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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Getting to the truth, & touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS

Deborah Drakeford, Lynette Gillis & Kim Nelson in SMYTH / WILLIAMS—photo by Yuri Dojc

War and violence against women not only have similar social, cultural, and religious supports, they are mutually reinforcing. These supports allow societies to tolerate conditions in which a third of women and girls can be treated violently, without mass outcry and rebellion. When we challenge the attitudes and norms that enable violence against women, we are also helping to confront the conditions that support war.—Reverend Susan Thistlethwaite (included in the program notes for SMYTH / WILLIAMS)

Trigger warning: This post reviews a verbatim theatre production based on the transcripts of a police interview with a convicted serial killer rapist.

One Little Goat Theatre Company opened its all-female staging of the Ontario Provincial Police (O.P.P.) transcript of Detective Jim Smyth’s interview of stalker and serial killer Russell Williams in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace last night. SMYTH / WILLIAMS was devised and directed by Adam Seelig.

Staged in a dramatically rendered police interview room (set by Jackie Chau and lighting by Laird Macdonald), including two microphone stands, two chairs and two copies of the transcript, the set also includes a drum kit, situated up centre, behind a pile of cedar chips on a floor that depicts a map. The transcript is a notable prop, not only for its occasional and specific use by the two actors (Deborah Drakeford and Kim Nelson), but for the extent to which it’s been redacted—in some parts heavily so—and those portions of the conversation between Smyth and Williams are filled in on stage by drum solos (Lynette Gillis).

The over seven-hour interview, which took place on February 7, 2010, has been pared down to about 90 minutes in this staged verbatim performance, with Drakeford and Nelson switching back and forth between characters, both playing Smyth and Williams at various points in the interview. The trajectory of the conversation begins with Williams being questioned as a person of interest in multiple crimes in the Ottawa and Belleville areas, to his arrest as evidence becomes available and search warrants executed on his homes, to his confession.

The cast is to be commended for their specific, respectful and focused performances of this difficult, disturbing material. Drakeford and Nelson establish a compelling dynamic between Smyth and Williams. Smyth is presented as the classic “good cop,” conducting the interview in a respectful, methodic but gentle way. Williams is the strong, silent type; a military man of few words who serves his country and appears to cooperate in the interest of serving his community in this investigation. The result is a pairing of strong feminine and masculine energies, with the interview shifting from more easy-going conversation to urgent strategizing as new information surfaces during the course of the investigation.

I was a bit baffled at first as to how the drum solos were going to work in the context of filling in redacted sections of the transcript (this info provided by Drakeford and Nelson at the beginning of the play; they also hold up their copies, showing the large blacked-out portions of the text in these instances). Drums are a primal, beat-driving percussion instrument; and Gillis is a skilled musician, drawing out the larger redactions with kick-ass precision. It’s an interesting and innovative piece of staging for what cannot be said—and one can only imagine that the redacted sections contain the more horrific details of Williams’ crimes. As the confession unfolds, there is an increasing Riot Grrrl vibe to Gillis’s performance—the drums beating out in anger and protest.

The production has not been without controversy. Terra Dafoe, a friend and neighbour of Jessica Lloyd, one of the women Williams abducted, raped and murdered, is at the forefront of a group that’s spearheaded a protest against the presentation of SMYTH / WILLIAMS, which they argue is a non-consensual and re-traumatizing production that sensationalizes violence against women. Dafoe was present at the opening last night, handing out a one-pager that states their case and includes a link to their Lead Now petition. Here’s a sampling of interviews from both the production (via News 1130) and the protest (via CBC).

Full disclosure: I was wary of seeing this production. Although I’m a big fan of TV crime procedurals, SMYTH / WILLIAMS is not a TV crime procedural. It’s real life. This is not fictitious, made-up dialogue—this conversation really happened, between a real detective and a real rapist/murderer. The women Williams stalked, harassed, raped and killed were real people. And, like those protesting the production, I was concerned about the details that would be revealed, as well as the traumatic effect of the subject matter. I decided to see it because I was curious as to whether such a production would have anything of value to say about violence against women. And, naively, I was hoping to find a ‘why.’ Why did he do it?

What I saw was a production that does not serve up salacious details—in fact, the disturbing details are kept to a minimum and what is included is presented in such a way as to show Williams’ apparent detachment from his actions, as well as the atrocity of those actions, when the actors peer out from their male characters and speak as women. Ironically, the turning point for Williams comes as he learns that search warrants are being executed on his homes—and he becomes deeply concerned about the negative impacts on his wife and the Canadian Armed Forces. Whether his concern came from a place of love and honour, or from a place of losing his grip on domination and control, it appears to be what ultimately spurred his confession. And an even bigger question mark is why he did what he did. Even if Williams knew, he wasn’t saying.

