Dangerous desires, conflicting memories & a questionable verdict in Village Players’ dark, haunting Tainted Justice

Katherine Anne Fairfoul, Chris O’Bray & Rob McMullan. Set design by Alexis Chub. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by Dave A. Fitzpatrick.


Did an American drifter or family secrets kill the town innkeeper? The Village Players opened their production of Don Nigro’s Tainted Justice, directed by Victoria Shepherd, at their home in the Village Playhouse last night.

Set mostly in 1914 Cape Breton, Tainted Justice criss-crosses time and space, taking us through memory and past events to such varied places as the Klondike and Winnipeg in the years leading up to 1914. Estranged from her mother Tena (Katherine Anne Fairfoul) and uncle Bill (Rob Candy), Pearl (Jess L. Callaghan) returns home to Cape Breton looking for answers. Haunted by the events surrounding her innkeeper father Ben’s (Dennis Mockler) death, Pearl is determined to learn the truth—especially regarding evidence brought to light during the subsequent trial against the inn’s American guest Frank (Chris O’Bray), who was defended by Pearl’s cousin Jim (Andrew Batten), a local celebrity lawyer. Frank was found guilty and executed. What was the nature of her mother’s relationship with the accused? And who was really responsible for her father’s death?

Through a series of conversations, moments and witness stand testimony, we learn that Frank wasn’t a stranger to Bill or Tena when he arrived in Cape Breton. But there are conflicting accounts of when and where they met him—and the coincidences of Frank just happening to meet up with them in various locations across the U.S. and Canada are dubious to say the least. As the story unfolds, we see a seedy, dark underbelly emerge among this close-knit family in this quiet town—revealing hidden suspicions, and hinting at forbidden relationships and dangerous desires. Only Jim’s quiet, sweet wife Maudie (Peta Mary Bailey) and the calm, steady Crown prosecutor Hearn (Rob McMullan) seem to be immune from the dark influences of lust and family loyalty at all costs.

Andrew Batten & Peta Mary Bailey. Set design by Alexis Chub. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by Dave A. Fitzpatrick.

This play has everything: greed, lust, murder, family secrets. And Shepherd and the cast do a great job weaving past and present, memory and dream, and complex relationships in this true Canadian crime drama. Stand-outs include Batten’s cocky but amiable Jim; a gifted defender and eloquent orator, Jim’s drinking habit and laissez-faire approach to life mask a deeply troubled soul. O’Bray does a lovely job, both charming us and keeping us guessing about Frank; a mercurial, cheeky and well-read man with a flair for storytelling, Frank is a teller of tall tales at best and a con man at worst. A drifter and opportunist with a non-violent criminal record and at least four wives back in the States, like Jim says, Frank’s not the kind of guy you’d want marrying your sister. But is he a murderer?

Fairfoul’s Tena is a seductive cypher, also keeping us on our toes. Intelligent and beautiful, Tena is an ambitious businesswoman whose deepest desires run beyond real estate. There’s an edgy desperate housewife vibe and a dark air mystery about her. Did she bewitch Frank into doing her bidding? And Candy’s Bill is a complex combination of affable generosity and raging jealousy. Bill clearly loves his sister Tena very much and would do anything for her, including introducing her to the man who would become her husband (the murdered innkeeper Ben). But what exactly is the nature of that relationship—and are those feelings mutual?

With shouts to the design team for their work on bringing the past and present worlds of this haunting period crime drama to life on the small Village Playhouse stage: Alexis Chubb (set), Livia Pravato-Fuchs (costume), Jamie Sample (lighting) and John Stuart Campbell (sound and music composition). And to director Shepherd for orchestrating the multiple interwoven scenes and relationships as the characters traverse time and place.

Tainted Justice continues at the Village Playhouse until March 24. Advance tickets available online or by calling 416-767-7702. In the meantime, be sure to check out the promo video on the show page, featuring director Victoria Shepherd.



Profound longing & desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters

Left, clockwise from top: Dana Puddicombe, Arinea Hermans & Christina Fox; Right, from top: Nikolas Nikita & Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski—photo by Joseph Hammond

With several highly successful one-off productions under its belt, Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its inaugural 2017 season with its second production, Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, directed by Mallory Fisher—opening last night at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Wolf Manor gives the Chekhov classic a contemporary flavour with a gender-fluid take on the story of three sisters struggling with the ennui of living in a dull provincial garrison town as they long to return to their beloved Mosco.

The play opens on youngest sister Irina’s (Christina Fox) name day; it’s also a year to the day since their father died, leaving his four adult children the house. Eldest daughter Olga (Dana Puddicombe) is a teacher and middle daughter Masha (Arinea Hermans) is married to teacher Kulygin (Kaleb Horn); all three women are tired with boredom and long to return to Mosco. Only Irina and their brother Andrey (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski), who often keeps to his room reading or playing violin, are cheerful. She’s young, and still full of hope and possibility; and he’s in love with Natasha (Nikolas Nikita).

Brief respites from the gloom of ennui emerge, courtesy of a family friend, the entertaining Doctor Chebutykin (Scott McCulloch), and visits from local officers Tuzenbach (Jordin Hall) and Solyony (Nikita). And the arrival of the new commander Vershinin (Meghan Greeley) makes things even more interesting—especially for Masha, who has over the years become repulsed by her bookish and pedantic, but kind, husband and finds herself drawn to the chatty, philosophical newcomer.

Disappointment and disillusionment snowball over the few years that pass. Andrey realizes that marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and escapes into gambling, which puts the whole household into great debt. The Doctor, two years sober, falls off the wagon in a very bad way. Natasha lords it over her sisters-in-law, taking over the house and revealing a vicious side under that elegant demeanour, and creating a growing sense of claustrophobia among those who live there. Olga becomes something she vowed she’d never be: Headmistress. And even Irina’s balloon is popped, as she takes on work that is meaningless and mind-numbingly dull. Things go from bad to worse when a fire destroys a large section of the town, and the news that the battalion is being sent off on a new assignment—a heartbreaking prospect for Vershinin and Masha.

The immersive design places the audience both in and around the action, with a main playing area in the centre, and nooks and spaces around the outer edges (Beth Elliot, technical director/lighting design). Only two characters address us directly, baring their souls: Andrey and Chebutykin. By the end of the play, it’s as if we’re the birch trees surrounding the family home; silent witnesses to the goings-on there.

Beautiful work from the cast on these characters who all long for connection, belonging and understanding; each is grasping for meaning and hope, if not for now then for the future. Fox does a really nice job with Irina’s dissolve into disillusionment; having put her love life on hold with the idea of finding true love in Mosco, Irina settles for Tuzenbach, who is a good man, but not her desire. Hermans is heartbreaking as Masha, whose default is melancholy and whose heart awakens with the arrival of Vershinin; and the news that Vershinin must leave destroys her. Puddicombe brings a great sense of inner conflict to Olga; an ‘old maid’ school teacher and protective big sister to her siblings, Olga has abandoned her own desires to familial duty—a brave soldier who carries on no matter what. Shepherd-Gawinski brings a sharp edge to Andrey, the picture of the adorable, beloved brother who turns to gambling in his distress; outnumbered and put-upon by his sisters and his wife, he is as good-humoured as he can be. Stuck in the middle as he is, he too has put aside dreams in order to fit into his new life as husband and father—and the strain shows.

Greeley gives a moving performance as Vershinin, a military officer with the heart of a lover and philosopher. With an emotionally fragile husband and two daughters at home, Vershinin too finds an escape from the struggles of her life when she meets Masha. And their goodbye is heart wrenchingly sad, but inevitable as Vershinin must do her duty. Nikita does a marvelous job juggling Solyony and Natasha, as well as being the production’s costume designer. While both are classist, vain and irritating, these characters also have their secret hearts; Solyony is in love with Irina and Natasha is anxious to be accepted into Andrey’s family.

McCulloch’s performance as Chebutykin reveals the deep darkness in the Doctor’s heart; a jovial, sharp-witted man of 60-something, Chebutykin’s tendencies towards fatalism, and even nihilism, send him back to the bottle. Horn gives us an adorkably funny and mildly irritating Kulygin, who’s a silly nerd, but with a truly kind and forgiving heart under the dapper suit and glasses. And Hall gives us a lovely idealistic and philosophical Tuzenbach; like the others, he too wonders what the future will bring, but he’s also got his feet planted firmly in the present and wants to make the best of it.

Profound longing and desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters.

Three Sisters continues at Kensington Hall till March 26; full schedule and advance tix available online; advance booking strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

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