A journey into the wasteland of a serial killer’s mind & the possibility of forgiveness in Seven Siblings’ chilling, heartbreaking Frozen

Scott McCulloch, Nancy McAlear & Madryn McCabe. 

 

Is it possible to forgive a man who has murdered a child? The stuff of every parent’s nightmare becomes an opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness as a forensic psychologist offers her thesis on the minds serial killers in Seven Siblings Theatre’s compelling, moving production of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen. Directed by Will King, Frozen opened last night at the b current Studio Theatre at Artscape Wychwood Barns.

American forensic psychologist Agnetha (Madryn McCabe)—who has a fear of flying and some emotional turmoil of her own to deal with—is on her way to London, England to give a lecture on her thesis and interview a new subject: serial killer Ralph (Scott McCulloch). We also meet Nancy (Nancy McAlear), a mother whose 10-year-old daughter Rhona went missing on her way to her grandmother’s over 20 years ago.

Shifting into the past and returning to the present, we learn the details of Rhona’s disappearance. Nancy’s sullen teenage daughter Ingrid refuses to go to her grandmother’s, as it involves gardening work, so Nancy sends Rhona instead. Ralph sees an opportunity and takes it. As these flashbacks include both Nancy and Ralph’s points of view, we get devastating and alarming accounts of the events that led to the loss of this loved girl.

Agnetha, along with neuroscientist colleague David (voice-over by Jim Armstrong), has collected evidence that suggests abuse, neglect and brain trauma permanently alter the brain structures of serial killers, rendering them unable to control their actions. And, as these people—mostly men—are ill, and not evil monsters, can we not therefore forgive them?

In the early years following Rhona’s disappearance, Nancy throws herself into activism work with an organization dedicated to finding missing children and reuniting them with their families. Living in hope and denial, she believes in her heart that Rhona is still alive. Her hopes are dashed when she learns that police have taken Ralph into custody for the attempted abduction of a girl; his tattoos betray his whereabouts on the dates and locations of other missing girls. Rhona’s remains are found, along with those of other victims and his collection of child porn videos, in his shed—in Nancy’s neighbourhood, close to home. Bringing Nancy, Agnetha and Ralph together, the tragedy of Rhona’s abduction and murder becomes a catalyst for personal journey and self-discovery—with unexpected and startling results.

Cerebral, visceral and spiritual, it’s a challenging piece for the ensemble, to say the least—and this cast rises to the occasion with layered, nuanced and compelling performances. McCabe is strikingly professional, deeply vulnerable and tender as Agnetha. Struggling to keep it together as she continues the work that she and David started, Agnetha must keep her own internal conflicts under control as she interviews Ralph and assesses whether it’s wise to allow Nancy to visit him. McAlear is a heartbreaking, determined warrior mother as Nancy. The glue that keeps her family together, Nancy must not only come to terms with the fact that Rhona isn’t coming back, but accept the long-term impacts on her family as each member grows up and even apart from her. And as something shifts in her own heart and mind, what will she say when she sees Ralph? McCulloch is both chilling and gruffly charming as Ralph; a master manipulator and liar, Ralph is disturbingly nonchalant about his proclivities and hunting habits. Forced to turn inward during his meetings with Agnetha, who’s told him that he can’t help himself due to his traumatic childhood and brain injury, what will he find?

Frozen in time, with only her bones left behind, Rhona reaches out to each of these characters. Can Agnetha and Nancy move on from their devastating losses? Frozen in a mind that dictates deviant desires and behaviour, can Ralph understand the hurtful impact of, and feel remorse for, what he’s done? Can we distinguish evil from illness—and what will we do with that understanding?

Heartbreaking, chilling and peppered with dark humour—and provocative in Agnetha’s thesis of the possibility of forgiveness for a serial killer—Frozen is an emotionally and intellectually turbulent ride. Staged with minimal set pieces—cubes that are stacked and moved with precision to create the space—with live sound by director King, Seven Siblings’ Frozen is both uncomfortable and revealing in its intimacy. Try as we may, we can’t look away.

Frozen continues in the b current Studio Theatre until June 3; advance tickets available online—a good idea given the limited seating in this intimate venue.

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Preview: The search for a healing prayer in Spiderbones Performing Arts’ mind-blowing, heart-wrenching Everything I Couldn’t Tell You

Searching for a healing prayer with science, music and ancestral language. Spiderbones Performing Arts combines the arts of neuroscience, and music and language therapy with traditional Indigenous healing principles in its moving, mind-blowing multi-media production of Jeff D’Hondt’s Everything I Couldn’t Tell You, directed by Erin Brandenburg and running in the Theatre Centre’s Incubator space as part of the RISER Project.

Cassandra’s (Jenny Young) neuroscience has brought Megan (PJ Prudat) out of a coma, but she fears the combination of electric current and music applied to the brain may have done more harm than good. Still struggling to remember what happened to her, every emotion Megan feels presents as anger; attempts at talk therapy and other standard treatments aren’t working and Megan’s responses, fuelled by alcohol and her hatred of Cassandra, are becoming increasingly violent. When Megan fires Cassandra and demands a therapist who speaks Lenape, Cassandra reluctantly brings the experimental, unorthodox Indigenous neuropsychologist Alison (Cheri Maracle) onboard.

Unlike Cassandra’s method of electric and music impulses input into the passive brain, Alison’s method incorporates active, directed output from Megan’s brain, and translates those choices into music. Even more importantly, Alison has learned that conducting sessions in Lenape calms Megan’s tortured brain—and she’s convinced that a combination of their therapies will uncover Megan’s healing prayer.

