Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan

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Bria McLaughlin & Michelle Chiu in Swan – photos by Cesar Ghisilieri

Finish what you start.

Little Black Afro Theatre joins forces with Filament Incubator for a production of Aaron Jan’s Swan, directed by Jan and dramaturged by Lucy Powis; and opening last night to a packed house in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

As we enter the theatre and settle into our seats, the playing space (Aram Heydarian, who designed the costumes), sound (Kevin Feliciano) and foggy, atmospheric lighting (Samuel Chang) aptly set the tone for this disturbing tale of violence. Three piles of feathers line the apron. Centre stage is a wooden deck-like structure – and above it, a murder of black birds hangs like a menacing Hitchcockian mobile. Underneath the hum of chatting audience members, you can hear the gentle sound of lapping water and birds.

Returning home to Hamilton after a 10-year absence, writer Joey (Bria McLaughlin) is on a mission. Ten years ago, the night of her high school prom, an injured swan was brutally killed and dismembered at Cootes Paradise (a wetland on the west side of Hamilton Harbour), and the perpetrator was never found. She and a group of friends had tried to solve the mystery back then, but came up empty and gave up.

Despite her older sister Bill’s (Michelle Chiu) skepticism, Joey gets the gang back together in an awkward sort of reunion. Once a tight group of lesbian friends, they formed an environmental group at their now decommissioned, abandonned school in an effort to affect positive change in their city: Rachel (Isabel Kanaan), Piper (Christine Nguyen) and Ron (Angela Sun). The fifth member of the group, Jenna Lynn (Marina Moreira) went missing the night of the prom. And the papers made a bigger deal about the swan.

A horrific trail of clues – photographs of their local hang-outs, each one accompanied by growing numbers of bird carcasses – leads them around the city as they hunt for the swan killer. As they grow weary of their fruitless efforts, suspicion arises. Is the killer among them? Loyalties come into question as memories of some ugly interactions emerge, including Jenna Lynn’s expulsion from the group. All is revealed in the disturbing ending, as mystery turns supernatural.

Excellent work from this cast of women in this spooky, quick-paced tale of otherness and search for the truth. As Joey, McLaughlin is a born leader; an inspiring, determined and cunning negotiator with a lot of smarts and a quick wit, Joey has struggled through her own life-changing injury and has made a modest name for herself as a writer. As Joey’s big sis Bill, Chiu brings a nice combination of cynicism and wariness; Bill thinks Joey and her friends are nuts for trying to solve this case, but she’s also concerned for her sister’s welfare and longs to build a brighter future for what’s left of their family.

Kanaan gives Rachel a great sense of inner conflict; once the class over-achiever, type-A Rachel is in a rut. Ten years after high school, she’s still working as a lifeguard at the local rec centre – and re-opening the case of the murdered swan has sparked her dulled ambition. Nguyen’s Piper is a quirky delight; a lanky athlete with a huge appetite. The peacemaker of the group, she just wants everyone to chill and get along.

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Angela Sun, Isabel Kanaan & Christine Nguyen in Swan

As Ron, Sun is the hasbien of the group, who went on to a traditional, “respectable” heterosexual marriage complete with kids and church activities. Sun gives her some deep tones, though; as we learn that Ron is good at keeping secrets and forgetting things, as well as putting up with some clueless everyday racism – dressed up as cultural interest – from her husband. Moreira’s Jenna Lynn is a lovely combination of bashful and forceful; coming late into the group, it’s Jenna Lynn who takes them in a more effective direction as they comb the community page of the Spec (the Hamilton Spectator) for local problems to solve.

All are outsiders by virtue of their ethnicity, colour and/or sexuality. An all are adrift in lives interupted; seeking identity, and a sense of belonging and purpose. Like the characters in Jan’s Rowing, there’s a feeling of being trapped in a city that doesn’t want them and has nothing for them – even as they struggle to make the best of it and make something of themselves. If they could just solve this mystery, things will turn around for them. And, like it’s sister play Tire Swing, Swan is a dark tale of memory, traumatic experience and mystery.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan.

Swan continues in the TPM Backspace till Nov 13; get your tix online or call 416-504-7529. Please note the 7:30 curtain time for evening performances.

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Toronto Fringe: Biting social & immigration satire in sharp, startling, physical Silk Bath

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The Silk Bath Collective gives us a scathing, darkly funny and deeply moving send-up of western society and its biases toward Asian immigrants in Silk Bath. Co-written by director Aaron Jan, producer Gloria Mok and performer Bessie Cheng, the show is currently running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace during Toronto Fringe.

Set as a bizarre reality TV show where contestants are held in cells, new immigrants compete for social acceptance in their new country through a series of physical and verbal tests, where they gain points for giving the correct Western response and dominating in martial arts bouts. The dialogue is delivered in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, with projected surtitles.

When we first enter the theatre, we see three contestants already onstage, each seated on a mat with a metal bucket. Clementine (Dorcas Chiu), who careful tends her clementine tree; Mutt (En Lai Mah) looks after his sore knee; and the Old Lady (Amanda Zhou) sits up centre, lost in her thoughts as she wrings out a tea towel. A new arrival appears as the action commences: New Girl (Bessie Cheng) wide-eyed and eager to learn. We soon learn that each has an agenda of his/her own in addition to winning the prize.

Lovely work from the cast in this physical and emotional piece. Chiu gives Clementine a strong but wary nurturing quality, combined with a sense of natural leadership; seeking to make alliances, her way is to band together to find a way out. As Mutt, Mah gives us a man of masks; although Mah harbours a bitter and cynical attitude, he knows how to play the game and give the answers he knows the judges want to hear and he’s not above sabotage to gain points. Zhou brings a solitary dignity to Old Lady; a veteran contestant determined to win by ongoing analysis and stamina, she longs to be reunited with her love after a long separation. Cheng’s New Girl is a bright and feisty underdog; learning the ropes of this new and strange place, she is driven to succeed, and keeps a positive and hopeful attitude despite her confusion and nervousness. All want out of this place – and we find out how far each is willing to go in order to gain freedom.

With shouts to the design team: Aram Heydarian (set/costumes), Kevin Feliciano (projection/sound) and Logan Cracknell (lighting) for their inventive and evocative work to create this world.

Biting social and immigration satire in sharp, startling, physical Silk Bath.

Silk Bath continues at the Tarragon Mainspace, with only two more performances: today (Fri, July 8) at 4:15 p.m. and Sat, July 9 at 8:00 p.m.; highly recommended. For ticket info and advance tickets, check out the Fringe website.

p.s.: Because he’s crazy (his word, not mine), playwright/director Aaron Jan has another show in Fringe this year: Rowing, playing at the Kensington Conference Centre. I saw it in October 2015 and highly recommend it.