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November 14, 2011

I like it when performance artists succeed in integrating most or all of the senses into their productions. This is a hard thing to do. Smells and tastes in particular can be so overpowering that you risk turning off an audience entirely or even causing health issues (e.g. people are allergic to certain foods and odors.)

At the weekend, I came out of a production of On The Scent, an intimate theatrical exploration of the relationship between scent and memory utterly transfixed.

The show, which in this iteration was set in adjoining rooms of a private house in San Francisco, involves three monologues created and performed by theatre artists Leslie Hill, Helen Paris and Lois Weaver. The production was first performed in 2003 as part of the FIERCE Festival and has toured in the UK as well as the USA, Canada, Brazil, China, Europe, and Australia. At the weekend, the piece was performed a number of times on Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening in front of audiences of just four people.

The first monologue features Lois Weaver, who plays a slightly batty lady in her Golden Years. This section of the piece takes place in the living room of the house. Perfume bottles strew the floor. There are animal skulls on the walls. And video recording apparatus on a tripod stands in the middle. Weaver's kimono-wearing character is obsessed with perfumes and believes that the world is all about give an take. She eats greedily from a box of chocolates and covets whiffs of her little bottle of "Obsession" perfume. But she won't let the audience members have a sniff or taste because we haven't brought her anything in exchange, she tells us.

In the second part of the show, we walk through to the house's small kitchen where Leslie Hill, in jeans, boots and t-shirt, ushers us in to sit by the table. There are glossy red chili peppers and juicy limes scattered on the surface, as well as a bottle of tequila and five glasses. An empty, heavy-based pan sits atop the lit gas-stove, warming. Over the course of her conversational yet more abrasive monologue, Hill combines cuts chili powder with a razor blade and snorts it through a folded bill, cooks a pork chop and makes popcorn while sharing strong, politically-tinged stories about her past. At one point, Hill passes out tequila glasses and we salt our hands, knock back shots with her and suck on crescents of lime. The tastes and smells are completely overpowering in this section of the show as well as the sounds -- the popcorn machine goes crazy, sending puffs of the snack cascading onto the counter and floor. Combined with the sizzling pork and the music playing on the stereo, we're in sensual and intellectual overload mode. It's thrilling.

The third part of On The Scent, performed by Helen Paris, is completely opposite in tone. We cross from the kitchen and through the lounge to a darkening bedroom where, in the sepulchral winter afternoon light, the performer lies in bed, energy-less. We sit quietly. Paris explains that she's sick. Gradually he manages to rally herself despite her ill health and launches into a beautiful meditation on her past relationships. At one point, she guiltily talks about her love of sweet things and reveals a tupperware box of biscuits whereupon she sticks her head in the box and does a headstand up the wall.

As a sort of coda, we all end up back in the living room with Lois. She informs us that we can in fact give her something in return for whatever it is that she thinks she's given us: a description of a previous scent-memory of our own. With the camera rolling, we each in turn relate a story from our past involving the olfactory sense.

And then we're given a heavily rose or lilac-scented chocolate from the once-forbidden box and we are asked to leave.


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