles Muybridge’s time at the University of Pennsylvania, where he caused a small scandal by photographing various models and assistants (in the nude!) as they walked, ran, jumped, etc., including his invention of the zoopraxiscope, which is basically the reason we have movies.
It’s hard to remember a show that excited us immediately as much as Studies in Motion. The moment the curtain goes up, we see Muybridge’s photos come to life in Crystal Pite’s wonderful choreography, which truly anchors the show. Through action, repetition, and the use of different performers to replicate each individual moment of an action, still images become breathing organisms, and vice versa. The play is directed by Kim Collier, who recently won the Siminovitch prize (read her inspiring acceptance speech), and she doesn’t miss a beat.
Kevin Kerr’s script, however, is not quite as flawless. In fact, the only place where the show falters is in its story, which sometimes veers into banal and inscrutable romantic subplots. Eadweard’s white-hot passion for his work is completely absorbing, his more lukewarm feelings for a U Penn assistant, not so much. Even the flashbacks to a tawdry situation with a much younger wife who cuckolds him with a smarmy theatre critic is all a bit of a snore until Eadweard takes matters into his own hands and shoots his rival (leading to another fantastic bit of choreo). It’s certainly an interesting biographical detail that Muybridge shot a man to death in cold blood and was acquitted for “justifiable homicide” because the man happened to be his wife’s lover, but the incident doesn’t have enough to do with anything else in the show to really justify its inclusion.
We were far more interested in a minor character from act one: a wealthy conservative woman who happens to hold a lot of sway at the university and is horrified to discover Muybridge photographs his subjects in the nude. The contemporary relevance of this Sarah Palin/Christine O’Donnell–esque figure seemed to demand she return as a main antagonist in the second act; instead, she vanishes entirely. Maybe that’s just not the way it really went down, but Studies works best when it gives historical accuracy and biographical detail a rest to let its audience engage in Muybridge’s character and his ideas, which remain entirely captivating.
Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge runs until December 18.