The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies

Jeff Lillico & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

 

Theatre PANIK presents its immersive production of Linda McLean’s Strangers, Babies, directed by Paul Lampert, assisted by Sadie Epstein-Fine, this past week. A Canadian premiere, the show opened this past week at Artscape Sandbox.

As we enter the space, projected text welcomes us and invites us to wander around and take in the five exhibits; at this point, we see only the five men, each one occupying an exhibit. There are no paper programs (you can access the program online), but there are labels with brief descriptions accompanying each exhibit, as well as binders on the benches (the kind you see at an art gallery, containing descriptions of the art). There are spaces to sit or stand in and around each exhibit; only the final exhibit is an enclosed room that we must peer into from the outside.

When May (Niki Landau) enters, we follow her on a series of vignettes from her life, unfolding over the course of a couple of years. What makes this journey remarkable is the art gallery layout of the space, where each exhibit contains a scene. Starting in May’s condo, where she lives with her husband Dan (Richard Ausar Stewart), we see her fretting over a bird that’s flown into their window and is now lying motionless on the balcony. She wants to save it and Dan thinks it should be euthanized. Clearly a lover of nature and animals, May longs for a garden and they ponder switching to a house.

We then follow May on a visit to her dad Duncan (David Schurmann) at a hospice. Here, we get a glimpse of a troubled childhood and a desire for a normal life. Hints of violence and a longing for connection continue during May’s trip to a hotel room to meet Internet hook-up Roy (Richard Lee); and flash again to the past, with warnings for the future, when she meets with her brother Denis (Jeff Lillico) in a park. In the final scene, May’s social worker Abel (Edmund Stapleton) has come by for a spot check; he’s monitoring the welfare her young son and makes extensive notes in order to report his findings.

7 Strangers Babies - Niki Landau and Ausar Stewart - Credit Neil Silcox
Richard Ausar Stewart & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

Compelling work from the cast on this uniquely immersive production; each actor adeptly mining the opposing sides of their characters’ personalities. Landau is both heartbreaking and eerie as May, whose delicate, nervous and vulnerable personality and flat aspect both reveal and conceal a troubling inner turmoil. Stewart’s Dan is the perfect emotional foil; precise, fastidious and mildly patronizing, Dan is a loving and patient husband to his kind-hearted wife. Schurmann brings a cantankerous and regretful edge to Duncan’s fragility; confused by pain and age, and befuddled by morphine, Duncan lashes out with biting rage in his impatience—then melts into reminiscence and guilt as the drug takes hold.

Lee gives a complex performance as Roy, who like May, is in a passionless marriage and needs to step out to feel lusty excitement; his nervous awkwardness is a mask of repressed violent urges. Lillico’s Denis is both heart-wrenching and menacing; clearly a tortured soul and sharing in May’s horrific history, Denis is like a caged, scared animal growling out warnings. Stapleton’s Abel is affable, firm-handed and wary as he interviews May; a young social worker with a serious task at hand, he must balance respect for his client with a thorough examination of her situation—especially regarding the safety of her child.

Rage and calm, violence and tenderness. A life on display—each scene (exhibit) is a piece of May’s puzzle, played out across space and time. Ultimately, Strangers, Babies is profoundly human.

With shouts to the design team for their work on creating this fascinating and unique experience: Michael Gianfrancesco (set), Ming Wong (costume), Bonnie Beecher (lighting), Christopher Stanton (sound), Cameron Davis (video) and Kate Alton (movement).

The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies.

Strangers, Babies continues at the Artscape Sandbox till May 28; get advance tickets here. Advance booking strongly recommended due to the unique staging and popularity of this production.

Check out the trailer:

A boy goes missing & a dark presence reaches out from the forest in lyrical, spooky Tire Swing

 

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Nikki Haggart, Jocelyn Adema & François Macdonald, with Patrick Fowler in the background, in Tire Swing – photo by Jordan Laffrenier

Filament Incubator is back again with its 5th play of its #8playsin8months season, this time in association with Epigraph Collective on a production of Curtis te Brinke’s Tire Swing, directed by Sadie Epstein-Fine and running at Kensington Hall (in Kensington Market at 56C Kensington Ave., Toronto).

Four pre-teen friends playing on the edge of town go deep into the forest as twilight descends – and only three of them come out. Was it a shadow monster or a man they saw? And what happened to Kevin (Patrick Fowler)? Kevin’s sister Ellen (Nikki Haggart), and friends Mark (François Macdonald) and Lauren (Jocelyn Adema), struggle to come to terms with what happened – as well as their own sense of survivor guilt – as a town mourns a lost boy, presumed dead.

As the three friends grow up into high school seniors, they find they can’t deny what they saw in the forest that fateful night. The thing that didn’t make it into the police reports. The thing they’ve spoken of to no one – not even each other. Until now. Mark is convinced that something is after them. And they can all feel something watching them from darkness.

The cast does an awesome job with the storytelling. As the young group’s leader Kevin, Fowler brings a fearless, adventurous, devil-may-care attitude – along with something strange and otherworldly that you can’t quite put your finger on. And he gives their high school classmate David a cocksure but congenial confidence and presence; the school’s golden boy, David is brave on the rugby field, he can’t find the courage to come out and be open about his burgeoning relationship with Mark.

As Mark, Macdonald is the investigator of the group; cynical and not content with taking things at face value, he wants to know the truth – and he questions everything and isn’t afraid to believe the unthinkable. As Mark explores his sexuality, perhaps David reminds him of Kevin; and like their friend Lauren, he had a crush on Kevin when they were kids. Adema’s Lauren is the heart and soul of the group; a dreamy, star-gazing academic, she was the last one to see Kevin – and feels the most guilt for running away that night. As Kevin’s sister Ellen, Haggart is the emotion of their gang, especially the rage. An earthy soul, Ellen’s feelings emerge as physical sensations tied to the land, the trees, even her brother’s bedroom – left untouched in denial of his loss and anticipation of his return.

Part memory play, part ghost story, part coming of age story, Tire Swing scoops you up into a Stand By Me meets X-Files world of mystery and nightmare. The language is rich, even poetic at times; and the staging is atmospheric and spooky.

With shouts to designer Jason Thomson (set, costumes, lighting) for the eerie multi-media environment – featuring some very cool, evocative projection imagery – putting the audience in the middle of the forest, with the three surviving kids’ bedrooms around the edges.

A boy goes missing and a dark presence reaches out from the forest in lyrical, spooky Tire Swing.

Tire Swing continues at Kensington Hall until Oct 22; it’s an intimate space, so you may want to book tix in advance – and please note the 7:30 curtain time.

Up next, Filament Incubator joins forces with Little Black Afro Theatre to produce Filament Incubator producer/playwright Aaron Jan’s Swan, a sister piece to Tire Swing running November 3-13 in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace.

In the meantime, check out the awesome trailer for Tire Swing by Andrew Pieroni: