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.



An exclusive murder mystery weekend gets real in the darkly funny, surprising A Party to Murder

Clockwise from bottom: Trevor Cartlidge, Liam Doherty, Lawrie Hopkinson, Haley Vincent, Michael Hunter & Madeleine Spadafora in A Party to Murder – photo by Dave Fitzpatrick

You are cordially invited to an exclusive murder mystery weekend this Halloween at a secluded upscale cottage at a secret location.

The Village Players are currently running A Party to Murder, by Douglas E. Hughes and Marcia Kash, directed by Rob Woodcock, at their home the Village Playhouse (Bloor St. West, a bit east of Runnymede). It’s the second show of their all-Canadian season; I caught yesterday’s matinee.

We open on a melodramatic Agatha Christie-esque scene of whodunnit, part of a by invitation only game hosted by mystery novelist Charles (Liam Doherty) at Hadfield House, his lush cottage retreat on a private island on Cassandra Lakes, Ontario. The area, we learn, is infamous for its ties to the mysterious case of the Phantom Five, five business titans who went missing 25 years ago.

Among Charles’ guests are business mogul Elwood (Michael Hunter) and his much younger companion McKenzie (Madeleine Spadafora); Valerie (Lawrie Hopkinson) and Henri (Haley Vincent), sisters who’ve inherited their family utility business; and former football star Willy (Trevor Cartlidge), now confined to a wheel chair after a car accident.

The one who guesses the murderer wins a lavish prize, furnished via the sizeable entry free all guests are required to pay. When Elwood is pronounced the winner and decides to exact a favour from each of the others, things get tense and interesting – especially when Elwood turns up dead soon after.

Now faced with an actual murder mystery, the group is stuck on the island with no phone or cell service; they must wait until the water taxi returns to pick them up the next day. And when a journal linking the cottage to the Phantom Five is discovered and a second member of the group drops dead, the stakes get even higher.

Like the novelist host in the play, A Party to Murder is inspired by the works of Agatha Christie (who receives homage via the large photograph featured prominently on the upstage wall) – full of twists, turns and surprises. And loads of whodunnit fun.

Really nice work from the cast in this exciting tale of intrigue and murder. Doherty gives British expat Charles a dry, Coward-esque wit. A novelist of some repute and a sharp observer of human behaviour, he’s an extremely affable host, arranging everything himself, including cooking the gourmet meals. While we first see her as the humble housemaid in the mystery role play, Hopkinson gives Valerie a decidedly dragon lady edge; a powerful CEO with a shrewd business mind and a wry wit. Vincent’s Henri is the polar opposite of Valerie, with some interesting layers; anxious and wary, there’s an inquisitive mind and a drive for the truth under that submissive exterior. And her role play medium character has hilarious hints of Madame Arcati.

As Elwood, Hunter brings a self-satisfied, near sociopathic, sense of entitlement and aloofness; a jealous, possessive man with a quick temper, he relishes his power over others. Spadafora’s McKenzie is a great combination of lady of leisure and survivor; a professional model and personal ornament to Elwood, her life isn’t as fairytale as it appears. And Cartlidge’s Willy may be a cocky, wise-cracking jock, but his intensely negative reaction to the prospect of being under Elwood’s thumb gives pause, as does his ongoing gallows humour.

One gets the feeling that everyone has a secret – but is it a lethal one?

With big shouts to the design team for the gorgeous environment and atmospheric effects, complete with a secret passage, a storm, flickering lights and fabulous outfits: Katherine Bignell-Jones (set), Sue Gilck (sound), Dustin Woods-Turner (lighting), Rosemary McGillivray (props) and Jennifer Newnham (costumes).

An exclusive murder mystery weekend gets real in the darkly funny, surprising A Party to Murder. My friends and I had a great time.

Party to Murder continues at the Village Playhouse until Nov 26; check here for full performance date/time info. Tickets can also be purchased 45 minutes before curtain time at the box office; or you can call to reserve: 416-767-7702.

You can keep up with the Village Players on Twitter and Facebook.

Do you know The Pillowman?

When I enter the intimate space of the Propeller Gallery, it is filled with a couple of rows of chairs facing a minimalist playing space (set designed by Tracy Lam, who also designed costumes and props). A table, a file cabinet, a couple of chairs. Three metal frame-encased light bulbs hang from the ceiling. Stage right, there is a projection screen, currently blank.  The works of six local artists,* created specifically for the production, hang on the white upstage wall. The images are beautiful, freakish, violent and nightmarish – each bordered and connected to some of the others with black tape. Like a homicide detective’s whiteboard. Or a bizarre family tree. Relationships. Causality. Connections.

This is opening night of Rarely Pure Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, directed by Ryan Quinn. As with McDonagh’s other works (The Lonesome West and the film In Bruges), this play is not for the faint-hearted. And in this space, the action is even more up close and personal, drawing the audience in even as it repels.

Katurian (Chris George) is a writer of strange, wondrous and often grotesque stories –  many involving young children in macabre fairy tales that would make the Grimm boys blanch. He is also in police custody in a totalitarian dictatorship – blindfolded when we first see him – with no idea why he’s there. Detectives Tupolski (Davydd Cook) and Ariel (Spencer Robson, also one of the company’s ADs and producer for this show) interrogate Katurian, who soon learns that his intellectually challenged older brother Michal (David DiFrancesco) is also in custody. Two children have been found murdered and a third (Maria – Maya Kawale) is missing, presumed dead. If the brothers are found guilty, the police have the power to go straight to execution. No trial. No jail time.

Twists and turns abound in this  deeply disturbing, moving and brutally funny play. Quinn and his cast have done a marvelous job of mining these characters, presenting the multiple facets of each, ever aware of how high the stakes. No one is as he seems at first – and any notion of good cop/bad cop, hero/villain, innocent/guilty are turned upside down as the action progresses. As the protagonist Katurian, George is especially remarkable, displaying an extraordinary range of vulnerability, strength and emotion in a single performance. Each character holds strong convictions – and when they clash, it is both terrible and thought-provoking to behold. Intimidation, torture, wordplay and storytelling share the stage in this gripping and moving drama. The stage right screen I mentioned earlier is put to good use, with projected illustrations (by Lauren Dobbie) of Katurian’s stories appearing as he narrates them — like the stories, both lyrical and terrible. And Katurian’s fight to save his art rivals that of his fight to save himself or his brother.

*Shouts, too, to the contributing artists, whose work is available for sale (speak with the box office folks): Mike Ellis, Tiffany Huta, Jennifer Ilett, Emily Kouri, Suharu Ogawa and Tyler Tilley.

The Pillowman runs just till March 3 at the Propeller Gallery – and seating is limited – so I’d strongly suggest booking in advance at TicketBreak. Go see this.