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'Tick Tock' a timely reminder

Published:Wednesday | May 5, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Keiran King, Gleaner Writer

Production: Tick Tock

Written and directed by: Owen Ellis

Venue: The Theatre Place

The dramatic arts haven't been this exciting in 25 years. The Independence generation - Charles Hyatt, Louise Bennett, Trevor Rhone - had history on their side. Fate gave them their mandate - the country was new, and we needed an identity. They told us who we were. But by the mid-1980s, what was new had grown old. The generation they inspired - Cathi Levy, Oliver Samuels, Owen Ellis - had their own ideas. The country had changed.

This clash of ideas was the best thing to happen to our art since the British left. Levy gathered her Little People. Samuels found himself At Large. Not to be left behind, Trevor Rhone wrote The Game and Milk and Honey.

Now, another quarter-century has passed. Oliver's posse is passe. All that remains of their artistic explosion are a few scattered ASHEs. New faces are here - Amba Chevannes, Michael Holgate, Teniele Warren - with new ideas. The country has changed again. Chevannes wrote Dinner With Eleanor. Holgate's musical, Glass Routes, just finished its run. Not to be left behind, Owen Ellis has written and directed Tick Tock.

Giving voice to the dispossessed

Tick Tock is an experiment that eschews character and narrative. Instead, an ensemble of 12 (hours on a clock?) plays different Jamaican archetypes, while reciting long-form poetry. Set in the ruins of downtown Kingston, in a nameless, placeless ghetto, the performers give voice to our most dispossessed fellow citizens. The poetry examines the forces at work in their lives - the intimacy of poverty, the violence of despair.

This newspaper trumpets the nation's murder tally on its front pages without emotion or explanation. Ellis tries to provide both, putting faces on both the killer and the killed. In one sketch, a street domino game turns ugly when a player snubs the local don. The don responds by dragging the man into an alley and executing him, ensuring the respect and allegiance of everyone else. Ellis captures the tense community of the inner city, where your best friend, your ex-boyfriend, your mother and your rival are all within a rock-stone's throw. Arguments flare and subside - another sketch has two women fighting over the resident casanova - but life goes on, as it must.

Boring watch

In these and other moments, Ellis engages, but Tick Tock stops short of success. While the show is interesting to listen to, it is boring to look at. The set consists of four battered two-storey facades, but they are positioned shoulder-to-shoulder in a line. The performance loses one of its three dimensions for movement, because the stage has no depth. The façades seem hastily painted and graffitied, without an artist's eye for evocative details. And Ellis doesn't explore spatial possibilities - much more could have been done with the upstairs windows he built.

But we must distinguish between the experiment and the social scientist. Tick Tock is a mixed bag (with a second half that needs reworking), sometimes compelling, sometimes not. If you are a patron of the arts, go see it. If you want the best use of two hours and two Nannies, go see something else. Ellis, however, is a great investment. As the younger generation of artists takes over, expect more parting shots from this valuable veteran. Remember, things won't be this exciting for another 25 years.