While I agree that seven years may be too soon for a theatrical examination of this case, I also have to wonder how one puts an arbitrary time limit on loss, grief and that deeply troubling ‘why.’ Theatre is a medium that helps us to explore all aspects of humanity and human experience—from the gods to the monsters—and I believe SMYTH / WILLIAMS and its opening night audience treated this real life piece of the more horrific side of humanity with respect and dignity.

The quote included at the beginning of this post, taken from the program notes, connects the dots between war and violence against women. While not a fulsome answer to the ‘why,’ it does give us a glimpse into the workings of a social infrastructure that supports ongoing violence against women and girls; and one from which a man like Williams emerged. I believe that widespread outcry and rebellion are growing, and that such push-back is amplified by the grief and rage incited by crimes like these, as well as the election of misogynists to high office.

There was no applause after the cast left the stage. No curtain call. A moment of silence for several moments followed before the audience gradually began hushed conversation and exited the space. This was not a reflection on the performances. Like the production, the audience wanted to treat the memories of the women that Williams harmed and murdered with respect and dignity—and in this way, the production and the petition are in agreement.

Getting to the truth, and touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS.

This is not a production for everyone. If you decide to see SMYTH / WILLIAMS, there are some important questions you need to ask yourself. Why are you going to see it? Do you think the production contributes to the conversation about violence against women in a meaningful way? And if you happen to cross paths with Dafoe or another protestor, treat them with respect, hear what they have to say and read the hand-out. Free speech goes both ways—and both the protest and the production have important things to say.

SMYTH / WILLIAMS continues in the TPM Backspace until Mar 12; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529.

Toronto Fringe NSTF: An intense, startling & thought-provoking look at sexual violence in DINK

DINK-250x250Theatre-a-go-go explores the themes of sexual violence, society’s response and the celebrity of the villain in Caroline Azar’s DINK, on at the Factory Theatre Mainspace for the Next Stage Theatre Festival.

Inspired by the real-life case of former Canadian Forces Colonel Russell Williams, as well as incidents of missing/murdered women from marginalized communities/ethnicities, and the societal/social media bullying and shaming of victims and the families of the accused, DINK (the acronym for Double Income No Kids) is part drama/part musical/part social commentary, with songs by Azar, S. Lewis and sound designer Richard Feren.

Over lunch, a workout and shopping at Holt’s, sisters Lolly (Christy Bruce) and Deb (Sharon Heldt) talk about Lolly’s recent home security measures as daughter Bethany (Jasmine Chen) is being stalked, while Deb is up to her eyeballs with home renovation and contractors. Deb’s husband Bill (David Keeley) is a proud military man who’s served in Afghanistan, a sweetheart with his wife, but under investigation by homicide detective Matt De Souza (Kris Siddiqi) over two missing/murdered women who served under him: soldier Danielle (D.T.) Bryce (Andrea Brown) and Tim Hortons server Izzy Melisano (Lise Cormier).

The action shifts between present-day scenes in multiple scenarios and flashbacks from the past, as well as musical numbers featuring various characters, but mainly the two murder victims Danielle and Izzy (where the song breaks work best). The effect is disturbing, distracting and disorienting.

DINK highlights how victimization goes beyond the missing/murdered women to take in their families, the families of the predator (who are often blamed for not seeing what was going on and failing to blow the whistle) and the investigators. The play also sets out to raise up the victims of sexual violence – including moments of empowerment, some imaginary – and put the predator down. The serial killer, while his actions are monstrous, is not a monster – just a man. A very sick man and, in the end, a pathetic man lost in his revolting and dangerous obsessions and desires. The celebrity of the serial killer – and real-life villains in general – is a symptom of social illness.

Excellent work from the cast. Bruce brings a jaded, tired quality to Lolly, a fiercely protective mother with a wry wit, and an ineffective husband (invisible to us, but present in scenes of one-sided conversation). Heldt’s Deb is brash, irreverently funny and creative, an adoring wife throwing her energy into creating the perfect oasis at home. Keeley does a very nice job with Bill’s double life: a sweet and attentive husband at home; a misogynistic, homophobic bully of a commanding officer on the job, covering even darker activities in his personal time. Siddiqi brings a nicely layered quality to Detective De Souza, a good cop struggling with his personal, if not questionable, relationship with Izzy as he conducts the investigation. Brown’s Danielle is strong, cocky and direct, a woman of courage and conviction; and Cormier brings an intelligent, precocious charm to the adventurous Izzy. Chen does a lovely job with Bethany’s conflicted responses to her situation; a smart, imaginative and energetic teen – but, like her mother and aunt, the pressure of pretending that everything is alright becomes too much to bear and boils over.

DINK is an intense, startling and thought-provoking piece that reminds us to put our focus on the victims and their families – and cautions us on how we respond to the perpetrators and their families.

DINK continues its run until Sun, Jan 18 – book advance tix here.