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.

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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.

 

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NSTF: Hidden WWII treasure, a closeted aunt, a shifty foreign cousin & other family secrets in the funny, surprisingly poignant, Songbuster

Songbuster Inc. brings the funny with a musical twist in with Songbuster – An Improvised Musical; a new show created every performance by the ensemble with musical director Tom King. Currently running during the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Festival (NSTF) in the Factory Theatre Studio, the ensemble features Tricia Black, Kristian Bruun, Ashley Comeau, Alexandra Hurley, Stephanie Malek, Josh Murray, Nug Nahrgang, Nicky Nasrallah and Connor Thompson.

It all starts off with an ask. In this case, the ensemble asking an audience member for a setting to work with; something in the nostalgic gathering department. The woman in the front row suggested a family reunion. And off they went.

From there, a series of musical scenes unfolded, incorporating various music styles from classic musical, to country western, to blues, to ballads. A cantankerous, forgetful grandfather has a heart-to-heart with his hair-eating, taxidermy practicing teenage granddaughter Claire, who was named after her grandmother (one of the only things he can remember), who was known to walk the tightrope on occasion. The strained relationship between Aunt Eleanor and her husband Philip, who both really like to drink beer (like, a lot), unfolds as we learn that Eleanor is secretly in love (mutually so) with their next door neighbour Martha. An unexpected guest arrives, a previously unknown cousin from Norway, who cross country skied the whole way there—and who has secrets of his own.

And then there’s Claire’s mother Donna, trying to keep things together at home since her husband John left for another woman. And her kid brother Robert, who misses his dad’s scary bedtime story character voices and takes out his confused frustration by punching trees. Unbeknownst to this family, John is making his way home to the family ranch, hoping for reunion and redemption.

Meanwhile, Grandpa unearths the strange cousin’s secret and rallies the family to protect a hidden cache of WWII treasure (and weapons, apparently) buried on the property—forcing everyone to put their differences aside for the good of the family.

Amazing work from the ensemble in this hilarious trip through family relationships and crises—and all with music and improvised lyrics, folks. And these guys can sing. This performance of Songbuster included some surprisingly poignant moments, especially during John’s entrance. Sorry for his trespasses and realizing the huge mistake he made in leaving, he’s been longing to return home to be reunited with Donna and the kids. Here, solo turns into quartet as Donna and the kids join him in the background.

Hidden WWII treasure, a closeted aunt, a shifty foreign cousin and other family secrets in the funny, surprisingly poignant, Songbuster – An Improvised Musical.

Songbuster – An Improvised Musical continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Jan 15. Get your advance tix and passes online; and check out the full NSTF schedule.