While their approaches differ, Cassandra and Alison are both haunted by the loss of someone they loved very much: Cassandra’s partner Melanie (Cheri Maracle) and Alison’s sister Steph. Torn between maintaining a professional perspective and distance, and sharing their personal experiences of pain and grief, they both struggle with the question: who are they doing this work for? And who are they really treating—and what does this mean for Megan’s recovery?

Strong, compelling and heartbreaking performances all around in this powerful three-hander. Young delivers a taut performance as Cassandra; distant and clinical, even cold, on the surface, Cassandra is tightly wound—holding onto self-control with all her might and she navigates the aftershocks of losing Melanie while continuing her work, and lashes out with her sharp scientific mind. Moments of beautiful artistry and tenderness are revealed in a flashback, where the shy introvert Cassandra meets Melanie at a conference. Maracle brings a remarkable sense of strength and conflict to the brilliant, haunted Alison; struggling with her own ghosts, as well as confidence in herself and her theories in the face of so much doubt and derision, memories of her sister both break her heart and push her to find a way to help Megan. Alison’s determined to connect—and persists through each barrier and set-back. Prudat’s Megan is part wild child, part lost girl; as her memories surface, she mourns the familial discouragement away from her heritage, her own Uma (grandmother) steering her towards piano lessons to get her away from the ‘evil’ drum. Her irreverent, devil-may-care feral outbursts are both a cover for and a symptom of her profound pain and suffering—and she’s got the guts to do whatever it takes to get better and get her life back, however dangerous it may be.

Shouts to the evocative work from the design team: Michel Charbonneau (set), Tess Girard (videographer), André du Toit (lighting), Isidra Cruz (costume) and Andrew Penner (sound/composition) for creating a world that combines the clinical with the natural in a striking, innovative way. White set, with images—brain scans, shimmering water and art therapy drawings—and English translations of the Lenape text projected on pieces of scrim that hang like hospital curtains. The scrim also creates ghost-like barriers for flashbacks featuring lost loved ones. And there’s an opportunity to hear the Lenape language in a visceral way, with bone conduction headphones that transmit the sound into your cheekbones, providing a physical experience of the language and leaving your ears free to hear it. Headsets are limited, and distributed via a combination of game of chance and lottery draw before each performance.

Science, music, art and language combine in the search of a healing prayer in Spiderbones Performing Arts’ mind-blowing, heart-wrenching Everything I Couldn’t Tell You.

Everything I Couldn’t Tell You continues in the Theatre Centre Incubator space until May 12. Tickets available by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988 or online; advance booking strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space and a short run.

The impact of image on memory, identity & social change in the remarkable, moving, visually epic Reflector

Abraham Asto, Louisa Zhu, Michelle Polak & Michael Spence. Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

 

Theatre Gargantua celebrates its 25th birthday with the world premiere of Reflector, conceived and directed by Jacquie PA Thomas, and written by Michael Spence—opening last night in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Starring Abraham Asto, Michael Spence, Michelle Polak and Louisa Zhu, Reflector is a multimedia, multidisciplinary journey of sight, sound, memory and emotion as the storytelling explores the impact of image, tricks of the light and the perceptions of the mind’s eye. Combining physical theatre, poetry/spoken word, scenes and monologues with evocative soundscapes and a kaleidoscope of images, Reflector features projection and lighting design by Laird Macdonald, a set designed by Macdonald and Spence, sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne and costume design by Melanie McNeill.

We follow the interviews and experiences of three patients of psychologist/neuroscientist Dr. Haddad (Asto): photojournalist Declan (Spence), who took a Pulitzer prize-winning photo of a little girl who was killed among the charred ruins of her war-torn neighbourhood, and who now can’t identify everyday objects; Roula (Polak), a woman with hyperthymesia, who remembers every minute detail of everything she’s ever seen; and Kelly (Zhu), an Internet phenomenon who’s been living her life almost exclusively online, until one day she stopped doing so. All are poets; and this is reflected in the lyric language of monologues, rapid fire rap and spoken word, and the way these characters see the world, including themselves. Secret thoughts and inner conflicts emerge—even for Dr. Haddad, whose love of science is equalled only by his love of a childhood fascination with an art that at first betrayed him.

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Michelle Polak & Michael Spence (foreground); Louisa Zhu & Abraham Asto (background). Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

The pacing and tone shifts back and forth, playing out opposites in a rich audio/visual tapestry of conflicting thoughts and emotions: calm and storm, light and shadow, break-neck speed and Sunday drive, fluid and erratic, soothing and jarring, cerebral and visceral. Movement matches sight and sound in evocative, innovative—and at times disturbing—ways.

Outstanding performances from the entire ensemble here, as the performers play out this story in a physical, vocal and emotional marathon. Asto brings a nice balance of warm, thoughtful professional and curious, child-like fascination to scientist Dr. Haddad— who gets an equally warm, child-like send-up from the other characters in a hilarious scene of self-reflection. Spence gives the tortured, frustrated Declan a fierce internal boil beneath the fragile, vulnerable surface. Polak’s Roula has a puck-like, wise-cracking frankness that belies inner turmoil and terrified grasping for identity. And Zhu’s got mad rapping skills, her mouth shooting words like a semi-automatic; then shows great debating chops as Kelly makes her argument for her virtual life—a life interrupted, but by what?

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Abraham Asto & Michael Spence. Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

The impact of image on memory, identity and social change in the remarkable, moving, visually epic Reflector.

Reflector continues at TPM until November 18; get your advance tickets online .

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

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Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer: