Crash Course: James Berlyn in association with PICA

James Berlyn Photo Richard Jefferson
James Berlyn
Photo Richard Jefferson

James Berlyn’s Crash Course is an outstanding example of participatory theatre at its very best. It is simultaneously intimidating and encouraging and gives its audience a glimpse into how well they would cope should they ever need to adapt.  Remind me never to have an unspecified trauma and lose my language.

James Berlyn is Jakebo, the eccentric teacher who helps you learn the basics. The performance mimics an intense and intimate language class, complete with the audience sitting at desks. Berlyn speaks a made-up language for the entire performance. It is through energetic mimes and blackboard sketches that he attempts to make the audience understand his language, including an alphabet and numerical system.

Participatory performances are always a new and unique experience and this one is certainly bizarre and inspired. Berlyn has found a way to transcend language boundaries; with careful direction (Nikki Heywood) this is done in a way that is comical and enjoyable. The audience clearly found Berlyn’s antics and occasional breakdowns highly amusing.

While at times the performance can be confusing and confronting, it is also engrossing. Struggling to learn the foreign language and following Berlyn’s elaborate instructions ultimately gives the audience a sense of achievement.

Aside from an excitable Berlyn, there is a brief appearance from a confident assistant (Sarah Nelson), which allows for a short conversation. However, as a whole, this is a strong solo-act. One of the most powerful aspects is certainly the energy and dedication Berlyn brings to his creation.

To make the experience more immersive, the technical elements work to transform the studio into a classroom environment. The sound design (Geoff Baker) is predominantly classical and calming, while the lighting design (Jenny Vila) is simple and the typical button-down shirt and professional pants for Berlyn’s costume (Anne Marie Terese) are appropriate.

In Crash Course James Berlyn is more than successful in, not only demonstrating, but also allowing the audience to actively experience adapting to a new language. Berlyn’s performance is full of ambition and exploration as well as highly enjoyable.

Sometimes participatory performances might not be to everyone’s taste, but I would recommend this as a fun, intriguing and insightful theatrical experience.

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